In school, we all learned about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but there was another book published around the same time that had an important impact on the discussion of slavery in America. That book was Solomon Northup’s memoir 12 Years a Slave. Northup was born a free man and lived most of his life in New York. In 1841, he was lured to Washington, D.C. where he was beaten, drugged and sold into slavery. For the next 12 years, he was a slave on a series of plantations in Louisiana until his family was able to find him and bring him home to New York in 1853. 12 Years a Slave is his unflinching firsthand account of what he experienced and witnessed during that time.
When it was published in 1853, Northup’s memoir became a bestseller, selling over 30,000 copies. After the Civil War, the book was out-of-print for many years. It was rediscovered by two scholars in the 1960s and reprinted in 1968. Now, it has been adapted into a film that brings the horrors of Northup’s experience to the big screen. Like many of us, the film’s director, Steve McQueen, was surprised when his partner brought the book to his attention. He writes, “The book blew both our minds: the epic range, the details, the adventure, the horror and the humanity. The book read like a film script, ready to be shot. I could not believe that I had never heard of this book.”
The movie, which the New York Post calls “brutally powerful and emotionally devastating,” is already generating Oscar buzz. The film’s A-list cast includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti and Alfre Woodard. The trailer is available here.
J. Maarten Troost’s newest work of travel journalism, Headhunters on my Doorstep: A True Treasure Island Ghost, tackles foreign shores, classic literary giants and a newfound sobriety with the same sharp wit we’ve come to expect from the author of The Sex Lives of Cannibals, Getting Stoned with Savages and Lost on Planet China.
Again, Troost invites us along on his voyage to the South Pacific, but this trip promises to be immensely different. For one, his sole inspiration for this particular expedition is to follow Robert Lewis Stevenson’s own eccentric island-hopping excursions. On Hiva-Oa we stand over the stacked rocks of Paul Gauguin’s supposed grave, where Troost ruminates on the conflicting lives of the Post-Impressionist artist, both at once the freedom-loving painter and the syphilitic sexual tourist. On Nuka Hiva we discover the hidden dangers of the land that include falling coconuts, tiger sharks and deceptive fellow rovers.
But what’s with Troost’s sudden interest in the life of the novelist who penned Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? What was compelling enough to set Troost trekking distant lands and sailing strange waters? The search for redemption. He asks us to “step back for a moment and consider our hero, Robert Lewis Stevenson. The first thing one gleans is that he does not mess around –no hemming and hawing for him, no dithering.”
Troost, nearly one year sober, is testing not only his sea legs but his teatotaling fortitude which has held him back from both wrecking his marriage and ruining his life. Troost, while traveling on a boat of booze-guzzling shipmates, is not dawdling nor dithering in his search to better understand addiction. With candid humor, Troost dissects himself while also ruminating on the relationship between some of the great artists and writers and their own proclivities for drugs and the endless bottle.
For fans of classic Troost, there are still plenty of escapades including a pack of vicious village dogs, an underage Marquesan tattooist and the rogue cannibal. This travel memoir just offers a bit more; both a view into a wanderlust’s struggle with dependency and a hopeful tale of where the curiosity of the human might lead.
Three starlets share very different stories of life during Hollywood’s Golden Age. In Rita Moreno: a Memoir, the actress recalls her childhood move from lush Puerto Rico to gritty New York City where she found her passion for singing and dancing. She made her Broadway debut at 13 and eventually headed to Hollywood where she changed her name and coped with constant typecasting. Moreno shares the details behind her relationships with some of Tinseltown’s heaviest hitters, including Elvis Presley, Howard Hughes, and Marlon Brando. Eventually, Moreno found happiness in marriage and motherhood and she remains one of the few performers, and the only Hispanic, to win two Emmys, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony.
