Review: The Marriage Bureau by Penrose Halson

Review: The Marriage Bureau by Penrose HalsonThe Marriage Bureau: The True Story of How Two Matchmakers Arranged Love in Wartime London by Penrose Halson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, World War II
Pages: 352
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on May 2nd 2017
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A riveting glimpse of life and love during and after World War II—a heart-warming, touching, and thoroughly absorbing true story of a world gone by.
In the spring of 1939, with the Second World War looming, two determined twenty-four-year-olds, Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver, decided to open a marriage bureau. They found a tiny office on London’s Bond Street and set about the delicate business of matchmaking. Drawing on the bureau’s extensive archives, Penrose Halson—who many years later found herself the proprietor of the bureau—tells their story, and those of their clients.
From shop girls to debutantes; widowers to war veterans, clients came in search of security, social acceptance, or simply love. And thanks to the meticulous organization and astute intuition of the Bureau’s matchmakers, most found what they were looking for.
Penrose Halson draws from newspaper and magazine articles, advertisements, and interviews with the proprietors themselves to bring the romance and heartbreak of matchmaking during wartime to vivid, often hilarious, life in this unforgettable story of a most unusual business.

My Review:

Fiction may be the lie that tells the truth, but sometimes that truism runs headlong into another, the one that goes, “The truth is not only stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we CAN imagine.” Fiction has to actually feel plausible, or it turns the willing suspension of disbelief into the unwilling, and bounces the reader out of the story. Nonfiction doesn’t have to be plausible, it just has to be true.

The history of The Marriage Bureau is one of those stories that would feel a bit too contrived if it were fiction. But it isn’t. Fictional, that is. It still feels a bit contrived, but because it actually did happen, the reader ends up marveling at human nature in all its sometimes crazy variety (much as the proprietors did) instead of picking apart the characters.

Because if these folks weren’t real, we’d all be sure it was a bit too good or too strange to be true. Mostly strange.

Not bad strange, just, well, people.

In 1939, both Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver had dipped their toes into the marital well, and come out either scalded or completely tepid. Heather was divorced and Mary hadn’t found anyone she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. Or even more than few weeks with.

It was Mary’s Uncle George who suggested the idea that became the Marriage Bureau. Providing a registry for people who were looking for spouses, and using interviews, common sense and intuition to match people up, had the possibility of providing both young women with both an independent income and a purpose in life, allowing them to remain single and independent of their families while providing a much needed service.

A service that was much more needed than either of them anticipated. From their very first day the line for interviews went down the stairs from their rented office and practically out the door of the building, three stories below.

The story in The Marriage Bureau is that of the first ten years of the Bureau, a period that encompasses the end of Empire, the Phoney War, the London Blitz and the years of post-war rationing. Through it all, Londoners and many others crossed the threshold of the Marriage Bureau, hoping that the ladies of the Bureau could do for them what they had not managed to do for themselves, find a congenial and suitable spouse.

One of the fascinating things about the way that the Bureau worked was that, unlike many British institutions, particularly of that era, it was not restricted to class. The fees were modest, and structured so that it was in the agency’s best interest to find each client a spouse who would suit them, not anyone else’s ideas for them.

Yes, most people were looking for someone of their own class, or close to it, but the Bureau had clients of every class and station from working to landed to titled and all the gradations in between. Just as today, those who are too busy making a living or caring for others or a combination of the above are often too busy, too shy or both to put themselves out where they have a chance at finding a life-partner.

And for the women who ran the Bureau over that decade (and beyond) it was a labor of love. And a rousing success.

Reality Rating B: The story in The Marriage Bureau is episodic rather than a continual narrative. The story dips into the lives, loves and ambitions of the people who came the Bureau as clients, rather than delving deeply into the lives of its proprietors and agents. Although the years of the London Blitz are part of the story, we read more of the Blitz’s impact on people’s lives and their desire to marry than we follow any one person’s story.

Being a series of dips rather than a deep dive, the story is not a compelling read. One isn’t riveted, wanting to see what happens next, because the narrative doesn’t follow individuals in the way that compels. However, and it is a very big however in this case, it is both easy to dip into and out of, and the story as a whole is quite charming. Even the more “interesting” and less matchable clients get their due. And while there is a certain amount of shared laughter at some clients’ wilder expectations, every client and their story are treated with respect, sometimes including a direct “talking to” about just how wild their expectations might be. And sometimes they are very wild, whether for self-aggrandizement, out of self-absorption, or, on occasion, out of sympathy and hope.

It isn’t all sweetness and light. There are a few stories where the clients tipped over (or barged over) the line, and got shown the door. There is one haunting story of parental interference in what should have been a happily ever after. And, of course, life happens. The war brings an end to some marriages, and the peace brings an end to a few more. Some merely grieve, but some return in the hopes of striking lucky a second time.

In the end, this is a story of two women and the execution of one great idea. And it’s a story that shows that there is someone out there for everyone, even if we occasionally need a little help with the looking.

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Review: American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin

Review: American Heiress by Jeffrey ToobinAmerican Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, history, nonfiction, true crime
Pages: 368
Published by Doubleday on August 2nd 2016
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From New Yorker staff writer and bestselling author Jeffrey Toobin, the definitive account of the kidnapping and trial that defined an insane era in American history
On February 4, 1974, Patty Hearst, a senior in college and heiress to the Hearst family fortune, was kidnapped by a ragtag group of self-styled revolutionaries calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. The already sensational story took the first of many incredible twists on April 3, when the group released a tape of Patty saying she had joined the SLA and had adopted the nom de guerre "Tania."The weird turns of the tale are truly astonishing -- the Hearst family trying to secure Patty's release by feeding all the people of Oakland and San Francisco for free; the photographs capturing "Tania" wielding a machine gun during a bank robbery; a cast of characters including everyone from Bill Walton to the Black Panthers to Ronald Reagan to F. Lee Bailey; the largest police shoot-out in American history; the first breaking news event to be broadcast live on television stations across the country; Patty's year on the lam, running from authorities; and her circuslike trial, filled with theatrical courtroom confrontations and a dramatic last-minute reversal, after which the phrase "Stockholm syndrome" entered the lexicon. The saga of Patty Hearst highlighted a decade in which America seemed to be suffering a collective nervous breakdown. Based on more than a hundred interviews and thousands of previously secret documents, American Heiress thrillingly recounts the craziness of the times (there were an average of 1500 terrorist bombings a year in the early 1970s). Toobin portrays the lunacy of the half-baked radicals of the SLA and the toxic mix of sex, politics, and violence that swept up Patty Hearst; and recreates her melodramatic trial. American Heiress examines the life of a young woman who suffered an unimaginable trauma and then made the stunning decision to join her captors' crusade. Or did she?

