Nonfiction review: Danubia

Simon Winder, Danubia (2014)

You might think that a book subtitled “a personal history of Habsburg Europe” would be quite distant from our current preoccupations, would be dusty, nostalgic and quaint, irrelevant to the challenges we face today. You would be wrong.

This is a chronicle of the last few hundred years of the eastern part of the ancient Holy Roman Empire, which was ruled by the Habsburg family, generally located along the Danube river, and morphed into Austria-Hungary before its demise in the twentieth century. Over the entire length of that long period now hangs the shadow of the train wreck that was the Great War of 1914-1919. What happened there? How can we understand it, and how prevent it from happening again?

Those questions are not distant or irrelevant. They are ever more pressing, as the powers of division and conflict rise again, as tyrants and oppressed people struggle once more. As I read, I was repeatedly struck by the way things have not changed all that much at all, and at the same time how hard it seems to be for us to process the way things really have changed fundamentally. Will we ever learn?

Winder writes in a jokey, conversational style that could cause one to dismiss him as lightweight and not serious enough for such a big topic. Whether you find it engaging or irritating is probably a matter of personal taste. This is not an academic study, nor does it claim to be. It is a personal rambling through some personal pleasures and preoccupations, and should be judged as such. I would not take it as my only source of information, but as a starting point and an occasional source of laughter or jolt of recognition, it’s not bad.

For example, here is Winder’s description of Franz Ferdinand (whose assassination set off the Great War):

Of course we will never know if he would have been a “good” Emperor. It may well be that he had just waited too long and that whatever qualities he might have possessed had long curdled, lost in a maze of ritual, uniforms, masses, and — above all — hunting. His shooting skills made him legendary, belonging to that disgusting and depressing era when even the aristocratic hunting expedition became married to modern military technology, unbalancing the entire relationship of hunter and hunted, so that shooting partridges became like a proto-version of playing Space Invaders.

Academic it may not be, but it is vivid and memorable. Along with a vaguely chronological overview of the Habsburg rulers, who were a largely unattractive lot with occasional amusing eccentricities, we get interpolated commentary about Winder’s obsessions with things such as zoo architecture, folkloric villages, the music of Haydn, and much more. It’s like rambling through a historical museum with a talkative, witty, and easily distractible friend.

I did not ever really understand what happened in the time leading up to the war. It was such a tangle of nationalisms and bad diplomacy and self-aggrandizement that I could not wrap my head around it. But I did get this: nationalism is a dead end. Although Habsburg rule may have been terrible, the empire at least provided its diverse population with some room to move and interact and create, while after the empire fell, people were imprisoned in the narrow, dirty cells of their new nations. And of course, with a lot of people and entire ethnic/religious groups exiled, killed, or soon to be killed. We have to find a better way than this.

This is the kind of book I don’t like to read as an e-book (which is what I did). I would rather have the whole book before me so I can refer to former sections, look at maps and lists of rulers with confusingly similar names, and mark favorite passages. So if you do read it, I recommend paper.

If I can get my hands on a physical copy I might read it again, and I’d like to read Winder’s earlier book, Germania. Have you read anything by Simon Winder? Would you like to? Or is his personal take on European history not to your taste?


New Release Review: The Maze at Windermere

Gregory Blake Smith, The Maze at Windermere (2018)

As regular readers of this blog know, I have the joy and honor of being a graduate of Carleton College (model for Blackstock College in the novel Tam Lin – click on the link for a tour). So when I learned one of my favorite professors in the English department there had just published a new novel, I couldn’t wait to read it and share it with you. I’m glad to say that it fully met and exceeded my expectations, and I hope that you’ll welcome it as well.

Set in Newport, Rhode Island, across more than three centuries, The Maze at Windermere takes us through a panorama of history as seen through the eyes of five memorable characters: a washed-up tennis pro, a predatory social climber, a budding novelist, a British spymaster during the Revolution, and an orphaned Quaker girl. Their stories are told in turn through several cycles, slowly revealing the similar themes and motifs that can guide such very different lives. At the conclusion, these narratives begin to meet and merge in a quicker and less orderly alternation, coming together into a whole that closes some gaps, but leaves some still tantalizingly open.

