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.
Eddie Huang is co-owner of the hugely successful Baohaus, a Taiwanese bun shop in New York’s East Village. Fresh off the Boat, his provocative new memoir, is a refreshingly current take on the immigrant story and a very funny book. Huang recounts his upbringing in Orlando, Florida. He attended a mostly white school, struggling to stay true to his Taiwanese culture, while also wanting to fit in. For his school lunch, his mother usually prepared a home-cooked Taiwanese meal. He didn’t want food that smelled or looked any different from that of his peers. He talked his mom into allowing him to take the processed pre-packed meals and juice boxes.
He describes going into wealthy white homes where the kids had so many toys, he didn’t know what to play with first. He does not shy away from his tough upbringing but maintains a light, irreverent tone, no matter the subject. In time, he came to embrace his own culture. He is proud of his Asian-American background but refuses to be anything but himself. He criticizes Hollywood’s emasculated version of Asian-American men, loves partying, hip-hop, basketball and football.
Throughout Huang’s life, his love of food remains constant and his passion for food culture is infectious. Equally infectious is Huang’s humor, perhaps best captured in the audiobook version. Huang is the narrator and his hip, street-smart humor comes off best in his distinct Brooklyn accent. Besides audiobook listeners, Fresh Off the Boat will also find fans among memoir readers, pop-culture enthusiasts and foodies.
Joan Crawford, move over. Kathi Ruta is here, and her daughter, Domenica “Nikki” Ruta, has penned a memoir every bit as disturbing as Christina Crawford’s. In With or Without You, Ruta recounts a childhood devoid of innocence, as she is both witness to and victim of numerous crimes. Nikki is the only child of single mother Kathi. They live on the Ruta family compound in Massachusetts. Unlike another family compound in wealthy Hyannisport, the clannish Rutas reside on marshland in blue-collar Danvers in dilapidated housing. Kathi is a manicurist, at one point a prosperous car service owner, but most regularly a drug dealer who liberally indulges in her merchandise.
Ruta shares horrifying tales of growing up with Kathi. The squalid living conditions are punctuated by a revolving series of drug-buying customers who serve as surrogate family; one “uncle” is a known pedophile. Kathi promotes drug use, providing Nikki with her first Oxycontin and stuffing her Christmas stocking with a nickel bag. She keeps Nikki home from school to watch classic movies on TV (ironically, a favorite was Mommie Dearest) and harangues her daughter with language that could blister paint off the walls. Yet Kathi knows her intelligent, book-loving daughter deserves more and cobbles together a private school education which includes boarding school and college, partly funded by drug money. During an especially flush period, they travel to Europe.
Dysfunctional parent-child relationships are complicated. Ruta conveys her mother not as one-dimensional, but larger than life and complex; intensely loving and capable of pushing her daughter to succeed conventionally while simultaneously sabotaging her efforts. With her mother’s demons dogging her along the way, Ruta struggles to launch her own adulthood while deciding what role her mother can continue to play in her life. Recent memoirs in this same vein include Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle and The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok.
The shroud of secrecy which surrounds an elusive artist is at the heart of Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall by Will Ellsworth-Jones. This former journalist presents an in-depth look at the reclusive artist from his beginnings as a nobody vandal all the way to the Academy Awards as producer of a nominated documentary. As unlikely as it would seem when reading about the beginnings of his journey, Banksy has somehow managed to become one of the world’s best known and wealthiest living artists. His pieces, which once drew anger and police attention, are now securing millions of dollars at auction.
While Banksy, via his publicity organization Pest Control, refused Ellsworth-Jones’ requests for interviews, the author manages to use secondary sources to shed light on this enigma. He talks with friends, acquaintances, and fellow artists to recount how this mystery man from Bristol, England, who refuses to be photographed or reveal his given name, turned the art world on its head. Readers will also meet fans who wait for hours to obtain limited edition prints and follow the author as he searches the streets for some of Banksy’s works. Ellsworth-Jones also addresses the paradox that Banksy’s commercial success has created for him and questions whether he is the sellout as so many of his contemporaries claim. This is a fascinating glimpse inside the world of street and outsider art, a social commentary, and a philosophical debate about the definition of art.
Many Americans probably got their first glimpse of Banksy (along with a distorted voice and hidden face) and his world in his 2009 documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop. This intriguing Oscar-nominated film prompted one New York Times critic to coin the term “prankumentary,” leaving viewers wondering whether the entire film is yet another hoax perpetuated by Banksy and his cult of followers.
