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Review: The Three Graces of Val-Kill by Emily Herring Wilson & Arthurdale by Nancy Hoffman for Nonfiction November

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My Interest

While I’m not as liberal as Eleanor, I do admire her above almost all American women. I have read most everything on her and by her. The most interesting parts of her, to me, are her celebrated political partnership with the husband who both nearly destroyed her with his unfaithfulness and then set her free to live her own life. Her selflessness in nursing him through the early days of his polio is another example. She survived her #meetoo moments in her own home where her grandmother was forced to have multiple locks installed on Eleanor’s bedroom door to keep out the drunken out-of-control young uncles. She may have been groomed and used by her charismatic female headmistress–whom she adored all her life. That she carried her own suitcase, wrote the letters to G.I.’s mothers that she promised at their hospital bedsides, and that she grew as a person to leave behind the racism and antisemitism of her time and class make her worthy of my admiration. That she was a pretty awful mother (she bought one of those baby cages to hang outside a window for the baby to nap in) is evident in the 19 marriages between her four children. But, even in that she worked to improve and did improve. And, she became a truly beloved Grandmother. All while earning the title of great StatesWOMEN of our nation and the world.

The Story

This book purports to tell of one of the three great experiments in living Eleanor either helped to create or was a participant in (for the second see the second review; the third was her end-of-life living arrangement). In the late 1920s, while FDR was either on his houseboat in Florida or at Warm Springs, Eleanor and two friends (who were life partners or today would have married) set up housekeeping together in a cottage they had built, with FDR’s full approval, on his “Hyde Park” [really Springwood] Estate. They all slept in a dormitory-style bedroom, had their linens monogrammed with their joint initials, and fell happily into a sort of community home life that they enjoyed.

Nan Cook and Marion Dickerman became part of the Roosevelt family in many ways. Nan built the famous Vall-Kill furniture at a small woodshop near the cottage. Marion and Eleanor would buy and jointly run the Todhunter School for Girls in New York. The ladies accompanied Eleanor and her two youngest sons, Franklin, Jr. [the second son to bear that name–the first one having died in infancy] and John on camping trips, up to Campobello, and on a trip to Europe which FDR’s mother ruined by insisting that Eleanor and the boys have a chauffeur since Eleanor was First Lady of New York state.

But Eleanor kept evolving. She kept moving. She was still Franklin’s official wife, even if his secretary became his emotional wife. She was also still mother to five children who, for much of this time, were basically abandoned by FDR. She was a leading spokeswoman for Democratic Women in New York state. Nan and Marion were also involved in politics, but so too were Caroline O’Day and her partner and Elinor Morgantheau whose husband would serve FDR as Treasury Secretary.

In the White House, Eleanor had little time for the friends back in the little cottage. She famously took up with Lorena Hickok, “Hick,” whose career as one of the nation’s top female reporters was destroyed by Hick’s becoming too emotionally attached to Eleanor to keep the objectivity needed in those days to be a reporter.

The end had to come and it did. In a bad way. Eleanor could be like that. No spoilers.

My Thoughts

At times the writing of this book was very odd. Here are just a few examples.

Eleanor had never made a plan for what she wanted as a wife, mother, and daughter-in-law, and her life had been unexpectedly difficult” (p. 16). Did women do this at the turn of the 20th century?

…the unthinkable death of an infant” (p. 19)  An infant dying in 1909 was a regular occurrence, regardless of class!

She joined the newly formed Junior League for rich women but did volunteer work in settlement houses” (p. 20) what an awkward sentence. And, she was a rich woman!

