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Biography

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

"As incandescent as was her personality, Cleopatra was every bit Caesar's equal as a coolheaded, clear-eyed pragmatist, though what passed on his part as strategy would be remembered on hers as manipulation."

This quote gives you a little perspective on this updated biography of Cleopatra. Cleopatra stands as one of the most powerful women in history. She was the last Ptolemaic pharoah; an intellectual; a keen strategist; and proved a successful and just ruler for much of her reign. Yet, as a strong woman, she challenged the patriarchal structure of the budding Roman Empire, and as such, history has stripped her of most of her agency and achievements--we are left with the popular image of her witchy social graces and how her lust took down both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.

Stacy Schiff looks at Cleopatra's life and career as a whole, not just her sexual conquests. It is a biased biography, to be sure (as is most non-fiction I've read), but when one of the most powerful women in history has been reduced to the destruction caused by her lust, it's easy to see how biased other historians have been as well. Whether or not you reach the end of this riveting biography with a greater and more well-rounded appreciation for Cleopatra, you'll for sure begin to question the motives behind those in charge of relating history--past, present, and future. Anyone with an interest in the Hellenistic Era and Roman Empire will enjoy the drama set forth here as well.

I was hooked by this book, and the audio is excellent if you want to take a listen.

Number of Pages: 
368

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy, ill. by Elizabeth Baddeley

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy, ill. by Elizabeth Baddeley

I Dissent is a picture book biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As with many children's biographies, it begins with her childhood and the injustices she faced as a woman and Jew. Bader Ginsburg was lucky to have a mother who also disagreed with the gender norms of the time and encouraged her to become educated and dream beyond those boundaries. The story keeps some humor by coupling Bader Ginsburg's strengths with her weaknesses -- she isn't shown as a perfect figure, merely one who was willing to stand up for her beliefs and to keep trying. I Dissent is fairly wordy for a picture book, so it is probably ideal for early grade school age -- they'll enjoy learning all the different synonyms for "disagree." Though it is on the longer side, and mentions difficulties Bader Ginsburg faced in her life, it keeps them simple and the story still upbeat, so it feels more hopeful than dark for the younger audience.

Number of Pages: 
40

Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx/La Juez que Creció en el Bronx by Jonah Winter; ill. by Edel Rodriguez

Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx/La Juez que Creció en el Bronx by Jonah Winter; ill. by Edel Rodriguez

Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx follows the life of the first Latin American to ever become a Supreme Court justice (and the most qualified one at that!). As a young girl raised by a single mother in the South Bronx, Sonia loved reading, studying, baseball, and playing games with her Puerto Rican American family. At age 8, she was diagnosed with diabetes, but she didn't let that stop her dreams of becoming a judge. She went on to graduate at the top of her high school class and attend Princeton, eventually breaking the glass ceiling and becoming a U.S. District Court judge and Supreme Court Justice. She achieved all this despite so many obstacles--this is truly a compelling, uplifting story for any reader.

I love this picture book biography of this incredible woman! It is so inspiring watching her persevere page by page, building to ever greater achievements. The illustrations are expressive yet simple, each focusing on Sotomayor's experiences as she reaches new heights. The bilingual text, in English and Spanish, enables the book to reach a larger audience and touch more lives...and I sincerely hope it will!

Number of Pages: 
40

Me, My Hair, and I (edited by Elizabeth Benedict)

Me, My Hair, and I  (edited by Elizabeth Benedict)

It may seem excessive to devote an entire book of essays to the subject of hair, but each of these writers proves that there's plenty of ground to cover that goes way beyond appearance.  As Marita Golden says, "hair is not benign, it is important and potent."  Each of these essays illustrate that hair, especially for women, is not just something to be groomed and maintained, it's a signifier of one's history, personality, status, age, taste, health, the list goes on . . .  Although these themes ran through each piece, every story was unique.  Suleika Jaouad, who went through leukemia and chemotherapy at age 22, reveals how losing her hair made her feel like an outcast, and getting a "hair tatoo" made her feel empowered again.  Anne Kreamer decides to "go gray," and experiences a profound shift in her concept of time.  Anne Lamott finally finds her look with dreadlocks, after years of hairstyles that never felt right.  

Several other essays focus on parent/child relationships--one mother's confusion over how to "do" her biracial daughter's hair, a child's struggle with an abusive, Old World father who insists she cannot get a haircut, and other scenarios in which grooming hair is a loving ritual, or a painful argument each time.  Of course politics, social movements, and religion also play a role.  One woman leaves behind her Hasidic Jewish culture in which married women must shave their heads and wear a wig.  And an African American woman adopts a "natural," tired of straightening her hair in a forced attempt to be something she is not.

One essay also pays a much-warranted visit to body hair.  Other writers explore hair as a means of attracting a mate (also satisfying or displeasing a mate), their own hair perceived as a success or failure in their culture, or hair in relation to a sibling--a means of shared experience/closeness, or a source of envy.  This mutable extension of our bodies becomes an expression of independence, beauty, and nonconformity.  And yes, of course, numerous haircut experiences, frustrations, and triumphs are recounted that explore all manner of colors, textures, lengths, and styles.  This made for an enjoyable, diverse read on a subject for which surely everyone has a story to tell.        

Number of Pages: 
316

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

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Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein is a candid (but not salacious!) and unflinching look at her days in the band, Sleater-Kinney. I really enjoyed reading this one. And I would count myself as more of a Portlandia fan than a Sleater-Kinney fan. I like that she tells tales on herself. Too often in biographies, it seems that people gloss over their own mistakes, but she comes clean with less than admirable behavior instead of just focusing on her glory days. But the thing that made me really love Carrie was when she talked about opening up for Pearl Jam, "I love being a new onlooker, a convert. To become a fan of something, to open and change, is a move of deliberate optimism, curiosity and enthusiasm. Touring with Pearl Jam allowed me to see how diminished and stifling it is to close yourself off to experiences (196)."

