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So I bought my first parenting book. For someone who loves reading so much I’m not reading anything about pregnancy: I browsed through What to Expect When You’re Expecting and The Best Friends’ Guide to Pregnancy, but mostly my partner just gives me the highlights. He’s the one keen on knowing all the details. For me, between pre-natal classes, doctor’s appointments and conversations with friends I feel I’ve all the information I need without stressing about everything that can happen.
But parenting is much more intellectually appealing. I don’t mean the technical details about schedules, potty-training and feeding, but the ones about raising happy, honest, confident, connected, fulfilled people.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot, mostly about how I was raised, what I’d try to copy, what I’d change, and the kind of parent I’d like to be. I try not to think too much about the person I’d like my son to be because it might be unfair to him (although we got excited about raising an Olympic champion during the Games… and what if – gasp! – he’s not A Reader?!).
I am curious about all the theories out there but also don’t want to read too many parenting books. I know the conflicting information can be daunting. Some titles however, are impossible to resist, like How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.
Paul Tough set out to bust the myth that
(…) success today depends primarily on cognitive skills — the kind of intelligence that gets measured on I.Q. tests, including the abilities to recognize letters and words, to calculate, to detect patterns — and that the best way to develop these skills is to practice them as much as possible, beginning as early as possible.
and replace it with the notion that
(…) noncognitive skills, like persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence, are more crucial than sheer brainpower to achieving success.
I first heard about it in a forgotten list of 2012 notable books and the premise really struck a chord as my experience also tells me that IQ is overrated. I haven’t read the book yet, but I hope that with “success” Tough means much more than financial or career paths, which my experience also tells me is only a part of the success equation.
I’m also oddly attracted to all the culture-specific books, like Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother or the French-loving ones such as French Children Don’t Throw Food and Bringing Up Bébé (interesting article Why the French don’t need parenting books).
This probably happens because I live in a very international environment, with lots of double-nationality babies and different ways of raising them. One of the most popular conversation subjects in Brussels is how to best raise a bi-, tri- or tetra-lingual baby (e.g. Portuguese mom and Polish dad who speak English among themselves, kid in a French- or Dutch-speaking nursery).
It’s all fascinating, although I have the feeling that gut-feeling, pure instinct (and maybe trial-and-error?) will put all theories in a corner when push comes to shove.
Do you have any favorite parenting book? I’d be really interested in your input!
It’s that time of the year again: Happy Ada Lovelace Day everyone! This is a celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. And what better way for a book blogger to celebrate it than with a fantastic book on the subject?!
Reading The Madame Curie Complex confirmed just how protected I’ve been by choosing a career in an area – communications – generally considered safely within the “feminine realm”. I don’t remember ever being positively or negatively discriminated in school or work, but was shocked recently when a marine biologist friend of mine (my age) remembered a professor of hers telling the class that he didn’t believe physics was a field for women.
This fascinating book is filled with examples like this, but smartly avoids the victimization of the women it approaches. They were/are all intelligent, resourceful scientists who dealt with their circumstances in different ways and made extraordinary contributions to the advancement of science (even if those contributions weren’t recognized).
Julie Des Jardins calls the “Curie Complex” the general belief that women, to be able to compete with men in science (and probably other fields as well?), have to be twice better and work twice as hard. They need to be rational geniuses in the lab and the perfect mothers and wives at home. Only in this way can they gain respect at work and prove that their anti-natural tendencies to pursue a career in science has not undermined their femininity:
Meloney [an American journalist who helped form the Curie myth] had created a schizophrenic figure: a serious scientist (a masculine type) and a sacrificing woman (a maternal typo), both inherently incompatible. In the minds of male employers women would always fall short of the ideal, and women who internalized their alleged deficiencies could not move forward. If Meloney’s portrait of Madame Curie was supposed to inspire women, it may have done the reverse.
One of the most popular ways for women scientists to deal with this is to sacrifice their “maternal” side. Not only decades ago…
Even the most accomplished women scientist in the 1950s and 1960s continues to insist that the key to success was to perform head and shoulders above male competitors, sacrificing family, health and sanity for research.
