Biography

Need a book for the postmodern lit lover in your life?

I've got a great gift idea for the pomo lit lover in your life: D. T. Max's splendid literary biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.

Although I've never been able to read Wallace's fiction (for which he is really critically known), I've always been charmed by his nonfiction and I loved his 2005 graduation speech at Kenyon College. Because of the tragedy of his too-early death by suicide, I have always felt somewhat that he must have had a hard life, and I find him interesting.

Max's biography of him is definitely a literary biography--he quotes extensively from his works and really examines what it seems DFW was trying to do in his fiction. He also provides a good look at his influences, the politics of academia, and his relationships and correspondence with other writers, like Jonathan Franzen.

When I read this book, I read it more from the nosy viewpoint of someone who is more curious about his personal life. Although this biography is definitely not "dishy," there is still solid information to learn here about Wallace's family, his beginning struggles with depression and medication in college, and his often troubled relationships with friends and lovers (particularly with Mary Karr).

One particular tidbit that I found really fascinating was his sister's assertion (learning more about his relationship with his sister and parents was one of the more satisfying parts of this read in general), which she said she and her family had often talked about, that Wallace's (and I'm paraphrasing here) nonfiction was whimsical and sometimes a bit exaggerated, while his fiction contained the truths you really had to look out for. Something about that, really, frankly, tickled me. I find that one of the more fascinating aspects of Wallace, not only his writing, but also his personal approach to truth and truth-seeking.

It was a great read, even though, of course, it does not have a happy ending. I'd highly recommend it--and I'm not the only one.


Catching up: Shirley Jackson, part 2.

The beginning of the summer found me blown away by Shirley Jackson.

As noted here yesterday, Jackson is perhaps best known for her short story "The Lottery." I've read that, and although I remember liking it okay back in high school, I couldn't remember much about it. But when I found Jackson's humorous collection of vignettes about raising her kids, Life Among the Savages, I became completely fascinated by her. So much so that I checked out the only biography I could find about her, Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson, by Judy Oppenheimer (published in 1989).

ShirleyReading that biography was quite a trip, I'll tell you. Jackson was an interesting personality from the start, but I thought the story really took off when it examined both her writing life and her marriage. She married a man she met in college, who was a literary critic, and taught at Bennington College in Vermont (near which they lived). In addition to having and looking after their four kids, and still writing prolifically herself, she also had to look after her very needy husband Stanley.* I forget the details now, but the book is full of ridiculous stories like Shirley having to stop whatever she was doing in the house and run to sharpen Stanley's pencils whenever he needed.

It's also a trip reading a biography from 1989. Is it really so long ago? It got the job done, and I can't rightly remember what took me by surprise about the book, but the author seemed to offer a great deal of conjecture and amateur psychoanalysis of her subject. Biographies I've read in recent years seem to be a lot better, leading me to believe perhaps we are in a golden age for biography? Anyone else have an opinion on this?

In addition to simply being fascinated by Jackson, I'll never forget the experience of reading this biography. I read it when I was having a slight health blip, and one day when I was feeling particularly lousy, Mr. CR took CRjr to the park for me and for an hour or so I just lazed about in bed, reading about Shirley Jackson and eating a Hershey bar (my condition was not one that precluded me from having chocolate, mercifully). For whatever reason, the whole experience made me feel very warmly about Shirley Jackson. Interesting how people think reading is entirely passive, and yet many of my very strong and visceral physical memories include books and reading. Do you find this to be true as well?

*She lived intensely, but she didn't live long, the poor thing: she died in 1965 at age 48.


A pleasant puff piece.

I had forgotten that I had requested Sally Bedell Smith's Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch from the library, but I was excited to see it when it came in. I brought it home, intending really only to take a look at the pictures and maybe read the first few chapters. But pretty soon I just got kind of sucked in, and before you know it, I was finishing the book's last chapter about the wedding of William and Catherine and the future of the monarchy.*

ElizabethNow, there's nothing really very challenging here. Smith keeps an upbeat tone about everything, spinning all the stories as positively as she can for both the Queen and the other members of her family. There is nothing really overtly gossipy about this book either; Smith seems to have spoken with a lot of people, but the quotes she shares all seem pretty innocuous. Although I did enjoy this bit, about a much younger Elizabeth and Philip:

"During a visit to the Brabournes in Kent, John said to Philip, 'I never realized what lovely skin she has.' 'Yes,' Philip replied, 'she's like that all over.'" (p. 48.)

So, it's a puff piece. But it's a well-done puff piece. I particularly enjoyed learning more about the Queen's knowledge and love of horses and horse-racing, as well as more about her relationships with all the different prime ministers she's known. And the book included a fair amount of pictures, which I always enjoy. Looking for a read about her majesty? You could do a lot worse than this one. And this might be a fun year to read one--it's QE2's Diamond Jubilee year, celebrating her 60 years on the throne.

Reviews: LA Times, New York Times

*I did skip some of the political history and commonwealth visiting bits just to finish a bit faster.


George Harrison and a blog recommendation.

