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Thinking Out Loud

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan DaumMeghan Daum's new essay collection The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion starts off with an emotional stab. In her opening essay, Daum speaks about her complicated relationship with her mother and her ho-hum reaction to her death. "I was as relieved as I planned to be," she says, when her mother finally stops breathing. It’s this honesty that you should expect from Daum as she explores a hodgepodge of subjects from her flawed family to her obsession with Joni Mitchell. The L.A. Times columnist and author of three previous books, ruminates on what makes her tick, even when it is far from flattering.

 

Daum isn't afraid to say what many might feel but would never utter aloud. Her 10 essays range from light and insignificant to a catharsis for the 40-something as she traverses life's weightier decisions. She's at her best early on with her character-driven portrait of her mother whose behavior her daughter could not abide.

 

Intelligent and candid, Daum exudes an unapologetic tone as she grapples with creeping midlife and what to make of it. There are moments of eloquent internal clarity that reach across the page. Her thought-provoking essay "Difference Maker," about her experience mentoring in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program, delves into the underbelly of foster care. It's an observant gem that does not pretend to have the answers. That's what rises to the top of Daum’s latest effort. For all the self-analysis and "unspeakable thoughts many of us harbor," life is still often about the intangibles.

Cynthia

 
 

Crimson Coils

Crimson Coils

posted by:
March 23, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for You Feel So MortalWhen composed by a gifted writer, creative nonfiction can be a magical vessel capable of alchemizing the mundane into the enthralling. Lifelong-Chicagoan Peggy Shinner is one such sorceress; in her collection You Feel So Mortal, she reflects on the elemental aesthetics and feelings of the human body, touching on the ideas of awkward feet, poor posture, proper fit and even plastic surgery.

 

In “The Fitting(s),” Shinner recounts a harrowing trip to an upscale department store to purchase new bras with the aid of a professional fitter. Her tale is laced with memories of shopping with her mother, and her own ponderings on the implications of choosing the alluring over the practical as a sort of gratuity to the fitter’s expertise. Shinner chronicles her experiences training as an advanced martial artist in “The Knife,” an essay about the myriad reciprocities between our bodies and the tools we use. “Elective” is a soul-bearing debate on the merits of plastic surgery: Does the empowerment of perceived beauty outweigh the emotional strain born from the defilement of one’s natural state?

 

Blended with sentimental storytelling in a lighter literary voice, Shinner’s factual anecdotes help characterize her worldly observations. She treasures her rare vantage and shares her assembled insights in nine accessible essays brimming with equal parts nostalgia and profundity. You Feel So Mortal is perfect for literary essay enthusiasts, for nonfiction lovers looking for something endearing and sentimental, or for readers interested in a Jewish or lesbian perspective.

Tom

 
 

Brother Against Brother

Cover art for The Man Who Would Not Be WashingtonCover art for Marching HomeOne of the great paradoxes of history is Robert E. Lee’s decision to fight for the Confederacy rather than defend the Union. Jonathan Horn explores the great battle Lee fought within himself in The Man Who Would Not Be Washington.

 

Robert E. Lee was the son of a renowned Revolutionary General, the son-in-law of Washington’s adopted child and the keeper of the flame of Washington’s legacy. He graduated second in his class at West Point, fought for his country during the Mexican-American War, and was considered the natural choice to command the Union Army. Despite a lifetime defending the Constitution against all enemies, he could not bear arms against his neighbors. Horn’s extensive research follows Lee through his personal and professional life, illuminating the deep ties of family, affection and history that bound the Washington and Lee families. It is this one, fateful decision that has shaped our perception of Washington and created the American story.

 

Our nation’s story is not simply about the generals, but also the private soldiers. In Marching Home: The Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War, Brian Jordan shatters the legend of the constantly faithful, overly sentimental soldier who attends reunions and speaks fondly of brothers-in-arms. Rather, the soldiers were tormented by wounds and memories. A new fight began after the war — the fight for dignity, fair compensation and recognition of their accomplishments. Determined to put the war behind them, civilians were unprepared for the return of shell-shocked veterans and unwilling to deal with their needs. Using pension records, diaries, letters and regimental histories, Brian Matthew Jordan has brought into stark relief the needs of veterans and the vast gulf between the home front and the battlefront.

