Boone boon

Boone: A Biography by Robert Morgan

3 words: myth-busting, detailed, literary

Travel-inspired reading: I’m kind of hooked on it.

 

Anyone else with me on that?

At the reconstructed fort

When the Dear Man and I were canoeing in Kentucky, we also visited Fort Boonesborough.

It’s a place where Daniel Boone lived and dramatic things happened there.

So: we history geeks were into it.

Result: I wanted to read a Boone biography.

During our visit to the truly spectacular Paris Public Library, I asked the wonderful librarian to recommend a biography of Boone, and she suggested the Robert Morgan. I’m so glad she did.

This book, written as it is by a novelist, is seriously narrative. Morgan’s one heck of a talented storyteller, and his writing is downright lovely.

Original site of fort

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed being immersed in this story.

Even beyond the drama (being captured by Native Americans and absorbed into the tribe as the son of the chief — who knew?!) Boone’s life offers plenty of food for thought.

There’s some major irony here. Boone loved hunting and exploring, but his efforts led to the destruction of what he valued most. By opening up the West to settlement, there went the hunting grounds.

And when a biography of Boone was published during his lifetime, he became a folk hero and lived with the weirdness of early 19th century fame.

Morgan’s warm, compassionate portrait paints Boone as a decent, talented man who was deeply loved by his family and friends. And that’s an angle I hadn’t really considered — the man’s personal life. Morgan brings him very much to life, and he made me care about this man whose legend has obscured his humanity.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like…exploration, stories of loners, the frontier, early American history, a nuanced and balanced view of a historical figure

 

So, good readers… have you ever read a book because of a vacation inspiration?

George Rogers Clark: this is one sad story

George Rogers Clark: I Glory in War by William R. Nester

3 words: detailed, accessible, revealing

OK, guys. Things are about to get super geeky here.

Today we’re talking George Rogers Clark.

Here’s my reintroduction to the dude… The Dear Man and I were touring Cave Hill Cemetery a couple of years ago, so we could visit the grave of Col. Sanders.

So the guy at the gate gave us a map that showed the locations of all of the famous people’s graves. And George Rogers Clark was on the map. We discussed the fact that we pretty much didn’t know who that was, other than: 1700s? Military leader, maybe?

So: learning.

Here’s the quick synopsis of his life…

First, The Good:

  • Revolutionary War hero, but in the West
  • Led a military unit that captured forts in current-day Illinois and Indiana
  • Founder of Louisville

Next, The Bad (aka The Sad):

  • He had a serious drinking problem
  • He peaked in his 20s
  • He fell into poverty

And finally… The Ugly:

  • Late in life, he betrayed his country by making deals with France and with Spain
  • He was an angry, bitter, resentful man in his later years

 

So there we have quite the story arc. The early rise, and the long downward spiral thereafter.

Which makes this book not the most jolly of stories.

 

Locust Grove

Nevertheless, the reading experience was a really good one, because the writing is fluid, the narrative is dynamic, and the subject matter is pretty darn fascinating. We got ourselves a seriously flawed hero here, guys.

I finished reading the book during our recent canoe trip to the Lexington area, which involved a stop in Louisville. Because we are some serious history geeks (when we’re not being fast food geeks [I was serious when I said we were visiting Col. Sanders’s grave]), we visited Locust Grove, the final home of George Rogers Clark. The house actually belonged to his sister and brother-in-law, but Clark lived there for the last several years of his life, when he was an invalid.

 

The office at Locust Grove

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… the American Revolution, narrative nonfiction about forgotten episodes of major historical events, true stories of the downward spiral, flawed historical figures

 

So, my fellow readers… what semi-obscure historical figure have you found fascinating?

That sports book that’s way more

Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian by Anthony Ervin and Constantine Markides

3 words: introspective, unflinchingly honest, surprising

The book I can’t stop talking about? It’s this one.

