Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: the Prairie Years, Volume One. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1926.
Reason read: February 12th the is birthday of President Lincoln. Read in his honor.
Sandburg’s portrait of Abraham Lincoln is detailed, expressive, poignant, and at many times, repetitive and rambling. In the Prairie Years Sandburg, despite filling the book with long and meandering passages, has an overall lyrical language which is to be expected from a writer who is a talented poet first and foremost. He introduces our nation’s sixteenth president as being a captivating and complicated human being long before Lincoln entered the White House. Sandburg starts Lincoln’s story by portraying him as a quiet and sensitive child whose dreams were very important to him; catching the symbolisms of life at an early age. Later, as an adult, Lincoln would see his dreams and symbolisms as a connection to his future. As a teenager, learning became Lincoln’s obsession. He was said to always have a book in his hand; that he was constantly reading. I have an image of him studying big law books while plowing his father’s fields. All that book reading didn’t mean Lincoln was a soft sissy, though. Lincoln was the Superman of his day. As Sandburg frequently points out, because Abe was so tall and strong with “bulldog courage,” people were constantly challenging him to foot races, wrestling matches, and fist fights: anything to prove their strength against him. Sandburg seems proud to report most times these challengers lost.
In the midst of industry’s wheels just starting to turn, slavery was seen as a profitable business. At the same time, at the age of twenty-three, Lincoln’s political wheels were just starting to turn as well. He wasn’t interested in drinking or fishing. He wanted to continue to learn the law. He became a postmaster so he could have access to newspaper. In the first installment of Sandburg’s biography, we learn Lincoln grew into a complicated man with many sides. Lincoln the storyteller, always telling jokes and stories. Lincoln the neighbor, ready to help a friend, stranger, or animal in need. Lincoln the silent and sad, afraid to carry a pocketknife for fear of harming himself. Sandburg quotes Lincoln as once saying, “I stay away because I am conscious I should not know how to behave myself” (p 22).
Just think of the contemporaries of Lincoln’s day! John Marshall, Daniel Webster; Andrew Jackson was President, Edgar Allan Poe had just been thrown out of West Point and decided to become a writer, Charles Darwin started his journey on the Beagle, Johnnie Appleseed was starting to walk about with seeds in his pockets…
I have come to the conclusion I would have liked to have known Abraham Lincoln, even before he became President of the United States. He had a quick wit and an even faster sense of humor. I would have been drawn to his melancholy, too.
Lines I loved, “Days when he sank deep in the stream of human life and felt himself kin of all that swam in it, whether the waters were crystal or mud” (p 77).
Author fact: Carl Sandburg is better known as a poet. However, he did win a Pulitzer in History for Abraham Lincoln: the War Years (which I am not reading for the Challenge. Go figure.
Book trivia: Abraham Lincoln is a six volume set. I am only reading the first two volumes.
Nancy said: Pearl did not say anything specific about either volume of Abraham Lincoln: the Prairie Years.
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “100 Good Reads, Decade By Decade: 1920s” (p 175).
Abramsky, Sasha. Little Wonder: the Fabulous Story of Lottie Dod, the World’s First Female Superstar. Brooklyn, New York: Akashic Books, 2020.
Reason read: as a member of LibraryThing, I was chosen to review this for the Early Review program.
Charlotte Dod. If you don’t know her name, you don’t know the history of women in sports. Don’t feel bad though. Despite being a multitalented athlete, her fame as a star burned bright in many arenas, but faded from all of them just as quickly. First known as a tennis sensation at the age of fourteen, Lottie (as she was known), only played competitively for five years. In that time she became the doyenne of tennis, winning five Wimbledons. The only years she didn’t win she didn’t even compete. Sadly, it was as if she grew tired of smashing the competition and needed new thrills. She left the sport…at twenty one years of age. After tennis, Dod set her sights on field hockey. She helped pioneer the sport for women. Then came skating. Obsessively training for hours on end, Dod was not only able to pass the rigorous women’s skating test, she passed the much more difficult men’s test as well. When she was done with ice skates and cold weather , she moved on to golf and mountaineering and archery and Voluntary Aid Detachment nursing and choral singing. She climbed mountains in support of women seeking equal rights and won a silver medal for archery at the 1908 summer Olympic games.
