24

Nonfiction November 2019: Fiction/Nonfiction Pairings

Week 2 of Nonfiction November is a real highlight for me every year. This week is hosted by the brilliant Sarah @ Sarah’s Bookshelves (seriously, have you listened to her podcast? So many great books all the time!) and is really a great way for people who don’t think they like nonfiction to get introduced to some great books. For the nonfiction/fiction book pairings:

It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

Without further ado, here are mine!

Kick Kennedy

I first read about Kathleen ‘Kick’ Kennedy when I read Laurence Leamer’s The Kennedy Women. But as she died when she was 28, there wasn’t a whole lot of time devoted to her or her story. Which is bananas because her life was…well, when I finally read her biography, I was sobbing.

The Kennedy Debutante by Kerri Maher. This book looks at a very specific time in Kick’s life. We meet Kick in 1938 on the day she debuts in London Society, as the daughter of the American Ambassador to England. The book follows an incredibly popular Kick at all the parties and the estate weekends she is invited to. And then she meets Billy Hartington, the son and heir of the Protestant Duke of Devonshire. As they fall in love, they must grapple with the issues of faith that would keep them apart – Kick is very serious about her Catholic faith and would have to give that up were she to become the Duchess of Devonshire. This book doesn’t follow Kick to the end of her life and when I finished it, I immediately ordered a biography of the extraordinary women at the heart of this book.

Kick: The True Story of JFK’s Sister and the Heir of Chatsworth by Paula Byrne. This book was exactly what I hoped it would be. The author was also introduced to Kick by way of Laurence Leamer’s book and tried to find out more about a woman who had kind of been erased from the Kennedy myth because of the circumstances surrounding her death. I don’t want to say anymore really (not that you can’t google it) because I really want you to read this book. Kick seemed like the most wonderful person, everyone who knew her loved her. Her brother Jack never spoke of her after her death, it was too painful. And little brother Bobby named his first child Kathleen but on the condition that she never be called Kick. It’s not a big biography, it reads like a novel about a romantic, rebel intent on following her heart.

WWII Paris

OK so WWII can be one of those genres that people get fatigued by very easily. I’m one of those people who kind of steers clear of these books as they all start to run together after a while. But when I read these two books this year, I knew I had to include them in this post.

Mademoiselle Chanel by CW Gortner. I’ve always found Coco Chanel to be somewhat enigmatic, someone who wasn’t super keen to be well known, to want to live her life in the background. Mademoiselle Chanel was the first time I felt like I read something where I got to know the woman behind the legend. While this book doesn’t focus just on what Chanel was doing during WWII, when I finished it, that was the part that really stuck out for me. Even though it was a fictionalized account of her life, I thought Gortner did an incredible job at getting to the real person, warts and all.

Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation by Anne Sebba. I mean, this title kind of says it all no? In some respects, it reminded me of A Train in Winter in that it covers the lives and deaths of a great number of women. But while that book focused on the lives of those women who had been involved in the Resistance, Les Parisiennes looks at those women plus the society women who maybe colluded with the Nazis to continue living their fairly comfortable lives. For a lot of people, Nazi occupation didn’t really change their way of life and that’s something people don’t like to think about outside of Germany.

The Lusitania

I’m not normally one for nautical reading but stories about the Lusitania have such a human element. It was one of the reasons American involvement in the Great War was justified two years later.


Seven Days in May
by Kim Izzo. Sydney and Brooke Sinclair are New York heiresses set to sail for England. While Sydney is heavily involved in suffrage and women’s causes (the novel opens with her visiting a clinic that helps women who have had illegal abortions), Brooke is engaged to an impoverished English peer. They have no idea that the Lusitania has been targeted by German U-boats when they board for their crossing. Isabel Nelson does have an idea about the fate of the Lusitania. Back in London, Isabel works in a coding unit for the British Admiralty. Her work with codes and cyphers means she is privy to secrets around the true cost of the war. The novel follows all of them over the course of the seven days in May that will change the trajectory of history. Izzo does an incredible job recreating the atmosphere on board the ship and the eventual sinking, peppering the novel with real life stories of those who were on board. If memory serves, I believe she has a family connection to someone that was actually on the ship.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson. Here is my annual plea for people to read books by Erik Larson: Guys. If you have not read anything by Erik Larson, you need to. Dead Wake covers the last crossing of the Lusitania in heart breaking detail. Larson has put together a timeline down to the minute. I read this a while ago but I remember that I read the whole thing in one day. I could not put it down. It doesn’t read like nonfiction (Larson’s work never does) and I couldn’t believe that what I was reading actually happened. I spent a long time after finishing this book googling the things he wrote about.

