ElCicco #CBR5 Review #45: The Daughters of Mars: A Novel by Thomas Keneally

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The Daughters of Mars, by Schindler’s List author Thomas Keneally, is a World War I novel told from the perspective of two Australian sisters who serve as nurses both at Gallipoli and later in France. This is not just the story of the war, however; it is also the story of the two sisters and their uneasy relationships with their family, their comrades and each other, and the effect that war has on them. Historical lit fans, particularly those who are familiar with WWI lit, will see that Keneally really did his homework for this novel. His attention to historical fact and detail is impressive. Overall, however, I felt the tale being told lacked oomph. The main characters were somewhat flat, I didn’t feel a bond to them, and the final resolution left me dissatisfied.

Naomi and Sally Durance are the narrators of this novel. Older sister Naomi left home in the Australian boondocks to work in a city hospital as soon as she was able. Sally also became a nurse but chose to live at home and work at the local hospital, helping her father care for their mother, who is dying quite painfully of cancer. We learn from the first pages of the story that when their mother died, both girls were there and that Sally intended to give her mother an overdose of morphine as a mercy killing but it appears that Naomi took the initiative and did it for her. The two sisters never discuss what happened and Sally has conflicted feelings — guilt over planning to kill her mother, gratitude that Naomi did it, and resentment that Naomi seems so calm, cool and collected about it. When the opportunity to volunteer as nurses at war arises, both sisters independently decide to go and wind up traveling to Gallipoli together with the other nurse volunteers.

Once the story moves to Gallipoli, it’s like Keneally pulls out his list of Every Horrible Thing that Happened in the War and goes to town. (If you aren’t familiar with the battle of Gallipoli, in which Australian troops were massacred by the Turks, do yourself a favor and watch Peter Weir’s superb film Gallipoli. It is gut-wrenching and beautiful and you will be utterly devastated at the end.) Sally and Naomi are stationed on a hospital ship off the shore of the battle. They can hear and see the shelling, and when the waves of wounded come aboard, the doctors and nurses are overwhelmed by the number and extent of the injuries and by their lack of preparation for it all. Later the ship is torpedoed and sinks, and Keneally gets to describe the horrors of watching people and war horses die horrible deaths at sea. When the survivors are placed on an island to work at the hospital there, Keneally shows us the stupidity of high command and sexism in the hospital environment. He also makes sure to cover the psychological effects of war on the wounded when Naomi travels back to Australia on a ship of men both physically and psychologically maimed by battle. And then it’s on to the Western Front with trench warfare, gas attacks, the treatment of conscientious objectors, the Spanish flu and strong women who try to run their own voluntary hospital while butting heads with British command.

I don’t object to the historical detail. I actually find it very interesting and accurate. The problem is that over this historical picture, we are supposed to be drawn in to the unfolding relationship between Sally and Naomi, who are trying to become friends and, well, sisterly to each other. And each sister has a love interest, even though they are known for being standoffish girls. One falls for a Quaker and the other for an artist/soldier. I was mildly interested in these plot lines but I simply never felt a powerful connection to either sister. I think part of the problem is the lack of character development. We are told that the sisters aren’t close but there’s nothing about their childhood to show how that came about. And their feelings for each other and for their love interests seems tepid even when we are being told that they are becoming closer or falling in love or whatever. 

If the reader is at all familiar with World War I literature, he/she will know that an unhappy ending looms ahead. It’s simply unavoidable (read All Quiet on the Western Front or the war poets, or go watch the above-mentioned Gallipoli). I think Keneally could have produced a very powerful ending to his tale but he equivocates. He provides two endings, and each made me think “Oh, that’s too bad” instead of “Oh, God, WHY???” In my opinion, a WWI novel should end with you feeling the “Oh, God, WHY” way. While Keneally is quite thorough in including just about every kind of tragedy that could have happened in the course of the war, and there is abundant suffering and senseless death, in the end the story lacked the sort of punch that the subject matter deserves.

 

  

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ElCicco #CBR5 Review #44: Good Kings Bad Kings: A Novel by Susan Nussbaum

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A novel about disabled youth living under abysmal conditions in a sub-par nursing home in Chicago sounds mighty depressing and perhaps not the kind of thing you’d want to dive right into. This novel, however, the winner of a PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, is one of the better novels I’ve read this year and tackles a very serious, sometimes tragic, topic with intelligence, compassion and, yes, even humor. Nussbaum allows seven of her characters to take turns relating to the reader their personal histories and experiences at ILLC — the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center. ILLC is one of several nursing homes that the state has placed under the supervision of a private company called Palm-Whitney. ILLC is understaffed, and while some staff are conscientious and compassionate toward their patients, others clearly have no business being there. Abuse and negligence lead to several tragedies and, eventually, serve as a catalyst for change not just at ILLC but among our characters as well.