Having been at various overlapping times a bastion of religious freedom, a commercial center, an important military base, a playground for the rich, and a breeding ground for artists, Newport is a small but fascinating location from which to explore American history and culture. Smith’s command of different voices and points of view is dazzling — including writing in the voice of the young Henry James, which would seem quite daunting for any novelist. He moves seemingly without effort from one narrative to the next, writing in sometimes in first person, sometimes in third person, completely changing his tone and style while somehow retaining a sense of the underlying unity of his story. It’s quite an impressive achievement.

Fortunately, Maze never descends to being a mere parlor trick or showing off the writer’s verbal facility. At its heart are questions about life, the world, and our place in it that play out differently for each one of us, yet are always the same throughout the mortal journey we all share. How do we form connections that leave one another free? How do we embody our desires in a way that honors the deepest parts of ourselves, and of the other person? Some of Smith’s characters grow in their progress toward self-knowledge, while others make questionable moral choices. But by means of the healing distance of fiction, all stories can contribute to our own learning.

I was first introduced to the idea of the “nine cities of Newport” through Thornton Wilder’s novel Theophilus North, which remains one of my favorite novels. The Maze at Windermere will go on the shelf alongside it as another marvelous evocation not just of this particular place, but of the puzzling, mysterious, frustrating, exhilarating endeavor we call life. I hope you will enter this fictional maze, and maybe find a new favorite as well.


New Release Review: Hidden Figures

Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures (2016)

hidden-figures-pb-cover-copySo, if you’re simply wondering whether I think this book is worth reading, and you’re interested in women’s history, civil rights, U.S. history, the space program, math, or computer science (which I should think covers most of us), I will save you some valuable reading time and say: yes, it is. Go get a copy of this book pronto, and don’t just rely on watching the movie. You’re going to want to know the facts behind the film.

But if that’s not enough for you, here’s my more detailed description and response: Hidden Figures tells the fascinating story of a group of “colored computers,” black women employed to do essential mathematical tasks in the development of air and space technology. During World War II, when employment opportunities were of necessity stretched beyond their normal limits, these brilliant, talented women got a toe in the door of the burgeoning military economy, even though they were segregated and often overlooked and undervalued. Shetterly focuses on four of them, though she believes that there were many more than even the available historical record shows. The story of their bravery, determination, and intelligence makes for some compelling and inspiring reading, as in our world today it becomes clear that the ugly prejudice that they had to fight against has by no means been conquered.

Not just a peek into an obscure, forgotten corner of our history, this is a subject that touches on so many important and relevant topics that it’s really essential for anyone who wants to know where we came from and where we are going. Shetterly expertly interweaves the personal stories of the women into the larger picture of social and technological change that took place during their era, an enormous upheaval that we still have to wrestle with. She didn’t conduct her research just in dusty archival records; she actually knew some of the women growing up, as her parents moved within some of the same circles, and this helps bring them closer to us.

tlc logoIn spite of that personal connection, Shetterly generally writes in a calm, measured third-person style, describing rather than dramatizing the incidents of her narrative, though she occasionally inserts some stirring and passionate commentary. She also has a tendency to use flowery similes that I found unnecessary and distracting, but mercifully these were few and far between. It’s going to be interesting to see how the book is turned into a film, since there is almost no dialogue given; much will have to be invented. For that reason, if you’re interested in historical accuracy I definitely recommend the book to ground you in reality, although the dramatic potential of the story on screen is certainly irresistible.

However you experience it, Hidden Figures is a story that definitely deserves to come to light. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

Official publisher link from HarperCollins

Copy gratefully received for review from TLC Book Tours – click here for more stops on the tour



New Release Review: The House by the Lake

Thomas Harding, The House by the Lake (2016)

HouseLakeThough it focuses on a single location — a simple lakeside house built by a prosperous Berlin doctor as a family retreat — this book takes us on a tour of an astonishingly volatile period in German history. As if in a time-lapse film, we watch what was once an aristocratic estate become parceled into bourgeois country houses (some, like this one, owned by Jews). Then the house and its surroundings are seized by the Nazis, bought up by opportunists, taken over again by East Germany, cut off from the lake by the Berlin Wall, and returned to the Western world again when the Wall comes down. We watch the house itself, once proud in its simple elegance, erode into utilitarian socialist housing, become a squatter’s den, and finally be scheduled for demolition. And we meet the people who called it home, for a few years or many, as holiday retreat or permanent residence or temporary shelter, and enter into their many ways of living and being human in a fractured world.

