I’m always thumbs up on reading a biography, because, honestly, pretty much anyone’s life is more interesting than mine. With all this concern about high tech surveillance, in my case, I think the joke is on Alexa, Google and whoever else is whiling away their day in the despair of watching paint dry, aka, me unspooling my twenty-four hours.
So really, I’m not sure there is such a thing as a terrible biography/autobiography. Some may be TMI or overwrought, dry or vapid – there are all kinds of ways to go wrong. But there is always the exultation of reading about the triumphs someone achieved against all odds, or even the little pleasure of schadenfreude in beholding someone else taking a wrong path. Biographies are, in a way, the reading person’s Daily Mail, Page Six or People magazine.
And here are the seven I tackled in my reading year:
Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Kindle, 497 pages. Published 2018. 3.5 stars.
I found this to be a slightly odd choice of bedfellows: Kearns Goodwin strung together the lives of Abraham Lincoln, the two Roosevelts and Lyndon B. Johnson, justifying the mix by saying “They were united…by a fierce ambition, an inordinate drive to succeed.” Call me a skeptic, but maybe it also had something to do with the fact she had already written extensively on each man and with a little cherry-picking she could throw out an automatic bestseller. I didn’t mind reading this book – and I learned many things I did not already know about the quartet:
Lincoln was a fan of Shakespeare;
Teddy Roosevelt’s assertion that power “in most positions” should be concentrated “in the hands of one man”;
FDR’s passion for stamp-collecting and a thorough overview of his decisive actions during the Great Depression;
LBJ’s early political education at his father’s knee and the conditional love he received from his mother, which he adopted toward others throughout his life.
The book is well-written and often interesting. I’d say it was a good read, but not a must-read.
Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson. Kindle, 333 pages. Published 2015. 3.5 stars.
I’ve always been somehow immune to the national bedazzlement by the Kennedy family, but my sympathies were with them as they grappled with the challenges of a special-needs daughter against the cultural fabric of the 1920’s and 1930’s and the downside of the glare of the national spotlight they had courted. Joseph and Rose Kennedy were – just maybe a little more than everyone else – deeply flawed human beings. Unbounded privilege and success were presumed as their due, and when the third of their nine children was diagnosed variously as “slow” and “mentally retarded”, their responses varied from well-meaning to interventional to disastrous. There was no happy ending for Rosemary, but brother JFK and sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver were both spurred to a passionate dedication for serving the needs of the intellectually disabled.
Educated: A Memoir, by Tara Westover. Kindle/Audible, narrated by Julia Whelan. 336 pages.Published 2018. 3.5 stars.
Educated is like The Glass Castle on steroids. Westover’s eye-popping remembrance of her fundamentalist Mormon childhood in Idaho is a page-turning shocker. The only thing more shocking is that, having had zero formal education she managed to scrap her way into Brigham Young University and ultimately to Cambridge University. The coarse brutality she claims to have suffered at the hands of her family – particularly one of her brothers – verges on the unbelievable. And, in fact, some members of my book club wondered if the memoir might have been somewhat embellished. Yes, say members of her family. Whether or not Westover may be the most unreliable of narrators, there is no denying that this is a compelling read.
My Life in France by Julia Child, with Alex Prud’homme. Kindle, 336 pages. Published 2006. 3.5 stars
A highly enjoyable read. I downloaded this book years ago while planning a literary immersion prior to a trip to France. Never got around to reading it – after all, I’d seen Julie and Julia, so what could I have missed? Plenty, as it turns out. I finally got around to reading the book (my rule is, if I paid for it, I have to read it) and am so glad I did. A life well and robustly lived is always a pleasure to read about, and the magnificent meals, the bucolic settings and even Julia and Paul Child’s quirky marriage make this book an entertaining experience. Prud’homme, who is Julia Child’s nephew, did a good job of organizing the book and staying out of the way. Julia Child was famously enthusiastic about almost everything, but my favorite quote was her acerbic comment regarding American roast chickens: “No one mentioned that the result usually tasted like the stuffing inside a teddy bear.”
Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill by Sonia Purnell. Kindle, 436 pages. Published 2015. 3.5 stars.
The premise is right there in the title: did Clementine even exist other that as her identity as Mrs. Winston Churchill? Much about her, including her paternity, lies in shadow, but author Purnell attempts (perhaps a bit too assiduously – this is a long 436 pages!) to bring Clementine’s life and accomplishments into the spotlight. My book club unanimously agreed that while there was much to admire about Clementine Ogilvy-Spencer Churchill, there was little to envy. Life as Mrs. Winston Churchill was never easy, and as devoted as the two were to one another, they actually lived quite separate lives for much of their marriage. The two also spent curiously little time with their children, and, in fact, two-year-old daughter Marigold perished from sepsis while the Churchill’s were away for a weekend tennis tournament. Years later, a pregnant Clementine offered to give her expected baby away to a friend who had been unable to conceive. Other than daughter Mary Soames, the Churchill children were seen as “disastrous”.
Clementine may not have been much of a mother, but devoted herself fiercely (and fierce she was – known for having an “explosive temper”) to her husband’s political career. According to the author, “it is unlikely that any other prime ministerial spouse in British history has been so involved in government business, or wielded such personal power.” This is a detailed look at a woman who is generally viewed as an asterisk to history.
Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard. Kindle, 318 pages. Published 2016. 4 stars.
One thing I deduced from his long-suffering wife’s biography was that no one sucked the oxygen out of a room like Winston Churchill. Here, Candice Millard (River of Doubt; Destiny of the Republic) shines her capable attention on Churchill’s ambitious and illustrious pursuit of first fame. Churchill had an “unshakable conviction that he was destined for greatness” that led him to the Second Boer War in South Africa as a journalist. He quickly set aside his pen and picked up a gun to fend off a Boer attack on the train on which he was a passenger. His subsequent stint as a prisoner of war and Hollywoodesque escape set the stage with a flourish for Churchill’s subsequent epic career.
Victoria’s Daughters by Jerrold M. Packard. Kindle, 401 pages. Published 1999. 4 stars.
This was my favorite biography of the year. It is first an illuminating look at how, via her children, Queen Victoria had her fingers in every pie in Europe. It is also an excellent companion read to another good book on the subject: George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I.
First and foremost, Victoria and Albert’s famed love match is on display here, revealing that it was really Albert who made the royal decisions. This apparently freed up Victoria to come up with strategic ambitions for her daughters. The eldest, “Vicky” married Prince Frederick of Prussia; their son Wilhelm was ultimately a catalyst for Germany’s doomed entry into WWI. From daughter Alice’s marriage to Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse came daughter Alix, who became Tsarina Alexandra, murdered with her husband and family by the Bolsheviks in 1918. While the other three daughters Alice, Helena and Louise made alliances of less global impact, they nonetheless extended the reach of the royal family. While historically overshadowed by brother “Bertie” (King Edward VII) whose son became King George V, this survey of the daughters’ lives make for an excellent history lesson of the Victorian era.
Next week, history seen through other eyes…