“Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948” by Madeleine Albright (Harper, 2012)

Prague Winter

In this moving true story of Madeleine Albright’s past as a child growing up in Europe, readers get to experience her discoveries of her history through her words, many of them a shock to her, especially with her Jewish heritage.  In a way, Prague Winter is a voyage of discovery and with Albright’s clear and honest writing style, readers are swept away by her prose.

This is the harsh story of a world that now seems unfamiliar to us, when a rising Germany controlled by a vicious dictator saw the fate of human existence in black and white, where only the white were allowed to survive in Hitler’s mind.  As a child growing up in what was then Czechoslovakia, it is a heart-wrenching story in some ways, as Albright tells it with skill and drama, mounting the tension that was very real, as she and her family left their home country for England.  But stories continued to unfold of what was happening back in their native nation.

Albright has clearly done a lot of research for this book, not just on her own family, but on the history and sources of the period, along with many photos from that time, it presents a thorough picture of this part of Europe during World War II and the rise of the Fuhrer.  It is also an insight into the culture of the Czechs, a people who do not bow down lightly and whose patriotism and culture is everything to them.  In some ways, Prague Winter reads like a powerful history book that would make great reading for any high school or college student wanting to learn more about the period; and at the same time it is a poignant biography of these people and of this child that was shaped into the incredible woman that she was to become.

Originally written on March 17, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

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“Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns)” by Mind Kaling (Crown, 2011)

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

Mindy Kaling, best known for the portrayal of her character, Kelly Kapoor, on The Office, is also one of the show’s main writers, and a talented comedian.  In her greatly entertaining book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, Kaling is not looking to just tell her life story so far, nor is she just relaying a series of hilarious anecdotes, or recommended life lessons; instead she does a perfectly blended combination of all three.

The key to Mindy Kaling is that like other great contemporary female comedians like Tina Fey and Molly Shannon, she doesn’t hold back, but is willing to make herself look ridiculous, knowing it’s incredibly funny.  The book is filled with amusing photos from her life, growing up, as she regales the reader with stories of her life in becoming a comedy writer.  The book is a short, fast read that covers important episodes of Kaling’s life, and her work on The Office, but also features some great life lessons she’s learned along the way that the reader can really appreciate, whether they’re female or male.  The highpoint of the book is her attendance at a photo shoot where she is graced by a trailer full of beautiful dresses all in a size zero, way too small for her.  After accepting this insulting setback and some inner searching, she comes back to the costume designer, demanding that he make a specific dress fit her, even though it’s too small for her.  The dress ended up getting cut and ruined so that it looked fantastic from the front.  It was a harsh lesson for Hollywood that is simply inspiring for readers.

Originally written on November 20, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean” by David Abulafia (Oxford, 2011)

Great Sea

The Mediterranean Sea has been there for a very long time.  Over the millennia it has shrunken and grown, given birth to islands, then drowned then, then birthed them once again; at one point it was even a dried-up seabed for a little while until the Atlantic began pouring into it once more, filling it up like a bathtub.  Humanity has also played an important part with the Mediterranean; without it our history would be very different.  From the days of the Neolithic people, to the ancient Egyptians, to the Greek and Roman empires, on through the many events of history taking place along its shores, this Great Sea has always played an important part.  Now David Abulafia, Professor of Mediterranean History at Cambridge University, brings historians and interested readers the ultimate biography of this unique sea, as seen and used and experienced by the people who lived and still live on its long coastline.

Abulafia divides The Great Sea into five parts, chronologically: 2200 BC – 1000 BC, 1000 BC – AD 600, 600 – 1350, 1350 – 1830, and 1830 – 2010.  Filled with many illustrations and maps, as well as two sets of detailed photographs, this book is certainly not a quick and easy read, but is nevertheless an invaluable one.  A lengthy index helps guide readers to certain periods and places in history and time for the Mediterranean, but what works best is to just start from the beginning and work your way through this heavy tome and learn about just how important this body of water has been for humanity.

Originally written on December 1, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The Great Sea from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Nerd Do Well” by Simon Pegg (Gotham Books, 2011)

Nerd do Well

Nerd do Well isn’t your ordinary book.  It’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in another mystery that’s very good friends with an enigma.  Simon Pegg’s biography is a maze (also amazing) of moving tales of youth and growing up in Britain; entertaining hijinks and comedy jokes; and philosophizing on the merits of Stars Wars and the failure of the prequels.  And then there is the other story, the fictional heroic epic of the rich, magnificent genius and renowned action hero who is Simon Pegg; who has saved the world many times over, loved by all women and known throughout the world for his sexual prowess; Pegg takes readers on a journey of action and adventure along with his robot butler/sidekick.

When Pegg is not telling of his abilities as a superhero, he is reliving his childhood, growing up in Gloucester, and discussing his pivotal moments when he discovered acting, comedy, movies that changed his life – Stars Wars features prevalently throughout the book, of course – as well as his meeting and involvement with so many famous people who he grew up idolizing and learning from, like George Lucas, Carrie Fisher, Steven Spielberg, George A. Romero, Quentin Tarrantino, and many more.  Pegg doesn’t spend much time in his recent movies and projects, as fans already know this aspect about him already.  He includes plenty of references to British TV and celebrities, so any previous knowledge of these subjects certainly helps, but is by no means required.

