Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend: A Non-Fiction Review

You’ve read the story of Jesse James
of how he lived and died.
If you’re still in need;
of something to read,
here’s the story of Bonnie and Clyde.

cover art for Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of Legend by Karen BlumenthalYou might think you know the story of Bonnie and Clyde–the love struck couple who went on a crime spree throughout Texas in the 1930s. Over the years they have been immortalized in stories, songs, and on film.

Thanks to the advent of photography, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were documented in newspapers which printed Bonnie’s poetry left behind after a fortuitous flight from a safe house. The media and the public were quick to latch onto these ill-fated young people ready to cast them as a modern answer to Robin Hood.

Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend (2018) by Karen Blumenthal unpacks this sensationalized story to look at the facts.

By examining the poverty of their neighborhood and the other barriers they faced growing up in Texas Blumenthal tries to offer some explanation of how two poorly educated teens became two of the most notorious criminals of our time.

Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend is a quick and informative read with numerous photos and first-person accounts from witness statements. Recommended for true crime enthusiasts and mystery readers of all ages.

Possible Pairings: Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary by Gail Jarrow, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Trial of the Century by Sarah Miller

When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt: A (Non-Fiction) Review

cover art for When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt by Kara CooneyAncient history confirms one thing again and again: It was a man’s world. Throughout the world ancient civilizations created patriarchal societies often with ruthless transitions between dynasties.

There was one exception: Egypt. Throughout the country’s long reign from Dynasty 1 through to the Ptolemaic years that ended Egypt’s independence until the twentieth century, Egypt was unique in its acceptance of female rulers.

There were not many but occurring as often as they did over thousands of years, suggests the practice was longstanding and accepted throughout Egypt. Separated by years, and sometimes even millennia, these queens came to the throne under difference circumstances, with different strategies. The thing that binds them all together, even now, is that their rules all inevitably ended to restore patriarchal balance. When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt (2018) by Kara Cooney examines the reigns of six queens to explore Egypt’s complex attitudes toward female rule and what lessons might be gleaned for modern society.

This book is divided into six chapters that work chronologically through ancient Egypt’s history beginning in Dynasty 1 with Merneith–one of the first Egyptian women to rule as a regent for a relative too young to rule in his own stead. Next Cooney introduces readers to Nefrusobek who ruled as the last of her dynasty when Egypt’s penchant for using incest to consolidate power resulted in a sterile male heir.

Cooney’s previous book, The Woman Who Would Become King, is a more in-depth study of Hatshepsut–the first Egyptian queen to surpass her role as regent and declare herself king in her own right–so it’s no surprise that this chapter is one of the most thoroughly researched and well-informed.

Nefertiti, the queen who watched her husband Akhenaten usher in the monotheistic Amarna period (and bring Egypt out of it after his death) is an interesting figure. Cooney explores how Nefertiti’s position ruling beside Akhenaten allowed her to grasp for more authority. However, its should also be noted that to support her theory of Egypt supporting queens routinely throughout its long history, Cooney supports a very specific school of thought with very little historical evidence suggesting that Nefertiti eventually reinvented herself as Smenkhkare, a little-known ruler who followed.

After Smekhnare (or Nefertiti’s) reign Tawosret again saw the end of her dynasty as Egypt became globalized for the first time–a change that would have lasting consequences even a thousand years later when Cleopatra became the last Egyptian to rule Egypt.

Cooney situates each queen well in Egypt’s history and in relation to each other. Even when Cooney delves into what might be conspiracy theories (and theories with little support from new DNA evidence) she also points out the flaws or leaps in logic with a frankness that I appreciate.

Throughout When Women Ruled the World Cooney balances her own conjectures and often working with almost nothing in terms of a historical record to create a nuanced and sometimes even restrained picture. The book is at its weakest when she is trying to use these queens to create a compelling argument for why women should not be sidelined as potential leaders but that is also the thing that ties the entire book together. Includes a map, timeline, and extensive footnotes. Recommended for nonfiction readers and ancient Egypt enthusiasts.

Votes for Women! American Suffragists and the Battle for the Ballot: A Non-Fiction Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Votes for Women! American Suffragists and the Battle for the Ballot by Winifred Conkling Votes for Women! American Suffragists and the Battle for the Ballot (2018) by Winifred Conkling is engaging narrative non-fiction at its best.

This book offers a nuanced history of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States from the Seneca Falls convention through to the momentous vote that ratified the nineteenth amendment with the moments leading up to the vote and its aftermath framing the book as prologue and epilogue.

Most of the book is follows Elizabeth Cady Stanton from her birth through to the moment that she realized women having the right to vote was key to equal rights and her subsequent dedication to the suffrage movement. Letters and ephemera highlight Stanton’s abiding friendship with Susan B. Anthony and other women within the suffrage and prohibition movements–two groups that often overlapped. They also underscore some of the inner conflicts that are not often covered in broad strokes about this moment in history.

The last few chapters of the book shift the focus to Alice Paul and Lucy Burns with their more militant approach to the fight for women’s suffrage including their numerous arrests, hunger strikes, forced feedings, and nonviolent protest.

