Book Review – The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors by David George Haskell

The Songs of Trees
by
David George Haskell

I enjoyed this book that explores the deep connection between trees, nature and humans. Haskell studies twelve trees from around the world and explains in descriptive detail how the trees grow, adapt, sense, and provide living space for a multitude of living things.

From the Ceibo in the Amazon, to the Redwoods and Ponderosa Pines in Colorado, to the Japanese White Pine, we learn about these and other regional trees, their chemistry, their leaves and adaptive roots, the fungi that help them grow, how the trees protect themselves, and the effects of climate change over millions of years. In addition, we learn about regional cultures and their relationships to specific species. Haskell also describes the spiritual, economic and political connections with the trees.

While I enjoyed learning about all the trees he described, I particularly enjoyed reading about the Ceibo in Ecuador. Haskell ascended a structure through the canopy of this part of the forest and was able to see and experience the vast network of creatures living within the branches, animals that never visit the ground. That includes the bullet ant, known for its intensely painful sting! I also liked learning about how humans and the Hazel tree arrived in Scotland at the same time, during the Mesolithic Age. These civilizations had a deep dependency on the Hazel, used its wood for fuel and ate hazelnuts to survive. Haskell also studies several urban trees, including the Cottonwood in Denver and the Callery Pear in Manhattan. Both of these species have become gathering places for people, in Denver, to enjoy shade along the Cheery Creek and the South Platte River and in New York, as a place to step away for a bit from the busy sidewalk traffic. In Jerusalem, he looks at the olive tree, how it adapts to dry conditions and the effects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on its farmers and their families.

To say that Haskell is descriptive is a major understatement! He packs every sentence with a multitude of adjectives and scientific detail. That makes for a slower read, perhaps the author’s deliberate attempt to make readers truly understand and experience the atmosphere he describes. At 252 pages, you may think you can read this quickly, but I’d recommend taking it at about ten to twenty pages at time. I was under pressure to read it for my library job and had to commit to fifty pages a day to get it done. That was a little tough, time-wise. I’d recommend this book to readers who like books about natural history and enjoy the connection between nature and civilization.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

Book Review: House of Dreams: The Life of L.M. Montgomery by Liz Rosenberg

House of Dreams: The Life of L.M. Montgomery
by
Liz Rosenberg

Illustrated by Julie Morstad

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I read about House of Dreams over at Bookshelf Fantasies and was immediately interested in reading about Lucy Maud Montgomery, Canadian author of twenty novels, including Anne of Green Gables and hundreds of short stories and poems. Montgomery was Maud to family and friends and she used L.M. Montgomery as her professional name. I confess I have not read the children’s book Anne of Green Gables, but now I want to. I also knew nothing about Maud Montgomery and her life.

Maud was born in 1874 and grew up in a village called Cavendish on Prince Edward Island in Canada. Her mother died when she was two years old and her father soon moved to Saskatchewan. Maud went to live with her maternal grandparents, Lucy and Alexander Macneill. They were already in their fifties and although they provided Maud with all the material things she needed, they were not affectionate or supportive, leaving Maud to feel sad and alone. Her grandfather was particularly hard on Maud. Despite this upbringing, Maud felt a deep attachment to Cavendish.

Maud was destined to become a writer. From an early age, she kept a journal, made up stories and when she was older submitted them to newspapers and magazines for publication. “I cannot remember the time when I was not writing, or when I did not mean to be an author,” she wrote.

Maud was merry on the outside (merry was one of her favorite words), but inside she battled mood swings and seasonal depression: it was a lifelong struggle. Mental illness was not widely talked about, accepted or treated in Maud’s time and she and others suffering had to tough it out alone. She wrote happier stories to escape the gloom. “Thank God, I can keep the shadows of my life out of my work. I would not wish to darken any other life—I want instead to be a messenger of optimism and sunshine.”

Maud had many suitors, turned down several marriage proposals and broke one engagement after “a year of mad passion” with another man. That relationship was not meant to be, however, and she later married Ewan Macdonald, an aspiring minister. They had two sons, Chester and Stuart. Ewan, however, also struggled with mental illness and their marriage was not happy. To combat their depression and mood swings, they took sleeping pills, tranquilizers, bromides and other medicines. Maud died of an overdose in 1942 at age sixty-seven. In 2008, her granddaughter revealed that her death was a possible suicide.

