Tag Archives: biography

“She Made Me Laugh – My Friend Nora Ephron” by Richard Cohen

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Nora Ephron is almost my contemporary, but the eight year age difference between us is, in fact, a big deal. Born in 1941, she faced a level of sexist chauvinism which was being challenged by the time I graduated from high school and headed out into the world. Ephron’s life is an interesting study in American feminism as it emerged after World War II.

I admit to being only sketchily familiar with her books and movies. I saw “Sleepless in Seattle”.

Richard Cohen, nationally syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, wrote about Ephron because they were best friends. Inadvertently, he provides insight into the New York City world of the rich and famous (and those aspiring to be…) There’s a little too much name dropping, but the affection that underlies the writing is unmistakable.

I think Ephron’s book Heartburn falls into the category of “guilty pleasure” fiction. It’s based on the breakup of her first marriage, which happened at a time when women were often advised to turn a blind eye to spousal infidelity. I can’t help but be disturbed by her fictionalizing her family (especially her children) so extensively. She was, according to Cohen, absolutely confident that she did no harm.

I believe Ephron has been compared to Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) whom Wikipedia describes as “poet, satirist and critic”. I read a biography of Parker and would describe her as brilliant but mean spirited. I think Ephron was equally bright and talented, but far more kind and generous.

If you enjoy biography and/or contemporary gossip, this book is a good read.

“The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough

Where shall I start? Wilbur and Orville Wright made their famous “first flight” on December 17, 1903. That designation is somewhat arbitrary. It was preceded by many unpowered flights, by the Wrights and others. Gliders had preoccupied many inventors. But on the day in question, Wilbur traveled 852 feet in 59 seconds, in a “flying machine” powered by a gasoline engine.

I have visited Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where this event took place. It’s on the Outer Banks, where the wind always blows. The National Park Service maintains the Wright Brothers National Memorial. You can walk the 852 feet traversed by Wilbur Wright on December 17, 1903 and study displays explaining how the feat was accomplished.

At the National Memorial, the emphasis is on SCIENCE. Inspiration certainly played a part, but the Wrights were meticulously scientific. Discovering that accepted tables describing “lift” were incorrect, they built a wind tunnel and collected their own data. They studied everything they could get from earlier inventors, and they made endless observations of birds in flight. An important insight was that, not only must they build a suitable “machine”, but they themselves must LEARN TO FLY.

It’s a wonder they didn’t get killed. As soon as they created a plane that could carry two people, they agreed never to fly together, so that if there was a serious crash, one would remain to carry on their work.

Initially, the world took little notice of the Wright’s achievement. The first journalistic interest was from the editor of a newsletter about beekeeping.

As interesting as the two famous Wright brothers were (they had two not-famous older brothers), McCullough includes other family members who were interesting on their own.

Bishop Milton Wright was a Baptist minister and often traveled away from his family. He campaigned against Freemasonry, on the grounds that the secrecy involved was unacceptable for a responsible Christian. He observed the Sabbath as a day of rest, a practice continued by his sons even when they were in (more secular) Europe. Most importantly, he loved books and learning and trusted his children to educate themselves, sometimes allowing them to skip school when they were engrossed in reading.

The only Wright sibling to graduate from college was Katharine, the youngest and only daughter, who attended Oberlin and had a career as a high school teacher. Katharine was an early liberated woman! The whole family was well informed and sophisticated beyond what might have been expected in “middle America” at that time.

The cultural consequences of powered flight have been staggering. McCullough doesn’t attempt to explore them. What comes to mind for me is the military use of the airplane. See my review (October 9, 2013) of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke – The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. Why the end of civilization? Because aerial bombardment led to warfare in which there was NO distinction between combatants and civilians.

The Wright brothers were supremely civilized – educated, industrious, responsible and thoughtful. Only Orville survived to experience World War II. The amount of change he saw in his 77 years is hard to comprehend!

David McCullough is a wonderful writer. (See my review of Path Between the Seas – October 18, 2014). I think the next of his books that I want to read will be The Johnstown Flood. I spent Thanksgiving in Johnstown, PA, in 1972.

“Chrysalis – Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis” by Kim Todd

Published by Harcourt, Inc. 2007. 282 pages. Includes both black/white and color plate reproductions of Merian’s artwork.

This book addresses several of my favorite subjects – nature, science, history and artand the role of women in all of the above! Add to this that the writing is clear and lively, and it’s an all around winner.

Maria Sibylla Merian lived from 1647 to 1717. She was born into a family of printers and artists, and had unusual opportunities for education and training in art. She was a type of child still recognizable today, one totally fascinated by insects! (I meet many such children in various settings and at various ages. How I wish they could all be thoroughly “indulged” in their passion!)