Three of our narrators are disabled youths who are in wheelchairs. Yessenia is 16. She is an orphan who has taken the loss of her beloved Tia Nene very hard, but she hides her sadness behind a tough, street-fighter kind of personality. She is fabulous and has some very funny lines in the story, including, “Milwaukee is different. It don’t look like Chicago too much but you could kinda tell it’s supposed to be a sort of city.” Mia is sweet and quiet and has been abused for much of her life. Teddy, age 22, is Mia’s boyfriend. He wears a suit every day and dreams of living independently but ILLC’s plan is to move him to an adult nursing home. Teddy resents the treatment that he and his friends receive at ILLC and engages in acts of subversion to protest. When an aide told his friend she would never get a job because she was “retarded,” Teddy tells the reader, “That’s not nice to say and I’m against the R-word. I put Vaseline on her cigarettes.”

The other four narrators are adults. Michelle works for Palm-Whitney as a “recruiter.” She visits shelters to try to recruit the homeless into Palm-Whitney institutions and gets paid a bonus for reaching recruitment goals quickly. She also visits Palm-Whitney nursing homes and files reports, a job which eventually leads her to question her dedication to her job. The other three adults work at ILLC. Joanne became disabled as an adult and works on data entry in the office. She is connected to the disability rights community and is concerned about the conditions she sees at ILLC. Ricky drives the van and helps inside the building as well. He sees first hand the physical abuse that some children suffer at the hands of aides who seem to be on a power trip. Jimmie (female) is an aide who develops a special friendship with Yessenia. These three are decent and conscientious people who care about the kids and the kids respect them in return.

For those unfamiliar with the disability rights movement and the push for community living and integration instead of institutionalization, the novel serves as an educational tool. Nussbaum shows that not only has our treatment of the disabled not improved, it has in some ways gotten worse. Yessenia tells of an aunt who had developmental disabilities but who lived with her family until she died. “She was a hard case, Tia B., but we had a lot of fun with her. You know, we didn’t know any better…. By now, we should know better how to treat them.”  Joanne frequently notes that being in a wheelchair causes others to either ignore her or treat her as a child. And the abuses that occur in this novel — rape, physical abuse, death, Medicare/Medicaid fraud– could be taken right from today’s headlines. The novel, despite the heavy themes, does end on a somewhat optimistic note and I hope it makes readers run to support their local disability rights advocacy groups.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #43: Shirley Jones: A Memoir by Shirley Jones with Wendy Leigh

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When I found out that this is Banned Book Week, I was sorry that I hadn’t chosen a known banned book to review. A memoir by America’s musical sweetheart seemed like pretty tame fare, the opposite of a banned book. But then…

Jack [Cassidy] was my sexual Svengali. He taught me everything about sex, and he taught me how to masturbate and never be ashamed about doing it…. I still masturbate…. I just use Vaseline and my finger. And my fantasies.

Well, “Come on, get happy,” Mrs. Partridge! This memoir by Shirley Jones is sure to upset the prudish and squeamish everywhere. Given her bluntness and honesty about her sex life and troubled marriage to Jack Cassidy, fans who remember her as Laurey in Oklahoma! or Marian the Librarian in The Music Man or Mrs. Partridge of The Partridge Family are sure to be scandalized. I found it to be a funny and fascinating look at Jones’ life and career. I’ve always been a fan and even though I was surprised by her detailed descriptions of her very active sex life and her willingness to put up with the shenanigans of Jack Cassidy (whom she calls a “sex god’), I still find her to be delightful and a pretty tough gal.

Jones was born and raised in Smithton, PA, not far from Pittsburgh. She was an only child and, by her own account, quite willful. Whatever she was told to do, she would feel compelled to do the opposite and endured frequent paddlings as a result. Her musical talent became evident at a young age and her parents encouraged and supported its development, but Jones says her real goal in life had been to become a veterinarian. Upon graduation from high school, Jones and her parents traveled to New York for a vacation when fate struck and she had the opportunity to audition for Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rogers. The rest, as they say, is history.

