The Writer's Life
Michael Bennett, De-Masked
Super Bowl champion, three-time Pro Bowler and two-time NFC champion Michael Bennett and his wife, Pele Bennett, cofounded the Bennett Foundation for the education and support of underserved children and communities. The pair also wrote
|photo: Brad Puet
Three Little Monsters Have a Wild Day, a picture book about their three daughters. Michael Bennett's new book,
Things That Make White People Uncomfortable (Haymarket Books, $24.95), written with Dave Zirin, is an unflinchingly personal look at current affairs, social justice and inequality.
What inspired your love of reading?
My mom was a teacher, so there were always books in the house and we always would read. A book is something that can take you into a whole different world--it could take you to the fourth dimension or the fifth dimension. It could take you to Neverland or Narnia or it could just take you to Brooklyn. A book is your own movie in your mind. You are attached to the author and sometimes you feel like the book is talking to you. And that's really how I started to love reading.
How do you find book recommendations?
People. Friends. Or I look online at stories, or on TV. It's just different books that I see and think, oh, I need to read that book. Mostly just word-of-mouth, or I just walk into the library and find a catchy title.
And now you've written Things That Make White People Uncomfortable. How is writing similar or different to playing football?
The things about football and writing a book that are similar is you have to be creative, you have to be timely, you have to be a little bit structured. Actually, the thing that's really different is that in football, you make your creativity through your movements, and writing a book, you use your creativity through your mind and put it down on paper. Some moves on a football field you can't redo, but what you write in a book is there forever.
Your book is also peppered with really great authors like Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou. What are some of the books that particularly inspired you to write this book?
Freedom Is a Constant Struggle by Angela Davis; Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, obviously; and Brené Brown's work. So many great authors helped shape my mind, like the Dalai Lama. A lot of authors will send me their books, too, and I get to meet a lot of great people because of the work we do.
You're very candid in the book about your admiration for your family and your distrust of the NFL. Was it intimidating to get so raw?
It was very intimidating, because you de-mask yourself and share the story of you doing all these different things. But, at the same time, you want to be able to be like that because you owe it to the children behind you to be confident, emotional and able to share yourself.
You say near the end of your book that feeling uncomfortable opens people up.
I think it does, or should. Being uncomfortable allows you to want to stop and say, "hey, it's time for us to grow as a community and grow as a people."
You write about athletes' tremendous untapped power to hold companies accountable. How did food education and STEM education, which you call twin issues, become key points for you?
When you think about food and the lack of access to food in different minority neighborhoods, it's evident that it is just so sad. We want to be able to talk about why certain diseases happen and what that means to a community. I focus on that because I think food is the gateway to culture. Food is the gateway to health. Food is the gateway to a lot of different things, and I think STEM is, too. With science and technology, you're able to get creative and create different things.
The African organization iamtheCODE, which aims to improve girls' access to science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics, entrepreneurship and design, is a program you got involved with to help close the gap of gender inequality. Having three daughters, this is probably on your mind a lot personally as well as socially. How do we help tackle this?
I think it takes a lot of everybody
to start understanding certain issues that are happening in the world. And now being able to support women through technology and iamtheCODE is me recognizing the place I play in changing lives, the place we play as a community in uplifting women and giving them the same opportunities as men. Science is one of the things that helps change the world. I think you have to be able to have seats at the table. --Kristianne Huntsberger
, writer, storyteller and partnership marketing manager at Shelf Awareness
Alan S. Cowell
In his novel Cat Flap, British journalist Alan S. Cowell presents a modern fable: Dolores Tremayne--wife, mother and a successful corporate executive of African British descent--wakes one day and discovers that part of her has migrated and metamorphosed into the body of the family's "finely bred, highly pedigreed" indoor cat.
The human Dolores sets off on a Lufthansa flight bound for a high-powered business meeting with a prestigious car company in Munich, Germany. Her feline self--her mind and soul, aka "X"--stays behind and gains a surprising glimpse into the daily life of her sexy, white husband, Gerald, a former drug dealer-user and stalled novelist. His first book had been "well-received, if not well sold or marketed" and a three-book commitment looms over him, along with his daily, demanding responsibilities as a house-husband to his and Dolores's two little girls.
One day, when Gerald exits the apartment, curious X slips out and follows him. She discovers that he is a serial philanderer juggling numerous shocking exploits. Being trapped in the body of a cat shutters all of Dolores's emotional human instincts and reactions. However, through some creative ingenuity, X and human Dolores join forces as avenging spirits.
