Historical Notes – Revealing the Person Behind the Myths

51zkQJrF6jL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_  The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered by Laura Auricchio

In Deborah Harkness’s Time’s Convert, the appearance of the Marquis de Lafayette and his role in both the American and French revolutions piqued my interest in the French aristocrat who is still revered as a hero in the United States (one of only seven people granted honorary U.S. citizenship) yet denigrated in his homeland of France as a traitor.  With almost one hundred pages of reference notes, The Marquis offers a definitive examination of the man and his complex life.

“The Marquis de Lafayette at age nineteen volunteered to fight under George Washington and became the French hero of the American Revolution. In this major biography Laura Auricchio looks past the storybook hero and selfless champion of righteous causes who cast aside family and fortune to advance the transcendent aims of liberty and fully reveals a man driven by dreams of glory only to be felled by tragic, human weaknesses. “

Auricchio’s narrative is informative and conversational – an easy way to learn history.

A Well Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler

II4KCPF3K4I6RPOASD4BZRMMLU  The Vanderbilt name carries with it a sense of awe for me.  I’ve heard of the railroad baron who built an empire and had magnificent homes in New York City with a “beach house,” known as The Breakers in Newport.  I know about Gloria Vanderbilt of skinny jeans fame, and her son, Anderson Cooper, the blue-eyed white-haired newsman.  But who was Alva Smith Vanderbilt?  

Therese Anne Fowler reveals the story of the outspoken  feisty suffragette married to William K. Vanderbilt,  grandson of Cornelius and great great grandfahter to Anderson. In the first half of her life Alva does what is expected of her, marries into money and society, and works behind the ssenes to assure the Vanderbilt name is synonymous with wealth and power.  But after being betrayed by her husband with her best friend, she divorces William and marries her own true love.  Divorce in the Gilded Age was no small undertaking, but she manages.  Eventually, in the second half of her life, with no husband, she uses her money and influence to fight for women’s right to vote and equality.  

Although Fowler’s narrative is sometimes painstakingly slow and the plights of the wealthy seem overbearing, Alva rightfully takes her place among strong women in history.

Leonardo

51PHThzD-2L._AC_US218_Leonardo da Vinci is my new hero – with unfinished projects,  a stylish fashion sense, and insatiable curiosity about everything.  Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci is heavy, not only in the depth and span of its content but also in it actual weight.  Within almost 600 thick glossy pages, Leornardo, his paintings and drawings, as well as his curiosity and genius, come to life. I read them all, and I took notes.

Alexander Kafka’s review for the Washington Post in 2017 summarizes the book’s highlights – How to Unlock Your Inner Leonardo da Vinci – noting:

If Leonardo’s life reads like a wide-screen epic, that hasn’t escaped Hollywood’s attention. Paramount has bought the rights for a movie adaptation of Isaacson’s book with Leonardo DiCaprio playing his namesake. Here is Machiavelli… conniving overtime, working his connections with Cesare Borgia and Leonardo. Here’s Francis I, king of France… finally offering to the artist in his final years the no-strings-attached patronage he’s always sought… it’s a good story…

I look forward to the movie but glad I read the book first.  My notes will remind me of this great genius, a caricature I remember from his portrayal in the movie “Ever After.”  The movie seems to reference many of Isaacson’s notes, especially in Leonardo’s old age, but of course there was more to the artist than on the screen.

From my Notes while Reading, I will Remember:

Leonardo da Vinci was a vegetarian, left-handed, and wrote in mirror script (right to left with his letters backwards to avoid smearing the ink).

He was self-taught and excelled in geometry.

He was the illegitimate son of a notary, but his father acted as his patron into old age.

He was an idea man but his “execution did not go as well as his conception” – lots of unfinished projects.  He planned to write many books he never got around to publishing.

The fresco of “The Last Supper” had deteriorated badly after only twenty years because Leonardo changed the fresco technique into oils on dry plaster; it all flaked away.

Leonardo was a friend of Machiavelli, and his rival was Michelangelo.  When Leonardo was on the committee to approve Michelangelo’s “David”, da Vinci has “a garland made of brass and twenty-eight copper leaves…covering David’s genitalia.  It stayed that way for forty years.”  in the guise of decency.