While Abramsky does a great job detailing Lottie’s life, he has to fill in the gaps with speculation because sadly, much of her correspondence was lost or deliberately destroyed. Expect words like “maybe” and “perhaps” and “might.” The photographs are fantastic.
Arabella Garrett Anderson, Agatha Christie, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Nelly Bly were contemporaries of Dod’s.
Kennedy, Kate. More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Maine Women. Guilford, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 2005.
Reason read: to satisfy a Portland Public Reading Challenge category: Maine history.
More Than Petticoats is a series of biographies focusing on historically significant women by location. I believe every state in the country has a book and some states, like California, have a second volume. For the Portland Public Library Reading Challenge, I read More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Maine Women. Thirteen biographies of some women you might know and others you may not recognize: Marguerite-Blanche Thibodeau Cyr, Kate Furbish, Abbie Burgess Grant, Lillian M.N. Stevens, Sarah Orne Jewett, Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby, Lillian “La Nordica” Norton, Josephine Diebitsch Peary, Florence Nicolar Shay, Marguerite Thompson Zorach, Florence Eastman Williams, Sister R. Mildred Barker, and Margaret Chase Smith. From 1738 – 1995. I love Maine’s rich history. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Sarah Orne Jewett, Franklin Pierce. I could go on and on.
As an aside, my sister takes pictures of a water fountain close to her library. I now know the history of the girl: the Women’s Christian Temperance Union dedicated the fountain to Lillian M.N. Stevens. Very cool.
Confessional: I want to visit Abbie Burgess Grant’s grave. According to Kennedy, Grant is buried in the Forest Hill Cemetery in South Thomaston. Her final resting place should be easy to find. Her headstone is the one with the lighthouse.
I also want to visit Sarah Orne Jewett’s house in South Brunswick. I hear it’s open to the public. I should just go on a Maine Women vacation.
Believe it or not, I’m kind of happy with the way January is shaping up already, five days in. After the disappointments of December I am definitely ready for change. I’m running more these days. I convinced a friend to see sirsy with me. I’m not sure what she thought, but I am still in love with the lyrics. Anyway, enough of that. Here are the books:
- The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett – in honor of Bennett’s birthday being on the 14th of January. (EB)
- Sanctuary by Ken Bruen – in honor of Bruen’s birthday also being in January. Confessional: I read this book in one day. (EB)
- The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat – in honor of Danticat’s birthday also being in January. (EB)
- Graced Land by Laura Kalapakian – in honor of Elvis’s birth month also being in January.
- Passage to India by E.M. Forster – in honor of Forster’s birth month also being in January. Yes, celebrating a lot of birthdays this month!
- Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba by Tom Gjelten – in honor of a Cuban Read Day held in January.
- Beijing of Possibilities by Jonathan Tel – in honor of China’s spring festival.
- Persuader by Lee Child – the last one in the series, read in honor of New York becoming a state in July (and where Child lived at the time I made this whole thing up). (AB)
- The Master of Hestviken: the Son Avenger by Sigrid Undset – this is another series I am wrapping up. I started it in October in honor of a pen pal I used to know in Norway.
- I am supposed to receive an Early Review from November’s list, but it hasn’t arrived so I can’t mention it. For the first time in a long, long time (perhaps ever, I’ll have to look), I did not request a book for the month of December.
- The Master of Hestviken: the Axe by Sigrid Undset.
- October Light by John Gardner.
- Jamesland by Michelle Huneven.
- The Chronicle of the Seven Sorrows by Patrick Chamoiseau.
- Isabel’s Bed by Elinor Lipman.
- Wyoming Summer by Mary O’Hara.
- Obsession with Butterflies by Sharman Apt Russell.
- Running Blind by Lee Child.
Early Review for LibraryThing
- Lou Reed: Notes From the Velvet Underground by Howard Sounes.
