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!

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.

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.

Nancy Isenberg's White Trash.

White trashOkay, I did not get through all of Nancy Isenberg's White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. It's 321 dense pages long, plus notes, for the love of all that's holy. To get through that much serious nonfiction I would need at least another 321 years.

But I did read the first 100 pages thoroughly, and then skimmed most of the book from page 200 on. And I really, really liked it. It's a totally different look at America's history, and provides a nice "look behind the curtains" that are the ruling mythologies of our American experience. We're exceptional? Well, no, not really, a lot of our first settlers ended up here because other countries were looking to dump their poor and challenging citizens somewhere else. All our founders were here for the noble goal of religious freedom? Again, no. See the answer above. The histories of the colonies and how they came about, and the more targeted look at our Founding Fathers' writings (from Thomas Jefferson to Ben Franklin, along with a number of other not-so-well-known names), were quite detailed (and a little dry, sometimes) but still: v. v. interesting.

The latter half of the book is more about "white trash" and poor whites in modern history, including chapters about enforced sterilization and eugenics, Elvis Presley, Lyndon B. Johnson, integration, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. There was a LOT here to think about, in terms of race, economics, and social class.

So. Here's a bit from the introduction:

"In the most literal terms, as we shall see, British colonists promoted a dual agenda: one involved reducing poverty back in England, and the other called for transporting the idle and unproductive to the New World. After settlement, colonial outposts exploited their unfree laborers (indentured servants, slaves, and children) and saw such expendable classes as human waste. The poor, the waste, did not disappear, and by the early eighteenth century they were seen as a permanent breed. This way of classifying human failure took hold in the United States. Every era in the continent's vaunted developmental story had its own taxonomy of waste people--unwanted and unsalvageable. Each era had its own means of distancing its version of white trash from the mainstream ideal." (pp. 1-2.)

I don't read a lot of serious history and it shows; I wanted to give this one more time and attention. (Someone at the Atlantic did: here's their article.) If you're looking for some American history that is most definitely not "same old, same old," I would consider this one.

You've gotta read this: Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable, and What We Can Do About It.

I read a lot of nonfiction.

So yeah, this is not news. I read a lot of nonfiction, and a lot of it I find interesting, and a lot of it I enjoy. But sometimes I read nonfiction that, even if it isn't a particularly great book as such, still makes me go, holy fuck. Everybody should really read this.* One of the best examples of a book like that (for me), was John Bowe's title Nobodies. In addition to being a mind-bending read, that one was also a great book, well reported and written, so it was a twofer. But that's the book where Bowe trotted this little truth out for me (and yes, I'm paraphrasing, one of these days I have to get that book back and find the exact quote): people figure the system is broken and could be fixed. What they actually don't realize is that the system is working exactly the way the system was set up to work. (Italics mine.) As I said: Holy fuck. I'm still recovering from that devastating nugget. I can't decide if reading that was the exact moment I gave up on politics, or if that was coming for me anyway.

Future crimesBut I digress. Another one of these types of books that I read a while back was Future Crimes (paperback subtitle: Inside the Digital Underground and the Battle for Our Connected World), by Marc Goodman. This is a dense brick of a book all about the security vulnerabilities in the current version of our Internet and in all our online systems. It is also about the many ways that criminals can find and use our personal information (and how hard it is to prosecute them, particularly if they are executing crimes in different countries from the ones in which they are sitting at their computers--who has jurisdiction over a hacking job taking place in Russia when the victims are elsewhere, for example?), and, even worse, how perfectly legal companies collect and exploit our personal information as well. Oh, and let's not forget the information about how most programming and coding these days is done fast and sloppy (by design), which leaves big holes and vulnerable bugs in most software and online applications. Also: the chapter on the Dark Web, which still gives me nightmares.

Every page of this book was more horrifying than the last. I'm sorry I don't have any more concrete examples for you--I had a whole bunch of pages bookmarked but the youngest CRjr views it as his personal mission to pull all the bookmarks out of my books--but trust me, you don't have to read for more than two pages at any point in the book to be appalled.