… but also today. One of the most compelling statistics in the book for me were studies from 2009 that show that 70% of male science faculty were married with children versus only 44% of women at the same career level. This is incredibly telling, especially because it’s not the choice of many of these women: more that 40% of the women interviewed regretted that they hadn’t more children, “in their minds, it was still not possible for them to have it all.”
The book reads like a novel and I whizzed through it. Des Jardins tells us about the lives of many women scientists since the late 1800s and their way of accepting, coping, maneuvering or challenging the glass ceiling. The biographic details were fascinating, and despite being so different, Des Jardins was able to put these women’s lives together under the same “Curie Complex” light, and create a powerful argument.
She begins with Marie Curie (the canon), then moves on to Annie Cannon and the women who worked at the Harvard Observatory in the early 1900s, inexhaustibly cataloging and measuring stars. Next, the women of the Manhattan Project, that seem to have been erased from history. She finishes with the “Lady Trimates” (Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikos) who made the field their laboratories, blurring the borders between science and the home, finding alternatives to the “detached” science we practice and challenging the way we see science:
Many feminists then and since have warned of the dangers of overdetermining gender differences, for stereotypes of “universal woman” can be as troubling as time-honored notions of “universal man.” Sociobiology, a biological rationale for gender difference, was especially polarizing when it grew in popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s the question of creating a “feminist science” was rephrased: “Do women do science differently?” And in 2004 new debates ensued in Science over whether or not there was a “female style” in the lab.
The debate is still on and it’s just as important.
Des Jardins wrote a book that is not only clearly well researched, but rich in hundreds of little insights into the women she writes about. The perfect choice for the Ada Lovelace Day celebration.
Credits: Hark! A Vagrant!
Our books will bear witness for or against us, our books reflect who we are and who we have been.
Oh the bookworm’s pleasure when reading a book about books! I’m surprised that this one is not more known (only 744 ratings on GoodReads), but suspect that its unusual format might have something to do with it. The Library at Night is a delightful collection of essays about the past, present and future of libraries, not just public libraries, but also personal ones.
The different chapters are loosely organized into themes like The Library as Mind, The Library as Survival, The Library as Order, The Library as Imagination, etc. They all approach libraries within a human context and taken as a whole they form a compelling argument about their extraordinary importance on our common and individual history and what may come.
Manguel talks about Alexandria and the looted Iraq National Library and State Archives, Nazi book burning and digital libraries, Afghani booksellers to books never written. He gets personal, he meanders, he chats and it’s this absence of structure that makes the book so appealing and intimate. It’s like listening to a cultured friend talk about something he loves during a relaxed evening at home.
There were certain ideas that really struck a chord.
I never realized we’ve no idea what the Library of Alexandria looked like. No one ever took the trouble to describe it because they assumed that it was too important to ever be forgotten. That adds another level of tragedy to an already tragic tale.
The Library that wanted to the storehouse for the memory of the world was not able to secure for us the memory of itself.
It’s exterior is lost to us, but its power as a symbol, imagination-tease and cautionary tale still lingers.
Manguel’s personal library, that inspired him to write The Library at Night. I was surprised that he never mentions his TBR books. My TBR shelves probably give me more pleasure than the ones with the books I’ve already read.
I got all emotional when Manguel talks about the San Francisco librarians who hid or altered book registers to prevent their destruction in order to free shelf space. Guerrilla librarianship at its best.
Manguel also makes a very compelling warning about our (exclusive) dependence on digital libraries/recordings. Technology changes so quickly that we cannot ensure that what we’re digitizing now will be available in 50 years. A great example is the BBC’s Domesday Project, that was feared to be lost because of its obsolete 80s computer software.
Still, I’m far from agreeing with his opinion on the internet – “all surface and no volume, all present and no past” – especially considering how fascinating everything around it is: the community-based content, the information available to masses for the first time in history. There is however, something to Manguel’s view that,
(…) if the Library at Alexandria was the emblem of our ambition of omniscience, the Web is the emblem of our ambition of omnipresence.
