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Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

PioneerLaura Ingalls was my first heroine. Despite her tales of crop-destroying grasshoppers and bitter winters and wolves howling outside her door, there was something in her spare, vivid writing that made me want to live in a log cabin in the Big Woods of Wisconsin.

Pioneer Girl is a handsome volume, compiled with love and scholarship by the South Dakota Historical Society Press. It presents Laura Ingalls Wilder’s first, handwritten memoir, which was later reworked by the author and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, into the beloved “Little House” series.

Many of the episodes will be familiar to readers who followed the Ingalls’s westward migration from Wisconsin to De Smet, South Dakota. Other incidents, memorably the death of a nine-month-old baby brother, never made it into the children’s series.

The manuscript has been annotated with microscopic attention to detail, cross-referencing Wilder’s recollections with census records, land records, old family photographs, and news articles. Footnotes sift fact from fiction and fill in some historical context: why were Indians hanging out in Ma’s kitchen, helping themselves to the food? Because the Ingalls were homesteading illegally on land still belonging, by treaty, to the Osage tribe.

You may not need to know the exact species of leech from the infamous incident in which Laura led her nemesis, Nellie Oleson, into the bloodsucker-infested waters of Plum Creek (Erpobdella punctata). You may not want to know that Nellie Oleson herself is a fiction, a composite character made into a villain to give the narrative a stronger structure. (Life, so frequently, lacks a strong narrative structure.) But if you are interested in these details, or in the process by which a novel is made out of memories, then this is a worthwhile book to browse through on a cold winter day.

Check the WRL catalog for Pioneer Girl.

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marchCongressman John Lewis has spent almost the entirety of his life fighting for justice and civil rights in America. March is a trilogy that brings to life his experiences and struggles in a deeply personal account that is both inspiring and riveting. The first volume was published in August 2013, and the second was just released in January 2015.

The story bounces back and forth in time between the inauguration of President Barack Obama and Congressman Lewis’ own history, starting when he was a young child in Alabama, the son of a sharecropper. This serves as an effective juxtaposition between how far African-Americans have come and where they were just a short lifetime ago. Congressman Lewis weaves his narrative adroitly, using stories like his experience being in charge of his family’s chicken coop to build a foundation for his ongoing dedication to non-violence. His eagerness for education sometimes chafed against the needs of his family’s farm, but Lewis pressed on in his quest for learning. Along the way, he also got an education on the social injustice that tried to keep the worlds of blacks and whites separate.

Early on, his path crossed with the older, more established Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The reader knows what the young John Lewis does not: that this initial meeting is between two men who will become icons. This part is intentionally quiet; the reader silently follows Lewis on the journey to King’s church for the meeting, feeling their nerves get tighter and tighter in anticipation along with the narrator’s. It is an exceptionally well-executed scene.

Lewis eventually joins a local pacifist group committed to non-violence in their quest for desegregation. A larger group, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, had published a comic book called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story which helped serve as guidance and inspiration for their work. Although this item is no longer available in print, it is obtainable in full-text online through Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project. As an avid reader of graphic novels, this was a fascinating piece of literary history.

Nate Powell is a talented illustrator and took up the daunting challenge of depicting major historical figures with particular sensitivity. He is a previous winner of the Eisner Award for his book Swallow Me Whole and his work is always worth a look just on its own merits. March, was named a Coretta Scott King honor book in 2014 for co-authors John Lewis and Andrew Aydin.

Recommended for readers of American history, social justice, African-American history, and biography.

Check the WRL catalog for March, Book One.

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yummyIn 1994, Robert “Yummy” Sandifer was executed by fellow members of his gang. He was 11. What was his crime? In the eyes of his killers, he was bringing too much police and media attention to their part of town. Eager to prove himself to older gang members, he had shot wildly into a group of kids playing in the street, killing a 14-year-old girl named Shavon. Yummy’s murderers were only 14 and 16 years old themselves. The shocking nature of his death as well as his life landed his mugshot on the cover of Time magazine and a mention by President Bill Clinton in a speech addressing the three-fold increase in homicides in Chicago since 1980.

What would drive a child to become a hardened gang member at such a young age? Author G. Neri uses a fictitious narrator, named Roger, who is the same age as Yummy, as his vehicle for exploring the cause and provocation for his conduct. The story unfolds with few surprises: abuse, abandonment, and a lack of supervision that left Yummy to find his own amusement out on the streets. Arrested for the first time when he was 8, he quickly came up against a shortcoming of the state laws regarding juveniles. Since no juvenile could be convicted of a felony, gangs eagerly took advantage of this law, using young men to do hard crimes with no harsh consequences. Yummy was just one of a veritable army of children living on the streets and committing crimes to please their gang leaders.

