Review | Last Night at the Viper Room

Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind by Gavin Edwards

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River Phoenix is forever a striking 23-year-old with unrealized potential after the teen idol died of a tragic overdose outside a West Hollywood club.

I was just a kid when River Phoenix died but I was aware of the collective shock from his death. He was a star on the rise — a child actor about to truly break out as leading man — and with his abrupt end came all the sadness of wondering what could’ve been, cementing his brief legacy.

Last Night at the Viper Room is an interesting in-depth look at River’s life: the unconventional childhood, his family’s time in the Children of God cult, the film roles he began to select for himself, his drug habits and its effect in his personal and professional life.

I learned a lot about the actor and enjoyed the overall examination of 90s American culture and River’s impact on it.

Review | She Came to Slay

She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

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School taught me that Harriet Tubman was a brave hero that freed hundreds of enslaved people through the network known as the Underground Railroad. That’s all true and yet, I knew nothing else about her life and how she came to be such a badass.

She Came to Slay is a wonderful biography that offers insight into Tubman’s childhood, marriages, abolitionist leadership, suffragist work, and her time as a Union spy during the Civil War.
This was an informative read about a fascinating woman and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in American history!

Review | Carry On

Carry On: Reflections for a New Generation by John Lewis

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Congressman John Lewis dedicated a great deal of his last months on earth to leaving behind a message to future generations.
The brief memories, advice, and musings collected here are organized by topics like courage and forgiveness. They’re all thoughtful and highly reflective and carry extra weight knowing that Lewis knew how limited his remaining time was.

John Lewis was a brilliant man ahead of his time and his advice to get in to “good trouble” will remain a call to action for all future activists.

Review | She Come By It Natural

She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs by Sarah Smarsh

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I cannot begin to explain or understand the magic of Dolly Parton. She’s a savvy businesswoman and appears to be one of the kindest and most generous human beings on the planet, not to mention the fact that she’s created an entire career out of playing a role and making jokes at her own expense while always maintaining the real upper hand. Her career has been fascinating even if you’re not a fan of her music. I absolutely love the fact this woman is in total control of her image and after finding success continues to give back to her community.

She Come By It Natural is a four part collection originally published by No Depression magazine that looks at Dolly’s contribution to social progress for women, examining her life and songs; and how they spoke to author Sarah Smarsh and the women in her family.

I’ll pretty much read anything about Dolly Parton because I feel like we’re all searching for a clue to solve a mystery. But I’m perfectly content to continue to simply marvel at her kindness and sense of humor.

Review | Mary Shelley: The Strange True Tale of Frankenstein’s Creator

Mary Shelley: The Strange True Tale of Frankenstein’s Creator by Catherine Reef

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The life of Mary Shelley was full of romance and tragedy. At just sixteen she ran away with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and they lived together, unwed, as Shelley couldn’t afford to divorce the wife of his two children. During a cold and wet summer on the shores of Lake Geneva, the couple stayed with poet Lord Byron and shared ghost stories to pass the time. It was there late one night that Mary imagined Dr. Frankenstein and his monster for the first time.

While she gained some success for her novel, tragedy followed her as she lost many of her loved ones, including three of her children. This YA biography is a fantastic look at a young woman ahead of her time: a brilliant and unconventional woman who promoted feminism and wasn’t afraid to live life on her own terms.

While there isn’t anything new to learn within these pages, this biography does a wonderful job of giving the important details about her life and career and is compelling enough that I finished it in two sittings. It includes an excellent list of sources for readers interested in further reading.
For readers interested in learning about Mary Shelley, I highly recommend this book as well as Mary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein (read my review here) by Lita Judge.

 

Review | California Dreamin’

California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas by Pénélope Bagieu

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Thanks to the Litsy community (seriously, you should go download the Litsy app now!) I’ve discovered a love of graphic novels.  I especially love graphic novel biographies, like Mary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein.

