Sarah Carter

Regardless of where you fall on slapstick humor (pun intended), to watch Buster Keaton on film is to witness magic. The genius behind silent-era masterpieces such as The General and Sherlock Jr. is invincible on screen; no matter what life throws at him, he keeps getting up. It’s almost like he’s from another planet—one without gravity, permanent injury or the despair that plagues life on this mortal coil.

Of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, Keaton’s finesse for falling was won through family dysfunction and physical abuse. But in Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century, film critic and Slate’s “Culture Gabfest” host Dana Stevens decenters Keaton’s hardship, using his life as a frame to explore the advent of film and its effect on visual culture today.

Keaton was born into a vaudeville family in 1895, the same year film projection technology debuted. He was performing by age 3, honing his comedic genius in a school of literal hard knocks. Buster’s father threw the boy “acrobatically” around the stage, using him as a mop, among other things. The on-stage domestic abuse Keaton endured from his sometimes-sober father was the stuff of legend, drawing both large audiences and investigation from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Though its historical wanderings read as windingly as one of Keaton’s famous chase scenes, Camera Man redeems details from Keaton’s life that previous biographers have misread or glossed over. For example, Buster’s time in the Cirque Medrano has often been cited as a hard-times clown gig rather than what it was: an invitation from European circus royalty to be the honored guest performer at a permanent, well-respected circus frequented by Edgar Degas and Pablo Picasso.

Like the handsome, stone-faced performer himself, Camera Man has wide appeal. General readers, history buffs and deep-cut Keaton historians alike will laugh, cry and marvel at both the world of Buster Keaton and the effect he had on cinema.

Like the handsome, stone-faced performer himself, this new biography of Buster Keaton has wide appeal.

“When emotional truth is the goal, and courage is part of the equation, the process is deeply therapeutic, but it’s not therapy,” writes Grammy-nominated folk singer and songwriter Mary Gauthier in her debut book. Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting is memoir, autobiography, creative process guide and journal of spiritual formation all in one. It’s a true expression of the inseparability of songwriting, spiritual practice, recovery and relationship that have been endemic to Gauthier’s 25-year career.

Saved by a Song is organized topically, with each chapter pairing a song title with an element of craft; for example, “Drag Queens in Limousines: Story/Meaning.” Starting with the song’s lyrics, Gauthier recounts her personal connection to the song through concrete, accessible personal narrative. By the end of each chapter, readers have gained a behind-the-scenes scoop on the real-life experiences that influenced the song and a wise takeaway for their own lives.

Readers also get a play-by-play of how to put art into practice. One of the biggest questions novice writers have is, “How did the artist get from this (their own experience) to that (a polished work)?” The elements of craft can seem like puzzle pieces that don’t fit together. Gauthier creates an external map of the mysterious internal songwriting process not once but 13 times throughout the book.

Alongside these gems from her lifelong study of creative practice—think Anne Lamott meets Julia Cameron meets Patti Smith—Gauthier also shares all the gory details of her recovery from addiction, plus quotations from the artists and writers who influenced her own development. In Gauthier’s words, “I believe songs that heal come from a higher place. They help us with the struggle of being human and by letting us know we are not alone. This is the greatest gift a song can give a songwriter and a songwriter can give the world.”

Anyone who can still write from the heart about writing from the heart after being in the music business as long as Gauthier has is the real deal. Her book invites seasoned artists to deeper authenticity, new artists to deeper craft and all readers to deeper self-reflection.

Mary Gauthier’s debut book invites seasoned artists to deeper authenticity, new artists to deeper craft and all readers to deeper self-reflection.

Start with the TV show “Bonanza.” Lose the Ponderosa Ranch, the ten-gallon hats, the wholesome hijinks and Pa’s endless supply of cash. Add a heaping dose of institutional racism, gang warfare and black cowboys. In some ways, Walter Thompson-Hernández’s The Compton Cowboys: The New Generation of Cowboys in America’s Urban Heartland is a totally different take on the cowboy way of life, but at its heart is the recognizable hope that human goodness will triumph over inequality.

Given that the publication of Thompson-Hernández’s book is accompanied by features in the New York Times and The Atlantic, an exhibit at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and an upcoming feature-length film called Concrete Cowboys starring Idris Elba, it’s safe to say that black cowboys are having a moment. Well, another moment. According to historians, black cowboys made up 25% of the cowboy population during the West’s early days. (No, Will Smith was not the first cowboy of color in the wild, wild West.) And though this book alludes to the tradition’s beginnings, its main concern is recent history—specifically, the story of a small group of riders in one of America’s most notorious zip codes.

Today’s Compton Cowboys are alumni of Mayisha Akbar’s Compton Jr. Posse, an equestrian program aimed at providing academic support and an alternative to gang life to low-income students in the Richland Farms area. The program has operated under Akbar’s steady hand since the 1980s, offering Compton’s youth a safe haven in the middle of a neighborhood known for its violence.

The book begins at Akbar’s retirement—a tenuous transition from her strict, formal leadership style to the more laid-back approach of her nephew, Randy Hook. Hook must navigate his move from group member to group leader while securing long-term funding and facing the challenges the group was created to combat: gang violence, poverty and the limiting effects of racism.

Thompson-Hernández’s integration of research into readable prose makes room for readers to grapple with the book’s toughest questions about bias, inequality and the future of the black cowboy tradition.

Start with the TV show “Bonanza.” Lose the Ponderosa Ranch, the ten-gallon hats, the wholesome hijinks and Pa’s endless supply of cash. Add a heaping dose of institutional racism, gang warfare and black cowboys.

