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Find Me Unafraid

posted by: November 19, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for Find Me UnafraidI have long been fascinated by the story of Jessica Posner and Kennedy Odede. I was excited when I saw Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an Africa Slum on my desk as I would finally get to hear the whole story of how they came to be by their own accounts. Previously, I have only heard snippets of their lives and what they have accomplished in Nairobi, Kenya and, more specifically, the African slum of Kibera where Kennedy grew up.


Kennedy Odede had a difficult life. He was born to a teen mother, homeless at one point and grew up in the worst slum in Kenya. Most would not, and never do, come out of this same situation alive let alone with a college degree and a non-profit organization, Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), to help the girls of Kibera. Jessica Posner was a junior at Wesleyan University when she decided she wanted to study abroad for a semester and chose Nairobi. She heard about Kennedy and SHOFCO through two of her friends and decided to contact him about doing a theater project for his organization.


Their story is told in alternating chapters, a ‘he said, she said’ of how they met, fell in love and have helped and continue to help the girls of Kibera. The dream of creating the Kibera School for Girls became a reality through a grant, and in six harried weeks, it was built and continues to thrive. This story, their story, is only the beginning of what they have yet to accomplish.


Why Not Me?

posted by: November 4, 2015 - 6:00am

Cover art for Why Not Me?Mindy Kaling has become a well-known leading lady, writer, director, fashionista and general force to be reckoned with. Because of her show The Mindy Project, we are now on a first name basis with her. Her new collection of essays, Why Not Me?, is just like catching up with an old friend who happens to be doing all of the talking, though we don’t even mind because she is truly that charming. Her essays are hilarious, insightful and even more personal than those in her first book.


She offers up plenty of celebrity stories with the likes of Bradley Cooper, Reese Witherspoon and even President Barack Obama. However, she is always completely relatable. Her response to fame, and the unique situations she finds herself in because of her fame, is exactly what you or I would think if we were suddenly “a little bit famous.”


In this collection, Kaling addresses questions she didn’t feel prepared to tackle before, like being asked how she maintains her confidence by a young woman who had lost her own. Kaling confesses that she didn’t have an answer at the time, but now she does. Her secret is hard work — 19-hour-day kind of hard work.


There is an entire essay in which the author imagines her alternate life as a Latin teacher at a private high school in New York, told to us through email correspondence. It was delightful. I would read an entire book about alternate Mindy. I also hope this potential book gets turned into a movie starring Mindy.


For die-hard fans, it's worth it to check out both the book and the audio book because each contain extras that the other does not. The book has many great pictures, including an entire “Day in the Life” segment. However, the essays truly come to life when delivered by the author in the audio version. She has perfect comedic timing and obviously the best delivery of her own jokes.


Readers who enjoy this book will love her first essay collection Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), Yes Please by Amy Poehler and You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day.



Witches of America

posted by: October 29, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for Witches of America by Alex MarWitches of America is in some ways the antithesis to other spiritual narratives that have been popular recently, such as Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman, which focus on practitioners reinventing themselves outside of their respective religions. It is author Alex Mar’s narrative as she investigates Pagan worship in contemporary American society, first as a documentarian for her film American Mystic, which profiles different practitioners of alternative religions, and then as an initiate into the Feri, a self-described “sex cult,” struggling against her inherent skepticism and upbringing as an atheist to experience transcendence for herself.


While Mar has a down-to-earth attitude in the face of mysticism that many readers will relate to, she is also honest about her biases and attempts to approach the weird without judgment. In spite of the sensationalism the subject matter inherently conjures up, her exploration reveals how practicing Pagans are seeking answers to questions all spiritual people ask, including what it means to have a higher calling and what actions it takes to live a “good” life. As an investigator, Mar comes across as a sympathetic interlocutor, actively trying to immerse herself in a society that is extremely conscious of its outsider status and protective of what that status entails. As she puts it, “Groucho Marx would have understood the witches: their clubs do not necessarily want you as a member.” The results of her mining are revealed in her personal development and include several thoughtful observations regarding skepticism and faith.




Alphabet Books: Not Just for Toddlers

posted by: October 28, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for Rad American Women A-Z by Kate SchatzCover art for A to Z Great Modern Artists by Andy TuohyWriter Kate Schatz and artist Miriam Klein Stahl pair up to make their wonderfully colorful and informative book Rad American Women A-Z. Each woman gets a two-page spread with a graphic illustrated portrait and a few easy-to-read paragraphs. There are a myriad of different women including actresses, artists, scientists and activists. In addition to showing a variety of careers, Schatz and Stahl feature women with different socioeconomic backgrounds, races, ages, gender identifications and disabilities. Notable features include Kate Bornstein, a transgender writer and performance artist, “who reminds us to bravely claim our true identity,” and Temple Grandin, an autistic animal science professor, “who shows us the power of a brilliant mind.” Although the text is written at a fifth-grade level, the women featured can be shared with any age group, from kindergartners to adults.


