Priscilla Kipp

In a powerful confluence of history, culture and color, poet and author Jackie Kay tells the story of the legendary American singer and songwriter Bessie Smith, known in her day as the Empress of the Blues. As an orphaned child, born in 1894 (or 1895; statistics about Black Americans were not considered important enough to make accurate), Smith sang for her supper on the street corners of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and then rose to fame as a teenager while singing and dancing in traveling Black minstrel shows. Blues singers like Ma Rainey, immortalized in her own right as the Mother of the Blues, helped Smith find her way in the Jim Crow South, and the popularity of Smith’s songs brought her stardom.

If Smith’s voice embodied the blues, her personal life illustrated them. Songs like “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” mirrored her own experiences. She drank, fought and had tempestuous affairs with men and women. She was a devoted adoptive mother, until she lost her child. Amid the abundant parties of the Harlem Renaissance, she refused to be patronized and once slugged the wife of one party’s white host. (She had tried to thank Smith with a kiss.) Smith’s husband, Jack Gee, stole her money, beat her and left her for a rival.

After 1929, Smith’s fame crashed like the country itself. Then, on her way to a comeback in 1937, she died a tragic death at the age of 43, and Gee stole the money raised for her headstone. Three decades later, Janis Joplin helped fund the stone and its inscription: “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.” Kay’s white adoptive father first introduced her to Smith’s vinyl recordings when, as a young girl in the Scotland village of Bishopbriggs, Kay was the only Black person. Smith’s raw voice drew Kay into the history of the blues and the American Black women who made it their own. In Bessie Smith: A Poet’s Biography of a Blues Legend, Kay entwines her own poetic voice with these women’s stories and music, and the result is a mesmerizing, fierce mix of sorrow and woe, love and lust, and—above all—resilience.

Jackie Kay’s biography of blues legend Bessie Smith is a mesmerizing, fierce mix of sorrow, love and resilience.

A diligent reader might begin this absorbing journey into an immigrant family’s fortunes, made and lost, by seeking the meaning of its title, Concepcion. They would discover that, like the generations revealed in Albert Samaha’s probing account, the answer isn’t simple. Concepcion is the surname of Samaha’s ancestors, the name of one of Ferdinand Magellan’s ships, a city in the Philippines and a word that aptly suggests a beginning.

Now nearing the same age as his mother, Lucy, when she first arrived in California, Samaha wants to understand what led her there. If Lucy was initially blinded by the promises of a country that held sway over her comfortable middle-class life in the Philippines, he wonders, how does she feel now? How have his other family members fared within the diaspora in the U.S., and how do they regard their ties to their homeland? Their answers are surprising and complex.

Samaha writes from the perspective of a successful, educated and skeptical American adult, declaring, “I found it easier to see what my elders could not: the height of the climb and the length of the fall.” Applying his skills as an investigative journalist to his family’s far-reaching saga, he filters their experiences as immigrants through the Philippines’ tumultuous history and the effects of their acquired American culture. It’s a deftly executed back-and-forth, and he shares his own enlightenments—and criticisms—as he goes. The role of race in the history of the National Football League and the influence of religion on political preferences are among his targets.

Samaha’s deep dive into Philippine history begins with Magellan’s colonization of the Philippines in the 1500s, flows through the centuries to Ferdinand Marcos’ long, controversial reign as the 10th president of the Philippines, and ends with Rodrigo Duterte’s current iron grip. Japan’s brutal occupation during World War II led to a U.S. takeover (the spoils of victory), and America has loomed large as a land of opportunity ever since. When U.S. immigration rules relaxed in 1965, Filipinos knew where to go.

Now, having benefited from his mother’s years of devotion and hard work, his absent father’s money and the support of their larger family in the Bay Area, Samaha is sensitive to their struggles amid what he sees as the failed promises, economic inequities and racial injustices of their adopted country. From the disadvantages of their lower paying jobs—such as his uncle’s work as an airport baggage handler after abandoning his career as a rock star in the Philippines—to their resilient, steadfast beliefs in democracy’s ideals despite its failings, Samaha plants their stories alongside his own and grows a remarkable family tree.

