Posts Tagged ‘Biography’

Book Reviews: Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz

Author: Tony Horwitz
TitleMidnight Rising
NarratorDan Oreskes
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2011)
Previously read by same author:

Summary/Review:

Tony Horwitz, one of my favorite authors, presents a compelling history of John Brown and his followers and the keystone event of their raid on Harpers Ferry.  Brown’s life and family are discussed from childhood, to his involvement in Utopian abolition movements, and their targeted assassinations of pro-slavery advocates in “Bleeding Kansas.”  It’s eerie that the rhetoric and tactics of Brown and his followers while targeting the noble cause of abolition still resemble those of today’s Tea Party/2nd Amendment activists.The raid on Harpers Ferry took considerable planning and secrecy, although curiously it is uncertain what result Brown expected.  Did he really expect it to spark a nation-wide uprising, or did he intend a blood sacrifice?  Similarly, his changes in tactics during the raid itself contradict the planning.  What’s interesting is that while the raid was widely condemned, even by ardent abolitionists, Brown’s real influence came in his words and letters while in jail and on trial.  Even people who despised Brown and all he stood for came to admire his bravery and determination.  Horwitz’s book is an interesting account on this key event in American history and the ripples it would have throughout the country.

Recommended booksCloudsplitter by Russell Banks
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review:The Journey That Saved Curious George by Louise W. Borden

Author: Louise W. BordenAllan Drummond (Illustrator)
TitleThe Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey
Publication Info: HMH Books for Young Readers (2010)
Summary/Review:

This brightly-illustrated book tells the true story of the creators of Curious George, Margret and H.A. Rey.  Much like their monkey creation, they had to escape from some sticky situations.  The couple lived in Paris on the verge of World II and made their escape from the city by bicycle hours before the German army marched in.  It’s a fascinating story, and this book left me wanting to know more.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Grandma Gatewood’s walk : the inspiring story of the woman who saved the Appalachian Trail by Ben Montgomery

Author: Ben Montgomery
TitleGrandma Gatewood’s walk : the inspiring story of the woman who saved the Appalachian Trail
Narrator: Patrick Lawlor
Publication Info: Tantor Media, Inc., 2014
Summary/Review:

In 1955, 67-year-old Emma Gatewood of Ohio set out to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.  Completing the hike, Grandma Gatewood became the first woman to through-hike the entire 2168-mile trail and became a pioneer for both elderly and ultralight hikers.  With the hike as the centerpiece, Montgomery tells the life story of the proper and hardy farmer’s wife, a life in which she endured severe domestic abuse.  Grandma Gatewood’s hike also captures a time when the Appalachian Trail was poorly maintained, little-used, and through-hikers were in the single-digits.  Grandma Gatewood’s celebrity would help bring attention to the AT.   Montgomery also does a good job of setting the historical mood of 1955 America, when Gatewood set out on her walk.  Highlights of the book include Emma Gatewood hiking through Hurricanes Connie and Diane, and sharing a cabin with a church group from Harlem which Gatewood never realized were actually members of rival street gangs.  The 1955 is the focus of the biography, but Montgomery also writes about Gatewood’s two later hikes on the AT, her cross-continental walk on the Oregon Trail, and her uneasy relationship with the attention she got for her walk.
Recommended booksThe Appalachian Trail Reader by David Emblidge, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson, and Wanderlust; a History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Book of Ages : the Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore

AuthorJill Lepore
TitleBook of Ages : the Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
Publication Info: Vintage (October 1, 2013)
ISBN: 9780307958341
Books read by the same author:

Summary/Review:

Jill Lepore, one of my favorite historians, addresses the question put forth by Virginia Woolf regarding about Shakespeare’s sister being equally brilliant but lacking the opportunity due to her sex through the history of Benjamin Franklin’s sister Jane Franklin Mecom.  Jane was the youngest of the Franklin children, six years younger than Benjamin, and they were very close.  Benjamin recognized Jane’s intelligence and teaches her reading and writing until he leaves Boston at the age of 17.  From that point on the siblings would see one another very infrequently but remain close through correspondence. Jane marries young, has many children, struggles through poverty, and sees many of her children die, but she perserves.   There’s a heart-touching moment in their history when Benjamin brings Jane to Philadelphia to offer her a safe place to live during the Revolutionary Way.  Later, he would pay for a house in the North End of Boston where she would live her final year.

