Wrapped in Rainbows

When Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston was published in 2002 it was the first comprehensive biographical work on Zora Neale Hurston in more than twenty-five years, and while there were books that followed quickly behind it, Wrapped in Rainbows feels like the definitive work on its subject. I was familiar with Hurston’s life before picking this up – she hangs large in the world of Florida writers – but there was still plenty left for me to know, and nuance and details that I had yet to come across, and far from what has become the go to shorthand (that she died poor and was buried in an unmarked grave).  The biography provides a rich depiction of Hurston’s life through her eyes and the eyes of her friends, associates, and sometimes enemies.

Zora Neale Hurston published seven books, many short stories, and several articles and plays over a career that spanned more than thirty years. She also lied about her age to receive free public education (passing for 16 at 26), eventually going on to Howard University. Valerie Boyd delves into all that as well as the rest of Hurston’s history, not shying away from any of the things which make Hurston who she was, but by representing Hurston in all her complexity. Hurston emerges as a woman who lived her life according to her own terms, amid societal constraints that limited her financial resources, but not her independence. Boyd engages with the complex differences between Hurston and other black writers of the Harlem Renaissance and after. Perhaps the only shortcoming of Boyd’s writing is in her objectivity as she sometimes wrote more from an admirer’s point of view, not leaving room for the possibility that Hurston’s actions or choices could have put her in the wrong.

Children of Monsters (CBR13 #53)

Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators

I had been looking forward to this one for a while, and I’m bummed I didn’t enjoy the reading experience more. I know, you’re wondering what exactly I thought I’d be “enjoying” while reading about the titular “children of monsters” in Jay Nordlinger’s 2015 book. I find the human mind fascinating, and when it comes to some of the biggest “monsters” of the twentieth century, how much could be expected to travel from parent to child? I’m not sure Nordlinger is the author to write the kind of book I was actually looking for or expecting when I picked this up. I was on the hunt for a book that was a psychological study of these people, and the milieus they were developed in, but that is not really this book, unfortunately.

Structurally the book is comprised of biographies to tell a story through the historical narrative. Each chapter is a description of a dictator and his children. Nordlinger is obviously attempting to build a case for a handful of psychological profiles of the progeny of dictators. The problem is, it smacks of armchair psychology. Nordlinger states what seems right to him without considering empirical data, without accessing the larger body of psychological work. In fairness to the author, he does have a good amount of primary sources in the form of books and interviews with people in positions to know at least some of the truth, but it falls short.

One downside was the failure to define dictatorship at the start, the author decides what he wants a dictatorship to be for his needs and announces his loose organizational structure in the Foreword and jumps in. What becomes clear is that the dictators are cherry picked to suit a certain western audience. There was no mention of South American dictators which is a glaring omission. The other component is that dictators’ regimes are often hermit kingdoms, closed in many important ways to the outside world. Which made getting information for this book, and providing appropriate context difficult and made it even stranger that these 20 were chosen, or that it was 20 at all.

The author’s tone also threw me off, its both often too sympathetic towards people who have done terrible things as well as being very casual with the reader generally. The idea, I’m guessing, is to set up the experience like a conversation, but it just doesn’t quite hit the right balance in order to be approachable while also maintaining intellectual authority. By failing to maintain the balance the writing does not match the seriousness of the topic, nor does the book commit to being lighter pop history fare.

Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn (CBR10 #50)

When the Cannonballers were voting for the AlabamaPink book club this book was my second choice (my first choice was Between the Bridge and the River and I’ll be talking about my feelings on that one in my next review) so choosing this for the AlabamaPink bingo square made perfect sense to me. I like biographies, Audrey Hepburn, and classic Hollywood – done and done.


I am however left underwhelmed by the reading experience of this book. I think it can be attributed to the style of Donald Spoto. Spoto is a writer and theologian known for his best-selling biographies of film and theatre celebrities, including Alfred Hitchcock, Laurence Olivier, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Marlene Dietrich, and Marilyn Monroe. However, in the past forty years he has written around thirty books and I fear they may have become formulaic, or I am over a several hundred page walk through someone’s life in chronological order.

This isn’t to say that Audrey Hepburn’s life wasn’t incredibly interesting in and of its own right – she lived through parental divorce, spending years at boarding school, living in Nazi-occupied Holland, an incredible rise to Hollywood stardom, her own failed marriages, struggles in motherhood, and important work with UNICEF in the later years of her life. I wish this book was as alive as Hepburn was; that it relished the life she lead instead of lapping at the edges of her deep ocean.

