Gordon Parks: How a Photographer Captured Black and White America By Carole Boston Weatherford & Gordon Parks: No Excuses By Ann Parr

Gordon Parks1Gordon Parks, celebrated African American photographer known for his documentation of black poverty, is a good subject for juvenile biographies.  I found two juvenile biographies that I think are worthy of note, and I believe they are good for both the young and old to read, especially out loud.  In fact, I believe that adults should read children’s books and read them often.

The first one, illustrated in colorful drawings, is titled Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America. The other (Gordon Parks: No Excuses) contains his very own, gritty black and white photographs, among others. I prefer the latter, but both have their value as junior biographies.

I thought that the first biography painted a good portrait of his life. It moved me so much the first time I read itGordon Parks2 that I was on the verge of tears, as emotions swept over me imagining the difficulty that he experienced as a black photographer in his day. The illustrations are good, but why use illustrations when one can look as his work instead?

That is why I preferred the latter entitled Gordon Parks: No Excuses. Throughout the book the reader is reminded of an encouragement that his mother gave him as a child: “What a white boy can do, you can too—no excuses.” I was inspired by what he accomplished despite all the obstacles he faced, and awed by the opportunities he received.

Please take a look at these biographies, especially in 2020 when black lives are at the forefront of our lives.

(Stella Oh, McGirt-Horton Branch Library)

Suggested Music Biographies

The North Carolina Digital Library, provided through the Greensboro Public Library, has a great collection of biographies, and as a subcategory, a nice selection of music biographies.  Some are autobiographical; others were written posthumously about the musician(s).  Here are some suggestions for future reading.

1. Beastie Boys Book by Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz – I never was a fan, Title details for Beastie Boys Book by Michael Diamond - Wait listbut lots of folks were.  Indulge in this collage of bio, photographs and reminisces, co-told by two members of the band, along with other contributors, that covers the thirty-year plus odyssey of the Beastie Boys.

2. Mozart in the Jungle : Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music by Blair Tindall – The down-and-dirty tale of the reality of a classical musician, written by a veteran of the New York City music scene. 

Title details for Bessie by Chris Albertson - Wait list3. Bessie by Chris Albertson – An updated version of a 1972 biography of Bessie Smith, written by a renowned jazz journalist, that chronicles the tempestuous life of this amazing blues singer, who died much too early in 1937.

4. Texas Flood : The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan by Alan Paul and Andy Aledort – An admiring biography of the blues guitar legend, who died tragically in 1990.

5. Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith – Less of a standard autobiography, this one isTitle details for Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith - Available more of a year-long personal journey throughout the American West and elsewhere as songwriter and poet Smith ruminates about age, tragedy, and the changing political climate.

6. Horror Stories : A Memoir by Liz Phair – Her album Exile in Guyville turned lots of heads when it came out in 1993.  Over the years, Phair has kept on recording music, and here, she turns her unabashed style of writing to the memoir form.

Title details for Serving the Servant by Danny Goldberg - Available7. A Song for You : My Life with Whitney Houston by Robyn Crawford – One of Whitney’s closest friends recounts her long friendship with Houston, and provides a different aspect of the singing star beyond the glitz and controversy. 

8. Serving the Servant : Remembering Kurt Cobain by Danny Goldberg – Nirvana’s manager reflects on Cobain twenty five years after his death, focusing more on his life and musical legacy than the idolatry of Cobain as tortured soul.

(William Hicks, Information Services)







The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

I borrowed a copy of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls years ago from a classmate.  Iglass castle was picking through his small bookshelf, and he recommended the book to me.  We had very different thoughts about what’s important in life, and I desperately wanted to know what was important to him because I wanted to understand him.  Now to the book.

The Glass Castle is a memoir of a woman who lived through poverty.  What I liked about the book, actually, is that the author did not wallow in it.  I liked that she did not go on about the misery of being poor and living in uncertain circumstances.  Jeannette has a story to tell, and I believe it’s not all about overcoming her impoverished childhood.  I believe a lot of it has to do with her relationship with her father, of coming to terms with who they were, and most importantly who they were together.  At least that is what I found poignant to me.

