Coco's Reviews > The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal

The Red Leather Diary by Lily Koppel
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Mar 26, 2009

did not like it
bookshelves: non-fiction, women, history
Read in April, 2009


Finished! What a disappointment. This book, like "Triangle," had so much promise and just failed to deliver. The premise, that a diary was found in a modern day dumpster, chronicling the life of a young girl coming of age in the late 1920s/early 30s in New York, was excellent. Unfortunately, author Lily Koppel's writing was just lame. Unimaginative and choppy, she types in Florence's journal entries, but nothing more. She just never creates a world or character to captivate the reader.

The only reason I stuck with this one was because it was for my next book club. One part I did enjoy was the early description of the contents of the steamer trunks that were in the dumpster where the discarded diary was found--Lucite handbag, Grace Kelly evening bag, the flapper dress, etc. I had just been going through a box full of vintage hats and gloves for a display case, so this part resonated. One interesting thing I noticed about the vintage evening gloves--women's hands used to be much smaller! My hands are pretty small and I could not even squeeze into most of the gloves.

The lack of compelling descriptive writing also disturbed me. When Lily meets a private detective near the end of the book, she doesn't even bother to describe his appearance. I guess the photo is supposed to satisfy us. I found so many such instances where there were gaping holes. Florence ends up married but we are never told the details, which actually might have been interesting.

Florence, a young Jewish girl, travels to Europe before WWII. She is befriended by two Germans who tell her she's the perfect Aryan woman. She hides her Jewishness. She hangs out with people who protest America's involvement in the war. Koppel never bothers to ask her how she felt about this later in her life. She does, however, spend a lot of time describing Florence's outfits and romantic liaisons.

I think part of the problem is that Koppel identifies so closely with her subject. She takes obvious pride in being told that she and Florence look alike and that Florence was considered a beauty. Koppel loves to relate how fabulous her legs are and write about her glorious red hair. Maybe if she hadn't become so enamored with Florence (she feels like her granddaughter), she would have asked some deeper questions, interviewed Florence's brother, Irving, and talked to her about whether she regretted leading such a selfish life when she was so privileged.

Recently, I was talking with someone who was young during the Great Depression and she said that nobody could afford to do anything back then. According to her, everybody was affected. While Florence touches on the Wall Street Crash and her father losing everything, it didn't seem to slow her down. Her main regret seems to be the loss of her snakeskin coat in a fire when her childhood home burned down. I'm currently reading Katharine Graham's autobiography and the difference between these women is just night and day. Graham can actually write, for one thing, and draws the reader in, making the characters come to life. Although her mother was quite narcissistic and similar in many ways to Florence, Graham gives her dimension and adds humor. The book is not merely a listing of events.

The Red Leather Diary was found in a dumpster. I'd like to put my copy of the book back there.
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message 1: by Wendy (last edited May 08, 2009 07:40AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Wendy Don't be misled by this toxic review oozing of author envy. The Red Leather Diary is a great read, chosen by The New York Times as an editor's choice.

Koppel's writing is luminous.


Robert

Read in April, 2009
"I forgot I was interested in photography. I did everything!"

"That's an understatement! Florence was amazingly active for such a young woman. Writing, art, theater. She stood out, had opinions and ideals of her own, and tried to live the way she wanted to. She rebelled against what her parents wanted of (and for) her. She was a stand-out at school, when the rivalries and jealousies could easily have buried her.

Florence was an incredibly dedicated journal writer, ...more "I forgot I was interested in photography. I did everything!"

That's an understatement! Florence was amazingly active for such a young woman. Writing, art, theater. She stood out, had opinions and ideals of her own, and tried to live the way she wanted to. She rebelled against what her parents wanted of (and for) her. She was a stand-out at school, when the rivalries and jealousies could easily have buried her.

Florence was an incredibly dedicated journal writer, with an undeniable sense of drama and panache. She wrote what she was feeling at the time, knowing how inflammatory her actions would have seemed to people like her mother.

And some of those entries! I'm very glad that Florence and Lily clarified "making love" - that doesn't mean the same thing as what we're used to, and knowing that now gives me a different perspective on Florence's life.

She was a smart, independent woman who tried to fight against convention. She was talented, well-read, cultured, and strong. She loved everyone she came across, had quarrels, ambitions, fears and desires, and she kept track of it all in her leather diary. It was a glimpse into the life of a young woman who demanded excellence from herself, but had real doubts about how to achieve that.

It seems amazing that the journal found its way into Ms. Koppel's life, and that together they found the now ninety year-old Florence. You can't help but feel for Florence, as she read through the crumbling pages of her journal - reacquainting herself with the hopes and dreams that teenaged Florence had for herself, and comparing that to the life she actually lived. How many of us, coming face to face with our teen selves, would be able to stand proud and say, "Yes, I've stuck by my ideals and have lived the life that I had dreamed"? We all grow, we all settle, and most of us are able to bury or forget the things that made us tick when we were younger. Florence had done that, but then she was presented with her diary, and found herself unable to reconcile the life she had with the life she had hoped for.

I can only say that Ms. Koppel was one lucky woman. The doorman could have kept quiet about the diary. It could have remained hidden in the depths of the Dumpster. It could have been picked up by another Dumpster-diver that day. But instead, it made it into the eager hands of a young writer for the Times, and that eager writer allowed her curiosity to get the better of her, starting a campaign that would eventually become this book and touch so many lives along the way, reconnecting Florence with her past.

I can also say, without a doubt, that I totally would have jumped into that Dumpster with Ms. Koppel, in an attempt to save the relics from the past that were being tossed aside by her building...and fear of germs be damned. The steamer trunks, as described by Ms. Koppel, called to me from the pages of this book, further reinforcing the idea that I was born at the wrong time" Jessica

"I couldn't put The Red Leather Diary down. Mesmerizing descriptions of Lily discovering the diary in a dumpster, 1930s New York, the age of oceanliner travel, and Florence at 90 pouring over the fabulous diary she wrote as a young woman. What a life, what a story!" Laura




message 3: by Coco (new) - rated it 1 star

Coco Wendy, glad you enjoyed the book and felt free to post your review. I did not like it and also was free to post my review. That's the beauty of this site. We can all discuss the books we read and either take or leave one another's opinions on them. As I stated in my review, I thought the book could have been much better than it was. Just because the New York Times put it on their list doesn't mean I'm going to put it on mine.


Gwen Haaland Coco, I totally agree with your excellent review on The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal by Lily Koppel. I had to read it for book group and felt that Florence was amazingly selfish. At our book meeting, I pointed out some of the same failings that you mentioned here. Glad I'm not alone.


message 5: by Coco (new) - rated it 1 star

Coco Thanks, Gwen, I appreciate that.


message 6: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Ellis I agree completely with this review.
There is so much ink devoted to how gorgeous everyone thought she was, and how she caused a stir everywhere she went, and other girls didn't like her because they were obviously jealous. Of course we just have to take Florence's word for it. The few photos of her don't really convince me that men of all ages would stop what they were doing and stare slack jawed at her, but who knows? Ideals of beauty were different then.
As for the author, her totally superfluous anecdote about the guy who played Tony Soprano asking her on a date soured me on her from the beginning.


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