I recently discovered this graphic novel that tells the story of Ellen Cohen, who later became known as Cass Elliot/Mama Cass, beginning in early childhood up until fame with the music group the Mamas & the Papas.

Each chapter is written from the perspective of an important person in Cass’s life, including: her sister, mom, dad, voice teacher, and bandmates.

Ellen Cohen grew up in Baltimore, where her family owned a deli.  She had big dreams of becoming a star and dropped out of high school just two months before graduation to pursue her dreams in New York City.  It was there that Ellen began using the stage name Cass Elliot.

From there, we learn about Cass’s music career, beginning with The Big 3, to The Mugwumps, and eventually The Journeymen who then became known as the Mamas & the Papas once Cass joined.
The inspiration for the Mamas & the Papas biggest hit (California Dreamin’) is explained, as well as how Cass managed to work her way in to the band when leader John Phillips didn’t want her to join.
The love triangle between members Michelle, John, and Denny (who Cass was in love with) is briefly discussed and the story ends on Cass’s 24th birthday when “California Dreamin'” is a hit song and John confronts Michelle and Denny about their affair.  Cass is in tears when she realizes the future she imagined for the band will not happen.

This is a great look into the early life of Cass Elliot, covering her talents, struggles, and success.
If you’re interested in the music of the Mamas & the Papas, graphic novels, and/or biographies, I highly recommend picking up California Dreamin’ for a quick read!

 

Review | In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin

In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum

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Sometimes I judge a book by its cover.  When I saw the photo of leather jacket clad Marie Colvin with a small smile and an eye patch, I instantly wanted to know more about her because she sure looks like she has some stories!

I knew nothing about Colvin going in and the more I read I would shake my head in disbelief that this is a true story!

Long Island raised and Yale educated, Marie Colvin went on to work for The Sunday Times in London and rose to fame for her bravery and compassion.  Influenced by war correspondent Martha Gallhorn and also her late father’s love of politics and writing (and constantly seeking his approval even in death), Marie gave a voice to the victims of the major conflicts of her time.
She interviewed both Gaddafi and Arafat and risked her life countless times entering war zones in East Timor, Kosovo, and Sierra Leone.
She’d spend weeks or sometimes months on the front line reporting when communication was available and then jet around the world to places like London and Paris where she’d meet, love, and fight with countless lovers and friends.

Marie always hoped for a solid marriage and children of her own but these were the two things that eluded her.  Twice divorced, Marie’s relationships were passionate and dramatic like all aspects of her life but couldn’t withstand the intensity.

August 26, 1992. What we as Western journalists should do in Iraq, as anywhere else, is try to make it understandable. It is now a place of mystery and violence to most Americans. Always my family is worried when I say I’m here and doesn’t believe me when I say Baghdad is one of my favorite cities in the world. But you are a difficult people to explain, people of extremes, capable of extreme toughness and extreme sentimentality.

Marie Colvin lived two lives simultaneously, each with equal passion.
Her journals detail a woman longing for stability in the form of a faithful husband and a family of her own while also detailing thrilling flings and carefree adventures and parties with friends.
At the drop of a hat, she’d get on a plane to fly to the Middle East to report the horrors of war with little more than the clothes on her back.

“Marie never practiced partisan journalism, the kind that adopts a cause and reports only the facts that advance it. Having no ideology, she never flinched from reporting stories that cast a bad light on people for whom she had sympathy. She was simply drawn to the underdog.”

At 56, Marie lost an eye to shrapnel while reporting in Sri Lanka.  Already suffering from a drinking problem and depression, she now endured PTSD from her time in the field.  She began to fear she was losing her nerve.

“She could survive seven weeks in a war zone without alcohol even though, by many measures, she was an alcoholic. She had suffered PTSD because of her conflict experiences, yet she was in her element in a place where death was a constant danger. Personal pain could blind her to the needs of others, yet she thought of her friends in London while under extreme stress and when communication was difficult. She identified too closely with those she saw as victims of war, and yet her reporting was calibrated and contextualized.”