The author also falls into two traps that I do not like in modern history writing. First, she “supposes” what Eleanor, Nan, and Marion “might” have done in the evening or in the course of their day. That is not helpful. It’s like the fictionalized scenes in t.v.’s The Crown–it is wrong to invent scenes in a real life. Second, she nearly lets FDR’s story take over in a few places–not nearly as often as in similar books, but it is there. In any biography of Eleanor, FDR will naturally play a large role. But this book was about a slice of her life. Finding insufficiently detailed information on her topic, I feel she padded the book to get it to a respectable page count. Had she instead have dealt more with Todhunter School or with Vall-Kil Industries and the furniture, the book would have been a more authentic account of this interesting relationship and experiment. Instead, while interesting, it fell short.  While Arthurdale (see second review below) did have a tie-in to the relationship, other chapters truly did not.

The Three Graces of Va-Kill: Eleanor Roosevelt, Marion Dickerman, and Nancy Cook and in the Place They Made Their Own by Emily Herring Wilson

Eleanor’s Other Experiment in Living

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Eleanor also championed progressive causes like resettling coal miners into new, purpose-built communities like West Virginia’s Arthurdale–which became a pet cause of hers. In addition to brand new homes, settlers had subsistence farm plots for “homesteading” and were to have employment in factories or industries brought in to serve the area. The children were given Nursery School and progressive education through high school in a new, modern school building. They received hot, nutritious lunches and had an inspiring curriculum. Sadly, the necessary industry never developed, and settlers, while in much nicer homes, were saved mostly by World War II.

This book, written for upper-level elementary school students does an excellent job of presenting the purpose and reality of Arthurdale.  Another WPA Homestead Community (there were several), Dyes Colony in Arkansas, “gave birth” to a little boy named J.R. who grew up to be singer Johnny Cash.

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Arthurdale Experiment by Nancy Hoffman

Note: In the interest of fairness, I read this book in February but wanted to save the review to go with The Three Graces (above).

Both of these books were appropriate for both of these November reading challenges.

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Novellas in November Review: The Provincial Lady Goes Further by E.M. Delafield

My Interest

Epistolary novels are a thing with me. I love reading real or fictional diaries, books of letter, tweets, emails–anything similar. Love it. I think it started when 84 Charing Cross Road came out while I was in high school. Since then I have loved such books. (My posts on them are linked at the bottom of this post, too.)

A while back I read The Diary of A Provincial Lady and just knew I’d read any others if it was a series. Today’s review is of the second book in the series.

The Story

Note: This is one book where it would be a little easier to enjoy the story if you’ve read the first book, but it can the “who’s who” of the story can also be figured out pretty quickly if you have not.

The Provincial lady is married  to Robert an agent or “man of business” of similar on a large landed estate in Shire. The children, son Robin, daughter Vicky, are both off to boarding school this year. Cat Hellen Willis is still with them. And, The Lady herself has enjoyed literary success, so for a very brief time the family excheuquer is in good shape. Good enough to by herself a dear little London flat. So, off she goes to London to write. Except she stiill can’t say “no” to requests and gets entangled with outrageous peoplegoes to their outrageous parties and dinners and gets nothing done. Robert is left home with the new cook and occasionally writes to suggest it is time to come home. The children thrive at school.

My Thoughts

This was the perfect, mindless, little escape back to a time when maids and cooks (not to mention boarding schools) could still be afforded by many quite normal, decently-educated people. It was just plain fun. I look forward, eventually, to getting through the entire series.

I discovered, while getting the link to this book on Amazon, that the copy I bought may have been pirated and could also be The Provincial Lady Goes to London [which could be an alternate title for US/UK]. How interesting!

The Provincial Lady Goes Further by E.M. Delafield.  [Note, I’m linking to a different version than the one I bought]

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German Literature Month Review: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, Translated by Jane Billinghurst

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My Interest

I enjoy a few nature books most years. This one caught my eye because my son works for a tree service and devoured our Audubon Field Guide to Trees of North America not long after he started work. I saw this book and decided to read it to see if it was worth giving his as an extra Christmas gift. It is among 2 or 3 contenders for that honor so there could be more tree book reviews later. My verdict is–I think he would read it. He isn’t a big reader but when it really interests him he will read. This is a nonfiction book and that would normally be ok with him only if it was about a rapper or maybe an artist.