Votes for Women! is frank in a way that many history books are not. Conkling covers some of the uglier moments of the suffrage movement thoughtfully, including the ways in which the suffrage movement divided when faced with choosing between votes for women or votes for African American men. No one within the movement was perfect and the fight for suffrage as a whole often disregarded women of color as well as the poor and working class–something that Conkling writes about thoughtfully and without apology.

The end of the book includes extensive end notes, timelines, resources, and more.

Votes for Women! is a thorough and comprehensive history with short chapters, engaging narrative and even suspense after all these years. Timely and empowering, Votes for Women! is a vital read in this current political climate. Highly recommended.

Be sure to check out my exclusive interview with Winifred about Votes for Women starting tomorrow!

Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction: A Non-Fiction Review

cover art for Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in the Age of Distraction by Derek ThompsonWhat takes a song from a moderately enjoyable earworm to an unavoidable hit? How does a movie go from a solid screenplay to a worldwide phenomenon? In an age of social media saturation can any content ever really go “viral”? Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in the Age of Distraction (2017) by Derek Thompson endeavors to answer some of these questions.

Hit Makers explores what makes a hit with surprising results as he examines how exposure, familiarity, and other factors play into the often ineffable quality of popular appeal.

In chapters themed around popular music, movies, and television Thompson examines various sensations from their inception to the moment they were decidedly a hit. Examples include how “School House Rock” went from a middling B-Side song to the defining song of a generation thanks to one nine-year-old’s music collection, the origin story like legend surrounding Star Wars, and how one writer of Twilight fanfic managed to tap into the zeitgeist and create a sensation of her own.

This book is at its best when Thompson is sharing stories instead of disseminating theories and facts although those are just as fascinating to learn. Some gems include the exposure effect (being the right thing and being seen), fluency vs. disfluency (as it relates to people wanting to be shocked while simultaneously gravitating toward what they already know), as well as the principle of striving for the most advanced yet acceptable outcome in all things. There are a lot of interesting takeaways here although the ultimate lesson remains that culture is chaos and there’s no good or consistent way to predict a hit.

Hit Makers is approachable nonfiction at its best and a must read for anyone with more than a passing interest in pop culture. Recommended.

The 57 Bus: A Non-Fiction Review

cover art for The 57 Bus by Dashka SlaterTeens Sasha and Richard have nothing in common except for eight minutes spent on the 57 bus in Oakland, California each weekday. Sasha, a white agender teen, attended a small private school. Richard, a black teen living in a bad neighborhood, attended a large public one that never quite figured out how to help him thrive.

One afternoon a thoughtless joke leaves Sasha badly burned and Richard charged with two hate crimes. Journalist Slater expands her original reporting on this story, which first appeared in The New York Times, to explore both Sasha and Richard’s backgrounds and the events that changed both their lives forever in The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives (2017) by Dashka Slater.

The 57 Bus is a finalist for YALSA’s 2018 Nonfiction Award.

Slater’s substantial original reporting is expanded here to give readers background on every aspect of this story from what Sasha and Richard’s schools looked like, to a smart and thoughtful rundown of gender pronouns and the sexuality spectrum as Sasha works out how they want to define themselves.

There is no question that Richard committed a crime but Slater also looks at the circumstances that worked against Richard from before his arrest right up to the moment his sentence became a mandatory hate crime.

While the core of the story is solid, much of this book lacks cohesion. The style is all over the place as Slater experiments with form and delivery in her efforts to show more angles of the events both before and after Richard’s arrest. The timeline also shifts abruptly as Slater takes a holistic view the events on the bus and those surrounding it.

The 57 Bus is engaging nonfiction at its best. Short chapters, fast-paced events, and straightforward writing make for easily readable chapters and a surprisingly quick read. Sure to appeal particularly to fans of hard news and true crime.

Social Media Wellness: A Non-Fiction Review and My Own Social Media Overhaul

Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World (2017) by Ana Homayoun is part textbook and part workbook offering background on the ways social media usage has changed and grown in recent years along with strategies for tweens and teens to manage their social media time along with all of their other school and extracurricular responsibilities.

Although this book (Homayoun’s third on teens and organization) is targeted at parents/educators it also offers useful information and strategies for teens to implement on their own. As a librarian and social media user myself I learned a lot both for working with kids and teens and for my own practices.

The first three chapters of the book introduce social media as an ever-changing phenomenon and some of the bigger players in social media sites for young people. Homayoun also looks at how social media use affects teens and tweens and offers some compelling statistics and facts on how social media is changing sleep patterns, empathy, and other habits for frequent users. Homayoun also offers a quick rundown of how the instant gratification and constant usage of social media can feed into teen development and promote negative traits and offer a warped sense of what is and is not acceptable.

The second half of the book offers organization strategies and successful anecdotes framed within Homayoun’s three-pronged strategy of socialization, self-regulation, and  safety designed to help tweens and teens not just use social media and devices less but also to use both more efficiently.

My main takeaway from this book is that choices matter and when it comes to digital use there is always a choice. It’s also important to remember that friends are not the same as followers/likes even if you might have some great friends that you only know digitally.

