The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex HaleyThe Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley by Malcolm X
Narrator: Laurence Fishburne
Published by Audible Studios on September 10, 2020
Genres: Biography, Memoir
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

One of Time’s 10 most important nonfiction books of the 20th century.
Experience a bold take on this classic autobiography as it’s performed by Oscar-nominated Laurence Fishburne.

In this searing classic autobiography, originally published in 1965, Malcolm X, the Muslim leader, firebrand, and Black empowerment activist, tells the extraordinary story of his life and the growth of the Human Rights movement. His fascinating perspective on the lies and limitations of the American dream and the inherent racism in a society that denies its non-White citizens the opportunity to dream, gives extraordinary insight into the most urgent issues of our own time.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X stands as the definitive statement of a movement and a man whose work was never completed but whose message is timeless. It is essential for anyone who wants to understand the African American experience and America as a whole.

©1965 Alex Haley and Malcolm X, © 1965 by Alex Haley and Betty Shabazz (P)2020 Audible, Inc.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a book I had been meaning for years—perhaps as long as a decade. I admit I was a bit daunted by the length, and I had only seen the mass-market paperback version with tiny print. I can’t really read mass-market paperbacks anymore. I’m sure there were other, more accessible versions available, but for whatever reason, I never crossed paths with one. I was thrilled to discover this new audio recording narrated by actor Laurence Fishburne.

Malcolm X led a fascinating life. I was really intrigued by his stint in prison and the education he was able to obtain while incarcerated (check out this list of books he mentions he read while in prison). He clearly repudiated his life before prison in the book, in spite of the fact that one might argue that Malcolm X had been dealt a particularly difficult hand: not only was he essentially an orphan as a teenager when his father was killed and his mother was hospitalized, but he was also brought up in a racist society that devalued his intellect and talents. He describes telling a middle school teacher that he wanted to be a lawyer when he grew up only to be discouraged from pursuing that career by this racist teacher who insisted, “you’ve got to be realistic about being a n—–. A lawyer—that’s no realistic goal for a n—–.” This from a teacher Malcolm X admired, too. Honestly, after reading this book, the first thing I thought is that Malcolm X would have made an excellent lawyer. He knew how to craft an argument, and he had a fairly stunning intellect.

One area where I would push back against Malcolm X is his misogynoir. That might not be the right term. I don’t think he hated women. I don’t think he respected them very much, either, however, and he definitely viewed them as inferior. One might point to his religion, but I’m not sure it’s entirely related to Islam because he seemed to feel that way before he converted as well (and Islam is not the only patriarchal religion—I hear many of the same anti-woman ideas from many corners). It does not follow that just because one knows and understands what it is like to be part of an oppressed group that one naturally empathizes with other oppressed groups, and I would argue this is true of Malcolm X. The most troubling argument he makes is that societies crumble when their women have what he’d describe as loose morals. He describes a case study of “Westernized” women in Lebanon versus women in Saudi Arabia (whom he deemed more properly in their place), and he makes a pretty poor case if you ask me.

It was disheartening to read of Malcolm X’s betrayal by the Nation of Islam, an organization he had done so much to promote. It was also chilling to read Malcolm X’s insistence that he expected to die by violence. One thing that struck me especially hard was that Malcolm X and my grandfather were born in the same month and year. You couldn’t have identified two more different people if you had tried. Their lives and experiences in society couldn’t have been further apart. Perhaps my favorite passage of the Autobiography was Malcolm X’s description of improving his reading comprehension by copying out the dictionary.

I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary—to study, to learn some words. I was lucky enough to reason also that I should try to improve my penmanship. It was sad. I couldn’t even write in a straight line. It was both ideas together that moved me to request a dictionary along with some tablets and pencils from the Norfolk Prison Colony school.

I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary’s pages. I’d never realized so many words existed! I didn’t know which words I needed to learn. Finally, just to start some kind of action, I began copying.