Journalist Albert Samaha's investigation into his family’s decision to emigrate from the Philippines turns up some surprising and complex answers.

As the familiar story goes, George Washington, the Revolutionary War’s iconic general, led the Colonies to an improbable victory over the crushing British monarchy and its oppressive taxation. But according to Nathaniel Philbrick in Travels With George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy, Washington’s real challenges as a leader began after that. With abolitionists to the north, enslavers to the south and anti-Federalists everywhere (even in his own Cabinet), Washington set out just months after his 1789 inauguration on an uncomfortable, arduous tour of the shaky new union he felt compelled to unite.

In the late summer of 2018, in a time hardly less politically fraught, Philbrick, his wife and their “red bushy-tailed Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever,” Dora, embarked from Washington’s Mount Vernon to follow in the former president’s footsteps. Inspired by Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck—who wrote, “We do not take a trip; a trip takes us”—Philbrick expected “a journey of quirky and lighthearted adventure” that instead “proved more unsettling and more unexpected than I ever could have imagined.”

Visiting the cities Washington once rode through on his white horse, or paraded through in a cream-colored carriage with two enslaved postillions, or strode into wearing a simple brown suit (the new president had a feel for political theater), Philbrick delivers the details. He explains how Washington became “the father of the American mule,” debunks myths about the first president’s wooden teeth and enriches facts with help from local archivists, librarians, curators, docents and even the descendants of those who were there. But Philbrick keeps one foot in, and a respectful perspective on, the present throughout, assessing hazards then—such as when Washington’s horses fell off a ferry—and now—such as when Philbrick’s own sailboat nearly capsized in a vicious storm on his way to Newport, Rhode Island.

When BookPage interviewed Philbrick in 2006 for Mayflower, his Pulitzer Prize history finalist, he said, “I think it’s really important that we see the past as a lived past rather than something that was fated to be.” With Travels With George, he succeeds again at this aim. Washington emerges as the complicated, flawed but no less heroic leader that his newborn country desperately needed. The quantity and quality of the details Philbrick gathers as he straddles past and present make this an extraordinary read.

As Nathaniel Philbrick retraces George Washington’s tour of the shaky new union, the first president emerges as a complicated, flawed but no less heroic leader.

Rodrigo García is a film and television director, writer, cinematographer and son of the late Nobel winner Gabriel García Márquez, affectionately known as Gabo, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. When García’s world-famous father began his long slide toward dementia, García began taking notes. “Writing about the death of loved ones must be about as old as writing itself, and yet the inclination to do it instantly ties me up in knots,” he writes. “I am appalled that I am thinking of taking notes, ashamed as I take notes, disappointed in myself as I revise notes.”

All who have loved García Márquez’s works will rejoice that his son overcame that angst, dutifully waiting until after his father’s death in 2014 and his mother’s death in 2020 to publish his intimate, endearing tribute, A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes: A Son’s Memoir of Gabriel García Márquez and Mercedes Barcha. García’s notes, acutely observational, are simultaneously infused with love, respect and the pain of loss. He admits that his relationships with his parents were complicated. Their lives had public, private and even secret components, and García frets about crossing lines that might leave his parents helplessly exposed. Still, from his dying father’s bedside in Mexico City to his last moment with his mother (shared digitally, as COVID-19 prevented him from traveling), García is a guardian of their dignity. 

Yet this memoir’s details are indeed intimate. We're ushered into García Márquez's study as he works, until the renowned author slowly realizes he no longer can. García’s mother rises above her grief, insisting that she is a woman, not a widow, as she entertains the flow of mourning guests from around the globe—even the complete stranger who manages to con her out of quite a bit of cash. We follow García into the crematorium as he gazes upon his father for the last time, tempering that blow with the thought that García Márquez might have enjoyed flirting with the funeral worker who gave his body a little makeup, a final flourish on his way out.