The dial tone. The faxlike robot sounds. The promise of instant connection with someone across the country (or with your crush from math class). This is the way the internet began for most of us. 

For O.G. internet users, the potential for human connection, personal learning and technological growth once stretched beyond the horizon. Enter: trolls, the corporate sale of private information, a false sense of connection and myriad other challenges. Joanne McNeil’s Lurking: How a Person Became a User is a thoughtful exploration of the development of technology, online identity and the essential elements of humanness that make it all possible.

True to McNeil’s style, Lurking poses more questions than answers, giving readers a wide berth to wrestle with their own opinions. The book offers seven different lenses through which readers can examine online identity, and it’s structured around seven corresponding chapters, each with a one-word title as the starting point for discussion. 

For example, the first chapter, “Search,” is a meditation on both internet search engines and human longing. It equates search engine history with pennies in a fountain, the result of “wishes people tossed in the well.” This grouping allows McNeil to transcend literal application and makes space for lines such as, “Real people search, but real desire cannot be identified.” Lurking strikes an impressive balance of insider tech-talk and universal human connection, though true techies will have an obvious leg up with the nuances of internet-specific examples. 

The author proposes concrete safeguards for building a better internet, such as online community members acting as “librarians” to protect and archive their content, along with other practical suggestions. Without these practices, McNeil maintains, “the internet remains imperfect, a hell that is fun, ruled by idiots and thieves, providing users with slingshots for self-expression but no shield from the bile that rebounds.”

The dial tone. The faxlike robot sounds. The promise of instant connection with someone across the country (or with your crush from math class). This is the way the internet began for most of us.  For O.G. internet users, the potential for human connection, personal learning and technological growth once stretched beyond the horizon. Enter: […]

Aarti Namdev Shahani’s career trajectory gives no hint that she grew up in a cockroach-infested apartment in Flushing or that her father did time in Rikers. This NPR correspondent graduated from an elite prep school in Manhattan and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago and a Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Her timely debut, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares, recounts her family’s gut-wrenching struggle to immigrate despite a broken system.

Shahani’s story fulfills what most call the American dream. Her parents emigrated from India to America (via Casablanca) over 40 years ago, full of hope that this new country would offer their growing family more than their war-torn home. “To migrate to America—to cross the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans or the Sonoran Desert—is the boldest act of one’s life. You do it to be the hero of your own story,” writes Shahani of her parents’ epic journey.

After a rough start, conditions begin to improve for the family—albeit temporarily. When Shahani’s father, a hardworking entrepreneur, accidentally becomes entangled with the Cali drug cartel, his life becomes mired in legal and immigration woes. Teenage Shahani becomes her father’s greatest advocate, tenaciously following up with inept lawyers. While her high school classmates are having fun and going to movies, Shahani does legal work for her father’s case. She even begins writing letters to her father’s judge, a correspondence that spans years.

The author graciously avoids black-and-white answers to difficult questions. How can two members from the same family have such opposite experiences in America? What does it mean to make it? Who really belongs here? A worthy addition to immigration discourse, this book is a raw and engaging glimpse into the challenges immigrant families face that are either too traumatic or mundane to land on the news.

Aarti Namdev Shahani’s career trajectory gives no hint that she grew up in a cockroach-infested apartment in Flushing or that her father did time in Rikers. This NPR correspondent graduated from an elite prep school in Manhattan and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago and a Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard’s […]

Local cowboys scoffed when three mysterious riders arrived at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Arena in 1908. Their spurs were smaller than the local cowboys’ spurs, they carried rawhide lassos, and they adorned their wider-brimmed hats with—wait for it—flowers. However, these Hawaiian paniolos (cowboys) quickly silenced skeptics with their record-breaking times, leaving the crowd clamoring with questions.

In Aloha Rodeo, David Wolman and Julian Smith answer these questions with the same engaging, thorough prose that marks their solo work. On the surface, this is a book about the cowboy history of Hawaii, which was a new United States territory in the early 1900s. But this book also explores “identity, imperialism, and race” through the wild narratives of “ranchers, warriors, showmen, cowgirls, missionaries, immigrants, [and] royalty.” The narratives are so wild, in fact, that they often read like fiction. 

For example, the British first brought cattle to the Sandwich Islands (now the Hawaiian Islands) in 1793. They were a gift for the ruler, Kamehameha, who had been so displeased with the former British liaison that he had him bludgeoned to death. When it was showtime, the animals were brought out of the dark ship’s hold and into the tropical sunshine, where they were lowered into canoes with a giant pulley. The first two died of shock upon making it into the small boats. Did I mention they were longhorns? 

During this time, cattle were given free rein on the Big Island. They became so fierce that natives feared being gored or trampled. The first Hawaiian cowboys risked their lives to hunt these animals like wild game, subduing the beasts to bring peace to their island again. And as the authors suggest, if you interpret the cattle as a gift from imperialists meant to placate the natives, it gives the conquests of early paniolos even more dimension.

If your perception of cowboy culture has largely been shaped by Louis L’Amour, Lonesome Dove and John Wayne, hold onto your hats. Aloha Rodeo blows open a canyon of inclusionary cowboy history as wide as the Rio Grande. 

Local cowboys scoffed when three mysterious riders arrived at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Arena in 1908. Their spurs were smaller than the local cowboys’ spurs, they carried rawhide lassos, and they adorned their wider-brimmed hats with—wait for it—flowers. However, these Hawaiian paniolos (cowboys) quickly silenced skeptics with their record-breaking times, leaving the crowd clamoring with questions.

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