Day 1049: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

Cover for Lafayette in the Somewhat United StatesIt was interesting to contrast Lafayette in the Somewhat United States with the other book about the American revolution I read recently, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition. While Valiant Ambition concentrated on what made Benedict Arnold a traitor, this book focuses on the French contribution to the war, embodied particularly by the Marquis de Lafayette.

The Marquis himself
The Marquis himself

In some ways, both books cover the same ground, particularly the woeful state of the Continental army. Several times, infusions of cash from the French saved it from utter ruin. But the writing style and the intent of these books are different. Vowell’s book is written in an informal, sprightly style with many references to current popular culture. Also, Lafayette’s impetuous, affectionate character comes through strongly.

This book is a slightly quirky homage to Lafayette’s contribution to our country, featuring side-trips to various battlefields and landmarks as well as a cogent, irreverent discussion of the events. It is a fun read.

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Day 1028: Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune

Cover for Empty MansionsI’ve been sitting here trying to understand what makes Empty Mansions such an interesting book and what drew me to the topic in the first place. I’m still wondering about that, although the topic was interesting enough to make Bill Dedman’s NBC investigative series popular. (I did not see it.) Perhaps the fascination is with abundant wealth, perhaps one with eccentric personalities. Perhaps it is a sort of voyeurism.

Huguette Clark was the youngest daughter of W. A. Clark, the Copper King, a man who for Samuel Clemens, fairly or unfairly, represented the Gilded Age. Although W. A. Clark’s name is not familiar to us like that of John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie, he was right up there in terms of wealth.

This book tells the story of his life along with that of his daughter, Huguette. An artistic woman but shy, she gradually removed herself from the public eye. Although she owned several beautiful and palatial homes and apartments, she first became almost a shut-away in her New York apartment and then lived in a small hospital room for the last years of her life. Of further interest is the charge that some of Huguette’s caregivers and employees took advantage of her dependence on them to drain her estate. Her estate is currently involved in a suit between the legatees of her will and 19 of her relatives.

The book, written by Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., a cousin who corresponded with Huguette, does a pretty good job of remaining impartial on this point. In any case, I found the story of Huguette’s unusual life to be fascinating.

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Day 982: 84, Charing Cross Road

Cover for 84, Charing Cross RoadIt’s taken me some time to read 84, Charing Cross Road, but I’m glad I did. This very short book, a collection of letters, has been a classic for some time.

The books spans 20 years, beginning in 1949. Helene Hanff, a freelance writer living in New York, writes a letter to Marks & Co., antiquarian booksellers at 84, Charing Cross Road. She has become weary of the shoddy books she is able to afford in New York and asks the booksellers to send her inexpensive secondhand copies of several works. She is duly answered by Frank Doel.

This correspondence moves from formal to friendly. Hanff knows that England is still under postwar austerity measures, so she sends the store employees packages of eggs and meat and other goodies. Soon the correspondence is joined by letters from Frank’s wife and other store employees.

This is a delightful book about friendship between people who have never met. Many of the letters are funny, and the book is particularly appropriate for book lovers.

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Day 886: Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul

Cover for Kill 'Em and LeaveKill ‘Em and Leave is a difficult book to categorize—part biography, part music history, but what it most closely resembles in writing style and approach is a series of magazine articles on the subject of James Brown and his legacy. That is not meant as a criticism, and the book is written with energy and flair.

I do not know a lot about James Brown, and my general sense of his life may incorporate some of the information that McBride would be quick to point out as lies or exaggeration. But McBride is not setting out to whitewash, just to find the truth.

And the truth is hard to find. McBride tells us that Brown was secretive, not just about money and the details of his private life but about his real self. McBride is only able to find out fragments of the truth about Brown, because Brown let people make things up about him and was more interested in creating his own legend than in revealing himself. So, McBride pursues his subject by visiting the places where he lived and talking to old friends and employees.

McBride doesn’t want to focus on the drugs and the mistreatment of women and the scandal. He wants to explore Brown’s legacy to American music and to the people in his life, good and bad. The shocking handling of his estate, which was left in trust for the education of poor children and is being ransacked by a series of lawyers, is also a focus. The damage the suits have done to the reputations of the original trustees, including the imprisonment of his honest and innocent accountant, David Cannon, is a sin. But McBride makes clear that Brown was a bad employer, erratic, distrusting, tight, and more people than Cannon have taken a fall for him. And not one poor child has received a cent of his money.

link to NetgalleyThis is a fragmentary but fascinating portrait of a complex man. If you are interested in the issues of African-American life, the history of American music, the issues of legacy, corruption in the music business or in South Carolina politics, or simply in a well-told story—any of these will assure your enjoyment of this book.

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Day 851: Straight On Till Morning

Cover for Straight on Till MorningWhen I read Circling the Sun a few months ago, I surmised that I wasn’t reading about the real Beryl Markham but someone who had been sanitized for popular consumption. Reading Straight on Till Morning has shown me that I was absolutely right. Markham was an unconventional woman who was difficult for others to understand. She had virtually no fear and didn’t care what people thought about her. Although she sometimes behaved without regard to others, she had some friends for life.

