Category: biography

Véra: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov

Book cover: Véra (Mrs.Vladimir Nabokov) by Stacy SchiffStacy Schiff’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography has been sitting on my shelves for the better part of a decade now. I picked up a battered used copy ages ago, dipped into a few pages, loved it…and then put it aside because life. Now, having finally returned to it, it’s been one of the bookish highlights of my summer.

Véra and Vladimir Nabokov’s relationship is legendary. Though Vladimir had dalliances with other women and was undoubtedly a difficult person to live with, the two seemed destined to be together: both were intellectual giants — Véra supposedly read War and Peace at age 3; Vladimir at age 6 — were multilingual and worldly, and were even born with the same neurological phenomenon of synesthesia. Vladimir was poised for greatness early on, and Véra understood and accepted that her role was to do everything to make that happen.

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Quickies: Heartburn & Red Rosa

HeartburnHeartburn by Nora Ephron

Publisher/Year: Random House Audio, 2013
Format: Audiobook
Narrator: Meryl Streep
Length: 5 hours, 30 minutes
Source: Purchase

What it is: Seven months pregnant, cookbook writer and food personality Rachel Samstat discovers that her husband has been having an affair with someone she knows. Meanwhile, her well-heeled friends spend their time planning events and gossiping about The Other Woman; they suspect she’s having an affair, but they can’t figure out with whom. Sprinkled throughout the book are recipes for Rachel’s various comfort foods. Rachel just doesn’t know what to do: she wants to make things work with her husband, but she also wants him to drop dead. The book was originally published in 1983.

Why I listened to it: I was looking for a short, light-hearted audiobook. I’d been meaning to read this for a while now because it seems to be universally loved, and it didn’t hurt that Meryl Streep was the narrator (she also starred in the 1986 film adaptation).

What I thought: I think I might have to come to terms that I love Nora Ephron the screenwriter and director, but not Nora Ephron the author. Heartburn is indeed light and entertaining — I can see why people seem to love it so much, and there were moments that genuinely made me laugh — but it felt very one-note/stand-up comedy routine.


Red RosaRed Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg by Kate Evans

Publisher/Year: Verso, 2015
Format: eBook
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher

What it is: A graphic novel about Rosa Luxemburg, who was born into a poor Jewish family in Poland. She was tiny (probably from malnourishment) and sickly (she would walk with a limp for her whole life), but by the age of fifteen, she was rabble rousing on behalf of the working class. She fought to be sent away to receive an education and grappled with Communism in a way that would make it accessible to the people. By her twenties, in a time when women still lacked any authority in important matters, Luxemburg had earned a PhD and made a name for herself in Germany as an important theorist, organizer, and writer whose ideas are still relevant to this day.

Why I read it: I love books on women’s history, and I loved that this one was presented as a graphic biography.

What I thought: First off, I commend Kate Evans for being able to work so much theory into the text in an accessible way! It was still a little clunky at times, but…have you ever read Marx? Overall, though, Evans did a wonderful job of showing Luxemburg as a person — someone with a fiery determination to make her ideas known, but also someone with a rich and fascinating private life. I’d never heard of Luxemburg before reading this, and I am grateful for the introduction.

You can view some of the artwork from the book after the jump. You can also read an excerpt at The Nation.

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HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton

Book cover: HRC by Jonathan Allen and Amie ParnesThere was a lot that went on behind the scenes after Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2008 presidential election. As one of the superstars of the Democratic party, she’d been expected to breeze on in as the front runner for the election, but as we all know by now, the Obama campaign crushed her in the primaries. HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton, written by political journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, look into what happened the the aftermath of this defeat.

The authors note that after her failed presidential bid, Clinton didn’t yet know what her next move would be. One thing was for certain: she hadn’t expected having to return to the Senate. Those still rooting for her encouraged the new administration to give her a position of importance, and when Obama offered her the Secretary of State position, both camps had to proceed cautiously. There was still a lot of animosity and mistrust between the Clinton and Obama worlds in the early days, but Clinton eventually managed to win most people over by working tirelessly to fill her new role and showing everyone that she could support Obama and his policies. She traveled the world, earned Obama’s trust and respect, and fulfilled her tasks as Secretary of State almost without a hitch until Benghazi happened. In the time since she’s stepped down as Secretary of State she’s laid low politically, but pretty much everyone is waiting for her to announce her intent to run in the 2016 presidential election.

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Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored

Book cover: Notorious Victoria by Mary GabrielIn 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 Douglass 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.

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Margaret Fuller: A New American Life

“I stand in the sunny noon of life…what concerns me now is, that my life be a beautiful, powerful, in a word, a complete life.”

Book cover: Margaret Fuller by Megan MarshallTo say that Margaret Fuller was a woman ahead of her time would be an understatement. A born intellectual, she was educated in accordance with her father’s exacting standards; in a time when Harvard didn’t admit women, her father saw to it that she received the equivalent of a Harvard education anyway. Fuller grew up to be a quick-witted and worldly woman desperate to leave her mark. She was a talented conversationalist and considered herself an equal to — and in some cases, even smarter than — the well-educated men she encountered in her circles, encouraged women to speak their minds, was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited some of Henry David Thoreau’s early works, and wrote a book about women’s rights that far exceeded the reach of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication on the Rights of Women.

Fuller would later work as a newspaper columnist under Horace Greeley at the New York Tribune. At a time when few women worked, Fuller was demanding pay equity, insisting she should be payed the same as her male counterparts. She advocated on behalf of prostitutes and the poor and eschewed the conventions of marriage. When she died in a shipwreck at the age of forty, the revelation that she had had a child with her Italian lover (both of whom also died in the shipwreck) caused a scandal.

In her introduction to Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, Megan Marshall writes about how Nathaniel Hawthorne preferred to call his works “Romances,” quoting him saying that romances allowed the writer to, “bring out or mellow the lights and deepen and enrich the shadows of the picture.” (Imagine the Nathaniel Hawthorne of today — whoever that is — saying such a thing!) In that vein, Marshall explains that she also chose to write this biography as a “romance,” explaining that doing so allowed her to focus on parts of Fuller’s life more than others, all while incorporating Fuller’s words into the narrative, in order to better convey the complexities of Fuller’s life.

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