Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hi, my name is Sobig.

Hi, Sobig. Well, actually his name is Dirk, but during childhood was nicknamed Sobig, which came from the repeated nonsense of adults asking the baby in a cheesy voice, "How big is the baby?!" and replying "Soooo big" complete with arm motions. This is the first thing that should clue you in to how awesome Edna Ferber is: she makes fun of our silly baby talking, while not making fun of the endearing sentiments people feel about children, especially your own. This all happens in the first two pages of So Big, and it only gets better from there.

I read my first Ferber a few years ago, Cimarron. Like that book, So Big features a strong heroine who deals with farming the land, eventually losing her husband, raising a child, etc. But there is also so much more in this Pulitzer-winning novel, not the least of which is a story about how appreciating beauty and art can take place on a farm, or in a painter's studio.

The themes of artist life and what "success" is resonate with me (as we all know). The magic of the book is that she plants the seeds all along the way and then when we move from the High Prairie of Illinois to WWI-era Chicago, we see the result she has cultivated. If we are smart, then we reflect on our own appreciation of beauty, and how we would answer the question of when does it become "too late" to find the life of love, art, and creation that you abandoned to make a lot of money?

Selina Dejong is a success, not because she married the "right" man, made millions, or has a mansion, but because she knows that the cabbages are beautiful. Her son knows this somewhere inside him, but will his bond-trading, car-driving, pleasure-seeking rich friends outweigh the influence of artists who hang out in Paris and really know themselves?

I think the name Edna Ferber sounds so, well, old-fashioned that we unconsciously assume we have an idea of what her books must be all about. Edna Ferber was pretty bad-ass, though, from what I can tell. It was probably like being named Britney or Taylor in the 1880s, wasn't it? (note to self: discover origins of the name Edna) She eventually ended up hanging out in the Algonquin Round Table in New York, which shows that she was witty and avant-garde-like. I for one have big plans to read even more of her books, like Giant and Show Boat. She is my candidate for author-that-needs-to-be-rediscovered.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Perpetual Union and liberty, please!

now finished: James Madison: A Biography by Ralph Ketcham
now reading: This Too Is Diplomacy by Dorothy Irving
up next: So Big by Edna Ferber

Last night I finished reading the James Madison biography with tears in my eyes.

Spoiler alert? The book ends with the dramatic telling of his death, touching tributes from John Quincy Adams and others, and Madison's final plea for everyone to value both the Union and the liberty for which he had worked his entire life.

Basically, Madison and his buddies changed the world. I think this is all too easy for us to forget, because now we take the United States for granted. But for the past month I have been swept up in the world of someone who not only was born and came of age when the U.S. did not even exist, but who was a huge part of forming the very foundation of it.

The book is superbly researched. I kind of want to be Ketcham's friend. I doubt that I would want to be his research assistant, although I steadfastly admire anyone who is. I think Ketcham read everything while writing this book -- Madison's writings, his friends' writings, his enemies' writings, Congressional reports, colonial newspapers, letters to and from just about everybody who ever knew Madison and his family.

Highlights for me included Madison's time at Princeton and his insane devotion to studying and learning, let alone figuring out what to do with his life. I've already mentioned here that my boy Madison, just like me, read the law due to interest in public affairs but never even attempted to be a counselor-at-bar. Madison was so well-respected in Virginia after his lifetime of service that multiple people praise the depths of his intellect and visited him in his old age just to chat and bask in his wisdom. Plus he came out of retirement in 1829 to be in the Virginia legislature one more time to try to head off the nullification crisis (Southern states resenting the federal government - we all know where that was headed).

A favorite scene of mine was a New Year's reception during Jefferson's presidency -- when Madison was Secretary of State -- whose guests included Native American chiefs and an ambassador from Tunis. The latter took it as a given that the U.S. hosts would provide concubines for him, but then, he did bring Arabian horses along as presents for the U.S. officials and their wives. Ah, dipomacy. He also asked the Cherokee what god they worshipped, and they said the Great Spirit. So he asked them if they believed in Mahomed, Abraham, or Jesus Christ. None of the above, said the Indians. Well, then, asked Sidi Sulliman Mellimelli, what prophet do you worship? None, they said. They worshipped the Great Spirit without an agent. Well then "you are all vile Hereticks" he told them.