Harding did not choose this house at random; it was built by his great-grandfather, and his grandmother, having escaped with her parents to England in the 1930s, still called it her “soul place.” He got to visit it once with her, twenty years ago, after the reunification of Germany, and meet the couple then in residence (reassuring them that the family was not trying to get it back). When he learned it was going to be torn down, he wondered whether it could be saved, and started to piece together the remarkable history of this place so that it might be seen as a focus for remembrance, education, and reconciliation.

In reconstructing the biography of the house, he intersperses scenes from his own journey of research and family negotiation, which was not always easy or straightforward. Forget the house, some said. It’s too painful, too difficult, too obscure to remember or bring back to life, even in writing. But Harding persisted, and has given us a record of an ordinary place in an extraordinary time, going beyond the borders of the usual kind of history book to help us understand what history really means.

Harding’s style is understated, some would say to the point of dryness, but I found that the events he portrayed spoke for themselves. The image of the Berlin Wall suddenly running through the bottom of the garden is about as concrete as you can get. Don’t skip the footnotes, as they include additional anecdotes that add even more fascinating details to the story.

Though Alexander Haus, as it is now called, has been saved from destruction, there is much to be done to make it a viable educational center. You can visit the website to learn more, and also to see fascinating videos taken at the house during different points in its history. What will be in store next for the house and its visitors? Only the future will tell.


New Release Review: New England Bound

Wendy Warren, New England Bound (2016)

NewEnglandBoundLGNew England likes to position itself as the cradle of liberty, home of many of the figures behind American independence from Britain, as well as a land of freedom in opposition to the slave-owning South. But in this new study by historian Wendy Warren, we are given a very different view of the early days of the New England colonies, during which the bondage of African and Native American slaves formed an essential part of the economy and indeed of the identity of the region.

The evidence is scant and scattered, but Warren has painstakingly gone over probate records, lawsuits, sermons and other documents and assembled a picture of a land and people  “bound” up with the institution of slavery in multiple ways. Though the proportion of chattel slaves in seventeenth-century New England was relatively low, with their numbers and mode of employment never so dramatic as on the large plantations of the South, they were widely used as household labor and fully accepted even by the most piously Puritan of colonists. The extent of colonial involvement in the slave trade, however, is greatly magnified when one considers that New England was part of a wider Atlantic mercantile system for the English, supplying the West Indian sugar plantations and thus endorsing and enabling that most horrifically deadly form of slave labor.

It depended on that system, too, as the northern land was too poor to produce a cash crop out of itself. By sending goods and foodstuffs (often substandard or rotten items deemed adequate for slaves) to the rich planters who gained more profit by devoting all their time and land to growing sugar, members of the dominant merchant class of New England gained an essential market. They also began to feel their power as a key player in the English trading triangle, which may been the germ of the drive for independence.

The colonial impulse also required “unplanting and replanting” the native people who already inhabited the land the settlers wanted for their own needs. Some were forced into local servitude, but many others, too unruly for that purpose, were transported to serve elsewhere even as Africans were imported in the other direction. In one telling incident, a group of native Americans captured in King Philip’s War were sent abroad, except for an old man too decrepit to work. After some debate, his captors showed him mercy — by decapitating him rather than having him torn apart by dogs.

That is just one of the cruel stories that Warren has unearthed for us, illuminating a strange irony. Without intimate knowledge of the miserable state of slavery, without day-to-day intercourse with people treated as property and denied a will of their own, would the New England states have waved the banner of freedom so forcibly? The bloodstained origins of our vaunted rights and freedoms must not be overlooked, if we are to move forward into a truer form of justice.

According to the jacket publicity this book has been hailed by other historians as an important new contribution to the topic, and though I’m by no means an expert I see no reason to argue with them. The writing was sometimes a bit stiff and repetitive, perhaps showing its origins as a dissertation. But the arguments and the research backing them up are compelling, disturbing, and enlightening. Certainly, I’ll no longer be able to walk the Freedom Trail or sing songs of liberation without remembering the chains that our nation forged in its earliest days, and that are in many ways still binding us today.



