Tag Archives: biography

“Here for It – or, how to save your soul in America” by R. Eric Thomas – Covid19 #4

Here for It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America; Essays Kindle Edition

Ballantine Books, 264 pages, 2020. (That’s EARLY 2020, before the pandemic.)

In the text, R. Eric Thomas tells us he wanted this book to be called Casual Nigger but EVERYBODY (editor, agent, who?) went nuts. Hence, the less controversial Here for It. Here for what? Life, actually. Thomas battled depression and struggled mightily to “find himself”. In these essays, he lets us in on his battles, small and large.

The title, of course, is on the cover, and I find the cover image alarming. On a pink background, a “black” man’s hand is tossing confetti. Fine! But the hand is deformed. I know hands. The thumb joint is WAY out of line. Injury? Age? Is it painful? Does Thomas know the hand is damaged? Was the choice intentional? My hands (both, regrettably) are less obviously deformed, but cause pain daily. But I digress…

R E Thomas is funny. Goodness knows, a funny sociopolitical commentator is a real find! He’s a wise guy. Sociologically, he’s “intersectional”, expressing African American, LGBTQ and Christian identities. Here for It is autobiographical. He was born in Baltimore and spent decades in Philadelphia.

I was particularly interested Thomas’s college years at Columbia University and University of Maryland (Baltimore Campus).

Toward the end of the book, in a Chapter entitled “The Past Smelled Terrible”, Thomas waxes both prophetic and patriotic. HOW DID HE KNOW WHAT WAS COMING??

“I can’t help but think constantly about the end of the world…Listen. Here’s my living will, okay? I have no desire to survive the apocalypse…if the post-apocalypse comes about because of a massive plague or something, I have no useful medical or scientific skills…I would like to be Patient 15. Maybe Patient 20. No higher than 50. I don’t want to be Patient Zero, because then everyone would blame me, which is rude…I just want to go early, while they’re still doing nice tributes to the victims on television and I can get my own grave plot.”

WTF? Did Thomas know something? Where is he now? I hope he’s riding out the pandemic someplace comfortable. (I started to say “safe and comfortable”. No place is “safe”.) I grabbed this book from my public library on March 11, just before the big shutdown. I knew enough to grab extra books, maybe a dozen. Good luck, Eric!

“Prince Albert – The Man Who Saved the Monarchy” by Andrew N. Wilson

Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy

Harper Collins Publishers, 2019. 390 pages plus bibliography, notes and index.

Biography is my choice of reading matter when I’m too tired for “heavy” books and have sated my urge to read junk. I’ve read about half of this book (the first half and the last chapter), and I will probably read the remaining chapters selectively.

Did Prince Albert (1819 – 1861), consort of Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901) actually “save the monarchy”? Wilson makes a convincing case. Why does the United Kingdom still (in 2020) have royalty, and royalty who matter? What happened to the hereditary monarchs of France? The princes of the early German principalities? Why are the other remaining royal families (in Scandinavia and Netherlands, for example) so diminished? (Wilson doesn’t entirely address this last question. I’d like to learn more.)

When Albert married young Queen Victoria in 1840, he had no official role. He was Victoria’s husband. His English was imperfect. He was regarded as an outsider of little importance. But he was exceptionally well educated, and had lots of energy and considerable self-confidence.

When Albert took on projects or directorships (which could have been merely symbolic), he contributed incisively. For example, he pointed out the deficiencies of the British university system and, at Cambridge University (where he served as Chancellor), he initiated reforms that vastly improved higher education, and not just for members of the social elite. (By the way, his appointment at Cambridge was controversial. Academic politics is nothing new!)

Albert understood and valued science, engineering and industry. Contemporaries noted that, although he was stiff and sometimes awkward at ceremonial events, he was easily approachable when surrounded by those who shared his scientific interests. Mutual respect developed, and England benefited, moving ahead of continental Europe in various fields.

This book provides a great opportunity to understand the country that, more than any other, engendered the United States. I recommend it highly. Wilson is a very prolific writer, and I look forward to checking out his fiction. His biographies range from Hitler to Darwin to Jesus. Followers of contemporary British royalty might be interested to know that Wilson wrote The Rise and Fall of the House of Windsor. In 1993!

“A Beautiful Mind” by Sylvia Nasar

A Beautiful Mind

388 pages plus epilogue, notes, bibliography and index. Published 1998

This book is subtitled “The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash”

One of the reviews quoted on this book’s cover says “Reads like a fine novel”. No way. I disagree. No novelist would come up with so much detail, and provide such extensive historical context. This is an exceptionally fine biography. It deserves the awards it won.

Nash suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, a mental illness that brings on delusions (often voices) and erratic, antisocial behavior. The old-fashioned term “madness” seems appropriate. Despite advances in psychiatry, it is still (in 2019) hard to diagnose, hard to treat and almost impossible to cure. One of Nash’s two sons also suffered from schizophrenia.

