Biography, Non-Fiction

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

I first came across In Extremis when going through front list (new release) publisher orders and, thanked my lucky stars I have such a good relationship with the rep because when I begged her to send me an advance copy, she happily obliged. And I think it is safe to say, In Extremis is my favorite read of the entire year.

Synopsis

When Marie Colvin was killed in an artillery attack in Homs, Syria, in 2012, at age fifty-six, the world lost a fearless and iconoclastic war correspondent who covered the most significant global calamities of her lifetime. In Extremis, written by her fellow reporter Lindsey Hilsum, is a thrilling investigation into Colvin’s epic life and tragic death based on exclusive access to her intimate diaries from age thirteen to her death, interviews with people from every corner of her life, and impeccable research.

After growing up in a middle-class Catholic family on Long Island, Colvin studied with the legendary journalist John Hersey at Yale, and eventually started working for The Sunday Times of London, where she gained a reputation for bravery and compassion as she told the stories of victims of the major conflicts of our time. She lost sight in one eye while in Sri Lanka covering the civil war, interviewed Gaddafi and Arafat many times, and repeatedly risked her life covering conflicts in Chechnya, East Timor, Kosovo, and the Middle East. Colvin lived her personal life in extremis, too: bold, driven, and complex, she was married twice, took many lovers, drank and smoked, and rejected society’s expectations for women. Despite PTSD, she refused to give up reporting. Like her hero Martha Gellhorn, Colvin was committed to bearing witness to the horrifying truths of war, and to shining a light on the profound suffering of ordinary people caught in the midst of conflict.

Review

I love war correspondents’ memoirs and biographies – It’s What I Do was one of my favorite reads of last year. And, just, oh my goodness. In Extremis dethroned Lynsey from the top of my personal ranking. Granted, I’ve only read two to completion so far (I’m reading Martha Gellhorn’s, the role model for both Lynsey and Marie, right now), but goodness gracious, it will be a long time before I find another book like this. And it caused one of the longest book hangovers I’ve ever had. And, through In Extremis, I had the opportunity to check off a book seller life goal and be the first review for a title on Goodreads and Lindsey Hilsum responded to my review!

My husband, Ben, and I have been together for almost a decade and he could not recall a single instance in that time when I stayed up past midnight to read. I absolutely love to read, but am borderline narcoleptic so I’m not a big night time reader. But for days on end, I stayed up far later than I should have, unable to put down Lindsey Hilsum’s marvelous biography of her friend and fellow journalist, Marie Colvin.

Lindsey Hilsum is, in the humble opinion of someone who has not personally met her, the best person to write Marie Colvin’s biography. A friend, but not an intimate acquaintance, she approaches her subject with the kind and caring hands of someone who felt a deep loss when she died, but removed enough to offer a fairly objective perspective on the life decisions she made that led her to that final, fateful trip to Homs, Syria in 2012. Marie kept extensive journals her entire life and they serve as the basis for the bulk of In Extremis, making it as close to an autobiography as it could possibly be. Sprinkled in are excerpts from Marie’s reporting for London’s Sunday Times, and they offer an even deeper glimpse into what inspired and drove her to seek out war zones and report on the stories of the people who live there.

A few years ago, Ben & I visited the Newseum in Washington D. C. which triggered my current obsession with journalism. I’d always loved writing and have been a news junkie from a very young age (the day does not start until I’ve checked the BBC, CNN and my custom Google newsfeed), but I never appreciated just how important journalists are worldwide until that trip. They are responsible for keeping the world apprised of the goings on in far reaches of the world and at home. And nothing, well, almost nothing, in regards to my country’s current political climate, makes me angrier than the unofficial war on journalism and the president’s constant claims of fake news. As I rally against it, and uninformed fellow Americans, I remind myself of the fact that Marie Colvin had to stand up to people who challenged the authenticity of her reporting and she did so with kindness, grace, and style.

