Category Archives: Non-Fiction

NOT DEAD YET by Phil Collins

phil-collins-not-dead-yet-photoPhil Collins came out with his memoir, Not Dead Yet, this fall, joining a crop of rock bios that have been getting a lot of attention recently. I was a big Genesis/Phil Collins fan back in the 80s, so I was excited to get my hands on the audio version of Not Dead Yet.

Collins narrates the audio version, which enhances the sense of intimacy the listener feels with him throughout the book. It opens with his early days in suburban London and tracks his family life and his childhood/early adulthood obsession with music. From there, the juggernaut of Collins’ career kicks in: joining Genesis, touring larger and larger venues, taking over frontman status from Peter Gabriel, more Genesis albums, his explosive solo career, more Genesis albums, Disney soundtracks, hit movie songs, and on and on. There is a reason Phil Collins seemed ubiquitous in the 80s and 90s – he was. He was also a workaholic who couldn’t say no to any opportunity – to sing, to compose, to produce, to collaborate. He would travel the globe while on world tours, and then return to his home base where he would jump immediately into the next project without stopping.

This lifestyle took a toll on his personal life, which Collins does not gloss over. Three marriages, three divorces, long distance relationships with his five kids – these all weigh on Collins, and he perseverates on them throughout the book. He takes the blame for the failure of his marriages, though he manages to make himself look OK at the same time. Collins was criticized by the media when all of this was going on, particularly his delivering his request for a divorce from wife #2 via fax, and his affair with a woman half his age while on tour. Collins takes the blows here, for sure, but it’s clear that he is relieved to finally be telling his story.

He also shines a light on some other personal stuff, like his obsession with the Alamo and the physical ailments that plagued his later career, like an ear stroke that caused him to lose his hearing in one ear and the hand and back issues that put an end to his prolific drumming. The toughest section comes at the end, when Collins describes in painstaking detail his slide into alcoholism in the early 2010s and the terrible toll it took on his body and his family.

I thoroughly enjoyed Not Dead Yet, especially the behind-the-scenes look at the music, the bands and the touring. On many occasions, I paused the audio to call up a song on Spotify or a video on YouTube, which definitely enhanced my enjoyment of the book. I am addicted to 80s nostalgia, and Not Dead Yet did not disappoint. If you were even a casual Genesis or Phil fan, I think you’ll enjoy this book.

Collins is apologetic about his ubiquity – almost overly so. He suggests that his transatlantic dual performances on Live Aid in 1985 were almost accidental, and he distances himself from the coincidence of having hit songs with two bands on the charts at the same time. He basically says, “I get it – I was sick of me too.” (Sometimes this is a little too much.)

Collins is clearly an emotional, complicated guy, and Not Dead Yet shows him in the most flattering light possible. I’m sure there are other sides to a lot of his stories (and in fact I heard a few of them at Thanksgiving dinner from someone who knows him), but I liked hearing (and believing) Phil’s version for 10 hours. I mean, that’s the point of a rock memoir, right? To clean up the reputation?

Collins’ albums have all been recently remastered, and if you listen to them on Spotify you get a new cover, a closeup of Phil’s sixtysomething face instead of the thirtysomething faces I remembered from the original covers. It’s kind of creepy, but it’s reality – our rock gods are aging. Not Dead Yet at least gave me glimpses of that younger guy, and for that I am grateful.

(And yes, I found out what “In The Air Tonight” is about. Not this:)

MY PICTURE PERFECT FAMILY by Marguerite Elisofon

5146laoj58l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Marguerite Elisofon and her husband Howard had boy-girl twins named Samantha and Matthew in 1990. The twins were premature, but Matthew developed normally while Samantha started lagging behind from an early age. After many rounds of testing, Samantha was diagnosed on the autism spectrum, which changed the Elisofons’ lives in every possible way.

