Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Biography.(book reviews )(Book review).

On February 17, 1979, a Cessna carrying 11-year-old Norman Ollestad, his father, and his father's girlfriend crashed into Southern California's Mount Baldy. Only the boy survived, climbing off the mountain and spending much of the next 30 years contemplating his father's profound--and not always positive--influence on his life. By teaching him tough lessons on the ski slopes and in dangerous surf, the elder Ollestad, an iconoclast who had been a child actor before becoming a loose cannon FBI agent, had ingrained into his son self-sufficiency, mental toughness, and courage. But at what cost? In the aftermath of the accident that took his father's life, Ollestad writes, "I knew that what he had put me through saved my life."

Ecco. 272 pages. $25.99. ISBN: 9780061766725

Chicago Sun-Times ****

"[The author's] vividly physical writing feels naked. Ollestad's insights into growing up in a broken home and adolescence in southern California are as engrossing as the story of his trip down the mountain, a trip in which he tried to save his dad's girlfriend, Sandra." CARLO WOLFF

Houston Chronicle ****

"Throughout, Ollestad's prose is crisp and exacting, a controlled approach to his tumultuous past. ... [The author has] written a beautiful story about a thrill-loving father--'the man with the sunshine in his eyes'--who taught his boy not just how to live, but how to thrive." MAGGIE GALEHOUSE

Washington Post ****

"This book is not perfect: Some of the descriptive passages are difficult to follow, and perhaps less precise than they could be, so that we get lost in the fog on the mountain, just as we sometimes flounder in the author's own inchoate emotions around this traumatic and defining moment of his life. But these are minor complaints. A portrait of a father's consuming love for his son, Crazy for the Storm will keep you up late into the night." BILL GIFFORD

Cleveland Plain Dealer ****

"Memoirs are the new fiction, allowing us a peek into another's life at a safe distance. ... It's almost impossible to put this book down, although the details of his descent and the skiing and surfing scenes are described so technically that they sometimes lose the uninitiated." SARAH WILLIS

New York Times ***

"Rather than take chances, Mr. Ollestad falls back on the conventional format of cross-cutting, so that chapters about his pre-catastrophe childhood alternate with short, crisp, impressionistic glimpses of the plane crash and its aftermath. This is an easy, caffeinated way of drumming up excitement, but the familiarity of the format stifles the story." JANET MASLIN


Crazy for the Storm works on one level in the genre of "how-not-to." Passages recounting young Norman Ollestad's relationship with his father will make today's doting, attentive parents cringe. But those anecdotes neatly alternate with the author's death-defying descent that, by most accounts, he shouldn't have survived. Ollestad's memory of the tragedy is engaging and disquieting, even if the book's organization suffers from "the familiarity of the [memoir] format" (New York Times) and some questionable memories. Such lapses seem forgivable, given what Ollestad accomplishes here. In the end, he has much to say about fathers and sons, and his honesty--though he reaches a bit of closure, he doesn't overreach for any sort of happy ending--rings true.


I'm Down

A Memoir

By Mishna Wolff

Mishna Wolff, a writer and humorist, grew up in Seattle in the 1970s and 1980s and now lives in New York.

THE TOPIC: Mishna Wolff grew up in a poor black neighborhood in south Seattle, with a single father, "Wolfy"--a white man--who, with his "short perm, a Cosby-esqe sweater, gold chains and a Kangol," believed he was black. He imposed his cultural affinities on his white daughter, who, despite her father's promptings, never quite fit in. Wolff describes her ostracism and slow victories, her mastery of the art of "capping" (hurling insults), her experience on an all-black basketball team, and her transition to a wealthy, elite, and white school--where she found herself too culturally black. In this coming-of-age memoir, Wolff relates how she desperately tried to overcome her rhythm problems (among others) to simply fit in.

St. Martin's. 273 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 9780312378554

Entertainment Weekly ****

"Memories about the struggle to fit in can seem like pleas for pity, but Wolff doesn't go there--she explains everything as simply a matter of fact, which is endearing. Down certainly has serious thoughts on its mind (Wolff actually grew up quite poor and hungry), but the tone manages to be light and triumphant because of the hilarious child-goggles Wolff wears while spinning her tales." TANNER STRANSKY

O, the Oprah Magazine ****

"[A] funny-melancholy coming-of-age memoir about a honky manque. ... Mishna searches for an identity in her broken home, her snobby, mostly white prep school, and--most restrictive of all--her longing heart." CATHLEEN MEDWICK

Seattle Times ****

"The book stops being a comedy about halfway in. after that, it's still funny--Wolff, like Chris Rock, has a way with presenting brutal truths--but there's too much real life, and too little reconciliation between Mishna and her dad for I'm Down to fit neatly into any bookstore's 'humor' section." ANDREW MATSON

