Review | Crazy Brave

Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo

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I’ve stacked several books by Joy Harjo over the last couple years but it wasn’t until she was recently named our U.S. Poet Laureate that I finally grabbed this memoir from the library!

Harjo masterfully weaves her life story with tribal myth, poetry, and stream of conciousness.

From the loss of her father to abuse at the hands of her step-father, Harjo (of the Muscogee/Creek Nation) found healing as a teen at the Institute of American Indian Arts.  Later, she was able to break the pattern of abuse in her life and overcome poverty; raising two children and pursuing her passion for music and poetry.

At under 200 pages, this is a brief but powerful glimpse into Harjo’s life.  I keep coming back to the vulnerability she shares with readers and how she ultimately found the strength to listen to her inner voice and take control of her own life.

Crazy Brave is a beautiful memoir written in an original voice.  I would’ve loved more detail but deeply appreciate what Harjo has chosen to share and the style in which she shares it.

I recommend this to readers interested in memoir, poetry, and Native American heritage/tradition.

 

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Review | The Moment of Lift

The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates

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I’ve known for years that Melinda Gates is an inspiring philanthropist who has worked mostly behind the scenes. This book brings her into the spotlight and focuses on her investment in women across the globe; giving them access to contraceptives and education while lifting their voices to create equality and opportunities to advance their lives.

Gates strongly believes in a woman’s choice to decide whether and when to have children and even speaks candidly about her own use of contraception to space out the growth of her family.  As a devoted Catholic, she has received major backlash from the church for her contraception advocacy.

The book covers many heated topics surrounding women’s rights around the world and discusses brutal topics like female genital mutilation, sex work, and child marriage with the powerful stories of women Gates met in her travels to educate herself on the issues.

Gates doesn’t sit in a room and look at the numbers and statistics and throw money at them; she travels to locations around the world to listen to the stories and find out what these women need to flourish.

The word “abortion” has triggered so many strong reactions, especially in recent weeks, and I loved that this book does not at any point debate abortion but instead focuses on the issues that directly effect the debate, especially access to contraceptives, medical facilities, and education.  Gates offers compelling stories, statistics, and evidence that a woman’s ability to make choices, especially those that directly effect her body and her family dynamic, impact everyone in positive ways.

Gates has a strong voice and she is using it to break down barriers and change the conversation to focus on the real issues.  I appreciate her compassion and determination to change lives.
While there are some statistics listed throughout to drive home a point, this book primarily focuses on the personal stories of women in several countries and offers rational insight into the cause and effects of the topics discussed.

The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World is a thoughtful and engaging look at Gates’s work to promote equality with a few candid stories to share her own growth.  The message here is powerful and presented in an uplifting way.

Review | For the Love of Books

For the Love of Books: Stories of Literary Lives, Banned Books, Author Feuds, Extraordinary Characters, and More by Graham Tarrant

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This is a book about books, which means every bibliophile will need a copy for their shelf!

If you’ve ever been interested in the love life, drug use, secrets, superstitions, and feuds of noted authors, this book is chock-full of the facts.

For the Love of Books takes a look at the history of book banning and why certain books have been banned throughout the ages, the history of printing and invention of e-books, famous author feuds, word origins, top ten book lists, and more.

This is an entertaining book that is certain to hold a story or two readers haven’t heard before.

Thanks to Skyhorse Publishing for providing a DRC via Edelweiss. For the Love of Books: Stories of Literary Lives, Banned Books, Author Feuds, Extraordinary Characters, and More is scheduled for release on June 4, 2019.

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 | We Are Never Meeting In Real Life

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life by Samantha Irby

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I heard about this book in 2017 and the consensus seemed to be that it’s a laugh-out-loud collection of essays.  When I found a copy for sale at my local library recently, I decided it would be the perfect book to take with me on spring vacation.  I need light and entertaining reads while traveling and essays are great for people like me who can never focus entirely on a book when on vacation.

I was prepared to laugh until I cried …but I was not prepared to cry until I sobbed!

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life is an authentic and heartfelt look at Samantha Irby’s life:  from a childhood full of uncertainty with an ill mother in rapid decline and an abusive alcoholic father with a gambling problem to navigating friendships, sexual encounters, and various adult responsibilities like budgeting all while living with irritable bowel disease and sharing an apartment with a cat she loves to hate named Helen Keller.

I’ve heard the saying that sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying and Irby masterfully writes life events that are the emotional equivalent of a dumpster fire with unabashed candor and wit.

A poignant look at the author’s life that does not shy away from heavy and/or awkward topics including weight, race, and sex.

If you enjoy humorous and honest essays and aren’t embarrassed by awkward topics, We Are Never Meeting In Real Life is a fantastic collection worth checking out!

Review | Southern Lady Code

Southern Lady Code by Helen Ellis

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Southern Lady Code: a technique by which, if you don’t have something nice to say, you say something not so nice in a nice way.

