Archive for the 'Memoir/Biography' Category

Christine’s Review: Paris Letters by Janice McLeod

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

I hope you tweeted your special travel photo in the Paris Letters photo contest. If you haven’t, you’ve still got time and to inspire you, today we’ve got Christine’s review of Paris Letters:


Paris-Letter-Front-Cover-Advance-Copy-194x300Ah, Paris.  While memoirist Janice MacLeod is a seasoned traveler, she’s still enchanted by The City of Light.  Paris Letters is her love affair documented through pen and paint.  Janice falls in love with freedom, herself, and gains romantic love as a result.  This book takes you on her journey.

It’s not all love affairs and macarons, which is one reason I relished the memoir. You’re not given a sanitized version of events under the guise of Janice magically having “good luck.” Instead, you accompany her on a journey of sacrifice and self discovery. In this pilgrimage, Janice successfully learns how to save $100 per day for a full year ($36,000). This process changed her major relationships and fostered her rediscovery of painting.  (A list of 100 strategies to save $100 per day is listed in an appendix.  It’s an incredible read.)

I also enjoyed the parallels between Janice’s maturing artist’s life and love life.  In the initial weeks of her sojourn, she’s scared to use her Canadian French to even say hello to the man she admires (Christophe). By the end, she’s found a way to support herself creatively in a city of art.  She discovers a passion for watercolor letters in tandem with her growing love for Christophe (her eventual husband).  By overcoming her fears in one realm, she builds mastery in both.

Overall,  Paris Letters is filled with joy, art, and personal growth.  The watercolor letters are excellent, but can take extra time to load in the eBook edition.  It’s worth being patient as an exquisite, jewel-like glimpse into Parisian daily life is the result. In short, a delight.  Some readers might be discouraged by the memoir’s broad scope.   In defense, the writing is intimate, yet focused throughout. If you find yourself intrigued after reading this short review, you won’t be able to put the book down.

My copy of Paris Letters was an advanced reader copy, provided free of charge.

~Christine Linial (from

Review: Robert Plant: A Life by Paul Rees

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

robert_plant_a_lifeI’ve got so many thoughts running around in my head, after finishing Robert Plant: A Life by Paul Rees. Let me see if I can put them in some order:

1.  It has brought back fond memories of the Robert Plant poster that I had on my bedroom wall as a teenager. I studied that poster in great detail. I had thoughts about that poster.

2.  It is sort of sad to realize that by the time I was old enough to fall in love with Led Zeppelin’s music, they were already imploding.

3.  If I had been asked before I started the book, I would have said that I knew a bit about Robert Plant. I did not. Lots that I didn’t know.

4.  Perhaps most importantly, at least to my wallet, this book is going to cost me a fortune. I’m glad I got some  iTunes gift cards for Christmas, because I am going to be downloading a lot of music.

First off, I really enjoyed the book. The backstory of his young life was fascinating to me. The idea that at 15 or 16 years old Plant was running around, singing in clubs, appearing with a bunch of different bands, is remarkable to me. I can’t imagine having that kind of ambition and confidence at that age.

“The story goes that Headmaster Chambers told [Plant] he would never make anything of himself. When I came back to the school in the early ’70s, Chambers himself told me that Robert had later turned up at his house in a Rolls-Royce and asked the Headmaster if he remembered him.”

The story of how Led Zeppelin came about, how it became arguably the greatest rock band of all time, and how it imploded — that all made for great reading. Even more interesting was the story of what Plant has been doing since Led Zeppelin — so many bands, so much music, such an interesting life. For a music fan, even if you weren’t a big Led Zeppelin fan, it’s a terrific read. The big issue — and it is always an issue with biographies — is that this is really focused on on Plant, of course, and it definitely paints him in the best light possible. That always makes me wonder about how much is true and how much is slanted. It’s clear that Rees is a friend of Plant’s, so why wouldn’t he want to give this the best spin he could?

There were a couple of things I found really interesting. First, I admire the way that Plant did not get sucked into Led Zeppelin remakes. There were some reunion concerts, there were some collaborations with Jimmy Page, but I imagine that it would have been very easy to fall back into old habits. There would have been a fortune to be made there, with the Led Zeppelin name, and I think it would take a lot of will to pull free.

