Riding in a beat-up bus among bald hills and scrub on his way to Namibia, Paul Theroux wondered what was compelling him to take yet another arduous trip. At 72, here he was again: in a parched climate, traveling alone, crossing more borders. In his latest book, The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari, the prolific and highly regarded American writer of travel literature packs his bags for one final journey to Africa and up the little known western coast, where he seeks harmony not just with the continent he has come to love but also himself.
Theroux is no stranger to "the greenest continent." He spent his happiest years in Africa as a young Peace Corps worker almost 50 years ago and has returned several times, writing insightfully along the way. Suggesting this 2011 trip is his last, he dives into the gut of this complicated place. From the slum tourism of Cape Town to the Tsumkwe village crossroads of one of the world's oldest cultures, to being stranded in the Angolan bush, Theroux observes countries slowly sliding into one another. He transports readers smack into the middle of a vividly wrought landscape with his richly detailed, elegant prose, adding his characteristic wry, at times dark, commentary. He is at his best telling stories of the local people he meets while showing no patience for meddling foreigners, like the "trophy hunting for dummies" set or those simply "busybodying.''
With over 40 books behind him, including the classic The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia, Theroux seems to be signaling that this is the end of the line. His aptly titled last chapter is in the form of a question, "What am I Doing Here?" Yes, the Africa he leaves has a plethora of problems, but for fans of this acclaimed literary nomad the answer is simple—bringing us his world.
Her by Christa Parravani is a powerful memoir that explores sisterhood, the bonds of twins and the nature of grief. Christa Parravani is an identical twin to her sister, Cara. Cara dies a tragic death and Christa nearly destroys herself, in an attempt to follow in her footsteps. Her is the biography of the twins but it also serves as a lovely and unflinchingly honest memorial to Cara.
Cara and Christa did not have an easy childhood. As teens and young adults, their behavior veered toward the destructive, including eating disorders and drug abuse. Both sisters were incredibly creative, with Cara as the writer and Christa, the photographer. Cara and Christa remained close throughout their adulthood and continued to experiment with unhealthy habits. After Cara is raped, she begins a downward spiral and never really recovers.
Her is a fascinating memoir about the highly unique dynamic between identical twins. Parravani addresses all the usual perceptions people have about twins such as “twin language” and “twin ESP.” Given the intense connection between twins, the death of one can nearly destroy the other. This is essentially what happened to Christa after Cara’s untimely death. She tried to follow her into death, taking up her most damaging habits, just to be closer to Cara. Parravani has written a touching, raw new memoir. Her love and grief for her sister is almost palpable. Although Her is a very emotional book, Parravani writes in clear, crisp prose, telling the story in an almost matter-of-fact tone that results in powerful, clear-eyed memorial to her twin, sister and best friend.
Anne Perry is an award-winning, bestselling crime and mystery writer, but few know that nearly 60 years ago, she herself was a defendant in one of New Zealand’s most infamous murder cases. Peter Graham details this case in his book Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century. Born Juliet Hulme, an adolescent Perry and her best friend Pauline Parker shocked the country and the world when they brutally murdered Parker’s mother in 1954. The subsequent trial and conviction of the girls led to prison sentences, after which the two partners in crime went their separate ways. Hulme eventually reinvented herself as Anne Perry and launched a successful writing career, while Parker vanished into obscurity and lives a reclusive life on a Scottish island.
Graham does an amazing job bringing the story of the girls’ friendship and the sheer barbarity of the murder to life. He provides the back stories of Hulme, Parker and their family members without bogging down the writing. Hulme and Parker both suffered from illnesses as children, and as a result spent long stretches of time isolated from family and friends. Although professional opinions differ, it’s hypothesized that because of this isolation, both girls developed vivid imaginations and were drawn to each other when they met as young teenagers at school. The girls created their own complex fantasy world which overtook reality, and when threatened with separation from each other, they plotted to kill the person they saw as responsible.
Interest in the case was renewed in the 1990s, with newly published research and several dramatizations of the murder, most notably the critically acclaimed film Heavenly Creatures. For true crime aficionados, this book will leave questions about the true nature of Anne Perry. When asked in one interview if she ever thought of Parker’s mother, she replied, “No. She was somebody I barely knew”.
