Biography

Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon.

As previously noted, I am fascinated by whistleblowers.

And you can only read about whistleblowers for so long before you bump up against another person who loomed large in twentieth-century culture and history: Ralph Nader.

I knew his name, of course, but I really knew very little about Ralph Nader before I tracked down a 1972 publication of his: Whistle Blowing: The Report of the Conference on Professional Responsibility. It's actually a compilation of presentations given at a conference Nader sponsored in January of 1971. It's a fascinating read in its own right, and it proves that there was a lot of corruption and bullshit going on in the 1960s and 1970s, which should prove once again that there is no such thing as "the good old days." The more you read about whistleblowers and corruption, as a matter of fact, the more you see the human race's overwhelming contributions to the world: corrupt institutions and bureaucracies that may or may not be corrupt but which are still bumbling (at best) and evil (at worst). Well done, humans!

But I digress. I wanted to learn more about Ralph Nader. So, because I am lazy and because my clunky right eye continues to make it difficult for me to churn through books the way I used to, I went and watched the documentary An Unreasonable Man:

You must go watch this movie.

And then, because I was still fascinated, I went and got the book Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon. And it's really, really interesting. Regardless of how you feel about Nader (particularly his contentious run for president in 2000), it's a good biography. The author himself admits that he had no shortage of material: most people, particularly those who have worked with him, have strong opinions about Nader. Here's how the author describes his research work for this book:

"My job became easy. All I really had to do was say, 'I understand you know Ralph Nader' and then sit back and listen. What I gleaned most of all from these interviews was that in speaking so expansively, so candidly, so fervently, people were working to deliver up whole the complex story of someone who had played an incredibly important role in their lives and in the country's history. They wanted to do justice to a true original." (p. xv.)

Just like it was pleasurable to spend time with Edward Snowden, I found it very pleasurable to learn more about this unique (and complex, and more than just a little difficult) person.


The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone.

My favorite part of being a total Book Nerd is that a lot of time I will chance across great books and not even remember how or why I found them. Books and titles just stick to me. Every time I'm wasting time online, I invariably find a few books that I want to request from the library. If I'm out and about and chatting with anyone, I almost always get some kind of book recommendation because books are one of the few subjects I'm really comfortable talking about. Sometimes I'll see authors on TV or hear them on the radio and want to get their books as well. It's great. I find when I tune my radar almost exclusively to news about books and British TV*, that's nearly all I hear about. A self-fulfilling prophecy, and one that makes me much happier than figuring out ways to be a well-compensated and useful member of society, or, god forbid, following any national news stories.

Which is all a very long-winded way of saying I have no idea how I tripped over the book The Woman Who Smashed Codes, by Jason Fagone. I can remember seeing the author's name somewhere online, and thinking, huh, Fagone, I wonder if that's the dude who wrote the book The Horsemen of the Esophagus, a great and fun little book about the competitive eating circuit (yes, there is such a thing). Turns out, yes, it is that Jason Fagone, so I know I got this book because I like him as an author, but I can't remember where I actually read about this latest book by him, which is an awesome biography/history of a totally unique woman named Elizebeth Smith.

I'm going to let Fagone introduce his book to you, in his opening Author's Note:

"This is a love story.

In 1916, during the First World War, two young Americans met by chance on a mysterious and now-forgotten estate near Chicago. At first they seemed to have little in common. She was Elizebeth Smith, a Quaker schoolteacher who found joy in poetry. He was William Friedman, a Jewish plant biologist from a poor family. But they fell for each other. Within a year they were married. They went on to change history together, in ways that still mark our lives today. They taught themselves to be spies--of a new and vital kind." (p. xi.)

What Elizebeth and William became were very specialized codebreakers, with Elizebeth in particular making great use of her tenacity and well-ordered mind to crack Nazi codes and spy rings in South America during World War II.

It's a fascinating, FASCINATING book. I loved it, and Mr. CR read it too, and trust me, nonfiction has to be special for Mr. CR to plow through it. I'm sorry that I missed posting about it in March, because this would be an awesome read for Women's History Month. Do give it a try!

p.s. And then pair it with Leo Marks's unbelievably personal and funny and smart book about the fascinating work that is codebreaking, titled Between Silk and Cyanide.

*Plus if you have your Internet set to a homepage, I would highly recommend setting it to Yahoo!UK. Brexit is a whole ocean away from me, so I'm much happier to learn about that than anything that's going on in our shitstorm of a political system.

 


First great read of the new year: Prairie Fires.

I actually read my first great book of 2018 in December of 2017. Let's apply a phrase I believe in and use a lot: "Close enough for guvmint work."*

Prairie firesThe book in question was Caroline Fraser's Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and WOW, was it fantastic.

It is, of course, basically a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose Little House books continue to loom large in our reading and pop culture. And WHAT a biography. Fraser covers not only the woman's life, but also how her books (largely presented as factual, or autobiographical) were actually very careful amalgamations of fact and fiction and personal philosophies (both Wilder's and her daughter's).

Perhaps the best thing about this book is that it is actually a dual biography: not only are the details of Wilder's life explored, so are the details of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane's, work and life and loves. And what lives they were. The more I read details of how hard life was on the frontier, trying to build your own house and grow your own crops and stay safe from numerous prairie blizzards, the more I am stunned by how easy life is now. Here I sit in the arctic blast, anxiously listening to my furnace and hoping it continues to kick in. I can't imagine huddling in my little sod or wood homestead, depending on wood I had to cut myself or hay I had to twist myself just to try and keep warm enough to survive. It boggles the mind.

When I first started reading the book, I thought it was a little dry, because when I read biographies I pretty much want all the gritty details. (My main question, of course, involves procreation and parenting, because those are always the details I am interested in: why did Wilder, when she had her first baby in her late teens and her second baby--who, tragically, died shortly after birth--shortly thereafter, never have any more? What was her marriage to Almanzo Wilder really like?) But then I realized Fraser wasn't really holding back, she was just sticking to the facts she knew, which was tricky enough, considering that most of the details about Wilder's life comes from her books, and her books are not actually 100% true nonfiction. And by the time I was done with the whole book, which is excellent and wide-ranging and both clear-eyed and sympathetic, I found that I really had all the details about Laura's, her family's, Almanzo's, and Rose's lives that I needed.

