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Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

grantEvery so often, I feel the need to revisit older books that have been sitting on the shelves for a while unread. When my mother was doing some cleaning up at her house, she offered me a box of books that she was going to get rid of, and among them were several of Bruce Catton’s magisterial works on the American Civil War. A few years ago, I read Terrible Swift Sword (first published in 1969), part of Catton’s Centennial History of the Civil War. This past week, I picked up Grant Takes Command, the third book in the Ulysses S. Grant trilogy, started by Lloyd Lewis and completed by Catton.

Grant Takes Command follows the career of General Ulysses S. Grant from the Battle of Chattanooga in November of 1863 through the end of the war and Lincoln’s assassination. Over the course of the book, we see Grant revealed as both a superb, and often lucky, commander as well as a family man, who wrote regularly to his wife, and had her with him at various points of the campaign. Catton does not shy away from pointing out Grant’s failures as well, but compared with the rest of the Union generals, it seems clear that it was Grant’s confidence and tenacity that brought the war to a close. Grant appears to be one of the few generals on the Union side who managed to walk the treacherous line between politics and the war. The close relationship between Lincoln and Grant comes through here; Grant was the only commanding general who Lincoln seems to have completely trusted, and Grant clearly respected Lincoln.

Catton does an excellent job of portraying both the macro- and the micro- aspects of wartime for soldiers and commanders alike. He makes use of diary accounts and of the voluminous correspondence surviving from the war, not only official communiques but letters from officers, enlisted men, politicians, and civilians. These vignettes help us see beyond the maps showing sweeping troop movements, illuminating the daily lives of those at war.

I think that a particular interest here for me is that when Grant became commander of all the union forces he moved his headquarters to the Army of the Potomac, fighting Lee in Virginia. The last two thirds of Grant Takes Command are, as a result, set in Virginia, and knowing the places that Catton writes about, and in some cases having walked the ground, added an additional dimension to the story.

Catton is an able historian, and better yet, is an excellent writer of narrative. You may know how the story ends, but the journey from Chattanooga to Appomattox with Catton as your guide is one not to be missed.

Check the WRL catalog for Grant Takes Command

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RiddleLabyrinthDo you know which event was on the front page of The Times of London in 1953, the same day as an article about the first ascent of Mount Everest? Would you believe that the translation or “decipherment” of the ancient script of Linear B was seen as newsworthy as the heroic efforts of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay?

Margalit Fox’s The Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code is narrative non-fiction at its best, with mystery, and high drama. I had never heard of Linear B, and don’t worry if you haven’t either. You don’t have to be a devotee of ancient languages to be sitting on the edge of your seat to find out who, how and when Linear B was deciphered. Margalit Fox’s narrative thread focuses on the American Alice Kober who was a university teacher, but who worked on Linear B in her spare time on her dining room table. The book paints a picture of the academic world in the era before computers led to instant and easy sharing. Linear B aroused great passions and rivalries among academics and lay-people, even to the extent that they hoarded ancient clay tablets and didn’t let anyone else see them for forty years.  Also, as in the best nonfiction, I painlessly learned an enormous amount about Linear B, ancient languages and linguistics in general.

Linear B was written on clay tablets in the Mediterranean area that is now Greece for a few short hundred years around 3000 years ago. The Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations that used it collapsed then it was lost to the world until clay tablets bearing indecipherable text were discovered in 1900 by British Archaeologist Arthur Evans. The clay tablets and the inscriptions on them remained a mystery for the next fifty years. Many people tried to decipher them, but all failed until finally British architect Michael Ventris published his work in the early 1950s. Michael Ventris is usually the hero of this story, such as in books like The Decipherment of Linear B by John Chadwick in 1958  and The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris by Andrew Robinson in 2002. Margalit Fox argues that the meticulous, painstaking and time consuming work done by Alice Kober was instrumental in him reaching his final conclusions. Alice Kober left behind boxes packed tightly with index cards systematically annotating and data-basing minute aspects of the known symbols.

Linear B was only used for administration. In the words of Alice Kober, “we may only find out that Mr. X delivered a hundred cattle to Mr. Y on the tenth of June, 1400 BC”, but the clay tablets still afford an unprecedented glimpse into the daily lives of people long gone. Only around 120 “hands” have been detected in Linear B tablets, which means not many more than 120 people knew how to write it. That contrasts to the huge gains in human development, because now it is estimated that 80% of the world population is literate!

Try The Riddle of the Labyrinth if you like riveting, historical non fiction with a touch of mystery about diverse topics such as The Professor and the Madman: a Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester or The Poisoners Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum.

Check the WRL catalog for The Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code.

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hardyIn Ten Years in the Tub Nick Hornby mentioned a number of books that sounded like ones that I would like. First on that list was Claire Tomalin’s biography of Thomas Hardy. WRL had a copy, so I took it home and dove in. While Hardy is known to most readers as a great novelist, I am more partial to his poems. In either case, readers will come away from Tomalin’s superb book with a better understanding of Hardy’s life and writing.