HarrisonTo make up for my earlier months of not finding much good nonfiction to read, I have been having a spectacular month so far on nonfiction books. And a lot of that luck is not luck at all--it comes from checking RickLibrarian's blog on a regular basis. Rick Roche is a librarian and the author of a fabulous reading guide about biographies, and just an all-around great guy who I was lucky enough to meet at several library conferences and at his home library. Recently he posted about a biography in photographs--Olivia Harrison's George Harrison: Living in the Material World, and his review made me decide I had to see the book.

I'm so glad I did. Although I have always enjoyed the Beatles, I don't know much about them individually. In this collection, quotes from George Harrison and others who knew him are interspersed with a variety of gorgeous photographs illustrating his life, from showing buildings in his native Liverpool bombed during WWII (he was born in 1943), pages out of his school notebooks, photos from the Beatles' early playing days and travels, and photos from his later travels to India and throughout the world in search of spiritual peace and new experiences. It seems, on balance, that he was a totally fascinating guy. I can't quote from the book for you as I couldn't wait to pass it on to my brother, but it was inspiring to read how much he loved guitars and music from an early age. And just think--being a Beatle at age 17. CRAZY stuff. A wonderful story, great quotes, gorgeous photographs (many taken by George himself), I can't recommend this book highly enough. And I would never have found it without Rick's great blog!


100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Biography

Continuing on with our critique of the Time list of 100 Best Nonfiction titles, today we'll consider Biography. Here's the titles Time selected:

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, by William Manchester
The Power Broker, by Robert Caro*

Now, first things first. Three bios? That's all? Why so many memoirs and so few bios? And, does the autobiography of Malcolm X count as bio or autobio? These questions are going to stump me all day.

So here's my three picks, although it hurts somewhat to limit it to three titles. And I'm not even a big biography reader!

Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich Pistol, Mark Kriegel. I have no interest in basketball, college or pro. But Kriegel's tale of the life of "Pistol" Pete Maravich is so much more than a sports bio; it's the biography of an immigrant family, the story of a father and a son and their complicated relationship, and the story of an unlikely sports hero.

Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child, Noel Riley Fitch. Intrigue! Action! Love affairs! Food! It's all here, centered on one of the most fascinating and likable women of the twentieth century, Julia Child.

This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, Kay Mills. This may be a controversial choice; I suppose there are much better-known biographies out there. But I've never been able to forget it, even though I read it years ago. Fannie Lou Hamer, born in 1917 to a sharecropping family with 20 children, lived through enormous hardship and poverty and still overcame to become a leading figure in the fight for civil rights. THIS is a book they should be teaching in history and women's studies courses.

So why do you think Time magazine chose only three biographies? Do you agree with their choices? Mine? Want to make some suggestions of your own?

*Of these three, I've only read the first, and won't read the second because, for whatever reason, I find Winston Churchill boring. I think I read one of Caro's biography volumes of LBJ, and found it very interesting, but never had time to read all of them.


Just Kids, part 2.

Yesterday I was so busy talking about my crush on Patti Smith, developed after reading her memoir Just Kids, that I didn't even get to talk about the love story/friendship at the heart of the book; that is, her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe.

The story(ies) of how they met indicate, from the start, the sort of fated friendship they were bound to share (as well as illustrating what a small town late-1960s New York City seemed to be). When Smith first moved to New York City, with no money,* she went in search of some friends of hers who attended the Pratt Institute for art, but when she arrived at their address, she found they had moved. Instead she met someone else who would become hugely influential to her: Mapplethorpe.

"I walked into the room. On a simple iron bed, a boy was sleeping. He was pale and slim with masses of dark curls, lying bare-chested with strands of beads around his neck. I stood there. He opened his eyes and smiled." (p. 25.)

A bit later, after Smith found a job in Brentano's (where they also must have sold crafts and jewelry), that same boy came in and used a credit slip (he had a job at a different Brentano's) to buy Smith's favorite necklace on display. And not long after that, when Smith was on a date with a bookstore customer whose motives she didn't trust, she happened to see Mapplethorpe nearby and used him to make good her escape:

"It was as if a small portal of future opened, and out stepped the boy from Brooklyn who had chosen the Persian necklace, like an answer to a teenage prayer. I immediately recognized his slightly bowlegged gait and his tousled curls. He was dressed in dungarees and a sheepskin vest. Around his neck hung strands of beaded necklaces, a hippie shepherd boy. I ran up to him and grabbed his arm.

'Hello, do you remember me?'

'Of course,' he smiled.

'I need help,' I blurted. 'Will you pretend you're my boyfriend?'

'Sure,' he said, as if he wasn't surprised by my sudden appearance..." (p. 38.)

I'm sorry, but that, my friends, is a relationship that was meant to be. Three chance encounters across Brooklyn and Manhattan? Of course, their entire love affair doesn't stay that idyllic. But you've got to read this book: what these two did for art, the people they met (particularly while living at the Chelsea Hotel), the way they loved each other--take your pick. It felt like about four great books in one.

