Marianne Peters

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Fifty years after the landmark passage of the Civil Rights Act, two new books capture the history of those tumultuous times. The story of the law’s passage is not just about the legislative process, though its approval by Congress was anything but a foregone conclusion. It’s a story about grassroots activism, unexpected allies, the clash of personalities and political posturing. It’s about finally putting an end to institutional racism and beginning the slow process towards justice and reconciliation.

Clay Risen’s The Bill of the Century and Todd Purdum’s An Idea Whose Time Has Come both cover the same chronological period (January 1963–July 1964) and events: key developments in the civil rights movement, the March on Washington, the introduction of the Civil Rights bill in Congress, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the transition from Kennedy to Lyndon Johnson and Johnson’s efforts to shepherd the bill into law. The books delve into the personalities, loyalties and strategies employed on Capitol Hill for and against the bill. These latter sections prove to be some of the most fascinating sections of both books, as the authors carefully set up the scenario for the final showdown on the Senate floor.

For those not familiar with the way bills become laws, the intricate details about procedure, cloture and filibuster can be daunting. What’s most interesting about these details is the way lawmakers used relationships to build support for the bill. This bridge-building certainly reflects a less-partisan time when politicians were willing to cross the aisle to support a worthy cause. At times the lawmakers were motivated by self-interest, but at other times they reflected personal conscience and the will of their constituents back home, both grassroots activists and ordinary citizens alike who leaned on their representatives to pass the Civil Rights Act.

Though the books are similar, Purdum’s lens is a wider in scope. While Risen concentrates mostly on the doings of lawmakers, Purdum touches on some incidents occurring at the time the bill was in Congress. In particular, he describes the pressure placed on Martin Luther King Jr. by FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover, who seemed to have a special hatred for the Civil Rights leader. Releasing a scathing document about King that linked him to well-known Communists, Hoover apparently forced Attorney General Bobby Kennedy to initiate surveillance of King’s headquarters in Atlanta. This is the seamy side of Washington, when people become pawns in the fight to advance the very legislation they hope to pass.

Nowadays, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is something we take for granted. The Bill of the Century and An Idea Whose Time Has remind us of what life was like before the law was passed, and how the law itself was indeed “an idea whose time has come.”

Fifty years after the landmark passage of the Civil Rights Act, two new books capture the history of those tumultuous times. The story of the law’s passage is not just about the legislative process, though its approval by Congress was anything but a foregone conclusion. It’s a story about grassroots activism, unexpected allies, the clash of personalities and political posturing. It’s about finally putting an end to institutional racism and beginning the slow process towards justice and reconciliation.
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One of the great mysteries of the early years of North America’s settlement by Europeans is the lost Roanoke colony. In 1587, 118 people, including children, settled there but later disappeared without a trace. Just a few cryptic clues remained that hinted at their possible fate. What drove them from their settlement? Illness? Native attack? Internal strife?

Essayist and founding editor of Gray’s Sporting Journal Ed Gray dreams up a few possible answers in his first novel, Left in the Wind: The Roanoke Journal of Emme Merrimoth. Gray chooses Emme, an actual Roanoke colonist, as the narrator for his tale. Through her eyes, we experience the new colonists’ distress as they make the difficult crossing from England, their struggle to establish a new home in the wilderness of North Carolina, the dramas and jealousies between families and the disintegration of a community. 

Is Gray correct in his explanation of Roanoke’s demise? It’s impossible to say, but his idea is as good as any. Part historical novel, part detective story, Left in the Wind is filled with fascinating details of colonial settlement life and Native-American culture. It’s a gripping story that readers will have trouble putting down.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

One of the great mysteries of the early years of North America’s settlement by Europeans is the lost Roanoke colony. In 1587, 118 people, including children, settled there but later disappeared without a trace. Just a few cryptic clues remained that hinted at their possible fate. What drove them from their settlement? Illness? Native attack? Internal strife?
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Those of us approaching midlife want good news about the years to come. Is dementia inevitable? Can I continue to thrive despite an aging body? Will I become lonely and isolated as I grow older?

Barbara Bradley Hagerty has some good news for us in Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife. As she sees it, midlife can be a challenging time as we endure many transitions—empty nest, retirement, the deaths of our parents—but these later years can be a time of discovery and reinvention as well.

Hagerty was a journalist for 20 years, but Life Reimagined is not just a collection of reporting. It’s Hagerty’s personal journey as she confronts the challenges of growing older. Her writing is lively and honest, and she manages to ask serious questions without taking herself too seriously. She interviews scientists about brain structure, psychologists about friendships and 21st-century matchmakers at the headquarters of dating site eHarmony. She studies resilience, investigating ways to cope with the difficulties that midlife brings. She proves her point about reinvention when she enters the Senior Olympics after taking up a new sport—cycling.