It is always interesting to see how much a writer’s personal life is evidenced in his or her fiction. Tomalin does an excellent job of pointing out both how Hardy’s relationships with his family, his friends, and his geographic circumstances not only informed his writing, but sometimes appeared directly in the stories and poems. It is often the case when reading a biography of an artist whose work you enjoy that you run the risk of disappointment in their personal life. Does it really matter to your enjoyment of his writing that Hardy and his wife had a difficult relationship, and that he was hardly blameless for their problems? I think that the further away in time that you get from the person the easier it is to separate out the personal and the artistic lives. So for me, the revelations about Hardy’s prickly personality set the poems and novels in a new context, but did not reduce my pleasure in them.

Thomas Hardy’s life and his creative work were both shaped by the Dorset countryside that he loved. Tomalin is an excellent biographer of place as well as of person and she leaves the reader with a clear picture of the villages, farms, and wild places that Hardy enjoyed. She also easily kept my attention from wandering throughout a long (Hardy lived from 1840 to 1928) and character-filled story. Anyone who loves Hardy’s novels or poetry, or who is interested in the writing life, will find a great deal to enjoy in this delightful biography. As a sample, here is how Tomalin ends her book:

[Hardy's poems] remind us that he was a fiddler’s son, with music in his blood and bone, who danced to his father’s playing before he learnt to write. This is how I like to think of him, a boy dancing on the stone cottage floor, outside time, oblivious, ecstatic, with his future greatness as unimaginable as the sorrows that came with it.

Check the WRL catalog for Thomas Hardy

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blyIn 1873 Jules Verne published his novel Around the World in 80 Days in which Phileas Fogg wagers his fortunate that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days.  In 1889 a brash young female reporter who went by the pseudonym Nellie Bly convinced her bosses at the New York World (owned by Joseph Pulitzer) to send her around the world.  Her goal was to complete the trip in under 80 days.  Reading about the trip the morning of Bly’s departure, Cosmopolitan magazine owner John Brisben Walker, convinced Elizabeth Bisland to undertake a similar trip.  Both women left New York within hours of each other on November 14, 1889.  Bly sailed east and Bisland trained west.  The “race” was on.  Eighty Days is a well researched, truly enjoyable, retelling of their travels, triumphs and defeats.

This is a captivating and fascinating story.  First, neither traveler had more than two days to prepare for their amazing adventure.  Second, both traveled alone at a time when very few women did so.  Third, the publications sponsoring the tours did so entirely for their own profit.  Fourth, the race around the world became a national sensation and made the names Bly and Bisland world renowned for a time.  In 1890, when woman’s equality was shunned by most, these ladies became international celebrities.

Goodman bases his text entirely on the words of the protagonists, using their writings and published articles.  He goes to great lengths to provide useful and interesting background information to help the reader see the whole picture.  Eighty Days helps the reader comprehend how exciting this undertaking was to Americans across the country.  This was akin to any major modern sporting event in terms of the enthusiasm of the fans and excitement it generated.  The anticipation of the outcome is palpable as you read.

There are numerous details that make Eighty Days a wonderful read for anyone interested in history.  The nature of their trips ensured contemporary discussions about Victorian mores and gender roles, as well as constant instances of ingenuity, romance, greed, and intrigue.  It is fascinating to consider how technological advances made it possible to complete the rapid tour.

Both women made it around the world in under 80 days, however, you will have to read the book to find out who won and how the race changed their lives.  The fact that few of us know about this great race proves the adage that history is quickly forgotten, but relearning it is worth the effort.  If you want further proof consider the following:

As I read this book, I recalled that early in this library’s history a donation of quality books was given to the Williamsburg Public Library.  After finishing Goodman’s book I confirmed my suspicion that it was none other than Elizabeth Bisland Wetmore (she married Charles Wetmore in 1891), and one of Bisland’s relatives, who made the gift of 250 books to our library in 1910.  How cool is that?

Check the WRL catalog for Eighty Days

Also available as an ebook

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hergeIt cannot be more appropriate for a biography of Hergé, the author of the Tintin books, to be rendered in a graphic novel format using ligne claire, which is French for “clear line,” an iconic style of illustration that is immediately recognizable as his. Tintin has been enjoyed by readers for decades, and interest was recently reignited by the 2011 computer-animated film, The Adventures of Tintin, directed by Stephen Spielberg.

Hergé was the pen name of Georges Prosper Remi, a Belgian cartoonist who was born in the early 20th century, and the book, with some artistic license, traces his love of drawing back to his earliest years. Each chapter comprises a vignette covering a particularly notable piece of his life. While the book is presented in chronological order, several years often separate each fragment of life that is portrayed. The result is a thorough, focused story that allows for a smooth flow of narrative without an exhaustive overload of minutia.