Confessional: I had a really hard time reading about Lou Reed. I had always heard stories about his despicable character and was hoping most of it was a lot of bunk; I wanted it to be that Lou felt he had to keep up a persona cultivated by his involvement with Andy Warhol and the drug infested 1960s. I was wrong. He was a dick seemingly from birth.
There is no doubt Sounes is very sympathetic towards Reed and his less than admirable character. He made excuses for his bad behavior throughout the entire book, calling Reed a “provocateur extraordinaire” as early as the high school years. It is very obvious Lou loved to push buttons early on and did not care in the very least about the consequences. It was if he had a bone to pick with the entire world and spent his entire life trying to get even. He was a troublemaker. He was mean. He acted strange. He was often cranky. Drugs made him even more paranoid than he naturally was. He was a chauvinist and had a thing against women. He welcomed violence against women and had a habit of smashing, shoving, smacking, slapping them. At times Sounes seems conflicted. He states Reed clearly meant to project an image by being a prick, but in the very same sentence admits Reed was the person he projected (p 160).
Reed and his “provocateur extraordinaire” personality aside, Sounes’s exhausted research and attention to detail jumps out of every page of the biography. You can smell the grit of New York’s grungy streets and feel the beer soaked stickiness of the music scene. Warhole, Nico, Bowie, Iggy…they all live and breathe with vibrancy in Lou Reed. It’s as if Sounes bottled their souls and that alone makes the read worth it.
I am so frigging late with this it’s not even funny. Here are my excuses: I was home-home the first weekend in October. I am hosting an art show. I’m trying to hire a new librarian. And. And! And, I have been running. Only 13.25 miles so far but it’s a start, right? I’m thrilled to be putting one foot in front of the other. But, here are the books:
- October Light by John Gardner – in honor of October being in the the title of the book and the fact that it takes place in Vermont, a place that is simply gorgeous in the fall.
- Jamesland by Michelle Huneven – in honor of October being Mental Health Awareness month.
- Long Day Monday by Peter Turnbull – in honor of police proceedurals.
- The Axe by Sigrid Undset – in honor of the fact I needed a translated book by a woman for the Portland Public Library challenge. Weak, I know.
- Isabel’s Bed by Elinor Lipman – in honor of Lipman’s birth month.
- Wyoming Summer by Mary O’Hara – in memory of O’Hara dying in October.
- An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair by Sharman Apt Russell – in honor of Magic Wings opening in October and the fact that Monhegan was inundated with monarch butterflies for the month of September. We even saw a few while we were home.
- Running Blind by Lee Child – started in honor of New York becoming a state in July (where Lee Child lives). However, big confessional: I am reading this out of order. My own fault completely.
LibraryThing Early Review:
- Notes from the Velvet Underground by Howard Sounes
Stone, Irving. The Agony and the Ecstasy: the Biographical Novel of Michelangelo. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1961.
Reason read: September is the month of the Italian holiday Feast of St. Gennaro.
I enjoyed the biographical novel of Michelangelo very much. The great master became flesh and blood before my very eyes: from early childhood Michelangelo was audacious. He could get his master to pay for his apprenticeship when it should have been the other way around. He could connive the mortuary key from a priest so that he could do the unthinkable – dissect corpses; all to better understand the muscles and bones that make up human body. He steals another man’s mistress because he could. He count strand up to a Pope and not take no for an answer. His loves were passionate: while he loved three women dearly, his art meant more than anything. He believed he was freeing his subjects from their marble prisons. He battled Pope Julius II who insisted Michelangelo work in every medium except marble. He was capable of emotional outbursts of jealousy and despair like when his competition with Leonardo da Vinci became too much or when the woman of his dreams held him at arms length and never offered him more than a hand to kiss…
He was such a tragic figure, but I also enjoyed getting to know Michelangelo as a physical human being; learning that he was ambidextrous while chiseling his sculptures. When his right hand grew tired of driving the chisel he would simply switch hands to keep working. The fact he became an architect at age seventy was astonishing.
Quotes I liked, “Strange how his heart could stand empty because his hands were empty” (p 169), “I need my complete self-respect” (p 439), and “Michelangelo’s ears were plugged with the bubbling hot wax of anger” (p 369). Oh! And the countless times Michelangelo said, “I’ll put my hand in fire” when he was extremely confident he could accomplish something.
