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.
Cities are constantly abuzz with activity in every direction. But how much of what goes on around a person is seen? And how much noticed? In her book On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, Alexandra Horowitz gets to the bottom of how people can do their best to take note of the world around them. The author starts by taking her dog around a large city block in Manhattan. As Horowitz is a dog behaviorist by training, she is well aware that the things a dog notices on a walk are not the same as those a human does. (Dog walkers, of course, notice more of the same things as dogs than do other humans.)
After this control walk, Horowitz then invites others to take similar walks with her. She takes along a sound designer, who notices much more of the clatter of the city, things that Horowitz herself had largely tuned out. She realizes, however, that along with the noise of traffic and construction she has also come to ignore pleasant sounds such as birds, and children playing. Another walk is with a child, whose perception and interests are considerably different from the author’s. Additionally, Horowitz accompanies a geologist, an artist, and a number of others, all of which expand her own horizons of what she can discover on a walk around the block. She urges all of us to simply pay attention, and the rewards of looking can be marvelous.
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.
Online poker was a hot phenomenon in the early 2000s, and Ship It Holla Ballas! by Jonathan Grotenstein and Storms Reback traces the trend by focusing on some of the hottest players. Ship It Holla Ballas is a name coined from a poker term, a celebratory cheer, and urban slang and was chosen as the crew name by an elite group of poker players who studied the online game and figured out how to win. This group of college dropouts met on a popular message board and soon got together in person. While the authors introduce the main players using their online handles, all of them, including, Irieguy, Raptor, and Good2cu, are real guys who got to live lifestyles of the rich and famous.
Most of these young men weren’t even old enough to gamble in a casino when the crew was formed, but they took advantage of the online games to win millions of dollars. Those millions helped these enterprising, if nerdy, teens transform themselves into players with fast cars, big houses, and beautiful women. They eventually took on Vegas, winning some of the biggest poker tournaments in the world, and garnering even more attention.
Readers will get a sense of the personalities of these players and their individual motivations behind dominating this complex card game. The authors frame the story of the crew by outlining the rapid rise and fall of online poker. At one point as many as 15 million people were betting online. But on April 15, 2011, the government shut down the three largest sites, effectively killing the games. This is a story filled with ego, dedication, success, and excess. It is also the story of how the smartest guys in the room parlayed their brains into big bucks.
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.
Timing could not have been better for John Thavis's entertaining and candid new book, The Vatican Diaries: a Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities, and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church. While the long-time journalist stirs in lighter, less sacrosanct moments about life in and out of the Apostolic Palace, there is serious discussion of many aspects of this Vatican City-State visited by millions each year.
Nearly three decades of experience covering the Holy See for Catholic News Service has provided the recently retired Rome Bureau Chief with a heap of material on the men in red. In ten highly readable chapters, Thavis traverses more territory in “arguably the world’s most hierarchical organization” than on his motorino throughout this ancient city. Intriguing chapter headings, like “Hemlines and Banana Peels” and “Cat and Mouse,” provide a fascinating peek at the culture behind the headlines. In a chapter called simply “Bones,” Thavis highlights the difficulty of protecting and conserving the plethora of antiquities that come out of the ground while moving forward with modern development as mundane as a parking garage. Thavis calls it the “politics of the bones.”
No subjects are off limits either, as the Minnesota native seems to have witnessed it all firsthand. He takes on the sexual abuse scandals and other controversies swirling around papal decisions, including provocative observations on the last two popes. Lighter subjects, too, are explored, including free-speaking priests who get into trouble and the mindset of Vatican protocol where things shouldn't go wrong but often do. Even bell ringing has its own challenges. There is chapter on it. Thavis dispels the myth of "Vatican secrecy" in his introduction. "More than 3,000 people work in the Vatican's administrative machine, and many of them will share information if given the opportunity," he says. It is fortunate for readers that Thavis has opened up his reporter's notebooks.
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.
Cars on top of boats on top of roofs. Mountains of debris in flattened urban landscapes. Sea-salty inland lakes miles away from the Pacific coastline. These were all fairly common scenes after the March 11, 2011 earthquake off of the northern coast of Japan caused a series of massive tsunami waves that decimated the eastern coast of the Tohoku region. Only months after the disaster first struck, Gretel Ehrlich, an American travel writer, came to personally view, experience, and record the wreckage and the perseverance of the people and places impacted most by the quake and tsunami. Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami is the insightful, poetic, personal chronicle of her expedition.
After she arrives, Ehrlich makes her way slowly up and down the devastated coastline, stopping by villages, cities, temples, and emergency shelters along the way. She comes to see the depth and variety of responses to the catastrophe in the people she meets and those she travels with, especially her drivers and translators, and their families. Through her conversations, the reader gradually realizes how profoundly Japan’s long acquaintance with the tsunami as a natural phenomenon has permeated its culture and worldview. Impermance, uncertainty, and acceptance of what cannot change are rooted in the Japanese character that Ehrlich’s portrayal reveals. Still, moments of happiness and joy punch through the sorrow and anxiety that the author and those she meets experience.
Wrenching, inspiring, and compelling, Facing the Wave is an emotional reminder that even though we may no longer see it mentioned on the nightly news, the aftermath of a disaster of this scale lingers for those who lived through it and those who care enough to remember.
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 renowned author of African literature, Chinua Achebe, has died in Boston at the age of 82. He is best-known for his seminal 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, read by millions worldwide, and featured in the curriculum and reading lists of countless high schools and universities. This novel follows the life of Okonkwo, a proud Igbo man living in turn of the 19th century Nigeria, and the cultural changes that he must face and accept as British colonialism takes hold of the area and the only life he knows. Achebe also wrote a number of follow-up novels to this groundbreaking story. Confined to a wheelchair for the past twenty years following a car accident, he lived in the United States for the last two decades of his life, and was a professor of African Studies at Brown University in Providence.
Achebe also was a strong proponent of the rights of the people living in the once-breakaway Nigerian state of Biafra. His book There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra was published last year. Explaining the Nigerian civil war that took place in the late 1960s, this mélange of memoir and history reminded the world of an oft-forgotten war. Achebe also wrote an allegorical folktale which was republished last year with Mary GrandPré's illustrations. How the Leopard Got His Claws tells the story of a short-lived coup and the resulting return of the original power players, in terms that are understandable for all ages.