He was a favorite of the kings of France and retired in the Loire Valley before he died at 67.

And my favorite line at the end of the biography:

“The best way to approach {Leonardo’s} life is the way he approached the world: filled with a sense of curiosity and an appreciation for its infinite wonders.”

In his last chapter, “Conclusions,” Isaacson draws together many of the observations he made throughout the book as he documented da Vinci’s life.  He leaves the reader with a set of maxims to live by.  Here are a few you may want to adopt to release your own genius:

  • Be curious, relentlessly curious
  • Seek knowledge for its own sake and create for yourself, not just for patrons
  • Retain a childlike sense of wonder; indulge fantasy
  • Observe; start with the details
  • Go down the rabbit holes
  • Get distracted
  • Let the perfect be the enemy of the good (don’t settle for good enough)
  • Let your reach exceed your grasp
  • Make lists
  • Be open to mystery

Hemingway at Eighteen

After reconnecting with an old friend today in Kansas City, of course our conversation meandered toward books. Her most recent read is a book set in Kansas City about one of my favorite authors. The local bookstore is, not surprisingly, sold out, so I’ve downloaded the ebook. What better book to read in Kansas City than Steve Paul’s Hemingway at Eighteen: The Pivotal Year That Launched a Legend – Hemingway’s year as a journalist for the Kansas City Star.

The Chicago Review Press Overview:

“In the summer of 1917, Ernest Hemingway was an eighteen-year-old high school graduate unsure of his future. The American entry into the Great War stirred thoughts of joining the army. While many of his friends in Oak Park, Illinois, were heading to college, Hemingway couldn’t make up his mind and eventually chose to begin a career in writing and journalism at the Kansas City Star, one of the great newspapers of its day. In six and a half months at the Star, Hemingway experienced a compressed, streetwise alternative to a college education that opened his eyes to urban violence, the power of literature, the hard work of writing, and a constantly swirling stage of human comedy and drama. The Kansas City experience led Hemingway into the Red Cross ambulance service in Italy, where, two weeks before his nineteenth birthday, he was dangerously wounded at the front.Award-winning writer Steve Paul takes a measure of this pivotal year when Hemingway’s self-invention and transformation began—from a “modest, rather shy and diffident boy” to a confident writer who aimed to find and record the truth throughout his life. Hemingway at Eighteen provides a fresh perspective on Hemingway’s writing, sheds new light on this young man bound for greatness, and introduces anew a legendary American writer at the very beginning of his journey.”

A Welcoming Life – The M.F.K. Fisher Scrapbook

Before reading Ashley Warlick’s new biographical novel of M.F.K. Fisher in The Arrangement, I needed to know more about Fisher – more than a quick google search.  51c96z1df6l-_sx258_bo1204203200_  Dominique Gioia’s combination of prose and pictures in A Welcoming Life: The M.F.K. Fisher Scrapbook provided an easy entree to the author’s complicated life and prolific work.

Composed as though it were a family album, the one hundred ten pages offer captioned photographs of Fisher, marking her life from a young beauty to the old woman who died in her “Last House” in California.  Gioia inserts pages of prose, transitioning Fisher from young girl to bride and mother, to author and finally grande dame among the elite of food writers.

It’s impossible to think of Fisher without associating her with France, and Gioia dedicates a number of pages to Fisher’s epiphany when she moved from the United States to Dijon, France as a young bride with her first husband, Al, and in Aix-en-Provence where she relocated with her two daughters. Later she was a guest at the Provence home of Julia Child.

Although not as comprehensive as Joan Reardon’s biography of M.F.K. Fisher – Poet of the Appetites: The Lives and Loves of M.F.K. Fisher, the Fisher Scrapbook condenses Fisher’s complicated life into a quick overview, leaving the reader wanting more.  Laura Shapiro in reviewing Reardon’s biography for the New York Times called  Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher “a lifelong series of contradictions.”

To capture a moment in Fisher’s life in The Arrangement, Warlick admittedly read all she could find about the author.  Pictures in The Scrapbook document Mary Frances’s life with Al and her love affair with Dillwyn Parrish (Tim) – the focus of Warlick’s The Arrangement.