How awesome is that? I love how he's so inquisitive, like, well, there must be some prophet, let me just see what category you're in, any religion would be fine. But no prophet at all? Shocking! It just goes to show - again - how much the three biggies of monotheism have in common. And how much do you love the Cherokee and the other Chiefs there who are like, we don't need some prophet. We're directly in touch with the Great Spirit, hello!

Dolley, of course, is a righteous babe. You grow up in elementary school hearing about how Dolley Madison was a "great hostess." Translation? She knew how to party! Not to mention her teenage sister who lived with them during the early years of their marriage to take full advantage of the fashions and social scenes of Philadelphia and later Washington D.C.

And the friendship, partnership, and accomplishments of Madison and Jefferson together? Astonishing. And what good friends they remained throughout their lives, just down the road on their little farms there, always visiting, and philosophizing, and revolutionizing, and whatnot.

Basically - I love this book. I think I enjoyed it as much as reading David McCullough's John Adams. It has definitely renewed my fervor for my presidential bios project. It has also cultivated in me a great respect for Madison and his ideals, including his strong belief in the Union and true liberty.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Luxuriance of Nature's Charms

now reading: James Madison: A Biography by Ralph Ketcham
now also reading: This Too Is Diplomacy by Dorothy Irving

I have spent the entire month of October reading my Madison bio. This is not entirely a bad thing, as I have rather enjoyed delving into the world of Madison ("mad about Madison," Brian calls me right now), but I am a little shocked that it's been a whole month on one book. That's kind of like being in law school again and having time for only one or two pleasure reads per semester. However, I have been doing a lot of stuff during October -- some writing project success, etc. And I have been catching up on reading a bunch of magazines and news, too. Still and all, it's nice to be getting close to finishing Madison.

I'm pretty sure my next presidential bio, about Monroe, will be long too. Most of these president bios are. One's read-a-bio-of-every-president project could easily consume all of one's reading time. I am going to make sure that doesn't happen again, having learned my Madison/October lesson, because there is just too much else to read! My Goodreads queue is getting to be like my Netflix queue!

Now, the honest truth is that Ketcham's book is always interesting, but sometimes it plods along. It's never really boring, it just gets kind of bogged down in the intricacies of the Congress or the trip to Montpelier or whatever. Ketcham doesn't have all of Madison's writings (they didn't all survive, apparently) so he pieces together this life using a lot of other people's writings and observations too.

What happens is the most fascinating little details pop up at the weirdest times. Like when James and Dolley first get married and Dolley's teenage sister lives with them in the Philadelphia scene of balls, parties, and the "social season." Diplomats from France hang out and they party non-stop, it feels like, with fashions in the French style of showing a lot of cleavage. This horrifies Abigail Adams. There's a letter from her to a friend in which she calls it an "outrage upon all decency" and goes on to describe the outrage of using the Girdle to accent the Bosom.

"Most [ladies] wear their Cloaths too scant upon thebody and too full upon the Bosom for my fancy," Abigail writes. "Not content with the show which nature bestows, they borrow from art, and litterally look like Nursing Mothers."

I find that hilarious, "the show which nature bestows." I guess there is no shortage still today of fashionable young ladies who use their clothes and other tricks to enhance that "show" of "nature" that so easily fascinates the boys. What would Abigail think of Us Weekly, for example? But I like to think she would appreciate watching the Oscars red carpet. I could see her sitting at home with John watching and commenting. She would totally give an A+ to some elegant number worn by Meryl Streep or Kate Winslet, but maybe frown at your Bjorks and your Chers over the years. Dolley and James, though, would totally be hosting an Oscar party, with snacks and ballots for their friends to fill out and prizes. It's just how Dolley rolled.