Ervin and Markides have written themselves one doozy of a memoir / biography mash-up.

This book’s got in goin’ on in multiple ways.

First, the structure is fascinating. If you like books with multiple viewpoints, you’re gonna love this thing. Ervin and Markides share the storytelling, and the story is so much more interesting than it would’ve been with only one viewpoint. Ervin tells his story in his own words, which brings an intimacy and an immediacy to the narrative. But Markides’s writing about Ervin is equally fascinating, because we see him from two angles.

Second, Ervin’s story is so outrageous and complex, it’s only believable because it’s actually true. No way you’d get me to buy this story if it were fiction.

Dude won the gold medal in 50 meter freestyle at the 2000 Olympics, then fell off the face of the Earth.

Except really, he fell into and out of school, drug abuse, homelessness, tattooing, rock & roll, cigarette smoking, nearly every type of high-risk behavior imaginable, and all kinds of different belief systems. He nearly wrecked himself.

Then, in 2011, he started swimming again.

And by 2012, he qualified for the Olympic team.

Again.

It’s pretty stunning.

Roll in there, the fact that he has Tourette’s, is half African-American and half Jewish (but doesn’t particularly identify with either group), and is training for the 2016 Olympics right this minute, and People, We’ve Got Ourselves a Story Here.

This book is a very intriguing look inside the mind of an elite athlete who’s also a philosopher.

And the book contains remarkable descriptions of Ervin’s form as a swimmer. Markides had me breathless when I read these words:

“It was strange to reconcile the unhurried, cerebral Ervin I knew with the swift aquatic creature slicing toward me. But it wasn’t even his speed that astonished me so much as the way in which he traveled through the water–although ‘through’ isn’t even exactly right. There was something in his swimming I’d never seen before: he seemed to swim not through the water but over it.” (95)

Yowser, guys. That’s some good stuff there.

 

(He’s the one in mint green.)

 

So yeah. This book, I couldn’t put it down. It’s not the usual heroic sports story; it’s way more more nuanced than that.

I’m grateful to Ervin for “torching his soul” to write this book, and to Markides for writing such a stunning, close third-person view of Ervin’s story thus far.

Anyone else gonna be watching the Olympic trials to look for the guy with the sleeves?

 

Nixon, we hardly knew ye

Reflecting pool at the Nixon Presidential Library…
for the man who was totally *not* into self-reflection
Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas
3 words: psychological, fascinating, insightful
So this was a weird one. I read a review of this book last year, thought I might like it, saw the page count (619), and thought, “Yeah, I think I’ll pass…”
Then it showed up on some “best books of the year” lists, and I felt bad for skipping it. But still not enticed.
Then one day we were in a bookstore and I picked up a copy and told the Dear Man, “Yeah, I’m feeling guilty about not reading this book…”
And as soon as I opened the book, I was hooked.
It was the typeface.
And here’s the thing: I’m not a typeface snob. 

I’ve always found it weird when books announce their typeface at the end of the book. But in this book’s case, man, it made a difference. (In case you’re wondering, the typeface was Sabon.)

There was also really beautiful spacing on the pages.
And a photo at the beginning of each chapter.
My friends, I read this book.
And from page xi, on which the author describes Nixon’s adoration of the movie Around the World in 80 Days and the way he’d get all enthusiastic about the scene with the elephant… I was a goner.
But the thing that most delighted me about this book is how sad it made me.
I know that sounds nuts. But stay with me, guys.
Because of my mild Watergate obsession, I’ve read me a book or two about Nixon. And many of these books have explored his psyche.
But none of them were like this.
This book delved deep into the contradictions in Nixon’s character, ambitions, and view of himself. And man, it’s nothing but fascinating.
He strove to be inspiring and positive and joyful.
And mostly he just wasn’t any of those things at all.
It kind of breaks my heart.

I have new sympathy for the man. 

This book breaks new ground, and it’s that rarest of rare things: a true original in a packed field. 