Nash was born in 1928 and diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1959. He was hospitalized several times, and it’s hard to tell if his treatment, which included insulin shock therapy and electroshock therapy, saved his life or made him worse. Because Nasar delves into Nash’s mental state in great detail, this book is a valuable contribution to ongoing efforts to understand and destigmatize mental illness, as well as being a sad reminder of how much about the human mind remains frighteningly mysterious.

Another valuable aspect of this book is its discussion of America in the 1950s, a time of political paranoia, technological hubris and rapid changes in American social patterns. The “Red Scare” and nuclear arms race impacted Nash along with other academics.

What else? Nash was a mathematical genius, but received the Nobel Prize (1994) in Economic Sciences, for his work on game theory. Is economics a science? (And what is game theory, anyway?) The Nobel Prize in economics (a late addition to the categories of the Swedish Academy) was never looked upon with favor by the Nobel Foundation and most of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Nasar provides a detailed look at the controversy over giving the Prize to a man whose work had been done decades earlier, and who was presumed dead by many who admired his publications.

This brings me to another interesting aspect of this book, the role of Princeton University. What happened to John Nash after his academic life fell apart? The University, his wife Alicia and the Princeton community of mathematicians “supported’ him. His illness was so severe and his behavior so extreme that he might well have been institutionalized or ended up on the street. Alicia divorced him, then kept him in her house as a “boarder”. Princeton University allowed him to wander freely. He roamed the mathematics department, mostly at night, avoiding human contact and frightening staff members occasionally. Students referred to him as “the phantom”. He left strange long messages on blackboards. The University and the town of Princeton tolerated and protected him.

Then John Nash received the Nobel Prize and made as astonishing comeback. In mental health terms, it was either remission or cure. He was able to travel for the ceremonial acceptance of the Nobel Prize. Having learned some computer programming during the long hiatus in his career, he was able to resume work, though not as a creative mathematician. John and Alicia Nash remarried, and Nash made heroic effort to reconnect and reconcile with family and friends who had been driven away by his prior craziness and insensitivity.

Tragically, John and Alicia Nash died in car crash on the New Jersey Turnpike in 2015.

Much of this book is based on interviews. Nasar talked to more than 100 people, including Nash himself and family members. It’s a documentary tour de force. Nasar dedicated the book to Alicia Nash, showing her profound respect and admiration.

I was curious about Sylvia Nasar. She published one other book, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius (2011). Born in 1947, she earned a BA in Literature from Antioch College and an MA in Economics from NYU. On her web page, she says

“…economics rescued mankind from squalor and deprivation by placing its material fate in its own hands rather than in Fate.”

This is more positive than anything else I’ve read about economics! I want to learn more.

Constitution Day at Stockton University – Joan Biskupic lecture on Chief Justice John Roberts

This year, Stockton’s celebration of Constitution Day fell on the actual anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution in Philadelphia. This being one of my favorite holidays, I attended the plenary lecture which followed a day of activities with guest speaker Joan Biskupic.

Biskupic is a journalist (CNN), lawyer and biographer. Her talk focused on John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Her biography entitled The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts was released in March of this year, and already Roberts has served up more surprises, particularly blocking a citizenship question on the US census. His opinion was based not just on the question of whether the agency involved had the right to add a question, but also whether the reasons for making the change were “contrived”.

Biskupic emphasized the importance of the DC Circuit of the US Court of Appeals as a “pipeline” to the Supreme Court.

During his years of private legal practice (1992 to 2003) Roberts argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court.

Roberts is a conservative, placed on the Court in 2005 by GW Bush and, unusually, elevated directly to Chief Justice, rather than serving as Associate Justice first. Some of his opinions reflect his attitude that the Supreme Court is “not a legislature” and many matters must be left to the states.

What interests Biskupic most is judicial PROCESS – the “horse trading” and “sausage making” behind the decisions which often (as in gay marriage) have huge impacts on American life. Much of this is reflected in drafts that are circulated as justices develop their opinions. How does one justice influence another? Justice RBG warns observers “it’s not over ‘til it’s over”. The Supreme Court sometimes surprises even the most sophisticated analysts.

Biskupic says that in her next life, she wants to be an archivist. She loves pouring over documents. I consider this a very valuable contribution to society (and I never met anyone else who shared that aspiration).

I didn’t stay for the entire Q/A session, but it got off to a good start due to excellent moderation. The first question was about whom she interviewed for The Chief. Roberts is a persistent interviewer. She describes Roberts as “inscrutable”. He never permitted recording of their conversations. Other questions directed to Biskupic pertained to “sleeper decisions”, decisions of greatest consequence and “term limits” for the Supreme Court.

