The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex HaleyThe Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley by Malcolm X
Narrator: Laurence Fishburne
Published by Audible Studios on September 10, 2020
Genres: Biography, Memoir
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

One of Time’s 10 most important nonfiction books of the 20th century.
Experience a bold take on this classic autobiography as it’s performed by Oscar-nominated Laurence Fishburne.

In this searing classic autobiography, originally published in 1965, Malcolm X, the Muslim leader, firebrand, and Black empowerment activist, tells the extraordinary story of his life and the growth of the Human Rights movement. His fascinating perspective on the lies and limitations of the American dream and the inherent racism in a society that denies its non-White citizens the opportunity to dream, gives extraordinary insight into the most urgent issues of our own time.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X stands as the definitive statement of a movement and a man whose work was never completed but whose message is timeless. It is essential for anyone who wants to understand the African American experience and America as a whole.

©1965 Alex Haley and Malcolm X, © 1965 by Alex Haley and Betty Shabazz (P)2020 Audible, Inc.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a book I had been meaning for years—perhaps as long as a decade. I admit I was a bit daunted by the length, and I had only seen the mass-market paperback version with tiny print. I can’t really read mass-market paperbacks anymore. I’m sure there were other, more accessible versions available, but for whatever reason, I never crossed paths with one. I was thrilled to discover this new audio recording narrated by actor Laurence Fishburne.

Malcolm X led a fascinating life. I was really intrigued by his stint in prison and the education he was able to obtain while incarcerated (check out this list of books he mentions he read while in prison). He clearly repudiated his life before prison in the book, in spite of the fact that one might argue that Malcolm X had been dealt a particularly difficult hand: not only was he essentially an orphan as a teenager when his father was killed and his mother was hospitalized, but he was also brought up in a racist society that devalued his intellect and talents. He describes telling a middle school teacher that he wanted to be a lawyer when he grew up only to be discouraged from pursuing that career by this racist teacher who insisted, “you’ve got to be realistic about being a n—–. A lawyer—that’s no realistic goal for a n—–.” This from a teacher Malcolm X admired, too. Honestly, after reading this book, the first thing I thought is that Malcolm X would have made an excellent lawyer. He knew how to craft an argument, and he had a fairly stunning intellect.

One area where I would push back against Malcolm X is his misogynoir. That might not be the right term. I don’t think he hated women. I don’t think he respected them very much, either, however, and he definitely viewed them as inferior. One might point to his religion, but I’m not sure it’s entirely related to Islam because he seemed to feel that way before he converted as well (and Islam is not the only patriarchal religion—I hear many of the same anti-woman ideas from many corners). It does not follow that just because one knows and understands what it is like to be part of an oppressed group that one naturally empathizes with other oppressed groups, and I would argue this is true of Malcolm X. The most troubling argument he makes is that societies crumble when their women have what he’d describe as loose morals. He describes a case study of “Westernized” women in Lebanon versus women in Saudi Arabia (whom he deemed more properly in their place), and he makes a pretty poor case if you ask me.

It was disheartening to read of Malcolm X’s betrayal by the Nation of Islam, an organization he had done so much to promote. It was also chilling to read Malcolm X’s insistence that he expected to die by violence. One thing that struck me especially hard was that Malcolm X and my grandfather were born in the same month and year. You couldn’t have identified two more different people if you had tried. Their lives and experiences in society couldn’t have been further apart. Perhaps my favorite passage of the Autobiography was Malcolm X’s description of improving his reading comprehension by copying out the dictionary.

I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary—to study, to learn some words. I was lucky enough to reason also that I should try to improve my penmanship. It was sad. I couldn’t even write in a straight line. It was both ideas together that moved me to request a dictionary along with some tablets and pencils from the Norfolk Prison Colony school.

I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary’s pages. I’d never realized so many words existed! I didn’t know which words I needed to learn. Finally, just to start some kind of action, I began copying.

In my slow, painstaking, ragged handwriting, I copied into my tablet everything printed on that first page, down to the punctuation marks.

I believe it took me a day. Then, aloud, I read back, to myself, everything I’d written on the tablet. Over and over, aloud, to myself, I read my own handwriting.

I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words—immensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time, but I’d written words that I never knew were in the world. Moreover, with a little effort, I also could remember what many of these words meant. I reviewed the words whose meanings I didn’t remember. Funny thing, from the dictionary first page right now, that “aardvark” springs to my mind. The dictionary had a picture of it, a long-tailed, long-eared, burrowing African mammal, which lives off termites caught by sticking out its tongue as an anteater does for ants.

I was so fascinated that I went on—I copied the dictionary’s next page. And the same experience came when I studied that. With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and places and events from history. Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia. Finally the dictionary’s A section had filled a whole tablet—and I went on into the B’s. That was the way I started copying what eventually became the entire dictionary. It went a lot faster after so much practice helped me to pick up handwriting speed. Between what I wrote in my tablet, and writing letters, during the rest of my time in prison I would guess I wrote a million words.