Supremely fun

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik

3 words: smart, inspiring, fun

I’m pretty sure Shakespeare was anticipating Ruth Bader Ginsburg when he wrote, “And though she be but little, she is fierce.” 
This woman is tough, people.
One of my favorite anecdotes from this book shows RBG, only days after having a stent put in her heart, saying, “Tell them I’ll be back doing pushups in a few days.”
(Her workout includes 20 pushups. No joke.)
Gotta admire that.
This book is like a playground for Supreme Court geeks. And if you’re inclined to like Justice Ginsburg even before reading this book, afterward you’re probably gonna want to tattoo yourself with her image.
(Or maybe not.)
So: playground!
Beyond zippy, fascinating stories about RBG’s life (and she’s led a fascinating one; I especially love reading about her nearly 60-year marriage, which was a true partnership), this book contains tons of color photos, entertaining illustrations, timelines, and annotated court decisions and dissents.
It’s the kind of book that makes you smarter while you’re having fun.
Seriously, the book’s format is happy-making. All that visual interest really makes it a lovely book to hold in your hands, and then it’s packed with stories like the one about RBG wearing her special dissent collar when she’s going to read an oral dissent from the bench.
And you can keep on living the dream on Tumblr, where the book’s seed sprouted.

Totally inspired, and also perfectly entertained. A wonderful reading experience.

Me & LBJ

Indomitable Will:
LBJ in the Presidency
by Mark K. Updegrove
LBJ, signing the 1968 Civil Rights Bill
(photo credit: Library of Congress Prints
and Photographs Division)
OK, first: the author of this book has one of the coolest jobs in
the world. He’s the director of the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum (a
place I want to visit so bad it hurts).
And he’s put together a terrific book.
I guess this style of book is sometimes called an oral biography
(which is such an unfortunate
phrase), but I think in this case it’s not an accurate description, because it
also involves print sources. This one is a mix of snippets from interviews,
memoirs, and biographies, all strung together to create a cohesive narrative.*
So, on one page, for example, we have a section from an LBJ
interview, followed by an excerpt from a Barry Goldwater interview, then a
paragraph from a book quoting Warren Rogers (bureau chief for Hearst
Newspapers), followed by a Ted Kennedy interview snippet—all dealing with the
complex relationship between LBJ and the Kennedy family.
This style of book—you can pick it up and read a little bit, and
then put it down, knowing that you can dive right back in again where you left
off. (Some books require a running start to resume reading them; this kind
doesn’t.) So for a reader who’s feeling scattered, I highly recommend this
format.
And with this book, I experienced that thing that happens with
biographies: the feeling of dread as I reached the end of the book—because the
person dies. And at the end of this
book, I was blinking back tears. Of course, I already knew LBJ has the power to make me weepy. 
And it happened again with this book. Here’s how:
After leaving the presidency, LBJ spoke of a story he’d been told
by one of the Apollo 8 astronauts, who said that he went into his backyard and
looked up at the moon and wondered if could be true that he had really been
there. LBJ said he’d told that story to some friends and said, “Perhaps… the
time would come when I would look back on the majesty and the power and
splendor of the presidency and find it hard to believe I had actually been
there.” Of the first night back on his ranch, he said, “But on this night I
knew I had been there. And I knew that I had given it everything that was in
me.” (p. 322)
Reading these words (that last part!) just a few pages before the
end of the book, and then reading the final words about LBJ being buried near
an oak tree on his ranch—it just did me in.
[Let’s pause, as I collect myself…                      Hang on, it’ll be just a moment…
All right. Now we may proceed.]
This portrait of LBJ paints out a few of the unpleasantnesses, and
as long as a person recognizes that, I think it’s OK. But there also are some
surprises here, and one of the big ones (BIG!) is that LBJ made the transfer of
power (from himself to Nixon) go very smoothly. He was generous. In the words
of Walt Rostow: “[The transition] was a magnificent performance to observe. But
I think it goes back to a strand in President Johnson that I think is important
and hasn’t been caught much, which is that he is a man of government—politics.”
(p. 315) 
A simply wonderful look at Lyndon Johnson’s presidential years,
told by those who were there.
*Some other fine examples of this style of book:
Live from New York: An Uncensored
History of Saturday Night Live, as Told by Its Stars, Writers and Guests
by
Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller
Truman Capote: In
Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His
Turbulent Career
by George Plimpton

