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Empty Mansions

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NEW this week…

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman & Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

3 of 5 stars

Spanning three generations, from the gold rush to present-day, this biography tells the story of the Clark fortune, and W.A. Clark’s youngest daughter, Huguette, the eccentric woman that left a trail of empty mansions across the US during her last decades.

[T]he story of the Clarks is like a classic folk tale — except told in reverse, with the bags full of gold arriving at the beginning, the handsome prince feeling, and the king’s daughter locking herself away in the tower.

Having done some genealogy work of my own, I loved how this story told decades worth of American history through the lens of one particular family.  Following W.A. Clark out west with the gold rush, then down to southern California, out to found the city of Las Vegas, and then reading about his daughter growing up in the Roaring ’20s, living through wars and the Great Depression, and all the way up until the present day.    I found the historical content fascinating.

The final years of Huguette’s life, spent in a hospital, and the ensuing legal battle for her wealth, were, admittedly, not really my kind of story.  Although I’m sure the authors went through a lot of trouble to research and document this part of her life and the time after her passing, I simply have little interest in legal battles.

The Astronaut Wives Club

Astronaut

The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story by Lily Koppel

Pub: June 2013

4 of 5 stars

This biography shows the extraordinary (and at other times entirely ordinary) lives of the women who stood by their men during the space race of the 1960s.

“Standard operating procedure,” Susan called it.  All she had to do on launch day was sit back, surrounded by women who knew what she was going through, and watch her husband ride a Saturn V rocket into the unknown on national television.

I’ve always found the space race to be one of the most interesting periods of time in American history, so when I saw this book written about the women who watched their husbands vie for a place in a space capsule and be blasted off into the unknown, I knew I was interested, and this book held up to my expectations.  Through this book, we get to hear about the everyday lives of these women as they dealt with the loneliness, the constant scrutiny, and high expectations of their husbands’ job.  From just squeaking by to instant celebrity status, I loved this story of how this group pulled together for the highs and lows of the space age, experienced on an incredibly personal level.

I’ll admit, though, there were too many ‘characters’ to keep straight.  I think that focusing on just the initial Mercury Seven would have been a more cohesive book.  I would have loved some sort of appendix that listed all of the astronauts and their wives, as well as what missions they were on.  I had just gotten somewhat of a grasp on the Mercury Seven when more astronauts (and wives!) were added.

Empty Mansions

Empty

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman & Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

Pub: Sept 10, 2013

3 of 5 stars

Spanning three generations, from the gold rush to present-day, this biography tells the story of the Clark fortune, and W.A. Clark’s youngest daughter, Huguette, the eccentric woman that left a trail of empty mansions across the US during her last decades.

Full review coming in September!

Overall: A great, sweeping history of America based around the experiences of one particularly influential family.

The Romantic Egoists

Romantic Egoists

The Romantic Egoists: A Pictorial Autobiography from the Scrapbooks and Albums of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald by Scottie Fitzgerald

Pub: 2003

3.5 of 5 stars

A scrapbook of photographs, newspaper clippings, and stories from the Fitzgerald family, as compiled by their daughter, Scottie.

First, I’ve come to see my parents through my own pair of spectacles rather than through the eyes of others; and second, I’ve paid a tribute to them which was long overdue.

I’ve long had an interest in the Fitzgeralds, and the idea of reading their personal scrapbook intrigued me, especially since another of my interests is genealogy.  I enjoy looking at old photos, registers, and records, so this book held special appeal.

This book was a perfect segue after reading Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, to piece together the parts of the novel that were based in fact and how it all fit together to form a picture of Scott and Zelda’s life as a whole.  I particularly loved the color images of Zelda’s artwork; The Nativity was by far my favorite:

Nativity Zelda Fitzgerald

I did not, however, read every word of this book.  It includes numerous, lengthy portions of the Fitzgeralds’ writing, as well as literary reviews, newspaper clippings, letters, and financial records that — while presenting a complete picture of the couple — it would be rather tedious to read every one.  I liked the introduction by Scottie Fitzgerald, and was somewhat disappointed that more of her own insights, memories, and thoughts weren’t included in the book as well — hers would be a unique perspective.

*CLASSICS RETOLD*
Attention, Fitzgerald fanatics!  This September, I’ll be featuring the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby in particular, as my selection for the Classics Retold project.  Bloggers, sign up for your own featured classic on the Classics Retold tab.

What Matters in Jane Austen

ON SHELVES TODAY…

What Matters in Jane Austen? by John Mullan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the special delights of reading Jane Austen is becoming as clever and discerning as the author herself, at least for as long as one is reading.