If you investigate Merian on line, you will find many more of her pictures than pictures of her. Her artwork is stunning – colorful, detailed, lifelike and comprehensive, often including all the life stages of a moth or butterfly, plus associated plants.

One unusual feature of her life story is that Merian spent six years living in the “cloistered” religious community of a radical Protestant sect called Labadists or pietists. Merian’s half brother joined the group and a community was established near his remote country manor in Friesland (Netherlands). Merian continued her scientific study and artwork during her time with the pietists.

Returning to the secular world, Merian further established herself as an artist and scientist, then (at age 52) left Europe for an extended stay in Surinam, to continue her studies. After two years, malaria forced her to return home.

I don’t know whether Kim Todd considers herself a biographer or a nature writer. This book combines the two seamlessly, and I found it intelligent and entertaining.

“Margaret Fuller – A New American Life” by Megan Marshall

It’s been suggested that I should consistently provide the following:

  • Published 2013, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 375 pages (text) + 95 pages (contents, illustrations, prologue, epilogue, notes, index).

It’s been over a week since I posted about a book. That’s a long time for me! The reason is that I found a book that took some time to read, and it amply rewarded my effort.

Margaret Fuller was born in 1810 and died in 1850, living in and around Boston, then New York City and finally spending four years in Europe.

SPOILER ALERT! The circumstances of Margaret Fuller’s death in 1850 were shocking and very sad. If you want to read her life story in proper order, stop now, read the book and then come back and consider my reflections.

Margaret Fuller was born just over 200 years ago. A very bright first child, she was initially educated by her father, who intended to convey to her “everything” he had learned at Harvard. She soaked it up, and later, deprived of any opportunity for college, became her own teacher of classics and languages, setting very high expectations for herself.

At the age of 25, Margaret’s father died and she took responsibility for her mother and several younger siblings. Fear of poverty shadowed her life. But Boston was in a state of intellectual ferment (the so-called New England renaissance), and Margaret, both well educated and outspoken, found a place among the Transcendentalists and other writers and thinkers of the day.

Margaret edited the new journal called The Dial and published a book Woman in the Nineteenth Century which is considered the first classic of the American feminist movement. Working for the New York Tribune, she became the first American full time writer of book reviews.

Margaret’s burning wish to travel to Europe was finally fulfilled when, at the age of 36, she accepted the position of governess in a Quaker family that toured England, spent some time in Paris, and then went to Italy.

In Rome, Margaret’s life took a turn that her New England friends and family would not have expected, and, indeed, she told them nothing about it for many months. She fell in love, bore a child, and married. Before her infant was a year old, revolution broke out in Italy. Margaret was firmly on the side of change, hoping for democracy and reform. Her husband fought in the defense of “free” Rome and Margaret worked as a nursing volunteer in a makeshift hospital.

The revolution failed, and Margaret, with her husband and child, made plans to return to Massachusetts, where she expected to support her family by writing.

Unable to afford travel on a passenger liner, they embarked on a freighter that accommodated a few passengers. Bad luck plagued the trip. The ship’s captain died. In inexperienced hands, the ship ran aground near Long Island (NY). Some crew and passengers survived, but not Margaret, her husband or their child.

What impressed me about Margaret Fuller was the way she threw herself into the issues of her times. She wrote about race, prison reform and education among many other topics.

This book by Megan Marshall is right in the “sweet spot” between popular and academic writing. This is biography at its best. I recommend it highly to anyone interested in feminism and/or American intellectual history.

“Peace Pilgrim – Her Life and Work in Her Own Words”

It’s time to tell this story, which is a small part of a strange and wonderful item of local history…

In 1993, I moved to Cologne, New Jersey. Cologne is an unofficial neighborhood, with a post office but no boundaries, located in sprawling Galloway Township. I moved to a small farm, on a street with more woods than houses, and rather little traffic. The nearest town is Egg Harbor City, three miles away.

One evening a woman bicycled into my driveway and introduced herself as Helene Young, representing the March of Dimes. We had a pleasant chat about the neighborhood, and the changes she had seen in the decades since she started collecting for the March of Dimes.

Helene wore a t-shirt bearing the name and logo of what I recognized as a “radical” film company. This was unusual in conservative Cologne, and I was curious. I asked about it. Helene replied, “They came to make a documentary about my sister. My sister was known as Peace Pilgrim. Did you ever hear of her?” 