My Review:

The past, as they say, is another country. They do things differently there.

1974 is definitely the past. Which is something which also feels unaccountably “wrong” at the same time. I was a junior in high school when Patty Hearst was kidnapped. And it seems like a life-time ago – only because it was.

patty hearst SLAThe story of Patty Hearst’s kidnapping, conversion, capture and conviction is so wildly improbably that it could only be fact. If someone tried to sell this saga as fiction, it would be rejected as too improbable to be believable. But it really happened.

It’s a very wild ride.

One of the things that struck this reader is just how inept both sides of the equation were. The cops, notably the FBI, come off as much more Keystone Kops than clear-eyed Eliot Ness. It’s not just that they couldn’t catch a break, but that they often didn’t know what break to catch. In hindsight, there were all kinds of clues that weren’t followed up on. This didn’t have to go on nearly as long as it did.

Especially since the criminals were no more ept than the cops. As you read the story, it’s impossible not to be struck but just how often the SLA just got lucky. They may have planned their individual operations down to the details, but there was no overall plan and no major goal to be accomplished. They seem to have been living in a bubble of their own making. And it somehow kept working for them.

Until it didn’t.

The central figure in this story is Patty Hearst herself. So much hinges on figuring out what she really thought and felt. And that’s an unknown, and always has been.

It’s difficult not to put myself in her place. At 19, if someone kidnapped you at gunpoint and locked you in a closet, what would you think when weeks later they offered you the option of walking away or joining up? Would anyone actually believe that walking away was a real option? I keep coming back to that over and over. Expediency says to play along.

The questions, both at the time and now, come back to whether or not she truly believed in the revolutionary cause she ended up espousing. But even if she did, how can anyone say that she truly gave unforced consent to anything that happened? How free was she to choose? We’ll never know.

Which is probably how she managed to receive both clemency from President Jimmy Carter and a pardon from President Bill Clinton. In the end, with Patty controlling the narrative, everyone saw what they wanted to see.

Something that Patty Hearst seems to have been very, very good at playing.

Escape Rating A-: One of the things that this book does well is to set the stage. The 1970s are not that long ago, but they are also in some ways very far away. The optimism of the civil rights movement and the feminist movement had not yet faded into cynicism. At the same time, it was a completely crazy era, as the anti-war protests of the 1960s descended into revolutionary fervor and violence of all types. Including lots of bombings and home-grown terrorism.

The cops come off as almost completely inept. At the same time, the criminals were more lucky than smart. One of the things that the author makes clear, but is so hard to imagine today, is that there were no cell phones and no internet. Communication was slow and clumsy, coordination was incredibly difficult. Those are factors which made the criminals lives much easier, and the cops’ jobs much more difficult. Occasionally, that ineptitude feels like it drags the narrative down a bit. Because the bulk of the book is about Patty’s life on the run with the SLA, the length of time she remains free and the inability of the police and the FBI to find and apprehend her goes on and on, because in real life it did.  However, I would have liked a bit more on the trial and its aftermath than is present in the book.

At the end of the book, the questions are still unanswered. Both the question of just how willing a participant Patty Hearst was in the later SLA criminal activities, and also just how much will did she have at that point? It’s ironic that the phrase that most often comes to mind in reference to her case, Stockholm Syndrome, wasn’t in use at the time of her trial because the Stockholm event itself had just occurred in 1973. Was she formally brainwashed? Based on the book, it seems doubtful. Not that the SLA might not have tried, but that they never seemed to have it that much together. Did she have Stockholm Syndrome? That seems much more plausible.

That the questions from the book continue to haunt me says something about the writing. This is a good story. It always has been. There’s a lot of drama, a certain amount of melodrama, and a fascinating use of a kind of sin and redemption trope, as Patty is taken from her good girl life, becomes an outlaw, and then reforms. It’s also a story about where the rich really are different from you and me. No one else in history has ever received both clemency and a pardon. Money still talks.

American Heiress is a compulsively readable account of an utterly fascinating riches to rags to riches story of crime, punishment and redemption.

Review: Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines Hellions & Heretics by Jason Porath

Review: Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines Hellions & Heretics by Jason PorathRejected Princesses: Tales of History's Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics by Jason Porath
Format: hardcover
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: history, women's history
Pages: 384
Published by Dey Street Books on October 25th 2016
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Blending the iconoclastic feminism of The Notorious RBG and the confident irreverence of Go the F**ck to Sleep, a brazen and empowering illustrated collection that celebrates inspirational badass women throughout history, based on the popular Tumblr blog.
Well-behaved women seldom make history. Good thing these women are far from well behaved . . .
Illustrated in a contemporary animation style, Rejected Princesses turns the ubiquitous "pretty pink princess" stereotype portrayed in movies, and on endless toys, books, and tutus on its head, paying homage instead to an awesome collection of strong, fierce, and yes, sometimes weird, women: warrior queens, soldiers, villains, spies, revolutionaries, and more who refused to behave and meekly accept their place.
An entertaining mix of biography, imagery, and humor written in a fresh, young, and riotous voice, this thoroughly researched exploration salutes these awesome women drawn from both historical and fantastical realms, including real life, literature, mythology, and folklore. Each profile features an eye-catching image of both heroic and villainous women in command from across history and around the world, from a princess-cum-pirate in fifth century Denmark, to a rebel preacher in 1630s Boston, to a bloodthirsty Hungarian countess, and a former prostitute who commanded a fleet of more than 70,000 men on China’s seas.

My Review:

Think of this as the ultimate collection of fractured fairy tales, because this collection is fractured on a number of different axes, all of them worth thinking about.

Also, the whole thing is a terrific hoot. So if you are looking for a slightly ironic and occasionally a bit pained laugh, this book is well worth dipping into. Often.

Many of these stories are based on history, some a bit more loosely than others. And the rest are based in myths that are well-known but have been ignored by Western culture. Why, you ask? Because all of the stories in this collection feature women who acted in various ways outside of the norms that Western history wants to impose upon women.

Every one of the women in these stories lives up to the saying, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” None of these women behaved well, and all of them made history. Even if, or especially because, it’s a history that the entrenched patriarchy wants to bury. After burning.