That in fact was one of the criticisms of this book that I read in several reviews: it is just too dense, and reads like a laundry list of examples. And that is true. There is not much of an overarching narrative structure here. But I found each example to have its own little storyline, and I read the book slowly, over the course of a few weeks (as noted: it is dense), so that was no problem. It's full of information, but none of it is particularly hard information to understand. Criminals? Here's how they take and use all of your information, sometimes including your identity. Companies? Here's what they are all collecting on you, and what that means (I DO remember one particular example of people who joined what they thought was an anonymous health web site/community, and eventually companies were able to track down their identities just by parsing the information they gave the site).

Oh, and the last little bit on things you can do to protect yourself from the vulnerabilities in the coming Internet of Things, and all the other ways in which our privacy is violated, is pretty laughable. "Use strong passwords" and all that jazz. So yeah. This book was not perfect.

But overall? I think you should read it. I think you should skip the chapter on the dark web, so you can keep on living without despair eating away at your soul, but still, at least give it a skim. One of my favorite outcomes of reading it is that I'm much more aware of privacy and Internet security articles and news items whenever I come across them, and I don't think that's a bad thing. Have you been reading the "Passcode" section of the online Christian Science Monitor? Great articles on this topic. Damn, I love the CSM.

*Yes, I'm assuming that everyone reads. And has ample time to do so. I am informed by many reliable sources that neither of those statements are really true.

Paul Theroux's Deep South.

There are about a million places I want to travel to someday.

I'm rather ashamed to admit that none of those places are located in the American South.*

So when I saw that infamous travel writer Paul Theroux had written a travelogue titled Deep South, I thought, well, in lieu of traveling anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line, I'll just read that.

At no point was I swept away, really, in Theroux's narrative. I actually thought he was a bit wordy/long-winded through most of it, and the entire book could have done with a much tighter editing. (Theroux is, of course, a bestselling travel writer and novelist, best known for his books The Old Patagonian Express and (the novel) The Mosquito Coast. And I have read and enjoyed at least one of his earlier works. But I wonder if he is so hallowed these days that he is not much edited.)

Over the course of the four different seasons, Theroux drove away from his home in the north and meandered through such deep Southern states as Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi. And many of the stories he tells seem to center on the deep poverty of many people living in the South, combined with wonder at their kindnesses and hospitality to him. One of his very first stories is of getting lost in Alabama, when a kind woman asks if she can help him find where he's going.

"In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on a hot Sunday morning in early October, I sat in my car in the parking lot of a motel studying a map, trying to located a certain church...

I slapped the map with the back of my hand. I must have looked befuddled.

'You lost, baby?'

I had driven from my home in New England, a three-day road trip to another world, the warm green stages of the Deep South I had longed to visit, where 'the past is never dead,' so the man famously said. 'It's not even past.' Later that month, a black barber snipping my hair in Greensboro, speaking of its racial turmoil today, laughed and said to me, in a sort of paraphrase of that writer whom he'd not heard of and never read, 'History is alive and well here.'" (p. 4.)

The woman who asked him if he was lost ended up leading him (she drove her car and he followed) to the church he wanted.

I did get a kick out of Theroux being curmudgeonly enough to ask many residents of Arkansas if they didn't think Bill Clinton's philanthropic work wouldn't be appreciated in many of the poorer areas of his own home state (as opposed to focusing on Africa). Most people didn't respond to that in any big way, but one person did reply that Clinton had his own weaknesses and proclivities, as all humans do (or something like that). And Theroux was gracious enough to agree with that and move on.

It was an interesting (if very sad, at times) read, and there's a lot of great pictures in it. Worth a look, but don't feel bad if you have to skip over some of the text because it is just taking too long.

*As a dedicated Anglophile, for one thing, I'd like to visit a lot more of England and Scotland (and Ireland, for good measure) than I've so far had the good luck to see.

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

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.

Each subsequent chapter sadder than the last.

At least, that's sort of the way I felt as I made my way through Catherine Bailey's history book Black Diamonds: The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty and the Fifty Years that Changed England.