 

Two great reads for Civil War devotees — from one Civil War nut to another!

Leanne

 
 

Failure Is an Option

Failure Is an Option

posted by:
February 27, 2015 - 3:18pm

CraftFail: When Homemade Goes Horribly Wrong by Heather MannEvery DIYer out there has a story or two about a project that ended up going awry. Heather Mann compiles hysterical craft disasters in CraftFail: When Homemade Goes Horribly Wrong. Spanning the worlds of food, home décor, fashion and kids, Mann’s entertaining collection will amuse non-crafters and comfort those dedicated crafters who have all experienced hiccups despite the best laid plans.

 

Mann, creator of the popular blog CraftFail.com takes a look at what happens to those of us who aren’t Martha Stewart. The effort and good intentions are definitely there but, sadly, the end result doesn’t match. Photographs of craft failures, including new ones not seen on the blog, include glitter shoes that look like a puddle of sparkling slop and spaghetti-stuffed garlic bread which is anything but appetizing. These projects all sounded cool and seemed attainable, but the outcomes were decidedly dreadful.

 

Mann’s funny look at crafting gone wrong also serves as a celebration of the creative process. Failure is always a possibility, but that shouldn’t be a barrier to inspiration and imagination. The photographs and sharp writing all combine to create a humorous homage to the internal HGTV designer inside each of us who perseveres and keeps on crafting. This charming collection also highlights two important imperatives all crafters should adopt as a mantra when starting any project — follow directions and don’t substitute!

Maureen

 
 

Confronting Your Bullies

Cover art for Whipping Boy"Eat it, Nosey," he said again. "Only this time make sure you chew."

 

Allen Kurzweil is 10 years old, and his roommate at an elite Swiss boarding school is forcing him to eat bread soaked in hot sauce until tears are streaming down his face and then some. This incident, along with several others at the hand of Cesar Augustus Viana, causes Allen to leave the boarding school that summer after his first year. While the view of the Alps may be far behind him, the memory of Cesar, his tormentor, never dies.

 

Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully documents the adult Kurzweil’s journey to track down Cesar and confront him at last. His quest takes him back to Switzerland to look for the ghost of his past in old dormitories, to an ill-fated beauty school in Manila, through New York City law firms and to a Californian federal prison. As he unearths more of Cesar’s movements and where he might be now, Kurzweil finds himself under the weight of tons of documents convicting Cesar in a bizarre international, multi-million dollar bank fraud case.

 

Will Allen follow through on his promise to punch Cesar right in the nose if and when at last they meet? Will all of his meticulous research and a lifetime of reliving the horrors at the hands of Cesar be in vain? More importantly, has Allen’s obsession with bringing Cesar to justice and righting past wrongs turned him into what he has feared: Has he become the bully?

 

Kurzweil’s obsession for all things related to Cesar’s life make this a fascinating read. Biography and memoir fans looking for something a little unconventional will be happy with the level of detail and the thoroughness of the research.

 

Jessica

 
 

Making a Difference

The Work: My Search for a Life That Matters by Wes MooreAuthor Wes Moore, not yet 40, is already quite accomplished. A graduate of Johns Hopkins and a Rhodes Scholar, an army officer with combat tours in Afghanistan, a Wall Street banker, a White House fellow and author of a bestselling memoir, Moore surely exceeds any standard measure of success. Moore’s newest book, The Work: My Search for a Life That Matters, reflects upon his varied experiences which have impressed upon him the importance of work which one believes to be meaningful.