In case you can’t tell, reading this collection will definitely get your feminist dander way, way up. And that’s a good thing. These stories all need to be told. Because if we want girls to believe that they can be anything they set their minds and hearts to, we need to show them that it is possible to be more than just the few options that all of the media messaging tells them are available to girls and women.

The tone of Rejected Princesses is tongue-very-firmly-in-cheek. Although it reminds me of last year’s marvelous Cranky Ladies of History, the scope is much broader and the stories are much, much shorter, to the point of being vignettes rather than stories. But the Cranky Ladies had an observable bias towards stories with which most of us in Western societies, notably America, are already familiar with.

Porath’s scope is deliberately broader. The intent seems to be to illuminate all of the dusty and forgotten corners of history and legend that are occupied by women, from every continent and every time period. There are stories that feature women in ancient legends from the Norwegian fairy tale Tatterhood to the Brazilian legend of Iara to Xtabay from Mesoamerican mythology.

The historical figures are equally far ranging, from familiar names like Harriet Tubman and Anne Hutchinson in the US and Tomoe Gozen in 12th century China to Andamana in the 14th century Canary Islands and Alfhild in 5th century Denmark. The author has attempted to show the wide and varied range of women in history, from the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians to the 20th century around the globe.

If you are looking for a female historical figure relevant to any culture, any continent, any race and any era, she’s probably in here someplace, along with her sisters. I think that anyone could find a woman to identify with who relates directly to herself in some or many ways.

Not all of the women are heroes, either. The infamous Elizabeth Bathory is not the only villain featured between these pages. But the focus of the collection is to show the wide range of women in history, from heroes to villains, from slaves to owners, from commoners to queens. We’ve done it all. We just don’t get to see it all reflected in the history books.

Escape Rating B+: This collection is not intended to be definitive. And it is definitely not intended to be an authoritative historical treatise. That tongue-in-cheek style lends itself to a lot of humorous asides and more than a bit of breaking the fourth wall, where the author talks directly to the reader and not necessarily about the subject in hand.

One of the terrific things that the author has added to the collection is an attempt to provide trigger warnings and guide parents to stories that are or are not suitable to a particular child at a specific maturity level. Many of these stories, Elizabeth Bathory just keeps coming to mind, are not for the faint of heart (or stomach) or for a very young audience. An unfortunate number of famous women rose to fame or infamy after an awful lot of abuse of one kind or another, which may make their stories not exactly suitable for toddlers. When the author calls someone’s ex-husband “a crap sandwich” it’s not surprising that the story is not for the youngest audiences.

Based on the story, calling this particular ex “a crap sandwich” may possibly have been an insult to both crap and sandwiches.

But it is incredibly fun. If you are looking for something to whet your own on someone else’s appetite for diving into more women’s history, this is a great place to start. One final note to prospective readers; the illustrations in Rejected Princesses are terrific and often relevant to the story. Not historically accurate, but always interesting. Because of the illustrations, this is one book that is MUCH better read in print. Which also makes it easier to skim, a temptation that is nearly impossible to resist.

Review: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Review: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee ShetterlyHidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook, movie!
Genres: biography, computer history, history, science history, U.S. history, women's history
Pages: 368
Published by William Morrow on September 6th 2016
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Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South and the civil rights movement, the never-before-told true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America’s space program—and whose contributions have been unheralded, until now.
Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as “Human Computers,” calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts by Jim Crow laws, these “colored computers,” as they were known, used slide rules, adding machines, and pencil and paper to support America’s fledgling aeronautics industry, and helped write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.
Drawing on the oral histories of scores of these “computers,” personal recollections, interviews with NASA executives and engineers, archival documents, correspondence, and reporting from the era, Hidden Figures recalls America’s greatest adventure and NASA’s groundbreaking successes through the experiences of five spunky, courageous, intelligent, determined, and patriotic women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Gloria Champine.
Moving from World War II through NASA’s golden age, touching on the civil rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the women’s rights movement, Hidden Figures interweaves a rich history of scientific achievement and technological innovation with the intimate stories of five women whose work forever changed the world—and whose lives show how out of one of America’s most painful histories came one of its proudest moments.

My Review:

Hidden Figures tells an absolutely fascinating story; a story that is all the better for being true.

Once upon a time, a computer was not a piece of machinery. Once upon a time, a computer was a human being, usually a woman, who was just about a genius in mathematics. In spite of the fact that most people believed, rather foolishly, that women weren’t capable of either higher mathematics or professional achievement, this is the story of a group of women who did both, plotting trajectories and engineering airplane designs that led from the battlefields of World War II to the moon.

Although a piece of this story was also told this year in Rise of the Rocket Girls, the struggle for achievement and recognition is even more striking in Hidden Figures. All of the hidden figures in this book were hidden twice, once by their gender, and again by their race.

Hidden Figures is the story of the black women who began their careers, or in some cases re-started their careers, within the segregated confines of West Computing at what is now NASA’s Langley Research Center in Jim Crow era Hampton Virginia during WWII.

It was a job with endless demands, huge requirements and never enough people to fill the positions. During World War II, Langley was THE place for aviation and aeronautic engineering. The space race wasn’t yet a gleam in anyone’s eye, even as crazy as the NACA nuts could sometimes be. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was behind America’s superiority in the air in WW2. But to achieve that superiority required hordes of engineers and battalions of human computers to create and confirm mathematical formulas for everything from missile trajectories to drag co-efficients.

Many of those human computers were black women with degrees in mathematics and a desire to either further their careers, make an amazingly good wage for a black woman in the 1940s to support their families, or both.

They faced segregation at the workplace and in the town of Hampton. They created a place for their families and their friends, and a culture of support that made it just a little bit easier for the next black female computer or the next black male engineer to become part of what they all saw as their new home and the place where important work happened.

Hidden Figures is the story of the women who powered the Space Race. Whether by hand and mind, or by electronic computer, they imagined and created, double-checked and rechecked, the trajectories for John Glenn’s famous first flight, Neil Armstrong’s even more famous first moonwalk, and even supplied the Plan B mathematics that helped bring Apollo 13 back from the brink of disaster.