Cowell (The Terminal Spy
) has never shied away from exploring dark themes in his writing--those found in newspaper journalism, politics, war, risk taking and spying. Readers will eagerly suspend their disbelief, immersing themselves in Cowell's cleverly conceived, satirical novel that probes contemporary issues of race, identity and sexuality. --Kathleen Gerard
, blogger at Reading Between the Lines
Discover: A successful, British executive--a wife and mother--has her mind and soul metamorphosed into the family cat.
St. Martin's Press,
$24.99, hardcover, 240p., 9781250146519
How to Be Famous
Caitlin Moran's fans will know narrator Johanna Morrigan from How to Build a Girl
, in which she kissed goodbye to Wolverhampton, England, in pursuit of a London life as Dolly Wilde, music journalist. In How to Be Famous
, she's now a 19-year-old success story: she writes fearless pieces with titles like "In Defense of Groupies" and lives an unsupervised life recalling "that of Pippi Longstocking, but with whiskey, and rock music."
The drugs and rock and roll are going really well; it's the sex that's not working out: when Johanna makes the mistake of sleeping with comedian Jerry Sharp, he films their exploits without her consent. Johanna wants to be famous--as her brink-of-acclaim musician friend Suzanne puts it, "Famous is the shortcut to power"--but not as the subject of a widely circulated sex tape.
Set in the mid-'90s heyday of Britpop, How to Be Famous
is a #MeToo manifesto before the fact, full of hilariously righteous rage, not to mention pop music references and wonderfully incendiary theories, as when Johanna makes the argument that the Beatles succeeded "by tapping into the untouched cultural capital of humanity: girls." How to Be Famous
would be a superb novel for a young adult readership unflapped by explicit sex and semi-rampant, low-consequence drinking and drugging. Given the novel's emphasis on libidos and vice, it's easy to miss what it really is: a toothy feminist romance, complete with a fantasy-figure love interest for Johanna in John Kite, a musician who sees only perfection in her non-trophy-wife proportions. --Nell Beram
, author and freelance writer
Discover: In Caitlin Moran's follow-up to How to Build a Girl, music journalist Johanna Morrigan is finally getting famous; unfortunately, it's for starring in a sex tape.
$26.99, hardcover, 352p., 9780062433770
An Ocean of Minutes
In Thea Lim's An Ocean of Minutes, it's 1981 and a vicious flu pandemic has swept across the United States. With the advent of time travel, people are given the option of traveling to the future as migrant workers to pay for a loved one's treatment. When her boyfriend Frank gets sick, Polly agrees to go to 1993 and work in exchange for his cure. Though they planned to meet each other then and pick up where they left off, Frank is nowhere to be found. Polly realizes she has been rerouted to 1998 and is a slave to TimeRaiser, the company that hired her. Met with an unfamiliar and unforgiving landscape, Polly is determined to find Frank and build the future she'd imagined, rather than the one she's found.
Lim's mastery of plot, pacing and character shines in this high-concept novel. Striking a balance between the page-turning narrative and heartfelt, wistful insights, this novel depicts a future that reads more like an inspection of the contemporary moment than a fantastical assumption. Lim dives seamlessly through questions of race, gender, immigration and corporate monopoly, to surface with poignant discoveries about love, sacrifice, loss and ephemerality. Best of all, Lim's meditations on time illuminate the novel's shimmering and translucent surface to reveal fleetingly the depths and beauty of human emotion beneath. Polly's journey suggests both the beauty of and the inability to "stop right here, and stay in this very moment, for good." --Alice Martin
, freelance writer and editor
Discover: A visionary literary dystopia, An Ocean of Minutes will appeal to fans of Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go.
$26, hardcover, 320p., 9781501192555
Mystery & Thriller
Belinda Bauer's Snap opens in August 1998, with three kids sitting in a sweltering, broken-down car, waiting for their mother to return from the call box up the road. After more than an hour, the children, ages two to 11, go searching on foot for her, finding only a phone with the receiver dangling by its cord.
Their nightmare continues three years later, when the children are living alone in their house, trying to avoid attracting neighbors' and social services' attention by keeping the lawn mowed and lying about their father. Jack, now just shy of 15, takes care of his siblings by stealing food and other necessities from nearby homes. In one, he makes a chilling discovery that indicates the owner might know what happened to Jack's mother.