I knew from the description that this book talked a lot about depression and mental health, but I had no idea that an author as beloved as Montgomery had suffered so much. She endured many losses and heartbreak, but hid these feelings from the public. This book is supposedly geared to readers ages 10-14, and the writing style is definitely simpler. It’s also illustrated, which makes it look like a middle-grade book. In my opinion, the content is more appropriate for an older reader, although I can see it being used as a way of talking with kids about mental health problems.

That said, I found it interesting and easy to read and it has sparked my interest in her books.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

Book Review: Thunderstruck by Erik Larson

Would you prefer to listen to this review? Click here!

Thunderstruck
by
Erik Larson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

If you think you don’t like nonfiction, you should try out a book like Thunderstruck by Erik Larson. In this 2006 narrative, Larson tells the story of wireless inventor Guglielmo Marconi, murder fugitive Hawley Harvey Crippen and the race in 1910 to apprehend Crippen on a transatlantic escape attempt. Thanks to what was then called the “Marconigram,” reports of sightings around the world were communicated via wireless transmissions to detectives in London, including one from Captain Henry George Kendall of the SS Montrose. Kendall was certain that two people on his ship were Crippen and Ethel Clara LeNeve, Crippen’s secretary and lover, disguised as a father and his teenage son.  

Larson sets the background in a description of Marconi’s obsessive efforts to figure out how to communicate through what people then called the “ether.” Marconi was not a scientist and had no formal schooling, but his curiosity, hunches and persistence put him ahead of others in the scientific world. He had plenty of competitors and just as many skeptics, whose jealousy made them bitter and prompted some to do whatever they could to thwart his progress. Marconi’s obsessive drive despite setbacks and his strange personality (isn’t that what makes inventors who they are?) put him on top, however, and in 1909, he received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his accomplishments.

I knew the basics about Marconi, but I hadn’t heard of Crippen and the North London Cellar Murder investigation of 1910. It’s a well-known case, however, and has been portrayed on stage, in books and on screen. Crippen was an American homeopath and an ear and eye specialist who sold over-the-counter remedies. After his first wife died, he married Cora Turner, an aspiring opera singer. When the couple moved to London, Cora adopted her stage name, Belle Elmoore and Crippen began hawking remedies. While Belle was a voluptuous and sexy flirt and very social, Crippen was of slight build and wore thick glasses that accentuated his protruding eyes. He was exceedingly mild-mannered and yielded to her every wish. And although their friends wondered about the unlikely couple, most thought they were happy. They weren’t. Belle went through money like water and ordered her husband around. Crippen began an affair with his secretary, Ethel LeNeve.

One day, Crippen announced that Belle had left him for a lover in New York, then later said she’d taken sick and died. When Belle’s friends began to question him and took their concerns to Scotland Yard, Crippen disappeared with LeNeve. The hunt was on.

I enjoyed Larson’s account of Marconi’s inventions and of Crippen, Belle and Ethel. Larson is a talented and entertaining writer and the result of his extensive research is a story that both flows easily and ties the two narratives together in an interesting way. Modern investigations would have been much more thorough and accurate, but forensics of the time were surprisingly inventive. The case attracted worldwide attention and many wondered how such a likable guy could have committed such a gruesome crime all by himself. Also interesting was LeNeve’s role, if any, in the plot. You’ll need to read the book to find out the rest, but there’s plenty to think about!

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

Book review: Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks, 1941-1995 edited by Anna von Planta

Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks, 1941-1995
edited by
Anna von Planta

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I only knew a little about Patricia Highsmith before I read Her Diaries and Notebooks, but after finishing this 999-page compilation, edited down from eight thousand pages, I know a lot more! During her lifetime, Highsmith wrote twenty-two novels and numerous short story collections, but today she’s best known for her 1950 debut novel, Strangers on a Train, made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock, The Price of Salt (1952) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955). The Price of Salt, a lesbian novel, was first published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. It was republished in 1990 as Carol under Highsmith’s name. The Talented Mr. Ripley was the first in her series of five psychological thrillers featuring the character Tom Ripley.