One touching aspect of the book is Hagerty’s account of her mother, a magnificent, intelligent woman in slow decline. Her mother provides Hagerty (and readers) with a demonstration of aging gracefully and living life to the fullest for as long as we can. She also demonstrates how to let go when it’s time. 

Life Reimagined gave me hope that midlife, even with its struggles, can be a time of growth and deeper joy in relationships old and new.

 

This article was originally published in the March 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Those of us approaching midlife want good news about the years to come. Is dementia inevitable? Can I continue to thrive despite an aging body? Will I become lonely and isolated as I grow older?
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Lizzie March is not thin when we first meet her, but she desperately wants to be. A lonely high school girl with an obese, ill mother and an absent father, she avoids looking at her own body. Instead, she secretly envies female friends who are sexually bold or especially beautiful. Craving acceptance, she meets guys on Internet dating sites, and later, after dropping out of Catholic school, she brings home older men who don’t seem bothered by her weight. Eventually, she begins to diet, hoping that it will bring her the love she’s looking for.

In 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, author Mona Awad tells Lizzie’s story through 13 chapters in her life as she transforms from a chubby teen to a sleekly fit adult. Throughout these often raw, poignant stories, Awad adeptly skewers the culture of fitness and dieting, a constant battle of self-denial. Awad, who received an MFA from Brown University, illustrates the way that women unconsciously size each other up by appearance or even what they choose on a restaurant menu. For example, in one story, “The Girl I Hate,” Lizzie goes to lunch with a skinny friend who joyously eats fattening food while Lizzie—dieting—nibbles on a salad. 

Lizzie is a frustrating, funny and sad character. However, her story is a deeply true one. She exemplifies the fact that self-acceptance must come from inside ourselves, always separate from the ever-changing bodies we inhabit. Readers who appreciated last year’s Dietland shouldn’t miss this insightful debut.

 

This article was originally published in the March 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

In 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, author Mona Awad tells Lizzie’s story through 13 chapters in her life as she transforms from a chubby teen to a sleekly fit adult. Throughout these often raw, poignant stories, Awad adeptly skewers the culture of fitness and dieting, a constant battle of self-denial.
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Frederick Forsyth, former RAF pilot and journalist for Reuters, spoke four languages, enjoyed his share of cigarettes and liquor, toyed with members of the East German Stasi, slept with the mistress of a high-powered Communist official and covered a civil war in Nigeria. All before the age of 30. Forsyth shares his adventures in his entertaining new memoir, The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue, a fast-paced account of his career from post-World War II Europe through the Cold War and on to the present.

Readers who enjoy his political thrillers will particularly appreciate this book, as Forsyth’s own escapades became the basis for many of his stories. The idea that sparked The Odessa File came from a secret organization of Nazis he had learned about while stationed in East Berlin. The Dogs of War originated from harrowing experiences covering a brutal African conflict that nearly claimed his life. In fact, after fleeing the conflict, he returned to England jobless and destitute. So, desperate for money, he penned a novel he hoped would provide some income, based on his memories covering Charles de Gaulle while serving with Reuters in Paris. That novel was The Day of the Jackal, still his most popular work.

Forsyth’s voice is perhaps the most compelling part of his memoir. He writes in muscular, lean prose, with a hint of ironic humor that is mostly directed at his younger self. He is honest about some failed ventures—including total financial ruin at one point—but he saves his harshest criticism for incompetent diplomats, soulless mercenaries and a former Nazi concentration camp guard he encounters one dark night in a German pub.

If you’re intrigued by 20th-century history and politics, Cold War spy-craft or the life of a foreign correspondent, you’ll relish The Outsider.

Frederick Forsyth, former RAF pilot and journalist for Reuters, spoke four languages, enjoyed his share of cigarettes and liquor, toyed with members of the East German Stasi, slept with the mistress of a high-powered Communist official and covered a civil war in Nigeria. All before the age of 30. Forsyth shares his adventures in his entertaining new memoir, The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue, a fast-paced account of his career from post-World War II Europe through the Cold War and on to the present.

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Children’s earliest memories are of their families. Siblings, especially the closer they are in age, are our first friends, the only people in the world who shared the same womb and share the same memories. But what if your only memories of your siblings are how they disappeared?