New Release Review: Symphony for the City of the Dead

M.T. Anderson, Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dimitri Shostakovich and the Seige of Leningrad (Candlewick, 2015)

SymphonyCityUsing the life and work of the composer Dimitri Shostakovich as a “hook,” and specifically his masterful Seventh Symphony (the “Leningrad”), Symphony for the City of the Dead explores one of the most horrific places and times to live in human history: Russia from the 1917 Revolution through the rise of Stalin and the Second World War.

Leningrad (formerly and now again St. Petersburg) has a long and proud cultural history, which a native musical prodigy such as Shostakovich should have been free to inherit and build on. Instead, he found himself hemmed in by demands that his music fit Stalinist ideas of what music should be and do for “the people,” and by murderous forces from both inside and outside his country. At one time he slept outside his apartment door so that his wife and child would not be awakened when he was taken away by the secret police; surviving that peril at the cost of the suppression of his “formalist” Fourth Symphony, he found himself caught in the Nazi trap that became the seige of Leningrad, a three-year ordeal that Hitler devised in order to bring the Slavs to their knees. Yet within this deathly environment he began composing a symphony that would capture the imaginations of the nation and of the world.

It’s a fascinating topic, and I found that Anderson marshaled his information well, keeping his narrative moving along while incorporating an impressive number of facts and eyewitness reports. In this real-life horror story, there is no happy ending and no way to escape the incredible brutality of human beings, making us question what lurks behind the thin veneer of civilization. Yet there are also glimpses of bravery, endurance, and the power of art to both articulate and transcend our sufferings. The description of the first performance of the symphony within beseiged Leningrad is incredibly moving, as emaciated, tottering musicians push themselves to the limit in order to play for their city.

Finding the truth about the Soviet era is not easy, and Shostakovich’s true thoughts and feelings are basically impossible to uncover, given his need to mask and conceal himself in order to survive. But Anderson brought clarity into a murky time while still allowing us to feel its painful ambiguity. I was not so enamored of the author’s writing style, with its short, choppy sentences enlivened by the occasional hyperbolic statement or pop-culture reference. I’m not sure if this was meant as a gesture toward the book’s intended audience, older teens and young adults, but I found it unfortunate  and clumsy.

Still, I learned a tremendous amount about events of which I knew little and am even more impressed than ever by Shostakovich’s ability to create under such circumstances. I appreciated how Anderson made it vividly clear throughout his text that art — the making and experiencing of art — is a vital part of our nature as human beings, never more so than when our humanity is threatened by the brutal impact of war. For readers of any age, this is an important, profound message for our times.

I also have to mention the stunning cover and excellent design overall. As with another new release from Candlewick that I enjoyed recently, The Hired Girl, the design is perfectly in tune with the contents, and I also appreciate that attention to detail.


In the Kingdom of Ice (Nonfiction November Review)

Hampton Sides, In the Kingdom of Ice (2014)


For my third and final Nonfiction November title (following One Summer: America 1927 and Empty Mansions), I thought it would be interesting to delve into American history once more. This time, upon recommendations by many including Books on the Table, I chose In the Kingdom of Ice, the story of an ill-starred polar expedition that set out to attempt to break through what was thought to be a ring of ice into a temperate, or even tropical “Open Polar Sea” — an idea that was firmly fixed in the nineteenth-century imagination, but had absolutely no basis in reality, as the expedition fatefully discovered.

When I got the book from the library and found 500 pages of densely-packed text, I was a bit daunted. But once I began reading, the pages flew by. The story was so compelling, and the writing so vivid, that I felt like I was there alongside the crew as they battled incredible odds to try to win their way back to civilization.  I was full of admiration for the brave, determined captain George De Long, who vowed “no man shall be left alone” through their terrible ordeal. Many of his comrades also showed amazing endurance and selflessness, while a few displayed a more unsavory side of humanity as they slid toward madness, melancholia, or just plain irritating everyone to death.