Second, and definitely related, Plant seems to have a remarkable ability to walk away. After Led Zeppelin, he is involved in a number of projects — The Honeydrippers, Band of Joy, Strange Sensation, his collaborations with Jimmy Page and Allison Krauss, the Sensational Space Shifters — and when he’s done with them, he’s done with them. His album with Allison Kraus, Raising Sand, is haunting and amazing and won a Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals in 2008. But that was it – they didn’t work together again. There were short tours with Band of Joy, but when he decided that had run its course, Plant ended it. I’m not sure what I think about that; I wondered a lot about his bandmates, and what an upheaval it must have been for them, but you have to admire such a clear vision and that kind of determination.

“I once asked Robert how he went about choosing a girl when he was in Led Zeppelin,” adds Hossam Ramzy. “He told me, ‘It was very simple. There would be a thousand of them and I’d just go, “You, you and you – fuck off. The rest, come with me.’ “

I also wondered a lot about John Paul Jones. Although there were some Led Zeppelin reunions, Plant seemed dead-set against working with Jones, although no specific incident seems to have spurred that, at least none that was laid out in the book. It made me curious.

The final thing I was curious about was the drug use. There is a lot of talk in the book about Page’s heroin addiction and John Bonham’s addictions, which ultimately lead to his death. There is much less talk, however, about Plant’s drug use. Was he just a casual user, as opposed to an addict? Might go along with that sense of determination, but it was never really answered, at least for me.

At any rate, an excellent biography, lots of great stories and photos, plenty of input from friends, bandmates, and others who knew him. It paints a compelling portrait of a man who has led an amazing life and continues to make amazing music.

“Robert Plant turned 65 in August 2013. In his home country he is now eligible for a bus pass and a state pension.”

My copy of  Robert Plant: A Life is an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge. This is the kind of book that makes all the work on this website worthwhile!

New to my shelves…

Monday, October 7th, 2013

Oh, I was thrilled to see this one in the mailbox! I love a good memoir and this one certainly has potential - Nothin’ to Lose: The Making of KISS (1972-1975) by Ken Sharp with Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons. This is the Kiss era that I’m interested in, when the band was starting out and still keeping their faces hidden. (It’s painful, isn’t it, to watch Family Jewels and see rock superstars reduced to reality tv hucksters? Painful.) The book is laid out as an oral history, with interviews and conversations, rather than a narrative, and that should make it a quick, fun read.

kisslosebookNothin’ to Lose: The Making of KISS (1972-1975) chronicles, for the first time, the crucial formative years of the legendary rock band KISS, culminating with the groundbreaking success of their classic 1975 album Alive! and the smash single “Rock and Roll All Nite,” a song that nearly four decades later remains one of rock’s most enduring anthems. Drawing on more than two hundred interviews, the book offers a captivating and intimate fly-on-the-wall account of their launch, charting the struggles and ultimate victories that led them to the threshold of superstardom.

Constructed as an oral history, the book includes original interviews with Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley, and Peter Criss, as well as with producers; engineers; management; record company personnel; roadies; club owners; booking agents; concert promoters; costume, stage, and art designers; rock photographers; publicists; and key music journalists.

Many of KISS’s musical contemporaries from the time, most of whom shared concert bills with the band on their early tours, also lend their perspective via new interviews; these include Bob Seger, Alice Cooper, and Ted Nugent, as well as members of Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, Rush, Slade, Blue Öyster Cult, Mott the Hoople, Journey, REO Speedwagon, Styx, Raspberries, The James Gang, The New York Dolls, Iggy & the Stooges, The Ramones, Suzi Quatro, Argent, and Uriah Heep, among others.

The result is an indelible and irresistible portrait of a band on the rise and of the music scene they changed forever.

Don’t forget to check back for Teasers and Reviews. I think this one will be near the top of the TBR pile. (And a special thanks to the nice folks at It Books for sending it along.

Lisa’s Review: Lady at the O.K. Corral: The True Story of Josephine Marcus Earp by Ann Kirschner

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

Did you know that the gunfight at the O.K. Corral was really fought over a woman? That’s not entirely true, but it’s a big part of the story and one that I had never heard before. In Lady at the O.K. Corral: The True Story of Josephine Marcus Earp, Ann Kirschner tells a story of the Wild Wild West that was completely new to me. This is the story of the woman who hitched her wagon to one of the West’s most famous characters — and it’s not at all what I expected.

