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Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

Mark Twain and the Colonel: Samuel L. Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Arrival of a New Century, by Philip McFarland

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Mark Twain Theordore Roosevelt

Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, and Theodore Roosevelt were two of the most famous men in America at the turn of the century, but had little in common besides an intense mutual dislike of each other. Where Roosevelt was a beloved leader, Twain had his finger on the country’s cultural pulse and was a sort of pre-pop icon. Twain was immensely famous in his own lifetime, and traveled in many of the same circles as did the president. Though they only met briefly a few times, they were each highly aware of the other’s career and looked upon each other with disdain. Mark Twain may have been known as a writer and humorist, but much of his work was politically engaged and often critical of Roosevelt’s administration in particular. In fact, Twain once went so far as to write that Theodore Roosevelt was “far and away the worst president we have ever had”. Roosevelt, in turn, found Twain so irritating and meddlesome that he was once said to have dreamt aloud of skinning Mark Twain alive.

Twain and Roosevelt were representative of two different facets of American masculinity in an era wrought with change due to industrialization, urbanization, and imperialism, the last of which became the most hotly contested issue between the two men when Roosevelt lead America in occupation of the Philippines. Twain had written the blueprint for American boyhood with his stories about the boisterous Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, reflecting a folksy Americana and drawing from his own childhood despite his relatively privileged upbringing. Roosevelt, an east coast War Hero, was known for restraint, discipline, and a love of hunting, which Twain found grotesque. If my post so far seems to center Twain’s reactions to Roosevelt’s policies, that’s because McFarland himself seems to favor Twain and rely on these reactions for marking narrative transitions.

The first real problem I had with this book is that all physical and otherwise direct interaction between the men was so few and far between that a joint biography makes little sense. Had the framing been skewed to focus more on the ways in each man was symbolic of a different set of American values at a particular time (which it did, only not enough) instead of constructing an active rivalry from little more than a couple heated opinions on the part of each man, perhaps the tie that binds the two biographies would not have been so weak.

This would not, unfortunately, do away with the problem of organization. The book moves thematically rather than chronologically, which might work better were it not so repetitive. To come to the point of the death of Twain’s daughter or Roosevelt’s marriage multiple times following the tellings of different events was perhaps meant to emphasize the importance of those events in multiple contexts, but instead confused me entirely about where I was in each man’s life story and also bored me.

McFarland is a perfectly capable historian whose passion is evident in his writing, but while the relationships both personal and impersonal between Twain and Roosevelt is tempting material, it appears a thin foundation for such a lengthy and ambitious work.

A copy of Mark Twain and the Colonel was kindly sent to me by the folks at Newman Communications on behalf of Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Written by Emily Jane

January 8, 2013 at 12:28 am

Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism, by Barbara Weisberg

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In the late 1840’s, Kate (age 12) and Maggie (age 15) excitedly reported that they heard “rappings”, or knocking sounds, emanating invisibly from the walls of their Hydesville, NY home. Not only did the origins of the mysterious sounds defy all scientific explanation, but they seemed to reflect a knowing, responsive consciousness. Tales of the Fox girls’ communication with spirits spread rapidly, and American spiritualism was born. For the rest of their lives as mediums, the Fox sisters spearheaded a movement that would forever change popular ideas about death and the afterlife in both America and Europe, and toured as celebrities in an era when most women were strictly limited to the dependent, domestic sphere of the home.

The Fox sisters pronounced themselves spirit mediums at a time of drastic change in mainstream American life caused by increased mobility, urbanization, religious developments, and problems of social in/equality. These changes prompted Americans to grapple with the following questions (p. 6-7):

Shall we pack our worldly goods and journey westward? Or leave the farm behind and head for the city?

Are our struggles moving us upward on the social ladder, or have our risks only pushed us down a notch?

Is our society advancing toward utopian perfection? Or under new pressures…is it descending into chaos?

Those of us who are women–will we stay placidly at home or step out into the street, into the labor force, into public life?

Those of us who are enslaved–will we remain in bondage or march forward into freedom?

…am I bound for heaven or hell?

…what control do we have over any of our destinations?