Fittingly, García begins each chapter with an excerpt from one of his father’s works, and it’s this connection between life and art that holds this intense memoir together. As one epigraph from Love in the Time of Cholera puts it, “he was overwhelmed by the belated suspicion that it is life, more than death, that has no limits.”

When Gabriel García Márquez began his long slide toward dementia, his son began taking notes for this intimate, endearing tribute to his late parents.

Like the 12 essays in Don’t Let It Get You Down: Essays on Race, Gender, and the Body, Savala Nolan is powerful and complex. She is Black, Mexican and white. She yo-yo diets, hates and loves her body, was raised in poverty but educated among privileged white people. Her mother tried to involve her in local Black communities growing up, but Nolan didn’t feel Black enough. “What are you?” was a common question. Her answers are haunting.

Nolan is a lawyer, speaker, writer and the executive director of the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. The daughter of an incarcerated Black and Mexican father and a white mother descended from owners of enslaved people, Nolan is also the wife of a white man and mother of their biracial child. She worked her way through school as a nanny for rich people, seething over any connections to the Mammy stereotype. She craves designer clothes, cringes over past experiences using hot irons on her hair, has longed for inclusion among wealthy white people (she calls it “self-erasure”) and is dismayed by her own occasionally white-tinted perspective. When mistaken for hired help, she is repelled. When her husband neglected to vote in the 2016 presidential election, she was flummoxed and furious.

In the titular essay, “Don’t Let It Get You Down,” Nolan’s agony spills over as she says their names: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis and Renisha McBride, challenging her readers to confront the ongoing realities of racial violence. Like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, written as a letter to his son, Nolan’s essays speak to both young and old Americans about our country’s pervasive history of racism. Recounting her pregnant great-great-grandmother’s murder by white supremacists, Nolan says such stories, "including how we learn them, or why we’re sheltered from them . . . [are not] a reason to turn away. It’s a reason to go deeper.” In Don’t Let It Get You Down, Nolan brilliantly does so.

“What are you?” was a common question asked of Savala Nolan when she was growing up. Her answers in Don’t Let It Get You Down are haunting.

In Danielle Henderson’s memoir, The Ugly Cry, she renders her family with searing honesty and wit. There’s the brother whose greatest gift is flouting all the rules and surviving the damage; the abused mother who cannot protect her children or herself; and the mother’s boyfriend, the malevolent Luke, who ravaged the family with verbal and physical abuse.

And then there’s Grandma—foulmouthed, hardworking and loyal, whose favorite television show is “The Walking Dead.” She delivers frequent smacks to the head alongside gusts of equally fierce unconditional love. She also advises 9-year-old Henderson that she “should never get married, but . . . sleep with as many people as possible before settling down.” This is the family that, in the tumultuous 1970s, Henderson somehow survived. Now she brings them to life with her indefatigable sense of humor, which is as quick and sharp as the violence she lived with as a child.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Danielle Henderson reflects on a memoir’s ability to create connection, and connection’s ability to heal old wounds.

The author of the popular book and Tumblr Feminist Ryan Gosling, Henderson grew up poor, mostly motherless and often left to figure things out on her own, in a small New York town that made it difficult to be different—and Black. But Henderson opts for mirth over pathos, and the results are often shocking and funny simultaneously.

Her unflinchingly honest voice especially shines through when treading softly around the sexual abuse she endured. Luke, her abuser, is villainous, too mean to even share a single takeout French fry while a hungry child watches. As she lays out the details of their relationship, Henderson uses understatement so masterfully that her pain acquires the force of a snowball careening downhill. When she finally reveals how Luke has treated her, Grandma says, “I’m going to kill him, and then I’m going to kill your mother, okay? . . . Good. Can I give you a hug?”

Henderson survived a terrible childhood, and it’s her resilience that comes to define her. She has girlfriends who know her better than she knows herself and an aunt who teaches her how to nurture and display her differences. And Grandma hangs on no matter what, steadfastly following, if not leading, Henderson toward something better.

Danielle Henderson brings her family to life using humor as quick and sharp as the violence she survived as a child.

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