How very human of us, this strive for divinity.
Very interesting point as well about how libraries and memory. I often remember a short-story as if it was a long novel and an actual 800-page mammoth can be reduced to only a title and a vague idea of the plot. How different the libraries is our minds and their physical counterparts are!
The Library at Night is a book to be read slowly and if possible debated with other book-lovers. There’s lots of food for thought to be well digested. Can you recommend anything else by Manguel? Has anyone read A History of Reading?
June is Daphne du Maurier Season over at Historical Tapestry, and today I’m guest-posting there about possibly du Maurier’s least famous book, and the one that sold less copies: The Infernal Life of Branwell Brontë.
She was fascinated by the Brontës (there’s no escaping the similarities between Jane Eyre and Rebecca), in particular by Branwell, the golden child, the unfulfilled promise, the most tragic element of the tragic family. It’s a great example of du Maurier’s non-fiction skills and she saw it as an opportunity to prove herself beyond her “popular literature”.
Please drop by and share you thoughts!
A patient, long before he becomes the subject of medical scrutiny, is, at first, simply a storyteller, a narrator of suffering – a traveler who has visited the kingdom of the ill.
Microhistories are probably my favorite sub-genre of non-fiction (after biographies), and of all the ones I’ve read so far, none was as epic and all-encompassing as The Emperor of All Maladies. I’m now convinced the history of cancer reflects (and sometimes even leads) global movements. I’m still in awe of the task that Dr. Mukherjee set out to accomplish and of the amazing result.
This book’s philosophy is that the history of cancer is not only a story of scientific activity, but also of the doctors, researchers and lobbyists that fought it, and, most especially, that of the patients:
Resilience, inventiveness, and survivorship – qualities often ascribed to great physicians – are reflected qualities, emanating first from those who struggle with illness and only then mirrored by those who treat them. If the history of medicine is told through the stories of doctors, it is because their contributions stand in place of the more substantive heroism of their patients.
Together with the stories of individuals struggling with cancer, Dr. Mukherjee tackles an impressive number of topics, from cell theory to the cultural movements of millions of people, from scientific achievements to political will, and he’s able to summarize this in close to 600 pages (or 21 audio hours) of clear and compelling story-telling.
Even the parts I found less interesting – genetics, methodology of medical trials – were still surprisingly accessible, and the most interesting ones like the fight with Big Tobacco, the story of palliative care and the rise of patient’s right, were downright gripping.
About 90% of The Emperor of All Maladies focuses of the USA, but on the other hand, most of the book is set in the 20th century, a time when the US led cancer research. Still, I missed a bit of a geographical range. which is my only little quibble with an otherwise fantastic book.
At the beginning of the book we’re told the story of Atossa, a Persion Queen born in 550 BC, who was the first registered case of breast cancer. At the end of the book Dr. Mukherjee imagines Atossa being diagnosed and receiving treatment over the centuries: in the Middle Ages her problem would become a blackbile unbalance (or trapped melancholia), to be cure with goat dung or holy water; the radical mastectomy favored in the 19th century would probably have cost her not only her breasts, but also muscles, lymph nodes and bones in her chest cavity; the 20st century’s passion for aggressive drugs, radiation and chemotherapy might have almost killed her without any results; and 90s/2000s’ doctors would be able to identify the mutation in her genes and better adjust her treatment to her cancer type.
This imaginary birds-eye view of Atossa’s life was my favorite scene because it illustrates perfectly the way Dr. Mukherjee associated cancer’s history to our history as humans.
Today, Atossa would live decades longer than she would have in the past, but, if instead of breast cancer she’d had metastatic pancreatic cancer, her prognosis wouldn’t change more than a few months over the last 2,500 years.
I appreciated the book’s balanced tone that avoided the cheerful optimist about developments and cures that always sound too cheerful, too optimistic, when compared to reality. We still have a long way to go. There’s hope, there’s life extension, but still no universal cure.