Malcolm X’s ideas have been so widely influential. Modern anti-racist, anti-bias movements owe much to Malcolm X’s thought. I have heard so much about Malcolm X, much of it controversial, fear-mongering lies, unfortunately, and I felt it was important to read his story for myself. For example, many people believe Malcolm X to be biased against White people, and while this was true (and not without good cause, I might add), he later changed these views after experiencing the Hajj and meeting fellow Muslim pilgrims who were White. He viewed Islam as a unifying force. Malcolm X wrestled honestly with his life in this memoir. This is an important book that I think many people should read in order to better understand our American society.

five-stars

Review: Tartine Bread, Chad Robertson

Review: Tartine Bread, Chad RobertsonTartine Bread by Chad Robertson, Eric Wolfinger
Published by Chronicle Books (CA) ISBN: 1452100284
on October 29, 2013
Genres: Cooking
Pages: 304
Format: E-Book
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five-stars

For the home or professional bread-maker, this is the book. It comes from a man many consider to be the best bread baker in the United States: Chad Robertson, co-owner of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, a city that knows its bread. To Chad, bread is the foundation of a meal, the center of daily life, and each loaf tells the story of the baker who shaped it. He developed his unique bread over two decades of apprenticeship with the finest artisan bakers in France and the United States, as well as experimentation in his own ovens. Readers will be astonished at how elemental it is. A hundred photographs from years of testing, teaching, and recipe development provide step-by-step inspiration, while additional recipes provide inspiration for using up every delicious morsel.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might recall I’ve been learning how to bake bread for a few years now. I struggle to find time to bake sourdough bread because it has such a long rise. During the week, it’s just not really possible because of work. If I want to bake on the weekend, I need to plan in advance so that I can get my starter active again. I recently read Michael Pollan’s book Cooked, and it reminded me that I still hadn’t finished Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread. Pollan learns to bake sourdough from Robertson and documents his experience in that book. I have read quite a few books about baking sourdough, and my results have been sort of mixed. I decided to give Tartine Bread a try because I had heard that Robertson’s recipe and technique were good.

The selling point of Jim Lahey’s recipe and technique is that it is a no-knead recipe, and you can let it rise overnight. I kind of liked what I saw in Ken Forkish’s book, but it didn’t wow me. I thought it was me, and partly it was. It took me a while to figure out how you could tell your starter was active. I really like Chad Robertson’s helpful technique of dropping a bit into some water to see if it floats. If it does, it’s active. If it sinks, wait longer. I believe that Ken Forkish shared that tip in his book as well. Of the sourdough recipes I’ve tried, I think I liked Paul Hollywood’s recipe the least. I didn’t have good results with it. I figured I’d see what happened with Robertson’s recipe, and I was not disappointed.

I tried Robertson’s recipe and technique as written and made some beautiful loaves of sourdough.

Sourdough Bread
I had to get my starter in there, you know.

I halved the recipe so as to make just one loaf, and I’ve had a chance to bake twice using the halved recipe. I was initially afraid the salt amount was too much, but the bread doesn’t taste salty. The folding technique is easy to master once you’ve tried it a few times. The bread has a perfect crust. I baked Jim Lahey’s recipe as written and found the crust way too hard and dark for my liking. The kids wouldn’t eat it either. In fact, this recipe marks the first time they’ve eaten the sourdough bread I made (I know; they’re weird).

I did not make a starter using Robertson’s technique. I have had a starter going (in the fridge, for the most part) since late 2017, and I didn’t see any reason to make a fresh starter. I’m glad I didn’t worry about it because I don’t think I needed to. I tried the recipe with a bottle of spring water and then with water from the Brita pitcher and noticed no difference, so I think Robertson is right that the water doesn’t matter. He argues that the flour does, and I think he gets his from a local mill. I used King Arthur, which has been my go-to for a number of years now—pretty much since I moved to New England, though I clung to White Lily when I could find it for a little while. If you’re curious, I used King Arthur’s directions to make my starter. Robertson’s recipe calls for whole wheat flour, but what I had on hand is King Arthur’s sprouted whole wheat, which has a slightly milder flavor. I am convinced that the small amount of whole wheat flour is what separates Robertson’s recipe from the rest. It’s not really enough whole wheat flour to taste like wheat bread, necessarily, but I think it adds a flavor that white flour alone doesn’t have. I will definitely have to try Robertson’s recipe with regular whole wheat flour when I run out of the sprouted whole wheat.

I think if you get this book, you will probably get it for the main country bread recipe. I’m sure some of the others are good, but I haven’t tried them yet. Some of the recipes aside from the main recipe for country bread, as Robertson calls it, strike me as a bit different… and complicated, too, but we did try the French toast, which was probably the best French toast we’ve ever had. It smelled amazing as it was baking, too.

I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to try sourdough baking. This is hands-down the best recipe I’ve tried so far, and my results using Robertson’s recipe and technique have been the best out of the sourdough recipes I’ve tried, too. Honestly, I thought the country bread recipe alone made the book worth it.

five-stars

Review: Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell, narrated by Ell Potter

Review: Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell, narrated by Ell PotterHamnet by Maggie O'Farrell
Narrator: Ell Potter
Published by Random House Audio on July 21, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

Drawing on Maggie O'Farrell's long-term fascination with the little-known story behind Shakespeare's most enigmatic play, Hamnet is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child.

Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley Street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

Award-winning author Maggie O'Farrell's new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.

Oh, this book. I just loved it. Recently, I shared in my review of Never Caught that the author missed an opportunity to weave historical fiction out of the facts we know about Ona Judge. Anne Hathaway Shakespeare is another woman we know very little about. She was pregnant when she married William Shakespeare (who was quite a bit younger than she was), she raised their children practically alone while he worked as an actor and playwright in London, and Shakespeare left her his second-best bed in his will. From these scraps of information, many scholars have concluded that their marriage was not a happy one. O’Farrell takes a different tactic and imagines a love match for the couple that is nearly destroyed by the death of their son and William Shakespeare’s depression and lack of fulfillment.

