Tag Archives: non-fiction

In the Great Green Room: The Bold and Brilliant Life of Margaret Wise Brown by Amy Gary

After finishing Amy Gary’s biography of Margaret Wise Brown, In the Great Green Room, I have two major conclusions. 1) Margaret Wise Brown was clearly a brilliant, complex, fascinating character who would benefit from a great biography about her. 2) This is, sadly, not that biography. While I’m glad to have read more about Wise Brown and her life, this book suffers from a couple of huge flaws that made it intensely frustrating as a reading experience.

What we’re given here is a recounting of the events of Margaret Wise Brown’s life. This is done in a narrative style, which results in a rather breezy read, organized by years. Unfortunately, that same style also lends itself to the lack of contextualizing and critical thought which hampers the biography in several ways.

First, there is the absence of sourcing and citation. There are no footnotes or proper endnotes in this book. We are given a list of sources in the backmatter, separated by chapter, but they are not explicitly linked to any specific line or claim in the text itself. Nor are there any actual quotations within the text. It is a stream of assertions–Margaret said this, thought this, did this–with no background. Are these based on memories from her friends and family? Published or unpublished memoirs? Newspaper articles? Are the sources trustworthy or biased? It’s impossible to say.

I am writing this review having just read several excellent biographies of challenging and complex women, whose authors took great care in approaching source material and presenting it in a helpful context. I recognize that this has perhaps spoiled me, but the absence of that care made me send furious text messages to friends. (You know who you are, sorry not sorry.)

Gary’s biography seems curiously immune to any attempt to locate Wise Brown within her familial, social, or historical background. We are given the bones of her relationship with her parents–with a bonus shaming of both her mother and sister for their mental illnesses–but Gary doesn’t even try to look at why Margaret might have felt so estranged from Maude, what social pressures might have been weighing on Maude herself, or what wider cultural patterns are reproduced in Margaret’s warmer feelings for her brother and father as opposed to her mother and sister.

While this is generally annoying, on occasion it leads the book to repeat wholesale some really harmful attitudes. As I mentioned above, the characterization of both Maude and Roberta Brown as people who enjoyed using their depression to make those around them miserable shows up several times. (“At first, Margaret attempted to cheer her sister, but saw that, like their mother, Roberta relished layering a foul mood over happy occasions.”) It shows up again in Margaret’s sexism towards Bill Gaston’s other lovers (“Margaret’s name for women like this one was Slitch”). It is possible to show a person’s problematic attitudes while also making it clear that they are in fact problems. But this never happens–both of these attitudes are simply stated as if they are true, and without any primary source quotes to give them background, they weigh the text down with their casual cruelty.

Even a look at Margaret’s emotional state with regards to her own personal life and sexuality barely appears, aside from a factual recounting of her affairs with Bill Gaston and Blanche Oelrichs/Michael Strange. The historical context of queer relationships in the 1930s and 40s apparently isn’t relevant. Her last romance with Jim Rockefeller Jr, just at the end of her all-too-brief life, is given a total of about 20 pages, despite the fact that he wrote the forward for the book.

The lack of depth holds true for issues of class, as the emotional and social implications of the Brown family’s place on the edge of high society (connected to but not part of the Carnegie/Rockefeller clan) only comes up to contrast Margaret’s positive feelings towards the Carnegies with her attitude towards her own family. Further, the biography barely even attempts to trace the impact of Margaret Wise Brown on children’s literature, even though ostensibly this is one of the major threads of the book.

There’s an odd lack of connection within the text itself. Moments which should have been linked, either in reinforcement or in contrast, are left to stand on their own. For instance, at one point Gary tells a story about Margaret’s bungled reaction to learning that Esphyr Slobodkina (her friend and frequent collaborator) was Jewish, and her subsequent regret and attempted apology. Then, a bare four pages later, we’re introduced to Margaret’s eventual lover, Michael Strange, who was a prominent isolationist and vocal member of the America First Committee. It’s not that Gary dismisses the tension between these two moments; it’s quite simply that she doesn’t seem to think there is any tension there to dismiss.  What are we to make of Margaret Wise Brown’s complicated and contradictory self? This biography doesn’t seem to ask this question, let alone try to answer it.

In fact, because we only see Wise Brown at second hand, she remains a curiously opaque figure. At the very end of the book, Gary quotes a brief passage from one of Margaret Wise Brown’s journals–the only direct quotation from anyone in 240 pages–and that moment shines the brightest for me in memory. For the first and only time in the entire biography, I felt I had a sense of who Margaret Wise Brown was and how she thought. Had her words been allowed to tell her story, it would have been so much more powerful.

