Mini Review: I’ll Have What She’s Havingby Rebecca Harrington

This book only took me about an hour and a half to read, so I don’t have an awful lot to say about it.  But it was a fun concept and parts made me smile, so here’s a little review.  Compact and to the point like Victoria Beckham.  (Now I know more than one fact about Victoria Beckham!  An educational evening was had by all.)

source: randomhouse

My rating: *** (3 stars).  This book is amusing and fun without really bringing anything new to the table. (Excluding all the bizzar-o foods that probably should never have been brought to Harrington’s table at all.)  It’s sort of like reading the facebook updates of your funny friend – the one who actually keeps up with pop culture but isn’t an asshole about it.

I’ll Have What She’s Having: My Adventures In Celebrity Dieting was not even on my radar until yesterday afternoon.  I was reading Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea on my lunch break, when suddenly a scene that I remembered as violent from when I read it as a teenager turned out to be even grosser than I recalled.

First of all: kittens are sacred and should not be harmed. Obviously I’d blocked that passage from memory in my youth.

Second of all: ewwwww, not what I wanted to be picturing while I ate my chickpeas and za’atar.  So I had to put that beautiful classic of Japanese literature aside for the duration of my meal, and cast around for something else to distract me.  (I also hadn’t read any nonfiction books this month and now I can brag that I fit one in at the last minute!)

When you’re in the back room of a bookshop, distractions are always close at hand.  And my hand happened to fall upon this brightly colored little foray into the weird world of celebrity dieting.  The basic premise is this: Rebecca Harrington loved reading about celebrities and she loved dieting.  So, in the name of journalistic integrity, she decided to walk the walk.  Eat the eat.  Suffer and slave away in the kitchen for the reader’s amusement.  Disastrous “celery loaf” and other experiments occasionally exiled her from the kitchen in horror, but she keeps on making cabbage stew and green risotto. Rebecca is one determined diet-investigator.  She’s not going to let Beyonce’s physically dangerous cleanses beat her down without a fight.

Obviously, the author’s sense of humor is what kept me reading this book.  If it were just a report on how different celebrities’ eating habits were totally messed up, I would have had to put it down pretty quickly.  I, too, have been obsessed with diets.  So obsessed that my eating routines were even stricter and more dangerous than some of the ones we’re meant to laugh at in this chronicle.  So while I appreciated the miserable details of totally unrealistic diets, I appreciated Harrington’s ability to laugh at how unsustainable the worst ones were even more.  This isn’t to say that she deplored every famous person’s smug routines.  On Gwyneth Paltrow’s food rules she reports: “If I wasn’t going to go bankrupt doing it, I would follow the Gwyneth diet to the letter every day.” (p 23)  Luckily for my own welfare, I don’t even have the funds to try one week of the It’s All Good way of eating.  Even Gwynnie’s books are a little out of my price range.  (And let’s not even get started on the beluga caviar Jackie Kennedy used to consume…  That was one of my favorite chapters, and I might be the only New Englander who doesn’t give a shit about the Kennedys.)  But when things got really wacky, like with Greta Garbo’s live-in nutritionist or Karl Lagerfield’s ten diet cokes a day, our faithful guide Rebecca is honest about how much these regimes suck the energy, fun, and friends right out of your life.  No wonder so many famous people are irascible waifs.  I could barely sit through a lecture on J.R.R. Tolkien while I was starving, and they have to film interviews while probably hallucinating that the reporter is an ice cream cone.

The most amusing question Harrington answers in her adventure is, “Would my friends stay with me until the end even though I kept making them come to my house for dinner parties where they all told me to my face that they despised all of my food?”  That’s the sort of dilemma most readers should be worried about when they buy a diet book, not how much weight they’ll drop in the first few dehydrated and muscle-deteriorating months.  I’ll Have What She’s Having made me want to write letters of apology to all the friends who had to suffer through my over-planned and under-seasoned meals when I was myself obsessed with diets.  Also, I should probably thank them for never ordering pizza right in front of me like Harrington’s friends have reportedly done.  It also made me realize just how silly it is that so many famous skinny people make even more money by writing books telling us that we can be just like them if only we eat more yeast or drink nothing but eggs mixed with milk in the mornings.  Why do we keep buying those books?  Why do we need to know about Elizabeth Taylor’s obsession with putting steak on half a peanut butter sandwich?  I don’t know, but I enjoyed hearing Rebecca Harrington’s results of the investigation.

And, yes, it quickly distracted me from the cat-violence.  In short: a fun, conversational jaunt through one woman’s experiment in living through several celebrities’ bad decisions.  I even learned some facts about famous people along the way.  (Madonna will forever be associated with seaweed in my brain, now.)  Don’t read this if you’re still in a tenuous recovery from an eating disorder, but you might enjoy it if you, like so many of us, can’t help but flip through every glossy-photoed “eat like me” hardcover that features a skinny white girl eating fake pasta on the cover.

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Book Review: You Can’t Win by Jack Black

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Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: *****  (5 stars)

Narrative: **** (4 stars)

Interesting Subject: ***** (5 stars)

Objectivity and research: **** (4 stars. This is a memoir.)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 14 and up.

The gents at my favorite coffee shop are on a roll with the book recommendations, lately.  You Can’t Win was described to me as “the memoir of a hobo turned safe-cracker turned house burglar turned highwayman turned librarian.”  You can probably imagine that I nearly dropped my maple spice coffee (yum) in eagerness to get my hands on a copy.  I ordered one the moment I got back to work, and have ordered another since to give as a gift.  It was just that good.  I want to call the book “inspiring,” but it’s probably a bad idea to immortalize one’s admiration for such a practiced criminal as Mr. Black on the internet.  So let’s just call it a riveting story, told with level-headed clarity and enough rollicking anecdotes to turn Jack Black’s life into a series of adventures well worth re-telling.

America in the early 20th century was a wild and crazy place. Saloons and opium dens were everywhere, housing wayward women and desperate men; bad men; or pretty much any other crooked variety of fella. Prisons were uniformly horrifying – even more so than they are today – and reforms had only just started. People still carried gold money on horseback. And security measures for houses and trains weren’t quite up to snuff. The West, especially, was paradise for train-hoppers; hobos; “yeggs”; stick-up men; gamblers… any manner of folk who made their living going against the law.

Jack Black (an alias, I believe) didn’t start out as a criminal. His story begins with a quite loving description of childhood years at a Christian school. Right off the bat, he ruminates on the lack of a mother in his life, though his portrayal of the nuns who took care of him shows that there was no lack of decent adult influence in his upbringing.

“It has often been a question with me just how much the best of it a boy has, who has his mother with him until his feet are well planted under him; who has a home and influences until he gathers some kind of a working philosophy that helps him to face the world… Looking back at it, it seems to me that I was blown here and there like a dead leaf whipped about but the autumn winds till at last it finds lodgment in some cozy fence corner. When I left school at fourteen I was as unsophisticated as a boy could be. I knew no more of the world and its strange way than the gentle, saintly woman who taught me my prayers in the convent.”

Jack’s father, too, is described with respect and care. In fact, I was touched by how Mr. Black’s protective nature towards his father’s reputation and feelings only grew throughout his life of crime, which is why it’s not hard to sympathize with the distance he keeps between them in later, more adventurous, years. Even as a kid, his knack for business and shrewd observational skills get Jack into troublesome learning experiences.

“The books so fired me with the desire for travel, adventure, romance, that I was miserable most of the time.”

Well, it won’t be long before travel and adventure fill Jack’s days, though misery is always snapping at his heels. (As for romance… you won’t find much of it in You Can’t Win. One of many reasons I loved the book.) His first arrest is a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Subsequent incarcerations are the unhappy results of more purposeful ventures. Jack Black writes candidly about his resilience in crime, neither apologizing for his misdeeds nor whining openly about the hard life of a roving thief.