So those are mine. Which book recently sent you on a quest for more information?

10

#15BooksofSummer – Update

Bet you all thought I had given up on the #15BooksofSummer Challenge Cathy @ 746 Books has been hosting.

(The idea is that you make a list of 10, 15, or 20 books from your TBR, you read them between June 3 and September 3, and then you post about them. A bit of focus for the summer months and a nice way to clear off some of those books that always seem to get overlooked)

But I haven’t! I’ve been trying really hard to make sure that the books get read. Posting about them however…given the choice between using nap-time (sacred, sacred time) for reading or for writing content…this lazy mom chooses reading.

I’ve been on a bit of a non-fiction tear and gravitated towards the non-fiction picks on my list. Looking at the books I wanted to mention, they are all non-fiction so I guess I do have a theme today. I also really liked all of them.

mightnight

First up: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. Am I the only one that I didn’t realize that this was non-fiction? In May of 1981, antiques dealer Jim Williams shot and killed Danny Hansford, a local male prostitute. Over the next decade, there are four different trials and everyone in Savannah has an opinion on what happened.

I love true crime but this is probably one of the least interesting crimes I’ve read about. What makes this book such a compelling read is the cast of characters that the author socializes with during his time in Savannah. He has a front row seat to all the drama and introduces readers to the most incredible people: The Lady Chablis, a local transgender woman and entertainer, the folk magic practitioner Minerva, fighting with her husband, Dr. Buzzard, from beyond the grave, the guy who walks around with a small bottle of poison that could supposedly kill the entire city if he dropped it in the water supply, Williams’ lawyer, the keeper of the University of Georgia’s bulldog mascot, Uga.

Along with the people, Berendt manages to create an incredible sense of place. 1980s Savannah comes to life. It is, however, very much a product of it’s time. Berendt tells a privileged story from a position of privilege and it shows, despite the fact that at least half of the people involved in the story were actually quite poor.

After I finished the book, I watched the movie directed by Clint Eastwood. That’s probably where I got the idea that this book was fiction. The whole time my husband and I were watching it, I very helpfully explained to him what the actual story was.

les parisiennes

I’d put off reading Les Parisiennes by Anne Sebba because I rightly assumed that it would be a tough read. Les Parisiennes tells stories of the women in Paris during WWII, those who collaborated, the ones who were a part of the Resistance, those who were deported to concentration camps for being Jewish.

It is a really wide picture of what it was like to be a woman in Paris during the War, how the ‘choices’ one made were hardly choices. What choice is there between your child or your husband, feeding your family or spitting at a Nazi, living or dying? Sebba does a really good job at reminding readers that the things these women did weren’t so much choices, as they were the things that had to be done.

After the war, France (and a number of other countries including the Netherlands) liked to position their citizenry as all having been a part of the Resistance but that wasn’t actually true at all. There was also a marked difference between how those women returning from a place like Ravensbruck for Resistance work and those who returned from Auschwitz for being Jewish, were treated. And a few years after the war, people started to express that they were tired of hearing about it, how it was time to move on. For so many of these women, moving on wasn’t really possible.

Reading Les Parisiennes reminded me a bit of Caroline Moorehead’s A Train in Winter. But it was more difficult to keep track of everyone’s story in Les Parisiennes. Still, I found it to be a thoroughly researched picture of an unspeakable time.