O’Farrell chooses to call her Anne “Agnes,” as her father referred to her in his will. Agnes is something of an herbalist (and maybe a witch). She’s every bit as fascinating as Shakespeare (maybe more so, under O’Farrell’s pen). The story alternates between Agnes and Hamnet as narrators, for the most part, with tidbits from other characters such as Susanna and Judith. The story also shifts in time, beginning with Hamnet looking for someone, anyone (but particularly Agnes) to help him—his twin sister Judith is sick.

The historical details ring true. As a bread baker and soap maker, I especially appreciated O’Farrell’s references to Agnes’s talents in both areas. Agnes also keeps bees and is something of a bee charmer. However, my absolute favorite historical detail was O’Farrell’s chronicle of the journey of the flea that carried the bubonic plague to Stratford and, ultimately, to the Shakespeare household. It was utterly fascinating. As we are living in the midst of a pandemic right now, the details are also alarmingly present. How did the virus that infected my entire family with COVID-19 in January make its way to us? How does sickness travel like that? I think I appreciated O’Farrell’s exploration of the way the plague traveled even more for having a personal connection to another form of plague.

I couldn’t help but think of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own when I read. In that book, Woolf imagines Shakespeare’s equally talented sister who is unable to do the things her brother can do because she is a woman, and those doors are closed to her. What if Shakespeare’s wife were even more talented than he? That is actually how I interpret Agnes’s character. Yet she sacrifices so that he can realize his dreams and their children can be cared for. She’s not different from talented women throughout history in this respect.

Ell Potter is a charming narrator. I’m glad the audiobook was read by a woman, as ultimately, I think this a woman’s story. That’s not to say men wouldn’t enjoy it; quite the contrary, and maybe men should read it. Ron Charles has a great review of the book at The Washington Post. I definitely recommend this book to any fans of Shakespeare, though I caution you that he’s relegated to the sidelines. This story is the story of his family.

five-stars

Review: Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

Review: Born to Run, Bruce SpringsteenBorn to Run by Bruce Springsteen
Narrator: Bruce Springsteen
Published by Simon Schuster Audio ISBN: 1508224234
on December 6, 2016
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
Pages: 19
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

“Writing about yourself is a funny business… But in a project like this, the writer has made one promise, to show the reader his mind. In these pages, I’ve tried to do this.” —Bruce Springsteen, from the pages of Born to Run

In 2009, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed at the Super Bowl’s halftime show. The experience was so exhilarating that Bruce decided to write about it. That’s how this extraordinary autobiography began.

Over the past seven years, Bruce Springsteen has privately devoted himself to writing the story of his life, bringing to these pages the same honesty, humor, and originality found in his songs.

He describes growing up Catholic in Freehold, New Jersey, amid the poetry, danger, and darkness that fueled his imagination, leading up to the moment he refers to as “The Big Bang”: seeing Elvis Presley’s debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. He vividly recounts his relentless drive to become a musician, his early days as a bar band king in Asbury Park, and the rise of the E Street Band. With disarming candor, he also tells for the first time the story of the personal struggles that inspired his best work, and shows us why the song “Born to Run” reveals more than we previously realized.

Born to Run will be revelatory for anyone who has ever enjoyed Bruce Springsteen, but this book is much more than a legendary rock star’s memoir. This is a book for workers and dreamers, parents and children, lovers and loners, artists, freaks, or anyone who has ever wanted to be baptized in the holy river of rock and roll.

Rarely has a performer told his own story with such force and sweep. Like many of his songs (“Thunder Road,” “Badlands,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “The River,” “Born in the U.S.A.,” “The Rising,” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” to name just a few), Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography is written with the lyricism of a singular songwriter and the wisdom of a man who has thought deeply about his experiences.

I’m really behind on writing reviews. I actually finished listening to this book some time back, and if you choose to read it, let me highly recommend the audiobook, narrated by Springsteen himself. Here’s a teaser, courtesy PBS.

 

This memoir is a master class in the genre. In fact, I plan to order a paper copy of it so that I can use it in teaching narrative writing. It’s that good. In fact, it’s the best memoir I’ve read. I don’t say that lightly either, as I have read quite a few.

What makes this particular memoir a standout is its unflinching honesty and its poetic sensibility. Though we know Bruce Springsteen is a great songwriter, that kind of writing talent doesn’t always translate to other forms. I am a bit embarrassed to say how surprised I was that Springsteen’s memoir was so well-written.

I picked this up on Audible using one of my credits a long time ago, and I decided to listen to it at long last after enjoying Warren Zanes’s biography of Tom Petty so much. I like Bruce Springsteen’s music, but I must confess I was not what I’d call a fan. I would never change the station on one of his songs, but I also didn’t own a complete album, and the only album I had listened to in its entirety before reading this book was Born in the USA—my mom had that one when I was a kid. To be fair, I listened to that album a lot. One thing I tried to do as I read this book was go back and educate myself about Springsteen’s music, and holy hell is he amazing. I can’t believe I never listened to Born to Run all the way through. I have to say, “Jungleland” is probably my favorite of his songs.

Springsteen is also a voracious reader, and it shows in the allusions he makes to other books in the memoir itself. As an English teacher, catching those references was a real Easter-egg type of pleasant surprise. I often tell my students that if they want to be better writers, they need to read more. They need to observe what great writers do, what moves they make in their writing. Clearly, Springsteen understands the importance of reading for his writing, but I sense he just enjoys reading for its own sake.