I also had a healthy new appreciation for how great it is to live in this time and place. I spent the next few weeks after reading this book telling the CRjrs, when they went to the bathroom, "Imagine having to go outside to go to the bathroom, to a little wood shack with a hole in a plank. Imagine having to clean that poop pit out yourselves. In this cold weather!" And they both looked at me like I was crazy, but then asked more questions about that whole deal. Because both my own parents used outhouses in their very early years, I was also able to make it personal. "When Grandpa was your age he had to go outside to poop! And go out to care for their animals on these subzero mornings! And grow a lot of his own food!" I probably bored them to death but I certainly reminded myself that my life, filled as it is with indoor plumbing and access to antibiotics, is truly something to be thankful for. Not a bad way to start 2018, actually.

Do read this book. It needs more pictures and it slightly drags in parts but overall--a fantastic and important read.

*A corollary to my overall life motto, as noted earlier, of "Fuck it. Close enough."


Sally Bedell Smith's Prince Charles.

Let's be honest. Nobody thought that a biography of Britain's Prince Charles was going to be the most scintillating book on the planet, did they?

Prince charlesSally Bedell Smith may not have chosen the liveliest subject for her biography Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, but she has written a lively biography nonetheless. I don't usually pay a whole lot of attention to the subtitles of biographies, but in this case, I think she's got it about right. Although part of a family known for its stiff reserve and formality, Charles, the Prince of Wales, does indeed seem to have many passions in his life: Camilla Parker Bowles, perhaps, foremost, but also tradition, the environment, and spirituality. Likewise, "paradoxes" is a fair word choice for the duties governing him. Just think about waiting for your "real" career to start as you age into your 70s.

Smith is no stranger to writing biographies about the royal family (her earlier books include Diana in Search of Herself, about Princess Diana, and Elizabeth the Queen, which I've also read, about England's current monarch Elizabeth II), and she is also a former journalist. Her writing's a bit journalistic/gossipy at times:

"Patrick Beresford, a friend for some fifty years, said that whenever Camilla walked in the room, 'your spirits rise, because you know you are going to have a laugh.' For a young prince with downbeat tendencies, that sort of personality was catnip." (p. 67.)

But in all she does a good job of relating the details of Prince Charles's life, and she does it in efficient fashion. This book is 500 pages long, but it only took me a few days to read, and that's largely due to Smith's straightforward expository style, short chapters, and copious quotes from interviews that she did with friends, family members, and former staff members of the royal household.

This review is feeling fairly dry but I can't seem to help it. I enjoyed this book, and I enjoyed learning a little bit more about Charles, but, at the end of the day, he's still a bit of a challenging man to really enjoy spending much time with. By all accounts he feels his beliefs strongly and he's not afraid to let them be known, so that makes me like him. All the same, he also seems to have a self-pitying streak a mile wide, although for that, again, I can't really blame him. His childhood and schooling don't really sound like they were much fun, and just imagine having a telephone call of yours taped in which you confessing to simply wanting to live within your lover's trousers forever (perhaps as her tampon). Having that sort of story blown all over the news might make one, I assume, a bit prickly about ever letting the press know any of your personal details again.

It's a good book. But unless you're a hardcore British royal family fan or Anglophile*, there probably isn't much in it for you. Oh! Except a ton of pictures. Good on Random House for publishing this book complete with two stand-alone color photo sections, plus a photo at the head of every new chapter. Nicely done, Random House. I require my biographies to contain lots of pictures.

*I'm guilty on both counts!


Kate Hennessy's Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty.

A week or so before Ash Wednesday I brought home the book Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty. I thought I would go all out this year for Lent and read this book during the weeks before Easter.*

Turns out that I started it on Fat Tuesday and finished it on Ash Wednesday.

Dorothy dayIt's a fascinating book, written by the youngest grandchild of Catholic activist Dorothy Day. It is a mix of biography (about Day, and also about Day's only daughter, Tamar), history (of Depression-era America and the Catholic Worker), and memoir (the author seeking to understand her relationship with her own mother, but even more importantly, the relationship between Dorothy and her daughter Tamar).

And really, could she have had a richer subject to explore than Dorothy Day, activist and co-founder of the Catholic Worker newspaper and movement? The stories of Dorothy's early life alone were worth the read:

"Dorothy was not a timid person. One night while working on the Call, she had forgotten her house key, and unwilling to wake the family, she visited police stations trying to find a women's lockup where she could spend the night. Failing that, she took a taxi to find friends and ended up being attacked by the taxi driver in a Jewish cemetery in Yonkers. She fought back, biting him until he bled, and then she demanded he drive her to the train station, which he did while cursing her until she got him to shut up by lecturing him all the way there. But the Night of Terror crushed Dorothy...

Eight of the women who were most brutally treated, including Dorothy, sued the superintendent of prisons for eight hundred thousand dollars in damages. They withdrew the suit in 1920 when wardens of both the DC jail and Occoquan were fired, and when women finally succeeded in getting the vote, a law that Dorothy, in her disinterest in politics and belief that change was more effectively brought about in other ways, would never take advantage of." (pp. 12-13.)

Those paragraphs were about Dorothy's experience picketing in support of the right to vote for women. She went because a friend asked her and because she was kind of a born protestor, even though Hennessy points out at the end that voting wasn't really a hot-button issue for her. I chose those paragraphs because there's so much there I can't believe: She fought off her attacker? And then MADE HIM DRIVE HER BACK TO THE TRAIN STATION? And she was involved in a protest and arrest that was noted for its barbarity? And still went on to live a life where she kept putting herself in dangerous neighborhoods? What a woman.