Yup, he’s still my favorite

Jack Kennedy:
Elusive Hero
by Chris Matthews

Chris Matthews, along with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, are
heavily responsible for that political science degree of mine. Matthews’ Hardball and Woodstein’s All the President’s Men were too good
to resist. I needed more.
It’s been a year or two since that first semester of college
[understatement, anyone?], and I’m still hooked on this stuff.
So this new book, by Matthews, about my favorite president (even
though yes, I know: Lincoln
was nobler) was beyond irresistible.
It’s a glowing portrait of JFK, and I’m OK with that. 

Here’s a
sense of Matthews’ take: “In searching for Jack Kennedy, I found a fighting
prince never free from pain, never far from trouble, never accepting the world
he found, never wanting to be his father’s son. He was a far greater hero than
he ever wished us to know.” (p. 11)

Given that I’m already a Kennedyophile, those two sentences nearly
did me in.  
Plus, Matthews has a fine writing style that flows right along,
and you gotta like that.
Also, it was a comfort to me to read the old story* again. I’ve
known the basics of JFK’s life story since way back when I was still playing
with Barbies (yeah, so 4th grade was maybe a little old for dolls,
but hey). Back in those days, once I’d planted the Barbies in their dream
house, I’d head for the presidential and First Lady biographies. And JFK was my
fave back then, too.
So, yeah, I know the bio. Boyhood illnesses and bookishness:
check. PT-109: check. Malaria and back surgeries: check. “Irish Mafia”: check.
So, I gotta say, there wasn’t too much new information here.
But—the thing that sets this book apart is that Matthews incorporates snippets
of interviews and memoirs of those who knew Kennedy well, and that makes it
feel very fresh and somehow current.
So if you’re in the mood for an adoring biography of JFK, this book’s
probably gonna do it for you.

*
OK. Hymn flashback here. The phrase “the old, old story” kept running through
my head while I was reading this book, which launched my brain’s secret stereo
into this fine number imprinted on me during my younger years. It’s a grand old hymn that really demands
to be belted out with some gusto. In keeping with the 4th grade
Barbie recollections, we’re going to hear it from the Oak Ridge Boys. Hello¸early ’80s!

(But guys? I am not suggesting that we compare JFK to Jesus. That really doesn’t work.)

Merry Christmas! Let’s talk about the Nixons…

Mrs. Nixon by
Ann Beattie
If you like your books to be all one thing, cut and dried (perfectly
fictional, or perfectly nonfictional), then this book will drive you straight
up the wall.
For the rest of us, who maybe are intrigued by the occasional
mash-up: Splendor!
(Though. If I owned a copy of this book, I’d have to put it in
nonfiction for 6 months of the year, and then move it to fiction for the
remaining 6 months. There’s a small element of literary/shelving stress here.)
Beattie does some zany stuff in this book, including writing an
entire chapter in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s style, about two characters who haven’t
appeared before in the Nixon narrative. The man is writing a love letter to the
woman. Turns out, we learn at the end of the chapter that the text of the love
letter was the actual text of a letter Richard Nixon wrote to Pat. The rest of
it is all made up, characters and all.
This book is interesting,
guys.
You turn the page, and you don’t know if you’re going to get a
literary interpretation of the short story “The Necklace” or social commentary
in Pat Nixon’s voice or the author’s musings on why she felt drawn to write
about Pat Nixon of all people. (She
even writes a false version of events to explain why she chose this subject.
Then confesses immediately that the previous chapter was A Lie.)
And it all ties together.
There were several moments while reading this book that I gave
thanks to my 18-year-old self, who knew that majoring in English would have
been a bad idea for me. There was just enough literary analysis in this book to
remind me that I just don’t like doing that stuff. (Hello, readers! You ain’t gonna find nothing deep on this here book blog.)
Anyway. Pat Nixon. She’s one of those
so-placid-she’s-nearly-invisible political wives. So that’s actually pretty
intriguing, because you know she was having secret
thoughts
inside that perfectly-coiffed head of hers. So why not have a
novelist imagine what those thoughts were? And also, she was married to Richard Nixon! So there’s some built-in
tragedy there.
I’ll say it again: This book is interesting.
Thanks
to NetGalley and Scribner for the ARC.