It was while on a European tour of Oklahoma! that Jones met Jack Cassidy. Everyone warned her that he was a Lothario and married to boot, and that she should be careful, but she fell in love and maintained a lifelong passion and regard for this man. This must be one of those “you had to be there” things, because the guy sounds like a selfish, self-absorbed asshole. He left his wife and son David (Keith Partridge!) for Jones, and then cheated on her in an open and serial manner. He also seems to have been jealous and resentful of her success. Yet, Jones understands and forgives him as he ignores and hurts his children, overspends, and philanders. The only time she gets upset is when he brings one of his girlfriends to the same restaurant where she is dining

For the most part, Jones remained a one-man woman. For the most part. She describes herself and Cassidy (and her children, including stepson David) as “highly sexed,” which I take to mean that they like it and need it more than the average person. She admits to one affair and the occasional passionate kissing of other men (usually co-stars) while married to Cassidy. Jones divorced Cassidy after a series of events that threatened the safety of their children. Cassidy seems to have had a breakdown (perhaps related to alcohol and drug abuse) and suffered from delusions. He died in December 1974 after falling asleep on a couch with a lit cigarette, which caused a fatal fire.

Jones’ memoir is mostly chronological, often following the big breaks in her career: Oklahoma!, Elmer Gantry, The Music Man, etc. But she does, within chapters, jump forward or backward to complete an anecdote. Given my interest in particular shows, like The Music Man, I was glad she left none of her big career moments out but would have liked more details about the other stars and productions themselves. It’s been a while, though, and her focus is really on herself (as it should be), so this is forgiven. I learned some stuff I never knew, like she turned down the role of Carol Brady in The Brady Bunch and Jack Cassidy turned down the role of Ted Baxter in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Plus, she has lots of anecdotes about people I hadn’t realized she knew: Sinatra, Brando, Sammy Davis, Jr. One of the impressions I was left with is that there was a lot of porn, drugs, alcohol and “swinging” going on in Hollywood in the 1960s. Jones had a front row seat and seems to have enjoyed the ride. Another interesting aside — she and her second husband Marty Ingels dared to cross Oprah Winfrey when she tried to stiff them for appearing on her show. They got their money, and also successfully sued the National Enquirer.

Shirley Jones is a tough cookie and probably a hoot and a half to hang out with. This is a fun read if you’ve enjoyed her career and aren’t a prude.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #42: Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup

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This work of non-fiction, first published in 1853, is Solomon Northup’s account of being kidnapped into slavery and living the punishing life of a slave in the Deep South for 12 years before his liberation. Northup was born free in New York State, married and had three children. One of Northup’s talents was playing violin. One fateful day in Saratoga, a couple of white gentlemen offered to hire Northup for their circus to play violin. Without consulting his family, Northup agreed to go with them, thinking he might be gone for a week or so. After taking Northup to Washington, they drugged him, took his papers and sold him into slavery.

This book should be a must-read for high schoolers. It answers every question I’ve ever heard students ask about subjugated peoples, whether American slaves, Jews in Germany under Hitler, or other suppressed minorities: why didn’t he fight back? Why didn’t he tell everyone who he really was (Northup was renamed Platt)? Why didn’t he run away? Why didn’t he write letters to help himself? Northup addresses these questions throughout his narrative and vividly depicts the brutality and barbarousness of slavery. He also goes into detail on the daily life of the slave and the various industries that used slave labor.

The writing is captivating. There is never a dull moment in this narrative, and the people with whom Northup toils and for whom he is a slave are presented in great detail. Northup is honest and yet compassionate, even with slave owners sometimes. For example, on his first master William Ford, he writes, ” … there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. The influences and associations that had always surrounded him blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery.” Ford’s kindness to his slaves made him an object of derision amongst other slave owners. Master Tibeats, to whom Northup was rented out, was cruel and combative, particularly with Northup. The two actually got into a fight, with Northup getting the upper hand. This led to a tense situation in which Northup had to run to hide in the swamps — a deadly place. Later, Tibeats attempts to hang Northup. The description is horrifying. Under Master Epps, Northup experiences the backbreaking work of the cotton fields. Epps was “… a man in whose heart the quality of kindness or of justice is not found.” He frequently got drunk and beat his most productive slaves for nothing or, in the case of the slave Patsey, to please his wife.