“Did you know Wyatt Earp was buried in a Jewish cemetery?”

I didn’t know that, and I completely understand why that tidbit drew Ann Kirschner into a place she called “Planet Earp” – the story of Wyatt Earp and his wife, Josephine Marcus Earp. Josephine was a Jewish girl from San Francisco who longed for adventure. Her sisters led pretty traditional lives – marrying and having children, remaining in the Jewish community – but Josephine ran away from home at 18 and traveled to Arizona looking for fame and fortune in the theater. By all accounts, she was a lovely young woman (the author compares her to a young Penelope Cruz), and she certainly got the attention of the men in Tombstone. For a time she lived with Johnny Behan, sheriff of Tombstone, and he introduced her as his wife. She shared his home and cared for his young son, but he never delivered on his promise of marriage. Her resentment of Johnny may have pushed her right into the arms of his biggest rival, Wyatt Earp.

One of the things I found interesting about Lady at the O.K. Corral is the view it presented of the Wild West. That’s a time I always think of as pretty puritanical; sure, there were prostitutes in the western boomtowns, but I expected more proper behavior from average citizens. Josephine lived with two men, without marriage, and while there were some social consequences those were due more to her husband’s involvement in saloons and liquor and prostitution than her lack of a wedding ring. Josephine left home at 18, lived to be 84 years old and in that time she never had a permanent address! She lived with Wyatt Earp for 47 years, traveling all over the West, up to Alaska, through the deserts of Arizona and down to Mexico. They ran saloons, sold liquor, drilled oil wells and panned for gold.  I particularly loved the stories of Wyatt and Josephine’s time in Alaska, when Nome was nothing but a stretch of beach and gold fever swept over the country. It was a thrilling time in our history and I have never seen the story told from that perspective, of a woman in the midst of it all, moved along by the tides of people and events, and thriving.

“The beach was barely visible beneath thousands of tents that almost touched each other, leaving the narrowest of passageways between them. Small mountains of worldly goods broke the line of tents, each pile challenging its owner to carry it away faster than a thief or a storm. Hundreds of dogs raced furiously about. Baggage and freight were piled high on the beach for a distance of several miles: a jumble of pianos, coal, narrow-gauge railway tracks, lumber, tents, stacks of hay, bar fixtures, washtubs, roulette wheels, stoves, liquor, sewing machines, and mining apparatus.”

Although their relationship seems to have been a very happy one, she was always haunted by her secrets and her status – no marriage (although they often lied about it, claiming to have been married on a friend’s yacht), and with the fear that people would find out about Wyatt’s first wife. In her later years, Josephine was a difficult woman; she was ferocious when it came to protecting Wyatt’s legend and reputation, and that made her more than a few enemies. She never inspired the love and affection that her famous husband did and Kirschner did a good job of bringing her to life for the reader. It’s hard to imagine a man and woman going from Wild West gunfights to working on Hollywood movie sets, but here it ties together easily, and I found myself feeling a lot of sympathy for Josephine in her decline.

Lady at the O.K. Corral: The True Story of Josephine Marcus Earpis a great book for those interested in the true story of our Wild Wild West. Most of those stories are told about the men of the West, but they weren’t living out there alone; I found the story a fresh angle on a well-known story.  My copy of Lady at the O.K. Corralwas an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

One final note: I went looking for photos of Josephine and I came across this picture (linked because it’s a bit racy). Not what I expected to see (and a bit more than I expected to see!), and there is an interesting story behind it. Check out the story here.

Lisa’s Review: Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household by Kate Hubbard

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

This is a book that delivered exactly what I was hoping for! Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household is full of details about living at the palace with the Queen, her husband and children. I really learned a lot about life in the royal household – the sort of interesting little details that aren’t salacious enough for the Daily Mail.