*Have I said how much I love Patti Smith? Check out this sense of adventure: "At twenty years old, I boarded the bus. I wore my dungarees, black turtleneck, and the old gray raincoat I had bought in Camden. My small suitcase, yellow-and-red plaid, held some drawing pencils, a notebook, Illuminations, a few pieces of clothing, and pictures of my siblings. I was superstitious. Today was a Monday; I was born on a Monday. It was a good day to arrive in New York City. No one expected me. Everything awaited me." (p. 25.)


Not your typical love story.

I'll say this for memoirs: when I find a good one, there's really no nonfiction genre I enjoy more.

Kids Last week I decided that it was time for me to read Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids, about her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and their lives together in late 1960s and early 1970s New York City. Just to be clear: I don't think I've ever heard a Patti Smith song*, and I really didn't know anything about Robert Mapplethorpe except that he was a famous and controversial photographer (actually, to be honest, all I really had was a sort of fuzzy recollection that he photographed a lot of nudes). I picked this one up simply because it won the National Book Award and showed up on nearly every "best of 2010" list, and I always like to keep an eye on what nonfiction titles are winning awards and showing up on lists.

I loved it. I really, really loved it. It didn't matter if I read it for five minutes or half an hour; it never failed to transport me to a completely different time and place. (And, as a girl who believes in safety first, and is not a drug user in any way, I can't say that 1970s New York City is a place I ever thought I'd want to be transported TO.) I felt like I was reading about eight books in one: a coming-of-age story; a vignette about New York City; a digression on the purposes of art; and a sweeping but bittersweet love story. Every day I would read in it, and every night at supper I would bore Mr. CR with stories from it.

A large part of the appeal of this memoir was, as it so often is with memoirs, character (and, by extension, voice). I found myself just really loving Patti Smith. Early on there is an interlude, before she goes to New York, when she becomes pregnant at age 19:

"When I was a young girl, I fell into trouble. In 1966, at summer's end, I slept with a boy even more callow than I and we conceived instantaneously. I consulted a doctor who doubted my concern, waving me off with a somewhat bemused lecture on the female cycle. But as the weeks passed, I knew that I was carrying a child..."

She continues, explaining how she "relieved the boy of his responsibility," and how she listened to her parents and family in the kitchen, knowing she would have to tell them she was pregnant. And then:

"It is impossible to exaggerate the sudden calm I felt. An overwhelming sense of mission eclipsed my fears. I attributed this to the baby, imagining it empathized with my situation. I felt in full possession of myself. I would do my duty and stay strong and healthy. I would never look back. I would never return to the factory or to teachers college. I would be an artist. I would prove my worth, and with my new resolve I rose and approached the kitchen." (p. 18.)

She had the baby and gave it up for adoption, and felt she had done the right thing, but even after she went to NYC and met Mapplethorpe, the experience stayed with her:

"Perhaps it was the relief of having a safe haven at last, for I seemed to crash, exhuasted and emotionally overwrought. Though I never questioned my decision to give my child up for adoption, I learned that to give life and walk away was not so easy. I became for a time moody and despondent. I cried so much that Robert affectionately called me Soakie." (p. 42.)

I don't know why those bits appealed to me so; they just made me really, really like Patti Smith. I even liked Mapplethorpe, by extension, for calling her Soakie (affectionately).

More tomorrow on this book, whether you want to hear more about it or not.

*I've heard songs written by Patti Smith, especially "Because the Night." Unfortunately, it's one of my least favorite songs ever, as Natalie Merchant did a cover of it that was, to put it lightly, OVERPLAYED on the radio. (The years I lived with my brother, a certified Natalie Merchant fanatic, and he would play her CDs every morning, also did not make me feel more kindly towards Ms. Merchant.)


Twenty attempts at a review.

How to Read: A review of Sarah Bakewell's How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.

1. How to Read: Consider format

Montaigne I started this critically acclaimed biography with very little knowledge of Montaigne, but I was intrigued by all the good reviews of the book's writing. I was not disappointed; Bakewell's done a neat thing here with (to my mind) the somewhat tired biography format of birth, life, death.* Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), best known for his almost single-handed creation of the essay form, wrote about anything and everything, and most of his writings deal with the big question: "how to live?" In twenty chapters, Bakewell tells his life story by answering that question in twenty different ways. In the chapter titled "How to Live? Don't Worry about Death" she describes his attitude toward life and a near-death accident/experience he had; in one titled "How to Live? Survive love and loss" she describes his love for his friend La Boetie, who died an early death. It's still largely chronological, but the focus in different chapters on different aspects of his life makes the format of this biography a little something special.

2. How to Read: with great interest

Essays are some of my favorite things to read, and although I didn't know much about Montaigne other than his obsession with writing down the personal details of his life, I started out reading this book with a high level of interest. Plain and simple, I kind of like this guy: "Montaigne had hitherto been keeping two lives going; one urban and political, the other rural and managerial. Although he had run the country estate since the death of his father in 1568, he had continued to work in Bordeaux. In early 1570, however, he put his magistracy up for sale. There other reasons besides the accident...perhaps his own encounter with death, in combination with the loss of his brother, made him think differently about how he wanted to live his life. Montaigne had put in thirteen years of work at the Bordeaux parlement when he took this step. He was thirty-seven--middle-aged perhaps, by the standards of the time, but not old." (pp. 23-24.)

