Archive for the ‘Non-Fiction’ Category

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Review: Still Foolin' 'Em

Still Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My KeysStill Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys by Billy Crystal

Billy Crystal seems to be one of the few upright, sincere, and trustworthy celebrities in Hollywood. He had led an incredible life without being sensationalist, as we learn in this biography, from his time on the stand-up comedy circuit to his break into TV and movies and his unlikely friendships with childhood heroes Mickey Mantle and Muhammad Ali. Interspersed are some opinionated tangents on social, political, philosophical, and familial topics, which break up the narrative neatly.

Few books make me literally laugh out loud; Crystal's book did it four times in the first ten pages. Although not every chapter was that concentrated with funny, it was still an enjoyable read that drove me to seek out some of his film works that I've previously missed, like Running Scared and 61*.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review: The Gettysburg Address

The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic AdaptationThe Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation by Jonathan Hennessey & Aaron McConnell

I found this book revelational. Broken down into chapters named after passages of the Gettysburg Address, the book covers much more than the titular speech, from the founding of our country to the motivations and consequences of the Civil War. My education in American history is sorely lacking, and The Gettysburg Address taught me many things that I'd never spent much time thinking about: the discrepancies between the Declaration and the Constitution; why slavery abounded in the South but not the North; how the Battle of Gettysburg was won; how Lincoln's assassination negatively affected the post-war reconciliation between the states. I lack the knowledge to be a critical reader of history and so cannot confidently identify where this book falls short. But I do recommend this graphic novel as an easy and enjoyable way to learn more than what an elementary education taught us.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Review: The Moth

The MothThe Moth edited by Catherine Burns

I'm a big fan of The Moth. Ever since a friend introduced me to the podcast in May 2012, I've listened to every show and attended every local event I could. Despite that, I was originally uninterested in the book — the spoken medium doesn't always translate well to transcription. But a promotion offered two $18 tickets to their next show when preordering the $10 book, so I picked it up as a money-saving move.

The book contains 50 stories that they promise aren't necessarily the best, but are those that lend themselves well to the written word, with only light editing. These stories are taken from the mainstage show and thus are told by the likes of President Clinton's press secretary, astronaut Michael Massimino, rapper Run DMC, and others. Although these stories had at their core values we can all relate to — being alone, being afraid — I still found it a bit hard to penetrate the world of celebrity. (That some of the stories are by Moth staff, and the book has a preface, a forward, and an introduction, further contributes to the self-congratulatory air.)

I'd previously heard 14 of the 50 stories on the audio podcast so skipped those. The ones I did read, I could tell they were originally spoken: plenty of sentences begin with "And", I don't think much would've been lost if these transitions had been eliminated in the editing.

This ain't a bad book — but for the true experience, The Moth should be heard, not seen.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

PostSecret book signing

I was researching effective blogging techniques when I came across this advice: "If you've never visited PostSecret it's one of the few sites on the Internet that is actually worth a damn and does something to change people's lives."

I'd seen a reference to PostSecret a year earlier and had glanced at it but then moved on. This time I took a closer look at the photoblog and was immediately drawn in. The site describes itself simply: "PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a homemade postcard." But don't expect the "Having a great time, wish you were here" sort of touristy postcards; these are handcrafted works of art, revealing photographs, unusual and declarative pieces of paper, and more. The image is as important as the text, as are the interplay between the two.

All the cards' elements combine to represent secrets intended to be something never shared with another person — but often they are secrets that their senders have never even admitted to themselves. People have reported dropping their postcard in a mailbox and feeling freed or released from their secrets; others, once seeing their secret manifested, have destroyed the card as a metaphor for no longer being the person carrying that secret. Still others never let their secrets — or their postcards — go. Altogether, it's a sort of anonymous group therapy: whether the secrets are scary, funny, commonplace, or depressing, they are all about humanity — and in that, we all find something to relate to. Though I could empathize with many of the secrets, I was stunned when I found one the text and image which were impossibly unique to me — a secret I've told only two people. To know there's someone else out there who sees him- or herself the same way I do myself made me feel a bit less alone.

PostSecret's founder, Frank Warren, updates his Web site every Sunday with 20 never-before-seen secrets; and once a year, he compiles these and others into a hardcover book. It took only a month of weekly Web site visits before I went to the bookstore to buy the thickest compilation I could find — when I was done with that, I lent it to a friend, then went back to the store to buy myself more.

Last month's release of a fourth collection coincided with Mr. Warren's visit to Boston for a signing at the Harvard Book Store. He preceeded the signing with a 45-minute presentation about the origin and nature of PostSecret. During this talk, he also shared with us many postcards that, for various reasons, he's otherwise unable to distribute. And he took the audience into his confidence when he related the fourth-grade secret that he often attributes PostSecret for revealing and allowing him to overcome.

As he told jokes, took questions, and related stories, I was surprised at how thoroughly Mr. Warren's demeanor defied my expectations. When it finally came time for him to sign my book, I felt a bit silly that I mutely stood there, wanting to engage him in conversation but not wanting to take up his time. Finally I blurted out: "I'm trying to think of something clever or witty to say, but I'm drawing a blank. You've probably heard it all before, anyway. But I gotta say, you're far more optimistic and cheerful than I expected. I bought one of your books that someone else had stuck their secrets into, and I was overwhelmed with the responsibility of what to do with them. And here you are with 200,000 postcards, laughing and smiling."

His response: "If you've lived the kind of life represented in these postcards, then you may be more inclined to see them not as a burden, but as solace."

With a line behind me, I knew the conversation had ended, but I was rooted to the spot as I tried to figure out if his answer made me feel fortunate, or guilty. He gently smiled, said "Thanks for coming," and left me to contemplate more than the secrets in his new hardcover.