A little aside to say that as A Reader I loved all the literary metaphors and references used throughout the book: Alice in Wonderland, Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Anna Karenina (“Normal cells are identically normal; malignant cells become unhappily malignant in unique ways.“), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, etc. I was also strangely excited by getting his reference to HeLa cells, which I got to know through the wonderful The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
About the narration: Stephen Hoye was the only narrator in the Audies History category that was nominated for two books: this one and In the Garden of Beasts. This distinction is well justified. The Emperor is full of technical explanations and complicated drug names that are accessible in part because of Hoye.
There’s a cadence to his reading that’s very particular to him. I usually get a bit annoyed by this in other narrators, but surprisingly not with Hoye. I also appreciated how you could really notice the emotion in his voice during the last “pages” of the book, when he’s describing the brave, fearless but ultimately vain struggle of a cancer patient.
Other thoughts: Avid Reader’s Musings, The Book Lady’s Blog, S. Krishna’s Books, Book Addiction, My Books. My Life., let’s eat grandpa, Life… with books, Devourer of Books, Bibliophile by the Sea, Scuffed slippers and wormy books, Maple Gazed Kiwi (yours?)
Just like the recent 1812: The Navy’s War, this is another book from my Armchair Audies History category, another book about 19th century US, and another book clearly written by an American for an American audience (e.g. sentences like “the people of this country” and sorry Mr. Goodheard, but, President Garfield who?!).
Fortunately for me, this was where the similarities ended. I was afraid it would also focus too much on military and political strategy, but my mind was soon put to rest when Goodheart explains in the Prologue that
… to get the full story of that moment in American History, it is necessary to go much further afield, to the slums of Manhattan, and the drawing-rooms of Boston, to Ohio villages and Virginia slave camps and even to the shores of the Pacific.
It is also necessary to consider people and ideas that were migrating from the old world to the new. It is only then that this defining national event can truly be understood as a Revolution, and one whose heroes were not only the soldiers and politicians. That Revolution began years before the guns opened, as a gradual change in the hearts and minds of men and women, until suddenly, months before the attack on Sumter.
(…) One person at a time, millions of Americans decided in 1861 – as their grandparents had in 1776 – that it was worth risking everything, their lives and fortunes, on their country. Eighteen sixty-one, like 1776, was – and still is – not just a year, but an idea.
Sorry for the long quote, but I thought it was a great one, and one that can apply to all major events. A non-fiction author that feels like this is half-way towards writing a book I’d really enjoy reading. 1861 might be another of the thousands of books about the American Civil War, but it offers a fresh perspective by staying away from legislative bills and instead following the cultural movements of the day and people who inspired them.
The most surprising part for me was understanding the national feelings towards slavery of the time. I realized that even though the North despised slavery they weren’t abolitionists, who were considered dangerous radicals hell-bent on dividing the country. In these early days, Lincoln himself was willing to sacrifice abolition to preserve the Union (*gasp*).
From here Goodheart describes how the North came to a position where it was willing to accept (and even welcome) war as the only solution against secession. Lincoln of course couldn’t be excluded from the story, but Goodheart also focuses on almost-forgot figures, like the dashing Elmer Ellsworth (photo), founder of the New York Fire Zouaves regiment, who inspired unprecedented patriotic passion. He also describes how states who were divided between Secession and Union came to a final decision. Ohio in particular went through a fascinating process.
There were only a couple of things that didn’t make me give it a 5/5, the most important of which is that the story is told from the Northerners’ perspective and I often wondered about what was going through the minds of their Southern counterparts. Also, Goodheart is prone to unapologetic flights of poetic patriotism that are a bit uncomfortable for someone from a much more self-effacing culture like mine (1861 is the story of Americans who rose up to the situation “not just with anger and panic but with hope and determination, people who, amid the ruins of the country they had grown up in, saw an opportunity to change history.”).
