Tag Archives: Biography

The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir by Dee (Builder) Williams

 

 

…I stumbled into a new sort of “happiness,” one that didn’t hinge on always getting what I want, but rather, on wanting what I have. It’s the kind of happiness that isn’t tied so tightly to being comfortable (or having money or property), but instead is linked to a deeper sense of satisfaction—to a sense of humility and gratitude, and a better understanding of who I am in my heart.”  – Dee Williams, The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir

We all have those days that are just overwhelming and make us want to escape for a little while. Whenever the struggle of the daily grind starts to stress me out, I begin to fantasize about selling all my worldly possessions and cramming my life into a tiny house by the sea, or in the mountains…or movable between the two. That’s why I was immediately drawn to The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir, by Dee Williams.

When faced with the reality of struggling to exuberantly live while suffering from congestive heart failure, Dee Williams philosophizes on how much lighter our metaphorical loads would be if only we could literally lighten our physical loads. She challenges herself to take control of her life by simplifying her living space through building a tiny house she then transports from her home in Seattle to Olympia, Washington. Williams takes the reader along on her personal journey through an honest portrayal of the challenges and successes she faces as she builds her new home and adjusts to a new life in her friends’ backyard. Through her conversational tone and humorous self reflections she details the realities of her drastic life change, resulting in a really heartfelt memoir. Although this book does not quite prepare the reader to follow her path to pair down your possessions to merely 305 items and commit to living in a structure you’ve created with your own hands, Williams’ story is inspiring and has drastically increased my perusal of tiny house materials available within LFPL.

For further proof that tiny houses can actually be built and inhabited by the average person check out the documentary Tiny: A Story About Living Small. This beautifully rendered independent film is an extremely honest portrayal of the struggles of the physical process of creating a tiny house as well as the interpersonal conflicts of convincing others in your life that this is a worthwhile pursuit.

 

If you’d like to lust after some well-appointed tiny houses in a beautiful, appropriately tiny, coffee table book check out Mimi Zeiger’s Tiny Houses.

 

To see some examples of small houses throughout history, including Henry Thoreau’s cabin, as well as some modern addaptations check out Lester Walker’s Tiny Houses: Designs for 43 Tiny Houses for Getting Away From it All. This book not only includes beautiful photos, but also some historical background and design sketches of each house featured.

If you’d like a bit more exploration of the philosophy behind the “tiny house movement” and logistical considerations for the planning phase of actually building your own tiny house Ryan Mitchell’s Tiny House Living: Ideas for Building & Living Well in Less the 400 Square Feet is a good place to start.

Those brave souls who may actually live the dream and build their own tiny house should consult Jay Schafer’s DIY Book of Backyard Sheds & Tiny Houses: Build Your Own Guest Cottage, Writing Studio, Home Office, Craft Workshop, or Personal Retreat for a glimpse at some practical and executable designs with tons of helpful tips on the actual building process.

 

Format: Book (Regular Type)

Reviewed by Magen, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch 

 

The Mockingbird Next Door

Interest piqued by the recent announcement that American literary legend Harper Lee will be publishing a new novel? Want to know what the author of one of the most widely read books in America has been doing for the past 50+ years? Marja MillsThe Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee is just about the only option you have, but fortunately it’s an excellent one.

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Lee, who was last in the public eye in the mid-1960s, has eschewed numerous opportunities to be recognized for her literary masterpiece, a book that helped fuel the progress of Civil Rights era reforms and whose hero, small town attorney Atticus Finch, continues to inspire readers today. Her motivations, as outlined by Mills, are certainly relatable: a desire to protect her own privacy and of those she loves; a distrust of those wishing to capitalize on her opus; and a general distaste for constantly being in the spotlight.

When writing Harper Lee’s biography, journalist Mills had to work hard to gain the author’s trust. The Chicago Tribune writer moved to Monroeville, AL with the intention of getting a few interviews and slowly developed earnest friendships with both Lee and her sister. Why did Lee lift the veil on her life now, why not live the rest of her days enjoying her privacy? Mills offers a few explanations. First, she wanted to have the story of the Lee family told by someone she trusted. Second, she wanted to set the record straight on a few things, namely any controversy that remains over who actually wrote To Kill a Mockingbird (Truman Capote, Lee’s childhood friend, had once claimed credit) and some allegations levied by Capote regarding Lee’s mother. Lee and Capote’s friendship had a long history and had even blossomed into a professional collaboration when she traveled to Kansas with him in the early 1960s to do research for what would later become In Cold Blood. The pain of betrayal Lee experienced with Capote is palpable in Mills’ pages.