Most of us have heard the term sociopath before, but we probably don’t know what it really means. We usually hear it in conjunction with criminal activity. It will probably surprise you to learn that one out of every 25 Americans is a sociopath, which means that it’s highly likely that someone you know fits the definition. Most sociopaths aren’t criminals or serial killers as television shows would lead us to believe. They often live their lives without anyone around them realizing what they are. M. E. Thomas brings the reality of the disorder to readers in her unique new memoir Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight. Thomas (a pseudonym to protect her identity) is a successful attorney and law professor and the voice behind SociopathWorld.com. She teaches Sunday school at her church. She is intelligent, confident, and charming. She is one of the 4% of Americans who are sociopaths.
So what exactly is sociopathy? Sociopaths lack the moral compass that directs the lives of most people. They feel no remorse or empathy. Thomas shows readers the reality of life from a sociopath’s unique point of view. She explains that she is neither crazy nor evil. She does interact with others differently than the average person. Like all sociopaths, Thomas’s interactions with others often involve manipulation. To put it bluntly, she is a predator. She lives behind a mask, mimicking others’ behavior to pass for normal. She freely admits to destroying others’ careers to get ahead in her own and is willing to do whatever it takes to get what she wants. Thomas’s story is simultaneously engaging and unsettling. This fascinating first-person narrative may change your view of sociopaths.
Do you know a sociopath? The quiz found here may be both enlightening and unnerving. As Thomas explains, “It is statistically very probable that some people reading this book are sociopaths and have never realized it. If this is you, welcome home.”
Libraries are often thought of as quiet places, with librarians acting as shushing gatekeepers, bespectacled and soft. Josh Hanagarne, a Utah librarian, doesn’t quite fit the stereotype. At 6 feet 7 inches tall, he lifts weights and can bend horseshoes with his hands. He can have trouble with the quiet part, too; he has struggled with Tourette Syndrome since elementary school. Hanagarne writes about strength training, Tourette’s, his Mormon faith, dating, and his urban public library experiences in The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family.
At six, Hanagarne’s parents noticed him repeatedly touching his lip to his nose while onstage during a school play. This initial involuntary movement bloomed into a variety of motor and verbal tics as he entered his teens. Encouraged by his father, he started gym workouts in an effort to exert control over the disorder as well as combat some of the hopelessness he feels when the tics are particularly troublesome. Here, “troublesome” can mean self-injurious, drawing blood, and he notes that his neurologist states that Hanagarne’s case is the most severe he’s seen.
Hanagarne, however, has not written a pity party. He is both an avid reader and a gifted writer and while parts of his story are heartbreaking, much of it is insightful, fascinating, and downright funny. His chapters are named with the Dewey Decimal classification numbers of the subjects contained within. Chapter 7 is "646.78 Marriage", which bodes well since Chapter 3 is "305.31 Lust Religious Aspects Christianity". He shares his evolving views on religion, his fears for his son, and his involvement with weight lifting and body awareness as a means to control his uncontrollable movements. His trenchant observations about public libraries and their patrons illustrate both the diversity of library users and his beliefs that enrich the lives of all those who walk through their doors. He also shares his thoughts and offers bookish advice on his blog also named The World's Strongest Librarian.
Actress Nia Vardalos won seemingly overnight stardom and acclaim with her first movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which she also wrote. Although she seemed on top of the world, there was one thing missing from her life—a child. Married to fellow comedic actor Ian Gomez, Vardalos tried for over a decade to become a mother. In the funny and touching new memoir Instant Mom, she chronicles the journey that led the pair to the adoption of their daughter, and shares with the reader the transformative experience that is motherhood.
Despite the title, there was nothing “instant” about Vardalos’ becoming a mother. Much of her professional success in life, she admits, is due to her stubborn nature and her refusal to take “no” for an answer. She admits to translating the meaning of the word as “try a different way.” Five years of devastating miscarriages led her to many more years of IVF treatments and even attempts with a surrogate. She kept this personal heartbreak hidden from the media even as millions embraced her as an actress they could immediately relate to, a Greek-Canadian girl next door.
Vardalos’ humorous, approachable tone makes Instant Mom a page-turning read, and when she decides to explore adoption via foster care, you know that this will finally be the answer. When she receives the phone call confirming that they have been approved to adopt a three-year-old little girl, she and her husband have just fourteen hours to prepare for her arrival. From this point, the book becomes a love story, one filled with trial and error as well as joy and frustration as the family gets to know one another and settles into the routines of everyday life. Instant Mom is a memoir of hard-earned motherhood with just a dash of Hollywood name-dropping, a book with wide general appeal.
Letting it Go is Miriam Katin’s gorgeous new graphic novel, in which she tries to come to terms with her past as a Holocaust survivor. Due to her past, Katin had come to despise all things German. When her son moves to Berlin, she realizes she must somehow come to terms with Germany if she is to maintain a relationship with her son.