Their story of mostly unsung heroism is quietly brave and bravely daring. In an era where women’s contributions to computing, especially the contributions of women of color are harassed at every turn, this is a story that shows just how much is possible if we are willing to work and fight for it.

hidden figures movie posterEscape Rating A-: There are two aspects to my comments. On the one hand, there is the story itself, which is absolutely awesome and needs to be distributed to the widest audience possible. (There’s a movie coming this winter!) This is one of those stories that, if it were not true, no one would believe it. A story of female professionals succeeding despite the odds in a male dominated profession and workplace. The story of black women thriving professionally and personally in the Jim Crow South.

In the way that Hidden Figures captures the numerous double standards that these women worked and lived under, and the way that they saw themselves both as just doing their jobs and as powerful symbols for their race and sex, there are some parallels to the histories told in both Rise of the Rocket Girls and The Defender. These women worked for their families, for their race, and for themselves and their own personal hopes and dreams.

The history of Langley, the Space Race and the opening of doors in Civil Service employment owes much to the struggles that are documented in The Defender. The doors opened because the Space Race, the ending of colonialism in much of the world, and the Civil Rights movement cast a glaring light on racism in America, and on the ways that segregation denied so many the education needed for the U.S. to compete on the world stage, while making a mockery of America’s calls for freedom and democracy elsewhere in the world.

Some things never change.

Because we see this story through the eyes of specific individuals, it is easy for the reader to empathize with both their struggles and their triumphs, whether the reader meets the characters on several axes, or none.

But as work of authorship, this story has a slow start and initially a few too many foci. There’s also quite a bit of information about aircraft engineering that may border on overload. Once the story moves from the NACA era to the NASA era, the narrative picks up steam and the points of view become more focused.

Minor quibbles aside, this is a book for anyone who is interested in the history of women in engineering and computer, the history of the ways that both race and gender impact opportunities in those fields, and the history of NASA and space flight.

Fittingly one of the stories at the end is the famous story of Martin Luther King Jr. convincing Nichelle Nichols to remain on Star Trek as Lieutenant Uhura, not because of what she actually did onscreen, but because of what she represented. She represented the future of all the women portrayed in Hidden Figures, and their dream to reach the stars.

Review: Pistols and Petticoats by Erika Janik

Review: Pistols and Petticoats by Erika JanikPistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction by Erika Janik
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: feminist history, historical fiction, historical mystery, history, mystery, women's history
Pages: 248
Published by Beacon Press on April 26th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A lively exploration of the struggles faced by women in law enforcement and mystery fiction for the past 175 years
In 1910, Alice Wells took the oath to join the all-male Los Angeles Police Department. She wore no uniform, carried no weapon, and kept her badge stuffed in her pocketbook. She wasn’t the first or only policewoman, but she became the movement’s most visible voice.
Police work from its very beginning was considered a male domain, far too dangerous and rough for a respectable woman to even contemplate doing, much less take on as a profession. A policewoman worked outside the home, walking dangerous city streets late at night to confront burglars, drunks, scam artists, and prostitutes. To solve crimes, she observed, collected evidence, and used reason and logic—traits typically associated with men. And most controversially of all, she had a purpose separate from her husband, children, and home. Women who donned the badge faced harassment and discrimination. It would take more than seventy years for women to enter the force as full-fledged officers.
Yet within the covers of popular fiction, women not only wrote mysteries but also created female characters that handily solved crimes. Smart, independent, and courageous, these nineteenth- and early twentieth-century female sleuths (including a healthy number created by male writers) set the stage for Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, as well as TV detectives such as Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison and Law and Order’s Olivia Benson. The authors were not amateurs dabbling in detection but professional writers who helped define the genre and competed with men, often to greater success.
Pistols and Petticoats tells the story of women’s very early place in crime fiction and their public crusade to transform policing. Whether real or fictional, investigating women were nearly always at odds with society. Most women refused to let that stop them, paving the way to a modern professional life for women on the force and in popular culture.

My Review:

I want to make a joke about Pistols and Petticoats being “two, two, two books in one”, but the problem with the book is that it isn’t. Instead it is two books that attempt to be combined into one. Unfortunately the seam between the two books is rather visible, and leaves a nasty and distinguishing scar.

What we have feels like an attempt to yoke a scholarly study about the changing roles of women in detection and police work joined at the slightly non-working hip with a book about the changing roles of women in detective fiction and the lives and careers of women who have made successful and even groundbreaking forays into the mystery genre.

The desire, often stated in the book, is to show how the increased roles of women in novels and later other media often presaged the increasing roles for women in real-life police work. But the two parts don’t flow into one another, possibly because there isn’t much there, well, there.

Instead, in the historical narrative, police work for women was often proposed as, and in many cases restricted to, an extension of the reform zeal of the late 1800s and the belief that dealing with social problems and juvenile crime were a natural outgrowth of women’s roles in the home. Fictional female sleuths, on the other hand, were created first of all to entertain, but created in a way that was not supposed to upset the status quo. Which explains both Miss Marple and the reason that so many young female sleuths’ careers ended in marriage.

Women were supposed to remain in the domestic sphere, and that sphere was supposed to be the pinnacle of all their ambitions. Elderly spinsters like Miss Marple needed something to occupy their time, particularly in eras where so many women were left without spouses after a generation of young men died in warfare.

Pistols and Petticoats does not read like a successful amalgamation of the author’s two “plot” lines. The historical sections that detail women’s real and increasing contributions to police work and detection, read, unfortunately, like rather dry history. It’s interesting, but only becomes lively when the women themselves have interesting lives, like Alice Clement or Kate Warne.

The parts that thrill are where the author sinks her teeth into the history of female detectives and the history of the females who have written successful mysteries. The early years of female writers who made the genre what it is today, but whose works have not continued to find readers, was fascinating.

The information about where certain trends in mystery took their cues from contemporary life and women’s places in it also pulled me in. Not just the heroines of the Golden Age, like Christie and Marple, and Sayers with Harriet Vane, but also how those characters fit into their own society.

murderess ink by dilys winnEscape Rating C+: All in all, the parts of the book that dealt with mystery fiction made for more compelling reading. They also reminded me of a book that I have not thought of in years, Murderess Ink. Murderess Ink, the followup to Murder Ink, was a lighthearted study of the women who created and populated the mystery genre from the Golden Age until its late 1970s present. As much as I enjoyed the sections of Pistols and Petticoats that dealt with the genre, perhaps it is time for an update of Murder Ink and Murderess Ink.