Two years before her death in 1990, Ava Gardner was strapped for cash and didn’t want to part with her jewels so she decided to sell her unvarnished story. She had a change of heart when she felt the conversations exposed her as too vulgar. Her ghost writer Peter Evans unearthed those bawdy recollections and with permission of her estate shares them in Ava Gardner: the Secret Conversations. Readers will savor the particulars of her marriages to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra, as well as her flings with George C. Scott and Howard Hughes (again!). Gardner, one of the great beauties to grace the silver screen, is no-nonsense and her stories are indeed salty, but she is also funny, frank and reflective.
Dolores Hart catapulted to fame when she starred opposite Elvis Presley in her 1957 film debut, Loving You. Nine films, a Broadway appearance, and several television roles later, Hart stunned the world when she turned away from Hollywood and her fiancé, and took the vows of a contemplative Benedictine nun. In The Ear of the Heart: An Actresses’ Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows, Hart and co-author Richard DeNeut, share her insider’s perspectives of such wildly different worlds and her serenity shines through the pages. Check out God is the Bigger Elvis, the Oscar winning short film for more on the remarkable Mother Hart.
David Oliver Relin did not live long enough to witness the publication of his new book, Second Suns: Two Doctors and Their Amazing Quest to Restore Sight and Save Lives. It is a top-notch, inspiring account of two brilliant physicians from opposite ends of the world, one a Harvard-educated adrenaline junkie from America, and the other a disciplined trader's son from a remote Nepalese village. The unlikely duo combine their generous talents for one lofty goal: to cure preventable blindness. In 1995, they founded the Himalayan Cataract Project as a way to treat thousands of impoverished Himalayans in that isolated, mountainous region.
For ophthalmologists Geoffrey Tabin and Sanduk Ruit, the means to an end seemed simple yet difficult. In developing countries, cataracts are the leading cause of preventable blindness among the poor, including children. In wealthy countries, it is a common and treatable ailment of the elderly. "Some conditions of existence are more painful than others," Ruit tells Relin. Ruit would know; growing up, the nearest doctor was a six-day-walk away. He watched as his siblings died of curable illnesses.
Relin transports readers to Ruit's temporary eye hospital, formerly a filthy military post in the village of Kalikasthan, where young and old shuffle in from scorching heat to have red-brown dust scrubbed from their faces. The high energy Tabin, who early on abandoned a medical career to pursue athletic passions, was inspired by Ruit. Together, their respective stories led the dynamic pair to their calling. Thousands have been cured with their simple surgery that costs a mere pittance.
Relin, who co-authored the now controversial bestseller Three Cups of Tea with Greg Mortenson, committed suicide in November 2012. In telling this compelling and hopeful story of two medical pioneers, the author was not immune to the poignancy of what he was witnessing. When an elegant 56-year-old seamstress, who was forced to sell her sewing machine, finally sees again, Relin thrust into her hands a wad of bills. "For a sewing machine," he said.
When James and Bob first met, both were at low points in their lives. James, a London street musician and recovering drug addict, was living hand-to-mouth, barely making enough money to eat and keep a roof over his head. Bob, a flea-ridden, bedraggled orange tabby, was malnourished and injured. Recognizing a fellow kindred spirit in need, James began to nurse Bob back to health, forming a special bond between them. Their uplifting story is chronicled in James Bowen’s memoir A Street Cat Named Bob: And How He Saved My Life.
It’s quickly apparent to James that Bob is far from a typical cat. Easygoing and fiercely affectionate, he prefers toileting outside every morning to using a litter box. And much like a dog, he follows James on his route to the bus, although he also enjoys riding draped across his shoulders. James allows Bob to accompany him to his usual busking spot in Covent Garden. Using a combination of a makeshift shoelace “leash” and the shoulder-carry method, he navigates the ginger feline though busy traffic. He takes out his acoustic guitar and soon Bob is contentedly curled up inside the case. James immediately discovers that his unusual cat draws a lot of favorable tourist attention, and together they take in as much money in an hour as James usually makes solo in a day.