Author fact: Irving Stone also wrote The Origin, a biographical novel about Charles Darwin (also on my Challenge list).
Book trivia: at the end of The Agony and the Ecstasy Stone includes a bibliography, glossary, and the present locations of Michelangelo’s works (present for 1961).
Nancy said: Pearl called The Agony and the Ecstasy a “great biographical novel. I would have to agree!
BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Ciao, Italia” (p 48).
I don’t even know where to begin with September. It was the month from hell in more ways than one. The only good news is that I was able to run twice as many miles as last month. That counts for something as it saves my sanity just a little bit more than if I didn’t do anything at all.
Here are the books:
- In the City of Fear by Ward Just
- Jim, The Boy by Tony Earley
- The Shining by Stephen King
- Thank You and OK! by David Chadwick
- Foreign Correspondence by Geraldine Brooks
- Ayatollah Begs to Differ by Madj Hoomin
- Agony and Ecstasy by Irving Stone
- Tripwire by Lee Child
- Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov
Early Review for LibraryThing:
- My Life on the Line by Ryan O’Callaghan
Bostridge, Mark. Florence Nightingale: the Making of an Icon. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
Reason read: Florence Nightingale passed in the month of August. Read in her memory.
I read this biography in the hopes of shedding the cliche Florence Nightingale has inadvertently become in my mind. The very name conjures up a saintly figure of epic kindness. A woman with angel wings and endless patience. Someone with a glowing halo and endless caring calm. I wanted Bostridge’s biography to turn an otherwise glossy icon into flesh and bone with faults and no-so-saintly feelings. It turns out, the public did a lot to add to the “lady with the lamp” mythology for when the desperate attach an attribute like hope to a person, the image becomes angelic. Such was the desperation of soldiers during the Crimean War. The lamp Nightingale often carried beat back the darkness (and encroaching fear of death) with its soothing soft glow. Elizabeth Gaskell called her a saint. John Davies implied she was a goddess with a magic touch.
Tidbits of interesting not-so-saintly information I enjoyed learning: from an early age Nightingale wanted to care for the sick. She was not shy about voicing her criticism regarding hospital conditions: defective ventilation and horrid sanitation practices. She didn’t get along well with others as her persistence for improved conditions irked administrators far and wide. Through and despite all that, like a modern day celebrity craze, there was a insatiable demand for her likeness. Portraits of her cropped up everywhere. People were writing music about her. By 1855 people were naming boats and buildings after her.
Trivial details: Nightingale traveled through Egypt to Cairo with budding author Gustave Flaubert by sheer coincidence. She made Elizabeth Gaskell’s acquaintance. She had a sister who lost her identity in the shadow of Florence’s greatness. Florence made unusual animals her pets, a cicada and and owl.
There is no doubt Florence Nightingale: the Making of an Icon is the result of meticulous research.
When I am dead and gone will people remember me as someone in a “righteous rage to get things done” like Florence Nightingale was remembered? I just love that image of her.
Author fact: Bostridge also wrote Vera Brittain and the First World War: the Story of Testament of Truth, which is not on my Challenge list, but I am reading Vera Brittain’s Testament books.
Book trivia: Florence Nightingale is full of black and white illustrations and photography.
Nancy said: Pearl called Florence Nightingale a really good biography.
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Egypt” (p 75). Florence Nightingale should not be included in this chapter because it is not about Egypt, the majority of the biography does not take place in Egypt, nor is Egypt important to the life of Florence.