A fun aspect of the book, for any reader of the Tintin adventures, is the real-life people who served as inspiration for some of the colorful Hergé characters. Hergé’s father had an identical twin brother, and the two share a scene that immediately calls into mind the comic relief provided by the bumbling detectives, Thompson and Thomson. The back of the book has short biographies for several of the notable people who played a part in the life and work of Hergé. Although I usually skim over parts like this, I found the bios filled with interesting tidbits that perfectly complemented the story itself. One such was the brother of Hergé, portrayed only as a baby in the book, being the evident inspiration for Captain Haddock, due to his habit of using colorful language after a stint in the army.

An enjoyable and absorbing read, recommended to readers of biographies and graphic novels.

Search the catalog for The Adventures of Hergé

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WorldsStrongestLibrarianThis sometimes ludicrous, but always poignant memoir is in part a love poem to public libraries and in part a moving account of living with Tourette’s Syndrome. Josh Hanagarne is a librarian in Salt Lake City Public Library who starts his book by describing  his workplace as “a giant pair of glass underpants” and pointing out that in the collection of a public library “there’s something to offend everyone.” He keeps up the literary theme with chapter headings labelled with Dewey Decimal Numbers and a sprinkling of the names of books to make his points.

At the same time that is is a celebration of libraries, Hanagarne’s book is also the story of a life lived with the involuntary tics, movements and vocalizations of Tourette’s Syndrome. Hanagarne’s tics started when he was a small boy and made a misery of his teenage years as he dealt with a a difficult and–above all–visible disease. His early adulthood was a story of  never being able to settle as he went in and out of jobs and school programs. As the subtitle points out this is also the story of the Power of Family and Josh’s family–parents, siblings, and wife–always supported him through Tourette’s Syndrome, schooling, life, struggles with infertility, and the various types of physical training which he attempted in order to control his tics. He is a large man who works his way up to a 590-pound dead lift (I am not sure what that is, but it sounds incredibly impressive), but from reading his memoir his true strength isn’t physical, rather it is his strength of character and strength as a human being that shines through.

Try The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family if you like memoirs about overcoming adversity. Other books in our library about living with Tourette’s Syndrome include: Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had, by Brad Cohen with Lisa Wysocky or Against Medical Advice: a True Story, by James Patterson and Hal Friedman.

Don’t assume this is  a dark book, because Hanagarne is able to bring humor even to the description of library patrons throwing up in trash cans or his classmates jeering at him for his Tourette’s tics. And best of all for a librarian is the paean to public libraries: “I had faith in the library long before he walked in and told me what I already knew: A library is a miracle.”

Check the WRL catalog for The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family.

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All this week, Mindy reviews books about art theft, starting with two titles about some of the more sensational cases:

Museum of the Missing (2006) and Stolen (2008) are very similar booksboth have introductory material written by Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the Art Loss Register, a tool used worldwide to authenticate artworks and aid in the recovery of stolen art. Some of the true crimes described in the earlier work are also in Stolen. Both include pages filled with color illustrations of lost art and the fascinating stories detailing what is known about their thefts. (Those who are tracking the fluctuating state of art theft cases may also want to follow current events. One way that I have been doing that is with a Google alert that sends newly published articles and blog posts to my email inbox daily.)

These art crime stories range from sad, disturbing, and shocking losses of our cultural heritage to hilarious and often audacious stupid-crook capers. The good news is that a number of stolen works of art have been recovered by art crime investigators, often working in undercover sting operations designed to thwart criminal schemes. It’s delicate work, often prioritized in favor of recovering works of art unharmed rather than on locking up the culprits who stole them. Appeals to the public are often made, with rewards offered, without fear of prosecution if involved.

The reality is that the high-priced art world often makes the headlines with record-breaking art sales. This attracts thieves who can’t seem to resist. What thieves unfortunately fail to calculate is the market for fencing their loot. Thus, they’re sometimes stuck with stolen art, and without backgrounds in art history or an acquired taste for fine art they seldom show any concern for its preservation. Thieves who couldn’t find a buyer have sometimes destroyed the stolen art in order to eliminate the evidence of their crime. Sculptures are stolen for their metal content and melted down for scrap.

Houpt and Webb each do an excellent job of storytelling about these intriguing art thefts. They also provide a great deal of insight into the history of art and what has made stealing it such an irresistible crime. A nice shelf to browse for more titles like these is located in the true crime area of 364.162.

Check the WRL catalog for Museum of the Missing

Check the catalog for Stolen

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MansSearchforMeaning

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”

“The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.”

If you feel your life is short on meaning, a book club might help. Book clubs are great. I trust the members of my book club to recommend books that sound wonderful— for example I realize I really like character-driven, women’s, historical fiction and I am always keen to hear about the new titles they suggest. But my book club may be even better for getting me off my chuff to read things that I wouldn’t have gotten around to otherwise. Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that may have intrigued me enough to pick up in the library, but it would have sat unread on my bedside table for weeks if not for my upcoming book club meeting.

It is a dense and sometimes disturbing read, but my head was bursting with ideas after getting through it. And then after discussing it with my book club, my head and heart were even closer to bursting. The cover of the copy I have says that there are over 12 million copies in print, so it is a book that has spoken directly to millions of people.