I was wrong. I knew I was wrong, and yet I persisted. If that is possible of any explanation it is this: From the day I left my father my lines had been cast, or I cast them myself, among crooked people. I had not spent one hour in the company of an honest person. I had lived in an atmosphere of larceny, theft, crime. I thought in terms of theft. Houses were built to be burglarized, citizens were to be robbed, police to be avoided and hated, stool pigeons to be chastised, and thieves to be cultivated and protected. That was my code; the code of my companions. That was the atmosphere I breathed. ‘If you live with wolves, you will learn to howl.”

Black’s unabashed memoirs are told in a fairly linear fashion, though every now and then he’ll mention the untimely demise of a fellow “yegg,” or write ominously about a future mistake as yet unknown to his younger self during the exploit of the moment. Most cases of foreshadowing lead to reciprocal and gratifying anecdotes later on in the narrative. Jack Black is a good writer: trust that he will reveal the conclusions of any and all story-lines that conclude neatly enough.

Characters – real people, yes, but certainly their colorful personalities deserve the term – filter in and out of his acquaintance as fate (or the judiciary system) lead their paths together and astray. From the first time he witnesses a fellow train-hopper get squashed by the cargo, through partnerships with the likes of “Smiler;” “Foot-and-a-Half George;” and “The Sanctimonious Kid,” Jack is a diligent observer of the attitudes that best suit a man on the road. Charming criminals, hardened ladies who orchestrate connections in crime, and even leaders of bloody prison break-outs take Jack into their confidence quickly and easily. I think that his quiet, unassuming nature serves him well in the field. Reading his recollections has made me want to write careful descriptions of the people I encounter: their mannerisms, their ways of speech, and even the measure of their moral standing. You never know when they might turn up in your life again, fifteen years later, harboring a grudge or willing to spring you from behind bars. Bums and highwaymen tend to have interesting backgrounds of their own accord, but it takes a memory like Mr. Black’s and a simple-but-crystallized handle of the English language to give such individuals real life on the printed page.

His voice never falters into sentimentality or veers towards the arrogance of a man who has succeeded where others have not. Sometimes he needs help, and he is grateful when he gets it. Sometimes he has the chance to assist a fellow disreputable soul, and he does so without expecting congratulations. There were runs of bad luck which made me cringe at the injustice of it all – a real life of crime has no guarantee of satisfaction at the end of several months’ plotting, despite what novels and films would have us believe. But there are still moments of triumph and even unexpected kindness to keep his mind in the game for so many years.

The era of saloon shoot-outs, railroad heists, and sacks of gold has dwindled into our less-thrilling modern age of electronic money and biometrics. I probably wouldn’t like to go through my days in a hail of bullets and a succession of jail cells, but it was awfully fun to read Jack Black’s account of such a life. His subdued good humor and unusually merciful view of human nature have rubbed off on me a little bit. If more “good” people adopted an attitude like this one “bad” man, I think we would all have a better idea of how luck and life all even out in the end.

“A bleak background! Crowded with robberies, burglaries, and thefts too numerous to recall. All manner of crimes against property. Arrests, trials, acquittals, convictions, escapes. Penitentiaries! I see in the background four of them. County jails, workhouses, city prisons, Mounted Police barracks, dungeons, solitary confinement, bread and water, hanging up, brutal floggings, and murderous straitjacket.

“I see hop joints, wine dumps, thieves’ resorts, and beggars’ hangouts.

“Crime followed by swift retribution in one form or another…

“In those twenty-five years I took all these things, and I am going to write about them.

“And I am going to write about them as I took them –with a smile.”

(Here’s another good review of the book, which helped inspire me to buy it sight unseen.)

Book Review: Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement

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Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: ****  (4 stars)

Narrative: **** (4 stars)

Interesting Subject: ***** (5 stars)

Objectivity and research: *** (3 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

(I read an ARC of Widow Basquiat so a few details may have changed since publication.)

Widow Basquiat gives a very personal and poetic account of Basquiat’s journey through the beginnings of fame and all the way to his death, seen through the eyes of Suzanne Mallouk. In the introduction, Michael Holman calls Suzanne Jean-Michel’s “first great love.” She is not technically his widow: Rene Ricard gave her that nickname before Basquiat died.

Mallouk and Basquiat met very early in his career. They lived together on and off for the remainder of his life, and she was a frequent presence in the events which shaped his artistic development. The book is actually written by Suzanne’s close friend Jennifer, whose succinct style gives us little windows into various scenes of Mallouk’s life, with and without Basquiat. Very short chapters of only a page or two often contain two different voices: Clement’s spartan, lyrical prose and then Mallouk’s own memories written in italics. Suzanne’s first interjection appears after Clement has described her leaving her home in Canada, where her father could get violent and her mother claimed to be a witch. The scenes from Suzanne’s childhood are sometimes brutal, sometimes surreal like the paint fumes they breathe. In contrast to Clement’s somewhat dramatic portraits of the Mallouk parents, their daughter remembers them as more mundane, understandable people.

The balance between Clement’s storytelling and Mallouk’s frank memoirs reminded me that these wild people and dizzy experiences were very real. Taken alone, Clement’s narrative could read like a drug-painted (and then drug-sick) vision of artistic life: a short, experimental movie you can’t tear your eyes away from even though it leaves you feeling miserable. Mallouk’s memoirs, on their own, wouldn’t be so compelling either. Her writing is fine but not stunning, and the impressions of what went on around her need a narrative structure to keep from falling into a pile of paint and heroine. The collaborative style in Widow Basquiat creates a biography-memoir-story that instantly engages even readers who don’t know much at all about the art scene in which it takes place.

I read this little book only a few days after a friend showed me some of Basquiat’s paintings. I don’t know very much about the art world, and even less about the 80’s. The only real encounter I’d ever had with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings was in conjunction with Maya Angelou’s wonderful poem “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me,” in this picture book.

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After reading about Basquiat’s inspirations; his obsessions; his view of the world, I’ve had his paintings pulled up on my computer non-stop. Widow Basquiat reveals some of his motives for including certain words or phrases in his paintings, and it’s obvious from Clement’s and Mallouk’s memories of Jean-Michel Basquiat that he had a real knack for seeing how language and art intersect.

“On one painting he writes, ‘Jimmy Best on his back to the sucker punch of his childhood files,’ because he hears a hobo say this on television.” (quoted from ARC)

I still don’t know what that painting is about, exactly. But now I like it even more. These passages re-create the moments in which words caught Basquait’s attention – moments of watching silent films with Suzanne or after frustrating encounters with white art collectors in Obnoxious Liberals. They show that there was inspiration even in the mundane and unpleasant hours that measured their otherwise wild lives. Clements writes well about art, never getting overly critical, or snobby, or overwrought. Whenever she describes paintings or music, it is to conjure up the people more deeply. Jennifer herself is introduced more than halfway through the book. She remains an interesting side character in a portrait of her two subjects, with the only real physical descriptions of the blonde and Spanish-speaking woman coming from Suzanne’s own writing.

Aside from providing unreserved social context for the artist’s work, and a delirious parade of characters, Widow Basquiat recalls some of the appalling racism that Jean-Michel and his friends had to face in the art world (and of course the real world). In the chapter entitled “No Black Men In Museums,” Basquiat sprinkles water around the MoMA as a “voodoo trick,” explaining to Suzanne that there was no painting on the walls done by someone who looked like him. This was one of my favorite anecdotes, because while his actions might seem absurd at first, the point is completely undeniable.

“…his crazy behavior had nothing to do with being an enfant terrible. Everything he did was an attack on racism and I loved him for this.” (quoted from ARC)

The most affecting story, to me, is about Suzanne’s young boyfriend Michael Stewart. A quiet young man from a caring parent, Michael Stewart was a calming presence in Suzanne’s life while fights with Jean-Michel were on a repeating cycle. “I loved him as if he were my kid brother,” she writes. Michael gets murdered by six cops for allegedly writing graffiti. Enraged by the violent unfairness, Suzanne starts questioning the detectives, photographing Michael’s wounds, raising awareness and money for lawyers. This chapter in her life is all her. I like Suzanne best when she throws herself into her own cause, tapping into her own artistic energies to try and right a dreadful wrong. Of course, the police officers get off free for their crime. The Stewart family wins a civil suit, but the cops get to go on with their horrendous daily business. Suzanne stops working on the Michael Stewart case after she feels threatened at a radical meeting, but her work still raises awareness and points necessary fingers. These events, in which Basquiat features only marginally, broke the book’s narrative momentarily free from the artists’ lifestyles. It was an important edition to the book, and a good reminder that police brutality and a racist justice system have been raging, largely unchecked, for ages.

