Frank died at 87 1/2 years old. Picture this: When he was a tow-headed little boy, just a toddler, his parents dressed him in short pants and a striped shirt and posed him on the hood of the family Model T, grinning. Feisty. He was named after a prominent ancestor, Benjamin Franklin, and they shared more than a name: both were brilliant, larger-than-life, charismatic. Actually, he came from a long line of characters: a grandfather who died, in his 90s, as the result of a bar fight, a father who was an early aviator. That family bred their men big, bold, and memorable. Frank, my Frank, my friend, came of age during the Great Depression. He had an older brother, equally brilliant; when it came time for Frank to attend college in ’37 or ’38, there was no money left. None. His brother had the degree that Frank would never get. He didn’t sweat it, moved on with life. Somewhere along the way he met a beautiful lady and they got married. Everything changed on 7 December 1941. Continue reading →
About: This book is exhaustive; comprehensive; and any other applicable word over-used by critics and reviewers. To horribly paraphrase Joni Mitchell, after reading An American Saga I can honestly say that I have looked at the Roosevelts from both sides now. (*groan*) It’s a biography of the entire family, radiating from Teddy and FDR, to be sure, but giving flesh and voice to all of the members. Neither man, after all, was created in a laboratory; nor are the two lines of the family treated as barely associated branches, but as richly interconnecting pieces of a large and complex puzzle. This is a classic.
Motivation: I’ve been intrigued by FDR since that day in 6th grade history when I drew his name out of the assignment hat. My best friend, Jessy, was not so lucky: she was forced to research Ronald Reagan, the then-sitting head of state. At least neither of us had the task of padding out a report on William Henry Harrison, which was probably an F waiting to happen. Small mercies, people. Small mercies.
Times Read: 1
Random Excerpt/Page 37: He was curious about how things worked. He captured insects, rodents, and other specimens and took them apart on makeshift dissecting tables, almost as if by opening them up for examination he might better understand what was wrong with his own machinery. He drew, catalogued, and described what he saw. At the age of eight, when his mother threw out the corpses of two mice he had stored in the icebox for future autopsy, he accused her, in a tiny indignant voice, of “defeating the ends of science.”
English: William Henry Harrison: ninth President of the United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Sorry, Will, but I’m glad I was assigned FDR as a book report subject back in the sixth grade. We’re still friends, right?
Title: Votes for Women The Struggle for Suffrage Revisited
Editor: Jean H. Baker
Year Published: 2002 (Oxford University Press, Inc.)
Year Purchased: 2003/2004
About: Twelve of the fourteen contributors are professors, so this book has a decidedly academic quality. If that’s not your usual cup of tea, don’t be scared: the voices, although straightforward, are distinct and the chapters highly readable. Continue reading →
Year Published: 1911/This Edition: 1933 (The Athenaeum Press)
Year Purchased: 1930s
Source: My Step-grandmother.
About: This book belonged to my Step-grandmother. She started high school the year this edition hit classrooms. It was, as the excerpt below testifies, a very modern take on the subject. What was new then is, nearly 80 years later, a piece of history itself. It is a window into how education was approached during the early part of the 20th century.
Motivation: I just love old books (and history!). The books I inherited from my Step-father’s mother (and grandmother) are still in excellent condition; I treasure them deeply.
Times Read: 1
Random Excerpt/Page iii: “The present volume represents the newer tendency in historical writing. Its aim is not to tell over once more the old story in the old way, but to give the emphasis to those factors in our national development which appeal to us as most vital from the standpoint of today. However various may be the advantages of historical study, one of them, and perhaps the most unmistakable, is to explain prevailing conditions and institutions by showing how they have come about.”
Title: Lion in the White House A Life of Theodore Roosevelt
Author: Aida D. Donald
Year Published: 2007 (Basic Books)
Year Purchased: 2008/2009
Source: History Book Club
About: This short biography of the 26th President of the United States of America manages, in spite of its abbreviated length, to chip away at the bull in the china shop cliché that has followed T. Roosevelt down the decades. Ably written and engaging, it’s a remarkably satisfying read in a small package.
Motivation: It was sent to me by mistake. I paid for it and kept it, anyway. Probably from sheer laziness.
