AN AMERICAN PRINCESS by Annejet van der Zijl

A biography of a rags to riches American woman written by a Dutch woman,  in what I consider to be a wonderful translation by Michele Hutchison.

The official description:

The true story of a girl from the wilderness settlements of a burgeoning new America who became one of the most privileged figures of the Gilded Age.

Born to a pioneering family in Upstate New York in the late 1800s, Allene Tew was beautiful, impetuous, and frustrated by the confines of her small hometown. At eighteen, she met Tod Hostetter at a local dance, having no idea that the mercurial charmer she would impulsively wed was heir to one of the wealthiest families in America. But when he died twelve years later, Allene packed her bags for New York City. Never once did she look back.

From the vantage point of the American upper class, Allene embodied the tumultuous Gilded Age. Over the course of four more marriages, she weathered personal tragedies during World War I and the catastrophic financial reversals of the crash of 1929. From the castles and châteaus of Europe, she witnessed the Russian Revolution and became a princess. And from the hopes of a young girl from Jamestown, New York, Allene Tew would become the epitome of both a pursuer and survivor of the American Dream.

This was really fascinating (and envy-making) reading.  It kind of reminded me of that Shirley MacLaine movie, What a Way To Go, where with every marriage, the average joe guy somehow becomes rich, and then dies, leaving her a rich widow, with every marriage she gets richer.

Allene Tew started off as the daughter of a not very prosperous family in a remote upstate New York town, and inadvertently married her way up to be one of the wealthiest women of the world.  What was fascinating for me was the life styles of this wealthy class, the truly astounding amount of money they had.   She ended up with two titles, one a Princess (Dutch) and the other a Countess (Russian).  This was the era of Henry James’ The Ambassadors.   I often find biographies bland and dry, but somehow I was really caught up in this one.  It was meticulously researched and documented, and frankly, I loved it.

 

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BELOW STAIRS by Margaret Powell

Margaret Powell was born in 1907 in Hove, England, to a poor family, and had to leave school at age 13 to start working in a hotel laundry room.  A year later she went into service as a kitchen maid, eventually progressing to a cook before marrying a milkman named Albert.

After having had to give up a scholarship to a good school as a kid in order to work, at age 58 she worked on taking her O levels and progressed on to her Advance levels.  She then went on in 1968 to write her first book, this memoir, then two more books and a cookbook, and co-authored three novels, tie-ins to the television series Beryl’s Lot, which was based on her life story.  She died in 1984.

So don’t give me any guff about how you are too old to do something.  You can do whatever you want whenever you want.  You just have to want it badly enough.

She was a scullery maid for a number of years and then a cook, during the twenties, when there was a substantial divide between ‘them’ upstairs, and the domestic staff downstairs.  She worked for a number of different characters, all of whom required the staff to call them ‘Madam’, and never called the staff anything but their last names. The population who comprised the domestic service were mostly from the poor.   One employer was surprised to see her reading a book, saying she (the employer) didn’t know she could read.  Being a scullery maid was a tough job,  especially since the cooks under whom they worked thought all of them shiftless and stupid, and berated them daily.

A lot of the book is devoted to comments about the social divide, how they were treated so poorly, and what would appear to be a rapid turnover of scullery maids, parlor maids, under parlor maids, footmen, etc.   The one house where the domestic staff was treated well, with respect, and paid well, all the staff stayed their whole lives, and she only worked there as a cook on a temporary basis while the permanent cook had and operation and a recovery period.  She was so sorry to have to leave that place.

Her stories of the stingy and haughty manner of the various employers would be amusing if it weren’t so sad, but by the end of her stint in domestic service, things were already changing a bit, wages were higher, with more time off.

Upstairs Downstairs, and Downton Abby were based on her work.  Very entertaining reading, and makes you glad that was never your lot in life, that’s for sure.

ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTIN’ by Rick Bragg

This is a memoir by Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg about his life growing up poor, and I mean really, really, poor in the south, in the Alabama foothills of Appalachia.  His father was an abusive alcoholic, probably suffering from PTSD after his stint in North Korea, and his mother raised the three boys mostly alone, and mostly on money earned picking cotton, and ironing, etc.  It was a hard scrabble existence, the kind that either makes you or breaks you.

It made Rick, as he pursued his love of journalism, broke his younger brother who became a ne’er-do-well  alcoholic, and created a hard-working man, responsible and dependable but never prosperous of his older brother.