Indeed I had! I had heard of a woman who travelled on foot and refused to identify herself except as Peace Pilgrim. She would show up, talk to people and groups about the importance of inner peace, stay in people’s homes, and then walk away. She carried no money and no possessions. You couldn’t contact her. If you were lucky, you might meet her. She was a mystery, a wandering “holy woman” or extreme eccentric. One of a kind…

That was all that happened at the time. Helene left on her charitable rounds. I wrote down her name and noticed her small house near the post office. I found and read the book Peace Pilgrim – Her Life and Work in Her Own Words, and recommended it to a few friends. 

That might have been the full extent of it, but one evening I walked up my street to Germania Cemetery and wandered around reading the gravestones, which carry many familiar local names. And there I found Peace Pilgrim’s grave, marked with both of her names! I was moved by it, because the mystique surrounding her hidden identity was so powerful. I stood there for a while, looking around, wanting to be sure I could find the grave again.

I decided to bring the children from my Quaker congregation to see Peace Pilgrim’s grave. One sunny day we met at the Cemetery, a dozen or so kids and adults. We read from the Peace Pilgrim book, talked about her unusual ministry and ate a picnic lunch. Someone produced paper and crayons and made a rubbing of the grave marker. It was a happy outing!

After that, events took on their own momentum. Barbara R, one of the picnickers, was especially impressed by Peace Pilgrim’s life and message, and she struck up a friendship with Helene Young. Steps were taken to preserve the clippings and other documentation of Peace Pilgrim’s travels.

Barbara decided it was wrong for Peace Pilgrim to be unknown in Egg Harbor City, the town where she was grew up. Now there is a park dedicated in her name, and annual events celebrate her life and message.

Helene Young, now almost 100 years old, continues to ride her bike along my street and up to the Cemetery where her sister and other family members rest. Her circle of friends includes many who are fascinated by Peace Pilgrim and her message. I count myself lucky to be Helene’s friend and neighbor.

What about the book? By all means, read it! It is not a “polished” offering. You can also find several web sites to fill out detail, and form your own opinion of Peace Pilgrim’s unique life and message.

“American Mirror – The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell” by Deborah Solomon

I remember the “Saturday Evening Post” and its Norman Rockwell covers. I don’t remember when I learned to read well enough to enjoy the contents, but the covers attracted me even earlier. The “Post” may have been our only magazine. It was supplemented by two different newspapers and a TV that received two channels, sometimes. That was the Fifties, for me.

Norman Rockwell was an illlustrator. Experts disagree about whether he was an artist. I enjoyed Solomon’s comments on Rockwell’s paintings. She pointed out details I might have missed. Rockwell was much scorned by “modern” artists like the Abstract Expressionists. Solomon tears them to shreds… “What was Abstract Expressionism? In a way, it strove to be the opposite of a vacuum cleaner – devoid of practical value, spewing out particles of color rather than pulling them in, unaccompanied by user directions, incomprehensible to the average person.” (The vacuum was iconic of the appliances that suddenly appeared in American homes after World War II.) Take that, abstractionists!

Rockwell did not have a “Norman Rockwell” childhood, and as an adult he found relationships difficult. He may have suffered from OCD, and he invested heavily in psychiatric counseling, although he did not actually engage in psychoanalysis. It can be argued that his artwork expressed how he wanted life to be. He wanted the small town life where people looked out for one another.

So why did Rockwell, whose work was heartwarming and often “nostalgic”, jump into social criticism in the 1960s? His 1964 painting “The Problem We All Live With”, showing a tiny African American child being escorted by federal marshals during school desegregation, is an incredibly powerful commentary on American life. The book includes the newspaper photo that inspired the painting. Another painting with a civil rights theme was “New Kids in the Neighborhood”, an optimistic look at integration.

Solomon describes “Rockwell’s great theme” as “the possibility that Americans might pause for a few seconds and notice each other”. Many of his pictures have a “witness” quality. The figures in his work “…have all the time in the world to linger and talk”. Rockwell was, however, essentially a lonely man.

 

Book source – the new arrivals shelf

The “new arrivals shelf” reaches out to me each time I enter a library, whether I’m at the College where I work or my local public library. Most of the non-fiction that I read comes from the new arrivals shelf. I suppose I should plan my reading, look things up, go back into the shelves, but somehow that doesn’t happen. I stumble onto books on topics I would never think to investigate. Biographies of John Lennon, Art Williams (master counterfeiter) and Elizabeth Hughes (first child saved from diabetes by insulin). Memoirs by the wife of a reckless but astute field ecologist and by a man who trained to be an umpire in major league baseball. Odd bits of history from the New Deal and World War II. 

I do try to keep lists of books I intend to read, recommendations from friends, authors worth a second or third look, etc. But so often I find myself at the new arrivals shelf, entranced, distracted, and delighted!