Review: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer

Review: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua HammerThe Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: current events, history, libraries
Pages: 288
Published by Simon & Schuster on April 19th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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To save precious centuries-old Arabic texts from Al Qaeda, a band of librarians in Timbuktu pulls off a brazen heist worthy of Ocean’s Eleven.
In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, journeyed across the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that had fallen into obscurity. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the incredible story of how Haidara, a mild-mannered archivist and historian from the legendary city of Timbuktu, later became one of the world’s greatest and most brazen smugglers.
In 2012, thousands of Al Qaeda militants from northwest Africa seized control of most of Mali, including Timbuktu. They imposed Sharia law, chopped off the hands of accused thieves, stoned to death unmarried couples, and threatened to destroy the great manuscripts. As the militants tightened their control over Timbuktu, Haidara organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali.
Over the past twenty years, journalist Joshua Hammer visited Timbuktu numerous times and is uniquely qualified to tell the story of Haidara’s heroic and ultimately successful effort to outwit Al Qaeda and preserve Mali’s—and the world’s—literary patrimony. Hammer explores the city’s manuscript heritage and offers never-before-reported details about the militants’ march into northwest Africa. But above all, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is an inspiring account of the victory of art and literature over extremism.

My Review:

April 10-16 is National Library Week, so The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu was an absolutely irresistible title to review this week.

But the story in this book is a lot bigger than just the librarians, and goes a lot further back. Yes, we do have the story of the librarians who rescued the manuscripts, but also a whole lot more. Because the author has taken the story and set it into the history of the region, and provides the context for why the rescue was necessary.

So, this isn’t just the story of the librarians or the rescue. What we have is a history of Timbuktu and the region surrounding it. The author gives us an all too brief glimpse into the scholarly past of the town, and shows how this incredible treasure trove of manuscripts came to be in this city that is a byword for remote.

From the late 13th century through the early 20th, Timbuktu survived successive cycles of open and abundant scholarship, followed by waves of educational repression and suppression. When the scholarship flourished, manuscripts were collected and accumulated by the thousands. During the periods of repression, the manuscripts were hidden in private collections in the city and surrounding areas.

In the 20th century, a man named Abdul Kader Haidara inherited one of the largest of those private collections. He went from being skeptical about his legacy, to becoming a passionate preserver of not only his own archive, but of all of the manuscripts and scrolls that had been hidden, both in the town and in the large area surrounding it.

For decades, Abdul Kader sought grant funds, and eventually was able to create a world-renowned institute for the study and preservation of the manuscripts, said to number nearly 800,000 and nearly all irreplaceable.

But just as in history, his wave of open scholarship was succeeded by a wave of severe repression. In the 21st century, Al Queda and other intolerant forces began to scoop up territory around Timbuktu, as they inserted themselves into the power vacuum after the fall of Qaddafi. When an Al Queda offshoot took control of Timbuktu, Abdul Kader made plans for the manuscripts.

In a long and daring series of convoys, over desert trails and river voyages, and through military checkpoints that had to be bribed or evaded every step of the way, 95% of the precious manuscripts were evacuated to safety.

This is their story.

Reality Rating B: I’m not sure whether to call this one a “Reality” rating or an “Escape” rating. The story is real, but the manuscripts escaped.

This is really three stories rolled into one – first the history that made this collection possible. Second, the tragedy that made the rescue necessary. And finally, the rescue itself.

While the history of Timbuktu and its frequent scholarly golden ages was interesting, the recent history was sometimes hard to follow. While we know in general terms that many of the Islamic fundamentalist sects are extremely hostile towards any historical references that contradict their dogmatic view of history and religion, the attempt to provide the reader with context on which group controlled which part of Mali at which time, and why, often fell a little flat. There were too many names and dates, and not enough background to what made them different from each other.

History, or at least the parts of it that interest this reader, is about people. There were too many unfamiliar names and places infodumped on the reader in too few pages. At the same time, those expositions felt longer than the earlier history, or certainly dragged on longer than the story of Abdul Kader and the rescue of the manuscripts, itself.

It is in Abdul Kader’s story that the book really shines. We are with him as he shoulders the responsibility for his family’s collection, and we suffer along with all of his hardships on his dangerous and ultimately successful trips to acquire more manuscripts for the Institute that set him on his path. It’s his journey, his hopes, and his fears that bring the reader fully into this story and engage the mind, heart and imagination.

Speaking as a librarian, Abdul Kader’s story is one that makes me proud of my profession. He’s a librarian, a rescuer of history, and an inspiration to us all.

national library week 2016

Review: The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America by Ethan Michaeli

Review: The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America by Ethan MichaeliThe Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America by Ethan Michaeli
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: Chicago history, history, journalism, U.S. history
Pages: 656
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on January 12th 2016
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“An extraordinary history…Deeply researched, elegantly written…a towering achievement that will not be soon forgotten.”Brent Staples, New York Times Book Review  Giving voice to the voiceless, the Chicago Defender condemned Jim Crow, catalyzed the Great Migration, and focused the electoral power of black America. Robert S. Abbott founded The Defender in 1905, smuggled hundreds of thousands of copies into the most isolated communities in the segregated South, and was dubbed a "Modern Moses," becoming one of the first black millionaires in the process. His successor wielded the newspaper’s clout to elect mayors and presidents, including Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy, who would have lost in 1960 if not for The Defender’s support. Along the way, its pages were filled with columns by legends like Ida B. Wells, Langston Hughes, and Martin Luther King.
Drawing on dozens of interviews and extensive archival research, Ethan Michaeli constructs a revelatory narrative of race in America and brings to life the reporters who braved lynch mobs and policemen’s clubs to do their jobs, from the age of Teddy Roosevelt to the age of Barack Obama.

My Review:

The story of The Defender is really multiple stories. It is a history of America in the 20th century, as seen through a slightly different lens than the one many of us were taught in the history books. And because of that lens, because of the audience that The Chicago Defender was built by and for, it is also the history of Black America in the 20th century. And all of that from the focal point of Chicago, where The Chicago Defender was based and from which it drew so many of its stories.

And it is also the history of the rise and fall of one newspaper, and in some ways newspapers in general, in the 20th century. The Chicago Defender began publishing in 1905, saw its own rise and the rise of the community it served, and it now survives reduced in size and influence, as so many newspapers have been reduced in size and influence.

February is Black History Month, and The Defender is a marvelous book for this month, as it tells its story from Bronzeville, that part of Chicago that became the heart of the Black community in the city.