All Anglophiles and general history readers should check this one out; it's the story of Great Britain's Fitzwilliam dynasty, based at the [unbelievably huge] Wentworth House estate in the Yorkshire region of England. Starting with the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam, born in 1815, this book traces the family's intrigues, economics, and, above all, its geneaology, although the bulk of it focuses on the 7th and 8th Earls and their lives in the twentieth century.*

The family was immensely wealthy, and their wealth derived from the vast number of coal mines they owned and ran. So in addition to being a history of the very rich, this is also a history of the very, very poor. I read this one over the course of a few weeks, and whenever I did, I went to bed glad that I am not a coal miner. Holy shit. Dangerous job, unhealthy job, very poorly paid job; and often undertaken for rich families that might or might not be decent employers. I will say this for the Earls Fitzwilliam: particularly in the case of the 7th earl, "Billy," he did try to treat his people somewhat decently (enough so that he was remembered fondly in the neighborhood, and most of his workers never voted for strikes against him).

Although: the lives of the rich people don't sound like a whole lot of fun in this book either. Billy himself was the target of a campaign by his aunts to disinherit him; he was born in Canada and it was alleged that his father, who died before his own father and therefore was never an earl himself, took steps to replace the baby girl that was really born to him with a Canadian baby boy (so that he could inherit the title and wealth). Good lord. The whole "only males can inherit" thing has really messed up a lot of lives.

But I digress. It's an interesting book. Not a great one--it skips around some in time and that makes it a bit tough to follow, particularly when you consider that all the earls are named some variation of William something, and it all gets a bit confusing. But it was an engrossing read; if you're in an area of the country where there's still just a bit of winter left, this might be a good thick book to settle in with by the fire until spring really arrives. (Oh: and be glad you didn't have to dig out the coal to light for your fire.)

Other reviews: The Guardian; Kirkus

*And there's even a bit about one of the earls and his love affair with Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy, sister to JFK.

It's probably a good thing time is finite.

Because if I had infinite time, I would definitely have to read Jeremy Scahill's huge brick of a book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. However, because it clocks in at 642 pages (of which 521 are text; the rest is notes and index) and because I am chronically short on time, I will have to return it to the library after only making it to page 21. What I read, however, I liked:

"This is a story about how the United States came to embrace assassination as a central part of its national security policy. It is also a story about the consequences of that decision for people in scores of countries across the globe and for the future of American democracy...

This book tells the story of the expansion of covert US wars, the abuse of executive privilege and state secrets, the embrace of unaccountable elite military units that answer only to the White House." (p. xxiii.)

Now THAT, my friends, along with about one more page of text, is how you write an introduction (although here it is called "a note to the reader"). Short, meaty, to the point, with well-constructed sentences. And you don't have to read much farther to learn shocking things about what our government considers acceptable in terms of assassinations--of U.S. citizens, mind you.

As regards the subject matter itself, is this book bound to be depressing as hell? Well, sure. What isn't, these days? But it is also bound to be a cracking good read, and a fast one, for all its five hundred pages. As soon as we win the lottery and I can hire cleaning people and nannies, this is the first book I'm checking out (checking out? hell, BUYING, as long as I've won the lottery).

Intriguing idea, but I need more "pop" in my science.

I heard about Mario Livio's book Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein -- Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe on some sort of NPR interview that he did, and, based simply on the title, thought it might make for an interesting read.

It probably is, but it is not for me. I only got to page 13, and I decided that, although a real scientist would probably consider this title "popular science," it is still a little hardcore for me. Livio's basic idea is that great scientific discoveries don't pop out of nowhere; they are, in fact, made when scientists make lots of little mistakes and even a few huge ones while they're trying to figure stuff out.

The chapters cover scientists including Charles Darwin*, Lord Kelvin, Linus Pauling, and Albert Einstein, among others, and it certainly seems like a well-written book that the right reader might really enjoy.** But for me, right now, it's just a little dry: "The blunders described in this book have all, in one way or another, acted as catalysts for impressive breakthroughs--hence, their description as 'brilliant blunders.' They served as the agents that lifted the fog through which science was progressing, in its usual succession of small steps occasionally punctuated by quantum leaps." (pp. 10-11.)

*It didn't help that the book opens with Darwin and evolution, and I find evolution just about the most dull subject there is. If I even just hear the word "evolution," I start immediately yawning and my eyes get heavy.

**And I'm just totally scattered these days. If I had more time and my old powers of concentration I might have enjoyed this one a lot more too.