The land-bound characters were equally memorable, including the eccentric newspaper magnate who funded the voyage; De Long’s long-suffering wife, whose heartbreakingly poignant letters to her missing husband punctuate the text; and the brilliant but unbalanced armchair geographer whose misguided notions set the whole tragedy in motion.

The enormous amount of research that must have gone into this book is gracefully and even elegantly transformed into a seamless narrative. Quotations from journals and letters are integrated into the text, contributing to the “you are there” quality. The Arctic landscape comes to life in all its grandeur and horror, as the men move through its terrain and encounter its wildlife and people. There is much information to be gleaned, about post-Civil War American society and the scientific culture of the time in general as well as about polar exploration in particular, yet the reader never feels overwhelmed by scholarship or barraged by facts.

In short, In the Kingdom of Ice is a splendidly thrilling, moving, and thought-provoking journey of adventure, both outer and inner. I’m so glad to have discovered it.

Be sure to check out all the great posts being linked this month for Nonfiction November:

Week One: My Year in Nonfiction
Week Two: Be/Become/Ask the Expert
Week Three: Diversity and Nonfiction
Week Four: New to My TBR List


Empty Mansions (Nonfiction November Review)

Bill Dedman & Paul Clark Newell, Jr., Empty Mansions (2013)


Dedman Newell Huguette Clark

This is a story about money: about the winning of a great American fortune, its spending on acts of  generosity and selfishness, and its end in the hands of eager lawyers and rapacious relatives. It’s also the story of an enigmatic woman, Huguette Clark, who was worth $300 million yet chose to live the last twenty years of her long life in a simple hospital room, even though she owned several uninhabited, impeccably maintained properties. Who was this woman of unbelievable wealth and unusually reclusive habits? Why did she hide from her relatives? Was she, as they claimed, under the influence of unscrupulous employees who benefited from her lavish gifts — and perhaps mentally imbalanced?

Huguette is gone and cannot speak for herself, but her cousin Paul Clark Newell, Jr. and reporter Bill Dedman give us insight into her world in this absorbing account of a life lived strangely, but with an odd kind of integrity. Huguette’s father, copper magnate W.A. Clark, was a contemporary of Rockefeller and Carnegie and his self-made fortune was equal to or greater than theirs. But as well as tarnishing his own reputation during his lifetime with desperate maneuvering for political office, and adopting a flamboyantly ostentatious style that did not admit him to the higher echelons of society, he didn’t endow any institutions that would perpetuate his name. Instead, he left his substantial monetary legacy to his children by two marriages, including his youngest daughter, Huguette.

The telling of this very American story gives us the double pleasure of shaking our heads at the excesses of the very rich, even as we vicariously enjoy them through detailed descriptions. W.A. Clark took 13 years to build a Fifth Avenue mansion that was then inhabited for only 14 years — after his death it was too expensive for anyone else to maintain. Huguette spent unbelievable sums on elaborate doll scenery and figures, many of which she never saw in person. While we may scoff at such “pointless” enterprises, who among us does not dream of the hobbies and interests we would indulge if we had unlimited funds? Although some of the staff who tended Huguette at the end of her life sneered at her preoccupation with dolls and Flintstone cartoons, Dedman and Newell portray her with sympathy and respect. The licensed robbery of estate planning lawyers and hospital development professionals, on the other hand, does not come off quite so well.

Empty Mansions painting
A painting by Huguette

Such professionals, who specialize in separating the rich from their money, meet a frustratingly intransigent subject in Huguette. She puts off making a will for years. She gives freely, but only where she chooses: notably to her private-duty nurse, who “gives her life to Madame” and reaps rewards in excess of $30 million. Meanwhile, Huguette fends off schemes such as the hospital’s telling her that she has to donate to ensure the preservation of her current building or move to a much less desirable location. (She moves.) Is this generosity, self-serving — due to her reluctance to change staff, she keeps them with her with these enormous sums — eccentricity, or mental illness?

Her relatives know what they think, but readers of Empty Mansions are left with a more nuanced and complex portrait, one that reminds us of the mystery at the heart of each human life, and that we are more than our material possessions. How do we judge such a person? What did her money mean to her, and what did she truly value? The intensely private Huguette is a difficult subject, but Dedman and Newell have done a fine job of sifting through the available evidence and presenting it in an even-handed way, while still leaving us in no doubt of whose side they are on.

