A Year in Books/Days 228-229: Frontier Madam/Amedeo Modigliani


  • Title: Frontier Madam The Life of Dell Burke, Lady of Lusk
  • Author: June Willson Read
  • Year Published: 2008 (A Two Dot Book)
  • Year Purchased: 2012
  • Source: Half Price Books
  • About: I really wanted to like this book. It has elements that make it ideally suited to my weird tastes. The narrative focuses on an interesting period and place little discussed elsewhere, and the heroine is something else: strong, fearless, unconventional, and largely forgotten. All things that make my heart flutter with anticipation. If the whole was as good as any of the components were in life, it would be a great read. Instead, it is unsatisfactory. Not bad or shoddy, but oddly flat, simplistic and bloodless. Dell Burke was a girl from a solid working class background, with a loving family but few prospects. A tale as old as time, of course. She turned a pragmatic foray into prostitution into a decades-long career as a powerful, wealthy, fair, civic-minded madam in Wyoming. The contents of her life could probably fill several books. Unfortunately, the lady was something of an enigma. The material for an interesting, complex biography just isn’t there. What we are given is a civic history of Lusk, Wyoming filled with third and fourth hand anecdotes about its most notorious resident. Many of the brief stories are entertaining, but they add little to the flow and structure of the book. The passages of imagined dialogue, which are mercifully few, are stilted and unbelievable: a great idea poorly executed. The conjecture used to fill in the gaps between anecdotes and facts is boring and without colour. I wish I had bigger things, nicer things, to say about this book, but the story is paper-thin. The biographer tries hard. Hailing from the same part of Wyoming as her subject, she is genuinely connected to the legend of Dell Burke. It’s obvious that she is excited to share this remarkable woman with the rest of the world. Perhaps that is the problem: whilst the shell of the legend is intact, the substance of the real woman is long gone. There’s nothing left but a disjointed jumble of local in-jokes worn threadbare and a vague memory woven into the collective subconscious of the town’s residents. It’s no wonder that this book reads like a padded-out pamphlet for an annual town festival in Lusk.
  • Motivation: The cover blurb, design, and photograph of any book are meant to lure in potential readers. Well, this particular trio worked well enough to attract at least one person: me!
  • Times Read: 1
  • Random Excerpt/Page 35: “The business people of Lusk probably met from time to time to discuss the issues that faced the growing town. Dell would generally have chosen not to attend, and if she did attend, she would have kept a low profile. The room would have been filled with businessmen and women, and the events might have gone like this.”
  • Happiness Scale: 6


  • Title: Amedeo Modigliani Nudes and Portraits
  • Author: Anette Kruszynski
  • Year Published: 1996/This Edition: 2007 (Prestel Publishing)
  • Year Purchased: 2012
  • Source: Half Price Books
  • About: This sumptuous soft back coffee table book has full text throughout. The reproductions of the Italian artist’s sculptures and paintings are divine. Naturally it doesn’t approach standing in a museum before the real thing, but seeing his nudes and portraits together like this is still a heady experience. It’s a stunning visual narrative, and one that allows the reader to ponder the tiniest detail for as long as is required. If, like me, you come for the paintings, you won’t turn your nose up at the clear, precise text that elegantly captures the complexity and fair-mindedness required of both biography and art criticism.
  • Motivation: Amedeo Modigliani is one of my favourite artists. Looking at his work makes me inordinately happy yet moved.
  • Times Read: 1
  • Random Excerpt/Page 60: “In 1917, at all events, he began to modify his style of painting. Abandoning the hard, geometrical type of composition that had hitherto characterized his portraits, he also refrained from his often pastos application of paint with its dynamic and powerful effect. From now on his brush travelled across the canvas with uniform intensity, applying paint that had been greatly thinned.”
  • Happiness Scale: 10
Amedeo Modigliani Jeanne Hebuterne

Amedeo Modigliani Jeanne Hebuterne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)




10 thoughts on “A Year in Books/Days 228-229: Frontier Madam/Amedeo Modigliani

    • Yes, I really wanted to enjoy this book! I didn’t, and that is that. The writer tried her best, but she just didn’t have enough material to work with and her imagination is not sufficient to make up for the lack of material.


      • The writing in this book is technically okay, but so boring. A book about the life of the woman who ran a successful brothel for 60 years should not be boring.


      • I have to wonder if she researched what brothels were like and if she could have incorporated that information into her book. Maybe speculation means the author has not done their research. I don’t know – I am just speculating!


      • She is from the same area as her subject, and spent half a decade researching her book. I think it just boils down to not having enough concrete information to work with coupled with lack of imagination to fill in the blanks. Add in really basic writing and it is just a huge disappointment.


      • The most disdain I’ve ever given a book was to throw it into the recycling bin. I once bought memoir that had SO MANY typos that I began circling them with my red pen. But I gave up because – honestly! – editing services are normally included in the price of the book. I wrote a letter to the publisher to share my findings, but they never responded. That’s when I threw the book into the recycling bin with a resounding, “Take that!” I must say, it felt good.


      • The worst book I have ever read was this. It also ranks as the shoddiest professionally published book I have ever seen. Absolutely horrid. I love how you wrote the publisher. That is so wonderful.


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