A good biography tells the story of its subject, fully and accurately. A great biography not only does that well; it also contextualizes and illuminates that subject. It presents a deeper understanding of the person, their life, and their world. And so, in reading, a great biography gives also a deeper understanding of ourselves. I hope that someday one is written about Margaret Wise Brown.

_________

Other reviews:

Biographies I do recommend:

  • James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips
  • A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII by Sarah Helm
  • The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley
  • Lady Byron and Her Daughters by Julia Markus

 

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Lady Byron and Her Daughters by Julia Markus

lady byronThis post is in two parts. The first part is my personal reaction to reading this book, and the second part is a rumination on history and who tells it. They bleed together; it’s true that the personal is political, but it’s equally true that the political is personal. I am thinking about history and biography because of my personal reaction, and vice versa. However, for the purposes of structuring this review, two parts it is.

****

I have an ongoing interest in women’s stories, which is only intensifying as I grow older, crabbier, and more feminist. I also have a specific interest in Ada Byron Lovelace* and read Sydney Padua’s lovely The Thrilling Adventures of Babbage and Lovelace last year. Then this year my librarian book club, which is the best book club, decided to read Padua’s book together. Lady Byron, Ada’s mother, is a shadowy figure throughout the book and in the middle of rereading I decided to see if there was a biography of her; there was. I put it on hold and read it in about two days straight, with lots of burning anger towards Lord Byron and tears for everyone else.

Annabella Milbanke Byron is a fascinating, complex figure, and Markus does a great job of treating her with respect while also not overlooking her flaws. Rather than either put her on a pedestal or vilify her, Markus attempts to paint a picture of a woman who was both progressive and conservative, both generous and selfish. At the same time, she uses this particular case to make some well-deserved points about who we decide is worthy of praise and remembrance.

I also just flat out cried quarts and quarts, particularly but not limited to the part of the book dealing with Ada’s final illness and death. I am getting teary THINKING about it. It seems like something out of a novel: a deathbed reconciliation between the brilliant, troubled child and the stern, loving mother. But it’s also a scene that modern readers may distrust, and Markus handles it carefully, with care for both Ada and Annabella.

Also, let me tell you how many feelings I had about this: “Lady Byron was a woman who had many close female friends, a loyal band, actually…” (SO MANY. Ladies being friends forever!) Lady Byron is presented throughout the book as a woman who cared a great deal about other women, who had complex and thorny relationships with several of them, and who spent much of her life engaging with their concerns and activities.

Fundamentally, I think, this is a biography that I loved, because it’s a biography written for readers like me. Readers who are interested in the stories we tell and who they’re about, who are interested in women’s stories. We think and talk about this a lot with regards to fiction, but it is just as important, if not more so, when we discuss biographies.

****

Several times during this book, I thought about one of my favorite lines from Hamilton: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” This is a book that is significantly about who tells your story, because Lady Byron’s story has been told largely, both during and after her life, by men. By men who assume that male geniuses must be right, and that women telling a different story must be wrong. Not only wrong. They must be discounted and discredited.

In the Foreword, Markus writes: “The good she did, however, lies interred under the barrage of Lord Byron’s brilliant poetic spite and later critics’ overwhelming devotion to male genius.” She later quotes several times from older biographies, both of Lord Byron and of Lady Byron herself, which paint her in the worst possible light, wholesale repeating outright slander from Lord Byron. Who, of course, can hardly be supposed to be in any way an objective source, and yet for some reason is considered entirely trustworthy.

But in fact, as Markus lays out in the beginning of the book, Byron was not only extremely untrustworthy and biased. He was also a terrible person, an abusive husband (mentally, emotionally, and possibly physically), and a manipulative jerk. (I am not objective on the subject of Lord Byron.) He passionately hated Annabella, especially after the end of their marriage. And yet, because he is a Great (Male) Poet, he must be right.

Oddly enough, it was Harriet Beecher Stowe who mounted one of the earliest and most strident defenses of Lady Byron. Stowe points out that “The world may finally forgive the man of genius anything; but for a woman there is no mercy and no redemption.” (Dorothy Sayers would echo this almost a century later: “Women geniuses don’t get coddled…so they learn not to expect it.” Which is all too apt when we consider, for instance, Ada Byron Lovelace herself.) For her pains, Stowe’s reputation was torn to shreds.

This biography itself is not objective, but it is also not meant to be. It is meant to be a revelation and defense of Lady Byron, asking us to revisit the old assumptions and look at the evidence with fresh eyes, and also an excoriation of the older biographers who were so little able to see past those assumptions. It is partisan, but it is also open about being partisan, rather than pretending to being unbiased. If it’s a choice between Markus and, say, Malcolm Elwin, I know who I would pick.