21 things

Finally we come to the book that affected me the most: 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act by Bob Josephs. Reading about Indigenous Peoples in Canada has always been something I’ve shied away from, likely because I knew it would shatter the ideal we hold that racism isn’t an issue here. But in the last couple of years I’ve tried to educate myself.

This book is based on a viral blog post that Josephs wrote. Josephs is actually a culture sensitivity trainer, working with companies to better understand Indigenous culture and history. The book covers things that you probably knew (it created reserves, forbade students from speaking their Indigenous languages, denied women status) and a LOT that you probably didn’t.

I obviously knew that the Indian Act was a travesty, stripping peoples of their culture, language and identity as resource-rich land was taken over by the Canadian government. But I didn’t know how far-reaching it actually was. I didn’t know that the Act created the band system, overriding traditional means of government that had worked for generations; that they were forbidden from appearing in traditional dress and performing dances or even just appearing at exhibitions or events; that it declared the potlatch illegal; that it renamed people with European names; or that it made it so that Indigenous peoples were unable to sell the produce from the farms they were forced to work.

I didn’t know that the Indian Act still exists.

And even allowing for the times in which he lived, John A. MacDonald (Canada’s first Prime Minister) was incredibly racist and I seriously don’t know why he’s still on our currency (he got bumped off the $10 but he’s being moved to the $100 – so long, Borden).

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, released it’s report and made 94 recommendations in order for Canadians to address the cultural genocide perpetrated by the Canadian government. Bob Josephs has included all of them in this book and I found it incredibly helpful, not only to have that as a resource, but also to have a way forward. It is 100% my responsibility to help work towards Reconciliation and now I have some concrete ideas for how I can do that.

Seriously, this book blew my mind. I’m still thinking about it weeks later and I want to press a copy into the hands of everyone I know.

So that’s it for the update for now – I’m about to finish A Gentleman in Moscow and then I will have read…7 of 15. Which is better than I thought and also really validates my decision not to pick 20!

10

Jennie Churchill

Mary S. Lovell wrote an incredible biography of The Churchills as a whole. It ably covered Sunny and Winston and Randolph and Clemmie and Winston’s kids and Consuela but it was Jennie that I wanted to know more about.

(Lovell also wrote an equally fantastic book about The Mitford sisters that is absolutely worth reading)

I accidentally found myself in the library again last week and came across Anne Sebba’s Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother. I’d read Sebba’s That Woman about Wallis Warfield Simpson and really liked it so I was confident that her handling of Jennie’s story would be just as good.

Jennie Churchill, like Wallis after her, was a bit of a controversial figure in her time. It wasn’t until much later, years after her death in fact, when her son became The Winston Churchill, that she underwent a kind of makeover, to show her to be some kind of saintly mother who believed in and loved her son above all else. After all,

In 1921 [when Jennie died] the scale of Winston’s importance could only be guessed at by most. He himself feared that his career might already be over. It took another thirty years before he was hailed as ‘The Greatest Briton’. Jennie already knew it.

jennie

Jennie Jerome was beautiful, clever and rich. Her father, Leonard, had a gift of making money but he was equally adept at losing large amounts of it. Eventually his wife Clara and their daughters, Clara, Jennie and Leonie, decamped to Paris where the cost of living was lower. It was also easier for upstart Americans to be admitted into the right society in Paris – society was so much stricter in England.

Still, eventually the Jeromes found themselves at Crewe, which is where Jennie met Randolph Churchill, second son of the Duke of Marlborough. By now we’re all familiar with the scores of rich American women that married into the British aristocracy as an attempt to finance and save their properties. But when Jennie met Randolph, this wasn’t yet common; Jennie was actually one of the first to do it.