In my own life I was inspired after reading Social Media Wellness to take a hard look at what was and wasn’t working for me. I deleted accounts I no longer use, I left sites that brought me no joy (Pinterest), and I made sure I knew all of my accounts and their related information (and if any needed to be made more secure). I also took time to think about privacy settings and what I want to be available to my friends/followers (I will not be keeping an archive of my instagram stories for instance).

Something else that really clicked with me was the idea that social media encourages an “always on” mentality and what that means for anyone using them. It’s exhausting! After reading about this repeatedly in Homayoun’s book and realizing how much I was plugged in I decided it was time to remove my work email/messaging from my phone. I don’t have a job with urgent deadlines and I don’t have to take work home. There’s no reason for me to be plugged in all the time and replying all the time when it will keep until business hours. While I still start my personal and work days checking sites and emails, I try to avoid ending the day in that way and instead try to unplug and either watch TV with my mom or just read before bed instead.

Homayoun also suggests readers try the Pomodoro Technique for monotasking (because multi-tasking never works, especially when it includes checking texts or likes) which has been incredibly helpful for parceling out my own day-to-day tasks and using apps like Moment to monitor phone usage (I tried this right when my compute died which totally skewed the data and I need to try it again now) and also Forest to encourage less phone use. (I’ve also been using Forest as my timer for the Pomodoro modules.)

What I really like about Social Media Wellness is that it offers factual information to back up claims along with a variety of strategies which allow readers to take what works for them and leave the rest. A lot of this is common sense–especially for readers who are already “plugged in” when it comes to social media and digital devices–but the calm and measured approach makes even the simplest changes feel empowering and proves that even small changes can make a huge difference. A must-read in this increasingly digital age.

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers: A Non-Fiction Review

“One must work and be bold if one really wants to live.”

Vincent Van Gogh’s life is the stuff of legend filled with passion, creativity, and the  larger-than-life personality of a man whose paintings would change the art world forever with their contributions to Post-Impressionism. Maybe you’ve heard about his explosive time in the Yellow House with fellow artist Paul Gauguin. Maybe you know the salacious details of when he cut off his own ear.

No one knew what the future would think of Vincent when he was a young man in the Netherlands. Vincent was known for his passions, yes. But he was also erratic, bombastic, and to put it frankly, difficult. Even Vincent’s favorite brother, Theo, sometimes found him hard to take. The brothers had a lot in common. They both had red hair and neatly trimmed beards–in fact, if you look at Vincent’s self-portrait and his portrait of Theo you might have a hard time telling them apart, especially when they swap hats. They wrote each other copious letters and shared a love of art. They would both die in their thirties but the legacy they left behind would last far longer.

Vincent didn’t realize he wanted to be a painter until he was in his twenties–he made up for the late start with a zealous commitment to his work and a prolific output over the course of his short life. Vincent only started to get the recognition he craved near the end of his life. Even then his true genius wouldn’t be recognized until years after his death.

While Vincent created the art, it was Theo who helped build the legend. Theo nurtured Vincent’s talents, supported him financially, and made sure his paintings were seen in galleries that were beginning to move away from the old masters and show art in newer, brighter and more abstract styles.

Now, so many years after their deaths, it’s hard to imagine a time when their lives weren’t intertwined. But it wasn’t always like that. It all started on a long walk to a windmill and a pledge of lifelong friendship and commitment to both each other and to their mutual work. That fateful day–the pledge, the commitment, and the companionship–would shape the lives of both brothers as they chased their passions and ambitions both together and apart over the course of their short, turbulent lives in Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers (2017) by Deborah Heiligman.

Vincent and Theo is the 2017 winner of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Nonfiction.

Heiligman’s latest book explores the complex relationship between Vincent and Theo Van Gogh as both men tried to define who they wanted to be and to pursue their dreams. Vincent and Theo rarely lived in the same place as they grew older. But they wrote letters to each other constantly detailing their hopes, their failures, and details of their daily lives. Of course, they also talked often about art as it related to Theo’s career as an art dealer and to Vincent’s work as an artist.

These letters serve as a centerpiece to Vincent and Theo and tie together this story of family, friendship, devotion, and art. Short chapters and inventive formatting make even familiar information feel novel as Heiligman delves deep into Vincent’s early life, his changing relationship with Theo, and his rocky journey as both an artist and a young man. Theo, the lesser known of the brothers, is shown equally as he struggles with his own demons while he searches for professional success and love.

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers reframes Vincent and Theo’s lives by examining the give and take in their relationship and the ways in which the brothers influenced each other. New perspectives on key points in Vincent’s life as well as detailed information about the brothers’ early devotion to each other–and the previously little known painting that documents that moment–add new insights even for readers familiar with the artist and his art.

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers is a fascinating and informative story that tenderly explores the momentous and sometimes tragic lives of two of the art world’s most important figures. A must read for art enthusiasts, history and non-fiction buffs, and anyone who needs a reminder that it’s never too late to follow your passions.

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*