It was after Michael Stewart’s death that Jean-Michel Basquait painted “Defacement.” He may have acted jealously about Suzanne’s involvement with the case, but it obviously touched him deeply, as it should continue to do for anyone who hears the story or sees the art.

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At around the halfway point, the odd incidents of Jean-Michel bossing Suzanne around and their bad drug days are so frequent, the reading experience contracts an unhealthy pallor. I’ll admit to feeling uncomfortable with all the weird demands he made of his girlfriends, and the outbursts of anger that occasionally shook their relationship. The writing remains strong throughout, but it’s hard to read how everyone hurts. They split up, try to face the world, and end up together again in an unhappy and uncomfortable cycle. And because this is a true story about real people, they don’t all make it through the troubled times. Some of Suzanne’s friends manage to haul themselves together and put their dangerous vices away whenever they threaten to take over entirely. Some of them get devoured. We meet those who survive in the postscript; a show in 2010 when Basquiat would have been fifty years old. In staying true to Suzanne Mallouk’s memories, the miserable pieces of her story fit neatly with the colorful ones, and you must read about both to get a clear picture of what life was like for these people.

There’s this wonderful moment, in the postscript, when Mallouk sees the fridge she once shared with him on display. She sold it in the 80’s, when it was just one of the many scribbled-upon objects in their apartment. Now, it is marked, “DO NOT TOUCH.” So many of the memories dredged up in this book feel like that; flashes of shared experiences which seem like part of the daily roller coaster of routine, until time forces the riders to step back and see what other people have deemed irreplaceable.

This book’s title makes its subject matter clear. Basiquat’s name is the obvious one, he’s the figure we all recognize. But this particular tale belongs to his “widow” – his confidante and support system – told by her friend. There are almost certainly more complete biographies out there about Basquiat’s life, and more comprehensive studies of his art. After finishing Widow Basquiat in a few hours, it’s only clearer to me that I don’t understand art or money, and I likely never will. This book offers a transfixing glimpse of what it was like to live with Jean-Michel Basquiat throughout his influential but difficult artistic career. He’s almost always the center of attention, but Suzanne Mallouk channels that attention and turns it into something we can follow. Her memories and Clement’s prose turn the past into an additively readable trip through inspired visions and collapses. It’s the stuff of brooding novels and loopy films. Widow Basquiat is a short book; it packs a powerful punch and has left me curious to learn more about that churning cocktail of art/drugs/collaborations that produced so many enduring icons from that time.

Book Review: A Walk In The Woods by Bill Bryson

Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: *****  (5 stars)

Narrative: ***** (5 stars)

Interesting Subject: **** (4 stars)

Objectivity and research: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***** (5stars)

I got A Walk In The Woods out of the library on a recommendation of a friend who has hiked parts of the Appalachian Trail.  I have hiked exactly none of the Appalachian Trail.  Like Bryson, before he set off on this big adventure, the majority of my wilderness walking experience took place in the UK and Ireland, where you wander damply past glorious cliffs and get battered by the wind.  After the cliffs and the wind and the muck and the moss, though, there was always a warm pub and a spartan youth hostel to be found at the end of a day’s hike.

When Bill Bryson decided to venture into America’s barely tamed mountains for “a walk in the woods,” he was headed into at least 2,000 miles of mostly pub-less wilderness. He would have to camp out, carrying an enormous pack with his stove and tent and food supply up mountains and through the snow.  He would have to brave disorienting extremes in temperature, wild animals, and awkward encounters with his fellow hikers.  How does one prepare for the woodsy unknown?  Bill Bryson starts out with cautious optimism and a wonderfully dry sense of humor about his own limitations.  His research into the Trail’s historical idiosyncrasies manages to make even the dispute of mileage or the preservation of mollusks fascinating.  Upsetting too, sometimes, because nature is seriously suffering from mankind’s meddlesome ways.

Some of the funniest moments in A Walk In The Woods come straight out of Bryson’s imagination.  After reading too many books about bear attacks, he describes in detail exactly how badly he would react in such an encounter, fantasizing horrors before he even sets out on his hike.  I laughed – screeched, really – at the way he phrased his fears, but then I started to worry myself.

“And is 500 certified attacks really such a modest number, considering how few people go into the North American woods?  And how foolish must one be to be reassured by the information that no bear has killed a human in Vermont or New Hampshire in 200 years?  That’s not because the bears have signed a treaty, you know.  There’s nothing to say that they won’t start a modest rampage tomorrow.”

Even as the style of writing kept me in high spirits, I am now twice as aware of how perilous the wilderness would be for a pansy-ass bookworm like me.  But the point is that Bryson read the books full of troubling statistics.  He felt how heavy the pack was and he looked over the disturbingly unhelpful maps of the trail, and then he set out anyway.  I guess that’s how interesting, funny, informative travel books get written.

The descriptions of mountain views in one state and endless tunnels of dense foliage in others really drove home just how extensive the AT really is.  I mean, a walking trail that connects Georgia to Maine?!?  The United States is a collection of so many different climates and terrains, and reading this book reminded me to stand in constant wonder at this land mass I live on.  And the people in along the trail… oh the people…  Bill and his travel buddy Stephan Katz are characters on their own, with Bryson looking for a story in every adventure and Katz providing plenty of inspiration with his ill-prepared; calamitous; yet somehow endearing attitude towards the woods.  But the pair’s encounters with other hikers, as well as with folks back in civilization, left me agog on several occasions.  Mary Ellen is one such gem: a belligerent and judgmental natterer who invites herself to walk with Bryson and Katz for a cringe-worthy leg of their journey.

“I have long known that it is part of God’s plan for me to spend a little time with each of the most stupid people on earth, and Mary Ellen was proof that even in the Appalachian woods I would not be spared. It became evident that she was a rarity.”

If anyone was going to get devoured by hungry carnivores in this book, I couldn’t help hoping it might be her.  Maybe I’m even less charitable towards my fellow humans than Stephen and Bill felt when they finally abandoned Mary Ellen, but I don’t care.  She’s my very least favorite kind of person, though reading sarcastic remarks about such an individual was pretty fun.  Then there were the boyscout troops and insufferably spoiled, drunk adults who shattered the rugged serenity at various camping platforms.  Meeting these people through Bryson made me almost excited for the day when mankind might die out and leave nature to its own devices once more.  But then some people were kind and restored my hope: dangerously irresponsible teenagers who offer the two haggard hikers a ride, for example, and rangers who light up from within when talking about the scenery they try to preserve.

Bryson does occasionally criticize the U.S. Forest service for flagrant mis-spending of funds, laughable cartography, and even blatant hypocrisy about logging and development.  These faults need to be pointed out, but he retains a sense of humor and genuine love for the trail even while cataloging the institutions relentless obsession with building roads where trees used to be.  Bill and Katz certainly encounter the plenty of misfortune as they play at being mountain men.   (Want to read a book about a fellow who really bids civilization adieu to survive on his own in nature?  Read Elizabeth Gilberts The Last American Man, which I reviewed here.) They come to realize why so many hikers give up after completing only the smallest fraction of the Applachian Trail: the road is long and Nature makes no promises to be hospitable.  But as they push through blizzards and argue over provisions, the boyish enthusiasm for an outdoor adventure always takes over the narrative soon enough.