Bruce Springsteen Writing
Bruce Springsteen Writing by Pamela Springsteen, the artist’s sister

When I reached the point in the memoir when Springsteen discussed the death of Clarence Clemons, I admit I cried a little, in spite of knowing very little about Clemons prior to reading this book. Springsteen’s ache over the loss of his friend and collaborator (and sometime co-conspirator) is palpable in his reading. I appreciated Springsteen’s frankness about his struggles with depression as well. It’s tragic that mental illness carries such a stigma, which prevents people from getting help. Springsteen talks about this stigma as well.

I highly recommend this wonderful memoir to anyone, especially music fans. If you are not a fan of Springsteen’s before you read, you will still enjoy this book—and you will probably be a fan afterward. I’ll close out with a playlist of my favorite Springsteen tracks, more or less in order.

five-stars

Review: The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel, narrated by Ben Miles

Review: The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel, narrated by Ben MilesThe Mirror & the Light (Thomas Cromwell, #3) by Hilary Mantel
Narrator: Ben Miles
Series: Thomas Cromwell #3
Published by Macmillan Audio on March 10, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

“If you cannot speak truth at a beheading, when can you speak it?”

England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen before Jane dies giving birth to the male heir he most craves.

Cromwell is a man with only his wits to rely on; he has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to the breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. But can a nation, or a person, shed the past like a skin? Do the dead continually unbury themselves? What will you do, the Spanish ambassador asks Cromwell, when the king turns on you, as sooner or later he turns on everyone close to him?

With The Mirror & the Light, Hilary Mantel brings to a triumphant close the trilogy she began with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She traces the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power, offering a defining portrait of predator and prey, of a ferocious contest between present and past, between royal will and a common man’s vision: of a modern nation making itself through conflict, passion, and courage.

What a fantastic close to Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell saga. Mantel is a gifted storyteller, and in her hands, Cromwell emerges as a deeply complex man who rose from nothing—the son of a blacksmith in Putney—to one of Henry VIII’s chief counselors. This book covers Cromwell’s fall from grace, and though I knew how Cromwell’s story would end—it’s a matter of recorded history—I dreaded seeing it come to pass. He inspired love and loyalty among his family and servants, but jealousy and ire among Henry VIII’s circle.

One aspect of Mantel’s characterization that I appreciate most is the wry sense of humor she gives Cromwell. I listened to both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies prior to listening to this book, and it struck me that this book had more humor in it, though you might not expect that to be the case, given Cromwell’s well-documented end. As with other people who “crossed” Henry VIII, Cromwell’s downfall was swift. I won’t share any spoilers here, but let’s just say his ending was particularly sad—unfair blame and betrayal.

Ben Miles does a great job with the narration. Seems other reviewers didn’t like him (based on reviews left on Audible), and I’m puzzled as to why. The audiobook had a great interview between narrator Ben Miles and author Hilary Mantel.

I’m counting this book for my February read set in Western Europe in the Book Voyage: Read Around the World Challenge.

five-stars

Review: Petty: The Biography, Warren Zanes

Review: Petty: The Biography, Warren ZanesPetty: The Biography by Warren Zanes
Narrator: Warren Zanes
Published by Audible Studios on December 15, 2015
Genres: Nonfiction, Biography
Format: Audio, Audiobook
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five-stars

An exhilarating and intimate account of the life of music legend Tom Petty, by an accomplished writer and musician who toured with Petty

No one other than Warren Zanes, rocker and writer and friend, could author a book about Tom Petty that is as honest and evocative of Petty’s music and the remarkable rock and roll history he and his band helped to write.

Born in Gainesville, Florida, with more than a little hillbilly in his blood, Tom Petty was a Southern shit kicker, a kid without a whole lot of promise. Rock and roll made it otherwise. From meeting Elvis, to seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, to producing Del Shannon, backing Bob Dylan, putting together a band with George Harrison, Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne, making records with Johnny Cash, and sending well more than a dozen of his own celebrated recordings high onto the charts, Tom Petty’s story has all the drama of a rock and roll epic. Petty, known for his reclusive style, has shared with Warren Zanes his insights and arguments, his regrets and lasting ambitions, and the details of his life on and off the stage.

This is a book for those who know and love the songs, from "American Girl" and "Refugee" to "Free Fallin’" and "Mary Jane’s Last Dance," and for those who want to see the classic rock and roll era embodied in one man’s remarkable story. Dark and mysterious, Petty manages to come back, again and again, showing us what the music can do and where it can take us.

What a great loss to rock and roll. I think I might first have become aware of Tom Petty because my copy of Chipmunk Punk, featuring Alvin and Chipmunks squeaking out songs that were decidedly not punk music, had “Refugee” on it. Later, the video for “You Got Lucky” seemed to be on heavy rotation on MTV, and I admit it was interesting. You couldn’t get away from “Don’t Come Around Here No More” later. Rewatching that video recently, I was struck by how good Tom Petty’s acting is in the video.

However, I’m not sure I appreciated Tom Petty, truly became a fan, until college. I bought his back catalog and listened to the albums on repeat. I listened to them all again as I was reading this book, and I still remember each note. The first four albums, Tom Petty and the HeartbreakersYou’re Gonna Get It, Damn the Torpedoes, and Hard Promises, were on particularly high rotation, along with Southern Accents.