In my slow, painstaking, ragged handwriting, I copied into my tablet everything printed on that first page, down to the punctuation marks.

I believe it took me a day. Then, aloud, I read back, to myself, everything I’d written on the tablet. Over and over, aloud, to myself, I read my own handwriting.

I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words—immensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time, but I’d written words that I never knew were in the world. Moreover, with a little effort, I also could remember what many of these words meant. I reviewed the words whose meanings I didn’t remember. Funny thing, from the dictionary first page right now, that “aardvark” springs to my mind. The dictionary had a picture of it, a long-tailed, long-eared, burrowing African mammal, which lives off termites caught by sticking out its tongue as an anteater does for ants.

I was so fascinated that I went on—I copied the dictionary’s next page. And the same experience came when I studied that. With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and places and events from history. Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia. Finally the dictionary’s A section had filled a whole tablet—and I went on into the B’s. That was the way I started copying what eventually became the entire dictionary. It went a lot faster after so much practice helped me to pick up handwriting speed. Between what I wrote in my tablet, and writing letters, during the rest of my time in prison I would guess I wrote a million words.

Malcolm X’s ideas have been so widely influential. Modern anti-racist, anti-bias movements owe much to Malcolm X’s thought. I have heard so much about Malcolm X, much of it controversial, fear-mongering lies, unfortunately, and I felt it was important to read his story for myself. For example, many people believe Malcolm X to be biased against White people, and while this was true (and not without good cause, I might add), he later changed these views after experiencing the Hajj and meeting fellow Muslim pilgrims who were White. He viewed Islam as a unifying force. Malcolm X wrestled honestly with his life in this memoir. This is an important book that I think many people should read in order to better understand our American society.

five-stars

Review: Petty: The Biography, Warren Zanes

Review: Petty: The Biography, Warren ZanesPetty: The Biography by Warren Zanes
Narrator: Warren Zanes
Published by Audible Studios on December 15, 2015
Genres: Nonfiction, Biography
Format: Audio, Audiobook
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five-stars

An exhilarating and intimate account of the life of music legend Tom Petty, by an accomplished writer and musician who toured with Petty

No one other than Warren Zanes, rocker and writer and friend, could author a book about Tom Petty that is as honest and evocative of Petty’s music and the remarkable rock and roll history he and his band helped to write.

Born in Gainesville, Florida, with more than a little hillbilly in his blood, Tom Petty was a Southern shit kicker, a kid without a whole lot of promise. Rock and roll made it otherwise. From meeting Elvis, to seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, to producing Del Shannon, backing Bob Dylan, putting together a band with George Harrison, Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne, making records with Johnny Cash, and sending well more than a dozen of his own celebrated recordings high onto the charts, Tom Petty’s story has all the drama of a rock and roll epic. Petty, known for his reclusive style, has shared with Warren Zanes his insights and arguments, his regrets and lasting ambitions, and the details of his life on and off the stage.

This is a book for those who know and love the songs, from "American Girl" and "Refugee" to "Free Fallin’" and "Mary Jane’s Last Dance," and for those who want to see the classic rock and roll era embodied in one man’s remarkable story. Dark and mysterious, Petty manages to come back, again and again, showing us what the music can do and where it can take us.

What a great loss to rock and roll. I think I might first have become aware of Tom Petty because my copy of Chipmunk Punk, featuring Alvin and Chipmunks squeaking out songs that were decidedly not punk music, had “Refugee” on it. Later, the video for “You Got Lucky” seemed to be on heavy rotation on MTV, and I admit it was interesting. You couldn’t get away from “Don’t Come Around Here No More” later. Rewatching that video recently, I was struck by how good Tom Petty’s acting is in the video.

However, I’m not sure I appreciated Tom Petty, truly became a fan, until college. I bought his back catalog and listened to the albums on repeat. I listened to them all again as I was reading this book, and I still remember each note. The first four albums, Tom Petty and the HeartbreakersYou’re Gonna Get It, Damn the Torpedoes, and Hard Promises, were on particularly high rotation, along with Southern Accents.