Did you know that a Queen’s “ladies in waiting” were actually noblewomen, paid to hang out at the palace and be the Queen’s BFFs? I had always assumed that the ladies in waiting were servants, and in a way I suppose they were, but they were minor noblewomen who received a salary and worked on a rotating basis. They generally lived at the palace for a month at a time, joining the Queen for rides in the country, visits to other nobles, playing cards and attending concerts. This was not always as exciting as it sounds:

“There were visits to the theater too, by no means an unmixed pleasure for the lady-in-waiting, who had to juggle Her Majesty’s many different wraps, her bouquet and bag and opera glasses, without being provided with the comfort of a seat. In June 1850, Charlotte [Canning] stood for four and a half hours behind the Queen’s chair at a command performance of As You Like It…

I really had no idea that the Queen had so much control over the lives of her court! She controlled when are where they ate dinner – right down to their seat at the table. She controlled whether they could take a walk, whether they could visit with their families, what colors the ladies were allowed to wear, even whether or not they could have a fire in their rooms. I am a freeze-baby; when everyone else is comfortable, I am chilly. I’ve gotten used to it and I dress accordingly — but what would it be like if you weren’t allowed to dress for your temperature?

The Queen firmly believed in the benefits of bracing temperatures, and in her palaces thermometers, set into ivory obelisks, sat on every mantelpiece to ensure the rooms remained healthily cool…After dinner, in the drawing room, jauntily upholstered in canary yellow and frequently no more than 40° Fahrenheit, the shoulders of the ladies turned quite blue.”

Can you imagine? Honestly, I shiver just thinking about it.

I’m not certain that it was intentional, but I definitely came away with a feeling that the Queen did not really connect with the people around her; that while she professed great love for them, she was completely insensitive to their basic comfort and happiness. Randall Davidson, Dean of Windsor late in the Queen’s life, said that she was “in many respects like a spoiled child, a nice child, but one who had not been properly handled or subjected to restraint and there is a good deal more difficulty in dealing with a spoilt child at the age of 60 or 70 than with a spoilt child of 6 or 7.” That was my impression in a nutshell, and while others talked about her “sound judgment,” I didn’t feel it in the text. She was not above using her influence to keep treasured courtiers from retiring, even when their health should have won them some respite, and separations from loved ones for months on end were a matter of course.

I did expect her to be more involved in the running of the country, but she seemed to prefer micro-managing the lives of her household – decreeing which windows could be opened and which must remain shut, who was allowed to ride which pony and the order in which her court could proceed into the dining room – all the while refusing to open Parliament or make public appearances because of her shattered nerves. Whether or not that is a fair impression, I really can’t say. I don’t have any innate respect for royalty that inclines me to give her the benefit of the doubt.

At the same time, she was prone to giggles, clearly had a crush on one of her Highland servants late in life, and played badminton in the hallways of the palace. That makes it difficult to be terribly hard on her.

The book occasionally gets bogged down in politics and the history and lineage of the court members. That’s not something that was of particular interest to me, although other readers might find it enlightening. I was really interested in all the little details of palace life – the huge entourages for trips abroad, the detailed arrangements for a simple dinner, the backstairs gossip and the infighting among the members of the court. Serving Victoria delivers plenty of that. I loved the way you not only got a feel for the character of Queen Victoria, but also for the personalities of her servants, through their letters and journals. They spoke their minds, at least in private, and that goes a long way toward giving us a true picture of the monarch.

This is a real gem for those who have an interest in the behind-the-scenes life of the royals. My copy of Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: An Extraordinary Theory of Objects by Stephanie LaCava

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

Stephanie LaCava tells the story of her childhood — uprooted from New York to a village outside Paris — by focusing on the strange objects she collected and obsessed over in An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris. It’s an interesting way to tell a story, but I ended up far more interested in the footnotes, the stories and histories of the objects, than I was in LaCava’s childhood.

LaCava is clearly an odd, solitary child. The sudden move from New York to Le Vesinet for her father’s work did not help matters any. (LaCava seems convinced her father was involved in some sort of espionage; I’m not entirely convinced that isn’t another of her youthful fantasies.) I found believing her stories about her obsessions with objects a bit of a stretch at times:

“I was obsessed with cabinets of curiosities, historical efforts to catalog and control nature’s oddities. A favorite example was the encyclopedic collection of rare flora and fauna that the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II kept at Prague Castle in the seventeenth century.”

Really? Not even a teenager and she’s obsessed with obscure historical tidbits? I suppose it’s possible, but it seemed unlikely. I know that she wanted to portray herself as haunted and unusual, but she struck me as undiagnosed, more than anything. She was a depressed kid who took long walks alone at night, bringing home beetles and mushrooms and lockets. It’s sad that her parents seemed to have no idea what to do with her, and that made me a little angry. Maybe it was all for the best, maybe doctors and antidepressants would have taken away from curiosity and changed her unusual view of life. She seems to me to have re-imagined herself as one of her curiosities, going through life apart from all of us mundanes, and I found myself rolling my eyes instead of being moved. She seems less like an outsider and more like someone who just didn’t want to fit in.