****

Markus ends with a short paean to Lady Byron, which I don’t think I could possibly top: “Lady Byron took her own advice. She made no attempt to censure records and never attempted to shape her life in order to find favor with the world. She was herself. She remained herself.” I am very glad that this biography exists, and that it shines a light on a woman who was complex, brilliant, flawed, and utterly human.

* not in actual fact her name, but the one by which she’s most recognized

Book source: public library

Book information: 2015, W.W. Norton & Company; adult biography

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July 2016 round up

Books I’ve already talked about
The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos
The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly
Gena/Finn by Hannah Moskowitz and Kat Helgeson
Tell the Wind and Fire by Sarah Rees Brennan
False Hearts by Laura Lam

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

Other books

Little White Lies by Brianna Baker and F. Bowman Hastie: I’ve been going back and forth about this one, and at a certain level I think I’m just not quite able to say from my own background whether it successfully does what it’s setting out to do. I’m glad to see exciting, timely YA contemporary fiction about a Black teen, but here it seems undercut a bit by the other point-of-character, who’s a middle-aged white man. It just–seems like a weird contrast and I’m not sure how it sits with me. If you’ve read this one, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Far From Fair by Elana K Arnold: Middle-grade contemporary. It’s a quiet look at family dynamics and end-of-life issues. While I can’t say my personal views align with the characters’ at all, I do think it could be a valuable book for the right reader. Overall, I thought Odette was really well drawn; as an adult reader I got a little impatient with her at points, but I suspect the target audience won’t.

Packing For Mars by Mary Roach: This is a look, not so much at the history of the space program, as at the history of the stuff needed to go into space. By and large, Roach has an easy breezy, readable style that is quite engaging. However, occasionally it’s a little at odds with her subject. And in one place I noticed a transition that came across as really, really racist (PRO TIP: don’t talk about how black women are ideally suited to being astronauts and then switch to black bears. Just don’t. This is why we need more diversity in publishing across the board.)

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong by Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks: Sometimes you just really need to reread a favorite, delightful book. This basically always means rereading Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, because it’s pretty much the definition of delightful.

Change Places With Me by Lois Metzger: YA scifi, a quietish book with some strong worldbuilding and characters. I can’t say much about the plot, because uncovering what happens is part of the fun, but I really liked it. I suspect that for the right readers it could be really great, and I hope it finds them.

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Plamer: reviewed here
Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey: reviewed here
Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey: (review coming soon)
Lady Byron and Her Daughters by Julia Markus: (review coming soon)
The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey: (review coming soon)
To Love and Be Wise by Josephine Tey: (review coming soon)
A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey: (review coming soon)
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey: (review coming soon)
The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman: (review coming soon)
Mirror in the Sky by Aditi Khorana: (review coming soon)

TV and movies
Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters, go see Ghostbusters. It’s so fun and lovely and yes.

I also have been watching The Great British Bake Off because it is on our TV screens once again! You should be able to watch it on PBS.org right now.

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Dancing to the Precipice by Caroline Moorehead

dancing to the precipiceI read Moorehead’s Village of Secrets last year and liked it, so when I was looking for some good non-fiction recently, I decided to try another of her books. Dancing to the Precipice is also about French history,, but in this case it’s about Lucie de la Tour du Pin, an 18th and 19th century memoirist. Lucie was there for, or connected to, apparently everything that happened in France, or the UK, or the US during this period.

I mean–she and her husband escaped the Revolution (both of their fathers were executed during the Terror) and promptly ended up in the US living with General Philip Schuyler. Yes. That General Philip Schuyler. They knew the Hamiltons well during their stay in the US. Lucie was also a lady in waiting to Marie Antoinette and knew Wellington when they were young. They were in Brussels during Waterloo, and Lucie’s half sister lived with her family on both Elba and St. Helena during Napoleon’s exiles.

All of this connectedness gives us a personal view into these huge international events. Lucie’s memoir has apparently been a staple of scholarship for ages, but Moorehead fills in the gaps of the memoir with details from her letters and background from other characters. We see everything quite clearly from Lucie’s point of view, but we also are given the context. It makes for some interesting reading.

However, I do have to say that the treatment of racial, and to a certain extent class, issues is not good. Moorehead is British and may not grasp some of the problems with the representation of Indians in US culture. But the section when Lucie and family are in New York was particularly grating–as is the French print of Lucie interacting with a noble savage, reproduced for us. In general, I felt that Moorehead tended to repeat 18th century prejudices without the counterbalance of commentary. If she can point out when Lucie is being snobbish, she can also point out that the Hottentot Venus is not neutral or okay.