Weisberg notes that the Calvinist concept of pre-destination was too unforgiving to satisfy the needs of those so troubled by uncertainty, and a discursive space was opened up wherein “the girls’ appeal surely stemmed in part from the ways they embodied–and intuited–their culture’s anxieties and ambitions” (p. 7). It is little wonder, then, that spiritualism was received most warmly in reformist circles by those already working to stretch the boundaries of society.

Though immensely popular, Kate, Maggie, and their older sister Leah were not without detractors. Indeed, they were subject to a number of invasive investigations, including public searches of their near naked bodies by councils of scientists determined to uncover the secrets of the “fraudulent females” (p. 81). To this day, the truth about the origins of the sisters’ rappings remains unknown; Weisberg engages debate about the authenticity of the events that occurred around the Fox sisters as well as possible explanations for them, but doesn’t dwell on them too much, which I liked. Those lingering questions are intriguing, but there’s so much more to this story worth looking at.

What was most interesting to me were the ways in which the Fox sisters were almost solely responsible for creating a new, public occupation for women: that of the medium. Mediumship was provocative; it took place in close quarters amongst mixed company under dim lights and required hand holding and whispering. It was sexy, intimidating, and provided women an independence through public demonstrations that they might not have gained had they been considered the primary actors in spirit communication and not only “passive media”, constitutionally weak and at the mercy of pushy ghosts. They troubled normative gender ideologies without completely dispelling them. The public was generally ambivalent about them, revering them at times and lambasting them for impropriety at others.

Impressively, Weisberg is able to make sense of the tensions found in mid-19th-century America at large without losing sight of the sisters themselves. As they grew into older, they each experienced the kinds of tragic breakdowns that we’ve sadly come to expect from people who’ve been followed so closely by the media and featured regularly in tabloids throughout the whole of their childhoods, adolescence, and young adulthood. The lively, charismatic sisters eventually fell into conflict with each other (mostly Kate and Maggie with Leah, the significantly older sister who managed their careers before becoming a medium herself and was widely thought to be manipulative and exploitative), succumbed to alcoholism, and died in poverty. Despite the limited knowledge we have of them as individuals, Weisberg highlights what she can of their personalities, lending them strength as complex and memorable people.

Weisberg has written a wonderful biography that manages to tell a story not only about the Fox sisters, who are incredibly fascinating on their own, but also a nation struggling to re-invent itself. The text is littered with fun trivia, too, including the origins of the term “con man” and speculations about the reason for Benjamin Franklin’s status as the most commonly manifested spirit amongst American mediums. This book was the first read for my 19th century spiritualism project, and it was a great place to start. Weisberg provided me with compelling human stories through which to understand the larger cultural shifts that helped the spread of spiritualism and provided an excellent platform, I think, from which to continue my exploration of spiritualism; particularly its gender implications in both the American and European contexts. Recommended for those interested in 19th century America, gender, celebrity, and/or the possibilities of spirit communication!

Written by Emily Jane

March 22, 2012 at 7:59 pm

Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love, by Dava Sobel

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Galileo’s Daughter is a joint biography of Galileo and Suor Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun and the closest to him of his three children. Sobel gracefully recalls Galileo’s successes as a scientist and inventor; among them, the telescope, which aided him in support of the argument that the Earth moves around the Sun and is not, in fact, the center of the universe. Of course, she has no choice but to recall as well that for this conviction, Galileo was interrogated by the Holy Office of the Inquisition and placed under house arrest for heresy despite the strength of his own religious beliefs. What’s particularly interesting about her telling of these events, which so greatly informed popular constructs of science and faith as opposing and mutually exclusive practices, is that the surviving letters that Galileo received from his daughter throughout the years are neatly incorporated throughout the book and shine light on a relationship that was central to both Galileo and his daughter, lending the tale personal and human appeal.

