Many of us can remember receiving a life-changing book and the story behind it. Maybe it was a childhood birthday present, a memento from a failed relationship, an impulse buy, a bequest from a late relative, or a suggestion from a favorite teacher. Whatever the reason, the ways in which these special books enter our lives can often be as powerful as the books themselves. The Books They Gave Me: True Stories of Life, Love, and Lit, based on editor Jen Adams’ blog of the same name, chronicles over two hundred anonymous anecdotes about the books we give one another and why.
These candid submissions – with themes ranging from “How did she know?” to “What was he thinking?!” – celebrate the humorous, profound, and sometimes disastrous connections that our lives make through literature. A good number of the stories focus on breakups, but the collection never feels dull thanks to the constant stream of different voices and experiences. In fact, this charming, accessible little book can easily be read in one sitting. For those looking for further reading, this collection doubles as an extensive book list, cataloging a variety of classic novels, memoirs, poetry, self-help guides, and even dictionaries. Color illustrations of each featured title provide appealing visuals from beginning to end. The Books They Gave Me is a bibliophile’s dream and encourages readers to reflect upon their own treasured books. As one contributor beautifully puts it, “I believe that giving a book to a person is like giving a piece of your soul to them.”
For the children of the eighties, big hair and make-up ruled the music world. MTV made music visual, and successful artists embraced the music video as both a promotional tool and a method of self-expression. Perhaps no band embodied the visual storytelling of this decade as completely as Duran Duran, Britain’s “other” Fab Five. John Taylor, founding member and bass player, chronicles the band’s career highs and lows with In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death and Duran Duran.
While Taylor does venture into the confessional arena, revealing the typical rock-star excesses of sex and drugs, the true pleasure of this biography lies in his first-person account of British music in the seventies and eighties. As a teen in Birmingham, he and friend Nick Bates (later Rhodes) pooled their pence in order to see their idols perform live. Sitting at the proverbial feet of Queen, Bowie, and Roxy Music, they soaked up music like sponges and learned that the look was as vital to the success of the music as the beat. The band that would become Duran Duran was born from these young lessons learned. As they grew into their ruffled shirts, their conceptual lyrics combined with new wave, highly-synthesized music to give birth to the sound known as New Romanticism. Duran Duran was perfectly poised for stardom at the start of the MTV era, and the band created ground-breaking videos that still set the standard today such as “Girls on Film”, “Hungry Like the Wolf”, and “Rio.”
In the Pleasure Groove is not a tell-all, nor is it simply an insider’s guide to the biggest names in eighties music. It is a smooth glide through more than twenty years of music history. Fans of eighties music, as well as those of us who were teenagers then, will enjoy reliving the decade’s watershed moments such as Madonna writhing in a wedding gown, and Bob Geldof’s charity extravaganza Live Aid. Perhaps the quietest Duran member, Taylor reveals enough about the band to keep Duranies happy; they will certainly want to read this book more than once.
Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir, is a satisfying and poignant account of the girl who just wanted to have fun. But as she writes in this account of her rise to superstardom and ongoing fame, her life has been more than the image she portrayed when she burst onto the international scene in the mid-1980s. Her music, outrageous style, and love of family and friends are represented in a conversational manner. The use of many asides, and the return to topics she had seemingly dropped earlier in chapters makes for a memoir that could be the transcription of a long, chatty visit across a kitchen table with an old friend.
From her beginnings in Queens, New York and the early bands that she sang with, Lauper’s path to stardom began gradually. But when her album “She’s So Unusual” struck a chord with the MTV generation, her stratospheric rise to the top of the pop charts was ensured. A string of hits were powered by memorable videos that seemed inescapable to MTV viewers, and her unmistakable voice made even the casual radio listener take notice. While never again matching the commercial success of her breakthrough album, more hits followed, including “True Colors”. The song later became an anthem for the GLBT community that Lauper has long associated herself with. She does not hesitate to discuss her personal life in detail, including her fond relationships with her family, the heartache of a long-term but eventually ill-fated romance with her one-time manager, and a path to find happiness. Lauper touches on the rivalry that never really existed with Madonna, and wonders how her life would have turned out had she permanently relocated to Australia after a tour there. Frankly written, this memoir shines a light on a celebrity everyone knows superficially but few know well.