But the story of The Chicago Defender begins earlier, at the Chicago World’s Fair and Columbian Exposition in 1893, as so many Chicago stories do. It was in the White City that a very young Robert Sengstacke Abbott met the already elder statesman Frederick Douglass, and began to conceive of the idea of a newspaper for African-Americans based in Chicago. Abbott had trained to be a newspaper man at college, and he just plain wanted to move to Chicago from his home in the rural, segregated and downright dangerous, South.

Much of the early chapters of the book are also Abbott’s story, as he begins his newspaper on the thinnest of shoe-string margins, at first not only doing all the work himself but also relying on the kindness of his landlady to house the fledgeling enterprise in her dining room.

Abbott was smart. He was lucky. And mostly, he had a dream that he diligently pursued for the rest of his life. His dream was to provide news, education, exhortation and uplift to the African-American community, not just in Chicago but around the world. His goal was to break the back of Jim Crow in the South and tacit segregation in the North. And while he did not succeed in his lifetime, he is certainly one of the giants on whose shoulders the mayoralty of Harold Washington and the presidency of Barack Obama stand.

So this is history, from the very late 1800s and the birth of the idea, to the sale of the paper from the family to an outside company in 2003 after nearly a century of ownership by the founding family. By 2003 The Defender wasn’t what it was in its heyday, but no newspaper is what it was. Even The Chicago Defender’s long-time rivals in the Chicago mainstream press, The Chicago Sun Times and The Chicago Tribune, have shrunk from their glory years.

But what fascinates about the story of The Chicago Defender is the way that it in its time, and it in its history, shine a different light on events that mainstream audiences are familiar with – from the corrupt administrations of “Big Bill” Thompson to the machine politics of Richard J. Daley to the ascendancy of Harold Washington. The Chicago Defender was one of the great sparking motivations for the “Great Migration” of African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North in the first half of the 20th century.

The power of the voting block mobilized by The Chicago Defender held the fate of congressional representatives, Chicago mayors and even presidents in its collective hands on Election Day. And the principals of The Chicago Defender pressed for, and eventually achieved, among other notable successes, complete integration in the U.S. Armed Forces.

This book is a captivating look at 20th century America, and a marvelous study of the power of the press to achieve greatness.

Reality Rating A-: I both enjoyed this book and was fascinated by the view of history that it illuminates. I love reading narrative history, where the story, while true, also has a beginning, middle and end, which the history of The Chicago Defender certainly does. The paper began as one man’s dream, and its history with his family ends in the 21st century as newspapers around the country struggle with finding a foothold on the future.

But The Chicago Defender still has a real voice and force in Chicago and U.S. politics. Its annual Bud Billiken Day Parade is still one of the places for up and coming politicians to see and be seen, and for sitting political leaders to get in touch with their constituents and the African American community.

The history in this book was most interesting the further away it was from the present. Reading about the early years, one can almost see the initial small staff laboring away in Mrs. Lee’s dining room, surviving those lean years on hope and her homecooked meals.

It was ironic that the parts of this history that the author witnessed as a member of the staff in the late 1990s felt like a much barer recitation of names and dates, while the early years are almost luminous.

As someone who lived in the Chicago metro area during the Harold Washington years, I remember the way that the mainstream news outlets covered his campaign and his running battle with the Chicago City Council. In reading this account of The Defender’s coverage I get a much more balanced view of that period, seeing much from sides that the mainstream newspapers chose not to cover because it interfered with their narrative.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in differing perspectives on 20th century America, or in the history of 20th century newspapers in general and the Black press in specific. And for anyone who wants to sink their teeth into a solid chunk of fascinating Chicago history.

Review: The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson

Review: The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America by Michael Eric DysonThe Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, current events, history, politics
Pages: 368
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on February 2nd 2016
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A provocative and lively deep dive into the meaning of America's first black presidency, from “one of the most graceful and lucid intellectuals writing on race and politics today” (Vanity Fair).
Michael Eric Dyson explores the powerful, surprising way the politics of race have shaped Barack Obama’s identity and groundbreaking presidency. How has President Obama dealt publicly with race—as the national traumas of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Walter Scott have played out during his tenure? What can we learn from Obama's major race speeches about his approach to racial conflict and the black criticism it provokes? 
Dyson explores whether Obama’s use of his own biracialism as a radiant symbol has been driven by the president’s desire to avoid a painful moral reckoning on race. And he sheds light on identity issues within the black power structure, telling the fascinating story of how Obama has spurned traditional black power brokers, significantly reducing their leverage. 
President Obama’s own voice—from an Oval Office interview granted to Dyson for this book—along with those of Eric Holder, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, and Maxine Waters, among others, add unique depth to this profound tour of the nation’s first black presidency.

My Review:

I chose to review The Black Presidency this week for two reasons. One is the obvious, February is Black History Month. The second is less obvious. This week is the week of the Presidents Day compromise holiday, the Monday between Lincoln’s Birthday and Washington’s Birthday. To review a book about the first black president in the week between holidays celebrating one president who owned people who looked like this president and a later president who freed those slaves and made this presidency possible (whether he personally could have imagined it or not) seemed like serendipitous timing.

There is also another factor. To this reader, so much of the criticism aimed at President Obama smacks of racism, whether those critics intend it to or not. Certainly, to this reader, the groundswell of hatred feels like it has racism at its dark heart.

The kind of identity politics that uses this president as a representative of an under-represented class in public life is not new. It is also not over. Barring an unforeseen tragedy, the Democratic party will either nominate the first woman to lead a major political party ticket or the first Jew to do so. Women have previously, but not often, campaigned in the primaries but have never headed their party’s ticket. Likewise, no non-Christian has ever headed a major party ticket. For that matter, there has only been one non-Protestant president, John F. Kennedy.

The Presidency of the United States has been the ultimate “glass-ceiling” job, and it has been historically difficult for anyone not fitting a particular mold – male, white, Protestant – to reach that Oval Office. So one of the things I was looking for in The Black Presidency was to read more about how race and racism have affected Barack Obama’s presidency, to perhaps learn something about the ways that sexism or anti-Semitism will rear their ugly heads in the campaign, and possibly the presidential term, to come.

Back to this book. The author is looking through the lens of representation, in all its multiple definitions. Because whether he wills it or not, Barack Obama has become both a prominent face of Black America and the face of America. And while the first part of that equation will have some resonance forever, the second is specific to his presidency. Next January, a new president will be sworn in and someone else will become the face of America to the world.