What I appreciated most about this biography was that Warren Zanes is an insider of sorts. In the 1980s, he was in the Del Fuegos and opened for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on tour. He spoke to many of Petty’s friends and associates, and the biography is unflinching in its honesty. Petty seemed like a reflective type of person, and he owned his mistakes. I particularly appreciated the reflections of fellow Heartbreakers Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, and Stan Lynch as well as Petty’s long-time friend Stevie Nicks.

The part of the biography I found most compelling was Zanes’s account of Petty’s youth and adolescence, followed by his early days in Florida bands, such as Mudcrutch. His incredible work ethic was another interesting thread that ran through the book. It struck me that Petty enjoyed his English classes and didn’t consider them to be “studying” in the same way that his other classes were; you can hear that in his song lyrics. However, as a teacher, I couldn’t help but feel sad about how school crushes the spirits of so many creative people like Tom Petty. I think it was Benmont Tench who said in the book that Tom Petty was really good at convincing people to quit school and join his band.

When I heard Tom Petty died, I was crushed. He’s one of my favorite musicians of all time, and I’m grateful I was able to see him in concert once in 1992, for his Into the Great Wide Open tour. It was a great show. He was a consummate performer.

I put together a highly subjective list of my favorite Tom Petty tunes, more or less in order of preference. Some are deep cuts. I hope you enjoy it.

five-stars

Review: A Better Man, Michael Ian Black

Review: A Better Man, Michael Ian BlackA Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son by Michael Ian Black
Published by Algonquin Books ISBN: 1616209119
on September 15, 2020
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

“Raw, intimate, and true . . . A Better Man cracked me wide open, and it’s a template for the conversation we need to be having with our boys.”Peggy Orenstein, bestselling author of Boys & Sex

A poignant look at boyhood, in the form of a heartfelt letter from comedian Michael Ian Black to his teenage son before he leaves for college, and a radical plea for rethinking masculinity and teaching young men to give and receive love.

In a world in which the word masculinity now often goes hand in hand with toxic, comedian, actor, and father Michael Ian Black offers up a way forward for boys, men, and anyone who loves them. Part memoir, part advice book, and written as a heartfelt letter to his college-bound son, A Better Man reveals Black’s own complicated relationship with his father, explores the damage and rising violence caused by the expectations placed on boys to “man up,” and searches for the best way to help young men be part of the solution, not the problem. “If we cannot allow ourselves vulnerability,” he writes, “how are we supposed to experience wonder, fear, tenderness?”

Honest, funny, and hopeful, Black skillfully navigates the complex gender issues of our time and delivers a poignant answer to an urgent question: How can we be, and raise, better men? 

I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

This is an important book for our current moment. I found it helpful to understand the messages men receive about how to be “correctly” masculine, and I think we can lay many of our current societal problems at the feet of these dangerous messages. Readers looking for Black’s characteristic humor will find the subtitle accurate: the book is mostly serious, and I really appreciated the vulnerability and honesty of its seriousness. The book serves as a contemplative memoir, a poignant letter of love and advice, and a meditation on our world. I walked away from it feeling that Michael Ian Black is a good husband, father, and most of all, a good man.

I recommend this book most highly to men, but I learned a great deal from it, too. Most importantly, it gave me an understanding. I don’t believe all men are alike, and I don’t believe they are all horrible, but I freely admit I was reaching a point of despair over the ability of men—White men—to recognize their privilege and work on unlearning some of the most damaging messages they have received. If I had to pick a moment when this feeling started to take shape, it was when Justice Kavanaugh was confirmed. I recognized that man. I am pretty sure I went to high school and college with a lot of guys like him. And I was pretty sure Christine Blasey Ford was telling the truth. I was also pretty sure that Kavanaugh thought he was telling the truth, too. That might seem like a strange thing to say, but I think he felt entitled to do as he pleased, and I think he felt pressured to prove his masculinity through sexual conquest, and I think a lot of the boys in his friend group were doing the same things, which normalized and maybe even celebrated treating women as less than people, only useful as sexual objects. Because I remember what it was like to be a girl in the era in which Kavanaugh allegedly raped Blasey Ford. Black devotes a whole chapter to consent, and he explains the messages both girls and boys receive about consent and how they warp our ability to communicate sexual desire.

I admit things seem hopeless right now. We have a racist, misogynist person in the White House. He operates out of the most toxic and dangerous aspects of masculinity. Our civil rights champion, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died yesterday. We are in the midst of a global pandemic that has completely upended our lives and taken the lives of a number most of us can’t fathom. The ending isn’t in sight. We are in the darkest part of the tunnel, or maybe the belly of the whale, and it is hard not to be resigned to despair. This book gave me a little bit of hope. It’s going to take some backbreaking work, but I’m comforted to know people like Michael Ian Black are doing their part for us.

five-stars

Review: Daisy Jones & The Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid

Review: Daisy Jones & The Six, Taylor Jenkins ReidDaisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Published by Ballantine Books ISBN: 1524798649
on February 4, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 384
Format: Paperback
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five-stars

Everyone knows Daisy Jones & The Six: The band's album Aurora came to define the rock 'n' roll era of the late seventies, and an entire generation of girls wanted to grow up to be Daisy. But no one knows the reason behind the group's split on the night of their final concert at Chicago Stadium on July 12, 1979 . . . until now.