A to Z Great Modern Artists, drawn by Andy Tuohy and with text by Christopher Masters, is the kind of aesthetically pleasing book to have on your coffee table for when you want to get absorbed into something interesting but don’t quite feel like engaging yourself in a novel or magazine. Each featured artist has a portrait drawn by Andy Tuohy that replicates the style of that artist—Piet Mondrian’s portrait is drawn in the signature geometric style of his artwork, while Andy Warhol’s portrait is done in his famous pop-art style. In addition to Tuohy’s creative portraits, each letter of the alphabet feels like its own exhibit and includes notable works of art from the featured artists. You’ll want to move through the book slowly, like you would when walking through an art museum, in order to fully appreciate all of the nuances of Tuohy’s creative design.



posted by: October 27, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for 1944 by Jay WinikJay Winik chronicles the final push toward a WWII victory in 1944: FDR and Year That Changed History. By 1944, the Allies expected to win the war. There were no illusions: They knew the terrible cost it would entail. Franklin Delano Roosevelt maintained a coalition of contentious rivals who, in ordinary times, would have been natural enemies. Roosevelt faced some of the biggest challenges in our history: a struggling economy that threatened our democracy, an isolationist sentiment that shunned foreign involvement and the insatiable greed of fascism as it gobbled up country after country. All the while, the presidency took its toll on his health. FDR was clearly dying.


The book also discusses the atrocities being committed to Jews. The dread of Jewish families as the full meaning of their plight is understood is heartbreaking. The detailed account of the escape of two Jewish men from Auschwitz is taut and gripping.


Winik skips back and forth through the era, documenting events in 1944 and then backtracking to FDR’s political rise. Winik indicts FDR and his administration for failing to take direct action against the Nazis’ diabolical “Final Solution.” Historians have long debated whether Roosevelt could have done more militarily to disrupt or alleviate the Holocaust. His choice to concentrate on winning the war will remain controversial.


Jay Winik is a respected historian and his writing well executed. He is the author of New York Times bestselling April 1865 and The Great Upheaval. World War II enthusiasts will enjoy the backseat view of a beleaguered president as he maneuvers through the minefields of war and politics.


Big Magic

posted by: October 22, 2015 - 7:00am

Big Magic coverIf you’re an artist of any kind, if you aspire to live a life driven by curiosity, if you believe that inspiration and creativity are literal magic, then you will find a kindred spirit in Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.


Gilbert is best known for her 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love about her life-changing travels to Italy, India and Indonesia. But Gilbert advises that it’s not necessary to pack up and travel the world for the sake of your art—you can and should make room for creativity and magic in your everyday life, and Big Magic provides the roadmap. She also warns against putting unnecessary pressure on your creativity or burdening it by asking it to financially support you. This advice could feel inauthentic coming from a writer who does support herself with her art, but Gilbert is so earnest in her beliefs, it’s impossible to begrudge her success.


Instead of advocating fearlessness, Gilbert says that we should allow plenty of room for our fear, but realize that it should not control our creative lives. She also dismisses the popular stereotype of the tormented artist. Instead, she suggests that your work should be a positive collaboration between you and your creativity. Gilbert theorizes that ideas are incorporeal entities longing to be brought into existence and that if we aren’t receptive to them, they will knock at the next artist’s door. She relates an anecdote about a novel she failed to write, only to discover years later that a very similar idea had magically found Ann Patchett.


After writing Big Magic, Gilbert didn’t feel like she was finished with the subject of creativity and began a podcast called Magic Lessons where she and guests, including Patchett and Cheryl Strayed counsel writers and artists who are having issues in their creative lives.


Beautifully written and full of fresh ideas on the nature of creativity, Big Magic is sure to become recommended reading along with classics like Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.


The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

posted by: October 21, 2015 - 7:00am

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage coverAutomatons! Higher mathematics! World domination! The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua contains everything inquiring minds could ask for. A history of the nascent development of computing, it contains a detailed and thoroughly researched account of the collaboration between Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage in their creation of the Analytical Machine (now known as a computer). Not limited to just explanations of the mechanical and theoretic processes, Padua also delves into contextualizing the machine’s creation with profiles of the people, culture and time period that had an influence on its formation. Any dryness you might expect of such subject matter is diverted by speculation of what Sherlockian adventures could have happened if the groundbreaking machine actually managed to be produced in the Victorian era of its imagining.


Padua’s zeal for her subject is infectious and her research has yielded amusing vignettes of the characters who were involved in the creation of computation, including cameos by George Eliot, Lewis Carroll and Queen Victoria. Despite her frequent demurrals to expertise, she concisely breaks down the complex engineering of her subject (with diagrams!) so that it is understandable for those of us who aren’t engineers, mathematicians or wizards. Be warned: It is text heavy for a graphic novel, primarily because the number and density of footnotes rivals those of the late Terry Pratchett. Like The Great Pratchett, however, the footnotes contain amusing digressions whose levity make them worth the effort. 





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