Were Yummy and other juveniles in the same situation monsters or children? The authors don’t pretend to have a pat answer. Finding a solution to the spiral of violence would be ideal, but first the problem itself needs to be understood. Human troubles are always fraught with nuance and are hostile to simple resolutions. Instead, the book aims to shed light on the lives of the different players, in order to bring some humanity to what is otherwise just a grim set of statistics on youth gang life.

Designated a Coretta Scott King Award honor book in 2011, this title is a tough read, but the author brings a lot of honesty and reality to the dramatization of these real events. Recommended for readers with an interest in graphic novels, American history, and social justice.

Check the WRL catalog for Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty

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Cover art, Satchel Paige on baseball moundThis week I have selected titles in honor of Black History Month. For other recommended titles that I have already reviewed, please check out Bayou, Incognegro, and African-American Classics.

Calling the life of Leroy “Satchel” Paige remarkable seems an understatement unworthy of its subject. But how else could you describe a man who, though held back by the bitter shackles of Jim Crow, embarked upon a baseball career that lasted six decades and earned accolades from fans and competitors alike. Joe DiMaggio called Paige “the best and fastest pitcher I’ve ever faced.”

Rather than a straightforward biography of Paige, the author chooses to present the story through the eyes of a man named Emmett, an African-American sharecropper from Alabama who has baseball aspirations of his own. Emmett’s story overlaps with Satchel Paige’s every few years, starting in 1929 with Paige’s early days in the Negro leagues through 1944, which is four whole years before Paige becomes one of the oldest rookies ever in Major League Baseball at age 42.

Emmett’s life and experiences as a sharecropper are filled with reminders of his place in society: daily doses of disrespect and not-so veiled promises of violence if he steps out of line. He watches Paige, a talented, cocky, showboating athlete who doesn’t seem to show the weight of society’s injustice on the mound. In this biography, Paige lets his pitching do the talking for him, tightening up his form and getting strikeouts when it matters most, whether it is in a Negro League game or a white team vs. black team barnstorming game.

This story is a well-paced, easy read, and although categorized as a children’s book, it is approachable by readers of all ages. The art is clean, although the characters aren’t particularly expressive; this serves to keep the emotional focus of the story on the narration.

Recommended to readers of history, specifically sports history and civil rights history.

Check the WRL catalog for Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow

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ParisI’ve been enjoying this rambling tour of the Paris art world in the 1860s and ’70s, when the established traditions of great painting were under siege, and newcomers wielding their paintbrushes like floor mops were revolutionizing, or possibly just ruining, French Art.

It’s organized loosely around the careers of two painters, figureheads of the opposing schools. Ernest Meissonier paints musketeers and subjects from history, in moments that impart a moral lesson. Edouard Manet depicts absinthe drinkers and prostitutes, a contemporary crowd in modern dress (or inexplicably nude while picnicking). Meissonier, passionate about historical accuracy, collects period dress and weaponry to create military re-enactments on canvas, laboriously layered with great detail and rewarding examination with a magnifying glass. Manet, if his critics are to be believed, slops the paint (or coal dust) on with a floor mop, approximating a scene without finishing it. Are first impressions good enough? They are for the painters who are not yet called the Impressionists, a disgruntled but passionate lot of struggling artists who are repeatedly rejected from the Paris Salon or whose paintings are “skyed,” hung so high on exhibition walls that no one can see them.

Call me old-fashioned, but I have to side with Meissonier, who is described as one of the best-selling painters you’ve never heard of. You have to respect an artist who, after his scale model of a battlefield is ravaged by mice, recreates it in full size in his yard, dragging heavy carts around to furrow the ground and strewing bags of flour about to simulate a snowy landscape. (Fortunately, he resembles Napoleon enough to model for his own paintings.) He has the local cavalry charge about on maneuvers so that he can get a better idea of how to paint horses in motion. And here comes a generation that paints wisps of colors and calls it an “impression”!

Well, history and auction prices have come down on the side of the Impressionists. But King immerses you in their controversies with great relish, including the politics of the Salon de Paris, the juried exhibition that could make or break a painter’s career. Such passions! Paintings are assaulted with walking sticks, styles are derided with great energy and imagination in the (censored) press. “This is the painting of democrats,” writes a Salon director about the new style, “of men who don’t change their underwear.” There are fisticuffs over newspaper reviews! Duels are fought!