This book was a very personal story. I thought it was really beautiful, although much of it was very sad (Dorothy's relationship with Forster Batterham, Tamar's father, was a difficult one, and Tamar's relationship with her husband, David Hennessy, and the hardships of raising nine children "on the land" are also tough subjects to see described in clear-eyed prose). But still, very beautiful:

"And isn't this my history also? One of the elements of what makes a person extraordinary, I have come to believe, is when their inner and outer lives are in accord. When what they do in the world is what their innermost being leads them to do. This is why the history of the Catholic Worker is the history of my mother, the history of the relationship between my mother and grandmother, and the history of my family." (p. x.)

I am not doing this book justice. To read about this variety of people (some of the people who came to the Catholic Worker and just stayed and lived and worked there the rest of their lives--those are fascinating stories too) and the lives of work and service and intellectualism and challenging personal relationships they all lived--it was really something. Give it a read, even if you won't have time during Lent.

*As a kid I gave up chocolate. For the whole 40 days. I could never do it now. I'm pathetic.


Victoria the Queen.

I really loved the historical biography Victoria the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire, by Julia Baird.

Victoria the queenIt was the perfect mix of detail and good writing, and Baird did a nice job of touching upon all aspects of Queen Victoria's life, including her relationships with the many Prime Ministers she worked with over her long life; her relationships with Albert, her husband, and their nine children; and her ruling style, opinions, and personal traits. Baird also does a nice job of placing Victoria's reign and Great Britain's influence in the nineteenth century in the broader context of world events. And she does it all in...let me look it up...752 pages?!?

Holy cow. This book read so fast that I really thought it was a lot shorter than that. Rest assured: a good chunk of that total is index and endnotes. And there's a lot of pictures spread through the book too. It was a great read; if you're at all interested in British history you should pick it up. (Particularly if you're watching the period drama Victoria on PBS that's running right now; if you read this, you can feel superior about all the historical details with which the BBC/PBS is playing a little fast and loose).

Just to give you a taste of the text, and for Victoria herself:

"What is most striking about Victoria is that apart from wanting to be taller and thinner, she cared little about her appearance. She knew she was  no beauty and did not dwell on it. She joked about her looks with her half sister, writing that she was 'very happy to hear that the portrait of my ugly face pleased you.' Yet she genuinely took pleasure from the aesthetic appearance of others--both male and female. Her second cousin Charles, the Duke of Brunswick, particularly fascinated her, with his dark mustache and the fur-trimmed coat he wore riding. She greatly admired the way he did his hair, which hung 'wildly about his face.'" p. 43.


Frank: The Voice, and Sinatra: The Chairman--My first big reading experience of 2017.

My reading year 2017 started off with an intense biography experience.

It should also be noted that my first worthwhile reading experience of 2017 actually started in 2016. For some time I had been aware of James Kaplan's definitive two-volume biography of Frank Sinatra, but hadn't yet had the time to tackle either or both books. However, every year we go to my in-laws' house sometime during the Christmas holiday and stay an overnight, and I can never sleep at my in-laws'. They're lovely people, they always welcome us, we get our own room with the boys, and in general it's a pleasant experience. It never matters. Usually I drop off around 4 a.m. and wake up again at 7 a.m. when the boys start stirring. So in recent holidays I have wised up and started taking along books that I know will either require some time or which I anticipate to be lovely reading experiences that I want to savor.* When you're up reading at 2 a.m, wherever you are, you generally are in search of something engrossing, I find. So this year I thought: I'm going to take the first volume in the Sinatra series, Frank: The Voice!

Frank the voiceAnd it was a good choice. Clocking in at 718 pages, this was definitely one that was going to take some time. I started it a bit before Christmas, read a huge chunk of it on Christmas night from midnight to 4 a.m., and then finished it up during the week after New Year's Day. I could put it down, because sometimes when you're dealing with a big brick of a biography like that, you have to put it down, but I was also dedicated to picking it back up and finishing it.

Regardless of how you feel about Sinatra, I must say that there have probably been few entertainers who merit a biography to the tune of 1500 combined pages (which this volume, along with Kaplan's sequel, Sinatra: The Chairman, totals), and Frank Sinatra is totally one of them. In addition to the unbelievable and dominating musical career, you have several other aspects to consider: his personal life, which was complex and filled with first a domineering mother, and then a variety of wives and paramours; his acting career, which included an Oscar-winning performance in the critically acclaimed and popular film "From Here to Eternity," as well as other star turns in "The Man with the Golden Arm," "Pal Joey," and "The Manchurian Candidate"; his business and singing career in Las Vegas; his long-standing associations with mobsters and Mafia connections; and his political work and friendships.** It should come as no surprise that the guy hardly ever slept and, by all accounts, had to keep moving at all times.

Perhaps my favorite part of this first biography was all the discussion surrounding Frank's very challenging rise to stardom, and, later on, the details about the arranging and recording of many of his biggest hits.*** Kaplan also has a fairly lively writing style. I don't know that this will appeal to everyone, but I enjoyed it and thought it suited his subject matter. Consider this sample, in which Frank first performed an arrangement of the song "I've Got the World on a String" by Nelson Riddle, with whom he'd never worked:

"From the moment the nervous-faced guy on the podium signaled the downbeat, Frank knew something was up. Stoller clashed a pair of cymbals; the horns swirled a downward-spiraling cadenza; and then the second Frank sang, 'got the string around my fin-ger,' the brass kicked--BANG!--and the band was cooking. Frank was smiling as he sang, as the seventeen musicians swung along behind him--he even had a smile for the unsmiling guy on the stand, who was waving his arms for all he was worth.

It sure didn't sound like Billy [May] to Frank. It didn't sound like anybody. He loved it.

They did a take, and then another, got it just right. It was golden--but it wasn't Billy May. 'Who wrote that arrangement?' Frank asked Alan Dell.

