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Teaser Tuesdays: Dying Every Day by James Romm

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

dying every day

Dying Every Day is well named. Nero’s rule over Rome beginning in the first few years AD was marked by death & murder in a multitude of forms, and Seneca, his philosopher/teacher-turned-adviser, offers enormous ambiguities. I chose a teaser for you that makes that point in a single sentence.

To act as imperial panderer, dispatching an ex-slave to the princeps to stop him from sleeping with his mother, brandishing Burrus and the guard as an implicit threat – these were hardly roles he had envisioned when he returned to Rome from Corsica, his trunk full of ethical treatises.

Stay tuned!

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Valentine’s Day in book history

As I’ve done before, I figured I’d note today’s (consumerist, contrived) holiday with some book history, courtesy of A Reader’s Book of Days.reader's book of days

Born today:

Frank Harris (My Live and Loves), Galway, Ireland, 1856. I do not know this man. But I have been to Galway.

Carl Bernstein (All the President’s Men), Washington, D.C., 1944. I know of this one, of course, though I haven’t read the book. Interesting to know he was (is?) a D.C. native.

Died today:

1975: P.G. Wodehouse (The Code of the Woosters and lots of wonderful others, of course), Southampton, NY, at age 93. More’s the pity; would that he had lived to write more and more of those funny books.

2010: Dick Francis (Dead Cert, all those horse racing mysteries), Grand Cayman Island, at age 89. I’ve read none of his books, but I know his fans; I was working in a library where his books were popular at the time of his death, and I remember.

Additionally, I find it amusing that Nabokov features again on Valentine’s Day, since he came up on New Year’s as well!

In 1932, Vladimir Nabokov, in goal as always, played his first match with a new Russian émigré soccer team in Berlin. A few weeks later, after he was knocked unconscious by a team of factory workers, his wife, Vera, put an end to his soccer career.

[Oops.] I am a soccer fan and former player – and Nabokov fan, naturally – so I enjoy this factoid.


1935: Samuel Beckett wrote to Tom McGreevy on Jane Austen, “Now I am reading the divine Jane. I think she has much to teach me.”

Well done, Beckett!

And finally, today in Julia’s personal history: we are typically in the desert wonderland of Big Bend National & State Parks & surrounding locales on this day, and this year follows that pattern. Husband and I are playing on our mountain bikes today, but I’ll check in on you upon my return.

I’m glad I picked today for a historical review in miniature; I learned some things. You?

Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell

New research and new angles on The Great Gatsby and its place in history.


Sarah Churchwell (The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe) takes on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mythically proportioned masterpiece in Careless People, an expansive study of biography, history, literary criticism and cultural connections. Her inquiries focus on a double-murder involving a socially ambitious lower-class woman and a respected rector, both married but not to each other, found shot to death in each other’s arms. The case captured national attention in 1922, the year Scott and Zelda returned to New York–and the year in which The Great Gatsby is set.

With an appealing, freshly curious manner, original research and newly discovered resources, Churchwell explores the possible connections between Fitzgerald’s experiences in 1922 and what happened at the same time in his most highly regarded novel. She also compares the plot of The Great Gatsby to the real-world action of 1922. In the book, which alternates between the Fitzgeralds’ lives during the period The Great Gatsby came to life with the unfolding of media coverage of the murder case, Churchwell incorporates Fitzgerald’s correspondence, including delightful poems exchanged with Ring Lardner, and lists of slang (including some 70 ways to say “drunk”).

With elements of fun and tragedy–like the lives of its subjects–Churchwell’s study of the Fitzgeralds, The Great Gatsby and the world that birthed it presents new perspectives on a literary icon.

This review originally ran in the January 28, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 8 unattributed clippings.

New Year’s Day in book history

A review of the *book in question is yet to come, but for a quick teaser today…

Born today: in 1879; E.M. Forster, and in 1919, J.D. Salinger. A big birthday for people who go by two leading initials and are well known for their classic works!! And died today: in 2002, Julia Phillips (You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again) and in 2007, Tillie Olsen (Tell Me a Riddle, Silences).