So how does (Nelle) Harper Lee spend her days? For much of her adult life she spent half of her year in New York, where she enjoyed anonymity and the cultural offerings of a great city. The other half she spent in her hometown in Alabama, hanging out with friends and her beloved sister Alice, who in her 90s was still practicing law and being recognized for her work in social causes. Mills makes Lee’s days of fishing, storytelling and visiting cemeteries in her corner of Alabama sound as stimulating as her days in NYC must have been.

Mills’ unauthorized biography of Lee paints a picture of a woman true to herself and her values, who had to struggle against renown in order to live the life she wanted. The author maintains a professional detachment in reporting her story and spent enough time with Lee to know her as a person, not simply a literary legend.

Still, she confesses to occasionally feeling starstruck during those moments in Lee’s company when she realized, “Oh my god, I’m fishing/visiting/shopping for groceries with Harper Lee!” Dearest to the biographer’s heart were their morning coffee dates at Mills’ kitchen table, commenced by the phone ringing and Harper Lee’s voice on the other end saying, “Hi hon. You pourin’?”

Formats Available: Book (Regular Print and Large Type), eBook

Reviewed by Valerie, Iroquois Branch

Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music by Angélique Kidjo with Rachel Wenrick

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Put on an Angélique Kidjo album.  Listen to her voice – honest, powerful, and expressive.  Open her autobiography, Spirit Rising:  My life, My Music, and hear her tell the powerful story that made the little girl from Benin, in West Africa, into the international artist and activist she is today.

She tells her story simply, but there is great depth to her understanding of human rights issues in Africa and throughout the world.  Several themes pervade her life.

One is family. Her relationships as daughter, sister, wife and mother are portrayed as sustaining her throughout her life and career.  She grew up as 1 of 10 children; her father was a postal worker and her mother ran a theater company.  Music and conversation were abundant at her house. She was a child who asked a lot of questions and never lost the original sense of injustice she felt when she learned about slavery and apartheid.

The music she hears as a child was often intertwined with the civil rights movements in Africa and America in the 1960’s and 70’s.  She hears Miriam Makeba, “Mama Africa,” whose South African citizenship was revoked because of her activism against apartheid.  Makeba becomes her role model and eventually her mentor and friend.  Aretha Franklin is the first woman she sees on an album cover, and she realizes it’s possible to have a career in music.

Her exploration of how Africa influenced music throughout the world is another theme in her music and her life.  Through different albums she explores traditional music of Africa and the fusion of African music with the music of other cultures in the Americas.

As her career progresses, she performs at concerts to bring attention to injustices in Africa.  She’s asked to be a UNICEF ambassador.  She tells of visits to refugee camps, orphanages and villages without adequate nutrition.  “The work for UNICEF inspired my music and my music helped me recover from these trips,” she writes.

As a result of this work, she founded the Batonga Foundation to educate girls in Africa.  Her parents paid to send all their daughters to secondary school, which was unusual in Benin at the time.  She credits her family with giving her the benefits of an education and wants to pass it on.  “The solution to Africa’s problems must be provided by Africans who have experienced them firsthand, especially the African women, who are the continent’s backbone,” she writes.

This book is beautiful, including the gorgeous black and white photo of Kidjo on the cover. It’s printed on shiny paper and contains publicity shots from Kidjo’s albums, candid pics in the studio, and shots of her with her family.  Each chapter begins with colorful African patterns on the left-hand page and African motifs are used throughout.  A wonderful surprise at the end is the inclusion of the personal recipes Kidjo refers to making for family and friends throughout the book.  Spirit Rising invites us into Angélique Kidjo’s life with African hospitality.