A French fable that Huguette recited to her doctor a few years before her death ends: “To live happily, live hidden.” I highly recommend this sometimes disturbing, always fascinating account of a life that has not yet disclosed all its secrets.


One Summer: America 1927 (Nonfiction November Review)

Bill Bryson, One Summer: America 1927 (2013)

America 1927 history

A historical timeline entry for May-October, 1927 might read something like this:

  • Floods devastate the Mississippi valley
  • Charles Lindbergh makes first solo flight across the Atlantic
  • Sacco and Vanzetti executed
  • Calvin Coolidge declines to run for another term as president
  • The Jazz Singer filmed
  • Babe Ruth hits a record sixty home runs in a season

Ho, hum. . . does this list take you back to the droning of your tenth-grade history teacher? In Bryson’s latest work of nonfiction, he tries not to numb us with facts but to illumine what it was like to be an American in the summer of 1927, midway between two world wars, enjoying unprecedented prosperity and on the brink of the Great Depression. The summer’s events are taken as a starting point for a narrative that ranges forward and backward in time, exploring everything from the development of aviation to the rise and fall of Prohibition to the tribulations of the motion-picture industry. In the process we meet a staggering array of athletes, criminals, actors, politicians, explorers, writers, anarchists, scientists, entrepreneurs, and inventors, with their idiosyncrasies played up to the fullest extent.

Bryson’s style here is somewhat more subdued than in the writings that made him popular (such as A Walk in the Woods, reviewed here), in which he writes of his own life and travels in such an engaging and humorous way. Since Bryson was unfortunately unable to time-travel back to 1927, his writing takes on a more distant quality, but still has wonderful touches of sly commentary, as in this passage about the anti-Catholic activities of the Ku Klux Klan:

Many in the state [of Indiana] believed that Catholics had poisoned President Harding and that priests at Notre Dame University in South Bend were stockpiling armaments in preparation for a Catholic uprising. In 1923 the most surreally improbably rumor of all emerged — that the pope planned to move his base of operations from the Vatican City to Indiana.

According to several accounts, when residents of the town of North Manchester heard that the pope was on a particular train, 1500 of them boarded it with a view to seizing the pontiff and breaking up his conspiracy. Finding no one recognizably papal, the mob turned its attentions to a traveling corset salesman, who was nearly dragged off to an unhappy fate until he managed to convince his tormentors that it was unlikely that he would try to stage a coup armed with nothing but a case of reinforced undergarments.

plane pilot Lindbergh
Charles Lindbergh

There’s an impressive number of narrative threads to keep track of here, and in general I found the hopping about between time periods and topics to give a pleasantly lively effect. This works best at the beginning when Lindbergh’s flight (and the accompanying antics of his rivals) acts as an anchor for the story. Toward the end, though, the book starts to unravel with too many short, undeveloped episodes: the origins of television; the birth of the modern musical theatre; the unfortunate rise of eugenics (which brings us back to Lindbergh again). . . the events of a single summer truly can’t be separated out neatly, but tie into everything else that comes before and after, and that gets complicated. Where does one stop? The final chapter of the book proper ends on a somewhat feeble note with a mere listing of the key events, as if attempting to regain control of the proliferating historical themes by reducing them to manageable facts again — an understandable, if somewhat disappointing impulse.

It’s possible to get all snooty about works of popular history such as this and sneer at them as intellectually inferior.* It’s true that there are some infelicities of language in One Summer, with certain words seemingly not clearly understood, and an overuse of the term “literally.” The invariable use of the word “America” when referring to the United States, as in “America went to war with Germany,” also betrays a certain imprecision. If I were writing an academic paper or delivering a speech at a historical society I would not be using Bryson as my primary reference. But I was grateful to him for breaking through some of my historical blind spots, and giving me a summer full of characters and events as colorful, absurd, and eccentric as any in fiction. Unlike my tenth-grade history lessons, I won’t soon forget them.

*As did an incredibly vitriolic review in the Washington Post, which I won’t dignify with a link (but you’ll find it easily if you look).