Of the other literary notes assigned to January 1st I am choosing my favorite to share with you:

1947: In a Guide to Your Child’s Development she has purchased for the purpose, Charlotte Haze notes on the twelfth birthday of her daughter, Dolores, that the girl is fifty-seven inches tall and possesses an IQ of 121. She also completes an inventory of the child’s qualities: “aggressive, boisterous, critical, distrustful, impatient, irritable, inquisitive, listless, negativistic (underlined twice) and obstinate.”

(Negativistic, indeed!)

…For Charlotte’s new husband, Humbert Humbert, this list of epithets is “maddening” in its viciousness toward the girl he calls Lolita and claims to love. But he has his own reasons to revolt at the child’s birthdays: after just a few more of them she’ll no longer be a “nymphet,” and soon after that she’ll be – “horror of horrors” – “a ‘college girl.’”

What fun!

reader's book of days*The book in question is A Reader’s Book of Days: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year, by Tom Nissley, and was a gift from my parents on my most recent visit to see them in the chilly north. I have only flipped through it so far (which is what it’s designed for, obviously), but I will be giving it a closer inspection and writing up a proper review for you at some point this year.

The other thing I will be doing with it is keeping it handy for those few days when I’m scrambling for a blog post! (rubs hands together) Thanks, Mom and Pops, for helping out!

Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival by Sean Strub

Sean Strub’s earnest, evocative memoir of political activism, coming out and the AIDS epidemic will appeal to diverse readers.


Seventeen-year-old Sean Strub left Iowa City in 1976 to attend Georgetown University and–more importantly for his future–to become an elevator operator at the Capitol Building. He worked to meet as many powerful figures as possible, with his own political career in mind, yet he was haunted by a secret he feared would make him unelectable: he was attracted to men.

Three years later, the colorful, growing gay community of New York City encouraged the aspiring politico to begin to explore his own sexuality and acknowledge it as a permanent feature in his life. As an increasingly “out” gay man, he shifted his focus away from the idea of running for office and became a committed activist in the pursuit of gay rights. Strub’s second passion and skill was for entrepreneurship, and he eventually started up an impressive number of companies, including direct-mail ventures and publications that supported his causes.

In the early 1980s, “gay cancer,” eventually known as AIDS, was suddenly everywhere. Strub couldn’t attend every funeral and memorial service, he writes, but he always made sickbed visits; sometimes he walked the halls of a hospital without a specific friend in mind, reading names on rooms, sure he’d find people who needed him.

Strub had known he was HIV-positive since 1985, when he was given a prognosis of “maybe” two years, but his partner Michael died with no warning, not even getting sick first. The need for AIDS activism to push for quicker access to new drugs and fight discrimination naturally dominated Strub’s attention in the years following his diagnosis and Michael’s death.

In Body Counts, Strub relates the joys and struggles of learning self-love, political aspirations and disillusions, activism and relationships with countless men and women he loves, with cameo appearances by Tennessee Williams, Bobby Kennedy, Gore Vidal and Bill Clinton (among others). Body Counts is a powerfully moving personal memoir with the added value of a fine and feeling primer on the history of gay culture and AIDS in the United States. Strub’s subject matter could have been morbidly tragic, but he retains a sense of humor and celebration, honoring the dead with love and hope. Now an AIDS survivor for nearly 30 years, Strub notes that he is on his way to matching, in same-sex weddings, the number of funerals he attended in the 1980s and ’90s.

This review originally ran in the December 13, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 8 mailings.

The Black Count by Tom Reiss

blackcountThis poor book got picked up and put down repeatedly as I dealt with other reading deadlines. It took me two and a half months to read! But I kept coming back. The Black Count came recommended by The World’s Strongest Librarian, and I bought it at Elliot Bay Books in Seattle when I got to finally meet in person my awesome editor at Shelf Awareness, Marilyn. So good vibrations unite in this read.

The “black count” is the father of Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Much of Dumas’s work, it seems, was based on his father’s life and unique and outlandish experiences. I had not known that; I suspect many readers don’t. Tom Reiss’s work is a biography of Alex Dumas (the father: I will call him Dumas throughout), with an eye to the legacy expressed by the novelist (son: I will call him the novelist), and some background on the French Revolution. Napoleon figures rather heavily in Dumas’s later story and military career.