While I would agree that Spoto is perceptive and well-researched (his endnotes give this evidence, you wouldn’t necessarily know from the tenor of his writing), he is also as Michael Coveney of The Guardian described him: “quasi-academic gossipmonger”. Somewhere in between he lost me, and a review of a biography is a review of the writer and their product – not the subject.

I went back and read AlabamaPink’s review from 2008 and while she was much warmer in her reception of the book than me, she and I share a similar opinion of the author’s take: “Spoto chronicles Hepburn’s personal struggles gently, as a close friend would, never with an air of salaciousness. If there were any faults to the book, it would be Spoto’s obvious admiration for his subject. He finds little fault with any of her film performances, heaping enormous praise (not wholly undue) for her work in A Nun’s Story. While the cynic in me could argue that Spoto intentionally omitted negative remarks about Hepburn from Hollywood, it isn’t hard to accept that her colleagues genuinely adored her and simply didn’t have a slanderous word to say against her.”

I guess I’m the cynic.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of our fallen warrior queen, AlabamaPink.


The Holy or the Broken (CBR10 #11)

Image result for the holy or the broken

In much the same way that my brother’s visit inspired me to pick up Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry the Winter Olympics pushed me to move The Holy or the Broken up my to read pile. There were several figure skaters who performed to some version of “Hallelujah” and I’ve always had an interest in this iconoclast of a song, so the book was already on its way to me by happenstance (it was however delayed by over 20 days in arriving thanks to some unforeseen issues in the library transit system. The snail was epically slow.)

But the delay meant that I had the book ready to go after watching these performers interpret the song in a physical setting, making me all the more ready to read what amounts to an oral history of the path of this unlikely success story.

First, my bona fides: I’m not entirely sure when I first heard this song, but it was probably the Jeff Buckley version, and most likely sometime between 1998 and 2000. That however was no less than the third iteration of the song and it would have been about fifteen years old, and at least five since that specific rendition was recorded. But, I got on the “Hallelujahtrain before Rufus Wainwright and Shrek.

In The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, & the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah, Alan Light traces the history of the song’s creation, its reinventions, and its turn as a pop standard of the American Songbook. Since its debut on Cohen’s Various Positions album in 1984 “Hallelujah” has never held still. Light chronicles Cohen’s career leading up to and moving to what amounts to the present day as this book was published in 2012, as well as highlighting the other major recordings of the song. He unpacks the differences in each version, and how the song sustains such a diversity of interpretation. This book  looks at the personalities, and the situations that led to different renditions while engaging in a discussion of how the listening public has seemingly moved beyond listening to the meaning of the lyrics and how “Hallelujah” has become an emotional touchstone which cues us to emote, or allows us the space to do so.

Light also lets in the conversation about whether or not there is too much “Hallelujah” in pop culture these days, and what the effects of Jeff Buckley’s untimely death had on the legend of his iteration of the song. In some ways this is a slim work, by tracing two artists, one with a tragically short career and the other who stepped away from the limelight for years at a time and zoning in on their one shared song Light gives himself tight parameters. It doesn’t stop him from discussing other interpreters of the song including Bono, or Paramore, but it does mean that in some chapters he is retreading the same ground. There is only so much to say, or so much insight to be gained, from the ubiquity of the song on singing contest show circuit in the early to mid-2000s. But at 231 pages, those times are blissfully brief.

I can only suggest this book to people who have a sincere fondness for the song, or one of its nearly two dozen covers. I enjoyed my reading during the recent nor’easter, but I cannot say that the experience would necessarily be shared by many others.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, race to 52, review how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (CBR8 #39)

In finishing Hamilton: The Revolution, and being mired by yet another round of inequality for women in our country, I decided to stay the course with another non-fiction book, this one about a dynamo of gender equality. I was familiar with Justice Ginsburg, but Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg gave me so much more.

Notorious RBG chronicles the personal history of RBG, her experiences in law school and pursuing a law career while being a mother (not an easy job ever, but certainly difficult in the 1950s and 1960s), her work as an educator, a founder of the Women’s Rights Project for the ACLU, the cases she presented to the Supreme Court, her eventual move to a judgeship on the Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., and her eventual nomination and confirmation to the Supreme Court in 1993 as only the second female justice following Sandra Day O’Connor.

But it also does more than that.