When Highsmith died in 1995, her editor, Anna von Planta discovered fifty-six journals in the back of Highsmith’s linen closet. And so began the decades-long process of transcribing and condensing these pages into a book.

After reading nothing else for over two straight weeks, I finished feeling exhausted, not just from the sheer number of pages, but from the intensity of her entries. Pat kept both a private diary and a writing journal and here, they are combined chronologically. The diaries and notebooks begin in 1941 when Pat is twenty and a student at Barnard College in New York. During these years and after college, Pat reads and writes prolifically.

After college, Pat takes a job as a comic book script writer to pay the bills, all the while writing and submitting short stories to magazines. When she isn’t writing or working, Pat leads a wild social life. Her friends and lovers are artists, poets, photographers and writers and Pat is so wrapped up in her life she is nearly oblivious to outside events, including World War II. Despite many relationships with women, Pat struggles with her homosexuality. She considers marrying and at one point enters therapy to try to convert herself.

In 1948, Pat goes to the Yaddo artists’ colony where she completes the first draft of Strangers on a Train. During these years and for decades, she keeps a rigid writing routine and has affairs with dozens of women. She falls in love quickly and idolizes the women she sees, but struggles to sustain even her more serious relationships.

From 1951 on, Pat travels extensively and later moves to Europe, living in England, France, Germany and Switzerland. Throughout her life, she battles alcoholism, loneliness and depression, yet prefers to be alone in order to maintain a grueling work schedule. Like most diaries, Pat’s are uncensored. She is opinionated, hard on people and over the years makes racist and anti-Semitic comments. In her writing journals, she works on ideas for characters, plots and themes.

As a reader, it is tough to like Pat, but in the end, I’d say she was mostly tormented by her own unhappy childhood and a toxic relationship with her mother. There’s no question that Pat was destined to become a writer. She thought of nothing else, her drive was impressive and this dedication made her a successful writer. If you like reading about writers and their lives, and you also like long books, this one’s for you!

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

Book Review: The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

The Feather Thief
by
Kirk Wallace Johnson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In 2009, Edwin Rist, a college student and flautist for London’s Royal Academy of Music, broke into the British Natural History Tring Museum and stole 299 bird skins and feathers from sixteen different rare species, valued at $1 million. Why? He was obsessed with fly-tying, a cultish hobby in which people (not fishermen) from around the world sought rare and colorful feathers to create elaborate fishing lures. These feathers weren’t just rare, they were from protected and some extinct species that had been collected by naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, who had carefully preserved and labeled a massive number of birds. Wallace’s expeditions and collections led to the theory of biogeography, a way of understanding the geographic distribution of species, and his samples have been used in many important scientific studies about changes in the environment over hundreds of years.

Once Rist got his haul back to his apartment, he began plucking the feathers, putting them in baggies and selling them on eBay so that he could buy a new flute. A year and a half later, he was arrested and immediately confessed. Rist was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and received a suspended sentence. He graduated, changed his name and moved to Germany. While some of the bird skins were recovered intact, others had been plucked and sold to fly-tiers all over the world.

The Feather Thief is the story of the author’s own obsession with the crime, his desire to understand Rist’s motives and recover the missing bird skins. To give perspective, Johnson first describes the theft and then Wallace’s expeditions. He also writes about the period of time following Wallace’s return, beginning in the 1860s, when feathers became the craze in women’s fashion. Their high demand endangered many bird species, leading to bans on poaching and the feather trade. He also explains the art of fly-tying, the secretive online network of tiers and how they communicate on various forums.

After Johnson’s numerous requests, Rist agreed to an interview and it is here where readers get a look at the person who committed this unusual theft. Was the crime premeditated? Was the Asperger’s diagnosis valid or did Rist fake the syndrome to get the diagnosis? Did someone help him with the heist? Where are the missing feathers?

Johnson writes an interesting story about a strange crime and the quirkiness of an offshoot of the fly-tying hobby. Although I knew about fly-fishing, I’d never heard of fly-tiers who don’t fish, who spend crazy amounts of time and money seeking rare feathers to create lures that they keep for their own collections.