There’s only a small amount of Jane’s writing that survives, her correspondence with Benjamin and some other relatives as well as her Book of Ages where she recorded the births and deaths of family members.  Building on these, Lepore uses the writings of friends and relatives as well as women in similar positions at the time to build the story of Jane Franklin.  As the title states, Lepore also relates Jane’s opinions.  She was more devoutly religious than her brother, and chided him for that, but also relates some interesting perspective on the political debates of the time.  Her descriptions of the battles raging around Boston in April 1775 and fears that the fighting will come into the town are particularly chilling.

This is a brilliant book, which offers a well-sourced history and biography of an everyday woman of 18th-century American woman as well as the contrast of a gifted woman’s lack of opportunity compared to her famed brother.  I highly recommend reading this book.
Favorite Passages:

“Benjamin Franklin fought for his learning, letter by letter, book by book, candle by candle. He valued nothing more. He loved his little sister. He taught her how to write. It was cruel, in its kindness. Because when he left, the lessons ended.”

“The Book of Ages is a book of remembrance. Write this for a memoriall in a booke. She had no portraits of her children, and no gravestones. Nothing remained of them except her memories, and four sheets of foolscap, stitched together. The remains of her remains. The Book of Ages was her archive. Kiss this paper. Behold the historian.”

“Jane’s Book of Devotions was her Book of Ages. Her devotions were prayers that her children might live. And her Book of Virtues was the Bible, indelible. She explained her creed to her brother: ‘I profess to Govern my Life & action by the Rules laid down in the scripture.’  The virtue she valued most was faith. It had no place on Franklin’s list. She placed her trust in Providence. He placed his faith in man.”

“Gage had ‘sent out a party to creep out in the night & Slauter our Dear Brethern for Endevering to defend our own Property,’ Jane reported to her brother. ‘The distress it has ocationed is Past my discription,’ she wrote. ‘The Horror the was in when the Batle Aprochd within Hearing Expecting they would Proceed quite in to town, the comotion the Town was in after the batle ceasd by the Parties coming in bringing in there wounded men causd such an Agetation of minde I beleve none had much sleep, since which we could have no quiet.’ She expected that the colonial militia would march into town and continue the battle in Boston: ‘We under stood our Bretheren without were determined to Disposes the Town of the Regelors.’Instead, the militia surrounded the city.”

“‘Perhaps few Strangers in France have had the good Fortune to be so universally popular,’ he wrote her. ‘This Popularity has occasioned so many Paintings, Busto’s, Medals & Prints to be made of me, and distributed throughout the Kingdom, that my Face is now almost as well known as that of the Moon.’ She wrote back that the likenesses she had seen of him were so many and so different that his face must be ‘as changeable as the moon.'”

“I hope with the Asistance of Such a Nmber of wise men as you are connected with in the Convention you will Gloriously Accomplish, and put a Stop to the nesesity of Dragooning, & Haltering, they are odious means; I had Rather hear of the Swords being beat into Plow-shares, & the Halters used for Cart Roops, if by that means we may be brought to live Peaceably with won a nother.”

“Brown went further, arguing that history’s grossest distortion of reality stems not from its false claims to truth but, instead, from its exclusive interest in the great. In the eighteenth century, history and fiction split. Benjamin Franklin’s life entered the annals of history; lives like his sister’s became the subject of fiction. Histories of great men, novels of little women.”

“Also in 1939: Jane’s house was demolished. In 1856, the 150th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s birth, the house had even been decorated for the celebration. But so little was known about Jane that the claim that Franklin’s sister had ever lived there was eventually deemed dubious. In 1939, Jane’s brick house was torn down to make room for a memorial to Paul Revere. The house wasn’t in the way of the Revere memorial; it simply blocked a line of sight.  Jane’s house, that is, was demolished to improve the public view of a statue to Paul Revere, inspired by a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Jared Sparks’s roommate.”