The book strives to introduce us to RBG’s life’s work, and why it became her life’s work in the first place. I tweeted about my first “aha” moment in the book when I came across the timeline which makes up chapter 2, and I read this:

historic rape culture

And then I was even more invested. I tweeted about it, and got the most retweets and likes than I’ve ever had and the book just kept the ball rolling, including great academic notes on some of RBG’s writings for the court about equality under the law. As someone whose favorite amendment is the fourteenth, I am now even more in love with the Notorious RBG.


The Real Jane Austen (CBR7 #35)

Last year I reviewed Jane’s Fame and was quite pleased with it. That book chronicled the evolution of the popularity of Austen’s books over the course of the past two hundred years. Over on the Cannonball Read our very own Time Lord, Bonnie suggested to me this book: The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things after that review. I put it on the list for CBR7 and here we are.

The Real Jane Austen tackles the mystery of the well-known author.  Following Austen’s death her family published the ‘official’ biographies which were tinged with a certain view of the author. In many ways they were very conservative and demur in their account of her life and abilities. In this work author Paula Byrne works to take the existent writings, both published and personal of Austen as well as objects known to have been in possession or use by her, and place the author into a more accurate picture culturally and historically – in that way providing a ‘real’ look at a slightly mysterious figure.

For the most part I felt that Byrne does a great job of giving us the author in context. By chronicling the various objects and how they are reflected in her writings a clearer picture of both the time period and the person doing the writing. The idea that Austen was writing about ‘three or four families in a country village’ is upended as Byrne works to show how Austen was exposed to the greater world both by her own travels, but by those of her large and extended family.

This is an interesting, but not perfect book. Each of the 18 chapters could easily have been shortened by five pages. The author writes from the perspective of a historian, which is good and practical in a work which means to be research based, but can often read dryly. This alone prevents me from moving up my ranking from 3 stars to 4. However, if you are interested in the history of the era or a more in depth look at Jane Austen, this would be a good choice.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Typhoid Mary (CBR6 #39)

After reading Kitchen Confidential this summer I decided to add all of Anthony Bourdain’s books to my To Read pile. Given my slightly OCD nature I went immediately to Goodreads to figure out which book was next by publication date, not knowing which came first, A Cook’s Tour  or Medium Raw (it’s A Cook’s Tour for those equally as worried about these things as I am). While looking for that information I came across another book Bourdain authored.  This one wasn’t an autobiographical work and its publication date preceded A Cook’s Tour. It looks as though in 2001 Mr. Bourdain spent some time researching the infamous Typhoid Mary, and that I would be reading all about it.

I read this book quickly (a few hours over two days), its short (only about 140 pages) and Mr. Bourdain is many things, but a historian is not one of them (he knows it too, and refers constantly to looking at Mary’s life through that of their shared experiences as cooks in New York) but it was certainly a pleasing look into a life I thought I knew a lot about, but it turns out I knew very little. Bourdain chronicles, in an almost diary fashion, the events of 1904-1915 and the rise and fall of the specter of Typhoid Mary. All told with the now easily recognizable Bourdain delivery familiar to those who have read his books or watched his television shows.

This is not a definitive work on the subject, and shouldn’t be looked at as such. It is instead an appetizer of a larger story. It highlights what the culinary world was like at the turn of the last century, hints at the Irish immigrant experience, pulls back the veil about the beginnings of the health commission, and gives a glimpse at the life of Mary Mallon, the woman who would become known the world around as Typhoid Mary. This is a succinct, adroit, and relatable biography about a seemingly unrelatable public persona.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

I Don’t Know Where You Know Me From (CBR6 #24)

I actually began writing this review before I had finished the book. I have been having a WEEK, one where the photo of Louis C.K. giving himself the finger in the mirror about sums it up, and when I got the email from the library that I Don’t Know Where You Know Me From was waiting for me to come pick it up from the waitlist I rushed over to take it home for some reading therapy. I put down the book I was currently reading, ignored the one I was planning to read instead as a quick read, and dove right in.

This was a decision that I completely and totally believe was correct in every way. I finished two thirds of the book in that first sitting, and bounded through the last third quickly thereafter. I didn’t know much about Judy Greer personally when I picked up the book. I knew where I had first seen her (The David Schwimmer/Jason Lee comedy Kissing a Fool) and where else I had seen/heard her along the way that would likely qualify as the “where I know her from” (The Wedding Planner, 27 Dresses, Mad Love, Archer, The Descendants) but I knew practically nothing about Judy as a person. By dividing her book up into three sections Ms. Greer introduces us to who she is, what her career is like, and what it means to be a working actress and have a personal life that attempts to look like everyone else’s normal life.