This book is only 331 pages but Jennie (and Randolph and Winston) lived a LIFE. So a lot went on. In an effort to pique your interest but not have your eyes glaze over from details, here are some of the more interesting points:

  • Jennie was married three times. First to Randolph, with whom she had two children. The second and third times to men MUCH younger than her. One was said to have been the handsomest man of his generation (although to look at his picture, of a balding man with a moustache who looks at least 15 years older than his age, we have very different standards of beauty now)
  • She is said to have had around 200 lovers. Sebba doesn’t think it was that high but for a woman of her generation she definitely had more than the average. Probably at least 30, including Prince Albert Edward, later King Edward VII.
  • She was always poor. Her father ended up losing all his money and from then the Jerome sisters have to kind of shift for themselves. Not so easy when you think about the confines society placed on women at the time. And yet, they still managed to go to Paris, to go to house parties for fancy dress, to rent incredible homes that were fully staffed…
  • She was an incredibly horrible mother to Winston and Jack when they were kids. In later years, yes she became devoted to her boys, especially Winston. But when they were small and needed the attentions of their mother, when Winston was having the sh*t beaten out of him by his teachers at school and BEGGED for a visit or a letter, she completely ignored them.
  • She travelled all around the world. She organized for a hospital ship to go to South Africa during the Boer War and ended up going on it to help out. And when her husband, Randolph, was dying in 1894, she went on a round the world trip with him.
  • Before she died she had her leg amputated above the knee. She loved high heels and was wearing a pair when she hurried into dinner and slipped and fell down some stairs. It was quite a bad fracture and two weeks later, although the swelling had gone down, her skin had gone black from gangrene. She hemorrhaged to death as a result of the amputation.

Oh yes, Jennie Jerome was quite the woman. I appreciate that Sebba looked at her as her own woman, not as the wife of Randolph or the mother of Winston, despite the title. She lived and loved on her own terms and I suspect that she was really quite ok with the way her life turned out.

5

Wallis Simpson

Apologies for not being all festive and posting about a Halloween read. Being scared is just not my thing!

I’ve mentioned here more than once that I’ve been meaning to read That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor by Anne Sebba, for quite a while now.

I finally read it!

And. I’m not totally sure how I feel about it.

On the one hand, I kind of knew what was going to happen and apparently I’m really familiar with that segment of society in England in the 1930s. So a lot of it wasn’t new. And I still don’t think that I liked her very much. Or him really.

On the other, it did offer a better understanding of the motivations behind what ultimately transpired.

wallis

Wallis’ father died when she was just a few months old and for the rest of her childhood she and her mother were dependant on various family members for looking after them financially. The stress of it made her forever after constantly concerned about money. Predictably, soon after finishing school she married the first man to ask her in the hopes of some pecuniary stability. Well he hit her and she had enough backbone not to put up with that, so she got a divorce.

I didn’t know that she actually did care for her second husband, Ernest Simpson. They seemed to have a good thing going, even if he did prefer to sit quietly at home in the evenings while she needed to entertain or go to parties constantly.

When she ended up getting involved with the Prince of Wales, Mr. Simpson kind of went along with it. That is, he wasn’t totally unaware and he didn’t fight it. But Wallis herself always assumed that it would peter out and life would go back to normal between them.

We all know that this is not how things happened. I was surprised at the characterization of the Prince of Wales, ultimately King Edward VIII and then, of course, the Duke of Windsor. In other books that the abdication figures in, he’s always characterized as selfish, used to getting his own way, kind of a d*ck. But in That Woman, Sebba paints a picture of a man desperate for approval who allows Wallis to tell him what to do and how to behave. More pathetic than selfish. Reading this book you get the feeling that Wallis and the Duke of Windsor spent a lifetime together kind of regretting that they took things so far.

Sebba did make an excellent point in the end though. I was trying to decide if this book changed my opinion of Wallis when Sebba points out that had Wallis not stepped in and been so irresistible to the King, he would have been the King during the War and his loyalties probably shouldn’t have been tested so far. In the immediate aftermath of his abdication, Winston Churchill had to reprimand him several times for not representing the position of the English government accurately, given as he was to making seriously suspect friends.

Ultimately Wallis was left a pathetic old woman, basically completely alone, having no children or living relations and still frozen out by the Royal Family. She was blind, bedridden and confused most of the time. Probably more than enough penance for a woman that caused so much upheaval.