In Extremis is a fascinating look at the life and death of a daring and unpredictable woman.  I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy biographies and journalism.

Review | Up Jumped the Devil

Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson by Bruce Conforth, Gayle Dean Wardlow

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Everyone knows the story about blues musician Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil at a Mississippi crossroads to become the greatest guitar player the world had ever seen.
Most have probably heard the story about the bluesman being cut down in his prime by a bitter woman who poisoned him.

Johnson’s legacy is full of tall tales and inaccuracies that were never corrected after his untimely death.

Few facts are known about Robert Johnson’s life and those that are have rarely been shared because most prefer to believe the tall tales that create a myth rather than a man.

“What we produced is a book based not on conjecture about Robert Johnson, but on first-person accounts of who he actually was. By doing so we hope to free Johnson from being the sign and myth that blues fan created and return him to his human particulars.” *

Up Jumped the Devil collects these first-person accounts to share the story of Johnson’s life from birth to death and includes birth, marriage, and death certificates along with census records and a surprisingly complete geneaology.

Readers learn that Johnson was born the illegitmate son of Noah Johnson and Julia Dodds.  Julia left Noah Johnson when Robert was still an infant and eventually turned to her ex-husband (whom she had three previous children with), Charles Spencer (former last name Dodds), for help with the children.  Julia left all of her children, including Robert, with Charles and his new wife Mollie while she struck out to find a way to support herself.

Robert grew up believing Charles Spencer was his father and it wasn’t until much later he learned about Noah Johnson.  Still, the Spencers became Robert’s true family and he divided his time between Memphis and the Delta to be near them.

His mother eventually came to collect him from the Spencer home after she married a sharecropper and Robert was expected to work the fields and could no longer attend school.

Robert’s disinterest in field work angered his stepfather and Robert would often disappear to visit the Spencers and ramble around with his guitar, which became his passion.

The one and only thing that ever took Robert away from his guitar was love.  In 1929 he married Virginia Travis and became a sharecropper to support his wife.  By the end of the year, Virginia was expecting their first child and she eventually traveled to her grandmother’s home to prepare for the baby’s birth.

Tragically, Viriginia and the baby died from birth complications and it wasn’t until Robert arrived weeks later that he learned of their deaths.  Virginia’s family blamed Robert’s music for the deaths of his wife and child.  Robert’s friends say he turned his back on God after their deaths.

At 19 years old Robert Johnson had lost his wife and his child.  He eventually headed South to look for his biological father but instead found a friend and guitar mentor in Ike Zimmerman.  Zimmerman helped Johnson realize his unique sound and part of their rehearsals led to the infamous myth of the Devil’s Crossroads.
Ike’s daughter admits her father practiced guitar with Robert Johnson in a graveyard but laughs at the crossroads myth; she thinks it was for the peace and quiet so they wouldn’t be interrupted.

“They would leave and go to that cemetery. It’s got them old tombstones, you know some of them new, it was some of them old ones. He’d sit back there with him. He wasn’t at no crossroads. [It] was just a path. There wasn’t no crossroads. They went ‘cross the road [laughs]. ‘Cause you gotta go across [the] road and go to that cemetery. They went over there and sat on the tombstones. Exactly. And that’s where they was. Sitting there playing.” *

By age 25, Robert’s dream was realized when he became a recorded bluesman and his records could be found on jukeboxes and in record shops.  He managed to record eight songs in his first session, which couldn’t have been easy when he’d spent the previous night in jail and taken a beating.

As Robert’s fame grew, so did the tall tales.

