For a biography of a such a well chronicled woman, Paul Spicer skips over most details and creates a light, fluffy portrait of Alice de Janze. De JanzFor a biography of a such a well chronicled woman, Paul Spicer skips over most details and creates a light, fluffy portrait of Alice de Janze. De Janze is an American heiress from New York, raised by her mother's family in Chicago, who suffers from a form of bipolar disorder. A quick sketch of her life: she marries a French count, has two daughters, and moves to the Wanhoji Valley in Kenya, then a British colony. She spends most of the rest of her life in Kenya, away from her children, has many love affairs, including one which resulted in a murder-suicide attempt. In the end, the depressive part of her disorder begins to subsume her, and she takes her own life, in her own beloved Kenyan home, surrounded by flowers.
De Janze is a fascinating person from many angles: historically, psychologically, socially. And despite the wealth of information available to Spicer, he paints her life in broad brushstrokes without much detail. He is far more interested in the unsolved killing of Lord Errol, a longtime companion and lover of de Janze. The main thrust of the book is his argument that the killer was actually de Janze herself. It is an interesting story, but his interest in the case causes him to skip over some of the more relevant parts of de Janze's life and then spend two chapters intimately detailed the murder and following trial.
I was markedly surprised at Spicer's lack of detail because he had access to so many primary sources. She was raised by her grandparents, part of the Chicago Armour family (still a giant in the meatpacking industry), and as a socialite, she was featured often in the newspapers of the time. Her wedding to Frederic de Janze was a huge social event. There were letters written between her and her family when she moved to France. He even met and spoke with de Janze's surviving daughter who allowed him to read letters and use photos, in addition to speaking to him about her experiences with her mother. De Janze's attempt to kill Raymund de Traffant at the Gare du Nord was covered in the news, as well as the trial afterward. Perhaps most prized of all, Spicer's mother was a friend of de Janze and spent several years as her neighbor in Kenya. In his introduction he mentions scrapbooks his mother kept, and yet, there's hardly a mention of what they contained.
In the end, this is a nice piece, very fluffy and just the right level for someone interested in high society in the 1920s and 30s in France, Britain, and the British colony of Kenya. The descriptions of the landscape of Kenya are fantastic. And yet, if you wanted to know about Alice de Janze, I'd suggest starting elsewhere. She was part of what was known as the "Happy Valley set" in Kenya--a group of wealthy expats who gathered in the Wanhoji Valley for a number of years. My next stop is to find a book about the Happy Valley set in general to supplement this volume....more
Millard has an interesting premise in this book: bringing together a historical event, major scientific discoveries, and a presidential biography in aMillard has an interesting premise in this book: bringing together a historical event, major scientific discoveries, and a presidential biography in a grand narrative. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work.
Millard begins with a hagiographic biography of James A. Garfield, the man who can do absolutely no wrong. Born in abject poverty, Garfield dedicated himself to his education, worked for a time as a canal man, and then returned to education, eventually taking over the local secondary school where he finished his studies. While certainly there's nothing wrong in exploring these positive traits, Millard never bothers to take the time to tell about any doubts he had about his work, of any negative emotions he might have harbored. It is very difficult to imagine a man going through these struggles without any sense of ill-will.
Moving on to Garfield's service in the Civil War, he is described as the ultimate general, never making any mistakes, driven only by ideals to the end of slavery. Certainly there was far more to the Civil War than slavery, and to put Garfield down in such a singular fashion strips his service of any multi-dimensionality. He enters service in Congress reluctantly, and is essentially pushed into the Presidential nomination. It all strikes the reader as if Garfield is the hero of a fairy tale, illustrating the ideal model of manhood and justice without any pause for character flaws.
Nestled within the narrative, one finds Alexander Graham Bell hard at work developing the telephone, as well as other inventions, and when Garfield is shot, he springs into action to help find the hidden bullet by inventing the first metal detector. Millard adds these details sporadically, and they never become part of the overall story, unfortunately, since it is a very interesting story.
As Millard paints Garfield as the ultimate hero, Dr. Bliss, the doctor who takes charge of his case post-shooting, is her villain. Carried away by pride, he dismisses help from other doctors, and continues to prod at the President, essentially causing his eventual death through a combination of germs, ignorance, and dehydration. While certainly, some of Bliss' actions are worthy of criticism, Millard casts him as completely ignorant, despite the fact that he was acting according to medical knowledge at the time. Certainly, from the vantage point of 150 years later, Victorian era medicine is primitive and foolish, but at the time, germ theory was just that--theory. Alcohol was a common medicine.