There are some pitfalls along the way, but James and Bob continue to be more than just pet and owner. James is astonished to find out that they are famous abroad, thanks to videos posted by tourists on YouTube. Readers who enjoyed Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World or Homer’s Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I Learned about Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat will breeze through this heartwarming, inspirational book.
As the 2008 presidential election neared, Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood wanted to write about the life of someone who had worked in the White House and lived through the civil rights movement. He wanted the story to reflect what this historic moment would mean to that person. His search for the perfect subject led him to Eugene Allen, a man who served as White House butler for 34 years. His time working in the White House spanned eight presidential administrations, from Truman to Reagan. Haygood’s article about Allen’s life, “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” was the inspiration for Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a movie coming to theaters in August. In honor of the movie’s release, Haygood’s article is expanded in a new book called The Butler: A Witness to History, which acts as a companion to the film. It brings audiences both the real story of Eugene Allen and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film.
Allen began working at the White House in 1952 as a pantry man, washing dishes and shining silver, but he was later promoted to butler. He witnessed many significant moments in our nation’s history while he was working in the background. He was there when Eisenhower was on the phone with the Arkansas governor during the Little Rock school desegregation crisis. He was at the White House on the day that President Kennedy was assassinated. Haygood brings readers Allen’s unique perspective on the presidents and the events that shaped the 20th century.
Although the film is largely fictionalized, director Lee Daniels writes that it does also include some real moments from Allen’s extraordinary life. The movie’s A-list cast includes Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams, John Cusack, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard. Lee Daniels’ The Butler premieres in theaters on August 16, but you can get a sneak peak here.
“Still, I would be loath to suggest that life intrinsically has themes, because it does not. In this book I narrate a life in overlapping panels of memory and experience.” So begins Howard Norman’s intimate memoir I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place. For the first time, Norman, author of Devotion; The Bird Artist; and What Is Left the Daughter, invites his reader into five distinct and thematically linked points in his journeyed past.
In 1964 Grand Rapids, Michigan, we find young Norman longing for his absentee father. His mother claims that he’s in California but Norman often spots his father in the café from the window of the bookmobile where he shelves books — his first summer job. Here, he discovers the catharsis of writing by secretly penning long letters of heartbreaking criticism to the fathers of everyone he knows.
“Kingfisher Days” takes us along on his extraordinary travels to the Arctic where he’s assigned to transcribe Inuit life histories and folktales. One moment we hear elder Lucille Amorak’s stoic recitation of her poetry; the next we’re beside the young lead singer of a Beatles cover band as he mournfully sings out into the cold, snowy darkness the night news hit that John Lennon had been shot.
Although some moments are heavy with sadness, the angakok, an Inuit shaman, brings both ominous foreboding as well as humor. This roving angakok is convinced that Norman’s presence is a blight against the community, which brings about an odd series of encounters which Norman finds inexplicably bizarre, yet humbling.
In its closing and perhaps most revealing section, we gain access to Norman’s dark yet delicate ruminations on the murder-suicide of poet Reetika Vazirani who violently killed her 2-year-old son and herself while staying in the Norman’s D.C. home. Despite this horrific crime’s descent onto his family’s life, Norman’s private revelations are filled with clarity and, ultimately, grace.
Each one of these engrossing sections is populated by one or more species of birds, from kingfishers to the western oystercatchers. These birds poignantly embody various stages in Norman’s own human migration through life’s pain and beauty.
How does one continue after the death of a child? This is what two mothers contemplate when they are faced with the unimaginable. In The Still Point of the Turning World, Emily Rapp lays bare the utter devastation she and her husband experienced when their infant son Ronan was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease, a genetic disorder which is always fatal. Rapp, herself a writer, describes in a heartbreakingly poetic style the dreams and plans she had for Ronan before he was even born, and the course their life together took after the diagnosis. Reminiscent of Tuesdays with Morrie, Rapp draws on different religions, philosophies and myths as she delves deep into her grief and pain, assuming a role no parent wants to play. Rapp eschews the idea of measuring the worth of Ronan’s life by his developmental progress; instead, she learns to focus on the small ordinary moments with her son, determined to make his brief existence count.