When I look back at August my first thought is what the hell happened? The month went by way too fast. Could the fact that I saw the Grateful Dead, Natalie Merchant (4xs), Trey Anastasio, Sirsy, and Aerosmith all in the same month have anything to do with that? Probably. It was a big month for traveling (Vermont, Connecticut, NYC) and for being alone while Kisa was in Charlotte, Roanoke, Erie, Chicago, Indianapolis, and Colorado. And. And, And! I got some running done! The treadmill was broken for twenty days but in the last eleven days I eked out 12.2 miles. Meh. It’s something. Speaking of something, here are the books:
- African Queen by C.S. Forester
- Antonia Saw the Oryx First by Maria Thomas
- Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object by Laurie Colwin
- Strong Motion by Jonathan Frazen
- Beauty by Robin McKinley
- Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes
- American Chica by Marie Arana
- Florence Nightingale by Mark Bostridge
- Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson
- Die Trying by Lee Child
- Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov
Early Review cleanup:
- Filling in the Pieces by Isaak Sturm
- Open Water by Mikael Rosen
Last month (okay, yesterday!) I whined about how I have been feeling uninspired writing this blog. I think it’s because I haven’t really been in touch with what I’ve been reading. None of the books in July jump started my heart into beating just a little faster. “Dull torpor” as Natalie would say in the Maniacs song, Like the Weather. Maybe it comes down to wanting more oomph in my I’mNotSureWhat; meaning I don’t know if what I need or what would fire me up enough to burn down my yesterdays; at least so that they aren’t repeated tomorrow. I’m just not sure.
Hopefully, these books will do something for me:
- African Queen by Cecil Forester – in honor of the movie. Can I be honest? I’ve never seen the movie!
- Antonia Saw the Oryx First by Maria Thomas (EB/print) – in honor of August being Friendship month.
- Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object (EB/print) by Laurie Colwin – in honor of August being National Grief Month.
- Strong Motion by Jonathan Frazen (EB/print) – in honor of August being Frazen’s birth month.
- Beauty: the Retelling of Beauty and the Beast by Robin McKinley (EB/print) – in honor of August being Fairy Tale month.
- Florence Nightingale by Mark Bostridge (EB/print) – in memory of Florence Nightingale. August is her death month.
- American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood by Maria Arana (EB/print) – a memoir in honor of August being “Selfish Month.”
- If there is time: What Just Happened by James Gleick – in honor of Back to School month.
- Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov (EB/print) – the penultimate book in the Foundation series.
- Die Trying by Lee child (AB/EB/print) – the second book in the Jack Reacher series.
- Filling in the Pieces by Isaak Sturm (started in July).
- Open Water by Mikael Sturm.
Briggs, Raymond. Ethel and Ernest: a True Story. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
Reason read: May is Graphic Novel month. I read that somewhere.
This is Raymond Brigg’s story of his parents as a couple from the moment they met until death did them part. Simplistic in graphic novel form but powerful in message. What started off as an accidental communication for the couple kicked off a poignant romance that lasted fifty years. Brigg’s loving tribute continues through his parents’s courtship and marriage, his mom giving birth to him at 38 years old (their only child), the war and the political aftermath, the ravages of aging, and finally each of their deaths. What makes the retelling so heartwarming is Brigg’s ability to communicate parental emotion. Every fear, hope, happiness and expectation they felt towards their son was delivered and exposed in loving detail.
Author fact: Briggs was removed from his parents (evacuated during the war for safety) when he was five years old.
Book trivia: Ethel and Ernest is a graphic novel.
Nancy said: Pearl called Ethel and Ernest a “touching story” (Book Lust p 103).
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Graphic Novels” (p 103). Interestingly enough, the title Ethel and Ernest and author Raymond Briggs are missing from the index.
Wheeler, Sara. Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard. New York: Random House, 2002.
Reason read: Apsley George Benet Cherry-Garrard was part of Robert Falcon Scott’s final trip to the Antarctic. Scott was born in March. Read in his honor.
This was the age when everyone wanted to get to a Pole. North Pole or South Pole, it didn’t matter. For Apsley Cherry-Garrard, his expedition was to the South Pole with Robert Falcon Scott (Scott’s second journey).
Antarctica fueled the competitive spirits of Robert Falcon Scott and his expedition as they constantly compared their experiences in the Antarctic to Shackleton’s and kept a close eye on reports of Amundsen’s progress a short distance away. I am not going to review the events of what happened during this particular expedition as everyone is well familiar with Scott’s demise. Let’s focus on Cherry.