'This guy,' Dell said, indicating Mr. Serious, who was distractedly leafing through pages of sheet music. 'Nelson Riddle.'

The name registered for the first time. Sinatra made a surprised face. 'Beautiful,' he said.

It was a serious compliment. Frank was generous with gifts and money but extremely stingy when it came to praise. If he said it, he meant it; if he didn't mean it, he didn't say anything.

He looked at Riddle and said it again. 'Beautiful.' And Mr. Serious managed a quick, almost undetectable smile: more like a wince, really." (pp. 615-616.)

I thoroughly enjoyed that. I could just picture the scene. And if you go listen to the song (DO IT) you can just hear the joy. Combine that with the fact that this scene took place at the beginning of his career comeback--perhaps the biggest and best comeback of all time--around 1953/54, after many very bad down years, well, then it takes on even more import. Imagine singing that song, like that, after living through several tough years. THAT is art.

Which is not to say that Sinatra was not a major asshole in many and various ways, all of which Kaplan details. I enjoyed Frank: The Voice so much that I went on to Sinatra: The Chairman, but I did not enjoy that as much, and actually skim-read most of the last 300 pages so I could get some closure. For one thing, I much preferred to read about Sinatra the hustler in his early career years, rather than reading about Sinatra the Rat Pack pig who turned misogyny into an art form in Vegas and beyond. But it was still a great reading experience, and sometime I might revisit it when I can give it more time. Next Christmas at the in-laws', perhaps.

A few technical notes: these biographies have pictures spread throughout the text, which I do not enjoy as much as dedicated picture sections, but which probably allowed them to fit more pictures in, so that was good. Also, these books are exhaustive: volume one covers the years from Sinatra's birth in 1915 through his Oscar win in 1953, while volume two largely covers 1954 to 1971 or so. The nearly twenty last years in Sinatra's life, and his fourth marriage, are dealt with in a less-than-40-page "Coda" at the end (and boy, is that a depressing 40 pages. Getting old, my friends, is not for pussies, even when you are Frank Sinatra).

*And yes, of course, I always take at least two books along so I have options. I'm already dragging an air mattress, pillows, all our clothes and a thermometer and kids' Tylenol (just in case, because I am nuts), so what's a couple more things to drag along?

**I didn't just learn about Frank Sinatra in these books. I can quite honestly say I never realized what a disgusting pig and prick John F. Kennedy was until reading about his dealings with Sinatra and Hollywood (namely: women in Hollywood). Gross.

***Also, please note: Ol' Blue Eyes couldn't read music. How crazy is that? He learned the songs by reading the lyrics and having the songs played to him once or twice.


Ruth Franklin's Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life.

I'm just going to say it: I was disappointed in Ruth Franklin's biography of Shirley Jackson, titled Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life.

Which hurts me to say, because I looked forward to it for so long. I also plowed through the thing in just a few days. It was good; it was readable; it was very obviously thoughtfully compiled and written and impeccably researched and footnoted.

Shirley jacksonBut for some reason it just didn't resonate with me. Perhaps I did it an injustice by reading it shortly after re-reading Jackson's own humorous memoirs of motherhood, titled Life among the Savages and Raising Demons. Those books were just so good, and left me hungry for more family details. And those were just not forthcoming here. Franklin is very good at describing Jackson's childhood, her often contentious relationship with her overbearing mother, the development of her writing and style (this is very much a "literary biography," examining Jackson's works, style, and influences), and even her marriage, although she seemed to focus more on Jackson's husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, than on the "marriage," per se. But there was really very little about the children, Jackson's relationship with them, or any sort of closure on the lives they went on to lead. And you know? That's all fine. This is a biography of Shirley, not her her children. And maybe they didn't want any of their personal details discussed. But I couldn't help feeling that her children and home life were much bigger parts of Jackson's life than you would know just from reading this biography.

Franklin seems to approach Jackson's interpersonal relationships more for how they affected her work. In the introduction, she says this:

"As a writer and mother myself, I am struck by how contemporary Jackson's dilemmas feel: her devotion to her children coexists uneasily with her fear of losing herself in domesticity. Several generations later, the intersection of life and work continues to be one of the points of most profound anxiety in our society--an anxiety that affects not only women but also their husbands and children." (p. 9.)

It was a good book. It just wasn't quite what I wanted. It actually made me want to re-read an earlier biography of Jackson, Judy Oppenheimer's Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson, which I had found a bit overbearing when I first read it. I wonder how I'd find it now. And, if you're really looking for some good info on Jackson's relationship with at least one of her children, I would definitely check out this NPR interview with her son Laurence. I enjoyed that a lot (as well as the entire program on her).

Happy Christmas, all, and to all a good night. See you sometime next week.


I was massively disappointed by Tracy Kidder's "A Truck Full of Money."

And that hurts me to say, because I am a huge Tracy Kidder fan.

In this nonfiction outing, Kidder provides a long-form character profile of Paul English, perhaps best known for selling his travel/search business Kayak.com to Priceline for 1.8 billion dollars. This of course made him, and his partners and investors, a "truck full of money." So what happens, English and Kidder seem to be asking, when someone makes a huge amount of money, when that may or may not have been their goal all along?

Well, apparently the answer to the question "what do you do with a lot of money?" is, nothing terribly interesting. At least, that is, if you are Paul English. I slogged through this whole book, and my only real question throughout was, why did Kidder think Paul English was interesting enough to sustain an entire book-long investigation?

So what did Paul English do? Well, he helped his partners and other longtime collaborators make enough money to make themselves secure. There's something to be said for that. And he gave a lot of money to charitable causes, but none of them terribly interesting or terribly personally strongly felt (to learn how to go about his philanthropy, he tried to learn from an older wealthy Bostonian who he viewed as a mentor and a friend, eventually giving money to many of the same causes as his mentor). There's definitely something to be said for that. And he started a new company, and spent money to try and help others achieve their company-starting dreams.