That's right, the guy retired at 37. My kind of guy.

3. How to Read: with growing distraction

Perhaps it's finally happened; my brain has re-wired itself due to all the reading and work I do online, and I'm not able to read long books anymore. But after the 200-page mark my desire to read/finish this book just kind of flagged. It was still interesting, I just kind of...trailed off. I pushed further, and skimmed another 50 pages, but that's it. I'd learned all I wanted to of Montaigne for the time being, that's all. But I'd still recommend this one; I hope to get it back some day and finish it, as well as read Montaigne's actual essays. If only I could retire at 37 that would leave me a lot more time for that sort of thing.

4. How to Read: so many other books that you don't have time to write the full review you promised in the beginning of the post. I'm not going to try to get to 20 questions and answers.

*Although this is also the format of, well, real life, so it makes sense as a biography template.


Weekend fluffy reading.

I have been reading a lot of stuff lately that I feel like I have to read--books about babies' first years and developmental milestones (which CRjr is mainly hitting, but about which I am nervous all the same); books I'm indexing; books I'm not really into but that are coming due at the library; books to review for outside sources that I don't feel like reading; finance books because I am just desperate to understand something, anything, about investing; etc.

Diana So this past weekend I saw the title After Diana: William, Harry, Charles, and the Royal House of Windsor by Christopher Andersen on my TBR bookshelf and thought, well, hell, I'm just going to read that this weekend and enjoy myself. So I did. And I didn't do any other reading I thought I should do--I read this book, and the paper, and I did the New York magazine crossword, and in general slacked off disgracefully. It was awesome.

I enjoyed this book because it didn't look or feel particularly fluffy, but man, was it a fast read. It was also fun to read it after watching the big Royal Wedding a few weeks back; I'd never read that much about the Windsor family, so it was fun to learn more about Wills and Harry. (Particularly hilarious was the part about Wills attending college at St. Andrews, in Scotland, and heading over to campus on a street called Butts Wynd--I have a picture of that street sign from when we visited St. Andrews ourselves! Also funny--when it was announced he was going to school there, admissions for that year shot up 44%, accounted for by almost all women.) Although I did learn MORE than enough about some of the goings-on among Diana and the rest of the royals, Charles and Camilla, the Queen and Charles, etc. There were some wild stories here.

But all in all I don't think I'll search out any more bios by Christopher Andersen. This one was okay, as I was interested in the subject matter, but the chapters seemed somewhat disjointed and there wasn't much of an overall story arc. But that's okay. I wanted fluffy reading and I got fluffy reading, so I can't complain.


His way.

Thanks to some research I've been doing for a workshop I'm doing in a couple of weeks* on biographies and memoirs, I've been on a real Frank Sinatra bender. Do you know how many biographies there are about Frank Sinatra? A lot. A lot a lot. This works out nicely for me, as I am a fan.**

Sinatra I've got a pile of Sinatra books here, and every day I wander through some of them, looking at the pictures and reading snippets of text here and there. It's also gotten me in the mood to listen to some Sinatra, which I did today, and which was fun, as CRjr seems also to be a fan. He particularly seemed to enjoy "Luck Be a Lady," although that might have been because his crazy mother was sashaying around the kitchen singing along to it.

One book I made it all the way through was Pete Hamill's Why Sinatra Matters, which I'd file under "hagiography"--Hamill doesn't sugar-coat some of Sinatra's less savory connections or personality attributes, but he definitely comes down on the side of fandom. It's brief--180 pages--and if you like Sinatra's music you'll probably enjoy it. There's a bit about his parents and hometown, birth (he was a 13-pound baby!), childhood, marriages, and mob connections, but the best part is the chapter on the second part of his career, when he made a ton of his hits at Capitol Records:

"There were a number of components to the Sinatra-Riddle collaboration. Friedwald emphasizes one of them: 'Lightness shines as the primary ingredient of the Riddle style. Whether he has ten brass swinging heavily or an acre of strings, Riddle always manages to make everything sound light; that way, the weightiest ballad doesn't become oversentimental and insincere, and the fastest swinger doesn't come off as forced.'" (p. 171.)

I enjoyed that; I enjoyed the look behind the scenes at Sinatra's music (and Nelson Riddle's arrangements of it). Much more fun reading than any of the stuff about the mob. And let's hear it for Hamill; in the back of the book he lists a little bibliography of other books about Sinatra. Nice.

*Calling all library staff in the Chicago area: there's still time to join us!

**Come on. I've Got the World on a String? One of the greatest songs ever.


Glutton for punishment.

I'm pretty much done with politics. I've been pretty much done ever since I read John Bowe's superlative book Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, in which he pointed out that the system isn't broken, the system is working exactly the way it was set up to work.

So why on earth would I check out George W. Bush's memoir Decision Points?

Decision I read the first chapter of it last night, and I just spent a good half-hour washing the dishes and thinking about it. My questions about this title and why I would read any of it are legion. Let's consider them, shall we?