Discovering more about Fisher can be contagious and satisfying.  I found Fisher’s The Art of Eating in an electronic version from my local library, and delightedly scanned through pages of many of the books mentioned in The ScrapbookAn Alphabet for Gourmets (A is for dining Alone; G is for Gluttony…), Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, and of course her 1943 memoir, The Gastronomical Me:

“People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking?..They ask it accusingly…The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry…It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.  So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it…”

I have Reardon’s Celebrating the Pleasure of the Table yet to read, with her combination of Mary Frances, Julia Child, and Alice Waters waiting for me in France.  And Gioia’s The Measure of Her Powers: An M.F.K. Fisher Reader is on my stack of books; Ruth Reichl’s introduction promises to be entertaining and Gioia has included many of Fisher’s journal articles published between books.

Fisher’s first novel – The Theoretical Foot written in 1939 – was recently discovered and published.  In his comparison of Fisher’s novel to Warlick’s recent novel The Arrangement, Corby Kummer in the New York Times  called The Arrangement, “a proficient, earnest and livelier book than Fisher’s.”  I may have to place my exploration of M.F.K. Fisher’s real life on hold and divert back to historical fiction in Warlick’s novel.

But first, I plan to follow Fisher’s advice and bake some bread…images-1

“…there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation…that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread…” from The Art of Eating

 

Pretending and Believing

Unknown   The Muppets and Sesame Street saved me as a young mother.  If I nodded off from exhaustion with a toddler in my grasp, I knew friendly Grover would always be there to demand and get her undivided attention.   Although their creator, Jim Henson, died suddenly in 1990, he seems to be still around.  Miss Piggy still shakes her curls, the Count still guffaws,  Cookie Monster still devours – even Kermit, who was voiced and operated by Henson himself, still philosphizes.  In his biography – Jim Henson –  Brian Jay Jones reintroduces Jim Henson with all his quirks and weaknesses, as well as his extraordinary talent and playful way of looking at life that changed the world for many of us.

Being a little preoccupied with death lately, I started with the last chapter titled “Just One Person, 1990,” addressing Henson’s short illness, and including a memorial service he had outlined in a letter to his children four years earlier.  His trademark whimsy permeated the grief.

Backtracking to  Chapter One, I followed Jones’s easy conversational writing about Henson’s childhood and the beginning of his career in his college days at the University of Maryland, the Muppets’ big break on Steve Allen’s Tonight Show,  and the first Muppet commercial – for coffee.  Henson’s “ridiculous optimism” was catching; it was impossible not to like him.

Henson was more than Sesame Street, yet educational television eventually defined his art, as he eschewed commercials  to focus on the show that would make his Muppets household names.  Jones follows the family brood – Henson had five children – as they moved into bigger houses and followed the patriarch’s dream, but he follows the Muppet family more closely, outlining in detail how each puppet was created and evolved.  Each success and failure is carefully documented, from Fraggle Rock to Labyrinth.   Only the two sets of pictures inserted in the narrative give some relief from the exhausting details, but the few personal glimpses behind Henson’s calm demeanor were worthwhile.  When his success allowed him to wear bespoke suits so his pants would be long enough to hide his calves when he crossed his legs in a television interview, he became even more endearing.

Jones focuses on Henson’s creative life more than his personal; his separation from his wife has only a paragraph in the book, and his later relationship with Mary Ann Cleary was given scant attention.  Jones affirms his view of Henson as a family man – with five children and dogs, even after his marriage fell apart – and his family of Muppets.

Kermit’s words from The Muppet Movie reflected Jim Henson’s life:

“…I’ve got a dream, too.  But it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy.  That’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with. And, well…I’ve found a whole bunch of friends who have the same dream.  And it kind of makes us like a family.”

A wonderful testament to the Kermit inside the man, Jones’ biography includes a picture of Henson as he manipulates Ernie.  Even then, it’s hard to believe Ernie is only an extension of Henson’s arm.  The muppets always seem so real.

Unknown-3   Life’s like a movie, write your own ending.

Keep believing, keep pretending.