Bryson has put into hilarious words the wonderment we should all feel when contemplating the American landscape. I highly recommend A Walk In The Woods to anyone who likes conversational, enlightening writing about utterly unique places on earth.  Not much of a nonfiction reader, myself, I happily followed Bryson’s every step and misstep along the path. The hilarious anecdotes, stunning descriptions, and sobering statistics left me feeling like I’d seen a part of the Appalachian Trail.  I closed the book and was surprised to find no mud on my boots, and that the only ache on my body was from trying to hold in my laughter while I read on the library lawn.

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What I Read In September: 13 Books and Then Some

Ahoy there, readers and spies. I’ve got a list for you, today, instead of a proper review. It was a busy month.  I moved into a new apartment, agonized over which books to bring to said apartment, and spent half the month without much internet access.  Maybe it was the stress of relocating that had me reading up a storm.  More likely, it was the lack of Tumblr and Facebook to distract me over breakfast.

Anyway, over at my blog I entertained the notion of listing what I read in September, only to find that this would be a more daunting task than I expected.  I read a lot of books last month!  Some of them I’ve already reviewed here, but I’m afraid others might get lost in the shuffle.  So here’s a (fairly) complete run-down on what I read, what I started, and what I hope to finish soon.  Thoughts?  Suggestions?  Do you think I should maybe get outside more often?  Possibly.  Though I did read some of these out under the first changing leaves.

What I Read In September:

Daughter Of The Forest by Juliette Marillier

A stunning, complex, magical, and heartbreaking re-telling of The Wild Swans fairytale.  Daughter Of The Forest is set in 9th century Ireland, and is the first book in Marillier’s Sevenwaters series.  I thought it was a wonderful story with great historical detail and lovely descriptions.  It also wrenched my heart into a hundred brittle pieces.  In a good way, I promise.  You can read my full review of the book here.

Cartwheeling In Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell

A lively Middle Grade novel from the author of Rooftoppers, starring a brave and wild heroine who is forced to leave her home in Zimbabwe for a stuffy English boarding school.  Rundell’s writing was still magical, though I still like Rooftoppers better.  You can read my review here.

Girl Defective by Simmone Howell

I had no idea what to expect with this one, which is a good thing, because Girl Defective rather defies expectations and generalizations.  Set in a wacky Australian record store, this was a YA novel that I think a lot of adults would enjoy, too.  I got really into the character development and the general vibe of Howell’s writing, even though the plot was hard to pin down exactly.  I’ll just say there’s a reason it’s not quite called Girl Detective.  Highly recommended to fans of good realistic coming-of-age stories.  Also recommended to the sort of people who hang out at record stores and bewail the death of vinyl.  I reviewed this one, too.

Jackaby by William Ritter

This one was hard to review.  (But I tried my best.)  I had a fabulous time reading about Abigail and Jackaby’s adventures as investigators of supernatural murders in 19th century New England.  Jackaby satisfied my desires for both banshees and witty banter.  At the same time, the characterization and plot occasionally veered too closely towards obviously well-known literature and/or pop culture.  Still recommended for anyone who likes their mysteries to be macabre, takes their suspects otherworldly, and prefers detectives who are more than a little zany.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

This collection of Roxane Gay’s essays, musings, and rants is pretty much everything I love about this fascinating modern age of information.  I waste a lot of time reading literary reviews and criticism of under-representation on various  internet wormholes.  It’s how I learn what’s going on, and the hours of scrolling scrolling scrolling through Tumblr have made me much more aware of how my own privilege and environment have made me predisposed to selfishness.  It’s how I remember to try and look past myself and recognize what’s troubling people I might never meet in real life.  But that method involves a lot of scrolling past cyclical arguments and senseless trolling.  So glory be to the publishing powers on high that Roxane Gay has compiled a whole book full of her interesting, moving, important, and often hilarious thoughts.  She is everything I like best about the bloggy-type world.  Bad Feminist is super easy reading because her style is so convivial, but it actually contains a whole battalion of hard truths ready to rain down wake-up calls on the casual page turner.  Nothing terribly new for Twitter-ers or Tumblr-scrollers, but an enjoyable book which should be thrown at any head which appears to be buried in the sand.

Keep The Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

Click the photo to read my post which includes the recipe for baked apples with custard.

George Orwell’s strange novel was my “classic”-ish book for the month.  I appreciated Keep The Aspidistra Flying more than I would say that I enjoyed it.  The protagonist was frustrating and the setting was bleak.  But Orwell is very talented at relaying a character’s thought process without suggesting that we should agree with the hapless fellow.  I couldn’t hide my smile when Gordon griped inwardly about the more difficult patrons at the bookshop where he works.  This was a sharp look at class and ambition in 1930s England. While the characters’ philosophies put my teeth on edge more than once, I found it to be a smart, wry, and insightful novel.  If I see an aspidistra anytime soon, I’ll probably either laugh to myself or try to throw the plant out a window. I needed to eat a lot of dessert while I read this one, so my embellished thoughts on Keep The Aspidistra Flying can be found in this blog post, which is also a recipe for baked apples with custard.

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater (#3 in The Raven Cycle)

I read the ARC of this the very same day I found it on the shelf at my store.  All other reading projects were put the hell on hold.  I’m not going to post my review of Blue Lily, Lily Blue until the book is released, but I can assure all followers of Blue Sargent and the Aglionby Boys that this third installment is a fine addition to The Raven Cycle.  I so very rarely keep up with a series anymore, not because I lose interest in extended story lines but simply because I don’t have the time when so many books for work or review demand my attention.  Maggie Stiefvater’s series is a big fat exception to that rule.  The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves brought our magnificent ensemble cast closer to finding the sleeping legendary Welsh king Glendower, with many a heart-wrenching twist and agonizing turn along the way.  Get ready for even more complications, my friends.  Prepare to tear at your hear and gnash your teeth in distress.  This volume might be the weakest of the three, when I consider it seriously, but the character development continues to be unparalleled even as the complicated plot gets a little muddled.  Oh, and the witticisms.  The banter.  The references to myths and legend and proper tea brewing techniques!  Check back for my full review nearer to the book’s release on October 21st.

100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

I had trouble reviewing this book, too. (You can witness my attempts here.)  Nominated for the National Book Award for Young Readers, 100 Sideways Miles is most likely a humorously self-conscious work of realistic YA literature, but it could also be a perplexing story about fate and possible aliens.  No matter what, Andrew Smith has written some passages of freakin’ excellent dialogue between his teenaged characters.  The use of symbolism and wacky facts about the earth’s velocity were nearly as memorable as the central friendship, too.

A Book Of Scottish Verse selected by R. L. Mackie

a book of scottish verseI re-read about 3/4 of the poems in this little old book the night before results came in about the Referendum for Scottish Independence.  I bought the collection when I visited Scotland in the spring, and found it very comforting this month when I was afraid that my chest would explode from all the conflicting emotions.  My poor roommate had to hear to me declaiming William Dunbar’s 15th century verse in early-modern Scots, but she was very patient because I was in distress.  I may or may not have forced her to listen to James Hogg’s “Bonnie Kilmenie gaed up the glen” in its entirety, too.  55% of me – a slim majority – is happy that Scotland is staying within the Union for now, but reading these poems again was a great reminder that my favorite country in all the world needs more freedom and respect than it currently receives.  The more romantic, poetic, dramatic 45% of me is heartbroken.

Dark Spell by Gill Abruthnott

I wanted to read some of the books which have been nominated for the Scottish Children’s Book Award, and a history-infused contemporary fantasy set amongst witches in St Andrews seemed like the right place to start!  I thought the writing and plot were only slightly above average in Dark Spell, but the lovingly-described setting was like a powerful healing potion for my constant homesickness.  My full review of this book is here.