About Jonathan Davis’ narration. As I’ve mentioned above, it’s a very passionate book and Goodheart even includes the odd piece of poetry. It’s also full of inflamed speeches and proclamations, so it wouldn’t do to have a flat narration or one that goes the other way and becomes theatrical. I though Davis found the perfect balance.
The only thing I have to point out is that sometimes it was hard to differentiate between normal text and quotes – often there was just the slightest hint of change in tone or subtle accent. Probably this doesn’t apply to Davis, but don’t you sometimes have the feeling that narrators are ashamed of using a strong accent (or maybe insecure about it?)?
We’re in a non-fiction mood here chez Sleepless Reader, also helped by the Armchair Audies, which are almost at an end. I’ll post and overview and my predictions for the History category early next week.
I’m usual curious about anything historical, but I’m afraid I didn’t finish 1812: The Navy’s War. I’ve probably only reached as far as I did (about five of the almost 19 hours) because of Marc Vietor’s narration.
The book was clearly well researched by a naval historian in love with his field of expertise, and I’m sure anything of importance about America’s first great naval war was there, but my attention wandered off once too many times. There were almost none of the personal histories that I so love in historical non-fiction, Daughan focusing instead on political and military macro-strategies.
It also included extremely detailed descriptions of ship-to-ship combat, which lost me after the first couple of starboard broadside descriptions and lists of the sails which were up during a particular battle.
These are the kind of details I really try to understand in the Aubrey/Maturin series – I look at maps and boat diagrams, Google strange naval words – but I just wasn’t as invested in 1812, so got lazy and then disinterested.
It’s also a book clearly written by an American for an American audience. Not only because it’s a given the reader has heard of certain people, political processes or historical events, but also because of the patriotism the book exalts. The blurb reflects really well the tone found inside:
In 1812: The Navy’s War, prizewinning historian George C. Daughan tells the thrilling story of how a handful of heroic captains and their stalwart crews overcame spectacular odds to lead the country to victory against the world’s greatest imperial power.
In short, not my cuppa, but I wouldn’t hesitate recommending it to a naval history buff or an America history buff with a thing for naval detail.
Regarding the narration (at least the part I’ve actually heard), it must have been an easy book to read – no foreign names or languages, only a quote here and there with no strange accents – but Vietor nailed it without flaw. His voice fitted perfectly with the book because it has a certain… manly low pitch (here’s a sample, notice especially the end of sentences).
Next stop, another book about American History: 1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart, narrated by Jonathan Davis.
At some point in Casablanca, after a conversation about the refugees who’re trying to reach Lisbon, Rick goes “What’s in Lisbon?” and Renault answers “the Clipper to America”. This book is about what was happening in that city during that time and why so many people where trying to reach it.
In WW2 Portugal was in a unique and complex situation: it was a neutral country with a large colonial territory and little international influence, it was under a dictatorship that was sympathetic to Hitler’s fight against communism, it had close diplomatic and commercial ties to Britain, was surrounded by Nazi-friendly Spain and was also the main and safest port in Europe to cross to the United States.
During those years, Lisbon was a city of refugees, espionage and counter-espionage, negotiations, corruption, scheming, smuggling and counterfeiting. Portugal went from a poor and peripheral country in Europe’s tail to a player of strategic importance in the war theater.
I’d recommend Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light to anyone with an interest in WW2. Lochery focuses on how Salazar (the Portuguese dictator) out-maneuvered both sides but also paints a compelling picture of the daily life of a city with a fascinating double(or triple)-life. He also maintains a good balance between the macro-history and the personal stories of the locals and refugees who were passing by.
It’s a book especially interesting to Portuguese (and Lisboners like me) who would like to know more about a time often over-looked in our history classes. I come from a very left-wing family who tends to villainize Salazar without mercy, but in this occasion I must give him some credit. He played a risky and cunning game during WW2 and achieved his goals: maintain neutrality, independence, territorial integrity and get rich by negotiating with both sides.