“Since Robert never spoke about his family or background, none of his musical acquaintances had any idea that he had received music lessons in school in Memphis, that his older stepbrother Charles had given him some lessons on the guitar and piano, that he literally got beatings for devoting his time to music instead of field work, that he had apprenticed with Ike Zimmerman, one of Mississippi’s finest guitarists, nor that he might have had an eidetic memory for music. To them he was just a natural genius. They had no idea of the hours, months, and years he had devoted to learning his craft. Instead, his contemporaries attributed his abilities to some unseen talent that none of them possessed.” *


“Given Robert’s seemingly effortless abilities, it’s understandable that some people attributed his skills to supernatural forces. How else could one man be so good at so many different styles of playing? And Robert, as protective of his playing technique as he was, was certainly not going to reveal any of his secrets to anyone.” *

Johnson’s journey was a downward spiral, especially after he got a local girl pregnant.  He tried to get her and the baby to leave with him but the girl’s family obviously thought Robert was no good and the girl listened to her family, refusing to leave after he asked countless times.

Robert’s livelihood was juking.  He went from town to town performing, chasing women, and drinking heavily.

“He couldn’t seem to stay away from imminent dangers or dangerous women. He had no love for working in the cotton fields and the church had no appeal. All he could do was keep moving and try to outrun the danger, both imaginary and real.” *

It comes as no surprise that Robert Johnson’s downfall was a woman.

After a man discovered his wife was having an affair with Johnson, he dissolved several mothballs into a jar of corn liquor, which his wife shared with Johnson during a break from his performance.  The tasteless poison isn’t usually fatal; normally it causes no more than a bout of nausea, vomiting, and confusion.
However, Robert had been diagnosed a month before with an ulcer and esophageal varices.  The poison caused the ulcer and varices to hemorrhage and Robert Johnson died a slow and painful death at the age of 27.

Up Jumped the Devil is a fascinating look at Robert Johnson’s brief life, from his incredible talent to his inner demons.  It strives to give an accurate account of a man who became a musician, rather than a musician who became a legend, and I believe it succeeds in its delivery.

While we’re left with far more questions than answers, it’s easy to see in this book the events that shaped Robert Johnson and his music.  It may not be as shocking as the legend of the Devil’s Crossroads but the truth is just as appealing for me personally.  I’m happy to finally have some solid facts about this talented musician.

Thanks to Chicago Review Press and Edelweiss for providing me with a DRC in exchange for my honest review. Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson is scheduled for release on June 4, 2019.

*Quotes included are from a digital review copy and are subject to change upon final publication.

Review | The Lady from the Black Lagoon

The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick by Mallory O’Meara

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I had never heard the name Milicent Patrick until last year when this book began to appear on lists for upcoming releases.  I was immediately intrigued by the idea that a woman in 1950’s Hollywood was responsible for creating the legendary monster (often called Gill Man) in Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The Lady from the Black Lagoon is part biography and part detective story, covering the life of Milicent Patrick as well as Mallory O’Meara’s journey to unearth clues about Patrick’s film legacy.

O’Meara is up front about the fact that there isn’t a lot of solid proof of Patrick’s contibutions to special effects in film since most artists/designers were not credited during that era.

With little to go on, O’Meara did an impressive amount of research to piece together Patrick’s fascinating life:  she grew up near the grounds of “Hearst Castle” (her father was an architect for William Randolph Hearst’s grand home in San Simeon), her early romantic life was filled with tragedy, and she became one of Walt Disney’s first female animators.

Milicent eventually began working in the makeup department at Universal Studios, led by Bud Westmore.  She worked on several of their horror movies and in an unusual publicity move, Universal sent her on a promotional tour for the upcoming release of Creature from the Black Lagoon to discuss the creature and its design. She was asked to credit only Bud Westmore for its creation and she agreed. People became enamored with Milicent; she had charm and an unusual profession that they were fascinated by.
When Milicent returned to California, she was shocked to find she’d been fired by Bud Westmore.  It appeared that Bud was unhappy Universal sent Milicent on a press tour and that his name was being ignored while she was in the spotlight.  With Westmore against Milicent, she’d never work in special effects again.