Daisy is a girl coming of age in L.A. in the late sixties, sneaking into clubs on the Sunset Strip, sleeping with rock stars, and dreaming of singing at the Whisky a Go Go. The sex and drugs are thrilling, but it’s the rock 'n' roll she loves most. By the time she’s twenty, her voice is getting noticed, and she has the kind of heedless beauty that makes people do crazy things.

Also getting noticed is The Six, a band led by the brooding Billy Dunne. On the eve of their first tour, his girlfriend Camila finds out she’s pregnant, and with the pressure of impending fatherhood and fame, Billy goes a little wild on the road.

Daisy and Billy cross paths when a producer realizes that the key to supercharged success is to put the two together. What happens next will become the stuff of legend.

The making of that legend is chronicled in this riveting and unforgettable novel, written as an oral history of one of the biggest bands of the seventies. Taylor Jenkins Reid is a talented writer who takes her work to a new level with Daisy Jones & The Six, brilliantly capturing a place and time in an utterly distinctive voice.

I have been having a lot of trouble reading, and as it turns out, that’s completely normal during a global pandemic. I had started a few books, but I didn’t get too far into them (although I’m doing better with audiobooks as I find them less taxing). It finally dawned on me that the topics I was picking were too heavy and not escapist enough. What I really needed to do was immerse myself in a different world and time with something “light” (not necessarily in terms of subject matter, but definitely in terms of complexity). Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid came to my rescue.

The main reason I responded to this book is that I spent a good chunk of my high-school and college years immersed in 1960s and 1970s music—especially 1970s music. On my heavy rotation at that time were Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones (particularly Mick Taylor-era Stones, which is the BEST Stones), the Beatles, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Pretenders (more 1980s, but their late 1970s-very early 1980s stuff is my favorite), the Who, Elton John, Rod Stewart (actually, just Every Picture Tells a Story), and the Allman Brothers Band. I grew up listening to Fleetwood Mac, too, because my parents were fans. When Stevie Nicks released her album Bella Donna, I remember picking up my parents’ copy and staring at the vinyl sleeve, thinking that Stevie Nicks was possibly the coolest woman I had ever seen.

Bella Donna

I thought the way she dressed was magic. Her heels were impossibly high, and everything she wore simply billowed and floated. I definitely tried to dress up like her in my room with the door closed and dance in front of the mirror. The first full album I got on vinyl was Fleetwood Mac’s album Mirage. It wasn’t the first album I bought on my own, but it was the first full album I received as a gift, and I had asked for it for Christmas. I was in fifth grade. I had no clue about all the romantic intrigue and substance abuse Fleetwood Mac (or perhaps, more particularly, Stevie Nicks) were involved in when I was that young. All I knew is I liked them, and I always have. I named my oldest daughter after their song “Sara,” though I added the “h.”

It’s clear, and Reid doesn’t deny it, that Fleetwood Mac was a major inspiration for Daisy Jones & The Six; however, the novel captures more than a veiled retelling of the story of the making of Rumours. It’s really the story of the whole Laurel Canyon sound, the Southern California music produced by the likes of the Eagles, CSN, Joni Mitchell, and so many others. I have read and watched so many rock documentaries that reading this book was almost like an Easter egg hunt: which artist’s story inspired THIS incident? A good example is Daisy Jones and Billy Dunne communicating through their performance. If you watch this version of the Fleetwood Mac song “Silver Springs,” especially if you know that Lindsey Buckingham not only contributed some great guitar parts to the song (Spotify link), a post-mortem of Stevie Nicks’s and Lindsey Buckingham’s breakup, but he also fought to have it removed from Rumours. It was released as a B-side to “Go Your Own Way,” Buckingham’s own response to their breakup. “Silver Springs” didn’t really receive its due until this recording for The Dance in 1997. You tell me Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham aren’t working through some stuff during the climax of this song:

There are moments when Reid describes Daisy and Billy’s chemistry in the same way. Don’t you wonder why Buckingham put so much work into that guitar part only to insist the song be practically buried for nearly 20 years? What about the fact that Nicks had to sing backup on “Go Your Own Way,” knowing it was about her and feeling what he claimed in the lyrics was untrue: “Packing up / Shacking up is all you want to do”? Honestly? They’re STILL feuding. Buckingham claims that Nicks had him fired from Fleetwood Mac in 2018. I personally believe that he’s one of the greatest and most underrated guitarists—no one tends to think of him when compiling their listicles. Rolling Stone ranked him 100 out of their 100 Greatest Guitarists. I have many problems with their ranking; this is only one of them.

Some of the sniping, particularly on the part of Eddie, recollects the relationships among members of the Eagles (they did call their reunion concert “Hell Freezes Over”) and, to a certain extent, Styx (if you have seen that episode of Behind the Music—wow—Dennis DeYoung and Tommy Shaw hate each other). Even more modern groups like the Civil Wars and perhaps the Black Crowes inspired Reid. I haven’t seen Reid mention Chris and Rich Robinson in interviews, but they do remind me of Billy and Graham Dunne. Daisy Jones may owe a little bit to Janis Joplin and Bette Midler’s character in The Rose, too.

Knowing these stories was part of the fun of reading it for me, but I think folks who don’t have knowledge of the Southern California music scene in the 1970s could still enjoy this book. The book captures the scene so well that no previous knowledge is needed. I particularly enjoyed the passages describing photography for the band’s album cover and the final concert and drama in the hotel. I also think Reid’s documentary format worked well. I have heard the audiobook is great. I am looking forward to the miniseries that is set to air through Amazon’s streaming service. I have seen some reviews that didn’t like that format, and others who quibble with the notion that the band is fictional, which requires more imagination when they are discussing their music, but I didn’t mind. In fact, I liked that aspect of the book.