My other interest was, by chance, seeing the word “fungi” in a quick look-through of the book. I am fascinated by mushrooms and forests teem with them. This part of the story, I thought, might be really interesting.

Thanks to blogger Lizzy’s Literary Life for bringing this gem to my attention. Why not be nice and click and read her review, too? Bloggers love visitors!

The Story

Forester Wohlleben loves trees. His life’s work is in a forest in Germany. He is a scientist so he pays very close attention to the details the trees in his forest. Happily, he is also a very good writer (and Billinghurst is a very good translator) so reading about such details is a joy and not a struggle. He makes the forest come as alive to the reader as it is to him. So, the fungi I was looking forward to were just icing on a very nice cake of a nature book.

What Wohleben describes is the lifespan of trees. Not as in 6th grade science class and ring-counting and all that, but about communities of trees, families of trees, the socio-economic strata of trees, the gentrification of forests, the urban decay of forests, the street kids, street gangs, and, cooperative development agencies of the forests–none of which are people. Wohleben’s study of trees has let him understand the language of trees–their interpersonal communication. He explains how the different players in the forest community fulfill their roles, putting it all into such expressive and readable prose that I read over 60 pages in one sitting.

Here are a few very short, illustrative glimpses into what Wohleben has discovered:

“Spruce store essential oils in their needles and, and bark, which act like antifreeze.”

“Then there are the weevils. They look a bit like tiny elephants that have lost their enormous ears.”

Here is a typical prose passage to give you a feel for the joy of reading this book:

“And what if an oak gets a deep wound or a wide crack in its trunk as a result of a lightening strike? That doesn’t matter to the oak, because its wood is permeated with substances that discourage fungi and severely slow down fungal decomposition…Even severely damaged trees with major branches broken off can grow replacement crows and live for a few hundred years longer” (p. 97, Kindle Edition).

Unexpectedly, I have a new possible favorite nonfiction book of the year. It was simply that good.

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, Translated by Jane Billinghurst.

Added bonus: This book also works for Nonfiction November and Novellas in November (they include nonfiction novellas).  Though it is maybe a tad long for a true novella, it reads as quickly as one.

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Novellas in November: Nonfiction Novella: Review–The Runaway Amish: The Great Escape Girl by Emma Gingerich

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My Interest

I have long been fascinated by oppressive or cultist religion. For many years, on an old blog, I wrote about TV’s Duggar family and the cultish group to which they belong–The Institute of Basic Life Principles/Advanced Training Institute (IBLP/ATI). After Josh Duggar’s molestation of his sisters was finally admitted, I quit. Mission accomplished. The Amish, who surround me here in Southern Ohio, are an odd group. They have a unique status in American–they speak German, they do not assimilate in any way into the community, they have unique health problems–many of which can be traced to inbreeding, and they are exempt from Selective Service (registering for the draft) and from mandatory schooling until age 18. I haven’t looked this one up, but I do think child labor laws apply, or if they do then they are conveniently overlooked. They do not vote. They do, when necessary, take Medicaid and other assistance for disabled children. If they have a business, they pay taxes so I see nothing wrong with that.

Many idolize Amish culture as “a simple life.” It is–and it isn’t. The contradictions are endless. Different communities of Amish have different rules. Around here some wear Crocks or running shoes. Others have push-bikes (like a bike with a scooter platform). Some can have propane-powered appliances, propane generators to run computers and charge the cell phones they need for business. They can hire a driver. It is not unusual to see a horse and buggy at the local Walmart or Dollar General, either.

We also have a large Mennonite Church near here. If you live here it is soon obvious who is Amish, who is Mennonite even without cell phones, shoes or cars.