Salon ****

"Although the book sometimes relies so heavily on wit that it's hard to separate emotional turmoil from comedic setpiece, Wolff's affection for her family and friends--and for the prickly, clueless honky girl she once was--makes I'm Down more than just a joke." JOY PRESS

Washington Post **

"In her effort to explain what it was like living around blacks, Wolff too often comes close to mimicking a tired tV sitcom. ... Mishna Wolff suffers, like many memoirists of late, from a reluctance to do some old-fashioned reporting to solidify her memory as she steps back into that tricky tunnel of time." WIL HAYGOOD


In this coming-of-age memoir, Wolff tackles an uncomfortable, even taboo subject: racial tension and a young white girl's attempt to assimilate into black culture. Most critics were greatly affected by Wolff's experiences--many times hilarious and educational, but often quite sad. Wolff nonetheless maintains a light tone throughout as she details her childhood in rich dialogue and detail. A few reviewers commented that parts of her life read like a sitcom, albeit with little drama (or even trauma, the stuff of memoirs). Only the Washington Post diverged from other critics in its assessment that Wolff failed to explain her father's own interesting immersion in black culture. Most readers, however, will embrace both Wolff's and her father's stories.


The Last Supper

A Summer in Italy

By Rachel Cusk

Rachel Cusk is the award-winning author of six novels, including Arlington Park (**** Mar/Apr 2007, In the Fold (**** Jan/Feb 2006), and Saving Agnes, and a memoir on motherhood, A Life's Work (**** Nov/Dec 2002). The Last Supper recounts an extended Italian road trip undertaken by the author and her family from their native England.

THE TOPIC: Restless at home in an upscale suburb of Bristol, England, and crushed by the "fear of knowing something in its entirety," novelist Rachel Cusk uproots her family--a husband and two young daughters--on a three-month odyssey to Italy and a Tuscan villa. Along the way, Cusk writes passionately--and often with more than a little disdain--about food, landscape, art, and vile tourists, as she sifts through her ambivalence for her homeland and wonders uneasily where she and her family will settle (it seems that they don't really fit; this is, after all, no Frances Mayes escape fantasy). Finally, the answer remains hauntingly elusive. "Some people are more easily made unhappy than others," Cusk writes, "that much is clear."

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 239 pages $25. ISBN: 9780374184032

San Francisco Chronicle ****

"[A] charming, restless, idiosyncratic hybrid of classic family road trip and probing personal essay where the roadside attractions include Pompeii, the Basilica of Saint Francis and Etruscan tombs, and the big questions on aesthetics and truth and human nature that such sites elicit are smartly explored." MEGAN HARLAN

Independent (UK) ****

"All [Cusk's] work radiates a fine intelligence and the writer's equivalent to an exquisite singing voice. The Last Supper is written with characteristic wit, courage, curiosity, and, I'm afraid, condescension to lesser mortals." AMANDA CRAIG

Providence Journal ***

"Rachel Cusk's The Last Supper, neither the best nor the worst of this popular genre, is an account of a long summer spent in Italy with her husband and two children. ... Cusk's flamboyant descriptions, her semantic loop-the-loops, seem to exist independent of context, like frames that overwhelm paintings." TONY LEWIS

Telegraph (UK) ***

"[The Last Supper] is less about Italians and their way of life than about the foreigners, both expatriates and tourists, whom Cusk encounters during her stay; and if anything it is a discouragement to those British readers who might be thinking of emigrating. ... There are many delightful and perceptive passages in this book, but I sometimes wish that Cusk would hide her cleverness a little." ALEXANDER CHANCELLOR

Guardian (UK) ***

"The book is scarred throughout by a tendency to sneer at almost every traveler who dares to cross their path, from the 'torpid, expressionless' family on the ferry to the 'grey, narrow, pinched-looking couple' they are forced to dine with at a B&B. ... Cusk's spotlight on the personal journey is so bright, so tightly trained, that the rest of humanity can fade to grey." JUSTINE JORDAN

New York Times ***

"There's an awkward tension throughout The Last Supper between Cusk's intellectual ambitions and the humdrum 'what I did last summer' narrative. ... I hope that next time she visits Italy she leaves her domestic baggage at home and concentrates on looking at the art." ADAM BEGLEY


Without doubt, Rachel Cusk is a talented writer and one of the sharpest commentators working in fiction today. In the tradition of Frances Mayes, Peter Mayle, E. M. Forster, and D. H. Lawrence--writers enchanted by the siren call of Italy--Cusk records her observations in The Last Supper. The book works best in the travelogue passages, when the author dissects details with surgical precision. Many sections, though, devolve into a less-coherent analysis of Cusk's own plight, a terminal case of ennui amid "the endlessly repeating blankness" of life in Bristol. Her family is conspicuously anonymous, and the author takes a particularly jaundiced view of the tourists and expats she sees along the way, an irony not lost on many of the book's critics.