What I appreciated most about this biography was that Warren Zanes is an insider of sorts. In the 1980s, he was in the Del Fuegos and opened for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on tour. He spoke to many of Petty’s friends and associates, and the biography is unflinching in its honesty. Petty seemed like a reflective type of person, and he owned his mistakes. I particularly appreciated the reflections of fellow Heartbreakers Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, and Stan Lynch as well as Petty’s long-time friend Stevie Nicks.

The part of the biography I found most compelling was Zanes’s account of Petty’s youth and adolescence, followed by his early days in Florida bands, such as Mudcrutch. His incredible work ethic was another interesting thread that ran through the book. It struck me that Petty enjoyed his English classes and didn’t consider them to be “studying” in the same way that his other classes were; you can hear that in his song lyrics. However, as a teacher, I couldn’t help but feel sad about how school crushes the spirits of so many creative people like Tom Petty. I think it was Benmont Tench who said in the book that Tom Petty was really good at convincing people to quit school and join his band.

When I heard Tom Petty died, I was crushed. He’s one of my favorite musicians of all time, and I’m grateful I was able to see him in concert once in 1992, for his Into the Great Wide Open tour. It was a great show. He was a consummate performer.

I put together a highly subjective list of my favorite Tom Petty tunes, more or less in order of preference. Some are deep cuts. I hope you enjoy it.

five-stars

These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, Martha Ackmann

These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, Martha AckmannThese Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson by Martha Ackmann
Published by W. W. Norton Company ISBN: 0393609308
on February 25, 2020
Genres: Poetry, Nonfiction
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

An engaging, intimate portrait of Emily Dickinson, one of America’s greatest and most-mythologized poets, that sheds new light on her groundbreaking poetry.

On August 3, 1845, young Emily Dickinson declared, “All things are ready”—and with this resolute statement, her life as a poet began. Despite spending her days almost entirely “at home” (the occupation listed on her death certificate), Dickinson’s interior world was extraordinary. She loved passionately, was ambivalent toward publication, embraced seclusion, and created 1,789 poems that she tucked into a dresser drawer.

In These Fevered Days, Martha Ackmann unravels the mysteries of Dickinson’s life through ten decisive episodes that distill her evolution as a poet. Ackmann follows Dickinson through her religious crisis while a student at Mount Holyoke, her startling decision to ask a famous editor for advice, her anguished letters to an unidentified “Master,” her exhilarating frenzy of composition, and her terror in confronting possible blindness. Together, these ten days provide new insights into Dickinson’s wildly original poetry and render a concise and vivid portrait of American literature’s most enigmatic figure.

I have been waiting to read Martha Ackmann’s biography of Emily Dickinson, These Fevered Days, for a few years. Ackmann was one of my instructors at a weeklong workshop on Emily Dickinson’s life and work sponsored by National Endowment for the Humanities. In fact, she read the second chapter of this book to us during one session. At that time, she was contemplating calling the book Vesuvius at Home.

The conceit of this book, that ten days changed Emily Dickinson so that she was “different, say, at ten o’clock at night from how she was at ten o’clock that morning” (xviii), is novel and works well, especially considering Dickinson’s life has been the subject of much biographical writing (in spite of her more interior existence). While Ackmann engages in a bit of speculation about what her book’s subjects were thinking or doing, it rings true, and I know for certain that Ackmann’s conjecture is based on solid research. For example, she obtained permission from the Director of the Emily Dickinson Museum to go into the attic of the Dickinson home so that she could ascertain the “certain slant of light” in the room and read Shakespeare aloud, as Dickinson did, in order to determine what that experience was like so that she could render it properly. Dickinson proclaimed that “the rafters wept” at her own reading. Ackmann has also taught a course at Mount Holyoke on Emily Dickinson for years—even bringing her students into the Dickinson home to study her work. Having been a student of Ackmann’s for only week, I’m still not afraid to say she has lived and breathed the poet’s life and work for years, and that knowledge shines forth in this book. The final chapter on Dickinson’s final day of life is rendered especially poignant. Rather than witnessing the passing of a great poet, Ackmann made me feel like I had witnessed the passing of an old and great friend.