The Story

Emma grew up in a large Amish family. She was born here in Ohio in a hospital. Yes, Amish do use hospitals when “prudent”–they may even use “English” doctors if necessary. There are clinics across the border in Mexico that do a land-office business in Amish hysterectomies for cash, too. Anyway, Emma had questions almost from the start. The dangerous kind of questions for a child–especially a girl–in an extreme patriarchy. Those questions being with “Why do we ….” Like the Catholic priests used to say the answer was basically, “it’s a matter of faith.” Like most Amish children, she could not understand most of what was said in the hours-long Church services because it was spoken in an old dialect of German–not the German they used in everyday conversation.

When Emma turned 16 and a half she was expected to go to “signings” after church–aka the Amish marriage market. Amish dates go like this: Guy tells another guy he wants a date with a certain girl. The “matchmaker” [boy’s buddy] tells the girl. She agrees. She can’t really refuse. He drives her home in his buggy, sees to the horse, then climbs into bed with her. Nothing but kissing is supposed to happen.

About the time dating like this started Emma developed headaches. She was taken only to a chiropractor and herbalist and then to two different quack doctors. She knew she was not made for Amish life. Imagine being 12 or 13 and expected to take over for the mother of a large family for one or two weeks–all on your own! That’s what Emma had to do. This taught her she was not made for that kind of life. Eventually, as the title suggests, she found a way out. By this time her family lived in Missouri and earned money weaving baskets. She was a good enough daughter that she worried the business would die without her hard work. She also protected her siblings from possible abuse by not sharing all of her plans.

My Thoughts

What Emma did takes a lot of courage. She left EVERYTHING to find the life that let her breathe free and be happy. She did not take the step lightly, nor did she do it to hurt anyone. She knew it was not the life for her. That she continued to care and connect with her family no matter what shows her true feelings for them. Like most who have been too sheltered, she went through true times of trial, but she stood up to those trials. I applaud her.

Other Amish books I’ve reviewed:

Why I Left the Amish by Saoma Miller Furlong

Reading Amish and More… a post on Amish books and other items.

Almost Amish: One Woman’s Quest for a Slower, Simple, More Sustainable Life

I’ve read countless others since 1983 when I read the first book.

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Novellas in November Review: Train Dreams: A Novella by Denis Johnson

My Interest

The cover was what attracted me–I saw it and thought it was a print by my Great Uncle, artist Edwin Fulwider. When I read the story was set in Idaho–where Ed worked in the summers and late lived in retirement near Bayview, right on Lake Pend Oreille I was certain. Ok, I was wrong, but below you can get an idea of WHY I thought so. The painting I was recalling be in a private collection for I could not find an image via Google of it. Sadly, that part of Idaho was first invaded by Neo-Nazis (remember Ruby Ridge?) and then tourists. Now it is unrecognizable as the summer artists’ colony Indiana University/Stanford University David Star Jordan helped found [More about him in another post–he’s currently a non-person due to the new book Why Fish Don’t Exist).

The Story

“All his life Robert Grainier would remember vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dreamlike business he’d ever witnessed waking—the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching daylight from beyond the valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of Bussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utterly still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world.” (Train Dreams)

Every man laborer Robert Gainer lives a typical Northern Idaho life at the start of the 20th Century. Dumped? Orphaned? He does not know, but was raised with cousins and considered an aunt and uncle his “parents.” His early memory is of being on a train with a tag upon which was written his ultimate destination. His life is cruel in the way so many lives were cruel before social safety nets. The place he lands in is a raw, mining area near Sandpoint in the panhandle. Life continues to be cruel, but he takes it in his stride. He has experiences–some dreams as he goes through his very ordinary existence.

My Thoughts

I’ve made that sound very gloomy, yet it IS somehow a beautiful book. There is one scene I could have lived without, but even it was so carefully told I could let it go. Times were different. Many people had no reason to expect more than Bob Gainer found in life. Johnson’s prose is superb.  The audiobook performance was worthy of this fine writing. At 2.25 hours anyone can find time to listen and enjoy this little marvel of a novella.