Where will the next big epidemic come from?

Would you believe I spent the past week blowing through a book on diseases (primarily caused by viruses) that cross over from animals to humans?*

Well, I did, and it was a fantastic read. The book in question was David Quammen's Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, it's 520 pages long, and yes, it's about disease and human pandemics, and I could not put it down.

This came as somewhat of a surprise, since I've looked at some of Quammen's other science/natural history books, and found them somewhat dull. So either this is just a subject that I find interesting (and I do), or he took his style up a notch in this one, or I didn't give his earlier books a fair trial. All possibilities.

To be specific, Quammen reports on "zoonoses"--diseases that are communicable from animals to humans (thanks, Merriam-Webster's). Here's some introductory information from Quammen:

"Ebola is a zoonosis. So is bubonic plague. So was the so-called Spanish influenza of 1918-1919, which had its ultimate source in a wild aquatic bird and, after passing through some combination of domesticated animals (a duck in southern China, a sow in Iowa?) emerged to kill as many as 50 million people before receding into obscurity. All of the human influenzas are zoonoses. So are monkeypox, bovine tuberculosis, Lyme disease, West Nile fever, Marburg virus disease, rabies, hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, anthrax, Lassa fever..." (p. 21).

So yes, a real upper subject. But Quammen makes it very compelling, tracing the emergence, outbreaks, study and history, and other aspects of a variety of zoonoses, from Hendra to Ebola to influenza to HIV. It's quick-paced, particularly for science writing, and there's a ton of fascinating things to learn here. Did you know, for instance, that HIV might have "spilled over" from animal to human hosts as early as 1908? I didn't.

It's a really fascinating book. I wouldn't read it right before you get on an airplane, or if you live near a lot of bats. Otherwise, do have at.

*Although, check out that freaky cover. Mr. CR is reading it now, and I've had to request that he put it down facedown, because the cover freaks me out.

Two non-starters.

This past week I looked at two books that had great titles, but after I started them, I almost immediately realized they were not what I am in the mood for this week.*

Weinstein The first was Arnold Weinstein's Morning, Noon, and Night: Finding the Meaning of Life's Stages Through Books, a scholarly book with different sections on different periods in a person's life, and the literature he has found that sums up the human condition at those various times in our lives. It's not a bad idea, but after I nearly fell asleep reading the following paragraph (in the introduction, mind you) I knew I'd be taking this book back to the library unread.

"And, of course, that is what I am arguing in this book: that literature shows us who we are; it never stops doing this. I've posited this view before, but never with quite the personal conviction that you'll see in the pages aghead. This (very likely valedictory) book also constitutes something of a conclusion to my career. The ground I cover--from Sophocles and Shakespeare to Art Spiegelman and Jonathan Safran Foer--represents pretty much a roll call of the works of literature I've dealt with over a lifetime, but I now undersand that they illuminate my own lifetime. And the personal voice I've allowed myself throughout this book is a voice that finds both its matter and its manner, its substance and its timbre, in the books I love." (p. xiv.)

Blah, blah. A lot of the authors he cites are not ones that do anything for me, either, including William Faulkner and Jonathan Safran Foer (one of my all-time least favorites, as a matter of fact).

Love The other book was titled All about Love: Anatomy of an Unruly Emotion, and it's by Lisa Appignanesi. I didn't get far enough in it to do it much justice in a summary, but I think the author considers different types of love--new crushes, lust, friendship, familial love, etc.--and describes how all of those types have been described in literature, pop culture, and other references, as well as how she's experienced it in her own life. It was all right, but it wasn't doing a whole lot for me either, and its due date was rapidly approaching, so I just took it back. Very disappointing--I kind of had high hopes for both these titles. Perhaps they were both just too philosophical for me for summer/autumn reading.

*I'm not sure what I am in the mood for this week. I've been doing the crosswords in my New York magazine, and bouncing back and forth between a William Langewiesche title and a science fiction novel.

A girl can dream, can't she?

