Day 1101: Thomas Hardy

Cover for Thomas HardyThomas Hardy has long been one of my favorite Victorian writers, so when I learned that Claire Tomalin had written his biography, I set about getting a copy. Tomalin has made a career of writing interesting and readable but meticulously documented biographies of mostly literary figures and has become one of my favorite biographers.

Tomalin shows that Hardy was a contradictory man—shy but eager to socialize in intellectual circles, resenting early snubs but nevertheless a snob himself, an inner-living man who still welcomed all who came to see him. Hardy was the son of an uneducated builder and a house servant, both of whom encouraged him in his efforts to gain an education and better himself. But in those days this was difficult, and he never achieved his dream of a Cambridge education. Instead, he went to work at 16 in an architect’s office.

Above all else, Hardy became a writer who challenged conventional attitudes toward women, sex in literature, and religion. Almost from the beginning of his career, while still writing formula novels, he ran into trouble with editors wanting to censor his work. His publication of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, with its subtitle “A Pure Woman,” caused an uproar. Although I have read many of his novels, it was fascinating to read about them in terms of events going on in his own life.

What I had not read much of is his poetry. Hardy always considered himself a poet rather than a novelist, and at the height of his career, after publication of Jude the Obscure, he caused another furor by quitting his novel-writing career to concentrate on poetry. Tomalin is obviously a fan of his poetry, and although I am not much of a poetry reader, the snippets she reproduces are musical and beautiful, and the context she gives them fascinating.

Tomalin begins her book with the story of Hardy’s regret after his first wife’s death that they had grown apart. The story of that relationship, as well as that with his second wife, is also very interesting.

Tomalin has a gift for breathing life into her subjects so that you feel as if you understand them, at least a little. If you have any interest in Thomas Hardy, you’ll find this a compelling book.

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Day 1097: Alexander Hamilton

Cover for Alexander HamiltonBest Book of the Week!
I don’t think it’s ever taken me so long to read a book as it did Alexander Hamilton, despite it being a fascinating biography. Although it did not seem as if it went into too much detail, as some biographies do, it is certainly long.

Thanks to the Broadway show, which is based on this book, people have become a little more conscious of the accomplishments of Hamilton. Unfortunately, he was such a controversial figure that his enemies managed to blacken his legacy for many, many years.

A man of astounding intelligence, Alexander Hamilton sprang from a difficult heritage as an illegitimate son of a man who was a failure at business and deserted his common-law wife and their children. From this beginning, Hamilton expended his own formidable efforts, eventually to become one of the most powerful men in the new United States.

Hamilton was apparently not at all tactful and earned himself many enemies through speaking truth to power. He and Washington had a close and affectionate relationship that began when he was Washington’s aide during the Revolutionary War, but he counted among his enemies James Monroe, Thomas Jefferson, the New York Clinton family, Aaron Burr, and to a lesser extent, James Madison. John Adams hated him. None of these men emerge from this book looking well, although Hamilton certainly had his faults.

I think almost anyone interested in history will find this book fascinating, even if, like me, you are not particularly interested in the Revolutionary period. Alexander Hamilton was an amazing man who has been largely robbed of his proper legacy.

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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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