The author, Victor Frankl, was a psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor who attributed his survival in part to his abiding belief that, even in a concentration camp, his life had meaning. He wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in nine days in 1945 and it is remarkably without bitterness for a book written so soon after the horrific events that he describes. Viktor Frankl developed a form of psychoanalysis called logotherapy, which literally means the therapy of meaning. This is a book whose message can be interpreted in religious terms, but it is also extremely meaningful to people without a stated belief or formal religion. In modern times, perhaps more than ever in human existence, we are expected to be happy all the time, and increasingly if we are not happy, then we are seen as ill. To this idea Viktor Frankl said:

I would strictly deny that one’s search for a meaning to his existence, or even his doubt of it, in every case is derived from, or results in, any disease. Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.”

Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that I recommend for everyone. At some time or another most of us suffer from some form of existential angst and this is a wonderful book to put things in perspective. It is dense and full of weighty philosophical insights, but it is very readable, and if you are lucky, you may even have a book club to discuss it with.

Check the WRL catalog for Man’s Search for Meaning.

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InfidelCoverOn the surface Ayaan Hirsi Ali and I have a lot in common: we are very close to the same age and we both read The Famous Five as little girls in the 1970s.  We both have one brother and one sister, and both lived in Holland in the late 1990s, after traveling the world in our early twenties.  Beyond that our lives diverged completely.

I grew up in a stable, prosperous English-speaking country while she spent her childhood fleeing her native Somalia to spend years in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya.  She began to cover herself as a teen to show her deeply-felt piety to Islam.  She was sent around the globe for an arranged marriage to a man she hardly knew, and ended up a Dutch member of parliament.

Ali is probably most famous in America for making the short film Submission with Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh.  Submission portrays four young women talking about their husbands’ abuses.  The actress portraying all four has verses from the Koran written on her naked body which can be glimpsed through a see-through Muslim covering garment or chador.  After the film was shown on Dutch television in 2004 Theo Van Gogh was murdered by a Dutch Muslim fanatic as revenge for what he saw as the film’s insults to Islam. This caused a fire storm in Holland and led to the dissolution of the Dutch parliament.  Due to threats on her life, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was forced to go into hiding and eventually left Holland to move to America.

Ali is a controversial figure who called the book Infidel because that is what she has become in some people’s eyes as she went from an obedient Muslim girl to outspoken defender of women’s rights and strong critic of practices like female genital mutilation.  Whether you agree with her or not, Infidel is a heartfelt and moving portrait of an extraordinary life.  Her life started in Mogadisu, which I think of as a war-torn hell-hole, but she knew as a beautiful city of stone and brick buildings and white sand beaches.  She went on to live in several countries, squeezing more adventure into a few years, than most people fit into a lifetime.  She now lives in the United States and has a husband and small child.

Try Infidel if you enjoy biographies with the drama of novels, particularly those which cover true stories of women caught up in large historical events like Marie-Thérèse: Child of Terror, by Susan Nagel or Nella Last’s War, edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming.

I listened to Ayaan Hirsi Ali read her own story.  Occasionally her accent made words hard to understand, but I strongly recommend the audiobook as a way to meet her.

Check the WRL catalog for Infidel.
Check the WRL catalog for Infidel as an audiobook on CD.

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jonesEverybody knows the stories of the good King Richard the Lionhearted, the noble Englishman, and his despicable brother John, later king himself, right? Well, after reading Dan Jones’s superb history of the Plantagenet family, you will never think of “merrie olde England” the same way.

While John was pretty despicable, both as a brother and as a king, Richard was not someone you would want to spend much time with either, nor were most of the other rulers of England in the period that Jones explores, from the 1150s through the end of the 1300s. Life was nasty, brutish, and short for lots of people, including some unfortunate Plantagenets who met a variety of untimely ends. I found myself constantly amazed at the number of reigns that ended with a murder or execution, or at least a suspicious death.

But what a cast of characters Jones has to work with–Eleanor of Aquitaine, her husband(s) and children, Henrys and Edwards almost too numerous to count, rulers and military leaders from Europe and the Middle East, and a host of minor courtiers, hangers-on, and functionaries. Jones’s clear and lucid prose style brings all of these characters to life in a most interesting, if sometimes uncomfortable, fashion. On the whole, the Plantagenets were not nice folks, nor were they really very English, at least at first. Much more of their time was spent winning and losing territory in France than in concerning themselves with England. Not until the French territories were mostly lost by John and Henry III did the focus begin shift to the “scepter’d isle” of Shakespeare’s Richard II. Richard II is, in Jones’s mind, the last of the Plantagenet kings, losing his throne, and eventually his life, to his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV.