Bauer once again delivers a fast-paced, suspenseful, and heartbreaking story laced with extra-dry humor and well-defined characters. Detective Chief Inspector John Marvel returns from The Shut Eye
with his grump and thirst for a good murder case intact, though he's been exiled from the Met in London and sent to Somerset to investigate burglaries. Jack and his sisters, Joy and Merry--ironic names--are complex in ways one would expect of traumatized children. Bauer does not tug at readers' heartstrings; she simply shows how harsh life can be for the most vulnerable and youngest among us. The detectives can be a bit slow to pick up on clues, but thriller fans should snap up this one. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis
, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd
Discover: Three children search for the truth about what happened to their mother after she disappeared three years earlier.
Atlantic Monthly Press,
$26, hardcover, 352p., 9780802127747
Her Pretty Face
Robyn Harding (The Party) tackles the contrasting issues of women's friendship and violent criminals in Her Pretty Face.
Stay-at-home mom Frances is insecure and lonely. She struggles to do what's best for her special-needs son while being closed out by the snobby, seemingly perfect moms at his new private school--especially after an incident involving her son rocks the small community. The only thing that makes Forrester Academy tolerable is her new friend, Kate. Gorgeous, thin and wealthy, Kate nonetheless seems truly to like Frances, and the two women bond over wine, their sons' friendship and a shared sarcastic wit. The women and their families gradually grow closer, but one of the friends is hiding a terrible secret: she's a murderer who changed her name years ago.
Harding takes readers on a ride through deceit in the midst of friendship. While some of this novel's secrets will probably be guessed early on and are revealed by the halfway point, the story is more focused on why
rather than who
. This domestic drama about women's friendship moves between the past and the present while exploring intriguing questions. Can a person really change? Once someone has paid for a heinous crime, should she be forgiven and allowed to live a normal life? The stakes are high as the facts emerge in this tense and thoughtful novel. --Cindy Pauldine
, bookseller, the river's end bookstore, Oswego, N.Y.
Discover: Two moms become best friends, but one of them is hiding a secret, violent past.
$26, hardcover, 352p., 9781501174247
How to Keep a Secret
For How to Keep a Secret
, Sarah Morgan (Miracle on 5th Avenue
) shifts a bit from contemporary romance into fresh women's fiction sure to be appreciated by fans of Nancy Thayer or Elin Hilderbrand.
Lauren has a perfect life in London, until her 16-year-old daughter, Mack, turns overnight into a stereotypically bitter and sullen teenager. Lauren's younger sister, Jenna, who still lives on Martha's Vineyard, is desperate to get pregnant, but it's just not working, and she's worried that her husband isn't on board with her deep desire for parenthood. Meanwhile, Lauren and Jenna's mother, Nancy, knows she wasn't the best parent, but she'll never be able to tell the girls why, which has created a gulf between them. Moreover, she's a well-known artist, but has abruptly quit painting.
Now dramatic circumstances bring all four women together in "The Captain's House"--the Martha's Vineyard home that has held their family for generations. Nancy and her daughters tentatively begin to explore the secrets they've hidden from each other. Lauren and Mack, too, work on their relationship, starting an emotional but life-changing summer for everyone as they discover the hidden depths in each other.
Sarah Morgan does an excellent job of creating strong, nuanced women who want to love each other, in spite of the barriers between them. Their spilling secrets pour a charming spell over this heartwarming and summery beach read. --Jessica Howard
, bookseller at Bookmans, Tucson, Ariz.
Discover: Three generations of women explore the secrets they've been hiding from each other as they spend a summer together on Martha's Vineyard.
$15.99, paperback, 432p., 9781335613004
The Ghost Script
Jules Feiffer's graphic novel trilogy began with Kill My Mother
and Cousin Joseph
, hardboiled noir in the vein of Dashiell Hammett and Will Eisner. The concluding book, The Ghost Script
, takes a decidedly political turn, evoking McCarthyism and the Hollywood Blacklist.
Ten years after the events of Kill My Mother, Feiffer's characters have moved on from their collective tragedies. Annie Hannigan, a successful Hollywood screenwriter and director, is rumored to possess a "ghost script" that threatens to expose the blacklist conspiracy. Annie's son Sammy has grown into an angry teenager harboring anti-communist sentiment against his family. Elsie is a radio gossip columnist who plots with her lover, Patty, to seek vengeance against the mysterious Cousin Joseph, her husband's murderer.
Meanwhile, Hollywood executives and investigators from the House Un-American Activities Committee hire hapless private eye Archie Goldman, Annie's lover, to retrieve the script. Archie is pursued and beaten up by union busters and liberals, who suspect him of ulterior motives. As Archie's investigation closes in on his immediate circle and the secret identity of Cousin Joseph, things take a malevolent turn and threaten to destroy the lives of the women around him.