 

Baltimore readers may already be familiar with his first book The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, which Moore was motivated to write after reading a newspaper article about a young Baltimore man who grew up a few blocks from Moore’s childhood home, imprisoned for his part in the shooting death of a security officer. That man’s name, too, is Wes Moore, and author Moore struggled to understand the difference in the life journeys of the two men. In The Work, Moore acknowledges his lifelong fascination with “fate and meaning…success and failure.” He goes on to highlight what he views as lessons learned from his myriad workplaces and shares stories about people who’ve inspired him and are also practitioners of work, paid or otherwise, aimed at serving others.

 

John Galina and Dale Beatty are the founders of Purple Heart Homes, which aims to provide disabled veterans with affordable and accessible housing. Liberty Elementary School in Baltimore City, where nearly all the students live below the poverty line, is led by Principal Joe Manko who cut the administrative budget in favor of bringing in technology and resources directly benefiting his classrooms. The Aley siblings formed American MoJo, a for-profit manufacturing company meant to employ struggling single moms. Moore also finds role models in every day folks who may not be as visible but exemplify passion and service, such as his grandfather or a NYC office cleaner. The Work includes an appendix of questions which, though introspective, could be used for triggering a book club discussion.

Lori

 
 

We Are Groot

We Are Groot

posted by:
February 10, 2015 - 8:00am

Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy: The Art of the MovieGuardians of the Galaxy is one of the coolest movies to come out in the past year. It has awesome spaceships, explosions, a short-tempered raccoon with a penchant for heavy weaponry and an incredibly groovy soundtrack. But where did it all come from? There's a whole lot of work that goes into making a completely fantastic world — and a whole lot of people. Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy: The Art of the Movie brings credit where credit is due.

 

The book starts off with an explanation. Director James Gunn was initially going to turn the movie down. And then there was an epiphany, a moment when he realized that there was a whole lot to love about a talking raccoon. Then it's on to a history lesson. All the Marvel movies are based on pre-existing comic book characters, and the Guardians are no exception, with 50 years of continuity. Most of that continuity is now just a footnote. Yondu was a hero. Groot was once a villain who tried to take over the Earth. It's safe to say that the movie was so popular that every character who appeared in it will be rewritten from here on out.

 

The meat of the book is the concept art, from costumes to settings to characters and a whole lot of time spent on muscle starships. There were over 10 thousand pieces of concept art created for Guardians of the Galaxy, and a large, though not complete selection, can be found here. Little nuggets of information are dribbled on most pages, from methods for making costumes cool, stylish, reflective of historic periods, and simultaneously not interfering whenever a character goes to pull a blaster from their hip.

 

How do you make a galaxy and its guardians? Give a lot of talented artists free reign through history.

Matt

 
 

How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are

How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are

posted by:
January 29, 2015 - 8:00am

Cover art for How to be a ParisianLike members of our social circle, books occupy certain roles in our reading sphere. Goodnight Moon: the childhood friend you don’t see these days, but whom you remember oh-so-fondly. Jane Eyre: that friend of many years who is there when you need her. A Game of Thrones: your current best bud who may actually end up standing the test of time.

 

If How to Be Parisian, Wherever You Are: Love, Style and Bad Habits were in your social circle, she would be that vivacious friend whom you adore, but also slightly fear — that glamourous, audacious, slightly selfish girl who challenges you to embrace your inner chic. She is intriguing, she is original, and she is not quite stable. She is who you would gladly be for a day… but no longer.

 

Like that friend, How to Be Parisian, by Anne Berest, Audrey Diwan, Caroline De Maigret and Sophie Mas, is best enjoyed in doses.

 

The work of four friends, themselves bona fide Parisiennes, How to Be Parisian offers unique insights into the mind and character of the modern Parisian coquette. Engaging, mercurial and unapologetically egocentric, this quartet of Parisiennes cum authors might raise a few hackles with their blasé attitudes toward certain subjects covered, such as children as accessories or rules for keeping a lover on the side. At such times, the reader would do well to recall that, despite the title’s suggestion, How to Be Parisian is not to be understood as an instruction manual for the reader’s own life. Rather, it is a delicious opportunity to slip into the role of The Parisienne for an hour or so — with all her flaws, foibles and je ne sais quoi.