I enjoyed The Feather Thief and recommend it to readers who like true crime stories and character studies.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

Book Club Mom’s Books of 2021

I’m a little late in sharing this, but if you’d like to see what I read in 2021, here they are!

The Searcher by Tana French – 4 stars

The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn – 5 stars

A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders – 3 stars

Cary Grant – A Brilliant Disguise by Scott Eyman – 5 stars

The Perfect Wife by Blake Pierce – 3 stars

My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing – 4 stars

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane – 4 stars

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky – 4 stars

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – 4.5 stars

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold – 4 stars

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger – 5 stars

Rabbit, Run by John Updike – 5 stars

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards – 3 stars

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison – 5 stars

The Night Swim by Megan Goldin – 3 stars

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt – 4.5 stars

The Last Flight by Julie Clark – 3.5 stars

The Home Place by J. Drew Lanham – 4.5 stars

The Mother-in-Law by Sally Hepworth – 4 stars

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner – 3 stars

Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland – 3.5 stars

The Bone Hunger by Carrie Rubin – 4.5 stars

My Brief History by Stephen Hawking – 4 stars

The Early Stories of Truman Capote – 5 stars

The Lost Man by Jane Harper – 4 stars

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough – 4.5 stars

“The Casual Car Pool” by Katherine Bell – 4 stars

Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney – 3 stars

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz – 3.5 stars

The Stranger in the Mirror by Liv Constantine – 3 stars

We Must Be Brave by Frances Liardet – 3.5 stars

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel – 4 stars

The Lying Room by Nicci French – 3.5 stars

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones – 3 stars

The Address by Fiona Davis – 4 stars

Furious Hours by Casey Cep – 5 stars

The Pocket Wife by Susan Crawford – 3.5 stars

There There by Tommy Orange – 5 stars

Elizabeth and Monty by Charles Casillo – 3.5 stars

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell – 5 stars

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie – 4 stars

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – 5 stars

Defending Jacob by William Landay – 3.5 stars

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway – 5 stars

Capote’s Women by Laurence Leamer – 3 stars

Date with Death by Julia Chapman – 3.5 stars

The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen – 4.5 stars

If you’d like to see what I’ve read in other years, you can follow these links which are also in tabs at the top of the page:

Books of 2013

Books of 2014

Books of 2015

Books of 2016

Books of 2017

Books of 2018

Books of 2019

Books of 2020

I didn’t read as many books this year, but some of them were long ones! I feel like I’d gotten away from reading longer books, so reading these reminded me of the nice feeling of really sinking into a story like The Thorn Birds.

Stay tuned for an updated list of my all-time top reads. I went from Top 10 to Top 15 a few years ago. I’m probably going to have to up it to 20 because I read some great books in 2021. Do you have lists of all-time favorite books? What’s your number one favorite? If you don’t know by now, my all-time favorite book is Youngblood Hawke by Herman Wouk. That’s a long one too!

Leave a comment and tell me your favorites 🙂

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

Nonfiction books on my radar – my TBR grows!

The older I get, the more interested I am in nonfiction. I especially like biographies and memoirs and narrative nonfiction. I also like an occasional gossipy book (I confess!). Here are five nonfiction books I’d like to read this year. All descriptions are from Amazon.

Greed in the Gilded Age: The Brilliant Con of Cassie Chadwick by William Elliott Hazelgrove (Feb 15)

‘Millionaire’ had just entered the American lexicon and Cassie Chadwick was front page news, becoming a media sensation before mass media, even eclipsing President Roosevelt’s inauguration. Using these newspaper articles, Hazelgrove tells the story of one of the greatest cons in American history.

Combining the sexuality and helplessness her gender implied, Chadwick conned at least 2 million dollars, equivalent to about 60 million today, simply by claiming to be the illegitimate daughter and heir of steel titan, Andrew Carnegie. Playing to their greed, she was able to convince highly educated financiers to loan hundreds of thousands of dollars, on nothing more than a rumor and her word.