Even though Marie’s personal life may have been a bit of a mess, okay, quite a big mess, she played a crucial role in ensuring that the western world knew exactly what was going on in the war zones of the world, particularly the Middle East. It is easy enough for those of us sitting in our living rooms in the Northeast of the US to ignore the challenges facing not only that area of the world, but also in Europe as they struggle to accommodate record numbers of refugees, and to dehumanize those who are struggling because their struggles don’t affect us directly. But Marie wouldn’t let us. She did everything in her power to bring that suffering, the plights of the people who were displaced from their homes, and the challenges they faced daily, into our collective consciousness.

When reading, and therefore constantly Google-ing Marie Colvin, I came across the production of A Private War, Matthew Heineman’s cinematic depiction of Marie’s life. While the movie is based on the Vanity Fair article published immediately after Marie’s death and not on Lindsey’s biography, the two, given their near simultaneous release dates, will become inexorably tied to each other in future. I was very nervous when I found out that Rosamund Pike is playing Marie – I adored her in Pride & Prejudice, but is she the best choice to play my new hero? After reading articles about production and how much the process of portraying Marie affected her personally, and the fact that a documentary filmmaker is at the helm, I’m far less concerned and a great deal more excited.

Lindsey’s writing is tremendous, Marie’s life equal parts inspiring and cautionary tale, and I truly hope that her story reaches as many people as possible and helps us all recognize that we are all human. We all share this world, and the sufferings of a few are the sufferings of us all.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $28.00 • 9780374175597 • 400 pages • published November 2018 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux • read September 2018

In Extremis on Goodreads

Get a Copy of In Extremis

In Extremis

Biography, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Jell-O Girls by Allie Rowbottom

I’ve been half-heartedly participating in a book club that used to be mine and has now migrated into someone else’s, but I’ve still had a foot in the door. When a fellow member picked Jell-O Girls for today’s discussion, I was thrilled to finally read nonfiction AND get to talk about it. Downside, my opinion and personal experiences seemed to be in the minority…

Synopsis

In 1899, Allie Rowbottom’s great-great-great-uncle bought the patent to Jell-O from its inventor for $450. The sale would turn out to be one of the most profitable business deals in American history, and the generations that followed enjoyed immense privilege – but they were also haunted by suicides, cancer, alcoholism, and mysterious ailments.

More than one hundred years after that deal was struck, Rowbottom’s mother, Mary, was diagnosed with the same incurable cancer that had claimed her own mother’s life. Determined to combat what she had come to consider the “Jell-O Curse” and her looming mortality, Mary began obsessively researching her family’s past, bent on understanding the origins of her illness and the impact on her life of both Jell-O and the traditional American values the company championed. Before she died in 2015, Mary began to send Rowbottom boxes of her research and notes, in the hope that her daughter might write what she could not. Jell-O Girls is the liberation of that story.

Review

I’ve been in a bit of a book-finishing rut for the past month and a half. All year I’d been flying through books and then, as soon as my grandmother got sick and passed away, I haven’t wanted to touch a book. Until now. Part of getting back to my normal life it seems must include reading (which is very logical given my occupation, I just hadn’t felt like opening a book), and these days, reading means primarily nonfiction. It’s been a year of my near complete lack of interest in fiction and YA (my two staples for the past two decades), so when book club finally veered back to nonfiction, I was thrilled – I hadn’t actually finished a new book club book since, uh, January 2017.

If I were to write a memoir, it would be a lot like Jell-O Girls. The publisher summary doesn’t exactly capture the spirit of the memoir – it sensationalizes it more than needed. Allie Rowbottom faces an interesting inheritance – money from Jell-O which supported her artist mother her entire life, and a “curse” so to speak, which is basically her family trying to find a source of blame for poor genes. I was intrigued when I picked it up, and it held me captivated until I finished it – in 48 hours. And then I went to log it in Goodreads and see what other people thought about it. Oh boy.

I need to start holding off on looking a Goodreads reviews until I’ve finished a book. I adored Jell-O Girls and thought it one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. It seems, however, I am in the minority when it comes to most readers and I think that there are two primary reasons for this. Firstly, the integration of the Jell-O story with that of Allie’s family doesn’t always work particularly well. It’s nice, and a refreshing interlude at times, to see how Jell-O has changed over the years, but it really has very little to do with Allie, her mother Mary, and her grandmother, Midge, our three female protagonists of the memoir. Second, if you’ve never experienced any of the traumatic events and family situations the main characters experienced, it can be easy to discount them as Rich White People Problems, as most people in my book club, and on the interwebs of Goodreads, seemed to do.