A few years after I had read the book almost feverishly, the movie was released.  I had long said goodbye to my classmate, but I still wanted to see the film.  So I did, and although I cannot say that it was a perfect movie, I thought that the director (Destin Daniel Cretton) casted the movie well, especially with Woody Harrelson as the father.  They were as believable to me as the real life characters I imagined them to be while reading the book.  Even though my memories of the details of the book were a little fuzzy by then, I believe Cretton did a good job overall of making the book come to life.

There is a beautiful passage in the book about a tree I want to share.  I will quote it here:

One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree.  I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house.  I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight.  Mom frowned at me.  “You’d be destroying what makes it special,” she said.  “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.”

Those words struck a chord in me as I have been through struggles in my own life as I am sure many have, albeit of a different kind.  What Jeanette’s mom calls beauty, I would like to call strength and character.  And they can be beautiful indeed.

I highly recommend discussing this book with your friends.

(Stella Oh, Benjamin Branch Library)

David Lynch : The Man from Another Place By Dennis Lim

David LynchWhen the Twin Peaks revival was announced a few years ago, a veritable cottage industry of Twin Peaks-related books, think pieces, and apparel appeared virtually overnight to cash in on the news.  Missing from this welcome deluge of material was a concise, accessible critical/biographical overview of David Lynch, co-creator of the cult TV show and arguably the reason most folks were excited about the prospects of the new season.

Dennis Lim’s The Man From Another Place successfully fills that void with a breezy, readable introduction to the life and work of David Lynch. Lim does an excellent job incorporating the many projects Lynch has been involved in, including his art work, “industrial symphonies”, songwriting, Transcendental Meditation advocacy, and even his four-panel comic strip The Angriest Dog in the World.

Lim’s book is saved from being a glorified Wikipedia page by the copious amount of interviews he conducted with Lynch and various artistic collaborators, so that someone who has read, say, the 700-page David Lynch biography Beautiful Dark, will still find new insights and information here. The author is also gracious enough to provide interpretations of Lynch’s films for the newly initiated, giving the perplexed a way into the labyrinths of these visionary works (indeed, Lim has me convinced I now “understand” Inland Empire.)

If you’ve heard the name David Lynch and never understood what the fuss is about, this book is an excellent place to start.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

The Nine of Us: Growing Up Kennedy by Jean Kennedy Smith

If John Kennedy were still alive, he would now be a hundred years old.  This milestonenine of us led me to think about reading a book about him, but I wasn’t in the mood for a serious volume about his presidency or a sad description of his assassination.  This book about the childhood of the nine Kennedy children, Joe, John, Rosemary, Kathleen (nicknamed Kick), Eunice, Pat, Bobby, Jean, and Ted, takes us back to a happy, innocent time in their lives.

This was a family oriented household, with no adult dinner parties – dinner was a special time for the parents and children to gather for conversation, including discussions of political issues.  At their summer home in Hyannis Port, the brothers and sisters enjoyed swimming, sailing, touch football, biking, and other sports.  Their parents, Joseph and Rose Kennedy, made time to be with each child individually and encouraged each child to develop individual interests and talents, which might involve taking classes or teaching skills to one another.

Despite the Kennedy family’s great wealth, Joseph and Rose told their children that their ancestors had struggled financially and that they must never take anything for granted.  Each child helped with household chores, and some had summer jobs or did volunteer work.  Gifts – not extravagant ones, either – were only for birthdays and Christmas. Clothes and toys were, if possible, mended rather than replaced.  Long distance telephone calls were expensive and were, therefore, brief.

Reading about the lives of these children made great summer reading!