If I had world enough and time, I would take the book London Lore: The Legends and Traditions of the World's Most Vibrant City (by Steve Roud) into a room with me, my fuzzy red throw blanket, and some coffee and bon-bons, and never come out. And I'd like to do this during a month like we're currently having: way too much snow and ridiculously cold.*

Lore Roud shares tidbits of history and legend from every nook and cranny in London--and I do mean every one. It's a thick book, with dense printing, organized so that each chapter covers a different borough and is further subdivided according to its stories, with headings like "Cock Lane, Smithfield." I read a bit of the first chapter ("Cock Lane is an inconspicuous, narrow thoroughfare, off Giltspur Street, Smithfield, which suddenly acquired international fame in 1762 when a house in the road became the scene of one of the best-known hauntings in London's history..."), but the sad fact of the matter is that I'm not going to have time to read the whole thing, and truthfully, it just reminds me I'm not IN London and therefore makes me sad.

But I have a plan! Not to put too much pressure on CRjr or anything, but I have this dream that during college he'll study abroad for a year--at Oxford! And while he does Mr. CR and I will move to London for six months, to be able to see him once in a while and to take an extended look around ourselves!! And then I can take this book along and have time to explore with it. Right? It'll totally happen, right?**

*Cold is one thing, but next week our forecasted highs are set to be several degrees below the normal LOWS for this time of year. And we've got so much snow (yes, yes, I know, still nothing compared to what the East coast has been getting this winter) that backing blindly out of our driveway between the monster drifts/snow piles on each side has become a suicide mission.

**I know it'll never happen. For one thing CRjr probably won't be able to afford college anywhere (have you seen how fast tuition is going up these days?), much less Oxford, and for another, he may grow up to find someplace like, say, France, more interesting than Great Britain.*** But I can still dream.

***This is the sort of thing I worry about, to keep myself from worrying about his health and peer pressure and other mundane crap like that.

Follow-up: Running the Books

If you'll remember, a while back I briefly reviewed Avi Steinberg's Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian.

When I reviewed it, I hadn't quite finished it. I just wanted to follow up here and say I did finish it, and I really did like it all the way through. The last 25 pages are actually quite spectacular, which is noteworthy (so many memoirs start strong, and then start sputtering on to less-than-memorable endings). My one quibble with the book is that I think it could be about 75-100 pages shorter, but that's primarily because I believe most memoirs shouldn't be longer than 300 pages.*

Still and all: a good read.

*This is a corollary to my rule about movies only needing to be 90 minutes long.

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.

A tale of two fictions.

Over the past week I've been trying to match the nonfiction I'm reading, book for book, with fiction. It's not working--the current count is three nonfiction titles, two fiction titles.

Historian The first novel I'm reading (well, listening to, as I do the dishes) is Elizabeth Kostova's title The Historian. It's a big old thick book which takes on the legend of Dracula, told from the multiple viewpoints (and during different time periods) of a historian's mentor, the historian, and his daughter. I wanted to like it, because it got a lot of good reviews, and the Lesbrarian* loved it. But I can't help it--I'm totally bored. I've been bored from the very first tape--and I'm only listening to the abridged version. (I do not believe in abridged books and would have preferred the unabridged version, but it wasn't available at my library.) It is so boring that I've actually started to make up my own dialogue for it. When the historian's love interest wakes up in the morning and discovers she has been attacked by Dracula, I supplied new dialogue: "Helen, you've been cheating on me with that mad fox Dracula, haven't you, you hussy?"**

In all fairness, I still have a tape to go; maybe that'll turn it all around. But the author simply takes too long to tell too little. Honestly, if I could tell modern fiction authors just one thing, it would be that you don't have to write a 600-page book to write a good book. Really.

Hunger The other fiction I've been reading is Suzanne Collins's YA novel The Hunger Games, which I loved. I had to summarize it for another project last week, and here's how I did so: "It’s set in a (maybe not too distant?) dystopian future, in which the ruling powers of Panem, ensconced carefully in their Capitol, keep the rest of the population under control by demanding 'tributes' from different regions of the country to compete to the death in the annual Hunger Games. The tributes are, of course, people’s children–every child between the age of 12 and 18 has their name entered in a drawing, and each region of Panem has to send a male and female tribute to the games. But when Katniss Everdeen’s younger sister is chosen, she does the unthinkable–and volunteers to enter the Games in her place."