A wealth of anecdotes, mingling history, art history, and biography, cover a lot of ground but not very deeply. This is the kind of book that adds to your to-be-read pile with tantalizing references to people and subjects you now need to know more about. Or you could go from here to Christopher Moore’s irreverent but wildly enthusiastic novel of the same time period, Sacre Bleu.

Check the WRL catalog for The Judgment of Paris.

WRL also owns the audiobook.

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bully

In a feat of near-superhuman endurance, Benjamin powered through and finished The Bully Pulpit. Here’s his review:

Including the endnotes, this is a tome of 900 pages (30 CDs).  Starting with the book on CD, I knew I would not have enough time to listen to the whole book before its due date, so I put a hold on the printed copy also. Shortly after returning the CDs, I checked out the printed version and finished the book. Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit concurrently provides detailed biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, exploring their fundamental contributions to American history from the end of the nineteenth century through the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Woven into the narrative is the fascinating history behind the rise of McClure’s Magazine, complete with intricate biographies of S. S. McClure and his famous journalists: Ida M. Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, William A. White.  That all of these characters converge is not coincidental. These men and women were at the pinnacles of talent, dedication, and intelligence of their age.

Theodore Roosevelt is a household name. TR, as he is often referred to, had a tremendous influence on this country. William Howard Taft, although not as well known, also used his prodigious knowledge and skills to impact the direction of America. Contemporaries, both men rose above their peers with growing reputations, responsibilities, and national recognition. Although different in temperament and style, they were close friends for many years. Both were moderate progressives who enjoyed affectionate marriages, and were utterly dedicated to their families. However, after Taft became President in 1909, the men became estranged.

Taft did not crave the limelight.  If it were not for his wife, who aspired to live in the White House, he would have served as a distinguished Federal judge most of his career.  He sought equanimity and impartiality in his judicial decisions. His colleagues loved his amicability, intelligence, and fairness.

Roosevelt was a born leader. Anxious to excel and adoring attention, he held interests in every topic under the sun, and was knowledgeable about most of them.  He had boundless energy and enjoyed a good debate. Unlike Taft’s spouse, TR’s wife shied away from civic life. Yet, Roosevelt was happiest when he was inordinately busy and extraordinarily public.

Goodwin’s scholarship is excellent.  In The Bully Pulpit, she brilliantly combines all the lives of the characters to retell this fascinating history of the triumphs and tragedies of two American presidents.  Goodwin’s title reflects her underlying thesis that Roosevelt’s rise to prominence was aided by this masterful stewardship of and relationships with journalists.  However, this book goes a great deal beyond that one focus. Goodwin provides an amazing biographical history of Taft and Roosevelt that not only illustrates how these men lived, but also sheds light on the birth of modern politics.

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zealot

Today, we get Benjamin’s take on one of the most talked-about biographies in recent years: 

Zealot was a number one New York Times bestseller. The book has been vilified by some and praised by others. This comes as no surprise, as Zealot looks for the historical Jesus, a search that invariably causes uproar.

Aslan produces a readable exegesis on the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.  He informs his reader at the start that he is not writing to question anyone’s faith or beliefs.  He is, however, presenting a view of Jesus as a man who lived at the beginning of the Christian Era. Jesus gained a following in the rural areas of Galilee and Judea, went to Jerusalem to rail against the establishment, and was executed on a small hill named Golgotha.

Alsan methodically explores who the man Jesus of Nazareth was in the context of the world in which he lived. This is possible because a great deal is known about how the Romans treated criminals, what constituted a crime against the Roman Empire, who had power, and who did not.  There has been extensive discussion and analysis about the Temple in Jerusalem and the Pharisees, Sadducees & Essenes (the major Jewish sects during that time). Numerous narratives of Jewish messiahs exist, including accounts of their anti-Romanism, aversion to the hypocrisy of Temple priests, nationalism, and executions.  Despite this, there is limited hard evidence for many portions of the history to draw on, so Aslan spends much of his book reaching conclusions based on interpretation and correlation. Aslan carefully and systematically forms his thesis based on what he can suppose, infer, and theorize.

Zealot does not actually contain much history that has not previously been explored. The difference between this book and other discussions of the historical Jesus may be one of style and accessibility.  As a retelling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, it is cogent, clear, and understandable.The author’s extensive research is documented through his 50 pages of endnotes.

For me, Zealot is a book primarily about a man who lived two thousand years ago and what that person’s experiences may have been, given the culture, political reality, and existing religious environment. Aslan has crafted a well researched, thought provoking history. While Zealot is not a book for everyone, it does offer an interesting perspective that will lead many readers to contemplation the topic and perhaps some lively discussion.

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