I wish Uncle Ed had been alive to enjoy this with me. He would have marveled at it. It so perfectly captures the feel of old-time Panhandle life.

Train Dreams: A Novella by Denis Johnson

Edwin L. Fulwider

Trains, mines, and Northern Idaho, all figured prominently in his body of work. Paintings, four-color lithographs, black/white lithography–all were staples in his portfolio.

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i1035 FW1.1  Edwin L. Fulwider: “Tearing Locomotive” lithograph Photo Source

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Edwin L. Fulwider: Untitled depiction of the Great Northern Railway

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Photo Source

Edwin L. Fulwider: The Union Pacific

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Photo Source

Storm, Salmon River Valley, Idaho by Edwin L. Fulwider

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Preparing for Novellas in November: Some Suggested Titles For Each Week

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Novellas in November (Cathy) or Novellas in November (Rebecca) has weekly themes schedule, if you enjoy that sort of thing. Each theme starts on Monday.

My Title Suggestions by Theme

2–8 November: Contemporary fiction (Cathy)

These are the shortest, newish, novels I’ve read–each under 200 pages.

My Very Favorite Novella? Click here and scroll to the second review.

9–15 November: Nonfiction novellas (Rebecca)

Night is in a class by itself.

16–22 November: Literature in translation (Cathy) My reviews: Left and Right

These are the shortest translated works I’ve read. Left, Center, Right

23–29 November: Short classics (Rebecca)

I’ve chosen three “classic-classics.” [I have read these, but too long ago for reviews]

And three contemporary classics. I do not have a link-able review to The Driver’s Seat but it is the source of one of my favorite quotes–“Not really a presence….The lack of an absence….”

Need More Suggestions?

Ten Books To Read in About One Sitting II

10 Books To Read in One Sitting

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Novellas in November? Nonfiction November? Both?

Two great reading events just in time for my long Thanksgiving to New Year’s break! I’m back in graduate school for one year doing a certificate for my job and it has taken up most of my reading time since late August. It will be a relief to be able read what I want. I already signed up for German Lit Month, but have gotten nowhere with that one. Maybe I can find a short novel in translation and get a “two for” out of it? I do that. It’s all just for fun.

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Novellas in November (Cathy) or Novellas in November (Rebecca) is new-to-me, but sounds perfect for the fiction I will read in November. Here’s their weekly theme schedule, if you want to play along. The theme starts on Monday.

2–8 November: Contemporary fiction (Cathy)

9–15 November: Nonfiction novellas (Rebecca)

16–22 November: Literature in translation (Cathy)

23–29 November: Short classics (Rebecca)

#NovNov

 

Nonfiction November is perfect, too, for the stack of new nonfiction titles I’ve recently bought. Katie @ Doing Dewey, Julie @ Julz Reads, Leann @ Shelf Aware, and Rennie @ What’s NonFiction? are hosting this nonfiction reading challenge. (There is also a Goodreads Group with the same title,)

Here is their weekly theme schedule:

Week 1: (November 2-6) – Your Year in Nonfiction

The first week you may write a post about the nonfiction you’ve read so far this year.

My 2019 Year in Nonfiction post.

Week 2: (November 9-13) -Book Pairing (nonfiction to fiction)

Curious?

2019 Pairings post.

Week 3: (November 16-20) –Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert

Not sure about this one? Here’s my post from last year to give you an idea.

Expert Recommendations of Royal Books

Week 4: (November 23-27) –New to My TBR

If you are new to the world of reading challenges, TBR just means your “To Be Read” list/pile/shelf.

2019 New to My TBR

#NonficNov

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Remember, November is also German Literature Month! My announcement post is here.

#germanlitmonth

But wait! There’s more! It’s also Aus Reading Month! Post coming later this week!

Will you be joining in? Leave me a comment and tell me your plans!