The other slaves whom Northup meets seem to fall into two categories: those who had some knowledge or even experience of freedom (kidnapping free blacks to sell into slavery seems to have been a profitable if illegal activity) and those who were born into it and had no other expectation in life. The story of Eliza, whom Northup meets shortly after his abduction in Washington, is heartbreaking. Her master had kept her well as his mistress and fathered two children by her — Emmy and Randall. He had promised her and her children freedom but for some reason his property was divided and his daughter came into ownership of Eliza and the children, promptly selling them into slavery out of her resentment of Eliza’s relationship with her father. When Eliza’s children are sold away from her, it is gut wrenching. Patsey is another tragic case. She had been a favored member of her master’s household and is the most productive cotton picker on Epps’ plantation, but his attentions to her elicit the jealousy and vindictiveness of Mistress Epps. Patsey gets horrible beatings (sometimes from Northup, at Epps’ command) as a result. Hers is a life of utter misery. Patsey seems to fit the description Northup had for those born into slavery: “She was one of those, and there are very many, who fear nothing but their master’s lash, and know no further duty than to obey his voice.”

Northup’s return to freedom comes about when a Northern carpenter named Bass comes to work on Epps’ plantation. Northup eventually sees that he can trust this man and the plan develops to get Northup back to freedom by legal means. The plan was fraught with danger for both men but Northup regains his freedom and en route to New York, he and his liberators try to get justice versus the men who captured and sold him. That story, unfortunately, does not have a satisfactory result. Northrup briefly touches on his reunion with his family but his goal is to impress upon the reader the barbarity of slavery and he succeeds. As he points out, The South is a society where free men carry Bowie knives to settle disagreements, even with friends, and those who have been raised under slavery, white or black, are brutalized by it.

This book has been turned into a much acclaimed film starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (Northup), Michael Fassbender (Epps) and Brad Pitt (Bass). It has been winning awards at international film festivals and is getting a lot of Oscar buzz. The trailer looks amazing.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #41: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

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James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird is a fictionalized account of John Brown’s life and actions in the 3-4 years preceding the raid on Harper’s Ferry in October 1859. The narrator is one Henry Shackleford, aka the Onion. When we meet him, he is just a small boy (maybe 10 — he isn’t sure of his own age) in the rough and tumble Kansas territory. He and his father Gus are slaves to a saloon owner named Dutch until the day John Brown’s posse comes to town to free the slaves. Gus ends up dead and Henry, now dubbed Onion and dressed in girl’s clothing, becomes John Brown’s good luck charm and rides with his men for the next few years, surviving the events at Harper’s Ferry as an eye witness to what happened in the armory there.

This is a novel with as many layers as an onion. While it is a piece of historical fiction about John Brown and his famous raid, it is also a coming of age story of Onion, an exposition on relations between blacks and whites, and an examination of how blacks related to each other under slavery. McBride is brutally honest in his depiction of these people and their relationships, and no one comes out looking completely heroic.

McBride’s characters are the driving power behind this story. He tackles some formidable historical figures while creating memorable fictional characters. Besides John Brown, we meet Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Jeb Stuart. McBride isn’t afraid to show the less dignified aspects of Brown and Douglass in particular. The scene where a drunk Douglass makes awkward passes at Onion is funny but somewhat scandalous to those who put the man on a pedestal. John Brown, while heroic, is also shown to be a somewhat disorganized and reckless man who relies on faith (and luck) more than plans to get through. More than once, Onion notes that John Brown and other abolitionists talk on behalf of slaves, assuming that they know exactly what they want, without inviting blacks to speak for themselves. In fact, when Brown travels east to fundraise among New Englanders for his campaigns, Onion notes that rarely are there blacks in the audience and that “…them that was there was doodied up and quiet as a mouse. It seemed to me the whole business of the Negro’s life out there weren’t no different than it was out west…. It was like a big, long lynching. Everybody got to make a speech about the Negro but the Negro.”

McBride’s fictional characters are really well drawn and complex. The two I found most interesting besides Onion were Pie, the mulatto slave prostitute, and Sibonia, the slave who attempted rebellion. These two women are both owned by brothel/saloon owner Abby. Pie has greater status than the “pen” slaves like Sibonia, who live outside and do backbreaking work. They can be sold at any time. Pie feels no connection to or sympathy for them and sees the work of abolitionists as dangerous to the safety of slaves such as herself. When Onion tells her that he has ridden with John Brown, she says, “That’s all I need …. Old John Brown riding here, screwing things up and whipping them pen niggers into a frenzy. They’ll wail away on every nigger in sight. If it was up to me, every nigger in that pen would be sold down the river.” Sibonia, on the other hand, feels solidarity with her fellow slaves to the point of sacrificing herself to protect them. She also has a marvelous scene in which she demonstrates to the local minister that her actions are in fact the fulfillment of the scripture that he preaches, causing the minister to leave the town in disgust over the treatment of the local slaves.

