Euphoria by Lily King
Inspired by Margaret Mead’s time in New Guinea, this novel is not strictly biographical. Three young anthropologists in the early 1930s are studying isolated tribes in New Guinea. Nell has published a controversial bestseller about her work in Samoa, and Fen is clearly jealous. Nell is recovering from a broken ankle, probably has malaria, and is missing her glasses when she first meets depressed British anthropologist Bankson, who is working along the Sepik River. Nell and Fen have just left the violent Mumbanyo tribe at Nell’s insistence, and Bankson helps them find a more welcoming settlement further down the Sepik River. Nell studies the women and children, making copious notes, while Fen seems to want to be one of the guys and observe daily life and rituals without making any notes or sharing his observations. Bankson is clearly attracted to and protective of Nell, but is dependent on Fen when he falls ill. This is a fast read, but a confusing one. I may need to read this book again to reach a conclusion about what I think happened before the trio meets, and what happens after they leave New Guinea. Most biographical novels I’ve read stay pretty true to the real life of the main character; this book was intriguing because the author didn’t and had more freedom to develop the plot and change the relationships.
The story of the Wright Brothers, as told by biographer and historian David McCullough, is so improbable that it seems like fiction. Their father was born in a log cabin and their mother died young. Wilbur and Orville grew up in Dayton, Ohio along with their older brothers and younger sister Katherine in a house with no running water. They had only high school educations. Yet, after spending less then one thousand dollars of their own money, the Wright brothers were the first men to really fly, and were later visited at flying demonstrations in Europe by three European kings. Katherine was the first woman to fly as a passenger three times; their father, a minister, was the first elderly passenger. I found McCullough’s thoroughly researched book to be fascinating, once I could tell Wilbur and Orville apart. Wilbur was brilliant, a fine writer and public speaker. Orville, the younger, was mechanically gifted and given to occasional moody spells. After much research and experimentation, including constructing a wind tunnel above the shop where they made, sold, and repaired bicycles, they were ready to fly. Picking the location for its constant winds and sandy terrain, they traveled to Kitty Hawk on the remote, unimproved Outer Banks to practice flying an unpowered glider in 1900. They returned each year, and in late 1903 made the first four powered flights in a single day, the last one, by Wilbur, lasted 59 seconds. The brothers credited a large family library with furthering their own education, and many others would mention their wide ranging interests and work ethic in their amazing success story. Thousands of family letters helped McCullough bring the brothers’ story to life. This book will be published May 5.
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore
Benjamin Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, and is still famous today. He was a printer, an inventor, a diplomat, and signer of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. This book is about his little sister Jane, born in Boston in 1712. She is obscure, and would be unknown today except for her brother. Benny and Jenny were very close, and exchanged letters for over 60 years. They outlived their 15 brothers and sisters, and 11 of Jane’s 12 children. Many of Jane Franklin Mecom’s letters have been lost, but Jill LePore, Professor of American History at Harvard University, has used Benjamin’s letters to fill in the gaps and tell the story of Jane’s long, eventful life. The Franklin family was poor; their father made soap and candles. Benjamin was the only son sent to school for a while. He probably taught Jane to read and write, a little. She never learned to spell. No schools in Boston taught girls at that time. Marrying a saddler, Jane continued to make soap for her brother most of her life, and also made bonnets and caps. She also helped raise some of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Jane loved to read, anything she could, especially her brother’s writings. She loved news and gossip, religion and politics. Her letters show a woman with wide interests, frank and witty. In 1771, Benjamin Franklin sent Jane a box of 13 spectacles from England, with instructions on how to find a pair that worked for her. I think that must have been a wonderful present; she could keep reading and writing to her brother, and they stayed connected until his death. I found this book fascinating and a great way to learn more about life in 18th century America.
Hemingway’s Boat, by Paul Hendrickson
This book concentrates on Ernest Hemingway’s life from 1934 to 1961. It has a unique angle in that instead of focusing on the famous author, it involves his fishing boat, the “Pilar”. The book initially talks about where the boat was built, who built it, what materials were involved, how much Hemingway paid for it, etc. But it is about so much more than that. It talks about Hemingway’s love of deep sea fishing and the huge blue marlins he catches from the Gulf Stream. He entertains many famous guests aboard “Pilar” and was clearly happiest when he was at sea. Hemingway’s Boat also talks about the people in Hemingway’s life, such as a drifter who became his apprentice for a summer, and his youngest son, who was most like him but also the most troubled. You see Hemingway’s physical and mental decline after he could no longer fish aboard his beloved boat. A great book for Hemingway buffs; extraordinarily well written.
My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business, by Dick Van Dyke, is entertaining reading. Dick Van Dyke made a decision to act mainly in family friendly productions, and his memoir follows that pattern. A funny, talented man with a very eventful life, Dick doesn’t dish the dirt, but the star of Mary Poppins, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Diagnosis: Murder, and Bye Bye Birdie shares enough to please his many fans. His long career included his first radio broadcast as a teenager, an early novelty act, television broadcasting, and success on screen, stage, and television. His family life, including his funny brother Jerry, his ex-wife Margie, their four children, and his longtime companion, Michelle Triola, are lovingly described. His spectacularly bad luck with cars is humorously told, while struggles with alcoholism and smoking are also shared. At 85, Dick Van Dyke is still going strong.