I don't usually want to meet famous people, but I would make an exception for Carrie.

Number of Pages: 
244

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Over half a century ago, Henrietta Lacks developed an aggressive form of cervical cancer which quickly took her life. Unbeknownst to her, her doctors at Johns Hopkins had taken a sample of her cells, now known as HeLa cells, which have survived long past her death, have contributed to important discoveries and treatments in medicine, and are sold by the billions. Yet Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave, and her family has received no compensation (indeed, they didn't even find out that her cells were so widely used until long after her death). In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot weaves a compelling and tragic story of Lacks' life and the life of her cells; the efforts made by her family to come to terms with a legacy over which they have no control; and the complicated history of bioethics, including other cases of cell harvesting and the horrific practice of medical experimentation on African Americans.

I found this a fascinating read from beginning to end. While the book begins with Henrietta's life, much of it is devoted to following her daughter Deborah as she strives to learn what happened to her mother (whom she lost a very young age) and sister. Skloot intersperses the text with a lot of information about cancer, research, and bioethics, which sheds more light on Deborah's journey. It's not always easy to find a non-fiction book that is gripping the whole way through, but this book overwhelmingly succeeds. It is guaranteed to make you think.

Number of Pages: 
369

Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home, by Nina Stibbe

Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home, by Nina Stibbe

In Love, Nina, Nina Stibbe tells the story of her years as a nanny in London through a series of letters home to her sister Vic.  At the age of twenty, Nina moved from her native Leicestershire to take on the job of helping Mary-Kay Wilmers with her sons Sam and Will.  Thankfully Nina included a "who's who" at the beginning of the book, because there is a colorful cast of characters throughout.  Mary-Kay is editor of the London Review of Books, and often has guests, some of them famous, popping in for dinner, conversation, or tea.  There are also neighbors, contemporaries of the two kids, and friends Nina makes as she takes a personal leap and starts attending university at Thames Polytechnic.  Nina's letters are affectionate, irreverent, and very detailed, including whole dialogues that give us a glimpse into everyday life at 55 Gloucester Crescent.  What I enjoyed most about this book was the picture Nina captures of a time that everyone who lived in that household must look back fondly on--the four of them fit so well together that it feels like a visit one wouldn't want to end.  It's also just fun to revisit the art of writing a letter rather than a text or email.  Nina includes impromptu recipes and poems for her sister, lists of books to read, every small pondering and every hilarious interaction between herself and her who's who.  Nina's world is a delightful microcosm to immerse oneself in.     

Number of Pages: 
320

Satan is Real: the Ballad of the Louvin Brothers, by Charlie Louvin

Satan is Real: the Ballad of the Louvin Brothers, by Charlie Louvin

Satan is Real is a biography by Charlie Louvin about his music career with his brother Ira, who was tragically killed in a car accident in 1965.  Charlie carried on making solo music and touring until his death in 2011.  Charlie and Ira began singing and performing gospel songs in their youth in Alabama, but went on to secular music and had many Billboard hits and a long stint on the Grand Ole Opry.  They were well-known for their sibling harmony, arguably the best duo in country music, and extremely influential to artists in the decades following their heyday.  They grew up picking cotton for their hard-core father, listening to their mother sing mountain ballads, and dreaming of escaping to a life like Roy Acuff's, rolling around the country in an air-conditioned car.  In a series of short chapters, this book reveals the sordid details of Ira's many marriages, life on the road for the traveling musicians, and the hits and misses of their days in Nashville.  Charlie was forced to accept the position of being the responsible one, having to put up with his brother's volatile personality and bailing him out of many scrapes, but also knowing the pair wouldn't have been the same without Ira's songwriting, mandolin playing, and charisma. In the end it is a true tale of brotherly love, of highs and lows, losses, and the ties of blood--sounds like the perfect country tune.

Number of Pages: 
297

Photobooth: A Biography by Meags Fitzgerald

Photobooth: A Biography by Meags Fitzgerald

Meags Fitzgerald became obsessed with photobooths in high school, and her passion only grew. After tons of research, travel, and soul-searching, she has produced this fascinating graphic novel that blends history, biography, memoir, travelogue, mechanics, art, and popular culture. Her focus is primarily on chemical photobooths, a vanishing breed becoming rarer by the year and perhaps extinct as manufacturers cease producing its components. She highlights many of the inventors of the photobooth's development as well as many people around the world currently fighting to track, refurbish, and create art with these unique machines. You are guaranteed to discover new information and get caught up in Fitzgerald's commitment.

I requested this through Inter-Library Loan. Please let us know if you need help requesting!

Number of Pages: 
277

Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras by Duncan Tonatiuh

Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras by Duncan Tonatiuh

Imagery of skeletons on the Day of the Dead have permeated popular culture in the United States, but their origins are rarely discussed. Award-winning author and illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh explores the life of the man who popularized the iconic calaveras, José Guadalupe Posada, as well as the sentiments behind the holiday. Tonatiuh includes steps in various printing processes, sure to hook young artists, as well as questions that engage readers in critiquing art work. He deftly blends his signature artistic style, which draws upon classic Aztec figures, with reproductions of the varied work from Posada’s career in art and journalism. Best suited for children ages 7-10, Funny Bones is sure to start many discussions, from political satire to printmaking to the notion of celebration in death.

Number of Pages: 
40