“Murder in Matera” by Helene Stapinski

Murder in MateraOne of my favorite genres is the “Family Secret” book, in which an intrepid journalist investigates some scandal in his or her family’s past and uncovers shocking surprises. A couple of my favorites are Steve Luxenberg’s Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret and After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey.

Now comes Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy by Helene Stapinski, who grew up hearing stories about her notorious great-great-grandmother Vita, who immigrated to New Jersey in the late 19th century. Legend had it that Vita fled Italy with her sons after murdering somebody back in the Old Country, but no one seemed to know what actually happened. Stapinski decides to find out.

She’s concerned that crime may somehow be deeply encoded in the family genes, and how that may affect her own children; the author recounts the criminal backgrounds of many of her relatives, including cousin Mike the mob consigliere and Grandpa Beansie, who murdered a guy in a fight. “Most of the criminals came from the Vena side, the Italian side,” she writes. “The name Vena can be translated a number of ways… But Vena’s main meaning is vein, as in a vein that runs through a family, a trait passed down from one generation to the next. In our case, a penchant for crime.”

Her first trip to Matera, with her mom and two young children in tow, is less than successful due to the fact that it’s hard to conduct an in-depth investigation with kids around. So she waits 10 years and goes back alone, hiring a couple of researchers to help her out. Things have changed a bit—Francis Ford Coppola has opened a 500-euro-a-night hotel in Bernalda—but echoes of the past are everywhere, from the caves painted by monks in the Middle Ages to the two-foot-tall books of documents stored deep in local archives. With the help of her researchers, plus a policeman and lawyer, she eventually finds out what happened to cause Vita to make that long ocean voyage to America.

The one problem I have with his book, and it’s kind of a big one, is that Stapinski frequently departs from the nonfiction narrative to deliver chapters that flash back to Vita’s life in the 1800s. In the afterword, she explains that she used her own “Gallitelli bones and blood to imagine how [Vita] would have acted and what she would have thought and said about the incredible events in her life,” but I wasn’t entirely comfortable with so much conjecture. No photographs of Vita exist, but Stapinski describes “the curve of her neck and the way she tilted her head when she listened. She was smart and wise all at the same time… Liveliness and love of life was hard to find in a place as miserable as nineteenth-century Bernalda. And Vita had it. Vita had it in spades.”

There’s a lot of that sort of thing in the book, almost as though Stapinski really wanted to write a novel about her ancestor based on true events, and came up with this somewhat awkward mash-up instead. She also takes some huge leaps of imagination in a couple of situations where there’s no solid evidence of what really happened.

Still, the one thing that comes through loud and clear is how incredibly difficult life was for her Italian forebears, who constantly faced death and deprivation. My own Swedish relatives came to the U.S. a couple decades after Vita, and life in Sweden was equally grueling for many of its own poor citizens. It’s never a bad thing to pay tribute to the people who made it possible for us to live comfortably in modern-day America, and to think about the immigrants who continue to come here today, often fleeing violence and famine, hoping to find a better life for their families and all the generations to come.


“America the Anxious” by Ruth Whippman

America the AnxiousSometimes, it takes an outsider to provide a truly penetrating look at what’s really going on in a place. Ruth Whippman is an Englishwoman who moved with her husband to the San Francisco Bay Area, and soon found herself having the sorts of conversations she’d never had back in London: “Am I following my passions? Am I doing what I love? What is my purpose in life? Am I as happy as I should be?”

The British, she writes, “are generally uncomfortable around the subject [of happiness]… It’s not that we don’t want to be happy. It just feels embarrassing to discuss it and demeaning to chase it, like calling someone moments after a first date to ask if they like you.”

In America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, Whippman explores various aspects of the American “happiness industrial complex,” visiting places like Provo, Utah (because the largely Mormon population there is supposedly the happiest in the entire U.S.) and the headquarters of Zappos (the online shoe store whose founder and CEO is obsessed with making his employees thrilled to be coming to work). She tries meditation and takes a Landmark Forum seminar, in which participants are forced to share personal stories while the course leader tries to tell them that everything bad in their lives is their own fault (“A divorcée learns that, contrary to her belief that her husband was callous and emotionally cruel, she should be assuming the entire responsibility for the failure of their marriage.”).

Over and over again, Whippman finds that there are often unpleasant truths lurking behind smiley-faced façades. Those cheerful Mormons, for example? Many of them are secretly miserable and just putting on “a constant happy front”: Utah actually has the highest rate of antidepressant use in the U.S., and the CDC has found that residents of the state “report having more suicidal thoughts than anyone in the entire United States.” (“The Book of Mormon” parodied this attitude in the song “Turn it Off.”) Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s utopian Downtown Project in Las Vegas, an area he developed based on research on “how to maximize innovation and happiness,” becomes the site of a suicide cluster.