The best parts of the book are the extensive footnotes, telling the stories of the objects she collects. And not just the objects she collects: while there are sections on beetles and mushrooms and cameras, there are also sections on pajamas, mustaches and teabags, which weren’t included in her collections.

An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris is a quick read, but I didn’t find it as interesting as I had hoped. My copy was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet by Heather Poole

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

You know, these days I read travel books with a whole different eye. One, I’m usually reading them in an airport or a hotel. Two, the situations and places in the books seem very familiar to me now. That’s one of the reasons I was so interested in Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet – I see a lot of flight attendants in the course of a week’s work, and it looks like an interesting, exciting job. Like most jobs, though, it’s not quite what it seems.

Author Heather Poole was encouraged by her mother to apply for a job as a flight attendant — the job her mother had always wanted. That first interview was a complete failure, but after college and a few years spent designing watches, she tried again. Her stories of flight attendant training school were really surprising — they are tough on those students! The whole thing seems designed to wear them down and weed out the weak. That’s probably a good thing because the job itself is not for delicate flowers. The hours are long, the schedule is unpredictable and the people you meet are crazy.

Poole does a great job of working in stories about crazy passengers and other flight attendants without giving too much away:

“I may not remember her name, but on the descent into New York she told me all about her ex-husband, a pilot who cheated on her numerous times with other flight attendants, and whose former mother-in-law is trying to get sole custody of the children using her job against her. There was another man who never told me his name, but I do know his first sexual encounter took place with a man twenty years his senior and now he only has a thing for older men — with red hair. Just like the man sitting in 22B. I couldn’t tell you their names, but I do know they’ll be spending the night in jail because he punched her after she scratched his face for daring to call his wife in her presence as soon as the flight touched ground.”

It’s like a soap opera in the sky!

And, of course, there are the celebrity encounters for the folks working in first class. That has to be one of the more interesting parts of the job. Poole talks about her time working on a private jet, the rich and powerful men that she met (and occasionally dated) as they were sitting in first class, and there are celebrity stories that read like gossip column blind items:

“So, here’s the galley gossip. He was one of the biggest pop stars of our time, and while he wouldn’t breathe the air at 35,000 feet without wearing a face mask, he had no problem scarfing down two first class meals…This actor known for having a thing for supermodels fell asleep with his hand down his pants in first class…The comedian who got kicked off of one of daytime tv’s hottest talk shows asked the pilot not to make any more announcements because her baby was sleeping…A Canadian who shot to the top of the music charts for her scathing lyrics wouldn’t allow a passenger in the window seat to pass by her in order to use the lavatory until quietly meditating with her first.”

I was really interested in the stories about the schedules and workload. As much as I travel now and the crazy schedule I keep, hers is so much worse! What they put flight attendants through ought to be criminal. The crazy hours, the backbiting, the competition for good flights — it’s all insane and one of those jobs you really have to love to put up with all of that.

This is a fun read for anyone who travels a lot. It gives you a whole new respect for the people serving your beverages (although after what she says about Diet Coke, I’ll feel guilty about asking for it!)  and pretzels. It’s certainly an enlightening read for anyone interested in a career in travel. I could have skipped a lot of the stories about her love life and personal life in favor of more travel anecdotes, but it’s generally a pretty good balance.

My copy of Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet
 is an Advanced Reader Copy provided free of charge.

Review: Fabulous Finds: How Expert Appraiser Lee Drexler Sold Wall Street’s Charging Bull

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

Well, the title is a little longer than that, but you get the general idea.

Fabulous Finds: How Expert Appraiser Lee Drexler Sold Wall Street’s Charging Bull, Found Hidden Treasures and Mingled with the Rich & Famous is a quick little read (under 200 pages) about art appraisal — determining the value of all sorts of art objects for insurance, estate and sale purposes. She has visited the homes of the rich and famous, of hoarders and eccentrics, and looked at all of their stuff. This is high up on my list of very cool jobs.