Just a couple days before the release of Southern Lady Code, Helen Ellis tweeted:

And bless her heart, she succeeds with this new collection of essays!

From witnessing a man fake a shooting at a Halloween birthday party full of eighth-graders in Party Foul to being the only woman invited to a bachelor party in A Room of One’s Own (That’s Full of Gay Men), Ellis offers up some entertaining and often embarrassing stories!  She covers everything from being the slob in her marriage, the decision to remain child-free, and the certainty she’s stolen another woman’s Burberry trench coat.

Sprinkled throughout are some Southern Lady Code gems:

My husband fell in love with a creative woman. ‘”Creative” is Southern Lady Code for slob.

“Trying” is Southern Lady Code for telling everyone and your mother that you’re having intercourse to conceive.

“It’s an heirloom” is Southern Lady Code for cold steel and ammunition.

“Put together” is Southern Lady Code for you can take me to church or Red Lobster and I’ll fit in fine.

Throw in some stories about pornography, marijuana, and ghosts (and also some brief mentions of Designing Women) and you have an amusing collection of essays that will allow people who are not Southern by the grace of God to interpret the code of Southern ladies.

If you love to laugh, this is a great collection you can breeze through in an hour or so.

If you enjoy the book, I recommend the author’s podcast also titled Southern Lady Code; all episodes of season one are available to download!

Southern Lady Code was released by Doubleday on April 16, 2019.

Review | Inheritance

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro

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I think people put too much value on book ratings, especially because everyone seems to have a different rating system.  That being said, I’m pretty stingy with five stars.  Five stars for me personally means that the book changed my perspective on a particular topic, placed me firmly in someone else’s shoes to consider how I would handle a situation, or it was just so powerful that I can’t stop thinking about it and feel the story will appeal to literally everyone, no matter what genre they favor.

Inheritance was a five star book for me and those are so very few and far between.

“It turns out that it is possible to live an entire life—even an examined life, to the degree that I had relentlessly examined mine—and still not know the truth of oneself.”

Dani Shapiro spent years writing about her life and her family and had published four memoirs when she received results from her Ancestry DNA test.

In a matter of moments, her entire life was completely changed when an unfamiliar name popped up listed as her first cousin.  Confused, she compared her kit with her half sister’s and found that there wasn’t a possibility that they were half siblings.  The man that Dani Shapiro knew as her father was not in fact her biological father.

Surrounded by photographs of her ancestors, she sat in stunned disbelief.

“These ancestors are the foundation upon which I have built my life. I have dreamt of them, wrestled with them, longed for them. I have tried to understand them. In my writing, they have been my territory—my obsession, you might even say. They are the tangled roots—thick, rich, and dark—that bind me to the turning earth.”

Shapiro, raised a devout Orthodox Jew, cannot fathom that her parents could hide her true identity from her.  In the days following her discovery, she begins to remember comments from her childhood, memories of not quite fitting in, wondering if she somehow knew something then without realizing.

There are small clues, half hidden in the memory of passing conversations she had with her mother, who she had a strained relationship with, that lead her to discover an institute in Philadelphia that specialized in infertility before it closed its doors.  The small leaf on her computer screen when she logs in to Ancestry allows her to discover a family that she is biologically related to.  With the help of her husband, Shapiro finds the man she believes to be her biological father.

This book absolutely devastated me.  Shapiro’s previous memoirs have discussed the tragedies in her parents’ lives and the unhappy marriage  they had while raising her.  She shares her history, her grief, and writes with such honesty about her family.  She was never close to her mother but shared an unbreakable bond with her father who passed from injuries shortly after a tragic car accident.

Suddenly, she is searching not just for answers to her paternity but wondering how much her parents actually knew about their fertility treatments.  If they were aware of a sperm donor, how did they justify that according to their strict religious beliefs?

Shapiro considers the fact that half of her family medical history has always been inaccurate and is overwhelmed to consider how that could’ve played a huge part in her son’s incredibly rare seizure disorder as a child.

She speaks about the awkward subject of anonymity in sperm donation and how the age of DNA testing is offering up a shock to both donors and the biological offspring who were left in the dark.

She starts a dialogue with her biological father through e-mail and they begin an uneasy correspondence.  It was obvious to me he worried about the privacy of his family and that Shapiro may be simply out to write a good story rather than on a search for answers. Over time it seems he understands her true motives and a less guarded relationship begins.

Inheritance is the compelling story of a woman whose entire identity —from her memoirs to her very faith — is thrown into chaos with a simple home DNA test.  She struggles with what her father’s remaining family will think of the truth, how the church will handle this complicated matter, and how it affects her son.  Most of all, it seems, she struggles with the realization she’ll never know if her father knew the truth.

Fascinating, raw, and honest, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love is a genuine look at Dani Shapiro’s search for her biological father and a journey to make peace with her identity.