So, enjoyment of this book probably depends on the degree to which one can accept the fact that its subject was an 18th century French aristocrat–granted one with liberal, reform tendencies. I did find it a fascinating window into the time and place, while also remembering that the perspective was a limited one. If nothing else, Moorehead gives a sense of the women–both Lucie and others–who made up part of the landscape of that time and place; a vivid, complex, argumentative group, who certainly were not the prim dolls we tend to make of women from the past.

In short, while far from perfect, Dancing to the Precipice is also engaging and thoughtful, and I’m glad to have read it.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2009, HarperCollins; adult non-fiction

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2015 Favorites: non-fiction

ravensbruck village of secrets call the midwife how to be a victorian The Bletchley Girls

Ravensbrück by Sarah Helm: Pretty much without a doubt, my favorite non-fiction book of the year was Sarah Helm’s Ravensbrück. It’s rare for me to feel emotional about non-fiction, but in this case I was totally invested, to the point of tears. Helm’s account of the women in the Ravensbrück camp is astoundingly detailed, but never loses sight of the fact that she is talking about real people. By both providing personal accounts and giving them context, she allows both immediacy and understanding of complexities. (When this person was speaking, and to whom, for instance.) It’s a truly impressive book, but even more so, it bears witness to the women who wanted nothing more than to tell the world what happened there.

How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman: There are a number of books about daily life in the Victorian era, but Goodman is able to give her personal experiences with various daily chores and routines. Because of this, and her thoughtful understanding of the Victorian worldview and life, it stands pretty far above any similar book I’ve ever read. She is clear about where the Victorian methods make sense and where they were disastrous. All in all, I felt this did a good job of neither sentimentalizing nor condemning, but attempting to make sense of Victorian daily life.

Village of Secrets by Caroline Moorehead: I found Moorehead’s examination of the very complex history of the Vivarais Plateau during World War II to be fascinating on several levels. First, she takes a great look at the myths and stories we tell about it, and where they come from. Second, she delves into the actual records and eyewitness accounts with great scholarship. In the end, what she presents is a much richer, more human, and in a way more understandable account of the village of Le Chambon and the other villages on the Plateau. I didn’t see it as denigrating; in fact, it seemed to honor the actual character of the people involved. And I’m still thinking about the way history twists into myth.

The Bletchley Girls by Tessa Dunlop: This fits nicely into the themes I’ve been talking about already in this post. Dunlop looks at the young women (some of them really girls) who worked at, or in connection with, the Bletchley Park project. As Dunlop weaves their stories together, it becomes clear that the idea of the idealistic and brilliant code breakers is over-done; that many of the girls who worked there found their work drudgery; and that some of them did not feel that it changed their lives significantly. On the other hand, for others, it opened a new sense of possibilities, or the chance to develop life-long friendships.

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth: I’ve loved this show a lot, so I thought I should read Worth’s original memoir. It’s interesting to encounter the originals of stories I already knew–and it reinforced my sense that the writers had done an excellent job of crafting a narrative that hews pretty close to Worth’s own words but has a structure that works for TV. While I do like the tv show more as a narrative, I also appreciated Worth’s perspective and experiences.

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September 2015 round up

Books I’ve already talked about
A Wish Upon Jasmine by Laura Florand
Hissing Cousins by Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer
The Disenchantments by Nina LaCour
The Devil You Know by Trish Doller

Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers
Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers
A Pocket Full of Murder by R.J. Anderson
The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
The Silence of Medair by Andrea K. Höst
Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers

Other books
The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds: This book is on the quiet side, with lots of reflections on grief, family, love, and growing up. But it also has some really funny moments! There’s lots to like here, and I’ll definitely be looking out for Reynolds’s books in the future.

Ms. Marvel: Crushed: AHHH MS. MARVEL, YES! I am always so surprised by just how much I love this story–it keeps getting better. The arc on this one was really great and I just want mooooore.

Lord Peter and Little Kerstin by Ian Crumpstey: A review copy offered by the translator of Scandinavian folk songs/stories. It was interesting to note that sometimes I was able to predict where the story was going and other times it surprised me. I really enjoyed the language chosen for this translation.

A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie: Audiobook. Not my favorite Miss Marple, but it does introduce the idea of her as a nemesis.