My Picture Perfect Family is a painstaking account of how the Elisofons – and particularly Marguerite – learned to accept that Samantha would never be the “picture perfect” daughter they had hoped for, and how they worked tirelessly to enroll her in programs and schools that would allow her to learn and even thrive. Marguerite’s patience and persistence saw Samantha through several New York City schools until she finally ended up at one that was committed to her intellectual growth. There are many ups and downs along the way: schools that decided that Samantha was too much for them, endless tantrums and disastrous family vacations, punctuated by small steps forward, unexpected breakthroughs and some surprisingly positive playdates. Through it all, Elisofon never gave up hope that her daughter would find a place that would encourage her and allow her to pursue the activities she loved – acting and singing.

As a mother of twins myself, I was particularly interested in how Samantha and Matthew related to each other over the years, and how Elisofon navigated balancing of attention between the two, even when one twin needed so much more intervention and involvement. She includes family photographs along the way, along with the backstory of what was happening that the camera didn’t capture.

My Picture Perfect Family is a dense, engrossing read. While it is quite detailed, it is never tedious. Elisofon is a skilled writer, laying out the complications in Samantha’s condition and treatment. And it ends on a hopeful note. Samantha graduates from high school and, like her brother, goes on to college. The book ends as she leaves for college, with only a brief epilogue talking about the years that followed.

I am glad I read My Picture Perfect Family. It’s a very poignant and powerful look at the challenges of raising an autistic child and the power of a stubborn, persistent parent who wants nothing more than her daughter to be happy and challenged.

 

ANNE FRANK: HER LIFE IN WORDS AND PICTURES

Anne Frank is one of the most famous victims of the Holocaust, thanks to the diary she kept while she lived in hiding in Amsterdam for more than two years during World War II. Her diary, which survived the war and was published by her father in 1947, has sold over 30 million copies (and is on our mother-daughter book club schedule for the spring).

51bueiext-l-_sx258_bo1204203200_Anne Frank: Her Life In Words And Pictures, is a companion piece to Anne Frank: The Diary Of A Young Girl. It provides background on the whole family, much of it provided by her father, as well as photos of the family, the Jewish experience in Amsterdam before and during the war, and the Annex where the Frank family hid before being discovered by the police and sent to concentration camps. Anne Frank: Her Life In Words And Pictures makes the family human and relatable, rather than abstractions. We learn about their personalities, passions and conflicts, and their aspirations before their lives were so cruelly diverted. The book also intersperses commentary from other witnesses – friends of the family, people who worked in the building where the Franks hid, even survivors who knew Anne and her sister in the concentration camps – which extends Anne’s story beyond the day when the family was arrested and she was unable to write in her diary again.

Needless to say, this is a painful and difficult book in many ways. I, of course, dreaded the day when the family was removed from the Annex, and the section on the concentration camps is unfathomably awful. But, as always, it is so important to understand and be reminded of what happened to the Jews during World War II, so that we may address the roots of genocide and ensure that it never happens again, to anyone.

Anne’s message, in hiding, was one of hope:

“It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty, too, will end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals! Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realize them!”

If only Anne’s life, like the millions of others who perished in the Holocaust, could have turned out differently. What a world we would be living in.

I recommend Anne Frank: Her Life In Words And Pictures to anyone with even a passing interest in Anne Frank and the experience of Jews in the Holocaust. While it’s a good format for young adult readers, with pictures that make it more real than a chapter in a history book or a discussion in a Hebrew school class, it’s also quite upsetting and should be introduced with care and discussed with a parent or teacher.

 

YES PLEASE by Amy Poehler

513gpyqm6bl-_sx324_bo1204203200_My family has been been on a Parks and Recreation binge over the last few months, so I’ve been watching a lot of Amy Poehler. I received an ARC of Yes Please when it came out last fall, but hadn’t gotten to it yet, so I decided to listen to it on audio a few weeks ago. Many hours of Amy Poehler in the car!

Yes Please is Poehler’s memoir about her childhood, her early years in comedy in Chicago, her time on SNL and (thankfully) her experience on Parks and Recreation. Along the way, Poehler shares her insights on being a working mom, her divorce (a little), her children, and some celebrity gossip from SNL and various awards shows. Yes Please is well-written and, if not chronological, at least loosely organized around themes and phases of Poehler’s life.