It’s a challenging job, putting a price tag on artwork and collectibles. How do you put a price on a one-of-a-kind object, like the Wall Street Bull?* What do you compare to Prince’s guitar to get a comparable price? Interesting questions — but mostly I want to walk around people’s houses and look at their stuff.

For the most part, I enjoyed Fabulous Finds. Drexler has some great stories — not surprising, considering what she does. I love the idea of getting up close and personal with pieces of great art. My favorite was the story of a collector client who scores an amazing find at a church tag sale — I dream of something like that! And how about finding a masterpiece behind a bird cage?

There were a couple of things that bothered me. First, Drexler occasionally defines words for the reader — I hate that! Now, if they are obscure art terms, you might assume that readers find them unfamiliar, but you can still find a way to make them plain without putting a definition in parentheses. When you do that with a fairly common word, like monochromatic, you’re likely to insult your readers.

The other thing that bothered me was the name-dropping — there wasn’t enough of it! If you’re going to name names in the good stories, like Candace Bergen fixing you a cup of tea, then I think you need to come clean on the bad guys as well. Who begrudged you a few slices of lettuce? It’s not fair to deliver only half the goods.

Folks who enjoy Antiques Roadshow and similar shows will enjoy Fabulous Finds: How Expert Appraiser Lee Drexler Sold Wall Street’s Charging Bull, Found Hidden Treasures and Mingled with the Rich & Famous. It’s got some fun stories, a few tips for would-be art collectors, and some interesting background on appraising. My copy was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

*Last week, I posted a short interview with Lee Drexler and I mentioned the Wall Street Bull. Did you know the Bull has a Twitter account? And guess who got a direct message from him!

Review: Every Step You Take by Jock Soto

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

Every Step You Take: A Memoir is a look back for Jock Soto at his family and his career, sorting through the influences that made him a unique figure in the ballet world. The writing took great courage, as some of his family history must have been hard to face — some unpleasant truths about his father, in particular, and his mother’s family. He has an amazing life story, a story that I don’t think could even happen today, and his telling of it is quite humble.

Jock got interested in ballet at the ripe old age of four, while watching Edward Villella dance on the Ed Sullivan Show. (He was performing a piece from Jewels, by George Balanchine, who Jock would later dance for at the New York City Ballet.) His parents took his request seriously and enrolled him in ballet classes. At 12 years old he auditioned for the School of American Ballet and was awarded a full scholarship. After a brief interruption in his training, he returned to New York with his family and at 14 years old, his family left, leaving Jock alone in New York City, with no income (other than his school stipend) and no adult supervision.

Who does that? Who leaves their kid alone in the big city like that? It’s crazy! I don’t think you could get away with that today. But he roomed with other dancers, couch-surfed a bit, and eventually built a family for himself among the dancers there. This new family of his is a theme throughout the book, the way he drew together with people who could give him the support and understanding that his family could not.

Jock’s family is interesting. His mother is Navajo and his father is Puerto Rican. They met in Philadelphia and when they ran off together, Jock’s mother dropped out of school and his father left behind a wife and infant son. Throughout his life, it was clear that his father carried on affairs with other women — he also has another half-brother from one of these liaisons. His father was very macho and not terribly accepting of his gay son. His mother was virtually disowned by her family for a number of reasons, not the least of which was marrying a man outside the tribe. While he obviously loved his family very much, there is a sort of disconnect. They really lived in different worlds.

First, let me say I enjoyed this book very much. I loved the glimpses into the life of a dancer — not just a prima ballerina, not just a principal dancer, but the day-to-day life of a dancer in the corps — and the way his life changes as he moves through the ranks. He was a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet for 20 years — the list of ballets and dancers and choreographers he knew is huge. It prompted me to spend a lot of time at Wikipedia and YouTube, looking up Balanchine, Wendy Whalen, Heather Watts, Peter Martins and others. I loved his stories about the dancers he admired:

“My mother found out where to send mail for [Mikhail] Baryshnikov so that I could write a letter to him — he actually sent me an autographed picture all the way to Arizona. (I still have that autographed photo, but I have never told Misha about it. When he and I see each other these days he says, ‘Hi, old man,’ and I say, ‘Hi, older man.’)”

This is a man who danced for George Balanchine, took class with Rudolph Nureyev, hung out in nightclubs and was painted by Andy Warhol. It is an amazing story of success from humble beginnings, taking an unexpected path.