Commemoration of the Allied victory in front of Lisbon’s British embassy
He kept the Axis happy by selling them precious wolfram (my grandparents worked in one of the mines) and the Allies happy by helping to persuade Franco to remain neutral. He allowed many Jews and other refugees to leave Europe through Lisbon, and Jewish relief organizations to work freely in the capital, but the Portuguese secret police was pressured on both sides to hand over people and occasionally gave-in.
The balance of the country hanged by a thread, yet Salazar played the game like the best of them until the end of the War. It was probably the height of his career and, as Lochery also thinks, when he should have counted his blessings, implemented democracy, released the colonies, returned the Nazi gold, and retired to write his memoirs quietly. Instead, he tightened his regime, stagnated the country and eventually entered a colonial War that only ended with the Carnation Revolution of ’74.
Interesting facts I didn’t know before Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light:
- Salazar was considered by many to be the handsomest European dictator.
- Portugal was one of the only countries to keep its Nazi-gold, most likely through a deal with the US, that in return kept their military base in the Azores Islands until this day.
- Leslie Howard (Ashley in Gone with the Wind) died in a flight from Lisbon to the UK. Supposedly because the Germans though Churchill was on that plane.
- Spain was on the brink of invading Portugal during the War. The British, and later the Americans, were on the brink of invading the strategic Azores.
- During the pre-War negotiations, British Prime-Minister Chamberlain offered Hitler the Portuguese colony of Angola without consulting Lisbon.
- Portugal was one of two countries that offered official condolences upon the death of Hitler. The other country was (also neutral) Ireland.
I’ve only started reading about Portuguese history as seen from foreign eyes in the last 10 years or so. Until then most of what I knew had the official sugar-coat of history classes – the golden period of Discoveries, owning half the world, the brave struggles to gain and maintain independence from Spain, the honor to have the Guinness record for the longest standing alliance between two countries with England.
And then I started travelling, talking to people from different backgrounds, reading in other languages (books like this one), and entered a hard process of reality-adjustment that’s still ongoing today. It’s almost like being re-programmed with the growing pains and resistance that come with it.
I remember meeting for the first time an Indian at a party in the US and her saying, after I mentioned I was Portuguese, that we had done some horrible things in her region during the Discovery period. Wait – WHAT?! But… but… we were “nice” colonizers! Look at what Spain did in the Americas! We opened trade! We brought civilization and globalization! We discovered you!
Like I said, it’s a hard process, but an enriching one. Sometimes people and events I put on a pedestal crumble, and sometimes, someone like Dictator Salazar is shown in a different light. Still, he saved Portuguese lives by keeping us neutral, hurrah for him, but was it the brave and honorable thing to do while other nations fought? He prevented Spain from invading, but also ensured that most of the population was illiterate and compliant. ”Orgulhosamente sós“, or “Proudly alone“, was his motto, which reflected his taste for economic and cultural isolation.
There’s nothing like travelling and reading to put everything into a healthy perspective and force you to confront those pesky grey areas. In Brussels, city of expats, I’ve had many interesting conversations with people from other countries who are going through the same process of building and re-building old dogmas.
Have you had any similar experiences?
I’ve read many books and watched many movies and documentaries about WW2 and the rise of Hitler’s regime, but this is the first time I get such a in-depth glimpse at the personal experiences of Berlin’s elite at the time. It was also a great book to shed some light into one of the most asked questions in History: how did the World let it happen?
In the Garden of Beasts is an account of William Dodd during his 4 years as the American ambassador to Germany(1933 and 1937). He was an unlikely choice for such a sensitive position: a 64-year old mild-mannered scholar, whose life-long goal was finishing a four-volume History of the Old South.
The rest of the Dodd family included his wife, his 27 year-old son and 24-year-old daughter Martha, who was as central to the book as Dodd himself. Martha was a free spirit, who became enchanted with Berlin’s care-free and bohemian life and only slowly came to realize what lay beneath.
During those four years, Martha had many prominent lovers, such as the head of the Gestapo, a French attaché and a Soviet undersecretary-come-agent. At some point a common friend though she would be a good wife for Hitler and set them on a date, of sorts (I kid you not!).