I read Tina Fey’s Bossypants 5 years ago (review here), and I just re-read my review of it. On the surface it sounds an awful lot like Yes Please. But I liked Poehler’s book better. I think there’s more substance, and more to take away from it. Maybe I identify more with Poehler, with her 80s childhood and her pop culture influences. Maybe it’s because it was narrated for me by Poehler. Regardless, I think it hangs together better as a book. Poehler is relatable and funny and imperfect. She is generous to others and grateful for their roles in her life. And part of her is Leslie Knope, and who doesn’t love Leslie Knope?

I could have done without all the whining about how hard it is to write a book.

Yes Please isn’t the deepest or most satisfying book I’ve read recently, but it was a lot of fun and certainly made my commute go by faster. As for the audio narration – it’s really fun to hear it all in Poehler’s voice. She has a few guest narrators – Seth Meyers, her parents, the creator of Parks and Recreation – but I like her solo sections the best.

2016 Summer Reading List

Thanks to the many Facebook friends who provided suggestions for the 2016 crowdsourced Summer Reading List! I asked for recommendations of books you’ve recently loved –  and you didn’t disappoint.

Here is the list. I’ve put ** next to those that were recommended by more than one person. When it’s a book I’ve read too, I’ve included a link to my EDIWTB review. Happy reading!

**A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (several votes). This has been on my TBR list for a long time.

**China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan

Reliance, Illinois by Mary Volmer

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (reviewed here)

Three Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

**Fates And Furies by Lauren Groff (reviewed here)

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

The Forgiven by Lawrence Osborne

The After Party by Anton Disclafani (reviewed here)

The Man I Love by Suanne Laqueur

THE+NEST+by+Cynthia+D'Aprix+SweeneyThe Weekenders by Mary Kay Andrews

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

**The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

**Tuesday Nights In 1980 by Molly Prentiss

The Secrets Of Flight by Maggie Leffler

Undercover by Cat Gardiner

This Is the Story of You by Beth Kephart

**Some Luck, Early Warning and Golden Age by Jane Smiley (reviewed here, here and here)

Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty by Charles Leerhsen

The Sudden Appearance Of Hope by Claire North

Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick

Heat And Light by Jennifer Haigh

Under The Influence by Joyce Maynard (reviewed here)

**All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr  (I really can’t believe I haven’t read this yet)

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (reviewed here)

**When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

The Sympathizerows_13923264503861 by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Secrets Of Midwives by Sally Hepworth

Thursday 1:17PM by Mike Landweber

**Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (reviewed here)

City On Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Good Luck Of Right Now by Matthew Quick

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

**Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

**Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin

American Housewife by Helen Ellis (reviewed here)

Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing The Way America Works by Jay Newton-Small

Dear Mr. You by Mary Louise-Parker

The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure

First Wives by Kate 9780525953005_custom-1a7b1faa66fe002fff8a3604f6c0f3534d546b1c-s200-c85Anderson Brower

The Lavender Garden by Lucinda Riley

At The Edge Of The Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

Secrets of a Charmed Life by Susan Meissner

Ice Cream Queen Of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman

H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald

**Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (reviewed here)

The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August

It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life Of Love And War by Lynsey Addario

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

Disrupted: My Misadventure In The Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons

Special Topics In Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Homegoing by Yaa Gaasi (I am reading this now)

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

City of Thieves by David Benioff (reviewed here)cityofthieves.final.indd

Kingkiller series by Patrick Rothfuss

Out Of Time series by Beth Flynn

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

A Fine Balance by Mistry Rohinton

Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

Dreamland: The True Tale Of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones

In The Kingdom Of Ice: The Grand And Terrible Polar Voyage Of The USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides

League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, And The Battle For Truth by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru

Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives In North Korea by Barbara Demick

Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox by Joanne Bamberger

S by Doug Dorst

Us by David Nicholls

Finding The Dragon Lady – The Mystery Of Vietnam’s Madame Nhu by Monique Brinson Demery

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

Thanks again for all the recommendations!

I WILL ALWAYS WRITE BACK by Martin Ganda and Caitlyn Alifirenka

Our March mother-daughter book club read was I Will Always Write Back by Martin Ganda and Caitlyn Alifirenka. It was a rare non-fiction pick for the group, but I think it was one of the most-liked books so far this year.