 

A caveat: Organization of theme is not this book’s strong point. Pithy, engaging monologues, whimsical photography and lists upon lists are where this volume shines. The key to enjoying How to Be Parisian is to remain uncommitted, to dally as it were, among its pages. Flip open the table of contents, ignore the ostensible chapter headings, and select whichever of the enticing subject headings attracts you most. It’s what a Parisienne would do.

 

Meghan

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Ode to Troy McClure, Bill Clinton, Frankenstein and the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer

Cover art for You Might Remember Me

For eight seasons on Saturday Night Live, Phil Hartman’s comedic genius delighted audiences. Known as “The Glue” among his castmates, Hartman’s many impersonations and broad characters revitalized the show after one of its darkest periods. Beyond SNL, Hartman was a beloved voice on The Simpsons as well as the bombastic Bill McNeal on the critically lauded show NewsRadio. Poised to make a superstar breakout in several summer films of 1998, life was great for the comedian.

 

But in the early morning hours of May 28, 1998, police released the shocking news that Phil Hartman had been killed by his wife, Brynn, in their home while their children slept. For such a funny man to meet such a tragic end seemed unbelievable as fans, friends and costars tried to make sense of the loss to the comedy world at large. In You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman, biographer Mike Thomas stresses that what a person thinks of when she or he thinks about Phil Hartman isn’t his death, but the life of a performer whose talent gave laughter to so many.

 

Chock-full of interviews with family and famous friends, the book delves into Hartman’s childhood — as one of eight children, he often had to “perform” to be noticed. It also highlights his early career as a successful graphic artist (he designed album covers for bands like Poco and America) to his breakthrough with The Groundlings. From helping Paul Reubens hone the character of Pee-Wee Herman to developing his own popular character Chick Hazard, Phil Hartman seemed an enigma: someone committed to performing without really wanting to stick to it for long. He was someone waiting for the next big thing, but only if the next big thing fit in with the lifestyle he wanted.

 

You Might Remember Me paints a picture of a man searching for an identity: one that he could never quite completely cover with wigs and prosthetic noses. It is a great read for fans of Hartman’s work and for those who enjoy biographies of complicated, delicate genius, both in the moment and ahead of its time.

 

Jessica

 
 

Finding Denzel

Finding Denzel

posted by:
January 16, 2015 - 8:00am

Cover art for Right Color Wrong CultureAn absorbing study of a timely subject, Right Color, Wrong Culture is an allegorical tale focusing on the challenges and rewards of cultivating a multiethnic organization. In his thoughtful, carefully composed new work, author Bryan Loritts analyzes the specific kind of leadership needed to make connections and build thriving multicultural organizations.

 

Loritts’ central theme explores the premise that in each ethnic group there exist three faces of cultural expression: C1s, those who assimilate entirely from one culture or ethnic group into another; C3s, who are culturally inflexible, resisting assimilation of any kind; and in the middle, C2s, who are culturally flexible and adaptable without losing their ethnic identity. Personifying these faces, Loritts cites Carlton Banks, Ice Cube and Denzel Washington, respectively.

 

Careful to note the ties between culture and ethnicity while recognizing that one is not de facto the other, Loritts proceeds to examine the specific leadership principles vital to the success of a multiethnic, culturally diverse organization. In the case presented, it is an ethnically and culturally homogenous church that the principal characters are striving to transition toward a multicultural identity. Nevertheless, Loritts’ lessons about balanced, intuitive leadership and the practical challenges present in such a transition are applicable to any organization.

 

One of the most compelling aspects of RCWC is the narrative format Loritts has shrewdly chosen to deliver his message. Though a work of nonfiction, RCWC reads more like a novella. His use of a cast of characters to explore the challenges and viewpoints surrounding the case presented is an effective vehicle for what could otherwise be a polarizing subject. Recommended for readers seeking to promote multiculturalism within their own organizations as well as those readers who are simply interested in engaging in a deeper understanding of multiculturalism overall.

 

Meghan

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