Overall, there is plenty of interesting story in here, but the narrative is jerky and the treatment of the subjects is heavily influenced by the author's biases. It's a quick read, but I'm not interested in finding a better biography of Garfield to balance this with. ...more
Charmed Circle was written in 1974, (and I was reading a first edition paperback), so it does contain a lot of dated language. (I don't think anyone wCharmed Circle was written in 1974, (and I was reading a first edition paperback), so it does contain a lot of dated language. (I don't think anyone would call Richard Wright a "Negro author" today.)
Gertrude Stein is a very complex character, and her work is extraordinarily difficult to navigate. Most people know the line of her poetry "Rose is a Rose is a rose is a rose," but beyond that few people know who she is today. She spent most of her life in France, among an incredible circle of writers and artists. I took a very long time to read this book, because I kept having to stop and look up particular paintings that were referenced or writers that I was unfamiliar with.
Mellow gives the reader a lot of information, in a detached narrative style. He does an excellent job with excerpts of Stein's work, explaining the significance of passages quoted. But he never really manages to capture the liveliness of Stein and her circle. It's an ambitious topic, but the writing is so dry, it's hard to feel much, even when you're reading about truly wonderful moments, such as Gertrude's service in WWI. Especially absent is much talk about Alice B. Toklas as anything except Stein's maidservant--however, this may be due to the fact that in the '70s, lesbian relationships were not suitable material for books. (Yes, he does mention that Stein is a Lesbian, but he tells very little about their personal relationship.)
If you're familiar with the period, this is a good one to pick up, otherwise, I suggest looking for a more recent tome....more
Evan Schwartz builds a masterful story of how L. Frank Baum built the Land of Oz, relying not only on Baum's biography, but informing his narrative wiEvan Schwartz builds a masterful story of how L. Frank Baum built the Land of Oz, relying not only on Baum's biography, but informing his narrative with relevant history. It's amazing to think that the story most of us know through the 1939 film "The Wizard of Oz" actually was influenced by so many historical events and movements: the Lakota massacre at Wounded Knee, the women's suffrage movement, Theosophy, the oil boom in Pennsylvania, and the Columbian Exposition.
If you are interested in the history of the time period, I'd recommend reading the following:
Clover Adams is probably best known today for the August Saint-Gaudens bronze that guards her grave in Washington, DC. I first heard a mention of thisClover Adams is probably best known today for the August Saint-Gaudens bronze that guards her grave in Washington, DC. I first heard a mention of this while reading The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan, which mentions how the influence of Eastern traditions shaped Saint-Gaudens' work.
Overall, this biography was disappointing. It's well researched, but Dykstra constantly undercuts her own work by mentioning lack of resources on Clover's life. Certainly there will always be gaps in the historical record, but Dykstra doesn't budge from the sticture of her subject, and hardly gives pause to draw conclusions based on given material. The lack of material excuse pops up over and over until I began to wonder why it was worth reading this at all, if the material was so sparse.
The text is also very bland, making it dull to move through, something I find hard to do considering the amazing detail that survives about the period. While Dykstra lacked information about Clover specifically, there is lots to draw upon to talk about the society they moved in, or what a typical experience of the era was....more
Following my current interest with the time just before and just after the French Revolution, I chose this book, because Madame du Barry was not a nobFollowing my current interest with the time just before and just after the French Revolution, I chose this book, because Madame du Barry was not a noble, and didn't actually influence history that much, so I was hoping for a fresh perspective on the epoque.
The book is written in a dry narrative style with little reference to source material. Jeanne's early life is spent as that of the daughter of a rich man's second mistress. Her mother eventually sells her into sexual bondage to a well-placed pimp, du Barry, who takes her as his own mistress as well as selling her favors to high placed courtiers. This part of her life is glossed over by Haslip, most likely because Haslip has great sympathy for her subject and wants to keep readers from forming a distasteful, prudish opinion of Jeanne.
Once Jeanne makes the leap to Versailles as the mistress of Louis XV, she is portrayed as a naive child, at the mercy of courtiers who look down on her for her lower class origins and former time as a professional courtesan. While Haslip may feel the need to "protect" Jeanne, she neglects to put Madame du Barry into context, particularly speaking about the intricate ritual and etiquette that ruled Versailles, and which Mme. du Barry often flouted.
In the end, Mme. du Barry's selfishness and lack of forethought led to a disastrous end at the guillotine. Unfortunately, as the blade ended her life, Haslip ended the book. There is no mention of what happened to Mme. du Barry's extensive estate, or what popular opinion thought of her end, or even if she simply faded into obscurity. That lack of conclusion made the ending supremely frustrating. ...more