Granted, a lot of what Whippman writes about is only really applicable to a certain affluent class; I doubt Americans dealing with poverty have a lot of time to worry about whether or not their kid’s preschool offers toddler yoga (as does the curriculum at Whippman’s son’s school). She does point out, however, that strong safety nets tend to raise happiness levels; in Salt Lake City, for instance, a robust church-sponsored welfare program ensures that the city boasts some of the highest social mobility levels in the world, “on a par with Denmark’s.”

In the end, she declares that her main takeaway from her deep dive into the happiness industry is that “the more time you spend obsessively monitoring your emotional temperature, the less likely you are to be happy. I can confidently say that I am at my happiest when the topic of happiness is farthest from my mind.” America the Anxious is a brisk, enjoyable read that will definitely make me apply my critical-thinking skills the next time I hear about the latest, greatest study or self-help book on the topic of happiness.

“Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah

Born A CrimeI think Trevor Noah is doing a great job as host of “The Daily Show.” He’s funny, charismatic and attractive, and his accent work is killer. However, I spent eight long years slogging through the George W. Bush administration with Jon Stewart, and when Trump got elected, I just couldn’t bring myself to tune into the madness on a daily basis. So I’m now an occasional “TDS” viewer.

Noah’s autobiography, however, is one I’d recommend to anyone, be they fans of his comedy or folks who have only the vaguest idea of who he is. There are a couple chapters that allude to his success (he was a huge star in his native South Africa before he made a splash in the U.S.), but 95% of the book deals with his childhood. It’s a remarkable tale, and Noah tells it very well.

Born a Crime is truly a singular story. Trevor Noah was in no way a typical South African child, thanks largely to his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. She decided to get pregnant by a Swiss-German neighbor, despite the fact that interracial relationships were illegal. Since the son’s skin was conspicuously lighter than his mother’s, Patricia frequently had to find a colored woman willing to walk young Trevor to school (his mother would follow behind, “like she was the maid working for the colored woman”).

Patricia was devoutly religious, insisting that her son accompany her to three separate church services on Sundays, as well as various Bible studies during the week. Despite all of that time spent in houses of worship, Trevor was quite the handful as a child. At age seven, he accidentally burned down a white family’s house (he was playing with their maid’s son). Decades later, Noah is unapologetic: “Things catch fire sometimes. That’s why there’s a fire brigade. But everyone in my family will tell you, ‘Trevor burned down a house.’ If people thought I was naughty before, after the fire I was notorious. One of my uncles stopped calling me Trevor. He called me ‘Terror’ instead. ‘Don’t leave that kid alone in your home,’ he’d say. ‘He’ll burn it to the ground.'”

There are plenty more crazy anecdotes in the book, which is just a delight from start to finish. By the end, even nonbelievers may find themselves convinced that somebody up there is looking out for Patricia, whose terrifying brush with death is detailed in the final chapter.

Noah vividly captures the grit and determination it took to escape poverty and abuse (at one point, Trevor, his mom and stepfather were so broke they had to eat caterpillars, a.k.a. “Mopane worms,” in order to survive: “there’s poor and then there’s ‘Wait, I’m eating worms,'” writes Noah). Born a Crime is a compelling memoir, as well as a loving tribute to the powerful woman who raised her son “as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do”—a fine rebuke to the dehumanizing system of apartheid.

“Hungry Heart” by Jennifer Weiner

Hungry HeartI don’t remember how I first became aware of Jennifer Weiner and her debut novel, Good in Bed, but I attended what must have been one of her earliest bookstore events, at the now-defunct Black Oak Books in North Berkeley. Weiner was funny and engaging, and I wish I’d had the means to purchase a signed copy. But at that point in my life I was pretty broke and couldn’t afford to buy hardcovers. I did check it out of the library, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

Her novels have frequently featured autobiographical elements—just for starters, the heroine of Good in Bed has a mom who came out as gay following her divorce, which is also true of Weiner’s own mom, Fran—and Weiner is a regular presence on social media, but Hungry Heart is such a revealing memoir that even her most ardent followers may be shocked at what they learn. Some of the chapters are absolutely heartbreaking, especially one about the death of her mentally ill, frequently-absent father, and one describing her fairly recent miscarriage.

The info about her socially awkward early years will come as no surprise to those who have read her novels. I will admit that I identified strongly with a lot of it. Weiner was a smart kid who skipped third grade (I skipped second). “The trend of skipping grades stopped once educators realized that they were creating a generation of social cripples. By then it was too late for me.” Amen, sister.