Q: Why would anyone who is done with politics, and who was no fan of W., be interested in this book?

A: Sometimes, when I am in a whimsical mood, I find autobiographies and memoirs by people I dislike amusing. In this case I was also vaguely curious to see how W. put a spin on the events of his life and presidency. I liken this, particularly in George W. Bush's case, to "getting inside the mind of a serial killer,"* which is a reason some people cite for reading True Crime. Also, this is a book a lot of people will be reading, and the librarian in me wants to look it over. Last, but not least, it always gives me an illicit thrill to check out Republican memoirs from--gasp--publicly funded libraries.

Q: Does W. himself actually believe this stuff?

A: I don't know. Sure seems like it. In the first chapter, W. gives a flash history of his life up through 1986 and his decision to quit drinking (chapter 2 starts in 1999, with his presidential bid). In a sick sort of way there was a lot to laugh about in the first chapter.** Here are the highlights:

"Nearly all the historians suggested that I read Memoirs by President Ulysses S. Grant, which I did." (p. xi.)

(I have my doubts about that. Grant's memoir is over 500 pages long. But I digress.)

"As the days at Andover wound down, it came time to apply for college. My first thought was Yale. After all, I was born there. One time-consuming part of the application was filling out the blue card that asked you to list relatives who were alumni. There was my grandfather and my dad. And all his brothers. And my first cousins. I had to write the names of the second cousins on the back of the card. Despite my family ties, I doubted that I would be accepted." (p. 13.)

"My attitude toward the [Vietnam] War was skeptical but accepting...One day in the fall of my senior year, I walked by a recruiting station with a poster of a jet pilot in the window. Flying planes would be an exciting way to serve...Dad referred me to a man named Sid Adger, a former pilot who was well connected in the aviation community. He suggested that I consider joining the Texas Air National Guard, which had pilot slots available. Unlike members of the regular Guard, pilots were required to complete a year of training..." (p. 16.)

And so on and so forth. There's more, about how his early oil businesses failed due largely to bad timing in the mid-80s (there's lots of talk about merging with other companies, not being bought out for political good will) but I just realized, typing just now, that I've hit the end of my whimsical mood. I'm rapidly passing into my disgusted mood, which for some reason often does follow the whimsical one. But more questions remain: Does this guy really think he wasn't going to get into Yale? (A corollary: can he imagine what it must be like to come from one of those backward families where not everyone does go to college, let alone Yale?***) Does he really think serving in the Texas Air National Guard counts as serving in the Vietnam War? Is he the dumbest man alive, or is he so clever he just appears dumb?

Anyway. Even with a lot of dishes to do I didn't come up to any answers for my questions. After the dishes I picked up Decision Points, read a few more pages, looked at the pictures, and checked the index for "cocaine use."**** Tomorrow I'll take it back to the library.

*Literally. And also.

**Laugh about in the way Albert Brooks describes in the movie Broadcast News: "At some point, it was so off-the-chart bad it just got funny."

***Sometimes I think about Helene Hanff, she of 84, Charing Cross Road, not having the money to attend college, and it breaks my heart. Particularly in light of this guy wandering through his years at Andover, Yale, and Harvard. That's all right--Helene educated herself, and gave us a great book about it: Q's Legacy.

****I'll end your suspense. It wasn't there.


Citizen Reader's Holiday Gift Guide: As Always, Julia

Julia Child was, let's face it, one sassy dame.*

You have to respect a woman who didn't find her true calling in life until her forties, and who arguably didn't make a grand success of her business until nearly age 50 (born in 1912, her masterwork, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was first published in 1961). At least I have to respect her--she gives me hope that I may still chance upon something that a) I am good at, and b) I can make some money at.

But all of that aside, Child's life was a fascinating one even before she became television's French Chef. She worked for the OSS (the precursor to the CIA), married her true love, traveled the world, and cooked and cooked and cooked until she knew more about cooking than many great chefs. If you're interested in her at all, or know someone who might be, the first book I would suggest purchasing is Noel Riley Fitch's biography, Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child.

Julia But the book in question for today is As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto: Food, Friendship, and the Making of a Masterpiece, edited by Joan Reardon. It's a collection of letters between the two women, primarily covering the years 1952-1962, when Child was, along with Simca Beck, experimenting on the recipes that would comprise their infamous cookbook. DeVoto was a woman that Child got to know by accident; Child originally wrote to Avis's husband, historian and columnist Bernard DeVoto, about an article he published about the quality of knives used in American kitchens (primarily stainless steel ones, which evidently don't rust but also aren't easy to adequately sharpen). Avis answered that letter, and soon the two were off, discussing knives, food, politics, culture, and eventually, the chances of publishing Child's cookbook (Avis also had connections to several publishing companies).

The letters have a lot to do with food, as one might imagine. What surprised me, though, is how much the women also chatted over current and cultural affairs, politics (particularly Joe McCarthy), and other issues in their personal lives. I knew I loved Julia; what I didn't expect, though, was to start feeling so attached to Avis DeVoto--who seems to have been a fascinating and warm woman in her own right.