Times Read: 1
Random Excerpt/Page 64: “The more prosaic Roosevelt plunged right in to his new social environment, entertaining as though he were still in a smaller world. In Washington, social life depended on officeholders who had money beyond their salaries and who could, therefore, entertain lavishly in sumptuous houses. These leading lights mixed business with pleasure all the time, something Roosevelt found new but bracing. That the Roosevelts lived in modest circumstances was irrelevant; he fit into the Washington social scene because he came from an elite background and held an important position.”
Happiness Scale: 8
Theodore Roosevelt (1904) English: President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Frontispiece for Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1855), by Sarah Margaret Fuller. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Title: American Bloomsbury
Author: Susan Cheever
Year Published: 2006 (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks)
Year Purchased: 2008
Source: Daedalus Books & Music
About: ‘American Bloomsbury’ weaves together the lives and friendships of five New England authors, loosely following them and their wider circles between the years 1840-1868. Alongside the expected Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne are two women: Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller. Susan Cheever devotes just enough space to the latter to whet the appetite for a deeper analysis of their lives and work. Within the constraints of this book, she manages to rescue Alcott from her reputation as the sappy creator of saccharine kiddie lit (a tired trope unfair to both her and ‘Little Women’), setting her firmly into the harsher but more rewarding world of reality; her gutsy complexity is given space to breathe. The mostly forgotten Fuller (one of my favourite women) suffers from no such reputation; in fact, she largely has no reputation from which to suffer or gain. Cheever does her best to correct that.* If you don’t know who she is, start with this book and your awakened curiosity will take care of the rest.
Motivation: Like so many teens before me (and since, or so my optimistic heart likes to think), I was pulled under the spell of Thoreau and, from there, to Emerson. Although in all my years I have never been able to warm to Hawthorne, the period when these New Englanders flourished is, for me, the best of 19th century American literature. With Alcott and Fuller added to this mix, I was sold.
Times Read: 1
Random Excerpt/Page 35: “Without this obscure lawsuit in 1836, it’s hard to know what would have happened in Concord, Massachusetts, if anything. It was Ellen Tucker’s share of the Tuckers’ fortune that bought the Emerson House on the Cambridge Turnpike and was sustaining the Alcotts as well as the Hawthornes and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson not only paid the rent; Louisa noticed that after a visit from Mr. Emerson there was often a small pile of bills under a candlestick on the dining room table, or left on top of a pile of books he had brought from his library.”
Happiness Scale: 9 1/2
* I just came across the more recent ‘Louisa May Alcott’ by Susan Cheever. Happy dance!
About: Although hardly a sociological study, ‘The GreatAmerican Bars and Saloons’ IS deeper than the average coffee-table volume. With limited text, it is up to the period photographs to tell their history: they do so with gritty, unflinching, and fascinating detail. You can almost smell the mixture of whiskey, sweat and sawdust.
Motivation: We have weird friends who obviously appreciate our own weirdness.
Image via Wikipedia
Times Read: 1
Random Excerpt/Page 10: “Because the saloon was usually one of the first and bigger buildings within many new settlements, it was common that it was also utilized as a public meeting place. Judge Roy Bean and his combination saloon and courtroom in Langtry, Texas was a prime example of this practice. Another saloon in Downieville, California, was not only the most popular saloon in town, but also held the office of the Justice of the Peace. In Hays City, Kansas, the first church services were held in Tommy Drum’s Saloon.”
Title: Twilight at Monticello The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson
Author: Alan Pell Crawford
Year Published: 2008 (Random House)
Year Purchased: 2010
Source: Book-of-the-Month Club
About: A microscopically close telling of the third President of the United States’ final years.
Motivation: Honestly? This was automatically sent to me after I forgot to mail in the silly little book club card declining the honor. I kept it and finally decided to read it a few months later.
Times Read: 1
Random Excerpt/Page 196: “Jefferson had envisioned his “academical village” as a beacon of Enlightenment learning in the New World. By late 1820, however, he had come to regard the University of Virginia as an outpost of strict construction, fighting a rearguard action to determine how the U.S. Constitution was to be interpreted and applied. These may or may not have been mutually exclusive educational functions. But if they could not be reconciled, it was clear to Jefferson which should take precedence.”