Mary Anna King’s new memoir, Bastards, is the story of her fractured family. Growing up in New Jersey, she never realized the depth of her parents’ poverty, even when they gave away five of her younger sisters to make ends meet. It wasn’t until one of those sisters returned well-dressed and well-mannered that King began to see her own family through someone else’s eyes. King, as well as her brother, were taken to Oklahoma to be raised by her maternal grandfather and his second wife—a couple with lots of possessions, but not a lot of warmth. Though she was provided for, King and her brother continude to struggle with the memories of the family they left behind, always wondering about the sisters they lost.

King tells her story in straightforward fashion without judgment or regret, though her tone mixes melancholy with moments of hilarity. When she begins to be reunited with her sisters as a college student, there are no sentimental scenes of hugs and kisses. The siblings get drunk, smoke pot, argue and go on road trips, all while trying to fill the holes left by the girls’ adoptions. King is frank about the damage done by her troubled parents, especially her estranged father, and the consequences of their choices. Ultimately, though, the siblings find connection and acceptance, however imperfect, and begin to make new memories as a whole family again.

Children’s earliest memories are of their families. Siblings, especially the closer they are in age, are our first friends, the only people in the world who shared the same womb and share the same memories. But what if your only memories of your siblings are how they disappeared?
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In her new book about stage fright, journalist Sara Solovitch describes her earliest memories of the affliction in physical terms. “Pushing myself out of my chair, I felt my thighs cling to the wood. I . . . tried to smile, but my mouth was dry. And now, I realized, my hands were sopping wet. When I sat on the piano bench, I became aware that my knees were knocking and my feet were shaking.” Like many people who struggle with similar fears, she felt that her mind and body betrayed her every time she took the stage to perform her piano pieces, no matter how arduously she practiced. Even playing for a few friends in her own home was traumatic.

Approaching 60, Solovitch decided to try to overcome her stage fright. She challenged herself to play a public concert for a crowd, giving herself a year to conquer her fear. Playing Scared is a compelling account of her journey, from the first awkward piano recitals, to playing in airport lounges for strangers, to booking the hall for her final test. Along the way, she introduces readers to an array of teachers, coaches and experts who help her understand stage fright from all angles and suggest a variety of techniques to improve her performance. As a result, Solovitch’s book is not just a memoir, but a practical guide for the multitudes who share her public-speaking or performing fears. 

One of the unexpected pleasures of the book is Solovitch’s description of playing the piano. Despite her struggles to play for the public, her dedication to her craft and the joy she experiences as she immerses herself in the music are the closest I have ever come to imagining life as a professional musician.

 

This article was originally published in the June 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

In her new book about stage fright, journalist Sara Solovitch describes her earliest memories of the affliction in physical terms. Like many people who struggle with similar fears, she felt that her mind and body betrayed her every time she took the stage to perform her piano pieces, no matter how arduously she practiced. Even playing for a few friends in her own home was traumatic.
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In Sarah McCoy’s new book, two protagonists tell the little-known history of Sarah Brown, daughter of John Brown, the staunch abolitionist who was executed for the attack he led on Harper’s Ferry. Sarah Brown used her natural talent as a painter to embed secret maps of the way north in her landscapes, to be used by runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad. She also used other tools to help slaves escape, including a porcelain doll whose body was used to hide maps and messages.

The doll becomes the link between past and present as chapters alternate between Sarah’s story and that of Eden, a modern-day woman who moves to an old home in a small town called New Charleston—the very home where Sarah found a friendly shelter during the years up to and during Civil War. Unaware of the house’s history as a station on the Underground Railroad, Eden is caught up in her own struggles with infertility, wondering if her marriage will survive the end of her dream to be a mother. After she finds the doll under the kitchen floorboards, Eden begins an investigation that helps her piece together the past and a new life among the citizens of New Charleston.

Sarah’s adventures give a fascinating peek into the personal life of the legendary John Brown and keep the pages turning. The Mapmaker’s Children serves as a reminder of how objects persist, such as Sarah’s doll, and how memories connected with those objects can last through generations.

 

In Sarah McCoy’s new book, two protagonists tell the little-known history of Sarah Brown, daughter of John Brown, the staunch abolitionist who was executed for the attack he led on Harper’s Ferry.
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Janis Heaphy Durham walked into the bathroom of her home one year to the day after the death of her beloved husband, only to stare in amazement at what appeared to be a handprint on the mirror. This was just one of many strange things that had happened since Max’s premature death from esophageal cancer at age 56. Was Max trying to contact her from beyond the grave? In her gripping new book, The Hand on the Mirror: A True Story of Life Beyond Death, Durham reveals her own awakening to possibilities beyond the material world.