Jean Kennedy Smith is the eighth of the nine children.  She served as U.S. Ambassador to Ireland and also founded VSA, an international organization providing arts and education for people with disabilities.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

For the Glory by Duncan Hamilton

for-the-gloryHamilton, a British sportswriter, tells the story of Eric Liddell, a runner in the 1924 Olympics.  You may remember Liddell from the Academy-award-winning film Chariots of Fire.  Because he considered competing in the Olympics on Sunday a violation of his faith, Liddell declined to enter the 100-meter race.  Instead, he ran in the 400-meter race, held on a different day.  Despite his relative lack of experience in the longer race, he won the gold medal and set a world record for that event.  This biography corrects some errors in the film’s portrayal of Liddell’s Olympic career.

To me, the most interesting part of Liddell’s life came after the Olympics.  Despite great acclaim for his victory, as well as the many exciting and profitable offers that he received, he followed his career plan to become a missionary in China.  This became very dangerous when the Japanese invaded China, and finally he sent his wife and children to safety in Canada.  Liddell, along with many other foreigners, ended up in a Japanese internment camp.  There he faced a life of hard work, primitive, crowded conditions, and a near-starvation diet.  Liddell endured these difficulties without complaint, treating everyone from prostitutes to Japanese guards with courtesy.  His jobs in the camp were teaching science (without books or lab equipment) and improving morale by organizing games and sporting events.  Realizing the great need for the camp’s young people to find diversion from their harsh lives in captivity, he allowed them to enjoy sports on Sundays and also served as referee.  Although he had declined to bend his faith’s rules about Sunday observance for personal gain and glory, he willingly did so to serve others.  He also cheerfully helped the other internees in every possible way, from cleaning latrines to counseling.

For The Glory reminds me of Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, the biography of Louis Zamperini.  Zamperini, like Liddell, was an Olympian captured by the Japanese during World War II, and his story was also made into a movie.  Both of these are fascinating biographies of heroic men.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

First Women : the grace and power of America’s modern First Ladies by Kate Andersen Brower

First Women tells about the presidents’ wives from 1960 to the present: Jackie Kennedy, Ladyfirst-women Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama.  Brower drew much of her information from numerous interviews, including those with former White House staff and with members of these women’s families, and from the first ladies’ extensive correspondence.

I’d never considered that first ladies, after having many similar experiences, have a special ability to give one another understanding and support.  Deep friendships among some of them have crossed party lines.  On the other hand, the book includes less heartwarming encounters, as well as some of their catty comments about one another.  The book tells about the first ladies’ roles as wives, mothers, and working on issues that matter to them.  Their husbands could depend on them for emotional support and often for advice and assistance.

Whether many of these women are historical figures to you, or whether you’ve lived through all of their husbands’ presidencies, you’ll find much of interest in this book.

Brower’s earlier book, The Residence, is about White House staffers.  It’s also a good read.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Grandma Gatewood’s Walk : The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail by Ben Montgomery

grandmaEmma Gatewood lived a hard life.  She married a husband who proved to be abusive, had eleven children, and worked her fingers to the literal bone.  At the age of sixty-seven, she took a walk as “a lark” that ended over 2,000 miles later, becoming the first woman to walk the Appalachian Trail.

Gatewood started light with a pack she pieced together, carrying some bare necessities.  Along the course of her travels, she met plenty of “trail angels” who sheltered and fed her.  There were also times when people were inhospitable, she was eating wild berries for sustenance, used a shower curtain that she’d brought for rain protection, and stayed warm by heating rocks in a fire and sleeping on them after they’d warmed up enough.

Her journey was arduous, as are all along this trail, but Gatewood’s was particularly heinous.  1955 was a year of vicious hurricanes that flooded the northeast without mercy; Gatewood reached New England right when these storms hit.  There were rivers that were nigh impossible to cross.  Some she crossed alone, others with help.  One of the luckiest meetings she experienced was sharing a trail shelter with a Catholic mission group that included some of Harlem’s most notorious gang leaders.  Everyone involved realized a common need, and Gatewood got through some of her worst crossings by help from this group.