Weiner writes about her experience working to open up Princeton’s all-male eating clubs to women; her college writing classes with teachers like Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison; her early, unglamorous journalism jobs before she finally lands at the Philadelphia Inquirer; the fight to publish a novel with a plus-sized heroine; and her own weight loss surgery, which brought her back down to a size 16 after a significant weight gain following the birth of her first child. The only thing she’s pretty circumspect about is her divorce from her first husband (she’s since remarried), but considering that they have two kids together who may one day read this book, it’s probably for the best that she didn’t air too much dirty laundry about that event. It seems like they are amicable co-parents.

Hungry Heart is a brave book, and I really admire the strength it must have taken to write so openly about the lowest points of your life. It’s a fine book for readers of any age, but I hope it finds its way into the hands of her fans in their teens and 20s who will no doubt be reassured that this now-successful woman had to fight very hard and overcome some tremendous obstacles in order to write her own happy ending.

“My Holiday in North Korea” by Wendy E. Simmons

holidayinnkI’ve found that people who are (like me) fascinated by Scientology are often also very interested in reading about North Korea. There’s a sense that if Scientology and its leader, David Miscavige, were ever able to take over an entire country, it would function a lot like North Korea. Luckily, reliable sources tell us that there are only around 30,000 active Scientologists, but around 25 million people live in the atrociously repressive nation of the DPRK. Travel writer and photographer Wendy E. Simmons spent 10 days there, and returned with this utterly fascinating, as well as heartbreaking, chronicle.

The most important thing you need to know about traveling to North Korea is that it’s not something you just do on a lark. If you screw up, there can be serious ramifications. Look at hapless American frat boy Otto Warmbier, who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in January 2016 for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster. (He’s still there, suffering under God knows what horrible circumstances.) When Simmons writes about mouthing off to her guides, it’s reassuring to keep in mind that we know she made it out OK.

A tourist in North Korea is never left alone to explore; she is always accompanied by official state guides. Wendy refers to her two guides as “Fresh Handler” (a newbie) and “Older Handler” (who is younger than Wendy, but this ain’t her first rodeo). They take her on a breathless tour of monuments, temples, factories, schools, hospitals and amusement parks (“A Wonderland for the People!”). Every stop is choreographed; when Wendy’s handlers bring her to a Monday morning football match at Kim Il-sung Stadium, a “swarm of several hundred people… all dressed in military or other uniforms or matching outfits” suddenly appears during the second half of the game. (There were only about 40 people in attendance at the 50,000-seat stadium during the first half.)

It all sounds creepy as hell, and it made me never want to visit North Korea. However, I’m very glad that Wendy did, and that she wrote such an engaging book about it, filled with fascinating and revealing photos.

Toward the end of her stay, Wendy tells Fresh Handler about her neighborhood in Brooklyn. “She soaked it all in like a child listening to a favorite story. Then I told her I thought she would love New York City and that if she ever wanted to visit, or live there, she was welcome to stay with me anytime. She looked at me and wistfully said, ‘Oh yes, I really want to!’ And I managed to forget for a minute that would never happen.” While North Koreans are taught to hate the “American imperialists,” at least the few tourists from the the West who spend time there manage to build human connections. How wonderful it would be if someday North Koreans had the opportunity to experience other nations firsthand as well.

“Gunpowder Girls” by Tanya Anderson

Gunpowder GirlsAs an election junkie, I have to restrain myself from constantly refreshing prediction sites like FiveThirtyEight.com. So when Tanya Anderson’s Gunpowder Girls: The True Stories of Three Civil War Tragedies showed up in my mailbox (thanks to my support of Quindaro Press‘s Kickstarter campaign), I figured, “Hey, here’s a chance to read about a time when this country was really divided!”

If you want to feel pretty good about the state of America in 2016, Gunpowder Girls is a fine choice. While it’s a young-adult book aimed at teenage readers, this is a story that will no doubt be new to older history buffs as well.

During the Civil War, girls as young as 10 toiled in arsenals, filling paper cartridges with gunpowder and lead to produce rounds of ammunition. The workers, mostly poor immigrants, did their best to fill the unending demand for percussion caps and rifle cartridges: “twelve hours a day, six days a week… Shoulders and backs ached, but the work had to be done, and quotas had to be met if the girls were going to keep these jobs.” Needless to say, working with dangerous, combustible material sometimes led to disaster, and three of the worst are detailed in this book: the Allegheny Arsenal near Pittsburgh, where an explosion killed 78 people, most of them young women in their teens and 20s; the Confederate States Laboratory in Richmond, Virginia, where 45 perished; and the Washington Arsenal in D.C., an 1864 tragedy that culminated in a funeral attended by President Lincoln.