When Caitlin Stoicsitz was 7th grader in suburban Pennsylvania, she was assigned a pen pal in Zimbabwe to correspond with named Martin Ganda. This random assignment turned out to be life-changing for both Caitlyn and Matin. Their correspondence, at first rather sporadic, grew increasingly more substantive, as Martin gradually revealed to Caitlyn just how poor his family was. He eventually explained that he was forced to drop out of school because his family couldn’t afford the fees, and shared some details about the home in which he lived (two adults and four children in one room, with only one bed and no shoes). Caitlyn, a typical self-absorbed and relatively spoiled American teenager, was shocked by what she heard from Martin, and started sending him her babysitting money in the form of $20 bills.

Well, those $20 bills were frequently enough to pay Martin’s fees and make a serious difference for Martin’s family. Caitlyn and Martin grew to care a lot about each other, and Caitlyn got her family involved after confessing that she had been sending him cash through the mail. Meanwhile, Martin’s family situation got more desperate as Zimbabwe’s economy deteriorated and his father lost his job.

I Will Always Write Back is about the difference that Caitlyn and her family made in Martin’s life, ultimately paving the way for him to go to college in America. It’s also about the importance of understanding different cultures and having your eyes open about how other people live. Caitlyn was continually amazed by the hardships and deprivations suffered by Martin’s family, while he was amazed by Caitlyn’s American lifestyle.

I Will Always Write Back is a great book for middle schoolers. The writing is pretty simple, and kids have a lot to learn from Martin and his drive to learn and succeed. The book also prompted a good conversation among the girls about what they would have done in Caitlyn’s shoes. How much would they have done for Martin? Did they think their parents would have helped the way Caitlyn’s did? Is it better to help one person, or try to contribute to a school or another cause in Africa?

This was perspective-broadening book that put global income disparity into sharp relief for kids. Our book club is now looking into ways to raise funds to similarly situated kids in Africa, and I’ve already had a few conversations with my daughters about ways that they can help. Readers might be a little bored by the repetition in the letters (and frustrated with some of Caitlyn’s letters about parties and fights with friends), but I Will Always Write Back was overall a very worthwhile read.

WATCHING BASEBALL SMARTER by Zack Hample

In the last few years, I have become increasingly obsessed with baseball. I love it, but I am definitely an amateur in terms of my understanding of the game. I’ve come to appreciate that baseball is played on many simultaneous levels. There’s the simple movement of the players through the bases, and the strikes and balls and outs. But there’s also strategy in the pitches, the communication between the catchers and pitcher, the simple act of rubbing dirt onto a ball before throwing it. There’s strategy around quick decisions, like where a second baseman steps on base when he has a runner sliding in. There’s a world of statistics to measure every aspect of a player’s performance. There are rule changes and weird stadiums and gestures and a whole vocabulary of baseball terms that you need to know to really understand the game.

Thanks to Zack Hample’s Watching Baseball Smarter, I have a much better appreciation for the game. His book is readable, entertaining, and full of information about baseball, from umpires and pitchers to fielders, hitting, stadiums and stats. I didn’t understand everything in the book (the anatomy of pitches seems to be outside my grasp), but I followed most of it, and retained quite a bit. I’ve been watching some 2016 pre-season games, and I already see a big difference in how I watch and what I notice.

A few caveats:

  • Watching Baseball Smarter is probably too basic for the “deeply serious geeks and semi-experts” the subhead suggests that it’s for. For someone like me, it was perfect. It reinforced what I already knew and introduced me to a lot that I didn’t.
  • It’s outdated. It was written in 2007 and could use an update.
  • There are a lot of baseball terms that Hample uses throughout the book but only defines in the glossary. This can be annoying, because you have to keep flipping back and forth to the glossary as you’re reading.
  • There is a lot of information here. Sometimes it can be a bit much to absorb.

I am glad to have read Watching Baseball Smarter and plan to keep it on hand to refer to as the season evolves. I recommend it for casual baseball fans like me who want to take their viewing to the next level. I’m going to give it to my 11 year-old daughter to read next, and I think she’ll enjoy it too. Maybe you have a fan in your life who would enjoy this resource as well?