I loved this book, and was happy to pass it along to Mr. CR, who blows through fantasy and science fiction at an alarming rate (and is thus difficult to keep fully supplied), and he also enjoyed it. In addition to liking the action part of the novel (which is rare enough for me; I usually prefer character-driven fiction to story-driven fiction), I loved the love triangle--both of Katniss's love interests are viable characters (unlike in Stephenie Meyers's Twilight books, which purport to feature a love triangle, but don't). And the best part? It's a very readable 374 YA pages. That's the way to do it!

*This post is dedicated to the Lesbrarian, who wanted me to read The Historian. Our tastes continue to be nearly exactly opposite! It's a wonder of nature, I tell you.

**Also, just once? I'd love to read a Dracula book where Dracula has a sense of humor. Really. I think you can be both evil and hilarious. In fact, I think a funny Dracula would be even more terrifying, in a weird sort of way.

Free at last, free at last.

I know. One should not use the words of Martin Luther King Jr. frivolously, especially during Black History Month. But I can't help it. Yesterday I finally finished listening to Edith Wharton's novel The Age of Innocence on CD, and all I can say about it is thank God almighty, I am free at last.

Well, okay, that's not ALL I can say about it. And my apologies to those readers who like Edith Wharton, and feel she can a) really tell a story, and b) wield language well. Those things may be very true. But I can't help it: I hate her. And I think I hate her because I hate her characters.

For those of you not familiar with the story, Wharton's classic is set in the 1870s (it was published in 1921) and concerns the upper level of moneyed New York society. The two principal characters are Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska; Newland is a prosperous and proper young man who is about to become engaged to May Welland, who is the daughter of another prosperous and proper New York family. Ellen Olenska, also known throughout the narrative as Countess Olenska, has recently returned home to the bosom of her family after leaving her scoundrel of a European husband. She is also May's cousin. Of course, Archer falls in love with Ellen, who he can never have (even if she were to get a divorce, it wouldn't be proper), and Ellen falls in love with him, but he goes ahead and marries young May anyway. Lots of portentous tragedy ensues.

Now. It may be true that the writing is beautiful, and after someone commented on that, I did try to listen more carefully to the words and sentences of Wharton's tale. But all too often the narration was drowned out as I listened and muttered "Newland, you're such a dick," "You can do better, May," or "Oh, Ellen, you're leaving forever, blah blah blah" (or countless variations thereof). Mr. CR was a little afraid of me, I think; he never likes to hear muttering coming from the kitchen. But I couldn't help it.

At the end of the day, I couldn't take the problems of rich people who have their health seriously. Good lord. Another fairly simple rule of thumb should be, if you love someone, don't get married to someone else. And if you do, don't expect me to think it's high tragedy. I'm just going to think you're a dick.

Should I stay or should I go?

Well, the question is really "should I keep reading or should I stop?" but that's not nearly as catchy.

Drood All summer long I have been trying to read Dan Simmons's behemoth novel Drood,* set in nineteenth-century London, and I can't quite get it done. Either I don't get it started and it goes overdue at the library, or it just sits around and stares at me balefully while I pick up other books instead. But this week I decided to tackle it; one of my very favorite readers suggested I read it, and I want to be able to tell her that I tried.

And now I have a problem. Although the first fifty pages were pretty slow, I'm now at around the 150-page mark and things are picking up a bit. It follows the rather macabre activities of authors and friends, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, as they chase down a shadowy creature named "Drood." (That's really about all of the story I've gotten so far.) So what's the problem?

The book is 775 pages long, that's the problem. I mean, really. Almost 800 pages? Do I really have the time or desire to devote 800 pages' worth of devotion to a book that I'm not really sold on, as of yet? Add that to the fact that I'm no Charles Dickens fan (although the novel is narrated by Wilkie, who is way more interesting than Dickens, mercifully) and I'm just not sure why I'm slogging through. What I'm feeling like doing is re-reading Michael Cox's The Meaning of Night (which was also long, but spectacular) and finding a good biography of Wilkie Collins instead.

So: what's the verdict? Anyone out there read this one? Should I keep going? Or cut and run?

*Shows how much I know: evidently Dickens's last (unfinished) book was titled The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Do I really have any business reading this book if that's how clueless I am about Dickens?