So, who might like this book?

Fans of Julia Child, of course.

"Foodies," or people who love to read anything about food--seeing how the cookbook was tested, and how passionate these women were about food and the correct cooking methods is fascinating.

Anyone who likes letter collections--I myself find them the easiest way to pick up social and cultural history, and I love the personal asides that slip in (from Julia: "What a horrible 5 days we have just been through, both snortling with head colds, and I got the curse on top of it." HA!).

Readers who enjoy nonfiction by or featuring strong, personality-rich women, which Child and DeVoto unquestionably were.

*God love her, she reputedly didn't think much of Julie Powell's memoir Julie and Julia, which she derided as "a stunt."


A thoroughly unique mind.

It's ALMOST the time of year for me to re-read Ray Bradbury's classic novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Each year I look forward to October primarily for that reason.*

Echoes So when I saw a new book at my library called Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews, by Sam Weller, I got super excited. And I was not disappointed. This was one of those books I was going to wait on, because I have lots of other library books that should get read and returned first...but I couldn't wait, and then I blew threw it in a couple of days.

Organized in sections titled things like Childhood, Faith, Art and Literature, Writing and Creativity, the book is a straightforward question-and-answer session. To his credit, Weller is an appropriately understated interviewer, which leaves plenty of room for Bradbury to work his magic. Now, I did not agree with everything Bradbury said, and I actually learned some things I didn't like about him (**SPOILERS** he likes Ronald Reagan; he cheated on his wife). But I still have to appreciate the fact that the man does have an entirely unique mind. And any librarian is going to love a man that says things like this:

"The library was very important. After high school, I went two or three nights a week for nearly ten years. The library is all the education you need. When I married Maggie in September 1947, I figured I was done. I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven." (p. 203.)

Weller is also the author of a biography of Bradbury, The Bradbury Chronicles, which I also want to read sometime soon. Do give this one a try, even if you're not a particular fan of Bradbury--he's never dull.

*I'm thinking this year I'll re-read Fahrenheit 451, too, it's been ages since I read it the first time.


The unbelievable life of Henrietta Lacks.

I was absolutely blown away by the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. In the best possible way. And I loved being blown away by it, because it's been getting a lot of attention this spring, and every now and then I like to see a hyped book that is actually worth it.

Henrietta If you haven't heard of it, it's the story of an African American woman named Henrietta Lacks, who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Only her story didn't end there; when the tumor on her cervix was originally studied, the doctor who took a sample of it at Johns Hopkins passed it along to a researcher named George Gey, who was trying to find a way to grow cells that could be used in medical experimentation. He hadn't been having a whole lot of luck, until he received Henrietta's cancerous cells, which grew, and grew, and grew...until they became known, formally, as the HeLa cell line, and went on to be used in hundreds (if not thousands; I'm not sure of the exact numbers) of medical experiments in labs around the world. Hence Henrietta's "immortal life."

I was not only blown away by the science of this book, but also by Henrietta's own story (growing up in poverty; having five children before dying at age 31; and still having the time to be a friend to those around her, cook meals for any family member who showed up, and even going out dancing with her girlfriends) and by Skloot's telling of it. In the course of researching the story, Skloot became involved in the lives of several of Henrietta's children, most particularly her daughter, Deborah. Often her relationship with the family was tense; they didn't really know what was happening, even after they were told (many years after the fact) about how their mother's cells were used, and many of them lacked health insurance, money, or access to decent health care, which understandably made them even more wary of the establishment.

Don't worry if you're not a science reader. Skloot makes the pertinent details easy to understand. Likewise, if you're a science reader and don't care much for the human interest stories, give this one a try anyway. If nothing else, it's a valuable narrative at a time in our history when, every time you go to the doctor, they like to get some urine and blood from you that you never hear about again.* I don't know that there's anything to be done about it, but it never hurts to be aware of facts like, once doctors remove tissue from you, that tissue no longer counts as you (even though it still contains your DNA) and they can pretty much do whatever they want with it.

It's a great book, one of my favorites of the year so far. I plan to hand it off to several other family members, which is going to be easy, since I spilled my Fiber One cereal all over it while reading it and eating breakfast, so I just had to buy my copy from the library. (I cleaned it up enough so that it is readable, but never let it be said that I shirk at my duty of paying for books I damage. This is the first one in thousands, so I can't feel too terribly about it. However, Mr. CR has suggested, and I have agreed, that I should no longer read library books while I eat my cereal.)

*At least this always seems to happen to me at the doctor. I mean, I guess it's good that they never find anything bad enough that they have to call me, but still. I give blood, I'd like to hear what they're finding.


Taking a shot at understanding.

I really, really enjoy nonfiction graphic novels that are not memoirs. Specific enough for you?

As previously noted, a lot of graphic novel memoirs seriously bum me out; tops on this list were David Small's Stitches and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. There's something about seeing challenging if not downright horrific childhoods and young adulthoods portrayed in pictures that I very nearly can't handle.