I did find the writing a little clunky in places. The narrative jumps around a lot, going backwards and forwards in time. Jock occasionally gets a little lost trying to describe the emotion of being a dancer. That’s a really hard thing, to try and describe his connection to the ballerinas he danced with, being swept up in the music and the dancing, and some attempts are more successful than others.

Overall, an interesting memoir and a pretty compelling look at a very interesting life. My copy of Every Step You Take: A Memoir was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

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Review: Keeping the Feast by Paula Butturini

Saturday, July 16th, 2011

Keeping the Feast: One Couple’s Story of Love, Food, and Healing in Italy by Paula Butturini is just the sort of book I love…and just the sort of book I normally avoid. I love books about travel and Italy is high on my list of places that I absolutely must go. There’s a lot of food in this book and a great love for cooking and shared meals. However, I don’t have any personal experience with depression and memoirs about depression are not usually high on my list. Still, I was enchanted by this book. I devoured it (very appropriate) in one sitting on a short flight with a long delay. I have highlighted several recipes that I plan to try in my own kitchen. And I was very moved by John’s struggle with depression, by his wife’s unceasing love for him, and the support of their family and friends.

Paula and her husband, John, met in Rome. They were both foreign correspondents (she had recently moved to Rome and he was based in Bonn, Germany), and they fell in love with each other and the city:

“Can you love a city for its pink mornings and golden twilights? For the screech of its seagulls, the flitting of its swifts? Can you love a city because it is a riot of ochres and earth tomes, all of them drenched by a fierce, rich light? Can you feel sheltered by the earth-hugging chaos of a city’s skyline, exhilarated by its church domes floating like balloons across a deep blue sky?”

Apparently, the answer is yes.

Their marriage got off to a rocky start. Just two weeks before the wedding, Paula was severely beaten during a protest in Czechoslovakia. Less than a month after the wedding, her husband was shot while on assignment in Romania and nearly killed.  Months later, as they are starting to settle in, the injury triggers a serious bout of depression that takes years to conquer. Paula has to deal with family tragedy, worry for her husband’s health, for their financial survival, her career and her hopes for a family. They get by on the support of their families, their loving friends, and their deep and abiding love for each other.

There are some wonderful anecdotes about the food they ate growing up, both from Italian families, but families with different approaches to food. One of my favorites was the story John tells about grating cheese:

“You absolutely have to whistle while grating the cheese,” he announced, raking the cheese across an old-fashioned hand grater and explaining that in a household with four large, hungry boys and a very large, hungry father, Parmigiano always had a way of mysteriously disappearing during the grating process in their Jersey City kitchen. His mother, he said, could only keep to her budget if she required her helpers to whistle while they grated, for as long as they were whistling, they could not be eating it while her back was turned.

There is also mention of one of my very favorite foods mentioned – we called it speck, they call it sutni szalona. Basically, a chunk of bacon fat, scored and grilled over an open fire. Take slices of rye bread and layer them with thinly sliced onions and tomatoes, salt and pepper. When the bacon fat it blackened and dripping, drizzle it over the bread and vegetables. I admit that it did not sound appetizing the first time I tried it, but we went through at least 3 loaves of rye bread that evening. Rustic and fantastic.

Much of the book is about the power of food. Cooking together, sharing meals, preparing the foods that comfort us and make us feel loved — Paula has a tremendous understanding of the way that foods from our childhood and even the simple act of preparing a meal and sharing it together can bring us peace in our worst moments.

“The tomatoes and broccoli; the baby artichokes and spinach; the mozzarella and scaloppini they sold me; everything that I carried home, cooked, served, then ate three times a day at the tiny oak table in our dining room became my lifeline to normality. For even though John could not talk, he could eat, and the two of us — somehow — managed to eat most of our meals in a silence that was at least companionable. For the entire year we were there, those quiet meals at our narrow oak table were a thrice-daily truce. Not once did John experience a panic attack at the table.”

Paula and John have led a really amazing life together. The travel, the adventure, even the danger and heartache — I would much rather have a life full of those things than something stable and predictable. Their love for each other shines through on each page. Keeping the Feast was truly a pleasure to read.

My copy of Keeping the Feast: One Couple’s Story of Love, Food, and Healing in Italy was an Advance Reader Copy, provided free of charge.