Biskupic published three other Supreme Court biographies and additional related books, some coauthored by Elder Witt (C-Span). I’m most interested in Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice (2014). I believe I read Biskupic’s 2006 biography of Sandra Day O’Connor, though my memory is uncertain, and perhaps I read a different author.

“The Fly Trap” by Fredrik Sjoberg, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

Published in 2004. Translated from Swedish in 2014 by Thomas Teal. Paperback by Vintage Books, 2014. 278 pages.

The Fly Trap by [Sjöberg, Fredrik]

This cheerful book delves into two of my amateur interests, entomology (the biology of insects) and art history (with emphasis on art theft and forgery). I hang out with entomologists, and visit art museums casually.

The Fly Trap is both memoir and biography. As Sjoberg’s personal memoir, it is the first volume of a trilogy. The next two books are The Art of Flight (2016) and The Raisin King. One reviewer suggests that these three books might also be categorized as travel, natural history, popular science or even poetry.

The “fly trap” of the title is a collecting device used by entomologists and called the Malaise trap. It is named after it’s inventor, Rene Malaise (1892 – 1978). According to Wikipedia, Malaise was an eccentric Renaissance man, and little was written about him before Sjoberg produced somewhat biographical this book.

Sjoberg is described (by Wikipedia) as

  • entomologist
  • literary and cultural critic
  • translator (If you are Swedish, do you have any choice?)
  • author

Malaise was

  • entomologist
  • explorer (Siberia)
  • art collector
  • inventor
  • geologist (one time defender of the Lost Continent of Atlantis)

With a mix like this, the book was bound to be interesting. It is enhanced by Sjoberg’s whimsical, non linear style. While studying Malaise, Sjoberg “caught” the art collecting passion, described in the book’s final chapter.

I pay attention to authors mentioning other authors. In one chapter (entitled “Slowness”), Sjoberg mentions (at least) three authors:

  • Lars Noren – Czech born French writer, still living
  • Milan Kundera – Swedish playwright, still living, best known for The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  • D H Lawrence – English, 1885-1930, best known for Lady Chatterly’s Lover

I recommend this book if you like the out of doors, natural history and/or bugs. Also books, art and travel.

“The King’s Speech” by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi

This book has TWO subtitles. On the cover it says BASED ON THE RECENTLY DISCOVERED DIARIES OF LIONEL LOGUE, but the title page reads HOW ONE MAN SAVED THE BRITISH MONARCHY. I find the second of these more interesting. Was the British monarchy really in that much trouble? Hard to imagine as we watch Queen Elizabeth II, ruler since 1952, move serenely through her seventh decade on the throne.

Perhaps you have heard the expression referring to the British royal family: “the heir and the spare”. Prince Albert (later King George VI) was born and raised to be the “spare”. His handsome, outgoing older brother came to the throne as King Edward VIII when their father died in 1936.

However, Edward VIII abdicated (resigned!) to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

The English and the rest of the Commonwealth could have decided the monarchy was a luxury they couldn’t afford. If  “the spare” was an unpopular King, the monarchy might have been trimmed back to match what we see today in, say, Netherlands or Scandinavia.

The “man” of the title was Lionel Logue, and the monarch he served was King George VI, who ascended to the throne in 1936 after the “abdication crisis”. Prince Albert suffered from a severe stammer. Some people mistook his hesitance for unintelligence. He never expected or wanted to be King.

How did Logue and the future King get together? In 1926, young Prince Albert had suffered terrible public embarrassment when, in the middle of a live radio broadcast, he stammered and paused repeatedly. Humiliated, he consulted another in his long string of “experts”.

Unlike the previous disappointments, the Prince was told his problem could and would be resolved. The profession of speech therapy did not exist at that time. Australian specialist Lionel Logue had elevated the teaching of elocution into a medical type specialty, and greatly improved the speech of many stutterers. After intensive work with the Prince, his role became that of coach and friend, and Logue supported King George through many milestone speeches, especially during World War II. The King’s speech was never perfect, but with hard work it was excellent.

This reminds me of a young woman with lilting, elegant speech whom I met at a workshop. As we were getting acquainted, someone asked the origin of her “accent”. She explained that she had a speech impediment. It had been beautifully “corrected”.

This book helped me understand how the British subjects feel about their royalty. Logue was a “commoner” from Australia. British subjects want a leader to admire, and they want to know that their leader CARES about them. What better way to convey that than by radio? Broadcast radio was just coming into it’s own. As a head of state, King George VI could not avoid addressing his people publicly.

Interestingly, no one can explain how Logue improved the King’s speech. Much of the change was undoubtedly psychological. Confidence can overcome a great deal.

This book is also the account of a unlikely friendship. Crossing class lines and the client/expert barrier, the warm relationship between King George VI and Lionel Logue lasted until the King’s death in 1952.

This is an excellent book, especially for people who like to watch royalty.

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

Product Details

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.