Those two things considered, as someone who has been the primary caretaker to a family member slowly dying of cancer, just lost her grandmother, has had to handle the fact that her mother will most likely die of cancer given that she’s already a three-time survivor, whose parents are divorced, whose family has a long history of mental illness, when you’ve struggled with anorexia nervosa and developed OCD tendencies, passed out and not remembered the last time you ate because you couldn’t control anything in your life except what you ate, well. You could say Allie’s Jell-O Girls is the story of me and my mother’s family.

We’re all a little crazy, humanity proves this. And when you’ve experienced very similar situations to Allie and you want to convey just how magnificently she captures the feeling of waiting for hours on end in the surgical waiting room that you struggled for years to find words to describe, you want to share that with people. You want to talk about just how important this book is to you, not just because you think it’s good, but because it let you know that you are far from alone. That other people have experienced the same set of traumas, self-inflicted and otherwise, that you have. That it’s okay to feel like you’re losing your mind and that you are not alone.

Despite working in a bookstore and talking about books for a living and recommending countless books to people over the last few years, I don’t actually have the chance to sit down and talk about books in detail with many people. I get to give people my thirty-second elevator pitch on a book and hope they’ll buy it. And part of the success of the store I work at is that all of the employees have their own genres of interest – Su reads things dark and twisty, Pam reads contemporary women’s and historical fiction, Mary reads commercial nonfiction and fiction, Jennifer is our children’s buyer and can tell you anything and everything about all the picture books on the shelves, Kaz specializes in LGBT literature, PK reads business and history, Hadley reads the little known random books published by small, academic and indie presses, Staci reads just like my mom, thrillers and mysteries from Baldacci to Scottoline, and I read a little bit of everything in between. There’s not a whole lot of overlap. Therefore, enter book club – the perfect opportunity to discuss books with (mostly) like-minded individuals.

I miss picking all the books (I am aware that this is very selfish). I miss it being a way to support the store (I’m now the only one who doesn’t buy the book on Amazon or from B&N). I miss having productive discussions about interesting books. No one likes to feel like they’re under attack or being misunderstood when they choose a book or have a specific feeling about a book. And I love Jell-O Girls. In my 29 years of existence and of the 220 books I’ve read since I started working at the bookstore in 2015, it is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I don’t care if the rest of the world disagrees with me. I will praise it for handling life situations that so many people find difficult to talk about. So please, ignore the plethora of poor ratings on websites. Ratings don’t capture the spirit of the book. If you think reading this book would benefit you, your family, please. Take a look at it.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $28.00 • 9780316510615 • 388 pages • published July 2018 by Little, Brown and Company • average Goodreads rating 3.2 out of 5 stars • read in October 2018

Allie Rowbottom’s Website

Jell-O Girls on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Jell-O Girls

Jell-O Girls

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

It is not often that I get the idea in my head that I absolutely must read a book at a particular time, but I decided this year before Christmas that I absolutely had to read Furiously Happy. My coworker, Jennifer, who loves Jenny Lawson, said “No, no. You have to read Let’s Pretend This Never Happened first.” And boy was she right.

Synopsis

When Jenny Lawson was little, all she ever wanted was to fit in. That dream was cut short by her fantastically unbalanced father and a morbidly eccentric childhood. It did, however, open up an opportunity for Lawson to find the humor in the strange shame-spiral that is her life, and we are all the better for it.

In the irreverent Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Lawson’s long-suffering husband and sweet daughter help her uncover the surprising discovery that the most terribly human moments – the ones we want to pretend never happened – are the very same moments that make us the people we are today.

Review

I don’t often shove a book in my husband’s face and say, “Here! You MUST read this chapter right now!” Any time I have attempted this before, he groans and shoves said book out of my face. There aren’t many books that I’ve read that strike me as books he would particularly enjoy. But, while reading Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, I did this no less than 10 times. 10! And each time, he laughed too (which was very reassuring) and agreed with my declaration that Jenny, the author, and Victor, her husband, represent the two of us in five to ten years.