Durham is the former publisher of the Sacramento Bee, which earned two Pulitzers during her tenure. She relies on her background in journalism to investigate the supernatural events following Max’s passing, though that very background also prevented her from sharing her experiences for many years. Afraid of losing her credibility as a newspaperwoman, she talked about the events with only a few friends. After she realized how many people had had similar experiences, she began to be more open about what had happened to her.

Durham spends much of the book describing her encounters with leading parapsychologists as she tries to decipher the messages she believes Max is sending her. Whether or not the reader accepts her story as true, Durham’s book is a moving account of how we deal with loss and how many of us hope for reunion in the next life. Particularly touching is the account of her mother’s decline and death, which demonstrates the possibility of change and the power of forgiveness, even at the very end of life.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Janis Heaphy Durham walked into the bathroom of her home one year to the day after the death of her beloved husband, only to stare in amazement at what appeared to be a handprint on the mirror. This was just one of many strange things that had happened since Max’s premature death from esophageal cancer at age 56. Was Max trying to contact her from beyond the grave? In her gripping new book, The Hand on the Mirror: A True Story of Life Beyond Death, Durham reveals her own awakening to possibilities beyond the material world.
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Michele Young-Stone’s second novel, Above Us Only Sky, is a coming-of-age story set in the 1970s—with a magical twist. Prudence Eleanor Vilkas was born with wings, “heart-shaped, crinkled like a paper fan” against her newborn back. The doctor apologized; later her wings were removed, leaving only scars. Prudence’s parents divorce. She and her mother move to Florida. She struggles through her teens, wondering about her identity as a winged girl.

Only years later does Prudence discover that she isn’t the first one in her family to be born with wings. “I come from a long line of leggy bird women, women to whom I am allied by blood and birthright. The Old Man knew our history. When we finally met, he told me about the birds.” The Old Man is Prudence’s Lithuanian grandfather, and through him she learns the stories of her ancestors. The story dips even farther into history to the struggle of native Lithuanians, who must fight Cossacks, suffer under the Nazis and endure Stalin’s harsh rule to maintain their sense of cultural identity. They are stories rooted in conflict, survival, family, and the mysterious magic that the winged women of her family seem to carry with them.

Through the Old Man’s stories and the special vision of a boy named Wheaton, the only one who can see her wings, Prudence learns to take her place alongside the remarkable Vilkas women. Young-Stone’s novel is a gripping, heartwarming tale that affirms the strength of family connections despite tragedy, time and separation.

Michele Young-Stone’s second novel, Above Us Only Sky, is a coming-of-age story set in the 1970s—with a magical twist. Prudence Eleanor Vilkas was born with wings, “heart-shaped, crinkled like a paper fan” against her newborn back. The doctor apologized; later her wings were removed, leaving only scars. Prudence’s parents divorce. She and her mother move to Florida. She struggles through her teens, wondering about her identity as a winged girl.
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As a child, I remember eating chalky Flintstone vitamins. I don't remember asking why—it was just part of our morning ritual as we siblings sat down for breakfast. As a young mother, I remember obsessing over my daughters' eating habits, wondering if their growth would be stunted by the omission of a key nutrient. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Catherine Price’s new book, Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection, because it reveals where some of these ideas and habits originated. What's stunning about her research is how little we actually know about our bodies and the way they employ these chemicals.

The discovery of the substances eventually called vitamins solved a lot of the problems that had plagued humankind for a long time. Many diseases, such as scurvy or beriberi, resulted from a lack of specific nutrients. Once those nutrients were ingested, people usually recovered.

The discovery of vitamins led to problems as well as solutions, however. As Price explains, people became more enamored of processed foods, which lack many of the healthy benefits of whole foods. Once those processed foods became enriched with vitamins, they took on a perception of healthiness they didn't actually deserve. Does it really matter that Pop Tarts have been laced with essential nutrients? They're still Pop Tarts. Another problem was the anxiety created by experts such as Elmer McCollum, who popularized the use of vitamins, but also employed scare tactics that we are still susceptible to today.

Vitamania is carefully researched, and Price is a curious writer engaged with her subject. Her book offers a compelling new perspective on our quest for perfect diets, perfect bodies and perfect health.

As a child, I remember eating chalky Flintstone vitamins. I don't remember asking why—it was just part of our morning ritual as we siblings sat down for breakfast. As a young mother, I remember obsessing over my daughters' eating habits, wondering if their growth would be stunted by the omission of a key nutrient. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Catherine Price’s new book, Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection, because it reveals where some of these ideas and habits originated. What's stunning about her research is how little we actually know about our bodies and the way they employ these chemicals.

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