Countless books have been written about Abraham Lincoln, some of which cover his mental health issues. In The Hypo: the Melancholic Young Lincoln, Noah van Sciver portrays Honest Abe’s depression in a way rarely seen so clearly. Starting from the point of Lincoln’s arrival in Springfield, Illinois, in 1837, van Sciver’s words and pictures bring to life the world of this place and time in American history. Lincoln comes to work as a lawyer with John Stuart, while also serving with the Illinois state legislature. Soon after getting to Springfield, he meets the philandering but good-hearted Joshua Speed with whom he shares an apartment and who becomes his closest confidant. Working at their two-person law firm, Lincoln meets Stuart’s cousin, Mary Todd, and is introduced to society life. Although Abe and Mary Todd quickly fall in love, her family disapproves of his low social standing, and each of their mental health issues hasten the dissolution of their engagement. Lincoln has a total breakdown, and is “nursed” back to health by a doctor using methods such as bloodletting and mercury treatments. Mary Todd’s own undiagnosed issues are manifested in debilitating migraines. With the help of Speed and other friends, they are eventually reunited, engaged again and married.
Completely rendered in black and white, Van Sciver’s pen-and-ink, crosshatch style is perfect in telling the story of our beloved sixteenth president’s pre-wedlock years. He captures Lincoln as often ill-at-ease, bumbling, and very much prone to sadness, but who is also occasionally able to command a room with amusing tales, poetic language, and political finesse. The frontier, with all its grime, poverty, and its class divide is also intensely illustrated, placing the reader directly into the setting. Readers of David Herbert Donald’s biography Lincoln, Joshua Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy, and those interested in the biopic of the legendary president (starring Daniel Day-Lewis) will find much to appreciate in this graphic presentation.
A wonderful accolade to literature and a memorial to his incredibly gifted and generous mother, Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club combines the two gracefully. From the title, it is clear that this book club eventually comes to a close. However, this is not a maudlin tale, but instead a celebration of a mother and son’s love. The book’s table of contents gives an immediate impression of some of what the book club covered; each chapter carries the title of the book that was discussed between the group’s two members. Schwalbe, a former editor at Hyperion, immediately sets the stage in the Sloan-Kettering care center where his mother, Mary Anne, receives chemotherapy for her advanced pancreatic cancer, and where many of their book discussions took place. Mary Anne has always been a dynamo, from her teaching days to doing aid work overseas (her passion is getting a national library built in Afghanistan), to the uncanny way she remembers everything. Each family member is well-described, from his younger sister, torn about moving to Geneva when she learns of her mother’s diagnosis, to Will’s older brother, a rock of support for the family. While the family has the means that many others may not, their situation, suffering, and grief is universal.
Books certainly play a major role in the text, and while there are many discussions about fictional works (titles by Wallace Stegner, Steig Larsson, and Alice Munro, among others), the most memorable passages come from books of poetry, self-help, and spirituality. Mary Anne and Will have differing views on matters of faith, but it is clear that each of them respects the other. This is a title that will resonate with many readers, especially those who were moved by memoirs such as Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home.
History abounds with innovators, leaders, peacemakers and visionaries, men and women who have performed great deeds in the world and have earned their respective chapters in the history books. Chris Mikul’s latest work is no such history book. Instead, The Eccentropedia: The Most Unusual People Who Have Ever Lived is a delightful hodgepodge of 226 of history’s most unusual characters – charmers, madmen and ne’er-do-wells who are worthy of an amusing footnote, if not a chapter in the hallowed halls of history.
One such is Edward William Cole, who rose to become the most successful bookseller in Australia. Born in 1832, the son of a laborer, Cole possessed an extraordinary flair for advertising, which he utilized to found increasingly successful book arcades and even to find a wife. More than an excellent businessman, Cole was a generous spirit, who would allow patrons to read in his arcades all day without purchase. He also vehemently opposed racism and published pamphlets expounding its absurdity.
Mikul’s book is peppered with similarly curious histories. He reveals the darker side of Bobby Fischer, the genius widely considered to be history’s finest chess player. He also delves into the history of Hetty Green, one of Wall Street’s savviest and wealthiest investors, whose investment acumen was matched only by her obsessive stinginess, a predilection which ultimately cost her son his leg. Mikul offers the compelling tale of Moondog, the blind street dweller with an extraordinary gift for music whose Norse-inspired apparel earned him the moniker “Viking of 6th Avenue.” A celebration of nonconformists, mavericks, and the just plain bizarre, Mikul’s collection of character vignettes is broadly recommended for readers who seek to be immediately engaged by their reading material.
Bond fans (and we know who we are) have a nearly boundless appetite for trivia and anecdotes about Britain's most famous Secret Service agent. But who would have guessed that one of James Bond's biggest fans would turn out to be the man who portrayed him in seven films during the 70s and 80s? In Bond on Bond: Reflections on 50 Years of James Bond Movies, Roger Moore displays a comprehensive knowledge of and appreciation for all things Bond. This includes the movies as well as Ian Fleming's original novels and stories, and even tie-in titles such as Charlie Higson's Young Bond books for teen readers.