Logicomix But history and biography graphic novels? Love 'em. Another good case in point of this phenomenon is Apostolos Doxiadis's and Christos Papdimitriou's graphic novel Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth.* Although the authors admit the book is more "based on reality" than it is pure nonfiction (they provide a very nice note in the back, explaining how and when they deviated from pure fact), I decided it didn't really bother me. The book is a rather selective biography of the life of philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell, and covers the overlap between the philosophy of logic and the science of mathematics.

Now, I'm not saying I got a lot of it. I certainly don't get the math stuff and most of the logic stuff just seems like semantic wrangling to me, but I must say that the graphic novel format, for whatever reason, makes me feel like I've got a shot at understanding some of the basics of what the authors are trying to say.** Although I most likely won't have time to follow the interest, it also somewhat motivated me to maybe someday read more about Bertrand Russell--his is one of those names I hear a lot but can never really place. (Just so you know: he was born in 1872 in Great Britain, the grandson of former Prime Minister Lord John Russell, became a mathematical logician and well-known author, later became a vocal anti-nuclear activist, and died in 1970.) So thumbs up on this one; it ranks right up there with Jim Ottaviani's historical/scientific graphic novels Fallout and Suspended in Language: Niels Bohrs's Life, Discoveries, and the Century He Shaped.

*Can't remember where I heard about this one. Lesbrarian, did you suggest I read it? If so, thanks!

**I did learn this: I don't think you want to be married to a logician.


I need to remember to read this when I'm retired and have months to kill.

There are detailed biographies, and there are detailed biographies, and then there is Jenny Uglow's biography Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories.

Gaskell I really love Elizabeth Gaskell. (And reading her books too--not just watching the BBC versions of North and South and Cranford, although that's how my interest was piqued.) And a friend of mine is a very big fan of Jenny Uglow's writing. So I thought this would be a very happy marriage of interesting subject and recommended writer.

But I just can't do it. I made it all the way to page 27, and I have to admit that I am not going to get any further (for now) and take it back to the library. In all fairness, twenty-seven pages of this biography are equal to at least fifty pages in a less strenuously researched one. Consider:

"The whole 'Holland clan,' as their friends called them, played a part in Elizabeth's early years. Her uncle Peter Holland, an irascible, humorous man, who limped from a leg injured in a fall from a gig, was the local doctor. He lived in Church House at the other end of town and when Elizabeth was small, she travelled in his dog-cart on his rounds in the country practice--much as George Eliot, nine years younger, was to travel with her land-agent father. His practice flourished, and his apprentices (like those of Mr. Gibson in Wives and Daughters) lodged in Church House with his large family. His first wife, Mary Willetts, who died in 1803, was a niece of Josiah Wedgwood, and Peter, linked to the wider Unitarian network, was an influential figure, more involved with political and mercantile life than the term 'local doctor' implies." (p. 16.)

There is a lot going on in that paragraph. I can find no faults with Uglow's research or writing--both are very skillfully done--but I simply do not have the time right now to finish a biography in which every page is that dense, and there are more than 600 said pages. So, like I said: someday, when I am retired, and have the weeks and months to give this book that it deserves, I'll be back for it.


This man loves biographies.

The other day I was charmed when I visited RickLibrarian's blog site* and found that he had devoted an entire post to the subject of picture sections in biographies. I was enthralled because pictures are sometimes my favorite parts of biographies; no matter what, I'll always flip to the picture section and read all of the captions carefully before reading the book.

Rick is a librarian and the author of the fabulous nonfiction readers' guide Real Lives Revealed: A Guide to Reading Interests in Biography, and he has posted many times before about various topics in biography. I love his attention to the detail and nuances of biographical writing; this is the sort of in-depth studies librarians should be doing of all types of nonfiction, although I know that no one has the time anymore for that sort of thing. (And if you work in a library, you're mainly just too busy trying to keep the printers unjammed, unsavory characters from following children into bathrooms, and explaining to patrons why you are not, in fact, really qualified to do their taxes for them for free.)

Have a good weekend, all, and happy spring.

*I was further charmed this morning when I visited his site and found a positive review for Nancy Pearl's and my new reference volume Now Read This III. Thanks, Rick!


Christ, I hate technology.*

Wedlock Last night I had a big long post going about Wendy Moore's historical biography titled Wedlock: The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore. You'll just have to take my word that the post was one I was really proud of: I summarized the book masterfully and threw in the perfect amount of witticisms.** But then I went to save it and either my Internet blipped or something happened in TypePad, because all of a sudden I got kicked out of the program. Gone! All gone! And, of course, although the "back" Internet button works just fine when your boss wants to see the last twenty web pages you've looked at at work, it's no good when trying to recover blog posts--they just disappear. The skinny of the story is that I am tired and mad at the blog this morning, and so will simply dump my main thoughts about this book out there in list form.

1. I really enjoyed this book, which is about Mary Eleanor Bowes, a coal heiress in eighteenth-century Britain, who first married a title- and land-rich but cash-poor Earl (of Strathmore), endured nine years of an unhappy marriage and had five children before he died, and then was snookered into marrying a dastardly bounder named Andrew Robinson Stoney. How she was snookered is unbelievable, so I won't spoil the surprise.