The press soon got wind of Gatewood’s “lark” and as she progressed, journalists of all kinds were at any town of size along her way, quick to get in a picture or story, and Grandma’s legend grew.  And yes, Katahdin was hers, hard-won but attainable.

Gatewood was just getting started…

Grandma Gatewood’s Walk is a nice mix of trek account, family background, and social commentary of the 1950s, when society was changing and people were becoming more sedentary due to the convenience of the automobile.  The news of an older lady walking in the middle of nowhere was a novelty, and a necessary jolt in the arm for the general public to remind them of the benefits of exercise and the great outdoors.

Gatewood’s comments on poor conditions of portions of the AT raised more awareness of the trail and its importance to hikers; in the following years, there were improvements to shelters and accessibility.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Treehouse : Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love, and See by Naomi Wolf

treehouseA decrepit house in rural New York beckons the author as a place of rejuvenation.  Many visits and much labor later, the property becomes a retreat for others, including immediate family, friends, and Wolf’s father, whose life and ideals set the tone for this book.

Leonard Wolf has led a colorful life.  Born in Romania in the 1920s, he immigrated as a small child to the United States.  During the 1940s onward, he was prominent in the American Bohemian community on the west coast as a writer and teacher.  Wolf never amassed a fortune, but stayed true to his ideals.  He continued to teach and publish long after other movements (the Beats, the Hippies) made their mark.

The author discusses her father’s unconventional method of education and how her own teaching approach evolved during the stretch of time they were renovating the country house.  Her father comes to visit there from time to time, offering his help in painting and building a treehouse for Naomi’s daughter.  The treehouse evolves as well; near the book’s end, you’ll find the final result as something far different from what they had originally planned.

Visitors to the house find that Leonard and the property are catalysts for change in their own lives.  Several of Naomi’s friends and students come at troubled times; they find, if not answers, then other avenues for creative and personal growth.  And even the neighbor that Naomi hired for clearing out the overgrown yard explores his own creativity, far beyond what they hired him for, and the property and treehouse are much improved because of his work.

The Treehouse is a worthy read for anybody hitting a dead end with a creative endeavor, or going through a trying emotional time.  It ultimately recounts the reconnection of a daughter with her father, but there is much more to the book than that.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

wrightThis is a fascinating, readable biography by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

A small flying toy fascinated Wilbur and Orville Wright when they were young children, and Orville told his first grade-school teacher that someday he and his brother would make a real flying machine.  As a young man, Wilbur, in one of the most important letters in history, asked the Smithsonian for a list of books about the problems of mechanical and human flight.  The brothers took the list, studied the books, observed birds in flight, and began building their first plane.  They faced many obstacles – lack of college education, limited technical training, a lack of funding except for money earned in their bicycle shop, errors in the calculations of earlier researchers, and their inability to find an engine or propellers suitable for their project – but they overcame them all.

After their successful flight in 1903, there were new problems – limited government or public interest in their achievement, their lack of experience with complex business negotiations, lawsuits attempting to prove that the Wrights were not the first to invent the airplane, a serious accident – and again, they succeeded.  In 1909, the world’s first international airplane race included twenty-two planes.  Wilbur and Orville’s thorough documentation in diaries, letters, and notebooks eventually proved without a shadow of a doubt that they were the inventors of this world-changing invention.

The brothers’ contemporaries were often as impressed by their ability to avoid being spoiled by success as by their invention.  I liked the following excerpt from a reporter’s summary of their activities on the day when their hometown held an all-day celebration for them.  “9 A.M. Left their work in the aeroplane shop and in their shirt sleeves went out in the street to hear every whistle and bell in town blow and ring for ten minutes.  9:10 A.M. Returned to work.  10 A.M. Drove in a parade to the opening ceremony of the Homecoming Celebration. 11 A. M. Returned to work.”

The story of the Wright brothers has a special interest for North Carolinians.  The brothers chose Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks for their first attempts at flight because of the suitable winds in that area, and it was there that they succeeded.  The book includes a glimpse of life on the North Carolina coast at that time.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)