Poisoned Apples: Poems For You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann

This was a collection of much more modern poetry than the late-Medieval stuff I was weeping over earlier in the month.  Heppermann bends fairy-tale expectations and society’s demands into thorny new images and broken reflections.  She writes about wicked queens and desperate girls in castles and high school bathrooms and all the fraught places in between. Some of these poems deal very closely with issues like eating disorders and self harm, and while it’s all handled very artfully I did feel my innards twisting up a little at some of the anorexia images.  I’d rather spend my time thinking about fairy tales instead of remembering my old nemesis the eating disorder, but it took a little while for me to shake off the paralyzing mental dust that settled after a few of Heppermann’s poems.  I really recommend this collection to teenaged girls who need a charm for strength or sincerity in the shape of frank and powerful verses, but read with caution if you’ve struggled with difficult issues that aren’t quite banished for good!

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

This book has been thrown at me so many times by my room-mate.  Now that we live under the same roof, have one meager between our bedrooms, and share all those glorious bookcases, it was high time I relented.  Sunshine is a smart urban fantasy with vampires and cinnamon rolls.  The future is weird.  The vampires are scary.  The bakery is wonderful.  McKinley’s writing was almost always incredibly strong, though I think this book could have been about 100 pages shorter and held my attention a little better.  I’m going to try to write a more in-depth review within the next week, as I only finished reading Sunshine two days ago and need to dwell on it a little more.  It stands out amongst a tired genre, that’s for sure, even though it was written several years ago.  Did you know that it was possible to get bent out of shape about baked goods, even while blood’s a-splatterin’ and curses are flying fast?  It’s possible and it’s fun.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The final book I read this month!  And what a way to end September.  Station Eleven deserves more thought than I’ve given it so far, and I don’t want to go into too much detail since lots of people I know are interested in reading it.  A Shakespeare company and Symphony travels around North America, performing to settlements twenty years after a terrible pandemic destroys life as we know it.  The non-linear narrative draws us into several different characters’ lives pre- and post- collapse.  Art, fame, immortality, and the nostalgia for a past which can never be regained are torn apart and put back together as characters alter others’ lives in big or little ways.  The beginning and end of Station Eleven kept my attention better than the middle bit, which focused on the End Of The World stuff too closely while still straining my willingness to suspend disbelief.  But the idea of a Shakespeare company wandering the wreckage is really good. I hope that Station Eleven gets a lot of attention for its lifelike characters and the level-headed writing behind those big ideas.  This is another one that I will try to review sooner rather than later.

Books I started in September, which I aim to finish ASAP:

Heap House by Edward Carey

I’m having trouble getting into this book, even though it’s exactly the sort of glum story I usually enjoy.  I think that I was too frustrated with England when I started reading it, around the time of Scotland’s referendum debates.  I’ll definitely give Heap House another try before it comes out, because I certainly expect to be in the mood for some dry Dickensian humor and Gothic misfortune sometime soon.

The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore

It usually takes me over a week to read a book of nonfiction, since I tend to read a novel or two at the same time to balance out my brain.  I’m about halfway through The Other Wes Moore.  It’s a fascinating book about two boys who grew up in similar circumstances, but one went on to be a White House Fellow and Rhodes scholar while the other went to jail for murder.  The details about each boy’s life make the narrative go quickly, but it’s the portrait of what life was like for young black men in Baltimore (and other cities) at the time which makes this such a universally important book.  I’ll probably finish reading it next week.  October’s nonfiction book will, naturally, be about witches!

Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham

I read half of this when I visited my house one Sunday.  I had just finished reading Blue Lily, Lily Blue and didn’t want to start another fantasy or YA book for fear of finding it disappointing in comparison.  Wandering up to my old bedroom, which is now the library where the 80% of my books live, I picked this up at random.  Maugham was a good way to waste a few hours, but I don’t know when I’ll be able to get back to it.

All The Wrong Questions # 3: Shouldn’t You Be In School? by Lemony Snicket

That dratted Lemony Snicket!  Can’t he ask the right questions for once in his mysterious life??  This third installment of our young apprentice’s attempts to find answers in an unfathomable town just came out on September 30th, but I read a few chapters of it when I got to work early and saw them sitting in a tantalizing stack by the register.  I guess I’ll have to buy it to find out why school isn’t the right place to be.  (Hint: School is rarely the right place to be when there’s something nefarious afoot.)

So, what’s the final count?  Thirteen books and some change.  Let’s hope that the momentum continues!  But now that I have internet back, it’s time to catch up on what my favorite bloggers have been reading.

Book Review: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

This memoir-in-verse is an absolute gem.  The whole time I read it, I wished I were a middle school English teacher so that I could assign it and then talk about it for a month.  But, since I haven’t the patience to be a teacher (nor even the time to write a really long review), here’s a few thoughts instead.

Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: *****  (5 stars)

Narrative: **** (4 stars)

Interesting Subject: ***** (5 stars)

Objectivity and research: **** (4 stars.  This is a memoir.)

Overall: **** 1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Age Range Recommendation: 10 and up

The general subject of Brown Girl Dreaming is a simple one.  Jacqueline Woodson (award-winning author of Feathers and many other good books) remembers her earliest childhood days, growing up in both the North and South in the ’60s and ’70s.  Starting with her birth to the Woodsons in Ohio, she chronicles the separation of her parents, a big move down to her mother’s old home in South Carolina, summers with her grandparents, and then the beginnings of a life in New York City.  Five parts of the book categorize these phases in Woodson’s memory, and the pieces of her childhood are remembered through easy-flowing poems, each only a page or two long.  

Aunts, uncles, neighbors, and family friends filter in and out of the cast of characters, while Jacqueline writes about her mother, grandparents, and siblings in evocative detail.  Sometimes when you read a great work of fiction, you start to feel like the imaginary characters were once real people.  In Brown Girl Dreaming, these very real people have such memorable personalities I had to remind myself that they weren’t just made up to suit the story.  

 It’s obvious that Jacqueline had a keen observant eye even before she could read.  Re-told conversations and scenes between grown-ups give the reader an idea of what it was like to grow up during a big push in the civil rights movement, even when most of the action happened on the periphery of the Woodson siblings’ younger lives.  Little moments in the South, where passive-aggressive hostilities still ran rampant even after segregation was technically supposed to be over, made me grit my teeth in frustration, while the hopeful forward-movement inspired by Jacqueline’s mother and her friends buoyed my spirits.  There’s a great image of Jacqueline and her friend walking around NYC with their fists in the air like Angela Davis, and also a wonderfully moving poem which compares the revolution to a carousel: history always being made somewhere, while different people have a part in it. 

But, this being a memoir about her own experiences, the political atmosphere is enveloped by a narrative about growing up.  Jacqueline grows to find her voice, to discover a love of words, and to see how her family’s every-day lives can be the stuff of wonderful stories.  She’s not just a Brown Girl Dreaming, she’s a brown girl learning, speaking, changing, and – most importantly – writing.  And all that scribbling in notebooks has definitely payed off; the simplicity of these poems doesn’t diminish the strength of their message.  In fact, each word seems carefully chosen to reflect the temperament of her thoughts at the time.  It’s rare to read a memoir in which the grown-up writer can conjure up visions of her childhood without a tint of romanticism or regret.  I feel like I got a chance to meet the real child Jacqueline Woodson once was, and to hear her voice as though she was speaking just to me.  For this reason, even though there wasn’t a hugely dramatic plot, I found the entire story enchanting.

While the time-period was tumultuous, and the Woodson siblings had to keep picking up their lives as they moved, this is not a melodramatic story.  The poems are written with an earnest, child-like simplicity that captures the tone of happy summer evenings and anxious walks to school.  There are funny memories, and profound moments, and a general warmth of spirit throughout the whole book.  I loved little Jackie. I loved her family, because it was impossible not to feel how much she loved them, too.  Memory is a tricky thing, and that’s a big theme throughout Brown Girl Dreaming: the logical conclusions we draw as children don’t always hold up against reality.  I can only imagine how much digging Woodson must have had to do –through her own recollections, as well as the history of her families and the places where she once lived – in order to distill this sincere memoir from her past.  I’m very grateful that she gave it so much thought, because the resulting book was an absolute pleasure to read.

