You wouldn’t think that the expanding universe, the glam-enigma of David Bowie, and the grief for a father could all be explored in one collection of poetry, however, Tracy K. Smith has done just that in her latest collection Life on Mars. In her poem “Don’t You Wonder Sometimes?” Smith contemplates The future isn’t what is used to be. "Even Bowie thirsts/ For something good and cold. Jets blink across the sky/ Like migratory souls." Smith addresses pivotal world events with rage and amazement, from Abu Ghraib prison to the D.C. Holocaust Memorial Museum shootings. Each poem is an odd and strikingly unfeigned examination yet, when read as a whole, the collection serves as a journey of intergalactic magnitude.
Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral, 2011 recipient of the Yale Series of Younger Poets award, is a seemingly effortless yet complex interweaving of Spanish and English that challenges both literal and linguistic borders. This undaunted Latino voice contorts the boundaries of sexuality, immigration, and cultural consciousness. Each unexpected word crackles. "My right hand/ a pistol. My left/ automatic. I’m knocking/ on every door./ I’m coming on strong,/ like a missionary./ I’m kicking back/ my legs, like a mule. I’m kicking up/ my legs, like/ a show girl." If you’re looking for unflinching poetry that writhes across the page, this ruggedly poignant collection shouldn’t be missed.
Crazy Brave is a lyrical coming-of-age memoir by leading Native American poet and musician, Joy Harjo. Born in 1950’s Tulsa, Oklahoma, Harjo recalls her early struggles with an abusive stepfather, her seminal years at the Institute of American Indian Arts high school in Santa Fe, and her personal journey of inspiration. Harjo, a Muscogee (Creek) Native American, interlaces brute realism with tribal myths to create a haunting variation of the American dream. From the jazz of Miles Davis to transcendental memories of her ancestors, this slim but eloquently raw autobiography has wide readership appeal for those interested in the process of creativity, social injustice, U.S. history, and women’s rights.
Author Bob Spitz spent several weeks traveling through Sicily with Julia Child in 1992 and admits that he developed “a powerful crush on her,” which inspired him to write Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child. The book’s release coincides with the 100th anniversary of her birth, and it’s the perfect way to celebrate the rich life of this culinary legend, television pioneer, and cultural icon. Both the author’s admiration and Julia’s larger-than-life personality shine through in this in-depth new account of her life.
In 1942, Julia wanted to join either the Women’s Army Corps or the Navy WAVES. She was rejected by both organizations because at 6’3” she was considered too tall. Instead, she began to work for the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA). While working for the OSS, she met Paul Child, and they married in 1946. Paul and Julia moved to Paris in 1948, and Julia had a life-changing experience eating sole meunière on her first day in France. Food became Julia’s passion. She attended the Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and began to teach cooking. She also co-authored Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which is now considered a classic cookbook.
In 1962, Julia was featured on a segment of People Are Reading on Boston's WGBH to discuss her cookbook. She shocked the host by making an omelet on a hotplate on live television and unknowingly launched a revolution. That first television appearance led to her successful cooking show The French Chef, the growth of educational television and what later became PBS, and the current popularity of the Food Network and celebrity chefs. Julia was fearless in the kitchen and had a unique ability to make cooking seem completely accessible and fun. She made America wanted to cook along with her. Julia passed away in 2004, but her ground-breaking work will always be remembered. She changed the landscapes of both American food and television. In the words of the lady herself, “Bon appétit!”
If you like American short stories, chances are you’ve read Flannery O’Connor, whose biting sense of humor, peculiar characters, and hauntingly redemptive tales have made her one of America’s most celebrated writers. But did you know that before she wrote fiction, O’Connor had originally set out to be a cartoonist? The new book Flannery O’Connor: The Cartoons explores this iconic author’s lesser-known talent and brings her illustrations together for the very first time.
O’Connor began drawing at the early age of five and went on to make cartoons for her high school and college newspapers. These cartoons, with their quirky, almost grotesque style and spot-on commentary about student life in the early 1940s, made O’Connor something of a local celebrity at her Georgia college. Those who have read O’Connor’s classic short story collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find or her 1962 novel Wise Blood will love seeing her trademark humor on display in these early drawings. In one cartoon, two students dance joyfully hand-in-hand while the caption below reads, “These two express the universal feeling of heart-brokenness over school closing.” In another, a lone bespectacled young woman (clearly meant to be the author herself) watches her popular classmates dance at a college social and says to the reader, “Oh well, I can always be a Ph.D.” These speak to O’Connor’s knack for carefully observing the world around her, a process she once described as the habit of art.
In addition to a handsomely presented gallery, Flannery O’Connor: The Cartoons also features an essay delving into the author’s life and eventual transition to writing fiction. This interesting book has great appeal for O’Connor fans and anyone who enjoys satirical cartoons.
Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Shadid, a Middle East correspondent for The New York Times, was an Oklahoman of Lebanese descent. In 2006, faced with a crumbling marriage stateside, Shadid focused on restoring his great-grandfather’s abandoned home in the village of Marjayoun, Lebanon. His book, House of Stone, is as much of a lesson on the political and cultural history of the Ottoman empire as seen from Marjayoun as it is a chronicle of an American trying to conduct the frustrating business of home improvement with local contractors while recreating his “bayt.” A nuanced Arabic word roughly meaning home, a bayt is the place of one’s roots. Mr. Shadid’s poignant story merging his family’s past and present was published posthumously; he died of an asthma attack this past February while attempting to leave Syria on horseback. Surprisingly, especially in light of the beautifully detailed architectural descriptions of the home, the book does not include photographs.
Also dealing with family history but on a far lighter note is Megan Smolenyak’s Hey America, Your Roots Are Showing. Smolenyak is a professional genealogist and chief family historian at Ancestry.com. Her clients have included the U.S. Army (finding primary next-of-kin for soldiers,) the FBI (civil rights cold case crime-solving,) the BBC (tracing family members of sailors who died on the USS Monitor), and even her own curiosity, as she sketches the family tree of Michelle Obama. These assignments and more are covered in her latest book as she utilizes the traditional paper trail and oral interviews, supplemented by DNA testing, to solve family mysteries. Entertaining but always respectful toward her subjects, Smolenyak finds an unlikely link between Al Sharpton and Strom Thurmond, and debunks the myth that immigrants’ surnames were mangled at Ellis Island by uncaring clerks. Hey America, Your Roots are Showing is an enjoyable look at genealogical detective work.
Marcus Samuelsson has a fascinating story to tell in his refreshingly candid memoir, Yes, Chef. At its heart is food and family, guided by years of discipline and sacrifice. His lifelong quest to engage customers through their senses with a denouement of flavors has resulted in a winding culinary journey for the Ethiopian-born 42-year old. Today he sits atop the restaurant world.
Samuelsson's passion began at an early age. Orphaned as a toddler, he remembers berbere, the reddish-orange spice mixture his mother sprinkled liberally on their food. Adopted by a middle class couple from Goteborg, Sweden, it was his Swedish grandmother, Helga, who encouraged her young grandson's interests. She introduced him to rustic cooking and layering of flavors. Her signature dish was a roast chicken, which she killed old-school style ("Come here, boom!").
The wiry, soccer-playing Samuelsson viewed all his cooking assignments as opportunities. From mopping as a kitchen boy in Sweden to restaurant stints in Switzerland and France and aboard cruise ships, Samuelsson absorbed the diversity of ethnic flavors. At age 24 he earned the position of executive chef of New York's Aquavit restaurant, and a three-star rating from The New York Times.
Samuelsson tells his story in an honest, retrospective manner. Growing up in a mixed race family, he didn't become aware of his black identity, and its challenges until older. He once ignored the only other black worker in a kitchen because he was worried what others would think if they were seen talking. That candor is refreshing, as is his poignant description of his return to Ethiopia. A bellwether in an industry known for ego-driven personalities, the reserved, award-winning Samuelsson is as comfortable cooking for a state dinner as he is in the kitchen of his latest New York restaurant, Red Rooster Harlem. Aspiring chefs and foodies will feel at home.
Marilu Henner of Taxi fame offers a unique memory manual in Total Memory Makeover: Uncover Your Past, Take Charge of Your Future. As one of a handful of people with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM), Henner discusses her strong recall ability. She shares how it has helped her, and offers advice for boosting recollection. Henner knew from an early age that her memory was different, but she did not know there were others like her until she began working with researchers at the University of California,Irvine. While the average person can recall up to 11 events from each year of their life, Henner remembers every day of her life since the age of 12 in detail.
Henner’s approach to memory strengthening is not about using mnemonic devices or strategies. Combining anecdotes from her personal and professional lives with scientific data and exercises designed to spark specific types of memories, Henner gently guides readers on a tour through their past. Simple exercises have the reader revisiting personal events (21st birthday) or recalling major world events (President Reagan’s assassination attempt) and remembering details from the day. Other chapters include effective journal keeping and working with children to develop a strong memory at an early age.
Henner documents methods to stop turning painful memories into emotional baggage and maintains that strong memory will create a positive blueprint for your future. Would you still eat that doughnut if you remembered the thrill of fitting into skinny jeans five years ago? Would you ask for that raise if you recalled the confidence boost when your prom date said yes? Would you get out of a new romance sooner if it brought back memories of a bad ex? Shakespeare wrote that “the past is prologue,” an idea supported by the principles behind Marilu’s memory makeover, where the focus is on you.
In Moshe Kasher’s new memoir Kasher in the Rye: The True Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient, and Then Turned 16, the stand-up comic chronicles his renegade, drug-addicted adolescence in California during the early ’90s with a careful balance of humor and painful honesty.
