In 1870, with the help of Cornelius Vanderbilt, she and her sister were the first women to run a brokerage firm on Wall Street. In 1872, she was the first woman to run for president (with Frederick Douglas as her running mate). And at a time when respectable and well-connected suffragists were still strategizing ways to get their foot in the door to address Congress, the mysterious Victoria Clafin Woodhull seemed to come out of nowhere, waltz past the channels that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had so carefully fought to establish, and become the first woman to address Congress on the subject of women’s suffrage.
Not bad for a woman who came from an impoverished family of con artists.
Regardless of her sketchy upbringing — she and her sister were pushed to perform as clairvoyants, among other things — the brazen Victoria Woodhull knew how to stay in the spotlight. After they opened their brokerage on Wall Street, she and her sister became something of a spectacle…who ever heard of women on Wall Street? She channeled her notoriety into a successful newspaper that she used as a mouthpiece for her radical views, but these views would ultimately be her downfall.
Orange is the New Black first caught my eye a few years ago when it first came out. I kept going back and forth on it. It looked intriguing, but I was also wary of the whole prison-as-told-through-the-eyes-of-a-privileged-white-lady thing. And ultimately, that’s why I put the book on the back burner for so long.
Fast-forward a few years, and we all know that turned out. OITNB was helmed by Jenji Kohan, picked up by Netflix, and shot into fawning fandom. I, like many others, ended up marathoning Season 1 in like two days. And all the while? I was going, “ARGH, WHY DIDN’T I READ THE DAMN BOOK BACK IN THE DAY?!!” (At which point it was too late because the waiting list at all of the libraries was insane.)
Anyway. I finally got a hold of the audiobook through the library, and predictably, I really enjoyed it. The book is about Piper Kerman, a responsible woman with a job and a fiance…and an almost-ten-year-old felony drug case hanging over her head and threatening to send her to prison for an undetermined amount of time. Years ago, when Kerman was a carefree college grad, she started a relationship with a woman also happened to organize drug smugglers. Kerman was lured by the seeming glamour of it all, traveling around the world with her well-to-do girlfriend, but then it became a little too real: she was pressured into smuggling drug money. She didn’t get caught, but it freaked her out and she left that part of her life behind her. Or so she thought. Almost ten years later, Kerman was named in an investigation to bring down said drug smuggling ring. It’s how she found herself eventually doing time in a federal women’s prison.
Growing up, Nicole Georges had always believed that her father was dead. Then at the age of twenty-three, Nicole’s friend took her to a psychic, who informed her that her father wasn’t dead. It’s a secret Nicole sits on for a long time, until finally broaches the subject and her sister spills the beans: no, Nicole’s father never died of colon cancer.
Nicole Georges’s graphic memoir is part coming-of-age, part unlocking-family secrets story about growing up in a stressful household. Her mother dated a lot and was occasionally in abusive relationships, and the stress manifested itself in Nicole in different ways She also grew up in hippie vegan Portland, raised chickens, and refined her art. By the time she was twenty-three, she was keeping a lot of her life compartmentalized: she was still in the closet where her mother was concerned, didn’t know how to broach the subject of her father with the rest of her family, and was trying to navigate the tricky waters of her relationship (which involved living with lots of dogs and traveling with her girlfriend on their band’s tour). The questions about what really happened to her father start to eat at her, and the confusion finally culminates with a desperate phone call to ultra-conservative call-in advice show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger, whom Nicole occasionally hate-listens to.
As someone who has always loved the promise contained in a pen and a blank sheet of paper and whose doodles to this day regularly consist of experimenting with my signature, I was immediately drawn to Kitty Burns Florey’s Script and Scribble. Florey went to school under the strict gaze of nuns, and her handwriting reflects that. It’s the complete opposite of current times, where children are taught how to write, of course, but are no longer taught to truly master handwriting. These days, typing skills reign supreme, and beautiful handwriting is becoming a lost art.
Script and Scribble is a short book — less than 200 pages — that takes readers through a brief history of writing. As people’s needs changed, so did the prevailing handwriting of the time. Burns Florey focuses quite a bit on Spencerian script, which dominated the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the standard style for business and official documents (and which is still used in the Ford and Coca Cola logos). Spencerian script, though beautiful was eventually fazed out in favor of the less flowery Palmer Method, which was dominated US schools until around the 1950s. (Side note: I always wondered why my grandparents and others of their generation had similar handwriting styles. And there you have it…the Palmer Method.) Many other methods have come and gone since then, and these days there isn’t really a standard. Children in primary schools are probably learning from a mix of different styles, and those styles are all fairly similar. Burns Florey argues that children and teachers are so bogged down by things like standardized testing, handwriting is the least of their concerns. When she was younger, good handwriting was always stressed. These days, once children get the grasp of it, that’s it — it’s not something teachers continue to instruct their students on.
I spent part of the summer of 2012 reading — and falling deeply in love with — Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. Talk about perfect timing: soon after I finished reading that book, The Black Count was released to great critical acclaim and went on to win the 2013 Pulitzer in the Biography or Autobiography category. Tom Reiss dug into a historical figure who’s been largely forgotten: Dumas’s father, General Alex Dumas.
Although Alexandre Dumas (the author) would grow up experiencing poverty and racism, his father’s rise through the ranks during the French Revolution are almost inconceivable. General Dumas was born in Saint-Domingue (what is now Haiti), the son of a slave and a plantation owner. His father doted on him and took him to live in France, and though General Dumas would eventually renounce his father, he came of age during an idealistic period in France where he was afforded opportunities that were unheard of for people of mixed-blood everywhere else in the world. An intelligent and skilled fighter, he rose up from his station as a lowly officer to become a general in the French Revolution fighting alongside Napoleon. And though Dumas proved himself time and again as a leader on the battlefield, it was ultimately Napoleon who would be his undoing (in fact, it was also Napoleon who helped dismantle all of the laws that had helped people of color).