She was a product of her time and painting her as a criminal is only one way to look at it. Those times rewarded someone who was smart, inventive, bold, and aggressive. She was able to break through boundaries of class, education, and gender, to beat the men of the one percent at their own game.

Hedged Out: Inequality and Insecurity on Wall Street by Megan Tobias Neely (Jan 25)

Who do you think of when you imagine a hedge fund manager? A greedy fraudster, a visionary entrepreneur, a wolf of Wall Street? These tropes capture the public imagination of a successful hedge fund manager. But behind the designer suits, helicopter commutes, and illicit pursuits are the everyday stories of people who work in the hedge fund industry—many of whom don’t realize they fall within the 1 percent that drives the divide between the richest and the rest. With Hedged Out, sociologist and former hedge fund analyst Megan Tobias Neely gives readers an outsider’s insider perspective on Wall Street and its enduring culture of inequality.

Hedged Out dives into the upper echelons of Wall Street, where elite white masculinity is the standard measure for the capacity to manage risk and insecurity. Facing an unpredictable and risky stock market, hedge fund workers protect their interests by working long hours and building tight-knit networks with people who look and behave like them. Using ethnographic vignettes and her own industry experience, Neely showcases the voices of managers and other workers to illustrate how this industry of politically mobilized elites excludes people on the basis of race, class, and gender. Neely shows how this system of elite power and privilege not only sustains itself but builds over time as the beneficiaries concentrate their resources. Hedged Out explains why the hedge fund industry generates extreme wealth, why mostly white men benefit, and why reforming Wall Street will create a more equal society.

Heiresses: The Lives of the Million Dollar Babies by Laura Thompson (Feb 15)

Heiresses: surely they are among the luckiest women on earth. Are they not to be envied, with their private jets and Chanel wardrobes and endless funds? Yet all too often those gilded lives have been beset with trauma and despair. Before the 20th century a wife’s inheritance was the property of her husband, making her vulnerable to kidnap, forced marriages, even confinement in an asylum. And in modern times, heiresses fell victim to fortune-hunters who squandered their millions.

Heiresses tells the stories of these million dollar babies: Mary Davies, who inherited London’s most valuable real estate, and was bartered from the age of twelve; Consuelo Vanderbilt, the original American “Dollar Heiress”, forced into a loveless marriage; Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth heiress who married seven times and died almost penniless; and Patty Hearst, heiress to a newspaper fortune who was arrested for terrorism. However, there are also stories of independence and achievement: Angela Burdett-Coutts, who became one of the greatest philanthropists of Victorian England; Nancy Cunard, who lived off her mother’s fortune and became a pioneer of the civil rights movement; and Daisy Fellowes, elegant linchpin of interwar high society and noted fashion editor.

Sentence: Ten Years and a Thousand Books in Prison by Daniel Genis (Feb 22)

In 2003 Daniel Genis, the son of a famous Soviet émigré writer, broadcaster, and culture critic, was fresh out of NYU when he faced a serious heroin addiction that led him into debt and ultimately crime. After he was arrested for robbing people at knifepoint, he was nicknamed the “apologetic bandit” in the press, given his habit of expressing his regret to his victims as he took their cash. He was sentenced to twelve years—ten with good behavior, a decade he survived by reading 1,046 books, taking up weightlifting, having philosophical discussions with his fellow inmates, working at a series of prison jobs, and in general observing an existence for which nothing in his life had prepared him.

Genis describes in unsparing and vivid detail the realities of daily life in the New York penal system. In his journey from Rikers Island and through a series of upstate institutions he encounters violence on an almost daily basis, while learning about the social strata of gangs, the “court” system that sets geographic boundaries in prison yards, how sex was obtained, the workings of the black market in drugs and more practical goods, the inventiveness required for everyday tasks such as cooking, and how debilitating solitary confinement actually is—all while trying to preserve his relationship with his recently married wife.

Shackleton by Ranulph Fiennes (Jan 4)

An enthralling new biography of Ernest Shackleton by the world’s greatest living explorer, Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

In 1915, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s attempt to traverse the Antarctic was cut short when his ship, Endurance, became trapped in ice. The disaster left Shackleton and his men alone at the frozen South Pole, fighting for their lives. Their survival and escape is the most famous adventure in history.