Straight on Till Morning is an extremely interesting biography of a fascinating woman. It follows Markham through her careers as horse trainer, flyer, and author. It also tells of her relationships with many well-known people, including Dennis Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), Ernest Hemingway, Prince Harry, and Lord Delamere, as well as her three husbands and some of her many lovers.

One subject it tackles brilliantly is the authorship of Beryl’s memoir West with the Night. Controversy occurred when Beryl’s third husband claimed to have written the book, and others asserted that she couldn’t have written it because she was almost illiterate. Lovell is able to show, first, that no one questioned Markham’s authorship until the book was republished in the 1980’s, second, that not only was Markham a voracious reader but she submitted hundreds of pages to her editor before she even met her husband. Her husband, Raoul Schumaker, was a writer of sorts (mostly pulp westerns), but it is Lovell’s opinion that his style is nothing like that of West with the Night but much more closely matches that of some short stories they collaborated on. Lovell states that Schumaker probably helped Markham edit West with the Night, but the remaining artifacts of that collaboration (comments and markups) indicate that his role was as editor.

If you are at all interested in this unusual woman who led such a colorful life, I think you’ll enjoy this biography. It is lively and well written and meticulous in research.

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Day 839: Charles Dickens: A Life

Cover for Charles DickensCharles Dickens: A Life covers some of the same material as The Invisible Woman, Claire Tomalin’s excellent book about Dickens’ affair with Nelly Ternan, but it is broader in scope and provides more information about his life. Of course, The Invisible Woman was in a way ground-breaking, because it brought out into the open a relationship that was concealed for many years. In fact, the Dickens biography by Peter Ackroyd, which came out in 1991, the same year as The Invisible Woman, dismissed the affair as an improbability.

I much preferred this biography to Ackroyd’s. While Ackroyd practically falls all over himself telling us what a genius Dickens was, Tomalin is not afraid to examine the whole person, warts and all. Certainly, Dickens was charming, energetic, lots of fun for his friends, and the possessor of a serious social conscience. He was also one who ruthlessly cut ties to some friends and family, occasionally for trivial reasons; who treated his wife shamefully when he separated from her after 22 years of marriage (insisting, for example, that his children take his side and cut off ties to her); who made a young girl from a financially struggling family his mistress when he was more than twice her age. I feel that his fame was not good for him—that it gave him an inflated sense of his own importance and made him think he was infallible. Of course, he was probably the most famous person of his time. We have no modern equivalent.

Those interested in Dickens’ life and works will enjoy this biography. Dickens’ story is unique. He certainly had a difficult early life and worked hard for his success. He also started out as a much nicer person than the man he became, so during most of the book he is very likable. In fact, it’s easy to see why he was so loved by most of his friends and family. He was one of those charming people who are loved whether they deserve it or not. And in many ways, he did deserve it.

The book is extremely well written and very well researched, with more than 100 pages of notes and bibliography. Although more than 400 pages long (not counting the back matter), it moves along nicely and is entertaining. There are three insets of pictures and photos to illustrate the discussion along with a few interspersed drawings.

Just a small comment on my recurring theme of the quality of publishing. My copy of the book was bound upside down. Yes, the cover is on upside down, which I found rather disconcerting as I was always picking it up to read upside down. Unfortunately, I had it too long before opening it to return it for another copy.

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Day 815: No Ordinary Time

Cover for No Ordinary TimeNo Ordinary Time tells of the contributions of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt to the conduct of the United States before and during its participation in World War II. The book relates how Franklin Roosevelt exercised his acute political awareness of public opinion to nudge the U.S. out of isolationism during the war, foreseeing as he did how the world would be changed if Germany succeeded and how assisting England against the Axis powers allowed the U.S. to ramp up for war. While Roosevelt was concentrating on the war, Eleanor remained his social conscience, attempting to hold on to the social advances of the New Deal, taking up the causes of women and their right to work and of African-Americans and their right to equal treatment.

The book also treats of the relationship between Franklin and Eleanor. Although they were always friends and companions, Eleanor had been devastated much earlier in their marriage to find out that Franklin had been having an affair with her own secretary, Lucy Mercer. This discovery ended certain aspects of their marital relationship. Eleanor’s relationship with her mother-in-law was difficult, too. In many ways, Eleanor was never at home in her own house. When she had to find a way to be of use as First Lady, since the traditional role of hostess didn’t suit her, she began to make a life for herself as Franklin’s eyes and ears around the country. So successful was she at this that when Franklin wanted to rekindle their relationship later in life and asked her to stay home more, she didn’t want to give up her active life.

These were two remarkable people, although they had their faults. At times, Eleanor’s zeal for a cause made her oblivious to Franklin’s need at the end of the day for relaxation. She found it difficult to unbend, always wanting to be active. Franklin, although charming and seemingly affectionate, was occasionally selfish and seemed sometimes to have no care for people who had given him unstinting care and friendship.

Reading this book made me feel as if I really knew these people, a feeling I seldom get from nonfiction. This is a fascinating story, sometimes thrilling, sometimes sad, about an important period in our history.

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