Posted by: Neil Hollands
Our staff book group at Williamsburg Regional Library made biographies our theme this month. Reading on themes is perfect for a staff group, as it exposes us to a variety of different titles which we can then share with the public. Biographies work well in this format: It’s fascinating to get highlights of a dozen different lives as each reader introduces their finds. Another pleasure of thematic book grouping is the way in which each reader’s selections highlight aspects of their personality. You really get to know your fellow readers this way.
Cheryl started our group off. She has a gift for hunting down forgotten and fascinating tales from history and her selections showed off her interest. King Lehr and the Gilded Age, by Elizabeth Drexel Lehr, was written in 1935. It’s the autobiography of a woman who was told by her creepy husband on her wedding night that he had married her for her money. Constricted by the Gilded Age society circles from which she came, she stayed with him. Her book is an expose of the petty tyrannies and eccentricities of Gilded Age socialites.
Cheryl also had The Delectable Dollies, the lurid story of Hungarian twin sisters who took the names Jenny and Rosie Dolly for their careers as American chorus girls. Their exotic good looks would enchant men like Gordon Selfridge (of the British department store family) who spent most of his familiy fortune on them. After retirement from Ziegfeld’s follies in the late 1920s, Jenny Dolly was involved in a tragic car crash. Her beau of the time minimized her injuries to her friends although she actually teetered on the edge of life, so that he could escape blame and pawn most of her jewelry. Jenny survived but her looks were destroyed, and she would kill herself a few years later.
Jeanette loves the outdoors and birdwatching in particular, so it’s no surprise that she picked Elizabeth Rosenthal’s Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson. An artist and ornithologist from a very young age, Peterson would go on to invent the modern field guide and expose thousands of Americans to the joys of watching birds.
Susan from our youth services division helps expose us to some of the best works for kids. Today she brought Lincoln and His Boys by Rosemary Wells, a biography of the president from just before his election up through the Civil War. Lincoln’s life is narrated in alternating chapters from the imagined perspectives of his sons Tad and Willie. Willie tragically died while Lincoln was in office while Tad suffered from a cleft palate, so their own stories are fascinating as well.
My book was Mark Twain: A Biography by Ron Powers. Twain was such an interesting character: riverboat captain, journalist, lecturer, miner, traveler, failed businessman, and, oh yeah, writer. His life is a perfect reflection of growing America and its transition from rural frontier nation to industrial power, from borrowing European culture to exporting it’s own. His runaway success in humor and literature was balanced by his failures in business and his loving but melancholy family life.
Cela has a delightful sense of humor. She introduced us to I’m Perfect, Your Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing, a funny trip through the darkly humorous childhood of Kyria Abrahams. A precocious and eccentric child, Abrahams was poorly served by dour parents who often put her well-being second to their religious pursuits. Now a comic, Abrahams is good at laughing at her awkward beginnings.
Connie likes to keep up with current books. Today she had Ruth Reichl’s latest, Not Becoming My Mother, which further explores her relationship with her eccentric mother (turf she worked so well in Tender at the Bone). Known for her culinary biographies, Reichl this time turns from food to a moving paean about how she has come to terms with the mother whose greatest gift was to try to make her daughter into someone different, less tormented than herself.
Connie also brought The Mighty Queens of Freeville, the story of Amy Dickinson–who succeeded Ann Landers, Dickinson’s mother, and the other strong women who influenced her upbringing in small-town upstate New York. With the kind of folksy humor one would expect from a columnist, Dickinson provides a good example of how a small community can contribute to the life of one child.
Amy is good at scouting out unusual biographies of interesting women. This month she brought A Romanov Fantasy by Frances Welch. It’s the story of Anna Anderson, the most famous of the false Anastasias. Perhaps even more interesting than the story of that claim was Anderson’s further descent into mental illness in later life. Married to an equally disturbed husband, she suffered through several sad misadventures in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Finally, Amy also shared Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic. Blackjack was an Inuit woman, considered controversially independent by her people, who accepted an offer to join an expedition of four men to Wrangell Island. (She went because she needed money to support her tubercular son). It’s Norwegian leader Stefansson had already led one tragic Arctic expedition (documented in an earlier book by author Jennifer Niven). This expedition also turned disastrous. When their ship became iced in, three men set out over the ice never to be seen again. Ada stayed with the fourth man, who eventually died of scurvy. She was the only survivor found by the rescue ship, but false accusations of wrongdoing would haunt her for the rest of her life.
What a great meeting! It inspired me to put a few books on my too-read list. Hopefully it will do the same for you.