Recommended booksA Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson and The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution by Alfred F. Young.
Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

Author: Reza Aslan
TitleZealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
Publication Info: Random House (2013)
ASIN: B00BRUQ7ZY
Summary/Review:

I’ve not read a lot about the historical Jesus so this short summary of his life and times was engaging and enlightening.  “His times” is an important part of the title as few historical documents survive outside the scriptures (canonical and otherwise) which tend to provide a spiritual truth rather than historical facts (or are completely made up if you’re a non-believer).  Aslan does a great job of establishing first century Judea with its Roman occupiers and Jewish elites who accommodate them.  Then there are the various Jewish groups who seek to fight against Roman oppression and/or purify the practices of the Jewish people.  It’s among these where Aslan places Jesus, a more revolutionary figure than often depicted.  The transition of Jesus from a Jewish zealot to a peaceful, spiritual leader for all peoples comes about after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the success of Paul to appeal to the Gentiles, the Gospels being written after this date.  While finding no historical backing for some of what the evangelists wrote about Jesus, Aslan is sensitive to the belief in Jesus as messiah that survives to today, and the revolutionary message of Jesus remains relevant.
Favorite Passages:

This is an extremely difficult matter for modern readers of the gospels to grasp, but Luke never meant for his story about Jesus’s birth at Bethlehem to be understood as historical fact. Luke would have had no idea what we in the modern world even mean when we say the word “history.” The notion of history as a critical analysis of observable and verifiable events in the past is a product of the modern age; it would have been an altogether foreign concept to the gospel writers for whom history was not a matter of uncovering facts, but of revealing truths. The readers of Luke’s gospel, like most people in the ancient world, did not make a sharp distinction between myth and reality; the two were intimately tied together in their spiritual experience. That is to say, they were less interested in what actually happened than in what it meant.

 

That Jesus had brothers is, despite the Catholic doctrine of his mother Mary’s perpetual virginity, virtually indisputable. It is a fact attested to repeatedly by both the gospels and the letters of Paul. Even Josephus references Jesus’s brother James, who would become the most important leader of the early Christian church after Jesus’s death. There is no rational argument that can be made against the notion that Jesus was part of a large family that included at least four brothers who are named in the gospels—James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas—and an unknown number of sisters who, while mentioned in the gospels, are unfortunately not named.

 

In other words, according to Jesus, Caesar is entitled to be “given back” the denarius coin, not because he deserves tribute, but because it is his coin: his name and picture are stamped on it. God has nothing to do with it. By extension, God is entitled to be “given back” the land the Romans have seized for themselves because it is God’s land: “The Land is mine,” says the Lord (Leviticus 25:23). Caesar has nothing to do with it. So then, give back to Caesar what is his, and give back to God what belongs to God. That is the zealot argument in its simplest, most concise form.  And it seems to be enough for the authorities in Jerusalem to immediately label Jesus as lestes. A bandit. A zealot.

 

To the modern mind, the stories of Jesus’s healings and exorcisms seem implausible, to say the least. Acceptance of his miracles forms the principal divide between the historian and the worshipper, the scholar and the seeker. It may then, to say that there is more accumulated historical material confirming Jesus’s miracles than there is regarding either his birth in Nazareth or his death at Golgotha. To be clear, there is no evidence to support any particular miraculous action by Jesus. How one in the modern world views Jesus’s miraculous actions is irrelevant. All that can be known is how the people of his time viewed them. And therein lies the historical evidence. For while debates raged within the early church over who Jesus was—a rabbi? the messiah? God incarnate?—there was never any debate, either among his followers or his detractors, about his role as an exorcist and miracle worker

 

Then something extraordinary happened. What exactly that something was is impossible to know. Jesus’s resurrection is an exceedingly difficult topic for the historian to discuss, not least because it falls beyond the scope of any examination of the historical Jesus. Obviously, the notion of a man dying a gruesome death and returning to life three days later defies all logic, reason, and sense. One could simply stop the argument there, dismiss the resurrection as a lie, and declare belief in the risen Jesus to be the product of a deludable mind. However, there is this nagging fact to consider: one after another of those who claimed to have witnessed the risen Jesus went to their own gruesome deaths refusing to recant their testimony. That is not, in itself, unusual. Many zealous Jews died horribly for refusing to deny their beliefs. But these first followers of Jesus were not being asked to reject matters of faith based on events that took place centuries, if not millennia, before. They were being asked to deny something they themselves personally, directly encountered. The disciples were themselves fugitives in Jerusalem, complicit in the sedition that led to Jesus’s crucifixion. They were repeatedly arrested and abused for their preaching; more than once their leaders had been brought before the Sanhedrin to answer charges of blasphemy. They were beaten, whipped, stoned, and crucified, yet they would not cease proclaiming the risen Jesus. And it worked! Perhaps the most obvious reason not to dismiss the disciples’ resurrection experiences out of hand is that, among all the other failed messiahs who came before and after him, Jesus alone is still called messiah. It was precisely the fervor with which the followers of Jesus believed in his resurrection that transformed this tiny Jewish sect into the largest religion in the world.

