“Hell is other people” said Sartre. Maybe so. But reading about them is an absolutely delicious pastime. I got up close and personal with some extraordinary folks via an even dozen biographies and memoirs in 2018. Here’s half of them:
Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell by Janet Wallach (425 pages, Kindle, published 1996)
21st century feminists might want to step back in history to see how it’s really done. Gertrude Bell, born in 1868, was the rest woman to earn a first-class degree in Modern History at Oxford, wrote seven books and scores of articles as well as a White Paper considered a masterpiece by the British Government. T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, relied on her for intel, as she thought nothing of galloping around Syria and Arabia to call upon fiercely feuding emirs, including desert statesman and warrior Ibn Saud, who she identified early on as the emerging power of the Saudi kingdom. She translated the poems of Hafiz, called Persia the “Garden of Eden”, spied on behalf of the British government in Cairo. Wallach’s biography is sweeping and well-written, if not the easiest read. Recommended.
Just Kids by Patti Smith (320 pages, audiobook, narrated by the author, published 2010)
This was a re-read and just as good the second time around as when I rhapsodized about this book last year. You don’t have to like her music to recognize her genius. She modestly and brilliantly recalls her childhood, her artistic trajectory and her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Her recollection of their residence at the Chelsea Hotel is a Who’s Who compendium of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s art and rock and roll scene. It wasn’t all champagne and glamour. Of her early days in NYC she recounts “I dragged my plaid suitcase from stoop to stoop trying not to wear out my unwelcome.” And, of a hotel on 8th Avenue where she bunked in near-homeless desperation, “…the wallpaper peeling like dead skin in the summer”. Patti Smith can rock, and she can write. Highly recommended.
Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted by Justin Martin (496 pages, paperback, published 2011)
My very wise and thoughtful friend Katherine bestowed this book upon me as a gift and oh, how I savored every page. Central Park has always been one of my favorite haunts, but having now read about Olmsted’s (and Vaux’s) vision for it, I have an even deeper appreciation for its scope and brilliant execution. I’ve always just taken for granted that the east-west transverses through the Park are recessed so as to prioritize flaneurs over vehicles. But of course, that’s just one of Olmsted’s gifts that keeps on giving.
Born in 1822, Olmsted was a slow starter with unsuccessful stints as a sea-farer, gold-miner and farmer, but in addition to the triumph of Central Park, is today remembered as the designer of Boston’s “Emerald Necklace”, the gardens of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., the public parks of Buffalo, NY and the grounds of Chicago’s 1893 World Exposition. He was an early voice for conservation of Yosemite and Niagara Falls. But of course, the creation of Central Park is the jewel in his crown, and I thank him for it every time I walk along the Mall , or through the Ramble, or gaze down at Bethesda Terrace. Recommended!
I read a trio of books by Joan Didion last year.
First, a re-read of The Year of Magical Thinking (242 pages, Kindle, published 2007), Didion’s poignant and piercing memoir from her first year of widowhood after husband John Gregory Dunne, died in mid-sentence from a heart attack. Her grief and her shock are palpable and none of it is sugar-coated. Recommended.
Where I Was From (243 pages, audiobook, narrated by Gabrielle De Cuir, published 2011) combines Didion’s personal and family chronicles with some California history thrown in. Didion grew up in Sacramento where her pioneer ancestors settled, and she watched post-war California grow up, taking notes all the way. She casts a gimlet eye on the latter but an affectionate one on those hardy settlers who went before her. Recommended.
South and West: From a Notebook (160 pages, paperback, published 2017) is a thin offering, literally cobbled together from notes of a 1970’s road trip to the south awkwardly glued together with same-era California reminiscences. It is by far the weakest of the three books, seemingly designed more as a profit vehicle than a literary offering. Didion appears laser-focused on the perceived deficiencies and prejudices of southerners while failing to apprehend the log of coastal elitism in her own eye. Not recommended.
Another even half-dozen next week…