As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection reader’s advisory service goes where it may. In this column, a bewitching city leads me down a winding path.
McCullough, David. The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. S. & S. 2011. 576p. ISBN 9781416571766. $37.50.
Using a cache of letters, journals, and memoirs McCullough explores the impact of Paris on American thought and creativity during the 19th century. Tracing the city’s influence on dozens of characters, McCullough offers readers his special blend of accessible, story-based social history. His lists of subjects reads like the top class of a 19th-century who’s who: Augustus Saint-Gaudens (the New York sculptor), Mary Cassatt, Oliver Wendell Holmes (father of the Supreme Court Justice), James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel F.B. Morse, Charles Sumner (who went on to be the key voice in the Senate against slavery), and Harriet Beecher Stowe all make appearances. As McCullough’s wonderful book makes clear, these luminaries did not just sharpen and deepen their particular expertise in Paris, they witnessed and absorbed a way of life and outlook that was both totally foreign and extremely influential. Presenting an intersecting grid of tales, McCullough dips out of one story only to dip into another as he explores the individual biographies that collectively make his point. The result is narrative nonfiction at its best, a work that seduces the reader with a fascinating blend of strongly defined characters, illuminating and intriguing detail, and an engrossing pace.
Ambrose, Stephen. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. S. & S. 1996. 512p. ISBN 9780684811079. $30.
A good next book for Greater Journey readers is Ambrose’s wonderfully vivid exploration of American discovery-the Jeffersonian endeavor for a small band to journey across the Louisiana Purchase to the Pacific Ocean and stake America’s claim on the land between one sea and another. It is a work that shares McCullough’s interest in story-based narrative history, personal and social biography, and a defining sense of place supported by illuminating detail. Through a biography of Meriwether Lewis, melded with an exploration story of the American frontier, Ambrose traces the journey of Lewis and William Clark as they define, and enact, manifest destiny.
Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Mariner: Houghton Harcourt. 1999. 400p. ISBN 9780618001903. pap. $15.
Hochschild is another historian with a gift of writing gripping narrative-based books filled with rich characterization and world-building detail. Here, he examines the atrocities committed from 1885 through the early 1900s by Leopold II, King of Belgium. Leopold ravaged the Congo, seizing property, enslaving and murdering the native population, and stripping the land of its wealth. Standing against Leopold, at first as a sole figure, and later joined by the persuasive voices of Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad, was Edmund Morel. Morel discovered Leopold’s crimes and began an international campaign to stop them. Hochschild’s engrossing history, while darker than much of McCullough’s work, should please readers who like their history big, meaty, and meaningful.
Winik, Jay. The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800. Harper. 2008. 720p. ISBN 9780060083144. pap. $17.95.
Winik also writes popular story-based history, supported by exhaustive research and illuminating detail. Winik’s engrossing exploration of the close of the 18th century nicely complements McCullough’s investigations into the 19th. Both share a similar purpose: to contextualize broad concepts with specific biographical figures and prevailing cultural sensibilities. Winik’s project is to consider the newly formed American republic through a decidedly continental frame-particularly the events occurring in France and Russia. Through cameo biographies of Jefferson, Lafayette, John Paul Jones, and others; summations of our own perilous situation (war, continued struggles with Britain, the death of Washington); and vividly re-created scenes of historical significance, Winik explores the impact of a range of continental events and thought (the French Revolution and the war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire among them) on the fledgling America.
Standage, Tom. The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers. Walker & Co. 2007. 256p. ISBN 9780802716040. pap. $15.95.
The available subjects readers might want to peruse after Greater Journey is vast, but as a first stop suggest this engaging investigation of the invention of the telegraph. Standage traces the short but fantastic life of the machine from its multiple claims of invention (Samuel Morse was only one of the claimants) through its social, economic, and cultural effects, to its eventual demise. Along the way, he explores the code making that drove the telegraph, the machine’s impact on women, and the technology at stake. This is accessible socio-technological history, framing the science, as well as the players involved, in their time and culture. Those who enjoy reading about how inventors figured things out should be pleased by this colorful and detailed account.