At the same time, like anyone who is a member of an underrepresented or non-dominant group, Barack Obama is supposed to serve as a representative of his group to the broader community, and to represent his group’s interests to that broader community. Anyone who has ever been the only person of their kind in a particular setting has a teeny, tiny taste of what this feels like. To be the only woman in a group of men, particularly in technology, is one example. To be the only Jew in a group of Christians can also make one feel a bit like Daniel in that lion’s den.

So the author is evaluating Obama’s presidency through how he has reacted, particularly what he has said and done, in relationship to all of these axes. It has had an effect on how he has presented himself, in the stereotypical images he has consistently tried to avoid. It has had an effect on how he addresses the black community, and what policies he proposes that do or do not affect that community. It has certainly had an effect in the way that people see him and interpret his actions.

Reality Rating B+: I found this book to be on the one-hand, well-rounded, in that it attempts to look at as many of Obama’s actions and speeches through the lens of representation and representational politics as possible. It is not intended as a study of all of the President’s actions, or of actions that do not or possibly could not relate to race. At the same time, it is admittedly difficult to view this president without at least contending with the way that some portions of the population are either using race as the only way they see him, or are pretending that they are not seeing race at all.

And it is impossible in the U.S. not to see race. A point that is also explored in the book.

This is not, however a complete political biography of the 44th president, nor is it intended to be. And I’ll admit that I was hoping to see more about the way that others view him and the way that those issues have continually buffeted his administration. Because while the axes will change, I think that the buffeting will repeat if either of the potential Democratic Party candidates becomes the next President.

Review: Give Us the Ballot by Ari Berman

Review: Give Us the Ballot by Ari BermanGive Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America by Ari Berman
Format: hardcover
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, politics, U.S. history
Pages: 384
on August 4th 2015
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A New York Times Notable Book of 2015A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of 2015A Boston Globe Best Book of 2015A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of 2015An NPR Best Book of 2015Countless books have been written about the civil rights movement, but far less attention has been paid to what happened after the dramatic passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965 and the turbulent forces it unleashed. Give Us the Ballot tells this story for the first time.
In this groundbreaking narrative history, Ari Berman charts both the transformation of American democracy under the VRA and the counterrevolution that has sought to limit voting rights, from 1965 to the present day. The act enfranchised millions of Americans and is widely regarded as the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement. And yet, fifty years later, we are still fighting heated battles over race, representation, and political power, with lawmakers devising new strategies to keep minorities out of the voting booth and with the Supreme Court declaring a key part of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional.
Berman brings the struggle over voting rights to life through meticulous archival research, in-depth interviews with major figures in the debate, and incisive on-the-ground reporting. In vivid prose, he takes the reader from the demonstrations of the civil rights era to the halls of Congress to the chambers of the Supreme Court. At this important moment in history, Give Us the Ballot provides new insight into one of the most vital political and civil rights issues of our time.

My Review:

Give this book to anyone who believes that the struggle for voting rights in America is over. Because the all too recent history told in this narrative shows all too clearly that it is far, far from over.

This is a difficult book to review. The history related is searing in its intensity. And it is impossible to be neutral. For those who are of the liberal persuasion, it is an indictment of man’s (and woman’s) continuing inhumanity to those who are not part of the white majority. For those who are conservative, it will read very differently. I’ll admit that my mind just won’t go wherever that it.

I wanted to take a bath when I finished, because the things that were done to suppress the African-American vote (and the Hispanic vote) were disgusting and sometimes deadly. In reading this history, it feels as if the deadly has mostly moved to other arenas, but the disgusting is still very much alive and kicking.

A voting rights case in Forsyth County, Georgia, (one county over from my house) was just settled this past week. Voting rights are still being fought for in the U.S., but the fights have moved from the Edmund Pettus Bridge to the judicial system. The fight is no less bloody for that blood being time and ink instead of red.

This may be progress of a sort, but it is progress that must be constantly and rigorously defended.

And in a nutshell, that is the lesson of Give Us the Ballot. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was landmark legislation, but it also marked a beginning and not an ending. Poll taxes and literacy tests were finally over. The battleground simply moved to Voter ID laws, redistricting and “at large” elections.

The right to vote is one of the bedrock principles of the United States. This history shows that the fight to make sure that every eligible person is allowed to vote, and that their vote counts, and that their vote has effective power, never, ever ends.

Escape Rating A: This is a book where I think it will be impossible for any reader to read dispassionately. As a liberal, I frankly wanted to wash at least my hands after reading it. I found the indictment compelling and also slightly nauseating. Both that blatant attempts to suppress the votes of blacks, hispanics and students continue, but that they are all too often successful and cloaked in coded language. And frankly, I still hear “dog whistles”.

Progress has been made, but it has also been beaten back by those in power who want to retain that power. And the tools used to beat that progress back seem designed to obfuscate either the motives of the perpetrators or the consequences of their actions. Or both.

This history clearly shows, at least to this reader, that Voter ID laws, reduction in the hours of early voting, voter roll purges and other such measures are both racially motivated and completely partisan. They are designed to suppress the votes of groups that generally vote for the Democratic Party. For someone who votes liberal, it reads like an attempt to turn the clock back and prevent the changes to the population that are occurring in fact from having a proportional impact at the ballot box and in the politics of the country.

Someone with a more conservative political inclination will undoubtedly see this history differently. I doubt that anyone can be neutral on this subject. This history will certainly make you think, whatever side of the political spectrum you fall upon. Thinking about the right to vote, and about making sure to exercise that right whenever possible, is always important.

Reviewer’s Note: Give Us the Ballot was nominated for the American Library Association’s Notable Book Awards for this year. As part of the Notable Books Council, I am pleased to say that this book was on our Awards list for this year, along with other outstanding works of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. Give Us the Ballot is an intensive history of an important and timely topic. It was also a perfect book to re-read and review over the Martin Luther King Day weekend.