This nonfiction work is composed of twenty essays in which the author analyzes different themes, stylistic qualities, and questions about Jane Austen’s novels.  Ranging from topics about card games and novels of the day to stylistic nuances such as when Austen speaks in the first-person, these well-researched chapters enrich the reader’s understanding of Austen’s characters and stories.

What Matters in Austen is the perfect companion book for fans of Austen’s works.  Within the book, the author attempts to explain Austen’s world to modern-day readers.  Breaking this task into twenty important questions, he points toward the genius of the original author in creating works that are even more ingenious and clever the more you delve into them.  Though I’ve read some of Austen’s works over and over, I was amazed at the subtle things I failed to catch onto, and now am anxious to re-read them with a newer understanding.

My only regret while reading this book was that I wasn’t more familiar with some of Austen’s books.  The author pulls constantly from the books, so when running across references to Persuasion (which I have yet to read) or Northanger Abbey (which I haven’t read in many years), I had trouble relating the points he was trying to make or keeping straight the characters and plots.  This is definitely a book for a true Austen fan who has a working knowledge of ALL of Austen’s characters and story lines, not for those that occasionally enjoy plugging in a DVD of a movie adaptation.

Overall:  A brilliant, well-researched series of essays on themes, motifs, and subtle nuances that make Jane Austen’s works such extraordinary fiction.

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Thanks to the publisher for providing me with a review copy of this book!

What Matters in Jane Austen

What Matters in Jane Austen? by John Mullan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publication date: January 29, 2013

Full review to be posted two weeks prior to release date!

Overall:  A brilliant, well-researched series of essays on themes, motifs, and subtle nuances that make Jane Austen’s works such extraordinary fiction.

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Thanks to the publisher for providing me with a review copy of this book!

The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed AmericaThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

That night the exposition illuminated the fairgrounds one last time. “Beneath the stars the lake lay dark and sombre,” Stead wrote, “but on its shores gleamed and glowed in golden radiance the ivory city, beautiful as a poet’s dream, silent as a city of the dead.”

This book recounts the incredible 1893 Chicago World’s Fair by following the stories of two very different men — Daniel Burnham, the fair’s architect; and H.H. Holmes, a psychopathic serial killer that preyed on fairgoers in the city.

This book has been my “dessert” for the past few weeks — the book that I pick up at the end of the night, that I ration out to myself a few chapters at a time so that I don’t finish it too quickly, and that I lament when I’m getting near the end because I want to read more. My sentiments are similar to those of fairgoer Mary Hartwell Catherwood —
“What shall we do when this Wonderland is closed? — when it disappears — when the enchantment comes to an end?”

This was, indeed, an enchanting tale. The author’s poetic prose perfectly portrays the magic and wonder of the exposition and the dark, calculating mind of a murderer. The book was chilling — the beauty of the fair contrasting with the gloomy depths of Holmes’ “castle” hotel where he would carry out his victims’ demise. This book was incredibly well-researched, with tons of primary source material taken from letters and memos from the fair founders, newspaper clippings, and information from Holmes’ autobiography and his criminal investigation. This book covered topics of architecture, history, culture, politics, economics, crime, and art all in one readable tome that reads more like a novel than a textbook or research paper. I was amazed at how wide the fair’s influence spread, how many famous people all shared this common event in their life, and how it changed Chicago.

Yes, it does switch back and forth between story lines, and yes, the author does obviously like to use foreshadowing — to the point of revealing (a couple times) rather far ahead of time that the fair would, indeed, burn down — and yes, there is a lot of detailed information about the fair that some readers may find trivial, but overall, it is an engrossing, fascinating book.

Overall: Thanks to this book, I now know where I’d go if I ever acquire a time machine (though I will certainly steer clear of a certain Dr. Holmes). A compelling, fascinating piece of history.

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Forever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and Space

Forever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and SpaceForever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and Space by John W. Young

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Publication date: Sept 16, 2012

I lifted both my fists in the air and made an unrehearsed proclamation: “There you are, our mysterious and unknown Descartes Highlands plains. Apollo 16 is gonna change your image.”

This autobiography is packed full of details about the many ventures of the US space program. It begins with astronaut John Young’s early life and time spent in the Navy as a pilot, then follows him through his participation in the Gemini, Apollo, and shuttle programs. The final sections deal with his position as the Special Assistant for Engineering, Operations, and Safety, and the safety features that he advocated for during that time, as well as his thoughts as to what the future of the space program should look like.