Diliberto, Gioia. I Am Madame X. Scribner. 2004. 272p. ISBN 9780743456807. pap. $17.99.
McCullough aims for a broad focus in his history, but visual artists get a large share of his attention. While the sculptor Saint-Gaudens is a favorite, the better-known John Singer Sargent also makes an appearance. Readers who have marveled at Sargent’s enigmatic Madame X may enjoy Diliberto’s fictional account of its ostracized subject, Virginie Gautreau. Imagining her life from basic biographical detail, Diliberto puts human flesh on the shockingly pale exposed skin of Sargent’s subject. Virginie moves from Civil War-era Louisiana to Paris, where she manages as one of the great beauties of her age. Using her beauty and used for it, Virginie conducts liaisons in the highest of Paris society until Sargent’s masterpiece is unveiled. A woman as complex and enigmatic as her painting, Diliberto’s Virginie is fully realized, as is the Paris society in which she moves. For a nonfiction account suggest Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X.
Horne, Alistair. Seven Ages of Paris. Vintage: Random. 2004. 496p. ISBN 9781400034468. pap. $18.
For more on Paris, look no further than this wonderful and highly accessible history. Using a quirky frame to organize the life of Paris, Horne imagines the city as a woman and traces her ages through seven stages, from the 12th century through 1969 and the death of Charles de Gaulle. As political, social, and cultural history, Horne’s study complements Greater Journey, particularly exploring what both Horne and McCullough take as the quintessential Parisian outlook and philosophy on life. Fun to read and briskly paced (lots of history is skimmed, perhaps rushed), and full of details and cameo biographies, Horne’s history should suit readers wanting to delve deeper into Paris.
Philbrick, Nathaniel. Mayflower. Recorded Books. 2006. ISBN 9781419390036. $123.75.
Philbrick writes narrative history rich in description with fully realized historical figures and engulfing pacing. In his violent and complicated exploration of the 17th-century expedition of the Pilgrims, he details their struggle to survive, and, with great care and sensitivity, unravels the fraught and complicated relationship between these Europeans and the Native Americans they encounter. As much as Philbrick explores the political ramifications of the Mayflower Compact and the highly narrative tale of settlement and survival, he traces the seeds that led to King Philip’s War and the resulting slaughter. George Guidall’s narration is pitch-perfect, digging into the survival epic with a tension-filled voice, performing the bridges with crisp authority and rendering the carnage with grave solemnity.
Ellis, Joseph J. American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic. Books on Tape. 2007. ISBN 9781415942758. $100.
Ellis makes a fine pairing for McCullough with his narrative-based history, rich anecdotal text, and inviting tone. He explores the grounding of the Revolutionary period through the many personalities who helped shaped the American nation. Like McCullough, Ellis asks framing questions of the Founders and addresses the issues of slavery. With a smooth, pleasing tone and deft pacing, John H. Mayer immerses listeners in the fascinating history and keeps them engaged. The result is compelling, enveloping listeners both in the unfolding history and Ellis’s overarching questions.
McLain, Paula. The Paris Wife. Books on Tape. 2011. ISBN 9780307877208. $40.
Listeners who fell for Paris, more than McCullough’s history, might enjoy McLain’s evocation of the city during the Jazz Age, the Paris populated not with John Singer Sargent and James Fenimore Cooper, but with Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway. In telling the story of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, McLain paints a vivid portrait of Paris, full of details that conjure the glories of the City of Light as the incubator of creative output. Carrington MacDuffie’s reading is a pure pleasure. She keeps the pace engaging but slow enough to allow listeners to savor all of McLain’s well-crafted language. She slides in and out of voices with deft skill, bringing to life the young Hemingway and his fascinating first wife. A treat for audiobook fans; an extra treat for those who have become seduced by the ideas that Paris fostered in multiple generations of Americans.
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