Even if you’ve read biographies of Dickinson before, you’ll want to read this book for its intimate portrait of the moments that changed Dickinson’s life. As Ackmann acknowledges, other Dickinson scholars might choose different days, but Ackmann focuses on the following:

  1. The day Dickinson decided to write.
  2. Dickinson’s decision not to commit herself to Christ at the behest of Mary Lyon, principal of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where Dickinson was attending school.
  3. Emily Dickinson’s first publication (despite popular belief, she did publish a few works anonymously in her lifetime).
  4. Dickinson’s decision to bind her poems together in fascicles and preserve them (Christanne Miller’s book Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them is a wonderful resource for more on this).
  5. Dickinson’s work on F124 “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” with her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson’s advice.
  6. Dickinson’s remarkable decision to write to Thomas Wentworth Higginson (who was living in my home city of Worcester, MA at the time) after reading his article “Letter to a Young Contributor” in The Atlantic Monthly and begin a lifelong correspondence and friendship.
  7. Dickinson’s brush with blindness.
  8. The first meeting of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
  9. The publication of Dickinson’s poem F112 “Success is Counted Sweetest” in the No Name series after much cajoling by her friend Helen Hunt Jackson.
  10. The day Emily Dickinson died.

Reading this book was extra special for me because I had the opportunity to visit Dickinson’s home on several occasions, and I was even permitted to take photographs. I was able to visualize the moments Ackmann describes with greater clarity—I felt like I was there, and not only because of my memories of the Dickinson homestead but also because of Ackmann’s precise description.  Check out Ackmann’s article at The Paris Review for some exquisite photos of Emily Dickinson’s dress. Even though the dress on display at the museum is a copy, I’ll never forget the first time I saw it. I was visiting Amherst for my birthday, and we were touring the Dickinson home. Our guide led us upstairs, and the dress was there on the landing. The light streamed in through the window and illuminated it. It truly took my breath away. One might almost have thought Emily Dickinson herself was standing there. After that thought, my second thought was, “She was so tiny!”

Emily Dickinson means a lot to me. Her poetry brought me comfort after a very difficult loss. Martha Ackmann’s book is well worth your time if you’d like to indulge in a delightfully intimate portrait of the poet in some of her most momentous events.

Emily Dickinson's Bedroom
Emily Dickinson’s Bedroom © Dana Huff
Emily Dickinson's Grave
Emily Dickinson’s Grave © Dana Huff

Note: Please do not reproduce these images. I am permitted to share them as long as I do not seek to profit from them, but I am not able to control what happens to them once they are stolen, and I have pursued websites with DMCA takedown notices for taking these images without permission or credit.

five-stars

Review: A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century, Jerome Charyn

I believe I first saw Jerome Charyn’s book A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century at the Emily Dickinson House and Museum in Amherst. I put it on my wishlist, thinking I would get it some time, and my husband bought it for me for my birthday.

Jerome Charyn recently gave a lecture at the Frost Library at Amherst College, which I attended and wrote about on this blog. I wanted to start reading the book right after the talk, but I believe I was in the middle of The Club Dumas, which took me forever to finish (because I didn’t like it and should have given up on it). I wanted to finish The Club Dumas before reading A Loaded Gun. After a while, I sort of used A Loaded Gun as a carrot to encourage myself to finish The Club Dumas.