The Life and Times of an American Legend

By Larry Tye

Former Boston Globe reporter Larry Tye is the author of a biography of Edward L. Bernays and a cultural history of the Pullman porter.

THE TOPIC: Born Leroy Robert Paige in the slums of Mobile, Alabama, in 1906, "Satchel" Paige used his extraordinary athletic skills and talent for showmanship to rise above poverty and bigotry in the Jim Crow South, becoming one of the most captivating baseball players of all time. Having perfected his pitch during a five-year term in juvenile detention for shoplifting, Paige enlisted with the semiprofessional Mobile Tigers in 1924, spending most of his celebrated, 30-year career in the Negro Leagues with select opportunities to play against legends like Joe DiMaggio and Bob Feller. Paige, an extraordinarily gifted pitcher and consummate entertainer, laid the groundwork for integration in professional sports and in 1948 became the second African American (after Jackie Robinson) to breach baseball's color barrier in the major leagues.

Random House. 392 pages. $26. ISBN: 9781400066513

Boston Globe ****

"Tye's writing is a pleasure, relaxed but economical, providing a more vivid sense of life in black baseball than any of the several other books on Paige and the Negro Leagues. ... Tye concludes that many of the tales about Paige don't hold up in every regard, but have some basis in fact." BILL NOWLIN

Christian Science Monitor ****

"Were his Stepin Fetchit-type antics really 'his way of bucking the system' and 'a brilliantly defiant parody' deliberately concocted to combat racism, as the author suggests? That is a stretch, but Tye makes a very convincing argument for Paige's important and underrecognized role as a trailblazer in race relations and a force for integration." DAVID CONRADS

NY Times Book Review ****

"Satchel makes a cool, clear, tenacious effort to find the real Paige behind all that hyperbole. ... Paige's contribution to baseball history, already enormous, is enhanced by the strong, solid arguments that Mr. Tye has constructed." JANET MASLIN

Philadelphia Inquirer ****

"It would probably be difficult to write a boring book about satchel Paige, and tye certainly has not done so. Through exhaustive research, interviews, and correspondence with more than 350 people, he has surely given us a definitive account of the man and of the player. And probably the closest to the truth we are likely to get." ROB KLUGMAN

Seattle Times ****

"One of the challenges for [Paige's] biographer ... is to distinguish the actual from the apocryphal--but to give readers enough of the latter for its sheer entertainment value. In this definitive and impressively researched biography, Massachusetts-based journalist and author Larry Tye succeeds in doing precisely that, offering a rich and nuanced portrait of Paige that is as complex as it is thrilling to read." DAVID TAKAMI

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ****

"[A] splendid biography of one of the greatest hurlers in the history of baseball. ... Was Paige a 'linchpin' in a 'subversive bid' to bring down Jim Crow in baseball? Probably not." GLENN C. ALTSCHULER

Washington Post ****

"While Satchel is definitive, it isn't a sweeping, dramatic narrative in the vein of Richard Ben Cramer's Joe DiMaggio, which is too bad given its subject's complex and colorful life. ... The challenge in crafting a portrait of the 'real' Paige is that Paige himself spent his life avoiding, and then subverting, reality." STEFAN FATSIS


Critics agreed that Tye's greatest challenge was to separate the truth of Paige's life from the fiction, promulgated by the shamelessly self-aggrandizing Paige himself. To this end, Tye researched Paige's life thoroughly, scrutinizing source documents from birth records to FBI files and conducting more than 200 interviews with Paige's family and friends. Tye's fondness for his subject is obvious, but that doesn't prevent him from debunking the myths surrounding Paige's life. However, a couple of critics felt that Tye was still too credulous, and others considered some of his arguments a bit tenuous. Though Tye has unearthed some eye-opening information--for example, Paige was a bigamist--Satchel is no racy, tell-all biography but a balanced examination of a legendary athlete and pioneer.

Named Works: I'm Down: A Memoir (Biography) Book reviews; The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy (Biography) Book reviews; Satchel:The Life and Times of an American Legend (Biography) Book reviews; Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival (Biography) Book reviews

Source Citation:"Biography.(book reviews )(Book review)." Bookmarks (Sept-Oct 2009): 56(3). Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 19 Aug. 2009

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