The publisher made a playlist on Spotify which is really good, though the last song doesn’t work for me. There is a mix of more modern music that seems to fit the mood of the book. I’m thinking about making my own playlist with strictly 1970s tunes, but here is what Random House came up with:

five-stars

These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, Martha Ackmann

These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, Martha AckmannThese Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson by Martha Ackmann
Published by W. W. Norton Company ISBN: 0393609308
on February 25, 2020
Genres: Poetry, Nonfiction
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

An engaging, intimate portrait of Emily Dickinson, one of America’s greatest and most-mythologized poets, that sheds new light on her groundbreaking poetry.

On August 3, 1845, young Emily Dickinson declared, “All things are ready”—and with this resolute statement, her life as a poet began. Despite spending her days almost entirely “at home” (the occupation listed on her death certificate), Dickinson’s interior world was extraordinary. She loved passionately, was ambivalent toward publication, embraced seclusion, and created 1,789 poems that she tucked into a dresser drawer.

In These Fevered Days, Martha Ackmann unravels the mysteries of Dickinson’s life through ten decisive episodes that distill her evolution as a poet. Ackmann follows Dickinson through her religious crisis while a student at Mount Holyoke, her startling decision to ask a famous editor for advice, her anguished letters to an unidentified “Master,” her exhilarating frenzy of composition, and her terror in confronting possible blindness. Together, these ten days provide new insights into Dickinson’s wildly original poetry and render a concise and vivid portrait of American literature’s most enigmatic figure.

I have been waiting to read Martha Ackmann’s biography of Emily Dickinson, These Fevered Days, for a few years. Ackmann was one of my instructors at a weeklong workshop on Emily Dickinson’s life and work sponsored by National Endowment for the Humanities. In fact, she read the second chapter of this book to us during one session. At that time, she was contemplating calling the book Vesuvius at Home.

The conceit of this book, that ten days changed Emily Dickinson so that she was “different, say, at ten o’clock at night from how she was at ten o’clock that morning” (xviii), is novel and works well, especially considering Dickinson’s life has been the subject of much biographical writing (in spite of her more interior existence). While Ackmann engages in a bit of speculation about what her book’s subjects were thinking or doing, it rings true, and I know for certain that Ackmann’s conjecture is based on solid research. For example, she obtained permission from the Director of the Emily Dickinson Museum to go into the attic of the Dickinson home so that she could ascertain the “certain slant of light” in the room and read Shakespeare aloud, as Dickinson did, in order to determine what that experience was like so that she could render it properly. Dickinson proclaimed that “the rafters wept” at her own reading. Ackmann has also taught a course at Mount Holyoke on Emily Dickinson for years—even bringing her students into the Dickinson home to study her work. Having been a student of Ackmann’s for only week, I’m still not afraid to say she has lived and breathed the poet’s life and work for years, and that knowledge shines forth in this book. The final chapter on Dickinson’s final day of life is rendered especially poignant. Rather than witnessing the passing of a great poet, Ackmann made me feel like I had witnessed the passing of an old and great friend.

Even if you’ve read biographies of Dickinson before, you’ll want to read this book for its intimate portrait of the moments that changed Dickinson’s life. As Ackmann acknowledges, other Dickinson scholars might choose different days, but Ackmann focuses on the following:

  1. The day Dickinson decided to write.
  2. Dickinson’s decision not to commit herself to Christ at the behest of Mary Lyon, principal of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where Dickinson was attending school.
  3. Emily Dickinson’s first publication (despite popular belief, she did publish a few works anonymously in her lifetime).
  4. Dickinson’s decision to bind her poems together in fascicles and preserve them (Christanne Miller’s book Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them is a wonderful resource for more on this).
  5. Dickinson’s work on F124 “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” with her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson’s advice.
  6. Dickinson’s remarkable decision to write to Thomas Wentworth Higginson (who was living in my home city of Worcester, MA at the time) after reading his article “Letter to a Young Contributor” in The Atlantic Monthly and begin a lifelong correspondence and friendship.
  7. Dickinson’s brush with blindness.
  8. The first meeting of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
  9. The publication of Dickinson’s poem F112 “Success is Counted Sweetest” in the No Name series after much cajoling by her friend Helen Hunt Jackson.
  10. The day Emily Dickinson died.

Reading this book was extra special for me because I had the opportunity to visit Dickinson’s home on several occasions, and I was even permitted to take photographs. I was able to visualize the moments Ackmann describes with greater clarity—I felt like I was there, and not only because of my memories of the Dickinson homestead but also because of Ackmann’s precise description.  Check out Ackmann’s article at The Paris Review for some exquisite photos of Emily Dickinson’s dress. Even though the dress on display at the museum is a copy, I’ll never forget the first time I saw it. I was visiting Amherst for my birthday, and we were touring the Dickinson home. Our guide led us upstairs, and the dress was there on the landing. The light streamed in through the window and illuminated it. It truly took my breath away. One might almost have thought Emily Dickinson herself was standing there. After that thought, my second thought was, “She was so tiny!”

Emily Dickinson means a lot to me. Her poetry brought me comfort after a very difficult loss. Martha Ackmann’s book is well worth your time if you’d like to indulge in a delightfully intimate portrait of the poet in some of her most momentous events.