But in the end, a character profile needs, frankly, to be about a CHARACTER. Paul English is many things. Very, very smart. No one is arguing that. Very resilient. He grew up in a large family and worked a lot of jobs (including some that were less than legal), and he has struggled for many years with a diagnosis of both bipolar and hypomania, meaning he has tried to figure out how to live well while on medications. Not easy. But a character? I thought the most telling segment of the book, if one of the most boring, was the lengthy section on English's venture after selling Kayak: a company called Blade, basically meant to be an incubator for other tech businesses. Kidder details English's obsession with making his company and headquarters a nightclub (of all things) as well, called Blade at Night:

"You might have wondered if his plans for Blade's office were merely reproductions of his adolescence, the creation of a venue for his idea of fun, but he had a commercial rationale for Blade-by-night, which he put in a document addressed to Blade.team--that is, to Billo and Schwenk [two of his longtime work partners]:

Blade will run monthly meetup parties, invite-only, for selected members of Boston's innovation scene. Our goal is to make these parties one of the best places for engineers and designers and artists to meet...

[He also taught at MIT during this time, and knew a group of four MIT computer science graduates who had already sold a software company.] Paul had lunch with them one afternoon to catch up on their latest enterprise. First, though, he had to tell them his own news, his plans for the Blade office.

He was just getting started--'And it turns into a nightclub at night,' he was saying--when, in unison, all four young engineers burst out laughing.

'And you just unplug the desk from the wall. Probably in thirty minutes thirty desks will disappear.'

'That sounds awesome!" cried the young woman of the group.

'And when I put my hand on the puck, the Grey Goose and Kahlua will light up...'

Softly, pensively, as if to himself, one of the young men said, 'I want to hang out at this nightclub.'" (pp. 185-186.)

And this is when he was nearly fifty. Ye Gods. When all the "finest minds" of our generation (so-called) can come up with after making tons of money is to incubate new software companies and give them a place to drink after hours, well, that is just not terribly interesting. Perhaps even more telling is the spec sheet for the "Blade truck," which takes up nearly two pages of the book and includes items like "under-car purple lights for effect when parked in our alley at night, maybe color changing to the music. :)" (p. 188.)

Give this one a miss. There's a million better computer/technology books to read (including Kidder's own The Soul of a New Machine, which, though outdated, is still way more fascinating than this book) and there's certainly better character portraits out there (including Kidder's own Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World).


Really? This woman was "not pretty enough"?

If you'd asked me before I read her biography, who is Helen Gurley Brown?, about the only thing I would have been able to tell you was that I thought she was connected to the magazine Cosmopolitan in some way.

And that is correct. Now that I have read her biography, Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown (by Gerri Hirshey), I know that she was editor-in-chief of that magazine for more than thirty years, from 1965 to 1997. I further know that she published her bestselling book Sex and the Single Girl in 1962, when she was forty years old.

And now I know a good deal many other things about her, both tangible and intangible. I only got this book from the library because it got a lot of press attention this summer; I've never been interested in Brown at all.* I learned she had a really tough childhood, in which her father died when she was only ten years old, and in which she had a close but difficult relationship with her mother. I learned she worked a lot of crappy jobs as she tried to earn enough of a living to lift herself and her family (including a sister who suffered from polio and required medical care and help) out of poverty. I learned how she entered into a late(ish) marriage with David Brown, and how the two of them shared both a professional and working bond as well as a loving one. I learned she could be a difficult woman; an extremely driven woman; a painfully frugal woman (even when she had way more than enough money); a stubborn woman.

In short I learned that Helen Gurley Brown was a lot more interesting person than I ever would have thought, if I'd continued only to think of her in terms of her Cosmopolitan legacy. I found it rather hard to put this biography down (although I think I liked the subject matter better than the biographer's writing style), and you know? I kind of ended up liking old Helen.

One of my favorite stories from the book was one about how Nora Ephron interviewed and wrote about her for Esquire:

"Nora Ephron's Esquire article was titled 'If You're a Little Mouseburger, Come with Me. I was a Mouseburger and I Will Help You,' and it stands as the smartest comic/simpatico distillation of HGB's maddening complexities to date...Ephron was a seasoned journalist by then, but she was not prepared for HGB's insistent candor. Helen gave Ephron the name and phone number of a married ad executive she had an affair with during her single years. Ephron interviewed the man, who was still married and was perplexed that Helene would identify him. She judged it too awkward to use in the article.

'I can't believe you gave me his name,'" Ephron told Helen later.

'Oh. Well. Yes.'

Unbidden, Helene also announced to a startled Ephron that she was very good in bed and she liked sex, very much. Ephron served it all up with both glee and deadpan reserve; she had the canny and humane instinct to merely quote Helen at length, and meticulously..." (p. 322.)

I kind of got a kick that she named the married man, and that he was "perplexed" by that. I'll bet!

This is a big and a comprehensive biography, and for the most part it's very readable. But sometimes I found Hirshey's voice a bit overwhelming, as when she told this story about Beverly Johnson's cover shoot:

"And for the models? Beverly Johnson would like to explain how her first Cosmopolitan cover made her a woman. No lie. Listen." (p. 340.) So then the story goes on that the head of Johnson's modeling agency didn't think Cosmo was a good career move, and then you have this: "Johnson, a skinny, brainy African American girl from Buffalo, New York, politely but resolutely got up in Mrs. Ford's business. 'Why not?'" (p. 341.)

"No lie. Listen."? A bit familiar, that. Also: "got up in Mrs. Ford's business"? I don't know. That's all just a bit more casual than I really want my biography writing to be.

But overall? A good story and a singular woman. It's worth a read, if you've got the time (it's nearly 500 pages long, although it's got quite a few pages of notes and index.)

(Oh, and regarding the title of this post? Evidently the title of the book is how Brown thought of herself. Really? She seemed quite attractive; she had a good head for business and advertising; by her own account she loved sex. If this woman isn't "pretty enough" none of the rest of us stand a chance.)