Dumas was born in Saint-Domingue, which is modern day Haiti, to a black slave mother and a white French father. His father went back and forth somewhat on Dumas’s place in the world, at one point selling his son into slavery but eventually giving him a good education, fancy clothes, and place in French society. He is a physical prodigy early on, adept at horseback riding and fencing, and his military career is illustrious from the beginning. Dumas is an ardent republican, enthusiastic about the revolution, not least because – and here I learned something I probably should have known – the French Revolution was decidedly liberal on its attitude towards black citizens, giving them near-equal or equal rights, privileges and access – at least for a time. Slavery was abolished in France, although the extent to which abolition applied to the colonies varied. And unfortunately, this egalitarianism was short-lived.

The dark-skinned soldier worked his way remarkably quickly up to general of a division, and gave admirable performances in actual hand-to-hand combat: something, then as now, that high-ranking officers often avoid. His feats are literally the stuff of legend, and those military stories are some of Reiss’s stronger moments, naturally. If history is to be believed, Dumas was absolutely worthy of the tales that his novelist son would spin. [Is history to be believed? Reiss did his own research and looked at all the ancient scraps of paper from the time; accounts tend not to vary; the case looks good. But from this historical distance, I think there must always be a question.]

Dumas married for love and had three children, the first of whom died in childhood. His star was rising when Napoleon came to power. Napoleon is the villain of this story, as he is encapsulated in the villain of The Count of Monte Cristo: he rolled back and reversed the Revolution’s racial equity advances, and considered Dumas a formidable rival, apparently because of Dumas’s great accomplishments; the latter seems to have done nothing actually wrong. Dumas is taken as a prisoner of war in Italy and has a miserable time there, which again plays into The Count of Monte Cristo. (Look for enjoyable, comical descriptions of Dumas’s highly formal correspondence with one of his jailers.) It does not appear that Napoleon is actually to blame for this period in Dumas’s life, although possibly he could have done more to get him freed sooner. Following his POW imprisonment, Dumas’s health never recovers; he loses his commission under Napoleon’s racist regime; and he dies when his youngest child, the novelist, is only four years old. The novelist’s glorified view of the father he remembers as Herculean will never be moderated.

As a historian, Reiss is perhaps a bit credulous of Dumas’s perfection. In a description of the soldier’s last hours, there is a priest called, which the novelist is careful to point out could not have been for confession, as his father had never committed even a single regrettable act in his lifetime. This seems like too extreme a statement to stand unquestioned – haven’t we all done something regrettable? …Especially those of us whose career was based on killing people? Dumas had a reputation for humane victory and protection of the defeated from looting, which is admirable. But I have a little trouble stomaching this unqualified hero-worship.

Reiss also unfortunately descends into dryness rather regularly. I several times considered giving up the book; but then I’d give it another go and eventually be mesmerized again by the narrative. He’s at his best when he lets his own story, of researching the book, creep onto the page; or lacking that, when he lets a primary source or Dumas-the-novelist pen a few lines. I should also note that my very slow, stop/start method of reading this book (almost unheard of for me) almost certainly made the story move a little more slowly and more disjointedly. I regret that, and it might have gone a little better otherwise. But I think it’s worth stating that things can get a little slow in the middle. Also, Reiss is happy to go quite a few pages without telling us who one of his characters is, and expect us to remember him. Again, better if you read it all straight through quickly. If you aren’t doing it that way, beware this small problem.

All in all, though, I did find myself motivated to finish the book, and I was rewarded. The Black Count is a good primer on the French Revolution and on Napoleon as well, and the sections that portray exploits in battle are lively. Readers looking for a great deal of insight into Dumas-the-novelist’s work will be at least a little disappointed; but I am definitely putting this book down with a renewed interest in rereading The Count of Monte Cristo, which I loved in high school.

A little dry in the middle, but a mostly-accessible history of the French Revolution and one of its forgotten heroes, with a nod to a very fine novelist who adored his father.

Rating: 5 trees of liberty.

Football Nation: Four Hundred Years of America’s Game

A multifaceted, pictorial perspective on America’s favorite sport.

football nationa

With the aid of awe-inspiring images from the Library of Congress, Susan Reyburn (Baseball Americana) masterfully recounts a detailed history of the gridiron in Football Nation. From colonial times to the commercialism of contemporary professional and college ball, Reyburn offers a look at football’s journey toward becoming the most popular sport in the country.