A Loaded Gun is not a straight biography of Emily Dickinson. If you are looking for a chronological narrative of Dickinson’s life, this biography will likely not satisfy you. However, if you are interested in looking at Emily Dickinson with fresh eyes, casting away the stories you heard about her reclusive nature and her white dress, then this book is definitely the book for you. A Loaded Gun is really more the story of Dickinson’s genius. She is compared to and contrasted with other artists that we have struggled to understand—memorably, Joseph Cornell, who made shadow box art. This is his piece based on the work of Emily Dickinson, entitled Toward the Blue Peninsula:

Toward the Blue Peninsula
Toward the Blue Peninsula © Joseph Cornell, used according to Fair Use guidelines

The piece is inspired by the following poem (Fr. 535, Dickinson’s exact language and punctuation):

It might be lonelier

Without the Loneliness—

I’m so accustomed to my Fate—

Perhaps the Other—Peace—

 

Would interrupt the Dark—

And crowd the little Room—

Too scant—by Cubits—to contain

The Sacrament—of Him—

 

I am not used to Hope—

It might intrude opon—

It’s sweet parade—blaspheme the place

Ordained to Suffering—

 

It might be easier

To fail—with Land in Sight—

Than gain—my Blue Peninsula—

To perish—of Delight—

Charyn spends the bulk of one of his chapters discussing Cornell’s art and connecting it to Dickinson’s. Ultimately, however, Charyn finds Dickinson elusive. As he says in his introduction, “I know less and less the more I learned about her” (8). I snapped a photo of the following page, with discussion of one of the most “well-known” facets of Dickinson’s life:

One thing that is clear to me after reading this book is that we may never really know Emily Dickinson at all. Who was this genius who played with language in a way no other American poet has matched?

If you haven’t seen the way Emily Dickinson thought about variant word choices, you should definitely take a look at some of her poems. The Dickinson museum has one such poem posted as a display, and visitors can try out Dickinson’s different word choice ideas by moving levers (they don’t allow photography, so I can’t share a picture of it, but it’s really interesting). Dickinson marked her variant word choices with a + and wrote the variations in the margins and on the bottom of the page. Because Dickinson didn’t publish her work, it’s hard to say which variations she would ultimately have preferred, and in some ways, I absolutely love the freedom I have as a reader, if I see Dickinson’s original work, to construct my own favorite version of her poems. Ultimately, her editors have had to make the decisions that Dickinson did not make, and I’m not always sure I agree with their choices.

As he did in his lecture, Charyn discussed the possibly new daguerreotype discovered by “Sam Carlo” in a Great Barrington, MA junk shop. I had a chance to talk a little bit with Sam Carlo at Charyn’s talk, and he also let me take a picture of his replica of the daguerreotype. Charyn, like Sam Carlo, believes the other woman in the daguerreotype was Kate Scott, and Charyn advances the theory that Dickinson was in love with Scott, and also that she was in love with her sister-in-law Susan Dickinson (this theory is not new—Charyn said at his lecture that if you read Dickinson’s letters to her sister-in-law, there really isn’t another way to interpret them except as love letters; I plan to read them and see what I think). Was Emily Dickinson a lesbian? Bisexual? Charyn argues that partly, our picture of Emily Dickinson has been the virginal spinster in white who never left the house, and the image of her in the known daguerreotype supports this vision of Dickinson. She remains forever fifteen in our imaginations rather than the grown woman who wrote fierce poetry.

I enjoyed Charyn’s book very much. One aspect I particularly liked is that he didn’t remove himself from the subject matter. He is a part of the story he is telling as well. He describes visiting Vincent van Gogh’s room in Auvers-sur-Oise outside Paris.

And for the price of a few euros, collected by a ticket taker at a little kiosk in the rear yard, I climbed upstairs and visited van Gogh’s room. It was barren, with a tiny skylight and a cane-back chair; the walls were full of crust, the floor was made of barren boards, and I couldn’t stop crying. I imagined him alone in that room, his mind whirling with colors, his psychic space as primitive and forlorn as a lunatic’s world… he was always alone. (211)

Charyn doesn’t explicitly connect Dickinson’s room to van Gogh’s. Perhaps he wants the reader to make that connection if he/she so chooses. I don’t know if I will ever forget ascending the stairs the first time I visited Emily Dickinson’s house and seeing the sunlight illuminating the replica of Emily’s white dress on a dressmaker’s dummy. The docent told us a story about Dickinson pretending to lock her door and telling her niece, “Matty, here’s freedom.” What freedom did Dickinson find in that small room?