2. The poor woman then spent the next decade+ of her life being knocked around and having her money spent by Stoney, before she finally had enough and tried to get a divorce. Divorce courts in the eighteenth century were not kind to women. Eventually the only people who were any help to her were her servants, many of whom went unpaid and incurred the wrath of her violent husband themselves.

3. This book needs pictures, although it ticks along at a nice pace, which historical biography sometimes struggles with (often being too detailed for my taste).

4. Let's just face it: women have never had it easy (even the rich ones).

So there you have it. Read this book, and save your work frequently when working online. That's my little public service announcement for the day.

*The irony of saying this on a blog is not lost on me.

**Not really. But it was a post and it was done, which to me constitutes the perfect post.


Not so funny after all.

I'll admit it. I checked out Going Rogue (Sarah Palin's autobiography) from the library because I thought it might be kind of a hoot. I don't know why, really. Something about her bright smiling face on the surreal cover just gives me the giggles. (And, on the inside cover, it notes that the book design is by "Got Moxie Design." This also strikes me as funny.)

Rogue But then I got to all of page 2, when she is sharing how her daughter Piper was shown in a poster used by the organization Alaska Right to Life, and I just got sad. Primarily because I started wondering why so many pro-life people are also so pro-war. It was too depressing a thought for words, and it was really a deeper philosophical question than I wanted dredged up during the reading of what I thought might be a pretty ridiculous political autobiography.

I did persevere for about forty more pages, but I don't have much to report other than a) it's standard political autobiographical fare, with, one can only guess, massive whitewashing of Palin's idyllic Alaskan childhood, and b) it's actually not the worst-written thing I've ever read, which was a bit surprising.

I'm going to return it now, so the next person in line can get it in a timely fashion. I hope they are a member of the Tea Party, otherwise paragraphs like this are just going to make them chuckle:

"One part of athletics I really appreciated was our local chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which I co-captained under the leadership of the Wasilla Warriors' wrestling coach, Mr. Foreman. At least sixty of us met in public school classrooms for Bible study and inspirational exchanges that motivated us to focus on hard work and excellence.* In those days, ACLU activists had not yet convinced young people that they were supposed to feel offended by other people's free exercise of religion." (p. 28.)

In other Palin news, Bookninja posted a link the other day to a story about her PAC purchasing numerous copies of this book (however many copies $63,000 gets you), and paying for her photography and book tour travels.

*Because Jesus was all about the "excellence." 


You go, Jane Jacobs.

The book which has held me captive since Sunday night is titled Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Too On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City, by Anthony Flint.

Moses The reasons I love this slim history are legion. I had never read anything about Jane Jacobs (a longtime New York City resident and activist, and author of the architecutral and urban planning classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities), but she is a fascinating woman. Through the 1950s and 1960s she fought against City Hall (and "master planner" Robert Moses, who was responsible for building numerous bridges, highways, parks, and residential buildings across the city for decades through the middle of the twentieth century), primarily to save Washington Square Park from having a highway built through it, and against the construction of an elevated ten-lane highway across the tip of Manhattan.

I also loved this book because it is a great slice of history. In a succinct 195 pages, it provides information about the history and planning of New York City, controversies about urban renewal and development, the remarkable career of Robert Moses, and the even more remarkable career and personality of Jane Jacobs. Of course I loved this book because it is about New York City, and I wish I had a cool author name like "Anthony Flint." But the front and center attraction of this book is Jacobs herself. Consider her conduct at a sham city hall meeting to gather community feedback about the proposed elevated highway:

"Though the ostensible purpose of the meeting was to collect opinions about the project, it had been hurriedly scheduled--to make sure testimony was gathered before legislation passed that required an even more extensive public approval process...The manner in which the meeting was being conducted--the microphone faced toward the audience, not the officials the residents were nominally addressing--suggested that state officials were just going through the motions...

From the seat she'd taken near the front of the auditorium, Jane Jacobs made her way up the stairs and onton the stage. 'It's interesting, the way the mike is set up,' she observed tartly as she reached the microphone. She was calm, and her expression was matter-of-fact. 'At a public hearing, you are supposed to address the officials, not the audience.'

The chairman of the hearing, John Toth of the New York Department of Transportation, bounded down from the statge and turned the microphone around. But Jacobs turned it right back.

'Thank you, sir, but I'd rather speak to my friends,' Jacobs said. 'We've been talking to ourselves all evening as it is.' The crowd roared with laughter." (pp. xii-xiii.)

From there she went on to call for a silent protest march across the stage, during which the stenographer's rolls of tape documenting the meeting were destroyed (which meant there was no public record, and the meeting couldn't be counted), called it a "fink meeting," and was arrested.

It's a great book, and it has spurred me to consider, again, reading Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I always used to shelve it at the used bookstore, and wonder if I should read it, and then for years I would shelve it at the public library and give it some more thought (it went in and out quite regularly); but it was so thick I never got around to it. Maybe now is the time.