“My birth certificate will remain the same. Daneile, daughter of Paul. In Hebrew that would be Daniela bat Pinchas. That piece of history, more true than not, can never be altered.”

I think this will be a fascinating read for practically everyone, but especially if you enjoy memoirs/autobiographies, genealogy, and family secrets.

Review | Queen of the Turtle Derby

Queen of the Turtle Derby and Other Southern Phenomena by Julia Reed

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I love reading about the South.  My favorite essay collections are written by Southerners explaining their birth place and the social and cultural intracacies that are so unique to the region and include a healthy dose of humor.

Queen of the Turtle Derby is a collection of essays written by a Southern lady of the “old school”.  What I mean by that is that the author grew up in a wealthy Southern household and was cared for by a housekeeper who cooked most of her meals.  Her family had a country club membership and she was raised on beauty pageants and Gone With the Wind.
Not that there’s anything wrong with those things. It’s just a very specific group of Southerners and not a group that all Southerners can relate to.

Reed covers plenty of topics from a Southern perspective:  food, politics, religion, guns, cockfights, women getting away with murder in the South, and George Jones.

A lot of these topics feel outdated because of the “old school South” mentality but also because it was published back in 2004 and includes in the introduction the line: “The other theory is that the South isn’t the Cotton Belt anymore; it’s the Sunbelt, a land of interchangeable suburbs, full of Home Depots and Blockbusters and people wearing Dockers pants.”

Welp, I don’t know anyone wearing Dockers and Blockbuster no longer exists.  While the South manages to progress (albeit it at a slower pace than the rest of the country; we do everything slower down here, including talking and eating), there are deep-seated traditions in our culture that are relatable to all Southerners, especially food.

“We use food to sympathize and to celebrate. We give it as presents and peace offerings. Everywhere else in America people use cash, but we use food to bribe people.”

So true.

But on the next page, I read this paragraph:

“The other day my mother and I were lying on the beach. Since we were both attempting to be on diets, we entertained ourselves by talking about the fried apricot pies and sliced tomato sandwiches with homemade mayonnaise on white bread cut into rounds that her childhood cook Eleanor used to make, and the shad roe on toast that her grandfather ate every Sunday it was in season.”

Wait, what?  I happen to go in the kitchen and make my own sandwiches and I had to Google what shad roe is. (It’s the egg sac of the female shad fish, in case you were curious)

I can’t relate to the author’s obsession with beauty pageants and Scarlett O’Hara, having a cook to slice up sandwiches for me, or dividing my time between New Orleans and New York City, but I appreciate her humor and her explanation of what food itself means in the South.

If you’re looking for a light hearted collection of essays about the South, this wouldn’t be my first recommendation but it does contain a healthy dose of humor and a glimpse into the old school South.

Review | Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

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I remember the name Elizabeth Holmes gaining notoriety around 2014 as she began to appear in magazines like Fortune and Glamour.
Holmes was a Stanford dropout who was set to change the face of healthcare with a small device that could run multiple lab tests with just a couple drops of blood from a finger stick.

Her company Theranos (a combination of the word therapy and diagnosis) was valued at nine billion dollars and had an impressive list of loyal supporters funding her invention, including highly respected engineers, venture capitalists, CEOs, and lawyers.  Theranos even had major deals with Walgreens and Safeway to put the device in their stores.

Nine billion dollars, wealthy and influential supporters, and multi-million dollars deals … for a technology that simply did not exist.

Elizabeth Holmes was seen as a reclusive and passionate genius who cared about changing the world and the way medical testing was performed in order to deliver results more quickly to physicians who relied on test results and to provide a painless collection method for the patient.

In reality, Holmes had a dream but not a product.  There was little progress made on turning her dream into a reality, even as she sold the dream to investors.  Her vision was enticing to the wealthy and well connected investors who knew little about the medical field and with the hype created by Holmes and her influential supporters, Theranos became a multibillion dollar corporation veiled in absolute secrecy.

I was shocked not by the deception itself but by the fact that so many influential people bought her pitch with zero proof that her invention existed.  Though Theranos was never able to offer services across the entire country, tests were performed on actual patients leading to nearly one million false test results, many which put lives in jeopardy.

Bad Blood is a well written and researched look into the inner workings of Theranos from its meteoric beginning to its startling fall by the journalist who originally broke the story in The Wall Street Journal.

“I’m fairly certain she didn’t initially set out to defraud investors and put patients in harm’s way when she dropped out of Stanford fifteen years ago. By all accounts, she had a vision that she genuinely believed in and threw herself into realizing. But in her all-consuming quest to be the second coming of Steve Jobs amid the gold rush of the ‘unicorn’ boom, there came a point when she stopped listening to sound advice and began to cut corners. Her ambition was voracious and it brooked no interference. If there was collateral damage on her way to riches and fame, so be it.”