In I’ll See You Again: A Memoir by Jackie Hance (with Janice Kaplan), Hance recounts the devastating day in July 2009 when a van being driven by her sister-in-law Diane crashed, killing Hance’s three daughters and five other passengers. Besides coping with the horrific reality of instantaneously losing all of their children, Hance and her husband Warren also had to deal with the family fallout and ensuing publicity. Diane’s body tested positive for alcohol and drugs, which was a complete shock to the family, and there were a number of bloggers and media outlets who blamed the parents for letting their three girls ride with Diane. The Hances’ quest to create meaning out of senseless tragedy led to the establishment of a foundation in honor of the girls, and in 2011, the birth of their fourth daughter. Like The Still Point of the Turning World, this is a painfully beautiful story of emotional frailty balanced with resilience, introspection in the face of loss, and boundless parental devotion. As Rapp muses, “children do not exist to honor their parents; their parents exist to honor them.”
The veil has lifted on the young woman dubbed “Foxy Knoxy” by the media. In Waiting to Be Heard: A Memoir, Amanda Knox recounts how her promising start as an American exchange student in Italy quickly spiraled into a nightmare and kept her abroad much longer than anticipated. Barely two months into her study abroad program in the city of Perugia, Knox found herself at the center of an international media frenzy when her roommate, British exchange student Meredith Kercher, was found murdered. Within days, she was ensnared in the Italian police and justice systems, having little understanding of the language, much less their laws and politics. She and two others were convicted of murder in 2009. Her conviction and that of her then-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, was overturned on appeal in 2011. The Italian courts are currently reviewing the case.
Knox is studying creative writing, and did pen the entire book. Although it can be burdened at times with staged-sounding conversations and details that fall into the “TMI” category, it is an honest reflection of a young woman who grew up very quickly during the four years she was imprisoned. Knox has recently given several high- profile interviews in conjunction with the release of this book, including with ABC’s Diane Sawyer. Other sources which provide insightful perspective about the case are Nina Burleigh’s The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox and John Follain’s A Death in Italy: The Definitive Account of the Amanda Knox Case, previously written about here. However, for anyone following the case, the perspective you don’t want to miss is from the person at the center of it all. Finally, Knox herself has her say.
How far would you go to get out of debt? Would you sell your car? Move out of your house? Take a minimum wage job scrubbing toilets in Alaska? Ken Ilgunas, author of Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom, was willing to do almost anything to free himself from the burden of his student loans. Living as frugally as possible, he worked as an Alaskan janitor, hitchhiked his way across the country, and lived in a van to pursue his dream of a debt-free life. With the ideals of Thoreau and the heart of Kerouac, Ilgunas’ journey from loan-ridden student to financially-independent ascetic is in turns humorous, touching, and inspiring.
Ilgunas started his college career similar to many millennials in the mid-2000s, largely oblivious to the quiet specter of loan debt that would slowly accrue over the course of his degree. Purposeless and skill-less, he graduated with a liberal arts degree, no job prospects, and a burning desire to pay off his debt as quickly as possible. But unlike other students who begin a traditional career, Ilgunas set out on a haphazard, occasionally reckless, and strangely successful quest to live as cheaply as possible while earning money in low-wage jobs in very odd circumstances. After working himself out of debt, Ilgunas vowed to remain debt-free forever while also trying to go to graduate school, a feat that seems impossible until he stumbles on the idea of eliminating housing expenses by living secretly out of his “creepy red van.”
Part social experiment, part return to the wild, part ultimate road trip, Walden on Wheels blends idealism and practicality into a remarkably effective solution to the increasingly pervasive problem of coping with a suffocating amount of debt. Millennials, parents of millennials, and those longing for financial freedom will rally around this account of a unique approach to a very common dilemma.