Milicent Patrick was estranged from most of her family, didn’t have children, and most of her friends had also passed on by the time O’Meara began research for her book.  These factors made it extremely tough to put together a complete biography so a lot of the text is pure speculation.
Some readers may be uncomfortable with few solid facts, gaps in time, and speculation on events and emotions.

I enjoyed this book as it gave a voice to both Milicent Patrick and Mallory O’Meara.  O’Meara’s writing is conversational, witty, and extremely inviting.  She tells us when and why she became interested in Milicent Patrick and the importance of Patrick’s legacy.

This isn’t a traditional biography; it also contains a memoir with the author’s personal history and opinions and a look at the history of misogyny in the film industry.

O’Meara was inspired by Milicent Patrick’s professional accomplishments which are a rarity in the film industry, especially in the 1950’s.  She researched Patrick in order to get a better understanding of her role model, to acknowledge the accomplishments Hollywood didn’t credit, and to inspire females everywhere.

O’Meara’s last line sums up her journey perfectly:

“Milicent Patrick’s legacy isn’t just a body of influential work. It’s also an invitation.”

The Lady from the Black Lagoon covers several genres:  film/history, feminism, non-fiction, biography, memoir, and humor (O’Meara’s footnotes and occasional non-chalant use of the word ‘motherfucker’ made me smile).

Thanks to Hanover Square Press for sending me an advanced readers copy and Goodreads for hosting the ARC giveaway!

The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick will be released on March 5, 2019*.

(I love the release date is March 5th because that’s also the day in 1954 that Creature from the Black Lagoon was released!)

Review | Josephine Baker’s Last Dance

Josephine Baker’s Last Dance by Sherry Jones

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I must say I didn’t know very much about Josephine Baker.  It wasn’t until I read the short children’s picture book biography in the Little People, Big Dreams series to my daughter that I learned she wasn’t just an entertainer but a woman who fought for Civil Rights equality and joined the French Resistance to destroy Hitler during World War II.

The short children’s biography was so brief and yet I was fascinated!  When I found Josephine Baker’s Last Dance on NetGalley earlier this year, I absolutely had to request it.

This book brings to life Baker’s most monumental moments, beginning in childhood when her mother hired her out as a servant to white people in St. Louis.  She suffered abuse not only at the hands of the people she served but also her own mother and step-father.

With an unstable home life, Josephine found herself living and sleeping with men when she was still a child.  Her love of music inspires her to perform and she begins touring with all black revues as a dancer.  She eventually makes her way to Paris, where she finds that segregation does not exist.

Josephine’s career explodes; she becomes the first black woman to dance nude on the Paris stage and the first to lead a movie and star in an opera.  Along the way she falls in love often and has a fierce sexual appetite, taking lovers in most cities she tours.

When Hitler gains control in Germany, Josephine will not forget the Nazis who scared her in Berlin and vows to bring them down.  She’s given the opportunity a few years later when she’s recruited in to the French Resistance; collecting important information from the government officials who occupy her night clubs and hope to seduce her.

Disgusted with segregation in America, Josephine refused to return to her home country to many years.  When she does return on tour, she is shocked to find nothing has changed and eventually chooses to dedicate her life to fighting prejudice.

Josephine Baker’s life was a whirlwind — there are so many daring and thrilling things she did in her life from a troubled teen searching for affection she didn’t receive at home, to flirtatious showgirl, to government spy, to Civil Rights activist!

The amount of fame Baker had in Europe was astonishing.  She was the sweetheart of Paris who could do no wrong for a time and I can only compare it to the stardom of modern day pop stars like Britney Spears in the early 2000’s.

Powerfully written, at times brazen and always unapologetically truthful like the woman herself, Sherry Jones has documented both the triumphs and tragedies of Josephine Baker, the bold woman who was ahead of her time in every way.

Thanks to Gallery Books and NetGalley for providing an ARC in exchange for my honest review.  Josephine Baker’s Last Dance is scheduled for release on December 4, 2018.