In Nerd do Well, Simon Pegg has created a new sort of genre that is a combination of heartfelt life story and entertaining work of fiction, but unlike other authors who have attempted this before, Pegg keeps the two separate; nevertheless readers get a great two for one deal here.  Nerd do Well is a book that you’ll want to read and reread; to speak allowed to your family and friends; to yell from the rooftops to the masses; in short, Nerd do Well is a book you won’t soon forget.

Click here for Simon Pegg interview with BookBanter.

CLICK HERE to purchase your copy from Bookshop Santa Cruz and help support BookBanter.

Originally written on July 1, 2011.

“Abraham Lincoln: A Penguin Life” by Thomas Keneally (Viking, 2003)

Abraham Lincoln

One would think that the biography of such a famous man and president would require many more pages to cover his entire life happenings and events, but this is one of the Penguin Lives series, whose key is brevity but accuracy.

Keneally does a great job of covering Abraham Lincoln’s life, from birth to death.  There is no lacking, as every facet of Lincoln’s life is researched and revealed, albeit not in as much depth as one would expect, but with enough information to answer any questions.  The reader gets a true sense of this changing America in the nineteenth century, with Lincoln’s love of technology in the railroads, and especially in the steamboats traveling up and down the Mississippi.  It is here that he gets his first job.

Through the pages of this narrow book, the reader learns of the over political life Lincoln led, climbing the echelons of the government until he became president, as well as learning from a young age that slavery was a thing to be severed and got rid of from the country, like an infectious cancer.  It was this decision as present that ultimately caused the session of the Confederate States and the Civil War.

Eventually Lincoln passed the Thirteenth Amendment banning slavery and achieved his goal for America, but at the price of his life.  It is here that the book justly ends, leaving the reader to contemplate what an important difference this man made with his amazing skill for speaking to the people and letting them know what needed to be done.  This is the life of Abraham Lincoln, which everyone should know about.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally published on May 12th, 2003.

Originally published in the Long Beach Union.

“North by Northwestern” by Sig Hansen and Mark Sundeen (Thomas Dunne Books, 2010)

North by Northwestern

From the very first episodes of the premiere season of Deadliest Catch, viewers knew they’d been invited into a world that they’d had little idea existed.  To call it the deadliest job in the world is a large claim to make, but anyone who has watched the show – as excited and thrilled they might be at the fantasy of riding the rough seas and risking their lives – knows it’s a feat that these guys make it back to Dutch Harbor at the end of each season.  But how did these people become the incredible fisherman and brave human beings that they are?

Captain Sig Hansen, and his brothers Edgar and Norman, are part of the crew of the F/V Northwestern, and after six seasons have become international celebrities, with a website, attending conventions, fish products, and a videogame.  But regardless of their celebrity status, for a number of months out of the year they risk their lives in unbelievable weather, working nonstop, all for fresh crab to be served on dinner plates around the world.  In North by Northwestern, Sig Hansen, along with Mark Sundeen (who has written for Outside Magazine and New York Times Magazine), tells the incredible story of how he and his brothers became crab fishermen.  Hansen lets readers know throughout the book that he wouldn’t be where he is, and the crabbing industry wouldn’t be where it is, if it weren’t for his father and his generation of fishermen working with inferior technology and tools and coming up with new, efficient, and improved ways to fish.  Hansen tells the story of his Norwegian childhood, growing up in Ballard near Seattle, but he also tells the story of how the tough Norwegian who began fishing the Nordic seas came over to Washington with hopes of making more money and becoming a great fisherman.

The Alaskan King Crab gold rush began in the seventies and lasted through the nineties.  It was during this period that the Hansen brothers grew up and learned the tools of their trade under the wise guise and learned hands of their father and his brilliant fishermen friends.  North by Northwestern is the truly incredible story of a generation of fishermen about which little is known, as well as about how three Norwegian brothers went from simple fisherman to international celebrities.

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Originally written on October 1 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Thames: The Biography” by Peter Ackroyd (Nan A. Talese, 2008)


British author Peter Ackroyd—of London: the Biography, Shakespeare: the Biography, and numerous other works—presents the most comprehensive biography ever written on the most renowned river of all time. After reading this book, it can be said that you will know all there is to know about the river Thames. Beginning with its geology and topography, Ackroyd takes you on a full tour from wellspring to its draining into the English channel, filling your head with facts and details you’d never really thought about.  Then he begins a brief foray into references made about the Thames throughout history and literature.  This sets the stage for a great journey, which Ackroyd starts right at the beginning with the origin of its name in various languages and how it has changed over time.

With plenty of maps and pictures, along with a lengthy bibliography and index, the reader will feel confident enough to give a two-hour lecture to friends and family on the Thames, after reading this book, as well as answering any questions.  Thames: the Biography will have you planning a trip to the most famous river in history in no time!

CLICK HERE to purchase your copy from Bookshop Santa Cruz and help support BookBanter.

Originally published in the Sacramento Book Review.

Originally published on December 17 2008.