I will be recommending Brown Girl Dreaming to pretty much every child/parent/teacher who enters my store.  It’s thoughtful, it’s funny, and it’s easy to relate to Jacqueline even though she grew up in a much different time than this one.  Anyone who has ever called more than one place home; who has worried about their parents; competed with their siblings; and tried to figure out how they fit into their world, will see something of themselves in these poems.  I have too many favorite poems to list, all dog-eared in my book. (I try never to wrinkle the pages but too bad!  These pages need to be remembered.)  Once the book officially hits shelves on August 28, I’ll probably be reading certain pieces at unsuspecting customers.  And as long as my terrible elocution doesn’t drive them away, I think this book will be a hit.  There’s lots to talk about in it, and even more to enjoy.

Mini Review: At The Point Of A Cutlass by Gregory N. Flemming

A nonfiction book review?  Rather uncharted waters we’re in, eh?  Well, not entirely, but it’s true that I rarely read a nonfiction book cover-to-cover.  But when this one arrived at my bookshop, my fearless manager/Captain said that he’d ordered them with me in mind.  Of course I had to see what manner of swashbuckling was contained therein.  Here are a few of my thoughts on Gregory N. Flemming’s lovingly-researched pirate narrative.

At The Point Of A Cutlass follows the thrilling adventures of Philip Ashton, an unlucky fella who was kidnapped from his fishing vessel by pirates, forced to serve on their ships of lost souls, and eventually marooned on a Caribbean island.

Even though I almost always prefer fiction over fact, At The Point Of A Cutlass had enough anecdotal detail to keep me interested.   Facts and figures and numbers get all jumbled up in my brain, but good characters make a story come to life.  And shiver my timers, were there some unbelievable individuals in this here yarn!   The wicked captain Edward Low was one such menacing figure – behaving so badly as to chop off and roast pieces of his captives’ faces!  Pirates always needed able-bodied men to replenish their crews, so talented sailors were just as valuable as gunpowder and fresh water when they looted a vessel.   Given Low’s vicious reputation, it’s understandable why Phillip Ashton didn’t manage to take the noble way out of his predicament upon being captured and forced into the lawless life.

I feel like maybe there wasn’t quite enough information about “the pirate capture, bold escape, and lonely exile of Philip Ashton” to fill an entire book. As a result Greg Flemming filled out the pages with various anecdotal details about key players in the nautical history of the same place and period.  I’m really not complaining, because too many pirate stories will never be a problem in my reading adventures. I actually found the chapters detailing Ashton’s personal journey less interesting than the information about the various pirate crews who terrified the American East Coast during the Golden Age of Piracy.

(I was also reminded, while reading, that Cotton Mather was a complete asshole and one of my least favorite figures in New England’s history.  Medical proficiency aside, that guy needed to stop.)

Flemming introduces his readers to ambitious captains; desperate escapees; adventurous priests; and some hapless pawns in the early 18th century’s war on piracy.  We revisit the gallows multiple times in the course of the book, and now I’ve added Nixes Mate Island – a gibbeting site right near my own Boston harbor – and Rhode Island’s “Gravelly Point” to my list of morbid places to visit.

Pirate Captain Edward Low. source

Reading about ruthless pirates marauding my own neck of the woods as they sailed between Newfoundland and the Caribbean Islands was very encouraging to my own ambitions.  I’m actually quite surprised that the pirates Low, Lowther, and Spriggs aren’t more notorious nowadays.  Their methods of “coercion” puts modern-day frat boys to shame: captives had to eat plats of wax candles and run the gauntlet until they agreed to sign the ships’ articles, and that’s only one of the least-disfiguring punishments they practiced.  Not necessarily my style, but pretty exciting stuff. My attention waxed and waned a little as the book’s style switched capriciously between character-driven adventure stories and different subjects.  Nonetheless, At The Point Of A Cutlass was a pretty fast read which I’d recommend to anyone who likes swashbuckling history and adventure stories.

Star Ratings:

Subject: **** (4 stars)

Pacing: *** (3 stars)

Key Figures: ***** (5 stars)

Wiring: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

(My thoughts on the book were originally posted on my blog.)

Reading vs. Research: Pirate Edition (and a reading list)

This is yer Captain speaking.  We’ll be taking a quick break from the folklore and fairy tales for this very important compendium of pirate and nautical literature I compiled a while ago.  I’ve attempted to make clear the distinction between books I read for fun and books which are research, but those lines keep crossing over themselves whenever I least expect it. This is by no means a complete list, but for anyone who wants to read some jolly swashbuckling tales or learn more about the Age of Sail, you might find something of interest.  Please comment with any recommendations, if you will!

One of two pirate shelves in my room.

As if my poor brain wasn’t taxed enough trying to keep books I just want to enjoy separate from books full of information I need to understand, there are certain times when I think I’m just reading something for fun, only to realize that I ought to be taking notes for a novel or story I’ve got in the works. And there are times when the opposite is true: I expect to learn a lot from a book and then I close it hours later having had a jolly time between the pages, but I’m no more educated than I was when I started. I’m going to try and explain this distinction using some of the books I’ve read or researched on the subjects of piracy and maritime history/adventure, because no time spent reading about scurvy knaves and mutinous plots is time wasted.

1. Black Jacks: African American Seamen In The Age of Sail by W. Jeffrey Bolster = RESEARCH

This book is full of exactly the sort of information I desperately needed to figure out for the Middle Grade novel I’m writing. The author did a phenomenal amount of research, and has peppered his facts and figures with some truly excellent anecdotes of brave seafaring escapes and daring (well deserved) rebellions. It’s an exciting book, but definitely a history text instead of a fast-paced narrative. I doubt I’ll end up reading every page of Black Jacks, as it’s due back at the library soon, but will probably end up skipping around to all the passages which talk about black pirates specifically. That being said, there are some history buffs, nonfiction readers, and salty souls out there who could probably get through this book as a weekend’s reading. It’s written well and super interesting, and I do heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest in this most worthy of subjects. If my own word is not enough for ya’ (and why should it be? I want to steal boats for a living!), here’s an article about an inmate who was imprisoned for bank robbery, but got inspired by Black Jacks to work towards a goal of eventually becoming a sailor, as the sea had always called to him.

Source: Washington Post

My weather-beaten and unfeeling heart was warmed near to cooking when I saw that W. Jeffrey Bolster and Gregory White had kept in touch throughout his incarceration, and that this fellow sea-rover had realized his dream of freedom at last. Good stuff, eh? That’s one of the most uplifting true stories I’ve read in a while. Three cheers for books, for the sea, for Gregory White, and for the long list of Black mariners from centuries past who are getting attention at last! Huzzah, huzzah, huzzah!

2. Powder Monkey by Paul Dowswell = READING TURNED RESEARCH

I took this one off my nautical shelf after I finished reading Bird because I needed to get myself back into pirate-mode but I still wanted to get lost in some good children’s fiction. Powder Monkey is a novel for young people, though I’d not readily give it to any youngsters who are too faint of heart as it’s bloody and historically accurate in its grim portrayal of the 19th century Navy life. I thought this book would be a gripping adventure, and was thus prepared to get fully absorbed in the shipboard drama and perilous environment which I so adore in my favorite books about Naval sailing ships. Powder Monkey seemed like a Young Adult foray into a genre which boasts excellent historical fiction like Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey and Maturin series. There were plenty of similarities, to be sure, but Powder Monkey wasn’t quite so up-to-snuff in the plot and character divisions. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book. On the contrary, I had a great time reading it, despite the many gruesome sights our poor young hero must face as a pressed lad helping to man a cannon in a time of war. The thing is, I think that I liked Powder Monkey so much because I expend an unusual amount of brain power worrying about press gangs and trying to figure out how a sextant works or what disaster would have to befall a person to warrant a hook for a hand. These are not necessarily the concerns of every young scamp. What might have been a somewhat less-than-inspiring quest for entertainment turned into a really exciting two days of research. Once I stopped grumbling to myself about the thin plot and started admiring Dowswell’s portrayal of life aboard the Miranda – not an easy life for a lad – I was happy to read Powder Monkey all the way through. Some of those harrowing facts and descriptions will haunt me for a good long while. I just wouldn’t press the book on a kid who wasn’t already interested in learning about the age of sail.

3. Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer = READING

Just read this book, you lubbers, and you can thank me later. This is everything a YA novel about the age of sail should be. It does provide a fairly faithful picture of life for a wayward ragamuffin at sea, but the story and – most importantly – the characters are so good that you won’t want to put the book down for a moment even to find a pen or look something up on Wikipedia. I’ve written a longer review of Bloody Jack here and can assure you all that it’s one of my top fifteen favorite books of all time. The following two books in the Jacky Faber series, The Curse of The Blue Tattoo and Under The Jolly Roger are also excellent, though the series gets a little drawn-out from there. No matter! Jacky Faber is one of the best narrators in children’s fiction, and the sort of scallywag I wish I could be. I re-read this first book frequently whenever I’m missing Bar Harbor, and while it certainly gets me keen to write my own pirate book, I’d absolutely call what I do “reading” instead of “research,” because I’m usually clutching at my heart in a fit of emotion or laughing way too hard to get any real booklearnin’ done from these adventures. Go and find this book right now. Captain’s orders.

4. On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers = READING

I bought this book years ago, when the pirate novel I was writing at the time bore very little resemblance to the book I’m working on now. I wanted to have a supernatural bent to my own story at the time, and maybe include the ghosts of some pirates past. Years went by, I read many a book which included real historical figures as characters and sent hapless young protagonists back in time, and I eventually decided to toss those notions overboard. Maybe when I was trying to fit ghosts and magic spells into my own story, On Stranger Tides might have had some useful information in it. But while it is definitely a thrilling and swashbuckling romp, the details of the plot must be taken with a whole fistful of salt. For one thing, there’s voodoo and magic. I love me some voodoo and magic – in fact, I write about them all the time! However, it’s important that we remember that most pirates terrorized the shores and sea without the assistance of talismans or curses. Even as far as superstitions go, Powers has definitely adjusted the historical facts to suit his narrative. And why shouldn’t he? This is storytelling, after all! I liked the supernatural aspects of On Stranger Tides just fine, but would not take anything I discovered from the story as historical inspiration unless I’d found some other trustworthy sources. There’s also the weird inclusion of very real pirates in the totally fictional story, which might be fun for some readers but never failed to trip me up. Blackbeard, Anne Bonney, Jack Rackham, and several of my other heroes make cameo appearances in On Stranger Tides, and whenever I encountered one of them I always wondered, “but what were they actually doing on that particular Wednesday?” These were real live ladies and gents of fortune, and it’s perfectly fine to fictionalize their lives to enrich the plot of a novel, but that makes the novel good for entertainment purposes only.

5. Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities by Terry Breverton = RESEARCH

This handy encyclopedia contains “a miscellany of the sea and all things nautical,” and it’s been a stalwart companion while I write. A good friend gave it to me for my birthday a few years ago, in Scotland, and she clearly knew me better than I knew myself because I don’t know how I would get through a chapter without it, now. The entries are brief and fascinating; it’s not exactly a complete account of every fact ever associated with the sea, but provides excellent inspiration when I’m wondering, what nautical fact could I throw into this chapter to make it more…briny? Breverton’s collection contains a whole list of Pirate Haunts And Targets; explanations of how common phrases originated from shipboard life; tiny biographies of impressive sailors, including scores of sea-dogs I’d never heard of before; and very helpful explanations of weapons from the Age of Sail, which I have consulted many a time this month. The chapter I’m working on right now deals with weaponry and I’m completely baffled by the amount of Things Designed To Kill You which existed back then. So thanks, Terry Breverton, for making my research so easy to tackle! This book is invaluable to my own research, but I promise you it would make an excellent gift for anyone who likes sea stories and/or random curiosities. Pages and pages of fun facts, I tell you! Amuse and impress your friends, enemies, and that person next to you on the ferry with obscure histories about doomed warships and the etymological origins of sea-slang. Or just give them Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities and they can amuse and impress themselves…

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Other pirate books to read for fun:

Pirates! by Celia Reese – Good historical fiction and girls kicking butt!

The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates by Caroline Carlson – A jolly adventure for younger readers.

Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie – My favorite story in the history of stories.  Captain Hook is a classic.

Capt. Hook: Adventures of a Notorious Youth by J.V. Hart and illus. by Brett Helquist – Great twist on Captain Hook’s backstory.  Obstinate young scallywags causin’ all sorts of trouble.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson – Another classic sea adventure.  Long John Silver is one of the best pirate characters in history.  I want to be him when I grow up.

Silver: Return To Treasure Island by Andrew Motion – I bought this in Edinburgh last year and still haven’t read it.  Once it’s summer I intend to re-read Treasure Island and then dive into this continuation.

A High Wind In Jamaica by Richard Hughes –  Wildly under-appreciated novel about a pirate crew which ends up in charge of a bunch of children.  I get really excited about it here and even have it as one of my “staff picks” at the bookshop.

Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton – Ridiculous but fun swashbuckling thriller.  Best taken with the same grains of salt as On Stranger Tides.

Other pirate books recommended for research:

If A Pirate I Must Be: The True Story Of “Black Bart”, King Of The Caribbean Pirates by Richard Sanders – I read this when I was in high school and Bartholomew Roberts has been one of my favorite pirates ever sense.  Entertaining story of an unbelievably cool captain.

The Republic Of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down by Colin Woodard – I think the subtitle says it all.  A rather sensationalized account of pirates and their enemies, but includes tons of great facts and talks about several important figures.

The Pirate Hunter: The True Story Of Captain Kidd by Richards Zacks – Whole book entirely about Captain Kidd, which was a gripping read but had tons of great information.  Helped me appreciate the sea shanty, too. 

Under The Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly – Real pirate adventures were sometimes even more bloody and thrilling than the myths Cordingly dispels.

A General History Of The Robberies And Murders Of The Most Notorious Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson (pseudonym) 1724. – Excellent contemporary account of real pirates written during the Age of Sail.  Shows how the world pirates lived in viewed them and profiles some Captains best not forgotten.  This book is still in print today.

Easy-to-read history books which mention some admirable pirates:

Famous Last Words by Jonathan Green – A morbid and entertaining collection of the last thing people said before they died.  Includes some great 18th century zingers as well as criminal’s last declarations before being executed, tragi-comical accidents, and some rather touching examples too.

Badass by Ben Thompson – An entire book devoted to famous badasses from history, written by the fellow behind badassoftheweek.com.  Naturally there are plenty of sword-weilding action heroes from the sea as well as land.  Includes Blackbeard, Anne Bonney, and Lord Nelson, amongst others.  You can read an old review I wrote of it here.

Princess Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie – Each chapter is about a princess from history who decided to lead thrilling lives of ill-repute.  Includes lady pirates and generally inspiring role models for every young lass who likes sporting a crown and a cutlass in equal measure.

There are plenty more books on the subject which I recommend, and infinitely more which I haven’t had a chance to read yet.  Only last week I was at a bookstore in Central Square which had a whole little section devoted to Nautical resources!  As you might imagine, my inner pirate capered throughout the shelves in jubilation.

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By the time I’m finished writing this damned book, I’m sure that there will be dozens, if not hundreds, of additions to this list.  Some books will be full of shocking facts, others with thrilling stories, and undoubtably some with appallingly bad writing.  To all of the above, I say huzzah!  Bring it all on, me hearties, because there’s a lot I still don’t know about seafaring life.  The only solution is to keep on reading.

Book Review: The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

Dear readers, it’s a really big deal that I’ll admit to enjoying this book. I don’t usually like nonfiction. I find biographies awkward and survival stories a bit of a drag. Until a few days ago, I was quite adamant that I disliked Elizabeth Gilbert, because I think that Eat, Pray, Love is one of the most overrated books to ever grace the bestseller list. I gave up on that memoir and deemed it self-indulgent waffling. So it took a lot of persuasion, a free book, and a snowy day to convince me to sit down with The Last American Man.

Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: ****  (4 stars)

Narrative: **** (4 stars)

Interesting Subject: ***** (5 stars)

Objectivity and research: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Holy crapoli was I surprised. This is not the vague life story of a guy who tries to be extra-manly in everything he does. This isn’t a collection of ramblings about freedom and liberty, or bald eagles, or a gun-nut holed up in a shack somewhere (though there are plenty of guns in Eustace Conway’s life, a powerful sense of freedom, and a few eagles, too). The Last American Man is the biography of a man who, at seventeen years old, set off with little more than a teepee and a knife to escape from materialist society and a tense home life where his dad expected impossible perfection. He hiked the Appalachian trail, became almost entirely self-sufficient, lived with the wilderness, and decided that it was his calling to share this way of life with other people. Eustace Conway considers himself a “Man of Destiny,” and Elizabeth Gilbert sets about chronicling his pursuit of that destiny. He started out giving talks about nature at schools, inspiring young people to consider their role as part of the earth. After countless adventures; some tragedies; and several meals consisting of porcupine, he has nearly become the sort of legendary figure Transcendentalists and gentleman explorers wanted to be, but didn’t know how.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s biography of Eustace Conway is very personal, examining one man’s ideal of giving up on modern comforts to live in the wilderness, but also surprising. Halfway through the book, after I became nearly convinced that this guy had all the answers idea about mankind and nature (and the future, and life…) the narrative changed just subtly enough to show the other sides to Eustace’s story. The girlfriends who saw him as some fantasized ideal were, in turn, berated and discouraged for failing to meet his impossible standards. Beautiful scenes of Eustace teaching kids at his camp to imagine themselves as the forest floor were juxtaposed with the demoralizing fact that not everyone can truly learn to live at one with nature, contrary to what he believed at the beginning of his journey. Chapters of freedom during a record-breaking horseback adventure across the country, an adventure which might impress Cormac McCarthy, were exhilarating.  But soon enough Gilbert reminds us that the modern world is no longer so amenable to earnest, determined, natural souls.

I loved reading about how Turtle Island, the nature preserve and farm Eustace Conway worked so hard to protect, was supposed to endure as a peaceful haven against industrial greed. And then, when legal fine-print and human reality began to tear down that dream several chapters later, I shared in a tiny piece of that heartbreak. While there’s no real plot to comment upon, this being a true story – and an unfinished one, at that – the book’s pacing was carefully constructed. She builds up a reader’s investment in parts of the narrative, and in the real subjects (who are so extraordinary they may as well be called “characters,”) so that the victories and challenges Eustace faces in his pursuit of destiny might affect us keenly.

The author has interviewed so many people in connection with her subject, and has spent a great deal of time with Eustace: sawing wood at his camp, talking in the woods, getting drunk, arguing. There are whole passages included from his extremely personal diaries, and while I felt that this intimacy seemed almost invasive, we get as well-rounded a portrait of the man and his beliefs as we could hope for. Gilbert has interviewed countless family members, acquaintances, enemies, and admirers of Eustace’s. It’s a level of personal investigation I can’t help but admire, especially because all that socialization with such strong personalities would have really stressed me out. (Clearly I should not become a biographer.) She also must have spent considerable time learning about frontiersmen from America’s colonization onward, because there are plenty of anecdotes showing how Eustace Conway is carrying on a tradition. That tradition is both one of returning to mankind’s roots and of pushing forward to some natural, pure horizon, and we’re left to decide for ourselves if Eustace will make it. Can we look past the fact that our hero has pushed so far away from the pressures of his childhood, only to be compared to his overbearing father once again? Is it enough that he has tried to live as a symbol of natural respect and self sufficiency, or do we need him to have ultimately succeeded in becoming a “Man of Destiny”? Does Eustace Conway owe us anything at all – owe us his belief that we can live as he does – the way he once claimed? Is he really the last American man?

This is an optimistic story, if not always an uplifting one. Despite the peaks and valleys and broken horse legs, I closed the book feeling a little comforted in the knowledge that this man – with his possibly-crazy vision for the world – has saved a few lives and opened countless eyes to the importance of loving the Earth instead of just living off it. I’m glad I read The Last American Man, and I’m willing to admit that it was foolish to judge Elizabeth Gilbert on only one book. This biography was riveting, touching, and yes, inspiring.

Archived Review: Badass by Ben Thompson

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on May 24, 2011.

 

 

I’m breaking the mold here with some nonfiction, but when I want to read about pirates nothing so pathetic as genre conventions is going to stop me!

Look at the cover of Badass, by Ben Thompson. You may notice that the chick standing a little above the viking dude and bitchin’ centurion is Anne Bonny, my favorite pirate of all time, and she is wielding a gun with a combination of sexiness and overpowering rage previously unknown to the brotherhood of seafarers. Badass is not necessarily a book about pirates, it is a book about badasses in general from Antiquity (“Destroying your enemies from the beginning of human history to the fall of Rome in 476 CE”) all the way to The Modern Era (“Mechanized chaos and full-auto destruction: WWI to 2009”). However, there is an entire chapter devoted to The Age of Gunpowder (“Blowing crap up from 1453 to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914”), and within this chapter are uproariously funny profiles of Blackbeard and Anne Bonny. Horatio Nelson – who certainly wasn’t a pirate but was a badass naval officer and all-around inspirational gent – is also featured, as is Napoleon. Alongside the profiles about specific historical figures there are bonus snippets of fun information about aspects of the time period in question, so when one reads about Blackbeard one will also learn about other badass pirates and the unpleasant effects of scurvy. After reading this book, you’ll be full of all sorts of impressive knowledge, even if you didn’t enjoy history in school.

The chapters on these ladies and gentlemen of seafaring history are pretty short but hot-damn are they funny, and it’s nice to know that there is a history-themed book in the world written by a dude who isn’t afraid to call Anne Bonny and Mary Read “face-breaking hellions,” after spending several sentences discussing the fact that they did, indeed, have boobs.

People who have stumbled upon Thompson’s website, badassoftheweek.com, will not be surprised by the book’s tone, which sounds a lot like a college guy trying to explain to his friends the awesomeness of historical figures after several beers and too many video games. Even those of us who aren’t familiar with the website will easily be able to appreciate Thompson’s writing style, because while he does refer to Nelson’s mistress as “pretty much the hottest babe in the British Empire,” he also understands his history and can paint a pretty accurate picture of the badasses in question without detracting from the informal and enthusiastic style of writing. Sure, he mostly concentrates on their violent habits and astounding victories, but I’m pretty sure that anyone who picks up a book with this cover and title will be looking for entertaining tales of death and destruction rather than a comprehensive look into the economic and social histories of civilizations. If you want gory details and funny anecdotes about some of the most violent characters in history, this is the book for you. If you are offended by curse words and sarcastic sexism, or grossed out by stories of french pirates eating their prisoners’ hearts (and then being ironically eaten by cannibals themselves) then you should probably look for something more mature and way less entertaining.

I have forced myself to understand that not every historically-minded reader of this blog is quite as enthusiastic about piracy as I am, and while I am very disappointed in you guys, you will probably like this book anyway.  There is a chapter in the section on the Middle Ages about Wolf the Quarrelsome (“Mysterious barbarian leader who only appears in history twice – and both times he’s kicking someone’s ass,”) and if you’re more of a modern military history fan you could read about Manfred von Richthofen (“The Red Baron struck fear into the hearts of everything over the skies of Europe, except maybe a few species of birds.”)

Thompson writes for our generation; the generation of people born in the later decades of the 20th century who want sarcasm and memorable quips to be prevalent in every conversation and think all dialogue should resemble something scripted by Tarantino or, perhaps, Lemony Snicket. There’s no beautiful prose here but you will laugh out loud at least once in every chapter, and when people look at you strangely as you giggle uncontrollably in a cafe you can think smugly that – were Blackbeard still alive – he would probably swashbuckle them to death for the insult.