After reading Heloise and Abelard last spring, I developed somewhat of an interest in convents and the lives of nuns, which was nice to re-visit through the letters of Suor Maria Celeste. She wrote to her father frequently, sparing no detail of her daily life and activity. Unfortunately, without the same sort of analysis that was present in Heloise and Abelard, this became a bit tiresome. I was hoping their correspondence would more directly relate to the impact and implications of the astronomical discoveries that Galileo was making, but most of Suor Maria Celeste’s contributions to their dialogue were about purely domestic matters. She worried deeply about her father due to his chronic illnesses and this worry only increased, as one might imagine, with the political and religious tensions that lead to his interrogation by the Holy Office. She seemed to dote on him in a very sweet way that spoke to the depth of her love for him, but–and this is no fault of Sobel’s–it was strange to read her letters without also being able to read his letters to her (his were burned when they were found in her convent). It was clear that he loved and respected her for her intelligence and her character, yet the relationship could only appear painfully one-sided given the presentation.

What Sobel did well, I thought, was remind the reader of just how mind-blowing Galileo’s observations were at the time. It is difficult to imagine how unnerving it must have been, to have visual confirmation that our place in the universe was so drastically different from what had been assumed. Galileo’s work was completely disruptive of all existing patterns of thought and understanding, be they religious, political, or just every-day. Not only that, but these discoveries were taking place during a time of authoritative turnover in both politics and religion (which often amounted to the same) as well as the growing horror of a quickly-spreading plague. This context is crucial to understanding how and why Galileo came to be seen as THE figure at the center of a growing conceptual divide between science and faith, and Sobel connects those dots skillfully.

In the end, I got what I wanted from this book, which was only to reacquaint myself with some general history of science. I used to read a lot of pop-science books, which I’ve been thinking I might get back into, but it’s a subject (um, a super broad one, I realize) that I haven’t much touched since high school. I also got to learn a bit more about what it might have been like to live as a nun in Galileo’s time (1564-1642) and that was nice. But it wasn’t much more than that. It was a recap of things I’ve learned and forgotten, but nothing that struck me as particularly new and exciting. And while I was interested in the relationship between Galileo and Suor Maria Celeste, I didn’t feel that their correspondence actually gave me a real sense of either’s personality. It also sometimes felt like an unnecessary detour from the more compelling story of Galileo’s discoveries and their ramifications. However, I would be willing to read Sobel again. In fact, her book Longitude sounds pretty fascinating. I wouldn’t rush out to read this one if you don’t have a particular interest, is all.

Written by Emily Jane

December 23, 2011 at 7:35 pm

God Dies by the Nile, Edison’s Eve, Subject to Debate, The Year of Magical Thinking, and Old Man Goya

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Oh, my! WHAT HAPPENED TO THE MONTH OF JULY?! I completely missed it, somehow, and am a bit upset to see that I will now, for the first time, have one full month of archives left blank. Oh, well. Life: it takes over sometimes. Moving on, I guess!

I read this for the Feminist Classics project last month (ahem, a month late!) and it felt good to lighten that load with a short novel. God Dies by the Nile tells the story of a rural Egyptian village riddled with corrupt politicians and a family of peasant women who must be constantly on guard against predatory religious and government officials. The peasants are largely illiterate and uneducated, which leaves them with few routes to recourse in the face of social, economic, and sexual exploitation. This book did a good job of illustrating the ways in which very powerful men are able to manipulate religion and politics to their own personal benefit, and the ways in which most men are taught by other men to assert their masculinity through the violent domination of women. It also serves as an important reminder that, though their situations may appear utterly bleak, women and others denied social or political power are not wholly powerless; their victimization should not be furthered by the assumption that they are not capable of taking action against their oppressors, even if their choices are limited to those which make us uncomfortable or appear moral only in the throes of madness brought on by so much suffering. Saadawi’s prose is cyclic, like the turning of a water-wheel (an image often conjured in the text) but it was also a little hard to follow sometimes (translation issue, perhaps?). It wasn’t a favorite, but I’m glad to have read it.

Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life caught my attention with its mysterious title and neat cover art. Happily, I found just as much within the book as outside of it to hold my interest. With Edison’s Eve, Gaby Wood is able to take a subject I never really thought I’d care about–the history of robots and other automatons, basically–and make me itch to learn more. Her premise is that the history of mechanical life is simultaneously a history of human anxiety over what it is exactly that makes us uniquely human, what it is specifically that differentiates the living and the inanimate. She explores this anxiety by focusing on particular stories and machines, like the chess playing “Turk” of the eighteenth century and the mechanical duck of the same era that appeared to digest and excrete its food. I liked her brief discussions of the strange ways in which ambivalent feelings or worries about gender played into the building of the “perfect woman” (an android) and the common doll. However, the last chapter about the Tiny Doll family of small human circus performers felt at least a little bit objectifying even while discussing the objectifying nature of their performance. A second off-putting factor was a notable lack of analysis. Wood provided just enough in the beginning to get across her point, but not enough to drive it home or tie together all of her research. A fascinating book and topic, but problematic execution.

Subject to Debate was the name of the column that Katha Pollitt wrote for The Nation throughout most of the 90’s and into the year 2000. Here, over eighty of them are neatly brought together and encapsulate a decades’ worth of eloquent social critique and political analysis on the subjects of feminism, welfare, school vouchers, the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, and more. Though many of Pollitt’s columns deal with issues that are undeniably dated, they engage with questions and conflicts that have persisted through American culture into today. Pollitt’s contentions remain relevant, her wit transcendent. I nodded my head eagerly in agreement with almost all of what I read in this book, and enjoyed just as much of it. Check it out!

The Year of Magical Thinking is a memoir about grief and the experience of grieving. It starts with the sudden death of Joan Didion’s huband Jim Dunne upon their return home from visiting their daughter who has been hospitalized and in a coma for weeks and traces the pained, sometimes deluded thought processes and the swirling emotions that Didion endures in the ensuing weeks of caring for her sick daughter. It is, of course, a very personal piece of writing and I imagine it must have been intensely therapeutic for the author. Luckily for me, though, and knock-on-wood(!), I have yet to experience the kind of loss that Didion writes about, and I had trouble relating to both her as a narrator and to the things she went through. Perhaps this was as much my fault as the reader as it was hers, but we just seemed unable to meet each other half way on this one. I felt a similar disconnect when I read Didion’s Play It As It Lays a few years ago. It’s weird: she’s one of those authors for me (and I’m sure all readers have a few) that I feel like I’m supposed to like, and there isn’t anything WRONG with their writing, but our chemistry’s all off or something and I just DON’T. Maybe next time. Didion fans, which of her books must I try before calling it quits?

Old Man Goya is both a semi-fictional biography of Goya and a memoir of the author, Julia Blackburn. There is a lot we don’t know about the enigmatic artist, and in this short book Blackburn tries to fill in some of those gaps. His missing years are delicately reconstructed in very subtle, believable ways, and Blackburn really delves into what she imagines he must have felt when he found himself suddenly deaf as the result of what would now be an easily curable illness, and the impact of his sense of isolation on his work. Much of what she imagines is informed by her experience with her dying mother, also a painter, and her childhood fascination with Goya. I usually don’t like to mix my history and fiction in reading, but Blackburn is such a beautifully enchanting writer that I’d do it ten times over. My only complaints are that I wished for more of her story so that it was more tightly integrated with her main narrative about Goya and, though she had her reasons for including only photographs of his etching plates, I would have loved so much to have been able to view photos of his finished drawings and paintings while reading. In any case, I found Goya a fascinating subject and will be on the lookout for both books about Goya and his artwork, and other works by Julia Blackburn!

I hope to be around more frequently from now on, but I can’t make any promises yet. I’ve got a bunch of other projects that I’m really focused on right now and that are doing well…perhaps soon I’ll write a non-book oriented post about what they are, and let y’all get to know me a little better…but for now, I’m going to keep pushing through The Second Sex for the Feminist Classics Project (which I’m loving, by the way) and will continue to catch up on all your blogs! Happy reading 🙂

Catching Up, Part 1

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So, life has been real chaotic these past few months, and unfortunately this has led to a bit of blog neglect. I got behind in my reviews last spring break and have only continued to fall farther behind. Now that this semester is finally over, it’s time to put what’s passed in the past with some mini-reviews.

Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class is a collection of stories/essays compiled by Michelle Tea, who writes in the introduction that she was fed up with reading about the working class from the upper-class perspective of popular journalists and the like. These first-hand accounts tell frightening, vindicating, difficult tales of what it’s like to grow up a poor girl in the United States. Inadequate access to healthcare, domestic violence, alienating educational institutions–these stories cover all that and so much more. The authors come from a wide range of backgrounds and give voice to a host of sexual and gender identities as well as callings; they are activists, mothers, poets, teachers, and many things besides. As is true of all collections, some of the stories/essays are better than others. But what I might consider the weakest in this collection sets the bar quite high. Haunting and powerful. Highly recommended to those interested in gender studies and social justice.

In fifth grade, I dressed as Amelia Earhart and gave a monologue to my classmates about my flying adventures to fulfill a project requirement. Like many others, I have remained fascinated with her into adulthood. Mary S. Lovell, who wrote the book about the Mitfords that I loved so much, is a skilled biographer and I was thrilled to find that she chose Earhart as one of her subjects. What she adds to the wealth of information about Earhart’s career in The Sound of Wings, she says, is an investigation into the role that her husband–publisher, writer, and one-man-media-machine–George Putnam played in making Amelia Earhart a household name. Earhart was courageous, stubborn, and determined as hell, but even her closest friends and biggest supporters readily admitted that she was not a “natural” flier in the way that many of her competitors were, both male and female (and there were a lot of women aviators at the time, I learned). She had the personality, but Putnam had the media in the palm of his hand. Together, they were an unstoppable force. I was a bit miffed at first that Putnam was getting so much credit for Earhart’s success, but eventually I was persuaded as to the impact of his work on her behalf. My only complaint, then, is that his name should have been included in the title. Without that inclusion, it did at first seem a little unfair to give so attention to him. I also wish that Lovell had spent more than half a page on Earhart’s friendship with fellow pilot Jackie Cochran, which seems to have consisted of psychic-seance type meetings in which they (correctly!!!) identified the locations of three crashed airplanes. Because, whoa. And yes, Jackie did make a detailed prediction about what happened to Amelia, and where…!

I owe the blogosphere a huge favor for this one, because I wouldn’t have tried it without a host of blogger recommendations. And I loved it. I’ve been on a scary movie kick for months now, but have always avoided scary stories in book form out of some misguided idea that scary stories in books are all hokey, or something (I know, I know…what a ridiculous prejudice for a book-lover to have!). Well, this book was downright creepy. It takes place in a crumbling post-war Mansion called Hundreds Hall in the English countryside (um, what more do you need to know?). The Ayres family is used to a bougeoise way of life which is becoming impossible as the make up of the country’s class structure starts to shift. They are haunted by their imcompetence to keep up the house without the aid of dozens of servants, and their past prestige…increasingly, though, it seems they must be haunted by something else, too. Something more sinister. I figured out what was going on about three-fourths of the way through the book and admit that I was expecting a bit more of a twist, or something, but I still had a great time racing straight through to the end of this one!

This book is incredibly hard to talk about. I’ve seen comparisons made between this book and works by Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges but as I haven’t actually read either of them, I can’t comment on that (I do have a huge collection of Borge’s works though which I really want to delve into this summer). This book is a Library of Tangents, and each “story” exhibits some marvelous thing, history, idea, or paradox that exists in the imaginative universe that Rose has created. It’s filled with small but detailed diagrams, charts, paintings, and maps that tell of all things from “Languages of Hidden Islands” to “Lost Horologies and Systems of Measures”. Sounds obscure, yes, and it is…but what’s so captivating about these fantastical tangents–whole societies incapable of forgetting anything, and who are therefore unable to reflect; isolated communities of people who see color on a spectrum only visible to them–is that they seem almost too strange and unlikely to be made up. Part of us wants to believe that they are true, that things we know to be real fill the void between fact and the imaginary. These bizarre fables, if you can call them that, are fun in that they challenge you to pick out the fact from the fiction, and a bit disconcerting in that you find you can’t always do it. A neat little book.

That’s it for now, but expect a second installment of catch-up reviews in the next few days 🙂

Written by Emily Jane

May 14, 2011 at 9:46 pm