Onion’s ambivalence about abolition is most clearly stated in this part of the narrative where Onion finds himself enslaved again. “Fact is, I never knowed a Negro from that day to this but who couldn’t lie to themselves about their own evil while pointing out the white man’s wrong, and I weren’t no exception. Miss Abby was a slaveholder, true enough, but she was a good slaveholder. She was a lot like Dutch. She runned a lot of businesses, which meant the businesses mostly runned her.”  He goes on to say “… slavery ain’t too troublesome when you’re in the doing of it and growed used to it.” With time and a betrayal, Onion comes gradually to the cause of freedom, but even then he struggles with a desire to run away to Philadelphia and just save his own skin.

I enjoyed this novel immensely. There is a lot to discuss here and this review only scratches the surface. While the topic is heavy and some scenes, particularly once the action starts at the armory, are brutal and violent, there is also quite a bit of humor. The ending, with the final scene between Onion and John Brown was beautifully done. The author’s admiration for Brown, despite his flaws, is evident. This is a great pick for a book club.

ElCicco #CBR5 review #40: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

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I read this novel for the first time 20 years ago when I was living in Moscow. Back then, we didn’t have internet access, laptops, or cell phones, and over there, I didn’t have TV or radio either. What I had was a stack of novels (in English) left behind by other Americans and War and Peace was one of them. I would read it at night and I remember absolutely loving it. I decided that it was time to reread and see if my impressions from 20 years ago would hold up. Here goes.

War and Peace is a sweeping epic Russian soap opera with lots of boring commercials. The novel focuses on three noble families — the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs and the Bezukhovs — and their lives during the Napoleonic Wars (1805-1813). An historical novel, it includes real historical figures such as Napoleon, Tsar Alexander, and General Kutuzov. The fictional part of the story is great stuff, genuine soap opera fare: rich beautiful people trying to make good marriages and/or spoil others’, girls attending their first balls, guys hanging out and getting in trouble with the law, infidelity, duels, financial ruin and desperate deals. One of the main characters is Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a fabulously wealthy (and deathly ill) aristocrat. Pierre is constantly searching for the meaning of life (through gambling, drinking, whoring and eventually the Free Masons). Helene Kuragin is the gorgeous socialite/gold digger with questionable morals. Is she beautiful but stupid (the words of her husband) or is she very clever (society’s view)? Prince Andrew Bolkonsky is heir of an esteemed noble family but unhappy in his marriage and eager to leave it behind through military service. Andrew’s sad sack sister Princess Mary is kind but plain. Suitors are willing to overlook that given how incredibly wealthy she is. Mary is also deeply religious and roundly abused by her father, but in her kind and self-deprecating way, she forgives dad and continually offers her suffering up to God. Natasha Rostov is the lively and lovely daughter of a noble family that is falling on hard times. Her brother Nicholas feels constrained by his family obligations and looks forward to military service and a life of camaraderie and honor in the Hussars. A couple of my favorite characters are Anatole Kuragin and Dolokhov. They are the cads, the rakes, the amoral young men leading lives of dissipation and hedonism. Their scenes are riveting reading. They’re truly bad men.

As a social commentary, War and Peace shows the lives of the rich in all their glamor and ugliness. These are people who reside in St. Petersburg and Moscow when not on their country estates, who speak mainly French and spend a lot of time making advantageous connections for themselves and their children. They attend salons and learn what witty things to say and sport the latest fashions. They gamble a lot and lose more than they can afford. And it is from this pool of people that government and military leaders are chosen, with merit not often playing much of a role in that process.