I wasn’t in love with this book.  The style waffled between humble brags, barely concealed vilification of his father, and almost saint-like worship of his mother.  He finally saved up enough money over the years to buy his mother a home,  which it seems tuned out to be a four-bedroom split level on an acre and a third.  Where she lived alone.  Eye rolling here.  But until that time, in spite of his adoration, yada yada yada, she still lived in a tiny shack and had no money, except what little he sent her every once in a while.  So, yeah, that big split level?  Too much, too late.

He has been praised for his poetic style, but for me, it felt a bit precious, you know, worked at.  But there was some fine writing, and some serious southern story-telling.  But it is tainted for me by his firing (OK he resigned under pressure)  from the New York Times in 2003 for writing a story that was basically written by an unpaid and uncredited intern.  One of those deals where the reporter flies in to a city for a short time to get the location dateline, then leaves and writes the article based on others’ info.  There was quite a controversy over this at the time.  It seemed right in keeping with also the barely concealed condensation and sense of superiority that flows through the book.  And An Ego Runs Through It.

So, bottom line, the writing itself, qua writing, is fine, as it should be coming from a Pulitzer Prize winner.  It is the content, and the agenda that grates.

But many people really loved the book, so keep in mind this is only my opinion, which is worth exactly what you paid for it.

 

EINSTEIN: HIS LIFE AND UNIVERSE by Walter Isaacson

This is the definitive biography of Albert Einstein.  At least, that is what the blurb tells us, and after having read it, I can say it sure is a dandy, definitive or no.

How did his mind work? What made him a genius? Isaacson’s biography shows how his scientific imagination sprang from the rebellious nature of his personality. His fascinating story is a testament to the connection between creativity and freedom.

Based on newly released personal letters of Einstein, this book explores how an imaginative, impertinent patent clerk—a struggling father in a difficult marriage who couldn’t get a teaching job or a doctorate—became the mind reader of the creator of the cosmos, the locksmith of the mysteries of the atom, and the universe. His success came from questioning conventional wisdom and marveling at mysteries that struck others as mundane. This led him to embrace a morality and politics based on respect for free minds, free spirits, and free individuals.

These traits are just as vital for this new century of globalization, in which our success will depend on our creativity, as they were for the beginning of the last century, when Einstein helped usher in the modern age.

Issacson obviously admires Einstein tremendously, and the book is filled with all kinds of trivia about his personal life, in which he emerges as the quintessential absent minded profressor, as well as an emotionally distant family man.  He was married twice, and Issaacson seems to dance around the issue of his many affairs.  He was something of a womanizer,  and was married twice.

The book is also filled with lots and lots of explanations of his theories and the quantum concepts, which I really loved as much as the info on his personal life.  He really did say God doesn’t play dice!  Who knew.  I thought that was just one of those internet memes somebody made up.

What I especially found fascinating was the fact that he developed his theories from visualization in his head … thought experiments, …. rather than from mathematical equations.  In fact, he disliked mathematics, and often acquired coworkers to do the math stuff for him.

Great book, extremely readable, wonderful especially considering the esoteric target of Einstein’s genius.

THE GLASS CASTLE by Jeannette Walls

And over here to your right, ladies and gentlement, we have the quintessential dysfunctional family, with the requisite alcoholic father who drinks up all the family money, and steals from his kids to buy more alcohol.  Seems like a common theme, doesn’t it.

This is a memoir,  sad, engaging, and full of questions like why?  why?  and WTF?   The two parents are basically hippie types, they live off the land, meaning they don’t pay their rent and are always moving, sometimes living in camping style out in the desert.  Mom has a teaching certificate which doesn’t do much good as she doesn’t like to work, preferring to stay home and paint.  Dad works sporadically, that is until he gets fired, usually for anger management issues.  Well, that and drunkeness.

The four children are left to raise themselves, and the book is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, but also spotlights that not everyone has the same amount of resilience in their bucket.

After living in horrifying poverty in Appalachia,  where the kids ate by foraging in trash cans and being fed by neighbors, the kids manage to escape, one by one, to go to college.  All of the kids became successful, while the parents never rose above their addiction and poverty, and never really wanted to.   One day in Manhattan, the author came across her parents rummaging in the trash on the street.  All efforts on the part of the kids to help them were in vain.   The parents wanted no help, and preferred their homeless lifestyle.  Eventually, they ended up as squatters in an abandoned building, where they found a community of other squatters, and lived there for years.  The youngest sister developed mental problems, and spent a year in a psychiatric institution after trying to stab her mother with a knife.  On her release, she disappeared into California.