Jones is an excellent writer of narrative history. He holds the reader’s interest by focusing on stories and characters in short chapters, while moving briskly through two and a half centuries of history. If you enjoyed Sharon Kay Penman’s Here Be Dragons, you can get more of the backstory here. Anyone who is interested in what things were really like in the English courts of the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries will find a great deal to enjoy here. I am looking forward to Jones’s next book on the York and Lancaster conflict leading to the Tudors.

Check the WRL catalog for The Plantagenets

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MTA castle in Germany with an underground escape route into the forest… A reclusive, veiled woman known to her companion as “Your Grace,” and to the countryside as “the Dark Countess…” Rumors of a coffin containing no body, only a wax figurine…

Today’s book is a very detailed but quite readable biography of Marie-Thérèse, the daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and the only member of her family to survive the French Revolution. But you might sometimes wonder whether you have stumbled into a Gothic novel instead. Poor Marie-Thérèse was a magnet not only for political schemers, but also for conspiracy theories that read like the most sensational fiction.

Marie-Thérèse was born at Versailles during the hot summer of 1778, amid rumors that visiting Benjamin Franklin had “electrified” the weather. The infant “Madame Royale” had a staff of nearly 100, including four assistant governesses, a royal hairdresser, dentist, cradle rocker, wet nurses, and servants to serve the servants. Her privileged childhood was a short one, though. By the age of ten she weighed every word she spoke, believing herself surrounded by enemies and spies. She was 13 when her family was imprisoned after trying to escape the country.

After three years in the Temple Prison, during which she was never told of the deaths of her mother, aunt, and brother, Marie-Thérèse was secretly traded to Austria, her mother’s birth country, in exchange for French prisoners of war. A political pawn from the moment of her release, she married for duty and for France, accepting the husband chosen for her by the French king-in-exile. Although the marriage remained childless, she worked for a Bourbon restoration until her death in 1851, a royalist to the end.

She spent much of her life in exile, returning to France whenever the monarchy was restored only to be chased out again. During Napoleon’s 100 days, when the king fled the country, it was Marie-Thérèse who remained to rally and berate the troops. (Napoleon called her “the only man in her family.”) She took to wearing diamonds sewn into the hem of her dress, as life had taught her that you never know when you might have to flee the country.

Pious, serious-minded, she made practically a cult of worship of her murdered parents. She prayed before a chest containing relics of their deaths, including her father’s bloodstained shirt, brought to her as a (somewhat questionable) gift. All her life she publicly insisted that her brother had died in the Temple Prison, while privately investigating every claim that he escaped. People claiming to be the Dauphin took up her time and caused her much pain. The saddest was the widow of Simon, the Dauphin’s execrable jailor, who later in life became convinced that she had helped smuggle the boy out of prison in a laundry basket.

Marie-Thérèse never met with any of the pretenders in person. Was she afraid that a real Dauphin would realize that she was not the real Marie-Thérèse? Was she raised—and, at some point, switched—with her father’s illegitimate daughter? Nagel explores some of the conspiracy theories, but isn’t convinced.

The back-and-forth of French politics is sometimes hard to follow, but the book is generous with timelines, illustrations, and genealogies to help keep it all straight. This is a great companion piece to Deborah Cadbury’s The Lost King of France, even down to the (thwarted) attempt at DNA analysis to lay rumors to rest.

Check the WRL catalog for Marie-Thérèse: Child of Terror.

Or try the CD audiobook.

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NLNella Last was a 49-year-old housewife living in Barrow-in-Furness, a shipbuilding town, when England declared war on Germany in 1939. Her husband was a joiner; her sons were just leaving home, one to be a soldier. From rationing to volunteering with the Women’s Voluntary Service, through bombing raids and fear for her sons, Nella Last kept a thoughtful, detailed record of life on the home front.

Her account comes to us courtesy of the ominously titled Mass-Observation Archive, a national writing project that solicited diaries from civilians. Whether it’s because the diaries have been expertly edited (the entries in this volume represent only a portion of Last’s reams of writing) or because she was consciously writing for the understanding of strangers at Mass-Observation, Nella Last’s War reads much like a novel, albeit a quiet, domestic sort of novel. She didn’t have much formal education, but she has a way with words:

“[Her neighbor] says she prays God to strike Hitler dead. Cannot help thinking if God wanted to do that he would not have waited till Mrs. Helm asked him to do so.”

A thrifty cook and seamstress, Nella practices the domestic arts to an extreme that I thought existed only in Good Housekeeping, including actually warming her husband’s slippers by the fire. At some point in the not-too-distant past, Last has had a breakdown; exactly what it entailed, she never tells, but the lesson she’s taken away from it is that she must learn to stand up for herself. Both the War Office and her husband come in for a fair dose of criticism, and the husband seems mystified by her newly-discovered need to state her own opinions, sometimes IN CAPITAL LETTERS. “After all these peaceful years,” she writes, “I discover I’ve a militant suffragette streak in me, and I could shout loudly and break windows and do all kinds of things—kick policemen perhaps—anything to protest.”