Abraham Lincoln was an inexperienced president in 1862 when he faced his troubled country's most daunting crises to date. With the new year came the inescapable truth of a nation divided, broken, and at war. To realize his vision for the union would take patience, even-keeled fortitude, and the ability to draw in friend and foe alike. In David Von Drehle's terrific and highly readable book, Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year, the historian reconstructs in a dramatic but disciplined tone the year's greatest challenges for the self-schooled Illinois lawyer. Unfolding month by month, Lincoln's growth as a leader is as transformative for the 16th president as it is for the state and stabilization of the union.
There is no doubt that issues were burning for Lincoln and the country. Aside from a civil war and unabated "secession fever,” the president was facing a government overwhelmed, a treasury without money, and a war department reported in shambles. Europe was exhibiting impatient leanings toward the south. At home, Lincoln's domestic situation presented its own challenges and heartache. The moral crisis of slavery, which would eventually catapult Lincoln to greatness, was looming.
Von Drehle's careful chronology of this tumultuous year begins with New Year's Day and concludes a year later with the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In captivating narrative guided by hefty research, layers of political, military and diplomatic maneuvering are peeled away as Von Drehle attempts to define the man Lincoln became as a result of the year's high stakes. Micro-biographies of the usual players add color, as do the plethora of Lincoln quotes, many poignant. Readers of Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough will recognize here the republic at a crossroads and the bellwether of a nation who saw beyond.
Pete Townshend’s biography, Who I Am is not only the story of The Who but also a deeply personal memoir. Townshend shares intimate details from his sometimes bleak early childhood, revealing that these years caused him lifelong fears of abandonment. Who I Am also gives a personal view into cultural and historical developments in post-World War II England.
Compared to other rock memoirs, Townshend’s stands out for his lack of bitterness toward other members of The Who. He resists the temptation to disparage his bandmates. Given The Who’s colorful history, no doubt he has countless stories that would entertain readers but may embarrass fellow band members. Because this is such a well-crafted and honest memoir, the absence of descriptions of debauchery is not missed. Readers who prefer their musical biographies to be full of name-dropping gossip will not be disappointed, though. He shares numerous stories about Sixties icons such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Mick Jagger.
Who I Am will be enjoyed by fans of The Who and also readers who are interested in intimate memoirs of artists. Read by Townshend in his distinctly reedy London voice, the audiobook is highly recommended.
Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland, by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, chronicles the life of one of the world’s most important stylemakers. Born into a wealthy family, Diana was designed for greater things. Her younger sister Alexandra was the beauty of the family, a fact that was revealed to Diana constantly by their mother, Emily. Often Diana felt unloved and unappreciated at home, and used creativity and imagination to escape her dull, drab world. She discovered an ability to surround herself with beautiful things, wonderful clothes and interesting people. In 1936, Vreeland joined the staff at Harper’s Bazaar as a fashion editor. While the editor-in-chief was concentrating on Paris couture, Vreeland concentrated on American fashion and design, often spotting new and fresh designers and photographers and pairing them together to create magic. She was able to keep the pages fresh and inviting throughout the WWII era and well into the Fifties. Times changed drastically again with the arrival of the Sixties, and Diana soon found herself at editor-in-chief of the American edition of Vogue. Here she was able to deal with rising hemlines and a youth movement that would change the world of fashion. By 1971 she was fired from Vogue, but Vreeland never stopped. She joined the staff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a Special Consultant to the Costume Institute, and was able to create exhibits featuring the fashion that she loved.
Vreeland is a fascinating character with an unusual yet powerful voice. Readers who would love to learn about fashion will find much to like in this book. Vreeland's life is captivating, as are the many stories of the designers, photographers and models of that period. It is fascinating to read how world events and the economy shape the ways people look at fashion and determine what is worn. Empress of Fashion is sure to please readers, even with the most discerning tastes.
Audiences continue to be fascinated by the life and work of legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. He is the subject of the new theatrical film based on Stephen Rebello’s Hitchcock!: Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. Rebello begins with the story of Ed Gein, whose grisly crimes inspired Robert Bloch to write the novel Psycho. Hitchcock’s selection of Bloch’s gruesome novel was an abrupt departure from the expected, eliciting doubt from everyone including the studio. When Paramount made it clear that they wouldn’t back Psycho, Hitchcock offered to finance the movie himself if Paramount would distribute the finished product. Rebello pulls together details about the production of the film and explores the public reaction after its record-breaking openings in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago in June 1960. Hitchcock, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Dame Helen Mirren, brings to life Hitchcock’s relationship with his wife Alma and their collaboration during the production of Psycho.
Audiences looking for more Hitchcock will also want to see HBO’s The Girl. The film focuses largely on Hitchcock’s dark and often abusive relationship with Tippi Hedren, leading lady in his iconic films The Birds and Marnie. Hitchcock and Hedren, played by Toby Jones and Sienna Miller, create unforgettable films together but at a steep price to Hedren’s well-being.