*In fact, the few times I ever read a Cosmo magazine, mainly in high school, I found it boring and actually not as titillating as its cover headlines always seemed to promise.


A tale of two nonfiction books: We Took to the Woods, and She Took to the Woods.

When my sister read Louise Dickinson Rich's classic We Took to the Woods, she really, really liked it. So I kept thinking, I have to read that book.*

And so I did. And it was okay. Rich is a lively writer, no doubt about it. It's a memoir about how she lived with her husband (and eventually her son, and then her daughter) in a completely isolated spot in Maine. Each chapter takes as its heading one of the many questions she'd been asked over the years: "But how do you make a living?" "Don't you ever get bored?" You get the idea. So here's how she starts out:

"During most of my adolescence--specifically, between the time when I gave up wanting to be a brakeman on a freight train and the time when I definitely decided to become an English teacher--I said, when asked what I was going to do with my life, that I was going to live alone in a cabin in the Maine woods and write. It seemed to me that this was a romantic notion, and I was insufferably smug over my own originality. Of course, I found out later that everybody is at one time or another going to do something of the sort. It's part of being young. The only difference in my case is that, grown to womanhood, I seem to be living in a cabin in the Maine woods, and I seem to be writing." p. 13.

See? Lively. And here's how she describes where she and her husband, Ralph, live:

"Middle Dam is quite a community. There is the dam itself, a part of the system for water control on the Androscoggin, with the dam-keeper and his family. Renny and Alice Miller and their three children, in year-round residence. Then in summer the hotel is open. We only call it a hotel; it's really a fishing camp. In winter it is closed, but there is a caretaker, Larry Parsons, who stays in with his wife, Al, and a hired man or two. So the permanent population of Middle Dam hovers at around nine, and that is comparative congestion. We get our mail and supplies through Middle, and it is the point of departure for The Outside, so its importance is all out of proportion to its population." (p. 16.)

I read the whole thing, but I was feeling a bit uncomfortable because I was thinking I didn't enjoy it as much as my sister did. For one thing, anyone who enjoys sidewalks and walking a few blocks down the road to the coffee shop to get a treat (and I do enjoy both those things, very much) can't really get too excited about a book where part of the chief attraction is the loneliness and wildness of the landscape. For another, I read it in January, when we were all ill with The Never-Ending Cold**, and I just don't think I could give it the attention that I should have.

But then I heard from my sister that there was also a biography about Rich available, called She Took to the Woods, and I thought, okay, let's do it. And THAT I loved. Here's how that book's author describes Rich's fateful meeting with her husband-to-be, for whom she would literally leave civilization:

"Meanwhile, on the Carry Road, Louise was finding it hard to put one foot in front of the other. With every step, she became increasingly convinced that she had just met her destiny [Ralph Rich] and was walking away from it. She felt bereft, almost frantic. Her intuition said, 'Drop the canoe and run back.' Her intellect said, 'Don't be impulsive; you know it gets you in trouble.' What to do? What to do! Just ahead, Alice's enthusiastic impressions about the encounter, the locale, and the host began to peter out. She cocked her head at Louise: 'Gosh, you're awfully quiet all of a sudden.'" (p. 29.)

What I really loved about reading these two books was how they were both good examples of their nonfiction genres (memoir/humor and biography) and how they gave completely different pictures of the same story. I don't think Rich made things up in her memoir; I think she presented them in a very specific way. For instance: at their isolated home in Maine, the Riches had a hired man/jack of all trades named Gareth. Now, the way Louise talked about him, I assumed he was some old bachelor dude that just lived with them. And then you read the biography and find out that Gareth had a family of his own, who lived elsewhere, including a grown daughter who often helped Louise look after her children.

So between the two books I had a great reading experience, not only enjoying the books themselves, but enjoying the truth that for every nonfiction story, there are at least as many truths as there are people telling the story. Awesome.

*I almost always read the books my sister talks about. Even when we disagree in our tastes it makes for great discussions. She is one of the very few people in my life with whom I always want to talk more, not less.

**Even capping it doesn't do it justice. Holy cow, was January a miserable month this year. Ye gods, THE NEVER-ENDING HORRIFYING COLD. People who don't think reading is a physical activity should try reading (and enjoying reading) while sick. It's not easy. But I try anyway.


But Enough About Me by Burt Reynolds.

Before my truly epic and unbelievably mucus-productive cold hit this January, I was able to blow through Burt Reynolds's autobiography But Enough About Me.

Why, you say? Well, why not? I'm not really any kind of Burt Reynolds fan but a. I did enjoy "Smokey and the Bandit" when I first saw it, and b. as a former film major, I've always felt a bit bad about never having watched the movie "Deliverance," which is, by all accounts, a film classic.*

And you know what? I really enjoyed it. As are most celebrity autobiographies, it was a quick read, and although you learned a bit about some of Reynolds's many friendships and relationships in the business (who knew he dated Dinah Shore, when she was in her fifties and twenty years his senior?), Reynolds and his co-writer Jon Winokur really kept everything pretty light. That said, there were a couple of anecdotes I enjoyed, like the one where he advocated for the casting of Sally Field as his love interest:

"When I told Universal that I wanted Sally Field for 'Smokey and the Bandit,' they said, 'Why would you want the goddamn Flying Nun?'

'Because she has talent,' I said.

'She isn't ready to star in a feature film, and she isn't sexy.'

'You don't understand,' I said. 'Talent is sexy.'" (p. 188.)

And although he married her, he didn't have good things to say about Loni Anderson:

"I didn't see Loni again until a few years later, at an awards gala, after Sally and I had broken up. She asked me to dance and whispered in y ear, 'I want to have your baby.'

'Right here?' I said.

'You know what I mean,' she said.

'Yeah, I know what you mean and I'm flattered, but don't you think we should find out if we like each other first?'

The truth is, I never did like her. We'd be together and she'd be gorgeous, though I always thought she wore too much makeup. It would be nice and all that, but I'd be thinking, 'This is not the person for me. What the hell am I doing with her?'" (p. 203.)