Well, kicking policemen may be taking it a bit far. But after years of deferring to the criticism of her in-laws and husband, she finds validation in her war work—sewing blankets and dolls for evacuated children, staffing a soldiers’ canteen, raffling crafts, and eventually coordinating a thrift shop. Despite her house cracking on its foundation from nighttime bombing raids, she is the very model of “keep calm and carry on,” doing her best to provide for husband, sons, and strangers, and priding herself, when it was hard to come by a matched set of anything, on serving visiting soldiers a proper tea with matching silverware.

While I spent much of the book psychoanalyzing the author, it’s also full of curious details about everyday life during the war. I hadn’t realized that in addition to outdoors Anderson shelters, there were indoors Morrison shelters, like a chicken coop for your family, designed to withstand the collapse of a two-story house. Take a look, and imagine being shelved in there with your loved ones while the house is shaking.

The title is definitely one with a double meaning. Of course it’s a story of World War II, as experienced by one relatively insignificant civilian; but you can’t help notice that Last is also waging her own, personal war to find her own strengths and peace of mind. It’s very easy to extrapolate from her comments to larger issues of women moving into the work force (not to mention wearing pants!) and what life might be like for them after the war when all is supposed to go back to “normal.”

Last’s diaries were dramatized by Victoria Wood in the film Housewife, 49, which is well worth seeing if you enjoy the diary.

Check the WRL catalog for Nella Last’s War

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Subtitled “A portrait of American food — before the national highway system, before chain restaurants, and before frozen food, when the nation’s food was seasonal, regional, and traditional–from the lost WPA files,” you must at least read the extremely interesting Introduction to this treasure mine sampled from what remains in the archives of America Eats, five dusty boxes of manuscript copy on onionskin.  Here Kurlansky showcases the best of what he uncovered, just as writer Merle Colby had hoped when writing the final report before the unedited, unpublished manuscripts were tucked away in the 1940s: “Here and there in America some talented boy or girl will stumble on some of this material, take fire from it, and turn it to creative use.”

The entries are informative and amusing excerpts from food writing and recipes gathered regionally for a federally funded writing project that employed out-of-work writers.  When spending priorities changed after Pearl Harbor, the unfinished project materials were abruptly preserved in the Library of Congress, and we can thank Kurlansky for digging out its most fascinating gems for our enlightenment.

Among the southern and eastern sections where I focused my perusal, I really got a kick out of the anecdotes and details on preparing such delicacies as squirrel, [o]possum, chittelins, and corn pone, how the hush puppy got its name & why some forms of cornbread were once much lower in status.  Of course, Virginians will find some definitive yet highly opinionated historical notes on the famed Brunswick Stew.

The WPA (Works Progress Administration) was a government agency that sprung up as one of  many efforts to alleviate poverty in 1930s America.   Some WPA projects designed programs according to individual skill, field of study or expertise. Remarkably, these included plans for the fields of art, music, drama, and literature. The Federal Writers’ Project commissioned writers to research, write, edit, and publish works and series on particular topics, usually with American themes or interests in mind; writers employed included Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty. Following the successful production of numerous travel guidebooks, the concept for America Eats provided a means for capturing the distinct regional and cultural uniqueness of food and how it was prepared, served, and eaten in an America on the cusp of immense change. America’s culinary differences were destined to be homogenized through the diverse means that food production would soon become so heavily industrialized and globalized.

If you’re one of the many readers eagerly devouring information on real food, whole foods, traditional foods, or even paleolithic foods, in what seems like a mass revolution against modern food (in which I’m still trying to figure out what works best for my lifestyle), you’ll find much to inform and inspire you in Kurlansky’s book.  Some will reminisce; others will find a lot of eye-opening and useful knowledge about the way we once were; all we be entertained.

Check the WRL catalog for The Food of a Younger Land

I read the title in the e-book version.

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Approximately five years ago, I read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as well as her other five novels after receiving an all-in-one collection as a gift. Having only truly read Pride and Prejudice once (I can’t count the Cliff Notes I used in high school), it’s a wonder that I am reviewing this festive micro-history which delightfully illustrates why Jane Austen’s perfect Regency romance has remained so untouchable since its publication in 1813, even as her style and subject matter are profusely imitated, now more than ever!  

Reading Susannah Fullerton’s pleasant homage to the timeless novel upon its 200-year anniversary provided me with all sorts of intriguing details, historical background, and gossipy tidbits about its creation and legacy that enhance my appreciation of the novel.  Fullerton, president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, effectively demonstrates the reasons for the novel’s perfection and its ever-increasing appeal for readers of either sex, of all ages, in nearly every community worldwide. She cheerfully describes her analysis of individual characters, Austen’s style, and the famous opening sentence on which an entire chapter is devoted.

It was especially amusing to learn of all the various editions, versions, translations, sequels, retellings, mash-ups, adaptations, film interpretations, and other assorted Austen-inspired endeavors that have fueled a sort of Pride-and-Prejudice mania. Darcy-mania culture took off on the tails of the sexy 1995 BBC film version, starring Colin Firth (of the infamous lake scene), and kindled much new interest in the reading of the novel.