It was a truly compelling story, one you couldn’t put down, something like watching a train wreck.   Loved the book.

The author was a  former gossip columnist for MSNBC.com .  This memoir was made into a movie, with a bunch of famous actors.  It is supposed to be released in August, this year.

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ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT by Jeanette Winterson

orangesThis is an autobiographical novel written in 1985.   It is about a young woman who is raised by an assertive  Christian fundamentalist mother and a quiet unassuming father, in England, where she is absorbed into the evangelical community, eventually even doing her own preaching.

It is terribly funny in places, and terribly sad in others,  a well-written examination of the life, secret and public, of a girl who slowly learns and reveals to us that she is a lesbian.   It was made into a BBC television drama in 1989.

The writing is witty, drizzled with irony and sarcasm,  and the first three quarters of the book are so much fun, but in that last part she gets kind of sermonizing, which I always find unpleasant.  I dislike officious personal philosophy dressed up as character dialog.  I developed that aversion back when I read Any Rand, and it has never left me.  Well, my aversion to Ayn Rand in general has never left me, but that is for another post.

Oh. Yeah.  And it has Sparknotes.   I also have an aversion to the idea that we readers can’t read anything deeper than Harlequin romances and understand them without somebody else explaining to us what it all means.

Let’s see, how about a couple of clever quotes?  OK, you talked me into it:

[About a famous missionary whom the church supported] — To celebrate his ten thousandth convert, the pastor had been funded to take a long holiday and tour his collection of weapons, amulets, idos and primitive methods of contraception.  The exhibition was called ‘Saved by Grace Alone.’

And

I was just in time to see the retreating shapes of Mrs. Spencer and Mrs. Sparrow, ripe plums of indignation falling from them.

And finally,

I had won yet another Bible quiz competition, and to my great relief had been picked as narrator for the Sunday School Pageant.  I had been Mary for the last three years, and there was nothing else I could bring to the part.

And since there is nothing else I can bring to the part of reviewer here, I bid you adieu.   Have fun reading this lovely book.

 

SIDONIA’S THREAD by Hanna Perlstein Marcus

sidonias-threadI don’t often read memoirs of the middle class and unfamous.  Actually, I don’t usually read memoirs of the celebrated rich and famous either.  I figure most memoirs are self-serving examples of revisionist history.  But I downloaded this one maybe because it had to do with sewing.  Being a fiber chick myself, I guess I figured I would give it a try.

It is written by the daughter of a Hungarian Jewish woman.  The woman and her entire family were herded out of their small town in Hungary, near what is now the Czechoslovakian border, at the beginning of WWII,  and   ended up in two different extermination camps.  Hanna appears to have avoided the worst deprivations because she could sew, and was used for these abilities.  She was with her sister for a while, but the sister died of malnutrition, typhoid and exhaustion.   The rest of the family had totally disappeared and were never heard from again.  After the camps were liberated, she ended up in a displaced person’s camp for a couple of years while awaiting the documents necessary for immigration to the United States.  The woman, Sidonia, had a daughter while in the camp, and she and her daughter were eventually placed in Springfield, Mass. where they began their new lives in 1949.

Being not terribly well educated, Sidonia’s only skill was sewing, and she was really a crackerjack at it.  She did home sewing for a couple of years while looking for work, and eventually got a job in a factory, where she worked for a couple of decades, moving up to foreman.

It is beautifully and movingly told by the daughter, all about their lives and their sometimes rocky relationship.  Sidonia was extremely private, and although loving, not terribly demonstrative.  But she was a fabulous seamstress, and her daughter Hanna served as her model as her mother created design after design all her life.

It was not until Hanna was well into adulthood that she finally learned who her father was, because her mother refused to talk about it, so this thread runs through the story.

Through her childhood, Sidonia would tell Hanna stories of her life in Hungary, and the events of their experiences during the Holocaust.

Late in her sewing career, Sidonia was given a big book of sewing, the 1967 edition of the Coats and Clark’s Sew Book, by a grateful customer.  She cherished it always, and it was among her possessions when she died.  Hanna starts each chapter with a quote from the book that is relevant to the subject matter of the chapter, such as Interfacing,  True Bias, Lining, Marking, Back Stitch, etc.   The thread in the title is Sidonia’s vision for her daughter’s future.

It was a loving tribute to her mother, and a way to bring together the many threads of her life.  I was really glad I read it.  I do admit to a sniffle or two throughout.  Allergies, probably.  Yeah.  You know, the dust in the air.

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