Following his difficult childhood – the challenge of having two deaf parents, starting therapy sessions when he was just six years old, and being dragged by his mother on a “vacation” to California that ends up being more like abduction – Kasher feels hopelessly broken and lost. He finds it impossible to fit in at his Oakland public school, so he gets involved with the wrong crowd and starts a downward spiral of gang violence, theft, vandalism, and drug use, all before he is even old enough to drive. It isn’t until several near-death experiences and three stays at a children’s psychiatric hospital that Kasher finally decides to turn his life around. But even with his new determination, how can he learn to break this tragic cycle if a life of confusion, anger, and self-destruction is all he knows?
Moshe Kasher manages to tell his story in a way that’s hilarious and heartbreaking without ever becoming sentimental. The anecdotes he tells of his wayward youth will have readers laughing at the ridiculousness of it all while rooting for Kasher throughout his journey. If you are a fan of David Sedaris’ essays or Bill Clegg’s memoir Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, you will find much to enjoy in this honest, funny, and redemptive true story.
As a child, Rosecrans Baldwin went to Paris with his family and became transfixed by its beauty. Later, as a twenty-something, Baldwin uses a connection to secure a job at an ad agency in Paris in need of a native English speaker. In the humorous and breezy memoir Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, he moves himself and his wife Rachel to France, where initially all the brilliance and luster of the City of Light shines upon them. That is, until he realizes that his facility with French isn’t quite as strong as he thought. Too quickly, the countless hassles of daily life in another culture start to take their toll. Bureaucratic red tape is overwhelming. Despite these obstacles, the small joys of Parisian life constantly astound the young couple. Baldwin manages to write his debut novel (the since-published You Lost Me There), adding his name to the long list of Americans finding creative inspiration in Paris.
A very different look at the expatriate-in-Paris experience is Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis. Alice Kaplan describes post-war Paris and the many Americans who were inspired to travel to Paris for varying lengths of time. Each of the three women she focuses on came to Paris for a year to study abroad. The city made an indelible impression on their futures, whether it was the “Frenchness” Jackie Kennedy later brought to the office of First Lady, or how the intellectualism of the city reinvigorated Susan Sontag’s writing and sense of purpose. The political upheaval Angela Davis witnessed in France inspired her to play an integral role in the Civil Rights movement back home. The transformative power of place is clearly displayed in this look at the ways we can become products of our environment.
My Cross to Bear has all the usual trappings that we’ve come to expect from a rock biography. There are the standard stories of groupies, squabbling with other band members, chemical excess and failed marriages. Beyond the basic musician biography ingredients though, there’s also a fascinating life story that remains very Southern throughout.
Gregg Allman begins his life in Nashville, Tennessee, eventually travels all over the world and currently lives in Savannah, Georgia. Throughout his fame, fortune and travels, he never ventured far from his roots in his outlook and tone. Indeed, one of the pleasures of this book is “hearing” the voice of Gregg Allman and his Southern phrasings. One fine example: he loses his virginity and declares the experience to be "the best thing since black-eyed peas.”
My Cross to Bear opens at the Allman Brothers’ Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction. At this point, Gregg Allman is a severe alcoholic. He sincerely tries to stay sober for the ceremony but fails miserably. This was one of the lowest points in his life. He embarrassed his family, the rest of the band and most of all, himself. This seems to be a turning point and at that moment, he decides to turn his life around.
Like many musician biographies, much of the story is about Allman’s struggles with various addictions throughout his life. The real story here is that of the Allman brothers themselves (Gregg and Duane). Their story is one of humble beginnings, unimaginable fame, wasted fortunes and incalculable loss, including the tragic death of both Berry Oakley and Duane Allman. Duane Allman’s spirit is really the guiding force in the book. Older brother Duane could be credited with starting the Allman Brothers Band; his guitar work was a key element in the Allman brothers’ distinct sound. One gets the feeling that Gregg never felt that he quite measured up to big brother, Duane.
My Cross to Bear is satisfying, entertaining read from beginning to end. Quite simply, it is a Southern-fried version of the “sex, drugs and rock and roll” story. What’s not to love about that?
In Jeneration X, humor writer Jen Lancaster takes on growing up and acting her age. She tackles important challenges like buying a house, getting a mammogram, and hosting Thanksgiving for the first time in typical Jen style. Her wickedly funny writing and short essays make this book the perfect accompaniment to a hot summer afternoon at the pool.
As with her previous bestselling memoirs, she writes Jeneration X in a series of related anecdotes rather than a chronological story. Jen provides readers with commentary and snarky footnotes to explain her Gladys Kravitz-like compulsion to spy on her neighbors and the problem with swimsuits with skirts. Jen’s readers are already familiar with her husband Fletch, her friends and family, and her menagerie of pets, so reading a new book always feels like catching up with an old friend over cocktails. To learn more about all things Jen, visit her blog, Jennsylvania.
Jeneration X features several appearances by Jen’s best friend and partner in crime Stacey Ballis, whose new novel Off the Menu will be published this summer. The novel follows Alana Ostermann, an assistant to a celebrity chef. She’s happy with her life until she meets RJ, who makes her realize that it is time to reassess her life. To celebrate the book’s release, Stacey is holding a contest to win a lunch date with Stacey and Jen (aka Stennifer). The deadline for entry is July 1; contest details can be found here.