Even her poetry on the subject is elusive:

Sweet hours have perished here,

This is a timid room—

Within its precincts hopes have played

Now fallow in the tomb. (Fr. 1785)

R. W. Franklin’s edition of her poems differs from Thomas H. Johnson’s edition:

Sweet hours have perished here;
This is a mighty room;
Within its precincts hopes have played,—
Now shadows in the tomb. (1767)

Which was it? If I had my way, it would go like this:

Sweet hours have perished here;
This is a mighty room;
Within its precincts hopes have played,—
Now fallow in the tomb.

I suppose part of the beauty of Emily Dickinson in the 21st century is that now we know more about what she actually wrote, including all her variant word choices. All the layers of changes made by editors over the years have been stripped bare. We can look at Dickinson’s original manuscripts and examine her poems in Franklin’s Variorum Edition. As a result, the poet we thought we knew and understood is more elusive than before. Still, she remains as intriguing a subject of study as she ever was—perhaps even more than she was when we assumed she was a waifish, homebound spinster in white.

Rating: ★★★★★

Review: Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Antonia Fraser

Antonia Fraser’s comprehensive biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey inspired a film starring Kirsten Dunst in the role of the queen some years ago. Essentially, Fraser’s portrayal of the queen is sympathetic. Not well educated or especially groomed for a role of greatness, Marie Antoinette found herself packed off to France at the age of fourteen to make a political marriage. It seems the French never really warmed to her, and in the end, she became a scapegoat for the entire French Revolution. It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for her, and Fraser clearly wants the reader to feel sympathy for the woman whom history misremembers as suggesting, upon hearing of the lack of bread and subsequent starvation of her people, “Let them eat cake.”

I started reading this book over a year ago—on February 8, 2015, to be exact. I have been picking away at it here and there, but I never found it so engaging that I couldn’t put it down until the Revolution started and Marie Antoinette’s tribulations truly began. I think, and I’m probably not alone in this, that the most interesting thing about Marie Antoinette is her death. It sounds terribly cold and callous to put it that baldly, but as a queen she was fairly similar to most aristocrats. A little vain, a bit frivolous, and not terribly smart. She seems to have been devoted to her children. She also seems to have had genuine great affection for Louis XVI. Antonia Fraser argues that Marie Antoinette had an affair with Swedish Count Axel von Fersen. Whatever the true nature of their relationship, they were great friends, but Fraser really seems to want this affair to have happened, and I think her treatment of that particular aspect of the biography suffers as a result—too much conjecture, and not enough real evidence, especially given how carefully Fraser describes the queen’s utter lack of privacy from the moment she entered France. The whole story just doesn’t hang together well.

On the other hand, the portrait Fraser paints of the imprisoned Marie Antoinette as pious, stoic, and forgiving is admirable and seems to square well with other historical evidence I’ve read. In her last days, her treatment was much harsher than her husband received prior to his own execution. She was separated utterly from every aspect of her former station in life, from her children and other family to her comforts and even occupations. In the end, she emerges as an admirable figure through the fortitude she displayed as she faced death. There is a horrible sentiment expressed by the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” after he shoots and kills the Grandmother: “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” It’s a horrible thing to say, I suppose, but Marie Antoinette was undeniably a brave woman at the end of her life. Whatever she may have been in life, she didn’t deserve for her life to end the way it did.