Shackleton is a captivating new account of the adventurer, his life and his incredible leadership under the most extreme of circumstances. Written by polar adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes who followed in Shackleton’s footsteps, he brings his own unique insights to bear on these infamous expeditions. Shackleton is both re-appraisal and a valediction, separating Shackleton from the myth he has become.

Do any of these look good to you? What nonfiction books are you looking forward to reading in 2022? Leave a comment!

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

Book Review: The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen

The Copenhagen Trilogy
by
Tove Ditlevsen

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

I had never heard of Tove Ditlevsen until I watched a stream of The 10 Best Books of 2021 from the New York Times, naming The Copenhagen Trilogy as one of the best books of the year. Ditlevsen was a Danish poet and author, and one of Denmark’s best-known authors. She was born in 1917 into a working-class family and during her lifetime, she published twenty-nine books of short stories, novels and poetry. Ditlevsen received numerous awards for her writing, but despite her success, she struggled with drug and alcohol abuse and died of an overdose in 1976 at age fifty-eight.

This sounds like a depressing book to read, but I thought it was beautifully written and it was obvious to me that Ditlevsen had a great talent for understanding and expressing complex feelings and conditions well beyond her youth. The poetry excerpts she includes are testament to her talent.

As a child and teenager, Ditlevsen lived with her parents in a tiny apartment in Copenhagen. Her father was a laborer and was frequently unemployed. Ditlevsen’s formal education was cut short at age fourteen when she began working in various office jobs and at eighteen, she moved out and supported herself. During that time, she published her first poem in a literary journal, then a collection of poetry and began writing novels and more poetry. As a teenager on her own, which was the norm in Denmark, she felt, “There’s something painful and fragile about being a young girl who makes her own living. You can’t see any light ahead on that road. And I want so badly to own my own time instead of always having to sell it.”

Ditlevsen’s memoir is divided into three sections: Childhood, Youth and Dependency and is largely personal. Themes of marriage, family relationships, alcoholism and suicide figure prominently. Although she mentions the socialist movement, the Depression, Hitler and the German occupation during World War II, these historical references serve only as a backdrop to her life story.

I was most shocked by the third section in which she lives recklessly, falls into addiction and in and out of marriages. Ditlevsen married and divorced four times and, during her marriage to Carl Theodor Ryberg, she became addicted to Demerol and other drugs (willingly supplied by her doctor husband) and was first admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Despite her personal ups and downs, Ditlevsen remains serious about writing, if nothing else. She writes, “And I realize more and more that the only thing I’m good for, the only thing that truly captivates me, is forming sentences and word combinations or writing simple, four-line poetry.”

I was completely drawn into the author’s story and touched by many of her descriptions. Special recognition should go to the book’s translators, Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman, who manage to preserve the beauty of her writing.

I highly recommend The Copenhagen Trilogy to readers who enjoy memoirs and poetry. I found the cover to be a little jarring, but don’t let that turn you away.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

Book Review: Capote’s Women by Laurence Leamer

Capote’s Women
by
Laurence Leamer

I’ve always enjoyed reading about how Truman Capote befriended New York’s high society women during the 1950s and 1960s, a group referred to as his swans because of their elegant style and beauty. Before I get into that and this book, here’s a brief back story about the American novelist, screenwriter and playwright. His most famous books are Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood and he died before he could finish what he referred to as his masterpiece, Answered Prayers. Its unfinished version was published posthumously in 1986.

Born in Louisiana, Truman’s parents divorced when he was a two and sent him to live extended periods in Monroeville, Alabama. That’s where he met Harper Lee and the two future writers became childhood friends. Truman’s mother remarried when he was eight and they moved to New York. Drawn to the lifestyles of the upper class, most of Capote’s friends were from wealthy, well-connected families and his fascination with high society continued throughout his life. But Capote betrayed his swans in “La Côte Basque,” a chapter from Answered Prayers, in which he revealed their darkest secrets.