The documents Martha and Dodd left and that Larson expertly weaves, give us an interesting insight into the personal lives and character of these people. One of the book’s most fascinating episodes was the account of a surreal event at Göring’s country estate, where he shows-off his hunting skills. Other fascinating moments are Dodd’s private meetings with Hitler and other Nazi high-officials. The way they managed to out-smart and counter-argument any accusations are as brilliantly and they are frightening, not least because it’s not difficult to find modern examples of similar smoke-screening tactics.
As also obvious with The Devil in the White City, Larson knows his pacing. It’s with skill that he describes the growing tension in Berlin, from the warm welcome received by the Dodds, to the first signs of violence, to the infamous Night of the Long Knives. He also clearly admired Dodd and portrays him as a Cassandra-figure, who tried to break through the propaganda and warn America. Still, I couldn’t but wonder what would have happened with a more energetic, forceful, and better connected ambassador.
Dodd was a good man, honorable, an old-fashioned gentleman, but no matter how Larson puts it, Dodd was probably the right man at the wrong time. He spent time and energy worrying about the price of the cables sent by the Embassy, when one of the most terrifying events in human history was happening at his door-step. He also lobbied Washington to cut the number of Jews on him staff, arguing that it would help relations with the German government.
And before you say anything, I’m completely aware I’m passing this judgment from the comfort of my 21th-century couch, but I guess we all wonder about what we would do in such a situation.
I usually measure the quality of my non-fiction books by the amount of hours they make me spend on Wikipedia. By those standards, it this was a great read. I started with the fascinating concept of gleichschaltung (coordination), meaning the process by which Nazism took control of all aspects of German life, and ended in Göring’s first wife, who’s body he move from Sweden to Germany, to be buried in a stately funeral.
This audiobook is one of the nominees of the Audie Awards 2012‘s History category. It was narrated by Stephen Hoye and produced by Random House Audio. It’s the first time I hear anything read by him, but I hope it won’t be the last. He has great diction, both in English and German, and the type of voice that’s dynamic enough to fit the different moods in the book, from the parties to the tragedies, from Martha’s love letters to Goebbles’ speeches.
It’s still the first of my Armchair Audies category, but we’re off to a good start. The next one in line: 1812: The Navy’s War by George C. Daughan, narrated by Marc Vietor.
Dickens lived until he was 58 and had a busy life, so my congratulations to Claire Tomalin for managing to put it all into 400 pages. Some of the reviews I’ve read criticized how she didn’t include more insight into his era, into his relationship with his sons, his work methods, etc. But I found it the perfect book for someone like me, who was curious about Dickens, but didn’t want to read Peter Ackroyd’s 600-page tome or Michael Slater‘s more academic biography.
It felt like a solid overview of his life, well researched and thoughtful. She starts with his problematic childhood then moves on to his early career and seemingly infinite energy, his difficulties in coping with middle-age, the problems brought on by the affair with Nelly Ternan and his ultimate decline.
Tomalin doesn’t produce any new and amazing discovery, but she does have good insights into his books (I especially liked her analysis on Dickens’s flat female characters), his inspiration, and how his frantic way of working created both brilliant and weak stories. Dickens was always on the move, always busy with dozens of old and new projects. One month after finishing this book, it’s this sense of nervous energy that lingers.
She’s pretty hard on Dickens over some episodes, especially on way he treated his wife during the Nelly affair, but I must agree with her. Dickens might have been the hero of England’s poor, and extremely generous, but he seemed to preferred to do good works for strangers, rather than be affectionate to most of his family members, especially his sons. Considering these two sides of his character it’s fascinating to understand how Dickens created and managed his own myth.
After his death, Dickens’ daughter Katey wrote she wished someone would correct the general perception of her father as “a joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch”. I think she would be proud of this biography. Claire Tomalin’s Dickens comes out as a troubled, self-centered, and often mean person, but also a genius of writing, acting and creating emotional responses in general.