Fullerton pretty much concludes that no sequel author or film producer has ever really matched Jane Austen’s masterful style and that what lovers of the novel should really ever do is just keep reading and re-reading Pride and Prejudice. I agree that the masterpiece stands alone, but Austen did very effectively infect most of her readers with a desire to continue knowing Elizabeth and Darcy and to learn ever more about each well-drawn character’s future. Imagine if she’d lived long enough to write her own sequels, or to taste the fame her novels eventually gave her!

Check the WRL catalog for Celebrating Pride and Prejudice : 200 years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece

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The Art Detective Philip Mould became a television celebrity from his role appraising works of art unearthed from dusty attics or flea markets on the popular “Antiques Roadshow,” but according to his memoir he began as an ambitious art dealer who just happened to fall in love with the game of chasing down a good find using the forensic and research expertise of his reliable staff, his vast knowledge of artists and fine art portraiture and often pure instinct along with a willingness to risk his reputation in the highly competitive art world.  Sheer luck seems to have been in his favor with a number of great finds that, had he been wrong — such as in his decision to scrape away some over-painting — might have had disastrous consequences both financial and for art’s sake.  He seems very fortunate to have found early success that he has been rolling with ever since, which makes for a very fascinating read about his life’s work.

“In this book I explain how the history of a picture can color its appearance.  I show how provenance can completely blind eminent authorities into believing a picture is authentic when it is a fake, and also how provenance can unlock a picture’s importance and stature.”

This book was very appealing for the sense of mystery involved with researching and following clues to determine a work of art’s provenance and condition, often literally peeling layers of paint to reveal the true masterpiece in disguise. I liked the storytelling skill and use of suspense.  Descriptions of bizarre art collectors’ habits created vivid portraits of the persons associated with the art under investigation.  These and some incredible frauds provided a number of laugh-out-loud moments for me as well.

The stories relating the complex process of unraveling the truth about individual works of arts were rich with detail, wit, and sensationalism.  I will say that they could have benefited from more complete documentation of his findings; particularly, some additional dates would have oriented me into the moment better.  Some of the works discussed are in museums or locations that I have either had access to or had contemplated in books previously, which increased my interest in learning more.  The book also sparked my interest in seeking episodes of Antiques Roadshow on both BBC and PBS, which before I read this book were the type of put-me-to-sleep programs I would have clicked right past.  I felt as though I were being welcomed behind the scenes of the elite art environment in which Philip Mould makes his living.

Check the WRL catalog for The Art Detective

I found it to be a very quick and engaging read as an e-book.

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Just KidsPatti Smith is the proto-punk goddess whose music is fierce, but hardly every listener’s cup of tea. Robert Mapplethorpe was a photographer whose most famous works were pictures of nude men, often depicted in sexually explicit poses and masochistic acts. I like some edgy things, but neither of these artists really do much for me, and a more conservative person might run the other way. I’m not even a huge fan of their scene, where style and innovation seem to matter more than substance, but I’ve always been curious about those magical moments in history where a group of creative people find each other and use the energy of their meeting to create something new.

Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, captures just such a time perfectly. Smith came to New  York in 1967 after giving up a baby to adoption upstate. She was young and looking for a fresh start. One of the first people she met was Robert Mapplethorpe, a minor acquaintance who became her fast friend after saving her from a bad date. The two moved in together and tried to make a go of a relationship, even though it soon became apparent that Mapplethorpe was obviously homosexual. Patti somewhat naively believed that their love would overcome Robert’s sexual preference, and so began several years of ups and downs. Robert could be incredibly supportive of Patti and her art, but substance abuse and a need for fame could make him neglectful at other times.

The background here is fascinating, as Smith and Mapplethorpe rub elbows with the artists and scenesters of the Chelsea Hotel, Andy Warhol’s Factory, and the pioneering music venue CBGB’s. The story follows the early rise of both friends, then jumps forward a decade and ends poignantly with Robert’s death from AIDS in 1989.

Smith writes with real heart. The prose gets a bit florid at times, but that’s easy to forgive, as is her sometimes naive view of Mapplethorpe, as the author so clearly feels all of the emotions behind her story honestly. This especially shines through on the audiobook. Smith is a clumsy reader, a bit monotone and with funny pronunciations for some words (“drawlings” instead of “drawings”), but she’s so absolutely free of pretense that I found the awkwardness charming and authentic, not off-putting.

Check the WRL catalog for Just Kids

Or try it on audiobook on CD

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It’s “Lost in the Stacks” week, and Bud is back with another post:

“Poppa, have you got any idea how a man took to jazz in the early days? Do you know how he spent years watching the droopy chicks in cathouses, listening to his cellmates moaning low behind the bars, digging the riffs the wheels were knocking out when he rode the rods – and then all of a sudden picked up a horn and began to tell the whole story in music? I’m going to explain that.”Really the Blues

So says Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow in the opening chapter of his strange but fascinating autobiography,  Really the Blues. Mezzrow, a white Jewish kid, was born in 1899. A wild child from the beginning, he landed in reform school at the age of 15 where he discovered and became completely enamored of black culture in general and New Orleans jazz in particular. He learned how to play the clarinet and immersed himself in the jazz world of the 1920s, a world that, for him, revolved around three big Ms – musicians, mobsters and marijuana. As the story unfolds we learn a lot about all three.