Something about that was just so funny. Like he was just powerless when big intimidating Loni Anderson came around and forced him to marry her. But anyway: I'm not sorry I read it. Particularly because after I did I got a real urge to re-watch "Smokey and the Bandit," which I did, and, since he was still up, LilCR watched it with us, a circumstance about which Mr. CR was conflicted. I said, Dear, if he remembers watching "Smokey and the Bandit" when he starts to drive, and tries to outrun cops, well, then you can yell at me. And LilCR REALLY enjoyed it. The next morning, he said, in his piping LilCR voice: "Watch. Car. Movie. Again?"**

Awesome.

*The one thing that I know about "Deliverance," as does everyone else, is that it includes the depiction of a man being raped by another man. Yeah, I just can't get myself to watch that, even if it's a small part of the picture. I can just barely read about such things, but watching them on film is one of my deal breakers.

**LilCR talks like this, like he's trying each new word for. the. first. time? Ending with the up inflection. It's like living with a diminutive and male Valley Girl.


Rosemary Sullivan's Stalin's Daughter: Now THAT's a biography.

A while back I read a short newspaper article about a woman named Svetlana Alliluyeva, who for many years lived in Spring Green, Wisconsin, which seemed a bit odd to me, because Svetlana Alliluyeva was the daughter of Stalin. So when I saw the cover of Rosemary Sullivan's biography Stalin's Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva, I thought, I want to read that.

But then I got it home, and looked it over, and thought, wow, 623 pages, what are the chances of me getting that read? Turns out: pretty good. I started reading it one night and then I couldn't put it down for the entire next week.

For whatever reason I've always been interested in Russian history, but I think you could enjoy this biography even if a. you weren't that interested in Russian or world history, or b. you don't know anything about Russian history. I actually knew very little about Stalin before reading this book, and I must say I didn't learn a ton about his politics or more reprehensible policies from reading it.* This biography stays fairly firmly rooted in his family life and the experiences of his family members, which are more than varied and terrible enough to fill the 600 pages.

Alliluyeva was an incredible woman who struggled to live as normal a human life as she could, even though it really proved impossible for her to ever really escape her father's shadow. Her triumphs of intellect and will, coupled with her weaknesses and her loneliness make for fascinating reading. This is one of the best books I've read so far this year.

Here's your excerpt:

"She was called unstable. The historian Robert Tucker remarked that 'despite everything, she was, in some sense, like her father.' And yet it's astonishing how little she resembled her father. She did not believe in violence. She had a risk taker's resilience, a commitment to life, and an unexpected optimism, even though her life spanned the brutalities of the twentieth century in the most heartrending of ways, giving her a knowledge of the dark side of human experience, which few people are ever forced to confront. Caught between two worlds in the Cold War power struggles between East and West, she was served well by neither side. She had to slowly learn how the West functioned. The process of her education is fascinating and often sad." (p. xvii.)

*Although this book does illuminate many things about what might be called the Russian character, or culture, particularly of the twentieth century and previously.


You may not love the biography, but at least you learn something.

Thomas Hardy
by Claire Tomalin
Powells.com

Recently I spent about a month methodically plowing through Claire Tomalin's biography Thomas Hardy.

Hardy was on my mind because a new adaptation of his novel Far from the Madding Crowd is coming out this week. I've not read all of his novels, but I very much enjoyed Under the Greenwood Tree (which I only read after watching the BBC adaptation, thanks again, British TV) and a short story collection titled A Changed Man. I've read parts of Tess of the D'urbervilles and would very much like to finish the whole thing, and although I've read The Return of the Native, I don't remember it very well.*

So when I went looking for a biography of Hardy I thought I would try Tomalin's; I'd never read anything of hers before but her name was familiar and she's a well-regarded biographer.

Frankly? I didn't care for the book a whole lot. I enjoyed learning more about Hardy, but for some reason it just felt like a real slog to read his life story. And he didn't really lead a dull life (he rose from extremely humble beginnings to become a very well-off author; he was married twice and carried a serious torch for another married woman; he wrote some of the angriest, and at the time, most scandalous literature available). This also was probably not the right biography for me because Tomalin really seemed more intent on proving Hardy's worth as a poet than as a novelist. That's fine, but it almost seemed like she just skipped over the writing and importance of his best-selling novels.

Periodically she also used turns of phrases that seemed a bit heavy-handed to me. There's this, in a caption for a photo of Hardy's first wife: "Her situation as a wife whose husband no longer needed her was pathetic, and, although she was mocked by many and disliked by som, there is something touching about her childlike face." And this: "Hardy and Emma's failure to have children is the saddest thing about their life together. He would have made a gentle and humorous father, and a child would have given Emma a focus for her attention and love, and filled up the long hours when he was absorbed in his writing. It would have relieved the tensions and resentments that built up between them..." (p. 172.)

Now that all may be true. But it seems rather a lot to assume. Particularly because the rest of the biography paints Hardy as a man truly driven to write and spending a lot of time doing so. Sometimes he did not seem over-kind to his first wife (or his second wife, really), so, although there is evidence that he was a kind uncle and friend to several relatives' and friends' children, it seems a bit of a leap to say what kind of father he would have made.

So yeah, not my favorite biography ever. But informative. Which is another thing I really do like about nonfiction: even if you're not in love with the author's writing or style, you usually still get something for your time in the way of knowledge.

*What I do remember is that I read it because Holden Caulfield referenced it in the novel Catcher in the Rye: "I like that Eustacia Vye." Yes, I was so in love with Holden that I went and read what he read. Ah, youth.


And what an American life.

Wow, talk about living hard, dying young, and leaving a good-looking corpse: did everybody here know that author Jack London (of Call of the Wild fame) died at the age of 40? After packing more action and adventure into that short lifetime than most people do who live twice as long?