The library currently has the following CD’s and DVD by Angélique Kidjo:

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Formats Available:  Book (Regular Type)

Reviewed by Laura, Main Library

Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist by Nancy Goldstein

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Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist is a strange bird of a book.  On one hand, it is a reverent – albeit short – biography of a mostly-forgotten forerunner of modern black women in comics.  Cheryl Lynn Eaton (creator of the web-comic Simulated Life and founder of the Ormes Society), Rosario Dawson (co-creator of Occult Crimes Taskforce), Afua Richardson (artist for Genius), and Jackie Broadnax (creator of the Black Girl Nerds blog) all owe a huge debt to Jackie Ormes‘ trailblazing comics.  Ormes authored and drew four different strips from 1937 to 1954 which appeared in African American newspapers, particularly the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender.

This was a time, of course, when opportunities for African Americans and women, let alone African American women, were limited in the comics industry.  In addition, the series were – mostly – not the kind of simple gag strip that was a major part of the industry.  They expressed many moods and dealt with topics often not touched by other comics.  Her work Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger was very direct in taking on racism and McCarthyism. Another strip, Torchy in Heartbeats followed an educated African-American protagonist as she not only navigated romantic options but also issues of race, environmental activism, and even foreign intrigue.

Due to Ormes’ outspoken political beliefs and activism on their behalf, she was targeted by the FBI during the late 1940’s and 1950’s.  Goldstein has appended excerpts from the FBI file.  These primarily consist of several different interviews that were conducted over the years due to her leftist leanings and the anti-Communist hysteria of the times.  Ormes consistently stated (and nothing to the contrary was definitively documented by the FBI) that she was not a Communist though sympathetic to the Party’s anti-racist and pro-worker principles.

But on the other hand, author Nancy Goldstein was previously known for having written histories of dolls. It is Goldstein’s initial interest in dolls that led to the creation of this biography. Jackie Ormes developed a positive African American doll, produced by the Terri Lee Doll Company, in the late 1940’s.  An examination of the doll’s creation, marketing, and impact – a small part of Ormes’ artistic output – takes up a large portion of the book.

The Patty-Jo dolls were based on the younger sister of her most prolific strip.  Patty-Jo was not as glamorous as her older sister, Ginger, but she was the one given all the pointed dialogue in the strip.  As a doll, though, Patty-Jo had many outfits and hair that was able to be easily styled.  This made her an appealing toy to young African-American girls who had – at that time – very few choices for African-American dolls that were not stereotypical or demeaning.

For readers primarily interested in the comic side of Ormes’ work, there are copious illustrations from her strips, some early drawings, and other sketches.  Her line work is typical of the time in that it is solid, clean, and mostly realistic.  Sometimes the perspective of the human body is odd but oddly enduring at the same time.  I found great joy in just flipping back and forth over the illustrations.

Goldstein knows that this book is somewhat incomplete in documenting the impact of Jackie Ormes and acknowledges so in the Conclusion.  Some of this is due to the general lack of archives for old African-American newspapers in many library collections.  To help rectify this problem, she calls for renewed donation of materials to and funding for several main collections of comic material such as the Cartoon Research Library (Ohio State University) or the Comic Art Collection (Michigan State University).

 Formats Available: Book

Reviewed by Tony, Main Library

The Lady Vanishes

EmptyMansions

What is it about a mystery that so captivates the imagination and spikes one’s interest?  Hidden histories, concealed conspiracies, and secrets spirited away spur the cogs of the human mind to rotate in double time in an effort to consider and grasp the possibilities that exist.

Empty Mansions: the Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. attempts to shed some light on the mysterious life of an American woman, Ms. Huguette Clark, whose unconventional way of life and veiled existence leaves one with an overwhelming curiosity and a wish to pierce the cloak of her life.

But this is not the typical mystery involving murder, a legendary bank heist, or the disappearance of some person.  It is, rather, the life led by Ms. Clark that would seem incomprehensible to many if not most.  You see, Ms. Clark was born the youngest daughter of one of the wealthiest American men of the Gilded Age, Mr. William Clark, but despite her incredible inherited wealth, Ms. Clark led a quiet and extremely reclusive life.

With estates in both California and Connecticut, lodgings in the Upper East Side of Manhattan that encompassed an entire floor, and an art collection that included paintings by Renoir and Monet and valued in the tens of millions of dollars, Ms. Clark most certainly could have provided herself with every creature comfort available, yet she did not.

Instead, she chose to spend her last years in an isolated hospital room, surrounded not by family or friends, but those persons in her paid service, and what a lucrative service it was, which begs the question: had she in fact chosen this fate?  Therein lies the mystery.