Review: Hissing Cousins by Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer

Review: Hissing Cousins by Marc Peyser and Timothy DwyerHissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth by Timothy Dwyer, Marc Peyser
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, history, nonfiction, politics
Pages: 352
Published by Nan A. Talese on March 31st 2015
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A lively and provocative double biography of first cousins Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, two extraordinary women whose tangled lives provide a sweeping look at the twentieth century.
When Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, his beautiful and flamboyant daughter was transformed into "Princess Alice," arguably the century's first global celebrity. Thirty-two years later, her first cousin Eleanor moved into the White House as First Lady. Born eight months and twenty blocks apart from each other in New York City, Eleanor and Alice spent a large part of their childhoods together and were far more alike than most historians acknowledge.
But their politics and temperaments couldn't have been more distinct. Do-gooder Eleanor was committed to social justice but hated the limelight; acid-tongued Alice, who became the wife of philandering Republican congressman Nicholas Longworth, was an opponent of big government who gained notoriety for her cutting remarks (she famously quipped that dour President Coolidge “looked like he was weaned on a pickle”). While Eleanor revolutionized the role of First Lady with her outspoken passion for human rights, Alice made the most of her insider connections to influence politics, including doing as much to defeat the League of Nations as anyone in elective office.
The cousins themselves liked to play up their oil-and-water relationship. “When I think of Frank and Eleanor in the White House I could grind my teeth to powder and blow them out my nose,” Alice once said. In the 1930s they even wrote opposing syndicated newspaper columns and embarked on competing nationwide speaking tours. Blood may be thicker than water, but when the family business is politics, winning trumps everything.
Vivid, intimate, and stylishly written, Hissing Cousins finally sets this relationship center stage, revealing the contentious bond between two political trailblazers who short-circuited the rules of gender and power, each in her own way.

My Review:

A fascinating dual biography of the first two female power-brokers in the U.S., along with a peek inside one of the longest-running First Families in U.S. history, and with a look at the way the rich and famous lived in what has often been called “the American Century”.

We think of them as being from two different eras, but they were not. While Alice Roosevelt Longworth was the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the U.S., and Eleanor Roosevelt was the wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the U.S., Alice and Eleanor were not just cousins, but they were born in the same year – 1884.

And for two women who on the surface seem to be exact opposites, there are a surprising number of similarities – and some absolutely fascinating differences.

Alice Roosevelt, formal portrait by Theobald Chartran 1901.
Alice Roosevelt, formal portrait by Theobald Chartran 1901.

Alice Roosevelt Longworth was a lot like Princess Di or the Kardashians. She was famous because of who she was, not what she did. When her father Teddy Roosevelt became president she was 15 years old and rebellious into the bargain. And she loved the publicity brought by her rebelliousness. The press loved her, she made great copy, and they dubbed her “Princess Alice”.

A color was named for her, Alice Blue, and a hit Broadway song was named for that color, “Alice Blue Gown” in the musical Irene. While Alice was famously everywhere, her cousin Eleanor was shy, retiring and still far from growing into the woman and the reformer that she would later become.

And it’s entirely possible that both girls “set their caps” for their cousin Franklin, but Eleanor caught him. Alice married Nicholas Longworth, a Congressman from Ohio who eventually became Speaker of the House. Longworth was the first in a long line of older, politically powerful men that Alice loved, and whose careers she both nurtured and skewered.

In her old age, Alice became famous for the saying, “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.” Alice was often viciously malicious throughout her long life, and her cousin Eleanor was a frequent target. Alice enjoyed being bad, and Eleanor was always frightfully good.

Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932
Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932

Eleanor Roosevelt could easily have been just like Alice – famous for being the President’s wife (instead of his daughter) and not known for much else. Instead, Eleanor Roosevelt became one of the most famous American women of the 20th century. FDR’s polio in 1921 forced Eleanor to become the more active political campaigner, while FDR ran for Governor of New York, and after two terms, President of the United States. It was impossible to be shy and retiring on the campaign trail, even in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Eleanor was forced out of her shell, and she found the confidence to not only campaign for her husband, but to champion the reform causes that were near and dear to her own heart, even if her husband disagreed with them. Eleanor became the quintessential upper class do-gooder, but unlike many of her type, she didn’t just pay causes lip-service, she got stuff done.

Alice and Eleanor were like the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz – always on opposite sides, but still very much family.

Mrs. Democrat (Eleanor) and Mrs. Republican (Alice) wielded their very real power in completely different ways. But they were alike in their background, in their tragedies, and in being the first women to have so much power at their own fingertips.

Reality Rating A: Eleanor Roosevelt is a historical figure that everyone thinks they know about. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, on the other hand, at the beginning of the 20th century was much more famous (and infamous), than her cousin Eleanor ever thought of being.

That the situation reversed had a lot to do with the different ways that these women wielded power, and their often divergent paths in life, in spite of, or perhaps because of, their very similar beginnings.

We often forget that Eleanor Roosevelt was Franklin Roosevelt’s cousin as well as his wife. Roosevelt was both her maiden name and her married name! And in our current era of political dynasties, the Kennedys, the Bushes,, and the Clintons, we sometimes forget that the Roosevelts got there first. Between 1900 and FDR’s death in 1945, there were 12 presidential elections, and either TR or FDR was on the ballot 8 of those 12 times. Only 1908, 1916, 1924, 1928 lacked a Roosevelt on one ticket or the other. Not even the Bushes have been that dominant, whether in success or failure.

In the first half of the 20th century, the Roosevelts were always in the news.

The story in Hissing Cousins isn’t just the news that they made, but how both women achieved their fame (or notoriety) and what they did with it.

While they both became power-brokers, they went about it entirely differently. Sharp and sparkling (and often maliciously vicious) Alice always worked behind the scenes. Her whispers were like a knife in the dark to many a political career, including on her own side. Eleanor was a public-minded and public-spirited reformer, she came out from behind her husband’s shadow and held office in her own name and for her own causes. Eleanor emerged from her own shyness to hold forth confidently in the sunshine. Alice liked publicity for herself, but she worked for her party behind the scenes.

Which of them was more truly influential is a bit hard to tell. While every President from TR to Gerald Ford met with Alice Roosevelt Longworth, what was said, what advice she gave, was not recorded. It was not intended to be. Although Richard Nixon was a favorite of Alice’s, it’s a pity that she didn’t meet with him in the White House, we might have recordings. But “Princess Alice” made the politicians court her, not the other way around.

Alice’s power was a kind of soft power, and the type that women historically held. Her power was the power of influence and gossip. She had good political instincts, and she used them to help those she favored, but it wasn’t the kind of power that led to speechmaking or officeholding of her own. She worked best from the shadows.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s use of power is the model we see today. She held offices of her own, admittedly mostly after FDR died. But she worked in her own name, particularly for the United Nations. What she said, what she did, was recorded as hers. Her successes and failures were also publicly hers.

But seeing their lives laid out side by side, as they each struggled for the limelight, and struggled with their children and their especially domineering mothers in law, we see how alike they are amongst their differences. And it makes for a fascinating story.