Also unexpected is Moore's wry, self-deprecating sense of humor. He pokes appreciative fun at the gadgets, cars, and over-the-top plots of many of the movies. He spares his own performances least of all, saying, "I've never been guilty of method acting—or even acting, if you want to argue a point." His stories of malfunctioning secret weapons, cranky Bond girls, and location nightmares are balanced by his obvious affection for his co-workers and for the master spy he refers to as "Jimmy." Timed to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Bond on film (Dr. No, starring Sean Connery as Bond, premiered in 1962), Bond on Bond is a surprisingly funny and fresh book, far superior to other recent books of Bond miscellany.
Heart has been around for decades, breaking into the largely male world of rock music earlier than most female performers. In Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock & Roll, Ann and Nancy Wilson alternately describe their extraordinary lives in the music industry. Picking up stories that the other starts, the format reads smoothly, and indicates the strong ties these sisters have shared all these years. Beginning with the childhoods they experienced as daughters of a major in the Marines, Ann, Nancy, their older sister Lynn and their mother moved constantly, finding it hard to put down roots. Because of this, their family (known as “The Big Five”) focused inwardly. Ann, a classic middle child, dealt with body image and stuttering problems that vanished when she found her voice. Later, Nancy, the youngest, found comfort in relationships with her band mates.
The story of the band’s genesis and first big break is vividly recounted, along with the bumps along the way. Their first hit “Magic Man” was released while they were briefly living in Vancouver, and they became stars in Canada before in their native country. This period brought success after classics like “Dog and Butterfly” and “Barracuda” became showstoppers. After some rough times and disappointing album sales in the cocaine-fueled early 80s, Heart’s second-act rebirth came with hits like “What About Love”, “These Dreams” and “Alone”. Included, too, is the interesting story of how Ann, to this day, refuses to sing their controversial 1989 hit “All I Want to Do is Make Love to You”. Full of tidbits about musicians the women have come to know over the years, including Stevie Nicks, Elton John, John Mellencamp, and many in the Seattle rock scene, this is a strong memoir about a life on the road, but also the story of two sisters who broke through a glass ceiling and came out on top.
While America continues to debate immigration reform, Mexican-born author Reyna Grande has placed a human face on her own family’s painful struggles to emerge from the shadows. In her moving memoir, The Distance Between Us, the physical journey of illegally emigrating from one of the poorest states in Mexico to a Los Angeles Latino neighborhood a quarter century ago extracts a high emotional cost in the quest for a better life. As a young child in Iguala, Mexico, Reyna Grande believed that the country on “the other side” gobbled up parents. When Reyna’s own parents leave for “el otro lado” to find work, she and her older siblings are left behind with a cruel grandmother. Reyna depends on her older sister, Mago, who becomes the “little mother”--understanding too well the breach in trust that has occurred. They ache helplessly for their absent alcoholic father and indifferent mother, who returns only to leave again.
The author never forgets her roots, nor does she make excuses in telling this coming of age story. She examines with sharp focus and a renewed compassion the actions of her flawed parents and the life-altering repercussions for all involved. Through the grim realities of her early life and the "broken beauty" of her native country, she captures her own voice as a young child with matter of fact clarity. When her father finally returns for her and her siblings, the border crossing on foot is perilous. "We became lizards, rubbing our bellies against the cold, damp earth, trying to find a place to hide," she recalls. Sadly, entry into the U.S. brings its own hardships, brought on by living with an explosive father. Readers of Angela’s Ashes and The Glass Castle will recognize the familiar, true theme of a family's breakdown, and the resilience and tenuous steps that lead to understanding and forgiveness. Teen readers of memoir will benefit from gleaning a perspective on a modern immigrant experience so close to home.
Visiting Tom: A Man, a Highway, and the Road to Roughneck Grace is a quirky biography of eighty-two-year old Tom Hartwig, who is equal parts Rube Goldberg and Hunter S. Thompson. The only reason we are so fortunate to learn about the enduring spark and eccentricities of Tom is due to the many neighborly visits made by Michael Perry, author of Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs and Parenting. Perry recognizes Tom’s uniqueness which embodies a rare and rustic Americana spirit that is seldom seen today.
The Hartwig resistance, a white clapboard farmhouse, is situated in rural Wisconsin. It has been Tom’s home since his birth in 1929. He admired the tranquil landscape with Arlene, his wife of sixty years, until President Eisenhower enacted the Federal -Aid Highway Act which ran a four lane interstate right past his kitchen window. Although he is quick to shake his head at the ceaseless stream of cars that disfigured his farmland, Tom has his own ways to make known his charming yet anomalous independence. From stationing an operable cannon on his front lawn, to leading a team of oxen through local parades, it is obvious that little in this life, not even a highway, can get in this man’s way. For readers who want an off the beaten path biography, Visiting Tom is the perfect collection of astute yet humble musings, and authentic snapshots from the life of one extraordinary man.