Recommended booksJesus Before Christianity by Albert Nolan, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus J. Borg, The Misunderstood Jew by Amy-Jill Levine, and The Rapture Exposed by Barbara R. Rossing
Rating:

Book Review: A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico by Amy S. Greenberg

AuthorAmy S. Greenberg
TitleA Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico
Publication Info: Knopf (2012)
ISBN: 9780307592699
Summary/Review:

Like many Americans, I know very little about the Mexican War, which is a shame since what I learned from this one-volume history, we Americans keep repeating the same mistakes our nation made in this war.  Greenberg writes a page-turning narrative starting with the drumbeat for war – ostensibly caused by the United States annexation of the Republic of Texas, but with many American leaders hoping to annex California and other Mexican lands as well.  The United States first war with another republic was one guided by a greed for land and featured many atrocities – pillaging, rape, massacres – by American soldiers against the Mexican populace.  The American troops were able to occupy Mexico City and hardliners desired to annex all the land of Mexico.  But if the Mexican War is overlooked in American history, even more so is the first American anti-war movement prompted by reports from returning soldiers and embedded reporters of the real horror of the war.  In the conclusion of this book, Greenburg documents how the Daughters of the American Revolution grew out of this war, an attempt to reclaim the virtue and glory of the founding war and overshadow the avarice and criminality of the war with Mexico.

A Wicked War is by no means a comprehensive history of the war with Mexico.  Greenburg focuses her narrative on five historical figures.  The first is President James Polk who Greenburg describes as an apprentice of Andrew Jackson, a hard worker determined to meet his goals, and unusual for his time considered his wife Sarah an equal partner in his political career.  While a hard worker, his aims seem less admirable as Polk is depicted as wanting to seize the Southwest by any means and with this expand the slaveholding territory of the United States.   Opposing Polk is anti-slavery and anti-war candidate Henry Clay in his third and last failed campaign for President.  Clay’s son Henry, Jr. would go on to fight and die in the war adding to the elder Clay’s agony at this time.  But he would rally for one more great speech that would inspire the nation’s response to the end and aftermath of the war.

Another featured figure is John J. Hardin, a popular Illinois congressman who went against his fellow Whigs to support the invasion of Mexico and volunteered to fight.  His death at the Battle of Buena Vista became an image of glory for the war supporters even at a time when support for the war was flagging.  Hardin’s death also opened the door for his friend-turned-political rival Abraham Lincoln who was elected to represent their district’s seat in Congress in 1846.  Inspired by Clay, Lincoln would speak out against President Polk and the War in Congress despite the unpopularity of his views among his constituents, who saw to it that he would serve only one term.  The final figure in this book is Nicholas Trist, a diplomat sent by Polk to negotiate the Mexican surrender.  Upon growing familiar with the reality of the war and the conditions of the Mexican people, Trist refused to follow Polk’s instructions and negotiated a fairer deal with Mexico that ceded a smaller amount of territory to the United States.  After negotiation the Treaty of Guadalupe, Trist wrote “My feeling of shame as an American was far stronger than the Mexicans’ could be.”

I found this historical work very compelling and a good introduction to a bad war.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

Author: Alison Bechdel
Title: Are You My Mother? 
Publication Info: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2012)
ISBN: 9780618982509

Previously Read By the Same Author: Fun Home

Summary/Review:  The follow-up to Fun Home, Bechdel’s graphic biography of her father, this book deals with Bechdel’s complicated relationship with her mother. It’s actually about a lot more than that as center to the story is the process of Bechdel writing the story about her father and how that was troubling to her mother. Psychology is also central to the narrative as Bechdel details decades of sessions with her therapists and the book is heavily illustrated with quotes from the writing of the psychologist Donald Winnicot. My favorite aspect of Fun Home was how Bechdel worked in literary allusions into her story and that is at play here, most fantastically in she compares Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own with the plexiglass dome in Dr. Seuss’ Sleep Book. The psychology stuff is rather heavy and kind of weighs down the story that it makes it less perfect than Fun Home for me, but nevertheless an excellent examination of the human condition.

Recommended BooksTo the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Rating: ***

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