Books I’ve Read This Week: American History and Literature

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 31: American History and Literature: In addition to reading about Queen and Empresses, I have been reading a blend of history and historical fiction in recent weeks with an American theme. The non-fiction focuses on women in American history including a book on Sally Hemings and her family at Monticello in late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a history of the role of American women in code breaking during the Second World War, a biography of the last Queen of Hawaii and a biography of etiquette expert Emily Post. The historical fiction imagines the lives of May Alcott, the younger sister of Louisa May Alcott who inspired the character of Amy March in Little Women, Elizabeth Fones Winthrop, who was one of the first settlers in Puritan Massachusetts and a Nigerian perspective on race and society in the modern United States.  Here are this week’s reviews:

#211 of 365 The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed

Genre: History

Dates Listened: July 22-July 27, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 30 hours and 40 minutes

Review: An extensively researched and nuanced history of the Hemings family at Monticello. While Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings are well known, Gordon-Reed also reconstructs the lives of Sally Hemings’ mother Elizabeth, who was of African and English descent, her siblings including Paris trained chef James Hemings who comes to a tragic end, and her extended family.

The author examines a wide variety of surviving evidence including the reminiscences of Sally Hemings’s son Madison Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s correspondence and papers and archaeological excavations of Elizabeth Hemings’s cabin. When there are gaps in the source material, Gordon-Reed outlines various possibilities shaped by the conditions of the time and allows readers to draw their own conclusions.

The book is not only a family saga but an examination of slavery, the position of women, and the law in colonial America and revolutionary Paris. The book ends with the sale of Monticello and I would have been interested to read more about subsequent generations in the Hemings family.

#212 of 365 The Winthrop Woman by Anya Seton

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Listened: July 27-30, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Paperback, 27 hours and 33 minutes

Review:  A richly detailed classic historical novel about Elizabeth Fones, one of the earliest settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony whose controversial third marriage scandalized Puritan New England. As in her most famous novel Katherine, Seton devotes much attention to the society and culture of the times, paying special attention to the subtle religious differences within communities as well as larger, more well known conflicts. The characters include Elizabeth Fones herself, the poet Anne Bradstreet and religious leader Anne Hutchinson. There are even cameo appearances by King Charles and Queen Henrietta Maria and the founder of New France, Samuel de Champlain, who are all critical of the Puritans.

There is so much history in the novel that Elizabeth and her strong personality sometimes fade in the background in the middle of the novel, especially during the scenes concerning Anne Hutchinson, who commands the attention of the reader as well as her contemporaries. Even when the novel meanders away from the main character and her story, The Winthrop Woman remains engaging because Elizabeth Fones lived in such tumultuous times and Anya Seton has researched Stuart England and Colonial America extensively.

#213 of 365 The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Date Read: July 29, 2018

Format: Paperback, 432 pages

Review: An enjoyable novel about the artist May Alcott who inspired the character of Amy March in her older sister Louisa’s famous novel, Little Women. The novel begins with the publication of Little Women, which receives excellent reviews except for May’s illustrations, which are dismissed as amateur. May is determined to be taken seriously for her art and studies in England and France, eventually having her work accepted in major exhibitions. The cast of characters includes a variety of 19th century women artists, both famous and more obscure, including Mary Cassatt, Princess Louise, Marie Bashkirtseff and Berthe Morisot.

Hooper provides an engaging portrait of both the complicated relationship between Louisa and May and the conflict between artistic fulfillment and earning a living that many authors and artists face. May has great ambitions to become a professional artist and have a happy and fulfilling personal life, seeking to be successful in all aspects of life during a time when women were encouraged to have more modest expectations. An engaging read about a little known artist and her famous family.

#214 of 365 Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Date Listened: July 31-August 1, 2018

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 17 hours and 28 minutes

Review: An insightful novel about race and cultural differences between the United States and Nigeria. Ifemelu moves to the United States to study and becomes a popular blogger on race. She observes how the blog comes to shape her life, noting, “Now that she was asked to speak at roundtables and panels, on public radio and community radio,always identified simply as The Blogger, she felt subsumed by her blog. She had become her blog.” Her observations are fascinating and cover everything from the differences between how the English language is spoken in Nigeria and America, food, customer service and education as well as race and society. There are also some incisive comments on the influence of blogging and social media. Highly recommended.

#215 of 365 Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy

Genre: History

Date Read: August 2-5, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 14 hours and 4 minutes

Review: An interesting book about the little known American female code breakers of the Second World War and their impact on the course of the war in the Pacific. Mundy covers a lot of topics including American attitudes toward higher education for women in the 1940s, the nature of codebreaking, the role of women in the Allied war effort and daily life for individual code breakers. There are some fascinating women profiled in the book including Dorothy Braden, who was running a high school almost singlehandedly until she had the opportunity to turn her talents to codebreaking and Jacqueline Jenkins-Nye, the mother of Bill Nye the Science Guy. The structure of the book sometimes jumps around between these topics, moving quickly from historical overviews of the war and codebreaking to the experiences of individual women but overall, a fascinating book.

#216 of 365 Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings and America’s First Imperial Adventure by Julia Flynn Siler

Genre: History

Date Read: August 7, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Hardcover, 415 pages

Review: Lost Kingdom is not just a biography of Queen Liliʻuokalani but a history of 19th century Hawaii and how the islands were ultimately annexed by the United States against the wishes of the Hawaiian people. Siler places Hawaii within the wider context of colonialism in the Pacific as Britain, France and Germany claimed other Pacific islands and the United States argued that Hawaii, its sugar plantations and its naval base at Pearl Harbour, were too important to be allowed to remain under the authority of Queen Liliʻuokalani. Once the annexation was complete, former President Grover Cleveland stated, “Hawai’i is ours…as I contemplate the means used to complete the outrage,I am ashamed of the whole affair.”

Liliʻuokalani emerges as a proud and complicated figure shaped by both Hawaiian court traditions and an education in missionary schools. Siler provides a detailed overview of how Liliʻuokalani was perceived in the United States within the context of the racial prejudices of the late 19th century. I would have been interested to read more about Liliʻuokalani’s attendance at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 and how she was perceived in Britain during the celebrations. A compelling read.

#217 of 365 Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners by Laura Claridge

Genre: Biography

Acquired: Purchased at Book City, Toronto

Date Read: August 6, 2018

Format: Paperback, 525 pages

Review: This comprehensive biography of Emily Post begins slowly, placing her parents within the wider context of the gilded age then gains momentum, examining Emily’s work as a novelist, businesswoman and etiquette expert within the context of the rapidly changing social mores of the 1920s and 1930s. Post belonged to an accomplised family. Her father, Bruce Price, designed the Chateau Frontenac and other Canadian Pacific Railway Hotels and stations and was even mistaken for the Duke of Connaught during a Canadian royal tour.

Emily suffered from setbacks in her personal life. Despite her interest in architecture, her gender and social class precluded her joining her father in business and her marriage ended in divorce. After the end of her marriage, she became a prolific writer who was always sensitive to the changing times. Some of the most interesting sections of the book concern how her etiquette advice altered and expanded as the years passed. She revised her Etiquette guides, removing sections on chaperones and adding advice for conversing with airplane seatmates. Post’s life and advice are interspersed with the history of New York and the major historical events of her lifetime. A fascinating read.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.