Feiffer integrates many of the underlying themes of McCarthyism: the demands for absolute loyalty in exchange for continued employment and favors, anti-Semitism and the seedy layers of racism. His art has evolved with the progression of the series, and individual monologues ground a plot that tends to meander in confusing directions.
Feiffer displays his unapologetically sharp wit in a story that shows that starry-eyed dreams are often doomed to the failed lessons of American history. --Nancy Powell
, freelance writer and technical consultant
Discover: The conclusion to Jules Feiffer's hardboiled trilogy is a political thriller about McCarthyism and the Hollywood Blacklist.
$26.95, hardcover, 160p., 9781631493133
Biography & Memoir
It Happened Like This: A Life in Alaska
Adrienne Lindholm has always had a taste for wild places: open spaces, unmarked territory, "the feeling of something about to happen." After college, she moved to Alaska to try her luck as a backcountry park ranger. Nearly two decades later, her roots go deep into the Alaskan tundra, where she has built a career and a life on the edge of the wilderness. Lindholm chronicles her experience in a frank, luminous memoir, It Happened Like This.
As a greenhorn park ranger, Lindholm was unprepared for the rigors of backcountry life. She learned quickly from her fellow rangers and other new friends, many of them fellow transplants who had chased their own wanderlust to Alaska. Featuring many vivid characters (both human and animal), Lindholm's book traces her journey through a new career in an unpredictable, captivating environment. She also tells the story of meeting the man she grew to love, and her own wrestling with questions of marriage, motherhood, home under the vast northern sky. She delves into environmental issues: water and land use, the tension between preserving unspoiled wild places and providing for human enjoyment of them. The book's focus shifts midway through to Lindholm's deep ambivalence about motherhood, but she never loses sight of the awe and wonder that pulled her toward Alaska in the first place.
With lively anecdotes and clear, lyrical prose, Lindholm draws readers into a place "where challenge and mystery slip in beside me, take hold of my wrist, and guide me toward the edge." --Katie Noah Gibson
, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Discover: Adrienne Lindholm's luminous memoir chronicles the wonder and wildness of her two decades living in Alaska.
$16.95, paperback, 208p., 9781680511345
Out of Step
When Anthony Moll joined the army at 18, he was a queer leftist punk with pink hair. In the months after September 11 he, like many who enlisted, was struck by a feeling of patriotism and duty, but mostly he saw military service as the only way out of his life of poverty in Reno, Nev. He served for eight years during the Don't Ask, Don't Tell era and, amid a culture of hypermasculinity, anti-gay bias and homophobic slurs, he attempted the delicate balance of being true to his identity without damaging his career or risking violence. Once he left the service, he began the confusing work of reentering society with a background much different than his peers.
A slim memoir told in essay-like chapters, Out of Step
is the story of a young man trying to find his place in the disparate worlds of American military and civilian life. He admits to his naïveté as a new soldier, ignorant of the work he signed up for or the "gray ethics" of the U.S. foreign policy it represented, and he shows how his perspective changed over time. "Here I am an expert marksman who is happy that he has never gone to war, a rising military leader who stopped believing in the U.S. military's role in the world," he writes of his last years in the service. "Here I have stopped believing in the narrative that has been offered to me for the last seven years, and I have yet to fully uncover who exactly I will become once I finally take off my uniform and put it away for the last time." Moll's take is thoughtful and fair, both critical of the military while recognizing how it built him. --Katy Hershberger
, freelance writer and publicist
Discover: A thoughtful memoir about the complicated experience of being queer in the U.S. Army.
Mad Creek /Ohio State Univ. Press,
$18.95, paperback, 116p., 9780814254820
New Poets of Native Nations
Heid E. Erdrich, editor
Each poetic voice in the marvelous and much needed new anthology New Poets of Native Nations is original and distinct. The volume is edited by Heid E. Erdrich, an Ojibwe author of several poetry collections; in an enlightening introduction, she writes of the 21 poets in the anthology, "Not one of them identifies as 'Native American' alone." This is the double duty the anthology performs, and brilliantly so: representing several Indian nations--including southwest, Midwest, Alaskan and Pacific Islander peoples--while emphasizing the common humanity and greater Americanness of the work.