After the expedition Cherry’s life was consumed by his experiences. His opinion of Scott changed several different times as the reality of what he lived through sharpened. The expedition gave him purpose in life (writing a book and lecturing about it) while haunting his sleep and stunting his ability to move on from it. He predicted that large government-funded science stations would pop up in the Antarctic. He specifically mentioned Ross Island as a location for such a station. Wheeler does a fantastic job painting a sympathetic portrait of a complicated man.
As an aside, I am trying to imagine the amount of gear one would take to the South Pole. It boggled my mind that Scott would ask Cherry to learn how to type and to bring two typewriters even though no one else knew how to use them.
As another aside, wouldn’t it be terrible to name your pony and then have to eat him later?
Quotes to quote, “If you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore” (Cherry’s own words, p 218) and “They decided to marry before gas masks were permanently strapped to their faces” (p 259).
Author fact: Wheeler is an Arctic explorer in her own right. I have of her books on my Challenge list: Evia, Terra Incognita, Too Close to the Sun, and Travels in a Thin Country.
Book trivia: Wheeler includes a modest set of photographs not only of the expedition but of Cherry’s childhood and later years. My favorite was of Cherry at one of his typewriters.
Nancy said: Pearl called Cherry a “great” biography.
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “To the Ends of the Earth: North and South (Antarctica)” (p 235).
Bailey, Blake. A Tragic Honesty: the Life and Work of Richard Yates. New York: Picador, 2003.
Reason read: Yates was born in February. Read in his honor.
Does anyone remember the silent film star Louise Brooks? I didn’t know a thing about her until Natalie Merchant wrote a the biographical song, Lulu. I imagine Richard Yates’s life was viewed much the same way. A good handful of people (myself included) probably didn’t know his work until Blake Bailey wrote about his tragic life.
And what a tragedy it was. Yates was an extremely intelligent man plague with insecurities that were held at bay only by a beautiful dame or a tall drink. Sadly, Yates was addicted to both and the uncontrollable addiction to the latter drove away the even the most devoted former. Underneath it all Yates was a devoted father, a talented writer, and a lost soul. I will look forward to reading Easter Parade.
Be forewarned: there came a point in the narrative when I felt there was nothing more to Yates’s biography than loneliness, illness, loneliness, alcoholism and more loneliness. Starting around the 1970s Bailey churned out episode after drunken episode of alcoholic excess peppered with mental illness and trips to the psych ward. Truly depressing stuff…especially as Yates grew weaker and weaker and more pathetic.
I wasn’t a fan of the footnote on nearly every other page method. I realize Bailey wanted to expound on details in a more personal voice and chose to do so at the bottom of the page but to me the practice was the equivalent of someone next to you whispering commentary while you are trying to watch a movie. The quips and comments are interesting but disruptive to the main narrative.
Confessional: I think it is most difficult to read a biography when you are completely unfamiliar with the subject. I have Yates on my Challenge list (of course I do), but I haven’t read him yet. I have to admit I am worried about how much knowing Yates’s personal life will color my opinion of his craft. But, from everything I have read I needn’t worry. Yates wrote autobiographically 97% of the time.
As an in-the-weeds aside, I wonder if a college writing teacher ever accused Yates of being “slickly professional” the first time he was able to articulate close-to-the-bone “fiction.” Before you ask, yes, this happened to me when I finally steered away from pure imagination and put real-life experience on paper. I found myself marching into a professor’s office, hand clutching my Somebody in tow…
Quote to quote just for the imagery, “Sometimes the hacking and vomiting would go on for hours before his lungs were clear enough to light a cigarette and get on with his work” (p 182).
Author fact: Bailey is better known for his biographies of Cheever.
Book trivia: There is a great clump of black and white photos included in A Tragic Honesty. I especially like the picture of Yates and Martha being interviewed. There is something endearing about them together.
Nancy said: Pearl hopes A Tragic Honesty will “revive interest in Yates’s spare and crystalline prose” (More Book Lust p 145). To a point, Pearl is right. I looked forward to reading Easter Parade more so because of Bailey’s biography.
BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Literary Lives: the Americans (p 144).