What throws readers off this novel, in my opinion, is Tolstoy’s coverage of the wars and his long-winded explications of military strategy and history. When Tolstoy follows Prince Andrew and Nicholas Rostov into battle in 1805 and then again in 1812, putting these characters into the action, the descriptions of the battles come alive and we care about the end result (even though you know how it all ends historically speaking). But Tolstoy goes on for hundreds of pages giving the histories of other battles, Napoleon’s exploits in Europe, political history and, in the epilogues, explaining what has been wrong with the way historians do their work. It. is. boring. And I say this as an historian of Russian history. God knows I tried to stay in there through it all, but by about book 10 (15 books and 2 epilogues in this monster), I started to skim the stuff that didn’t directly involve our main characters. And those poor people endure some horrible stuff — deaths (of favorite characters, dammit!), the evacuation of Moscow and the burning of the city, imprisonment. Not to mention the incompetence of their own rulers and generals. The one thing that sticks with me out of the political/military history stuff is that the Tsar was a ditz and his generals were too busy trying to get favor for themselves to really pull it together for Russia. Thank heaven for the Russian winter, strained supply lines, disgruntled French soldiers and Kutuzov’s ability to get the Russians out of Moscow before Napoleon arrived.

So overall, while I mostly enjoyed reading the novel, I think I enjoyed it less than I did 20 years ago. Perhaps not having access to so many diversions back then played a role or perhaps living in the city where much of the action occurs made it more immediate for me. It is a great, sweeping story, full of romance and, in typical Tolstoy fashion, it does end with some of our characters finding meaning not in the material things of life but in their faith in God. And not being so shitty toward the serfs. It still really annoys me that my favorite character died though.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #39: Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Ben Greenman

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I’m going to confess up front that I’m not a fan of rap and know little to nothing of hip hop, musical genres that came to the fore in the 1990s and are the milieu of Questlove and his band The Roots. But I know who Questlove is, having seen him on Chappelle Show (which I never missed) and The Jimmy Fallon Show. He has always looked like a pretty cool dude and when I read reviews of his book, he sounded really interesting, too. I imagine for music aficionados, this book will be an absolute trove of great artists and their work, perhaps a trip down memory lane or an introduction to great stuff you missed. As someone who isn’t tapped into all that (I had to look up a lot of Quest’s references on YouTube), it was still a really interesting memoir. Questlove and his friend/Roots manager Rich Nichols (who gets to have his say in footnotes) are intellectuals. Quest is an introspective person, interested in collaboration, supporting new artists while giving props to past artists on whose creativity he wishes to build.

Questlove is a Philly native and comes from a musical family. Much of his personal history is woven throughout the book, so while there is some chronological family history and education history (all very interesting and told with love, respect and honesty), some other information comes out in the course of telling other stories. The memoir’s set-up is cool. The telling is very self-aware (I’m telling my story but letting my best friend respond to it in case my view isn’t completely accurate or so we can all see another perspective on the same events). The associate writer, Ben Greenman, also gets to have his voice heard through the emails he sent to his boss about the project. Given that Questlove is a fan of collaboration, having his memoir so obviously a collaboration among talented and creative minds is both fitting and informative. Questlove tries to live what he believes.

Questlove’s life has been pretty interesting. His father and mother were both musicians, and Quest and his sister went on tour with the band and eventually became part of it. He attended arts and/or religious based schools, ultimately attending high school at CAPA, where he met his friend Tariq (aka Black Thought) and started what would become The Roots. I certainly learned a lot about the music industry, particularly the history of the 1990s rap/hip hop scene and its rivalries. I enjoyed reading about Quest’s musical interests, which are eclectic. He is a huge fan of the Beach Boys and tells some funny stories about having to hide certain albums from his parents. (They especially disapproved of Prince.) I am a sucker for the stories about meeting his idols, such as KISS when he was 7 years old and Prince when he was an adult. And he also gives his side of the Michele Bachmann/”Lyin’ Ass Bitch” controversy from Fallon’s show.

One of the revelations that really knocked me for a loop comes early in the memoir and has not been discussed in the reviews I’ve seen. Quest reveals that when he was little, his parents took him in for some sort of behavioral evaluation. He says, “I wasn’t a normal kid…. The concern was about my personality, which seemed eccentric. I don’t think ‘autistic’ was a common term back then, but I later found out that they had taken me to a doctor to see if something was really wrong.” Quest was obsessed with circles and spinning objects (like turntables) and developed a fascination/obsession with music (and Rolling Stone album ratings) that has served him well in his professional life. I don’t know if he really has autism, but the way he and his family managed his “eccentric” behavior is pretty cool and a good example to parents like me who have kids on the spectrum.

It would be a mistake to pass over Mo’ Meta Blues because you aren’t interested in Questlove’s particular brand of music. This is a fine memoir in its own right. I found it inspirational and informative. This would be a great read for mature teens interested in music and the industry, too. It’ll show how you succeed while keeping hold of your soul.