There are familiar names here, such as Tommy Pico, Natalie Diaz and Layli Long Soldier, and poets lesser known in the white literary establishment, like dg nanouk okpik, Craig Santos Perez and Brandy Nālani McDougall. All the selections offer vivid imagery and powerful poetic voice, driven by social and environmental justice concerns as well as abiding love for language itself. Several poems mix Native vocabulary with English, emphasizing the way translation both opens new semantic space but poses existential challenges. That many Native languages are disappearing--a common theme throughout--makes the work even more urgent.
Collectively, the poems speak to what Pico, in "Nature Poem," calls "fodder for the noble savage," that is, the stereotypes and expectations of white audiences. Gwen Nell Westerman expresses this struggle differently in "Theory Doesn't Live Here": "They didn't need theory/ to explain where they came from," the poet, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, writes of her grandparents. "They lived it."
New Poets of Native Nations
showcases complex and talented individuals crafting American poetry at its best. --Scott Neuffer
, writer, poet, editor of trampset
Discover: This wisely edited collection of Native poets helps redefine the canon of American poetry.
$18, paperback, 304p., 9781555978099
Children's & Young Adult
A Case for Buffy
, illust. by Gitte Spee
Detective Buffy is a young mouse police officer under the tutelage of Detective Gordon, "the famous criminal detective, the terror of all villains," who also happens to be a very old toad. Life is busy and productive in the "sweet little police station" in the woods, with Buffy rubber-stamping ("kla-dunk") solved cases of litterbugs and missing scarves, and Gordon dozing in a cozy bed in the renovated prison.
Then two tiny kindergartners--another mouse and toad pair--show up for "small police school," and in the ruckus of the young ones learning how to salute and spy, Buffy suddenly remembers the mother she lost when she herself was young. Distraught at not being able to remember what happened to her mother, she takes Gordon's advice: "Why don't you start by writing small poems about your mother, so the memories come back. That's what a real police officer does."
Sure enough, the memories flood back in several free-form poems, including this clincher: "Sharp claws--Fox!/ Running here and there./ Waterfall, fir trees.../ Running all day/ Over snow, over mountains./ Everyone's gone!" The stage is set for Buffy and Gordon's most important police investigation yet: "find a mother!"
Following The First Case
, A Complicated Case
and A Case in Any Case
, this stand-alone fourth book in the Detective Gordon series by Swedish author Ulf Nilsson and Dutch illustrator Gitte Spee is whimsical perfection. Spee's soft, colorful pictures are reminiscent of William Steig's classic illustrations. Readers who have graduated from early chapter books like Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad series will adore A Case for Buffy
, with its gentle adventures, droll humor and delicious cakes at every turn. --Emilie Coulter
, freelance writer and editor
Discover: Swedish author Ulf Nilsson's Detective Gordon series delivers old-fashioned adventure with warmth and humor as the detectives take their most important case yet: finding Buffy's mother.
$16.99, hardcover, 108p., ages 6-10, 9781776571789
In a highly stratified, fantastical British society, citizens, through blood inheritance passed from mother to daughter and father to son, are able to manipulate and use colors, and thus any objects or elements of that color. Special training is needed to hone these skills, and Thomas Fawkes, the son of "[t]he great Guy Fawkes. The mighty soldier," is about to complete his education. In order to graduate officially, Thomas needs his father to give him a handmade mask that binds Thomas to one specific color and that shows his color to society. But Guy is at the center of a war.
On one side are the Keepers, who believe people should control only one color. On the other are the Igniters, who believe everyone should control all colors, especially White ("the color through which all other colors come"), thus giving practitioners control over all colors. Each side blames the other for causing a plague that is sweeping through Britain, slowly turning people to stone. And Guy, a Keeper, is plotting to kill King James, an Igniter. Thomas, in need of his mask and a victim of the plague himself, tracks down Guy, hoping to find help before he turns completely to stone. Working closely with his father at the head of the anarchist Keepers, Thomas is installed into the community; all the while, the White Light calls to him and a romance between him and a mysterious young Igniter kindles. Do Thomas's loyalties lie with his father, a man he barely knows? Or to the potentially more dangerous world of Igniters?
Historical facts, along with captivating characters and quick dialogue, make for an extremely enjoyable novel. A great read for fans of The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue
brings new life to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. --Clarissa Hadge
, assistant bookstore manager, Trident Booksellers & Cafe, Boston, Mass.
Discover: In this fantastical spin on the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, Thomas Fawkes is tested when he joins his father, Guy Fawkes, in a conspiracy to kill the King of England.
$16.99, hardcover, 448p., ages 13-up, 9780785217145