There have been a few books, fiction mostly, where I have identified with the main character to the point where I declare, “me too!” (not in the present #metoo sense, but in an I-can-thoroughly-relate-to-what-you’re-saying sense). But this definitely falls into the same category of Hyperbole and a Half where I feel like I’m reading a slightly altered account of my own life. My father was a builder, not a taxidermist, I grew up in Pennsyltucky (rural PA), not rural Texas, but I also am the messy one in my marriage, met my husband in college, say things out loud at social gatherings that I really shouldn’t, and have generalized anxiety disorder, though my panic attacks are mostly triggered by driving.

As Jenny writes, these things make me human, and they make me, me. And now I  know that there are far more people like me than I previously thought. If you’re looking for a book that will make you laugh out loud and that you can thoroughly relate to, look no further than Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780425261019 • 363 pages • first published April 2012, this edition published March 2013 by Berkley Books • average Goodreads rating 3.9 out of 5 • read in January 2018

Jenny Lawson’s Website

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

Let's Pretend This Never Happened

Graphic Novel, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green

FUTURE RELEASE DATE: October 3, 2017 (released in the UK in 2013)

It is an interesting story how I stumbled upon Lighter Than My Shadow. About a month and a half ago I was in New York City for BookExpo, and as a member of the ABA (the American Booksellers Association) I had been granted special access to a room full of galleys/ARCs (advanced reader copies) of books. In my attempt to be very judicious with my selections (I had to carry everything back from Manhattan to Brooklyn), I was avoiding particularly weighty books, such as Lighter Than My Shadow. But there was just something about it, something that drew me and told me that I had to pick up Katie’s book and read it. 

Synopsis

Like most kids, Katie was a picky eater. She’s sit at the table in silent protest, hide uneaten toast in her bedroom, and listen to parental threats she’d have to eat it for breakfast.

But in any life a set of circumstances can collide, and normal behavior can soon shade into something sinister, something deadly.

Lighter Than My Shadow is a hand-drawn story of struggle and recovery, a trip into the black heart of a taboo illness, an exposure of those who are so weak they prey on the weak, and an inspiration to anybody who believes in the human power to endure towards happiness.

Review

I was extremely lucky when I was nineteen years old to have a grandfather who helped me figure out that my relationship with food and exercise (too little of the former, too much of the latter) was unhealthy. At a time that could reasonably be called the worst point of my life – I had taken a leave of absence from college, my dog and stepfather were both dying from cancer, and I couldn’t figure out how to have a positive attitude – I turned to controlling my food and exercise regime to help me cope.

I’m also extremely lucky that I picked up Lighter Than My Shadow and was able to personally thank Katie for writing it when I was in New York. It has taken me a month and a half to finish her exceptional work of art and writing because every single page hits so close to home. Every single emotion is captured perfectly. The quote from Joss Whedon (yep, creator of Buffy, director of The Avengers, Joss Whedon) sums it up pretty succinctly – “It’s universal yet specific and those together make such strong medicine. Wow.”

It also goes to show how little we are willing to talk about eating disorders when I can share my experience with strangers on the internet, but when one of my own friends starts to show the warning signs, I attempt to help her in every way I can, save the most important – I’m too scared to tell her that I’ve been in the exact same position that she is in. I struggle to tell her that I too was not eating and overexercising. It wasn’t until after I started reading Lighter Than My Shadow, it wasn’t until she’d been struggling for almost 2 full years that I could finally bring myself to share that truth with her – that she wasn’t the only one in our friend group to have experienced the despair that accompanies such a loss of control.

Because while a great number of people use their eating disorder as a way to feel in control in a uncontrollable world, exercising that control over yourself also makes you feel out of control, even if you’re not willing to admit it to yourself. Katie perfectly captures that feeling through her illustrations and text. If you, or someone you love and care about, is struggling and you’re not sure what you can do to help yourself or them, take a look at Lighter Than My Shadow.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $19.99 • 9781941302415 • 516 pages • published October 2017 by Lion Forge • average Goodreads rating 4.45 out of 5 • read in July 2017

Lighter Than My Shadow Website

Lighter Than My Shadow on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Lighter Than My Shadow

Lighter Than My Shadow