And, she’s funny to boot. This certainly doesn’t hurt when you’re reading for pleasure. And that is exactly what this book is, a pleasure read. Is it going to change your life or make you a better human? Probably not. Is it going to give you new insight into the life of a working actor? Maybe. Is it going to offer up fun quirks of a life that’s not yours? Yep. I think my favorite tidbit is that Judy Greer is best friends with Sean Gunn who played Kirk on Gilmore Girls. My pet peeves for this book? Greer’s consistent references to IMDb (I love the website, but she refers to it no less than 5 times in a book that barely registers over 250 pages) and her misspelling of Jason Lee’s name (seriously editors? It’s not Leigh, its LEE a fact easily checked on the aforementioned IMDb). That aside, I couldn’t recommend this book enough for a quick, happy pleasure read this summer.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.


Jane’s Fame (CBR6 #9)


I fell in love with Jane Austen sometime around 1996. I think the first time I read one of her books was when it was assigned to me my sophomore year of high school, and I’m pretty sure it was Pride and Prejudice but it may have been Sense and Sensibility. I’m just not sure anymore. In the intervening years I have consumed all six of her major novels, getting the final one read last year, and have partaken in many, but certainly not all, of the various movies and miniseries that have been produced in the same time period. And this is how I came to my own personal love of Austen. In Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World Claire Harmon explains through a detailed study how the works of Jane Austen, relatively little noticed at the time of their publication, have become such powerhouses in the world market and how legions of readers have fallen in love with them across two centuries.

The first two chapters focus in on Austen during her lifetime, and what we are able to know of her from her professional writings and her personal ones which were published after her death. It was fun to revisit some of the personal history I had picked up along the way, and some things which were new. The time period I knew the least about her growing fame and that was unfamiliar to me was that surrounding the two world wars and specifically her pervasiveness in the trenches of WWI. These are highlighted in the third and fourth chapters which highlight the impact of Austen’s great grand nieces and nephews in the later part of the 1800s and how their decisions lead to a new round of popularity for Austen which carried into the war period. The final chapters focus on the modern popularity of all things Austen.

The majority of Harmon’s work is focusing on why Austen’s work has not only remained but grown more popular over time. She tracks the critical appraisal of Austen’s work and explores what was being said about the works. One of the earliest critiques of Austen’s work is its narrowness that it only speaks of “three or four families in a country village.” Harmon argues that this is actually what makes it accessible the world over. The plots of money and marriage are as relatable to someone living in Asia in 2014 and they were to Austen’s original British audience in 1814. Harman goes on to say that “the most empathetic readers of Austen may well be in modern-day Africa, where the Church of England is at its most traditional, and where family structures still resemble those familiar to the author” (199).

The flexibility of the text in the hands of its readers lends itself to continued attention and conversation. By a certain point in the twentieth century Austen’s work was being used by all sides of any given argument, used to support the patriarchy as well as supporting feminism. Oh, and Marxism. And Feminist Marxism. For example the critical understandings of Mansfield Park moved from the topics of transgressing boundaries and metaphors for improvement (the aborted production of Lover’s Vows and the trip to Sotherton respectively) and into colonial studies and exploitation of slaves in more recent works and studies.

Spin off publications, another popular Austen experience (Death at Pemberly, anyone?) start as early as 1913 with Sybil G. Brinton’s Old Friends and New Fancies which has major characters from each of the six novels by Austen interacting with one another. It’s another avenue of Austen popularity. But most of the popularity comes directly from the unique writing habits of Austen. Austen worked on her novels for nearly two decades, refining them over many drafts, and then publishing those means that she appears to have worked to keep them without defining timeliness. While she is writing during years of war and social upheaval, they are generally out of view. And descriptions are vague enough to have the reader put in their own idea of what a house “suitable to the fortune of the proprietor” is as Pemberly is described.

The most modern round of popularity started in the mid-1990s. The surge was associated with the famous BBC Pride and Prejudice mini-series and that wet shirt. There were five Austen productions in 18 months between 1995-1996, including my favorite, Sense and Sensibility starring Emma Thompson. The problem with movie adaptations, that Harmon points out dates back to the 1930s, is that they are the least likely to have a strict interpretation. For example, another favorite of mine, for various reasons, 1999’s Mansfield Park abandons Austen’s characterization of its heroine Fanny Price and replaces it with a version of the historical Austen, a spirited would-be writer.

I know I’ve summarized the book at seeming length, but there is so much that I haven’t touched upon. If this review is of interest to you, then so will the book.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.