Fraser’s biography is, in the end, not without its faults, but it is certainly thorough and the reader senses the affection the author feels for her subject. Perhaps because this book is Marie Antoinette’s story, and not a story, necessarily, of the Revolution that killed her, one will not learn a great deal about many of the other movers and shakers in the events of the time, though Fraser did clear up a few issues I had difficulty understanding—why Marie Antoinette was so reviled, for one thing, and on a more minor point, the difference between the Girondins and Jacobins (I was quite fuzzy on that point, thought I admit I haven’t read widely on the Revolution, and that confusion may easily have been cleared up elsewhere as well). Robespierre, for example, is mentioned only a handful of times. While he never seems sympathetic in anything I’ve read about him, I can’t deny he’s a great deal more interesting to me than Marie Antoinette.

In some ways, I don’t feel like I’ve been quite fair to Marie Antoinette in this book review, but the truth is that I didn’t quite find her fascinating enough to merit the comprehensiveness of this biography, however fascinating her death might have ultimately been. In a way, I sort of felt like one of those gawkers passing an accident on the side of the road. Still, I can’t deny that Fraser does her best, and Marie Antoinette comes to life and ultimately emerges as a sympathetic person in the pages of this book.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I am going to count this for the Mount TBR Challenge because I’ve been meaning to finish it for a long time, but I’m not sure about counting it for the Shelf Love Challenge because it hasn’t really been neglected on my shelf if I’ve been picking away at it for a year.

Review: Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became ShakespeareShakespeare’s life has been the subject of much speculation, particularly because when compared with some writers, there is much we don’t know about it (we actually know more about him than people think, and more than we know about most of his contemporaries). Stephen Greenblatt’s book Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare takes a bit of a different route. Rather than focus only on biographical details, Greenblatt puts Shakespeare in the context of the events that surround him. What did he think of the Earl of Essex’s downfall? How did he feel about King James’s preoccupation with witches and witchcraft? What did he make of fellow writer Robert Greene’s dig (that he had a “Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide”)? How did he feel about his wife and daughters? We can’t know the full answers to these questions, but Greenblatt examines the plays for evidence, and a picture of who Shakespeare was and how his world shaped him unfolds in the pages of this book.

I especially liked Greenblatt’s commentary on the ways in which Robert Greene may have influenced Shakespeare’s characterization of one of his most memorable characters: Sir John Falstaff. Greenblatt makes a compelling case for Greene as the model of the dissolute knight. Also interesting was some of the speculation about the possibility that Shakespeare’s family were recusants (secret Catholics). Greenblatt’s discussion of the ghost of Hamlet’s father connects to this line of speculation but with a troubling twist that helps explain Hamlet’s inaction much more clearly:

What does it mean that a ghost from purgatory erupts into the world of Hamlet pleading to be remembered? Even setting aside for a moment that purgatory, according to the Protestant church, did not exist, the allusions to it here are an enigma, for spirits in God’s great penitentiary could not by definition ask anyone to commit a crime. After all, they are being purged of their sins in order to ascend to heaven. Yet this ghost is not asking for Masses and alms; he is preempting God’s monopoly on revenge by demanding that his son kill the man who murdered him, seized his crown, and married his widow … Hamlet worries about it, and his paralyzing doubts and anxieties displace revenge as the center of the play’s interest. (320)

Shakespeare’s source material for this play recounts Prince Hamlet’s story quite differently: too young to avenge the death of his father, he feigns madness in order to convince his murderous uncle that he is no threat. Then he waits. When the time is right, he kills his uncle and his uncle’s entire retinue in the best spirit of the adage that “revenge is a dish best served cold.” Shakespeare rightly realizes that carrying out such a story would be impossible on stage, and he makes the conflict more about Hamlet’s inner feelings. The passage above really gave me a new understanding of what is really going on in Hamlet’s mind.

Equally interesting to me were the origins of the witches in Macbeth, in particular, the possibility (strong, given allusions written in the play) that Shakespeare read Reginald Scot’s The Discovery of Witchcraft, a book that challenges Jacobean notions of witchcraft, possibly leading to King James’s decision to have all copies of the book burned.