Anderson draws on primary sources to fill out her narrative, leading to some pretty grisly descriptions (The Washington, D.C. Evening Star, on the scene of its local tragedy, detailed how “many of the bodies seemed to have been crisped quite bloodless, the flesh, where exposed, being perfectly white…”). If this seems too horrific for young readers, well, I don’t know that a book like this one would have been published 10 or 15 years ago, before novels like The Hunger Games attracted a wide teenage fan base. I think I’d rather see kids reading about real-life tragedies instead of stories about teens killing each other for entertainment purposes.

Plus, it’s important to show how far we’ve come in terms of child labor laws, workplace safety, etc. Anderson provides a reading list in the back for people who want to learn more about those issues.

There were times when the book left me wanting a bit more: Anderson often describes specific women, like 25-year-old mother of four Kate Horan (a victim of the Washington Arsenal disaster), and I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the family she left behind. There may not be a way to find out, but I was haunted by the reverberations of the accidents that surely affected hundreds, if not thousands, of people for decades to come.

The three tragedies described in Gunpowder Girls collectively killed more young women than died in the far better-known Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster, and yet they are all but forgotten. With this book, Anderson has ensured that a new generation will hear their stories.

“Fair Game: The Incredible Untold Story of Scientology in Australia” by Steve Cannane

Fair Game by Steve CannaneWhen you are viewing a book on Amazon, a gallery of covers appears under the heading “Customers who bought this item also bought…” Looking at the titles underneath Fair Game, I realized I had read five of the eight shown. So, yes, I am literally the target audience for this book.

Steve Cannane is a London-based reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation who is known in his native country for his “interest in exposing unscrupulous behaviour,” according to Wikipedia. No wonder he wanted to write about Scientology, which has provided him with a veritable banquet of human rights violations, spying on former allies, and members forced to disconnect from “suppressive” loved ones.

Fair Game should provide a great introduction to Scientology-watching for Australians who are curious about the cult’s activities in their own backyard, but it has plenty to offer the non-Oz-based reader who has already read Going Clear, Blown for Good, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely, and a Hubbard biography or two. There was plenty of fascinating stuff in this book that was all new to me.

One of the most interesting chapters was “Deep Sleep,” which delves into Sydney’s Chelmsford Hospital scandal. In the 1970s, psychiatrist Harry Bailey used a controversial form of therapy to treat mental patients and addicts, which involved putting them into medically induced comas for long periods of time. Bailey was convinced this would shut down their brains and allow them “to be reprogrammed and cleared of mental disorders.” In reality, the therapy was blamed for the deaths of numerous patients, while others committed suicide within a year of their release. The virulently anti-psychiatry Church of Scientology “played a major role in exposing the atrocities… a rare instance where the Scientologists used their undercover operations as a force for public good.” (Unfortunately, the Scientologist nurse who helped expose the sinister therapy at great personal risk was abandoned by the church; unable to find employment in her field in the aftermath of the scandal, she was left penniless and homeless, finally dying in a nursing home following complications of a stroke that had left her unable to speak for several years.)

Other chapters deal with Scientology’s recruitment of star rugby players, Australian-born Julian Assange’s role in spreading the cult’s secret documents on the Internet in the early days of the World Wide Web, and the surprisingly large number of Australians who wound up holding positions of great power in Scientology, including former Office of Special Affairs director Mike Rinder and Celebrity Centre founder Yvonne Gillham.

The final chapter of the book looks at Rinder’s life after leaving Scientology, and will no doubt shock anyone who isn’t already familiar with the cult’s tactics. Rinder and his wife Christie, a former Sea Org member, have been spied upon, had their garbage intercepted (“Look, I feel really bad, but they are paying me money to give them your garbage,” a sanitation worker told Rinder), and, most bizarrely, were befriended by a young single mom who turned out to be a Scientology spy. Heather “offered to go shopping with Christie, invited her to board game nights and her place and asked if her son wanted to register to play T-Ball with her boy.” After the Rinders moved to a different town, Heather followed, “securing a place a few blocks away.” Christie decided to end the friendship, “but felt tinges of guilt… Had Scientology and its culture of surveillance polluted their minds and made them excessively paranoid?”

As it turns out, the answer was no—Heather was, of course, a spy (though she denied it when contacted by Cannane)—but imagine having to be suspicious of every person you meet, wondering if they’re being paid to report on you. How could you ever trust anyone again?

Fair Game has a happy ending, of sorts: “The 2011 census found that just 2,163 Australians called themselves Scientologists.” (The census also showed that “Australians who describe themselves as Jedis now number over 65,000, over 30 times higher than Scientology’s figures.”) Despite the fact that a 145,000-square-foot Scientology facility just opened last month in Sydney, Tony Ortega revealed that “the church admitted in an environmental impact report that the Advanced Org will serve only about 87 customers on a given day.” Thanks to intrepid reporters like Cannane, it’s unlikely that meager number will grow anytime soon.