Emily Dickinson's Bedroom
Emily Dickinson’s Bedroom © Dana Huff
Emily Dickinson's Grave
Emily Dickinson’s Grave © Dana Huff

Note: Please do not reproduce these images. I am permitted to share them as long as I do not seek to profit from them, but I am not able to control what happens to them once they are stolen, and I have pursued websites with DMCA takedown notices for taking these images without permission or credit.

five-stars

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe, narrated by Matthew Blaney

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe, narrated by Matthew BlaneySay Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
Narrator: Matthew Blaney
Published by Random House Audio on 2019
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

From award-winning New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe, a stunning, intricate narrative about a notorious killing in Northern Ireland and its devastating repercussions.

In December 1972, Jean McConville, a thirty-eight-year-old mother of ten, was dragged from her Belfast home by masked intruders, her children clinging to her legs. They never saw her again. Her abduction was one of the most notorious episodes of the vicious conflict known as The Troubles. Everyone in the neighborhood knew the I.R.A. was responsible. But in a climate of fear and paranoia, no one would speak of it. In 2003, five years after an accord brought an uneasy peace to Northern Ireland, a set of human bones was discovered on a beach. McConville’s children knew it was their mother when they were told a blue safety pin was attached to the dress–with so many kids, she had always kept it handy for diapers or ripped clothes.

Patrick Radden Keefe’s mesmerizing book on the bitter conflict in Northern Ireland and its aftermath uses the McConville case as a starting point for the tale of a society wracked by a violent guerrilla war, a war whose consequences have never been reckoned with. The brutal violence seared not only people like the McConville children, but also I.R.A. members embittered by a peace that fell far short of the goal of a united Ireland, and left them wondering whether the killings they committed were not justified acts of war, but simple murders. From radical and impetuous I.R.A. terrorists such as Dolours Price, who, when she was barely out of her teens, was already planting bombs in London and targeting informers for execution, to the ferocious I.R.A. mastermind known as The Dark, to the spy games and dirty schemes of the British Army, to Gerry Adams, who negotiated the peace but betrayed his hardcore comrades by denying his I.R.A. past. Say Nothing conjures a world of passion, betrayal, vengeance, and anguish.

I read this book on the recommendation of an English teacher friend, Carol Jago. She is one of the most voracious and widely-read people I know, and she has never recommended a book that wasn’t brilliant. This book is no exception. If you are like me and do not know much about The Troubles, this book is a great introduction that will leave you wanting to know more. I know, for example, that I want to read Ed Moloney’s book Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland. If I’m being honest, even though I understand why Ireland was partitioned, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me that the island is still divided, and I have a feeling it won’t be for too many more years.

I first remember hearing anything about The Troubles as a child, when the Irish Republican prisoners’ hunger strike in the early 1980s was in the news. I remember being really confused by the whole thing. Further, I remember feeling horrified that it was happening. The Troubles were mostly out of the new in the U.S., however. It was easy to know nothing about what was happening in Northern Ireland. Every once in a while, a story about some action or other by the I.R.A. would show up on the news. An episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “The High Ground” centered on the struggles of the Ansata rebels against the Rutians—it was a very thinly veiled allusion to The Troubles. The Ansata rebel leader’s name was even Kyril Finn. Finn is not only a common surname in Ireland, but it’s also potentially a reference to Fionn mac Cumhaill, a mythological figure in Ireland and the inspiration for the Fenian Brotherhood, a precursor to the I.R.A. Commander Data makes a reference to terrorism effectively achieving the reunification of Ireland in 2024. The episode aired in 1990. At that time, it seemed unlikely, but Brexit will change the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic—as Keefe wonders in his book’s conclusion, I can’t help but speculate if, after years of bloodshed, it will be the politics of Brexit that finally prompt the reunification of Ireland on the same timeline, more or less, as Star Trek predicted. The idea is so incendiary that RTÉ has never aired the episode, and it only aired on the BBC in 2007.

Sinn Fein politician Gerry Adams does not come off well, and his repeated insistence that he was never in the I.R.A. strikes me as a bald-faced lie. The Price sisters, Dolours and Marian, are written in their complexity: at the same time as you know they engaged in terrorist acts, and you want to condemn them, they also come off as, well, kind of badass, and you want to admire them for that. I mean no disrespect to their victims in saying so. The descriptions of their force-feeding during their hunger strike are harrowing, and Keefe makes a fairly good case for the lifelong aftereffects seriously impacting the sisters’ health. Above all, Jean McConville emerges as a poignant victim. Whether or not she was a “tout,” as the I.R.A. claimed, she can’t have been providing much useful information, and if she was spying for the British, one can hardly blame her for trying to take care of her ten children, whose lives were irrevocably destroyed by their mother’s murder.

My husband and I listened to this on audio together. Matthew Blaney is an actor from Northern Ireland, and I have to say, it’s something else to hear this story narrated by someone who sounds like the people Keefe is writing about. I would definitely listen to Matthew Blaney read again, even if I have to put up with Steve mimicking an Irish accent into the bargain. His reading is an interpretation of the text—where he emphasizes, the listener learns to pay attention. As much as I recommend the audio, I know I missed some details (as well as the Notes), so I downloaded the book on Kindle for a re-read when I get the chance.

Definitely one of the top nonfiction books I’ve read in some time. It’s gripping, and it is told almost like a mystery novel (especially if you don’t know as much about The Troubles). The book’s final revelations will leave your head spinning.

I made a Spotify playlist about music inspired by The Troubles.

five-stars