The sections of this book having to do with space missions was fascinating. Young’s firsthand experiences and blunt, straightforward recollections made it feel like I was sitting to a kindly (albeit kind of stubborn) old grandparent or great-uncle as he told me about “back in his day.” This conversational tone and the inclusion of personal anecdotes made for interesting reading, much more so than merely reading a report or transcript of each mission’s events. I felt that, through reading this, I learned a lot about the US space program and the missions involved. It’s been awhile since I’ve read or watched anything about it, so I felt like Young’s memoirs once again opened up this other world of wonder and amazement for me. I was struck by the courage and determination of the astronauts, and — perhaps for the first time — recognized how much of the early space program was a series of guess-and-check and high-risks problem solving exercises. To be an astronaut at the time, one really had to be confident of his ability to find solutions to any problem. Incredible, and inspiring.

Not all sections of the book held my attention quite as well, though. The early section included a lot of military jargon about aircraft that left me feeling a bit overwhelmed, though it was very apparent that at least Young knew what he was talking about. Similarly, the last sections, where Young is cataloging the changes he wanted to see made to improve the safety of the space shuttle didn’t hold my attention very well, either, though I could appreciate their significance. The epilogue also, while somewhat necessary considering the state of the space program today, was a little too political for my liking.

Overall: An amazing insider’s look at a fascinating time in US history

Thanks to the publisher for providing me with a review copy of this book!

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Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and RedemptionUnbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

NOTE: I abandoned this book about 1/4 of the way through


In a childhood of artful dodging, Louie made more than just mischief. He shaped who he would be in manhood. Confident that he was clever, resourceful, and bold enough to escape any predicament, he was almost incapable of discouragement. When history carried him into war, this resilient optimism would define him.

This is the biography of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who later entered into WWII and survived a harrowing time as a prisoner of war. The first section recounts his childhood and his experience at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the second part his time in war, the third his experience being lost at sea, the fourth his time as a POW, and the final section recounts his life after.

From what I read, it’s obvious that Zamperini had a fascinating and unusual life. The things that he accomplished undoubtedly earn him respect and admiration, and this book is a very well-researched testament to those deeds.

It was NOT, however, one that I enjoyed reading. I found the writing style dull, and felt like I was reading a research report rather than an exciting narrative of this man’s life. There was very little dialogue or quotes from Zamperini himself, so it felt detached, and although it told what he did, I didn’t feel like I understood any better who he was.

Overall: Perhaps die-hard WWII buffs would love this biography, but to me, it lacked character.

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte CristoThe Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss

Publication date: September 1, 2012

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“The Count of Monte Cristo” has long been one of my favorite novels, and I’m quite confident that after reading this incredible biography, I’ll have an even greater appreciation for the story told within its pages. Little did I know that the inspiration for that classic tale was none other than the novelist’s own father, Thomas-Alexander (or, simply “Alex”) Dumas — a half-French, half- black Haitian, Caribbean-born slave-turned-aristocrat-turned-soldier who rose up in the ranks of the French Revolution. During his military career, this formidable figure made a name for himself as the Black Devil, a Hercules of his time, and the “Horatius Cocles of the Tyrol” through his intimidating stature, dauntless spirit, and brazen heroics. This biography tells the story of his remarkable life and the tragic circumstances that inspired his son, Alexandre Dumas, to write about the fictitious Edmond Dante’s false imprisonment in “The Count of Monte Cristo.”

I don’t normally read biographies, and it’s been a number of years since I took any sort of history course that would have covered the French Revolution, but this book managed to incite my interest in both the man himself and the cause for which he fought. Tying in the culture of the day, race relations on both sides of the Atlantic, and the political intricacies of the French during their revolution, I was pulled into the setting and gained a fuller understanding of the time period of Alex Dumas. I’m certain that I was able to fully comprehend more about the French Revolution and Napoleon by reading this book than I had in any other book I’ve read — novel, textbook, or otherwise.

The author writes in such a way that is part history lesson, part adventure novel, and part genealogist’s storytelling of a family’s legacy. This book was incredibly well-researched, and I appreciated all of the primary sources included. With numerous quotes from military reports, letters, and personal memoirs, I felt as if I not only learned what Alex Dumas did in his incredible lifetime, but who he really was.

I’d highly recommend this biography. Even those that may not have a current interest in French history or military biographies may change their minds after reading this one!

View all my reviews

Thank you to the publisher for sending me a review copy of this book!  All opinions expressed are my own!

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