BAND August Discussion

The Bloggers’ Alliance of Nonfiction Devotees topic for this month is:

How did you get into nonfiction? Do you remember your first nonfiction book or subject? If so, do you still read those subjects?

Who: Unruly What: got hooked on nonfiction Where: in small town Iowa When: in 3rd grade Why: because of biographies.

Yes, biography was the gateway, and I remember it vividly.

First, there were the biographies of the Presidents and First Ladies. There’re whole sets of biographies of all of them, written just for kids, and I just may have read them all. (Type A 3rd grader? Yes.)

Beginning that year, anything that was a biography—I would read it.

Yes, I’m talking biographies of Evel Knievel, Harriet Tubman, Leif Garrett (though that was serious research, because I intended to marry him), Eli Whitney, Amelia Earhart, Thomas Edison, and Barry Manilow.

This biography thing has stuck. I’ve branched out into other nonfiction reading, but the biographies maintain their stronghold. Of the nonfiction books I own (because I can’t live without them—that’s my criterion for book-buying) the biggest category is biography.

You know how they say that looking at a child at age 7 is the best predictor of the adult that child will become? Well, a wide swath of the reading I do now is freakishly similar to the stuff I was reading way back at age 9 or so: biographies of presidents, aviators, and the occasional celebrity.

We’re gonna hope that’s because the die was cast and I am who I am. (Either that, or I’m just stuck at age 9 for life. Though I have gone off Leif Garrett. Sorry, Leif. I had to go and change on you.)


Celebrity book extravaganza

Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead: Journeys into Fame and Madness by Neil Strauss
This is the summer of the celebrity books. Or maybe it’s just my summer of such stuff. But I think it’s a bigger thing — it’s even hit the news. At any rate, I’ve been devouring them like they’re going out of business.
During the same weeks I was listening to Life by Keith Richards on audio, I was reading this book, which consists of the best parts of celebrity—mainly rock star—interviews. Pretty fascinating.
Neil Strauss has written for Rolling Stone and the New York Times, and he’s interviewed some crazy-*** people.
The way this book is structured is kind of weird, and I mean good-weird. Lots of the interviews are diced up and then scattered throughout the book, which is arranged in “Acts” that key off a theme. (e.g., “Act Three, or, Mean Guys with Long Hair”)
The result is that you read segments of interviews that flow naturally into the topic of the interview that follows; the transitions are really smooth. Which is strange and surprising, especially when you have Russell Brand following Ryan Adams. And Lionel Richie following N.W.A. (Yeah, I didn’t know who N.W.A. was till I read this.)
Lots of people come off sounding pretty darn crazy. And some (Jay Leno, Bruce Springsteen) leave you with a good feeling overall.
Some of the most interesting interviews are actually with people I’ve never heard of, or people who aren’t even famous. When Strauss talked with a roadie, interesting.
In addition to being surprisingly satisfying to read, this book also is forgiving if you decide to do a serious skim of a section or two or seven. You can just skip over the interviews that don’t grab you, and then you can dive back into the next one. No harm, no foul. The librarian says so.