Baba Yaga’s Apprentice by Marika McCoola and Emily Carroll: I’m fascinated by the Baba Yaga story, and I loved Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods. So I thought this one might be good and I ended up really liking it. It’s set in the modern day, but I liked the way McCoola’s story and Carroll’s art interact.

Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson: I had a mixed reaction to this one, but I’m not sure entirely why, and I’m not sure I can tease it out in the time and space I have here.

Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers: I read this one but didn’t end up writing a post about it. Partly this is because of the DLS books I just re-read, it’s the only one that’s really focused on the mystery, with Peter and Harriet’s relationship second. Also, it’s just vaguely grimy and depressing. Murder Must Advertise is sad; HHC is just unsatisfying.

Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault: I enjoyed this first book about Alexander the Great, but also I became very anxious about MWT’s Gen because of parallels. Arrghhhhh. Anyway, on its own merits this is immersive & beautiful.

Outskirter’s Secret by Rosemary Kirstein: Second in the Steerswoman series. This one starts off a little slowly and ends with an emotional gut-punch. Ow. Also, I really appreciate that Kirstein pays attention to the physicality of her world, and gives a sense of the time it takes to do things/move through the land.

A School for Brides by Patrice Kindl: Great readalike for last year’s Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place! It had something of the same school story + irreverent vibe. I wasn’t in love with the first book, but I really enjoyed this one–maybe because it was less an Austen retelling and more vaguely Austen-esque.

Blind Justice by Bruce Alexander: This is unusual in historical mysteries that I’ve read in that the detective is a real historical figure. Sir John Fielding was a magistrate and social reformer. The book itself is told as reminiscences of a fictional servant boy. I’ll probably try reading at least the next book.

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth: Being a big fan of the TV show, I wanted to try Worth’s memoirs. It was interesting to track the places where it was exactly the same and the places where changes had been made. In general, I appreciated the book, but I didn’t love it as much as I did the show itself.

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones: I absolutely loved this one, which is told via letters to and from Sophie. It’s funny, and heartfelt, and I found it truly enjoyable and charming.

Cuckoo’s Egg by C.J. Cherryh

Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton

Listen to the Moon by Rose Lerner: review coming closer to the release!

Other posts
Made and Making
Links 9-3-15
Links 9-16-15
Links 9-29-15
Series I need to finish
Mystery books I want to read
Fall TBR
Favorite middle grade mysteries

TV and movies
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries!!!
Doctor Who
Call the Midwife

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Recent Reading: non-fiction and YA

hissing cousinsHissing Cousins by Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer: I picked up this double biography of Eleanor & Alice Roosevelt because, I mean, look at that tile! How could I not? It turned out to be (as far as I could judge) a well-researched and well-written look at the complex intertwining lives of these two cousins. Peyser & Dwyer examine the ways in which each woman lived up to her reputation, as well as the ways in which she didn’t. They also look at the long-standing feud between them, and the ways in which this both was and wasn’t reflected in their actual relationship. Definitely recommended for people interested in early 20th c. American history, or women’s history, or complicated family dynamics. My only quibble is that the authors seem reluctant to talk about the wider social ramifications of, say, Theodore Roosevelt and his beliefs and policies in favor of a mostly-positive personal portrait.

The Dthe disenchantmentsisenchantments by Nina LaCour: I picked this one up after reading and loving LaCour’s more recent Everything Leads to You. The Disenchantments has the quirky, artsy, adventure/quest that I enjoyed in ELtY, but for me it lacked some of the depth of character that I saw in that book. Then again, it’s also true that this book falls into the pattern of a boy interacting with an unattainable, brilliant, and unknowable girl. It’s well written, and yet the pattern itself annoys me; if anything, I wanted this story from Bev’s point of view. Still, LaCour’s prose is smoothly enjoyable and the story as a whole does a nice job of looking at that transition from high school to college, as well as the realization that the adults in your life are actually human and complex.

devil you knowThe Devil You Know by Trish Doller: The Devil You Know has been very highly praised by several people I trust, and I really liked Doller’s previous books. This one is part coming-of-age, part romance, and part mystery. I had two somewhat different reactions to it. First, like Dessen’s Saint Anything, I thought Doller did a great job of writing an extremely readable book, which also takes on big issues. I really admired the way she wrote this situation where things slowly start to unravel. And the fact that Cadie is never judged or shamed for the choices she makes also was great. On the other hand, I figured out the mystery really quickly. That said, this is 1) a book written for teens and not for mystery-obsessed adults (me) and 2) not the reason I was reading this book and therefore wasn’t as much of a problem as it might have been. So despite that fact, I would definitely recommend this one if you want that combination of big topics and readability

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