Really the Blues will appeal to music lovers because Mezzrow knew just about every famous jazz artist of the period. He jammed with Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Bessie Smith, Joe Oliver, Baby Dodds, Gene Krupa and many others. His unadulterated portraits of these talented people and their colorful milieu are fascinating.

The Mob also played a prominent role in Mezz’s life. He worked in some of Al Capone’s road houses, was turned onto opium by a member of Detroit’s vicious Purple Gang, and had Dutch Schulz try to muscle in on his marijuana distribution business.

And, yes, there is marijuana, lots of, as it was referred to in the ‘20s, muta, tea, reefer or muggles (the word pre-dates Harry Potter). In fact, Mezzrow was such a heavy user (a viper) and dealer that in his circle of acquaintances it became known by another slang term–the mezz–and was referenced as such in the song, “If You’re a Viper” by Stuff Smith. The book contains gritty descriptions of the joys and subsequent lows of drug addiction. His four-year stint as an opium addict is particularly grim.

The stories are great, whether or not they’re all true is questionable, but what makes this book distinctive is the style in which it’s written.  As you can tell by the paragraph quoted above, the prose tends to flow like musical cadences and is rife with jazzy slang. This can make for disconcerting reading at first but it soon seems natural and appropriate to the author and what he’s describing.  If you have difficulty with the slang, the back pages contain a helpful glossary.

This is not a book for everyone. It’s a strange, often lurid tale, told in a distinctly unusual manner by an arch iconoclast. If you’re looking for something warm and fuzzy this ain’t it.  But if you have an interest in the history of music or the Chicago underworld or are just in the mood for something really unusual then give Really the Blues a try.  It’s a book you won’t forget.

Check the WRL catalog for Really the Blues

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King Lehr and the Gilded Age“Bud” shares this as the first “Lost in the Stacks” week post:

Picture this scene:

A beautiful young woman sits in her boudoir.  Married that morning, she anxiously awaits her new husband.  In he comes and makes the following statement, “There are some things I must say to you, and it is better that I should say them now at the very beginning so that there can be no misunderstanding between us.”  “In public I shall be to you everything that a most devoted husband should be to his wife… I will give you courtesy, respect and apparently devotion. But you must expect nothing more from me. When we are alone I do not intend to keep up the miserable pretense, the farce of love and sentiment. Our marriage will never be a marriage in anything but name. I do not love you, I can never love you …The less we see of one another except in the presence of others the better.”  The shocked girl asks him why he married her? With a bitter laugh he replies, “Since you force me to do so I must tell you the unflattering truth that your money is your only asset in my eyes.”

Wow.

Although this sounds like something  from a hackneyed romance novel, it’s not. This really happened to Elizabeth Drexel Lehr, and the story of her life with Harry Lehr, the gold digging cad that she was unfortunate enough to marry,  is recounted in the rather astonishing autobiography, King Lehr and the Gilded Age, by Lady Decies (formerly Elizabeth Drexel Lehr).

Elizabeth was a child of wealth and grew up happy and comfortable in late 19th century New York City. Harry Lehr was also born into money,  but when his father died he was left penniless, embittered and determined to make his way back into the privileged world of the wealthy. His plan was twofold, first he ingratiated  himself to society matrons by being ever so engaging, witty and fun. He survived on their largesse and kickbacks from suppliers whose goods he encouraged his benefactors to purchase. Secondly, he kept an eye out for a wealthy and pliable heiress to marry. Poor Elizabeth was gullible enough to fall for his smarmy charms.

What may be surprising to modern readers is that she didn’t divorce Harry the day after the shocking  wedding night declaration. Fear of shaming her mother and alienating herself from her society friends kept her bound to Lehr for decades despite the fact that he emotionally abused her and lavishly indulged all his whims with her money.

The narrative follows their unhappy life together as they travel amongst the rich and powerful in the U.S. and Europe during the early years of the 20th century.  We get a decidedly jaundiced view of the American “Downton Abbey” crowd, although many of the grandees mentioned will probably be unknown to people nowadays.

Elizabeth’s story is an interesting expose of a lost world and its dubious mores and manners. The book was considered quite shocking when it was originally published in 1938.  It’s an  engrossing page-turner for people who enjoy social history, women’s lives or scandal among the rich and famous.

NOTE: There’s a famous photo of Lady Decies taken by Weegee. Here you see Elizabeth going to the opera in 1943. The image makes a startling  contrast to the beautiful painted portrait of her on the cover of the book.

Check the WRL catalog for “King Lehr” and the Gilded Age

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