I read The Call of the Wild a million years ago, and remembered liking it, although I think that is the only piece of London's writing that I've ever read. My sister has referenced him before, though, so when I saw Earle Labor's new biography, Jack London: An American Life, in my library catalog, I placed it on hold, thinking I would lend it to her to read.

I made the (happy) mistake of reading the first few chapters of the book myself, and then I kept it for myself to read, rather than passing it along. Sorry, sis.

I couldn't stop reading this book simply because of the sheer momentum of London's life. From his illegitimacy to his hardscrabble childhood, his dedication to Socialist causes to his young adulthood filled with hard labor, his unstinting efforts to educate himself to his drive to become a published author, and his first unhappy marriage to a fulfilling second one, complete with a sailing voyage around the world, this story just never gets the chance to be dull. Labor's writing is straightforward and not nearly as flashy as its subject, and I periodically wished for some more juicy details*, but overall this was a quick read for how much ground the author had to cover.

A great biography, complete with notes, bibliography, and index, and a great read, about a truly unbelievable life. And a great book to read during this time of the year, trapped as we all feel by weather and the doldrums of January and February.**

*I forgot to place bookmarks at the places where I thought, huh, I'd like some more detail here. You'll just have to take my word on this one.

**Or am I the only one feeling this way?


Men have always had some crazy ideas, evidently.

You know, every time I read about those organized types who keep their reading and TBR lists in GoodReads or spreadsheets or even on some sort of printed list, I think, oh brother. That sort of thing is just going to eat into my already precious reading time. But then books that I've requested come in at the library, I read them, I enjoy them, and I think, now where did I hear about this one? If I ever do start a reading notebook I think the main thing I'll track is how I found the books I request or buy (which I'd have to do the moment I request them, not when they come in, because my memory is terrible).

This was the case with Wendy Moore's historical biography How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain's Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate. I love biographies like this for two reasons: 1) I really, really enjoy reading about people who weren't necessarily famous (or who aren't famous anymore, at any rate), and 2) I really love reading histories that are at least part biography and biographies that are part history. This book was a very enjoyable example of its type, although I can't remember where I originally heard about it.*

Moore tells the story of one Thomas Day, an eighteenth-century Englishman known in his time for being a radical and the author of a popular children's book. But what Moore focuses on is his "wife-creating" activity; evidently he was somewhat of a picky bastard with high ideals for female perfection, so he decided to adopt a couple of young girls, raise them and teach them according to his social and educational principles (most of which were influenced by the controversial writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau), and then choose one of them to marry. And he didn't exactly keep his plan a secret; he knew a lot of influential Enlightenment thinkers and philosophers, and many of them knew about this plan, and didn't seem to give it a second thought.

The eighteenth century sounds like a wild time, man.

Well, the plan did not exactly proceed as planned. You'll just have to read the book to see if Day trained up his one true (and truly subservient) love: 

"Day wanted a lifelong partner who would be just as clever, well read and witty as his brilliant male friends. He craved a lover with whom he could discourse and wrangle on politics, philosophy and literature as freely as he could in male company. He desired a companion who would be physically as tough and hardy as himself. In short he wanted a woman who would be more like a man. But he was only human--and male. So for all his apparently egalitarian views on education, Day wanted his future spouse happily to suppress her natural intelligence and subvert her acquired learning in deference to his views and desires. He wanted a wife who would be completely subservient to his wishes at all times. How then would he ever obtain the woman of his dreams?" (p. 7.)

My favorite part of the book, actually, was reading about the other women (the non-trained ones) who were engaged at some point to Day but who were smart enough to break it off before the wedding. Kudos to you, ladies!

*Maybe I requested it because I recognized the author's name? I'd read her earlier book Wedlock: The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore and really enjoyed it.


A surprise favorite.

Whenever I index books, it is always a real bonus when they turn out to be readable, fascinating books (they don't always, particularly when I'm indexing literary criticism). Particularly because when I index a book I end up reading it at least twice.

One of the titles I've most enjoyed indexing was one I did last year: Northern Slave Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey, by Walt Bachman. It's a history/biography of a man named Joseph Godfrey, who was born into slavery in Minnesota in the 1830s, and his role in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

Wait a second. Did you say born into slavery...in Minnesota? That's right, I did. And that's just one of the fascinating aspects of this book. Godfrey was born to a woman who was held in slavery by a U.S. Army officer in Minnesota--which, it turns out, was pretty common in the army. It was common enough, in fact, that a healthy (well, not so healthy, if you were one of the slaves) slave trade went on at all sorts of military posts in states that have traditionally been considered free territories.

But there's much more to the story. Joseph Godfrey eventually made his way into the Native American community in the area (details are a bit fuzzy on how he escaped indentured servitude, because of course there aren't many primary sources documenting his life early on) and married a Dakota woman. When a group of Dakota Indians banded together and decided to declare war on German-American Minnesota settlers in 1862 (I need to read more about the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 in general, since I'd never heard of it before), primary accounts refer to one massacre in particular: an ambush after which it was reported that "it was, as I am informed, Wabashaw's band, a negro leading them, who committed the murders." (p. xvii.) After the war, when many Dakotas and other Native Americans were taken into captivity and put on trial, it transpired that Joseph Godfrey had taken part in the massacres, but the question became: did he take part willingly, or was he forced to by his adopted community?

Add in some strangely compelling accounts of the rushed trials of the Dakotas, and a fascinating dash of information about Abraham Lincoln*, and the end result is a really, really great book. It's put out by a small independent publisher, the Pond Dakota Press (part of the Pond Dakota Heritage Society), but it should certainly be sought out and made a part of every public library collection (as well as more academic libraries, and of course, individuals looking for a good book to add to their TBR piles).**

*That guy was incredible. In the middle of everything else he had to do as president, he personally looked through trial transcripts (and assigned others to help him) to make sure the Dakota warriors sentenced to execution were not sentenced just because they happened to be in the general area.

**And of course, I can promise you that it is as extensively indexed as I could make it.