Born in Hungary during the Second World War, Katin eventually immigrated to Israel in 1957 where she worked as a graphic artist for the Israeli Defense Forces. She went on to work for the MTV Animation and Disney Studios. She wrote her first graphic novel, We Are On Our Own, at the age of 63. Although Katin is writing about very heavy subject matter, the overall tone and art remain fairly light and at times, humorous. At once literary and accessible, Letting it Go reveals Katin’s daily life with her husband in New York while calling on the likes of Kafka to reveal her inner fears.
Done in colored pencil, Letting it Go works exceedingly well as a graphic novel. Katin is able to reveal details and nuance in her art, letting us inside her psyche. The mostly panel-less comics flow nicely with the fairly free-form text. The mix of black and white and color also nicely juxtaposes past and present. Like Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, this would make an excellent introduction to nonfiction graphic novels.
The darling daughters of Downton Abbey would surely have shopped at Selfridge’s, England’s first modern department store. In Shopping, Seduction, & Mr. Selfridge, Lindy Woodhead transports readers to a bygone era when nattily dressed ladies and gentlemen made shopping an event. Woodhead also shines a light on the man behind the mannequins, the inimitable Harry Gordon Selfridge.
Selfridge began as a stock boy working at Marshall Field’s in Chicago and eventually became a partner in that established business. His dreams were big and at the turn of the century he was able to make his magic happen in England. He wanted to bring to London a store that was unrivaled in extravagance. It took several years, but London’s first dedicated department store built from scratch opened in a halo of hype. The publicity was well-deserved, as the store really was larger than life. With six acres of floor space and every conceivable amenity, Selfridge’s was a legacy to limitless luxury. There were elevators and a bank, an ice skating rink and a restaurant with a full orchestra. Shopping was like an entertainment at Selfridge’s, where regular customers could mingle with celebrities such as Anna Pavlova and Noel Coward.
Woodhead tells the story of the retail revolution of the early twentieth century, but also focuses on the rise and fall of one visionary, but ultimately doomed man. Selfridge’s life was as large as his store and filled with mistresses, mansions, and money. This is the fascinating true story that inspired the Masterpiece series Mr. Selfridge, starring Jeremy Piven, currently airing on PBS.
When the average Joe hears the word “Scientology,” Joe might think of celebrity devotees like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Perhaps Joe thinks of founder L. Ron Hubbard and remembers the vast array of sci-fi pulp fiction stories authored by Hubbard. Does Joe, however, know what Scientology is? Is it a religion, a philosophy, a science or a cult? Lawrence Wright, in his book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief takes an in-depth look at Scientology’s founder, Hubbard, and his successor, David Miscavige, the history of the organization, and its beliefs. Miscavige’s niece, Jenna Miscavige Hill, has a turn telling her story in Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape, which she co-authors with Lisa Pulitzer.
In Going Clear, Wright begins with an overview of Hubbard’s erratic early life, which includes stories of bigamy, psychological disturbances, and the near-death experience in the dentist’s chair which led to his formulation of the Scientology doctrine and the publication of what may be its bible, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. Wright explores the growth of the movement, its appeal to the Hollywood crowd, and especially looks at the elite, highly committed and rigidly controlled Sea Org corps members.
Hill opens Beyond Belief by describing how she, at seven years old, signed a contract binding herself to “the Sea Organization for the next billion years...” As a Thetan, a sort of immortal soul, she would continue to inhabit bodies to fulfill the contract terms. Living on a ranch with other Sea Org children, she saw her parents only on Saturday nights. Her dedication to Scientology remained strong but as the demands of the group worked to increasingly both isolate and punish Hill, she broke ties with the community, as did her parents. Hill’s book is a very personal account of her Scientology experience, while Wright’s take is more scholarly, but both books examine the dichotomy of an organization espousing independent thought as essential to enlightenment while using coercive and intimidating tactics to maintain its membership base.
An American woman’s journey from embassy secretary to African royalty is this year’s choice for the One Maryland One Book selection. King Peggy: An American Secretary, her Royal Destiny and the Inspiring Story of How she Changed an African Village chronicles the story of Peggielene Bartels of Silver Spring, Maryland, who learns in 2008 she is the new king of Otuam, a poor Ghanaian fishing village of 7,000. This book was previously reviewed on Between the Covers last year.
Now in its sixth year, the Maryland Humanities Council program brings people together from across the state through a shared reading experience, book-centered discussions and other programming. A calendar of free public events will be available on the MHC website this summer. Last year’s book, The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway, attracted almost 7,000 readers in Maryland’s only statewide book club.