After her death in 2011 at the age of 104, distant relatives, many of whom had never spoken with Ms. Clark, came together to file a suit that contested a recent will that left Ms. Clark’s family out.  With missing jewelry, art being stolen and sold, and large sums questionably spent, many questions abound, and Mr. Dedman has made an admirable attempt to provide possible answers based on his extensive research and investigation.  This is a tale that is sure to hold the interest of the reader and intrigue with its many facets.

Formats Available:  Book, E-book

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill Branch

The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel

I enjoyed John Ford’s 1956 classic Western The Searchers when I saw it some fifteen years ago, so I thought reading this book about its production would be worthwhile.

 

 

What I didn’t expect was the detail in which Frankel first discusses Cynthia Ann Parker, the woman kidnapped by Comanche Indians upon whose ordeal the novel and ultimately the film The Searchers was based. Indeed, the first half of the 400-page book concerns Cynthia Ann’s abduction and the events that follow, as well as the life and cultural impact of her son, Quanah

 

 

This fascinating truth, obfuscated through the personal agendas of historians and politicians, perfectly sets up Frankel’s discussion of Alan LeMay’s novel and Ford’s subsequent film.

 

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Billed as simply another John Wayne vehicle, the film is considered by many now as a complex examination of the myth of the American West.

 

 

I encourage anyone with an interest in film history, and history in general, to pick up The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend.

If you want to more about the history of Quanah Parker, you should check out Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne.

 

 

The Millionaire and the Mummies: Theodore Davis’ Gilded Age in the Valley of the Kings by John M. Adams

 “This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of Wealth: First, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community – the man of wealth thus becoming the mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.”                 – Andrew Carnegie, The Gospel of Wealth (1889)

The Industrial Revolution represents the primary impetus by which the United States transitioned from an agrarian-based to an industrial-based economy, which resulted in a massive and unprecedented shift in the population moving from the rural country to the urban city. While the wealth of the country significantly increased, much of it was held by a select few, populated by familiar names such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. This group, eventually coined the Robber Barons, led incredibly luxurious lives that were far removed and in no way resembled the existences lived by the vast majority of the rest of the population. Counted among this group was a man whose name today would be recognized by very few and whose story is told in a 2013 biography written by John M. Adams: Theodore Montgomery Davis.

The life of Mr. Davis in many ways exemplified both the American Dream and the Gilded Age. He was born in 1838 to a well-liked minister known for his fire-and-brimstone preaching and was left destitute, along with his mother and two siblings, when his father died of consumption in 1841; Mr. Davis’ oldest sibling, Arthur, would join his father the following year. Despite further challenges and setbacks, Mr. Davis provided himself with education and eventually became a lawyer. While many of his colleagues had aspirations for politics or other public endeavors, it would seem that Mr. Davis’ sole interest was the employment of all means available to him to build a great fortune, and a great fortune is precisely what Mr. Davis acquired – in a rather dubious manner; a true rags-to-riches story peppered with shady dealings.

Now we come to the point that connects the excerpt that opened this short review. Once his great fortune was secure, Mr. Davis could have spent the remainder of his life in the pursuit of selfish desires, and even though he did engage in those activities that were the hallmark of his class at that time, he developed a passion for Ancient Egypt and its antiquities, and he personally funded expeditions in the Valley of the Kings in the early 1900s that employed scientific methods to excavate tombs; he was not a simple grave robber. By 1914, Mr. Davis believed that no tombs of any import were left in the Valley of the Kings, and his concessions were passed on to Lord Carnarvon, whose funding provided the famous archaeologist Howard Carter with the means to eventually locate the tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1922, totally eclipsing the discoveries of Mr. Davis. Through the efforts and patronage of Mr. Davis, several very famous and important discoveries were made that significantly contributed to Egyptology, and those artifacts that were uncovered by his excavations were donated during his life or bequeathed after his death to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Cairo Museum. As with his contemporaries, it would seem that Mr. Davis felt philanthropy was his duty.

Alternating between archaeological digs and stages in the life of Mr. Davis, Mr. Adams has captured an era in the United States when great fortunes produced a class of Americans of such wealth that the world was literally their oyster. It is fortunate for us, I suppose, that they were willing to share.

-Rob-