With previously unreleased images, including cartoons, illustrations and photographs, Reyburn traces the historical relationship between the United States and the game. Fans will gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the sport, but even casual followers of the game will be enthralled with an unprecedented depth of perspective on this glamorized spectacle in history and in popular culture. Football Nation is an appealing read for anyone remotely interested in what many call the United States’ most popular sport–and how it got that way.

This review originally ran in the November 29, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland

An easily grasped primer on our finest wordsmiths, from Homer through the Bröntes, Proust and Kafka.


John Sutherland (Lives of the Novelists) tackles an impressively broad subject in A Little History of Literature. Beginning with Homer and The Epic of Gilgamesh, Chaucer and Shakespeare, he hopes to instruct his reader in literature–what it is, where it’s been and where it might be headed.

Sutherland takes us from a childhood of “reading… under the blanket, with a torch, after lights out,” and the genesis of children’s literature, through the modern developments that brought us Fifty Shades of Grey and genre divisions. Even as he recounts the historical details behind Beowulf or the birth of the King James Bible, he skips forward to reference current trends, markets and buying habits, relating them to centuries-old forces. Major works from many centuries are joined by digressions into the history of printing, of copyright and of books themselves.

Sutherland presupposes a certain background among his readers: “much of what many of us know about science comes from reading science fiction,” for example, or his description of “many” or “most” children growing up reading at home. He also focuses, with few exceptions, on Western literature, although he does make a conscious effort to call attention to the role of women writers within that tradition. These issues aside, this slim book makes for a necessarily cursory review of literature’s greats–and the loving treatment by an expert, presented in easily understood terms, will please both novices and established readers looking to dip back into well-loved works.

This review originally ran in the November 19, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 6 historical trends.

Teaser Tuesdays: Careless People by Sarah Churchwell

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.


I am very excited about this book, which studies The Great Gatsby in terms of the world Fitzgerald inhabited when he wrote it, and in terms of the landmark year (literarily and otherwise) of 1922 in which he set this, his best-known work. I am trying not to say too much for now, but it is enjoyable. I’ll share a tidbit.

At the end of Chapter Six, Nick and Jay Gatsby walk out among the debris, a “desolate path” of fruit rinds and discarded party favors and crushed flowers, exposing the waste and decay. Gatsby admits that Daisy didn’t enjoy herself and Nick warns him against asking too much of her. “You can’t repeat the past,” he tells Gatsby. “Can’t repeat the past?” Gatsby cries incredulously. “Why of course you can!”

…which I think evokes the mood of The Great Gatsby quite well. Stay tuned.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Hunted Whale by James McGuane

An evocative photographic study of historic whaling tools and techniques.


“The hunt is one of man’s most ancient endeavors,” begins The Hunted Whale. James McGuane’s photographic exploration into the bygone practice of whaling transports the reader back in time, when whale oil lit the streetlights of the world’s major cities and lubricated the burgeoning textile industry. Whaling was a significant economy unto itself, employing countless young men who were convinced to ship out for years at a time by employment agents known as “land sharks.” It was a trade performed by hand, and McGuane examines its many aspects: hunt, ship, whaleboat, crew, whale, tools and more.

McGuane’s text is accompanied by more than 200 fine, detailed color photographs depicting whaling artifacts, including several examples of scrimshaw–the art of painted, engraved or carved whalebone or teeth. Photographs of twisted and mangled–but intact–harpoons give visceral evidence of the whale’s power to resist human efforts, and McGuane details the methods in practice. Also showcased are innovative technologies, such as toggled harpoons or “irons.”

Selections from Logbook for Grace, a diary kept by naturalist Robert Cushman Murphy aboard the whaleship Daisy in 1912, add a valuable firsthand perspective and bring McGuane’s subject to life. With all its salty flavor, The Hunted Whale is an obvious choice for fans of Moby-Dick, but history or naval buffs and fans of pre-mechanized times will be equally charmed by this detailed pictorial view of the ancient industry of whaling.

This review originally ran in the November 5, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 5 scrimshanders.

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