If I have one major quibble with the book, it is that it becomes bogged down with the language of speculation. Phrases such as “let us imagine,” “perhaps,” “could possibly,” “presumably,” and the like almost start to become distracting, making the book sound like so much speculation. I realize that Greenblatt is merely being careful with language, but his speculation is based on solid historical research, and I wonder if he might not have found a way to express that more clearly.

In all, I believe that James Shapiro’s books A Year in the Life of Shakespeare: 1599 and Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? were more engaging and focused. In some ways, I think Shakespeare’s story is too big to confine to a single volume, and Shapiro manages to focus on two aspects: one important year in Shakespeare’s life and the authorship controversy. Still, I am glad I read Will in the World, and I have some good information to share with students next time I teach Hamlet or Macbeth.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Booking Through Thursday: Biographies

people who are more important than you.

This week’s Booking Through Thursday question: “There are so many crappy biographies … would you rather read a poorly-written biography of a fascinating life, OR an exquisitely well-written, wonderful one of a not-so-interesting life?”

No question—I’d rather read the well-written one. The poorly-written biography will be chore, no matter now fascinating its subject, but the well-written one might just render its subject more interesting. Case in point—while “cancer” is a disease and not a person, I have hardly ever read a more well-written biography than [amazon_link id=”1439170916″ target=”_blank” ]The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer[/amazon_link] by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Of course, I’m only about 10% into the book, but Mukherjee has managed to almost make it sound like a sentient villain on an evolutionary quest.

Of course, this question doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition, as one can usually choose to read a well-written biography of a fascinating person, like Amanda Foreman’s [amazon_link id=”0375753834″ target=”_blank” ]Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire[/amazon_link] (review). I read the book after seeing the Keira Knightley movie [amazon_link id=”B001L57ZZG” target=”_blank” ]The Duchess[/amazon_link].

Truth be told, I don’t read a lot of biographies. I currently only have eight books on my Goodreads biography shelf, and of those eight, I haven’t read six of them yet. I have autobiographies or memoirs on a different shelf. I welcome recommendations. Any must-read biographies?

photo credit: striatic

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

I am not generally a big reader of biographies or nonfiction of any stripe, aside from professional reading, but I became interested in Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, after seeing the movie based on this book: The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire is not quite like the movie, but one would expect moviemakers to take certain license with with truth in the interest of narrative. The true Georgiana who emerges from the pages of this biography is at one less sympathetic and also more interesting and genuine than the character played by Keira Knightley.

I admit I really don’t know much about British politics. Much of this biography is devoted to Georgiana’s work on behalf of the Whigs. She had several friends who were prominent in the party and used her influence to help them get elected: Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and Charles Grey (1st Earl Grey). In a time when women did not wield much power, Georgiana influenced politics more than many men did. The realm of fashion, she reigned supreme.

More attention is given to Georgiana’s gambling addiction in this biography than in the movie. She borrowed money from many of her friends with promises of repayment that she rarely fulfilled. I have to admit this part of her personality was maddening to read about. The pain it caused her was acute, and it hurt her relations with her husband and friends, but she seemed unable to control it.

Lady Bess Foster, the friend who “steals” the Duke of Devonshire from Georgiana in the movie, comes off considerably less sympathetically and much more conniving in this biography. No doubt Georgiana valued her friendship, but Foreman’s depiction of her character leads the reader to believe Georgiana’s judgment in the matter to be sincerely flawed. In contrast, the Duke of Devonshire is not quite the villain he’s painted in the film.

Foreman includes the Cavendish and Spencer family trees, but I found myself wishing there was a glossary of characters, as so many similar names made it difficult for me to keep up with some of the people mentioned in the book. To Foreman’s credit, she did as much as she could to prevent confusion through repetition and extensive notes. It is clear that this biography was painstakingly researched. Foreman allows the people in the biography to speak for themselves as much as she can through primary source documents quoted extensively throughout the entire book.

If you watched the film The Duchess, you haven’t met the real Georgiana yet. The figure that emerges from the pages of Foreman’s biography is at once more compelling and more intriguing than the film hinted.