Capote’s Women is a look at these seven swans, Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Slim Keith, Pamela Harriman, C.Z. Guest, Lee Radziwill and Marella Agnelli. In these brief biographies, Leamer focuses on their upbringings, multiple marriages, tremendous wealth and largely unhappy lives. Some were born into their wealth. Some had humble beginnings. But all were ambitious in their drives to marry rich. They married Hollywood producers, agents, directors, Broadway producers, business tycoons, princes and politicians. They weren’t always friends with each other, however, and especially disliked Pamela Harriman, whose notorious affairs with married men came a little too close to home. Pamela’s second husband, Leland Hayward, was Slim Hawks’ ex-husband and her affair with William Paley (Babe’s husband) is the subject of “La Côte Basque.”  Their connections are as complicated to read as they are to explain!

Truman Capote was also a complicated person, both a serious writer and notorious gossip. He hit a slump after In Cold Blood and spent most of his time schmoozing with his swans, and gathering material for Answered Prayers.

I thought this book was just okay. I’ve read a lot of other accounts of Truman Capote and his swans and much of this same information is available on Wikipedia. Leamer’s writing is loose with the facts, a little disjointed and the book reads like a 300-page People magazine. I much preferred Melanie Benjamin’s fictionalized account of Capote and his swans, The Swans of Fifth Avenue. I did enjoy thinking about the connections between these people, however, and imagining a period of time long gone.

Ultimately, I found it hard to feel sorry for any of the swans or of Truman Capote. I still think Capote’s writing is brilliant, however, and felt that Melanie Benjamin did a much better job portraying the swans as women caught in a time and mindset of perceived perfection.

If you want to go down the rabbit hole, you can read more about Truman Capote here!

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

Also loved by editors of New York Times Book Review – I’ve picked a few from this list!

When I listed the 10 Best Books from The New York Times, I meant to include the extra list of other books the editors loved. These books didn’t make the editors’ top ten, but they highly recommended them. I’d actually heard of some of these! All links and descriptions are from Amazon, unless otherwise noted.

The Magician by Colm Toibin
From one of today’s most brilliant and beloved novelists, a dazzling, epic family saga set across a half-century spanning World War I, the rise of Hitler, World War II, and the Cold War. Note from me: this one’s about Thomas Mann, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929 and is the author of The Magic Mountain, a book I read in college and would like to read again.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Once in a great while, a book comes along that changes our view of the world. This magnificent novel from the Nobel laureate and author of Never Let Me Go is “an intriguing take on how artificial intelligence might play a role in our futures … a poignant meditation on love and loneliness” (The Associated Press).

Razorblade Tears by S. A. Cosby
“A visceral full-body experience, a sharp jolt to the heart, and a treat for the senses…Cosby’s moody southern thriller marries the skillful action and plotting of Lee Child with the atmosphere and insight of Attica Locke.” —NPR

Wayward by Dana Spioda
A “furious and addictive new novel” (The New York Times) about mothers and daughters, and one woman’s midlife reckoning as she flees her suburban life.

Dirty Work by Eyal Press
A groundbreaking, urgent report from the front lines of “dirty work”―the work that society considers essential but morally compromised.

Beautiful World Where Are You by Sally Rooney
A new novel by Sally Rooney, the bestselling author of Normal People and Conversations with Friends.

The Life of the Mind by Christine Smallwood
A witty, intelligent novel of an American woman on the edge, by a brilliant new voice in fiction—“the glorious love child of Ottessa Moshfegh and Sally Rooney” (Publishers Weekly, starred review).

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen’s gift for wedding depth and vividness of character with breadth of social vision has never been more dazzlingly evident than in Crossroads. Note from me: I remember reading The Corrections a long time ago for my book club, but I haven’t read anything else by Franzen.

The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr.
A singular and stunning debut novel about the forbidden union between two enslaved young men on a Deep South plantation, the refuge they find in each other, and a betrayal that threatens their existence.

Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart
Eight friends, one country house, and six months in isolation—a novel about love, friendship, family, and betrayal hailed as a “virtuoso performance” (USA Today) and “an homage to Chekhov with four romances and a finale that will break your heart” (The Washington Post).

It’s interesting to me that there’s only one nonfiction on this list, Dirty Work. I might want to read that, but also on my list of potential reads would be The Magician, Razorblade Tears, and Crossroads. What would you like to read? Leave a comment!

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!