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More reading, again...

Today’s book list is biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, and related. Apparently I buy more biographies than I intend to read because I’ve got a pile still to go.

Chinggis Khan: The Golden History of the Mongols was fascinating. T., because of his love of all things military and violent at the moment, list Chinggis among his favorite guys. What I found particularly interesting was the relationships between the various clans and the passions involved. One particular Mongol behaved pretty much like a lover, sometimes sharing the same blanket with Chinggis, sometimes betraying him. I passed the book along to T., who hasn’t started it yet.

The homoerotic warrior theme continued in Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars. Short summary of all of them: double-crossing, carousing, murderous, successful guys who would pretty much screw anything that moved, although non-moving things also were happily considered. Different iterations emphasized different aspects of the general theme. Some of them had particularly interesting wives or lovers. All of them loved parades. I voted the book off my island as something I never need to read again.

Football players often use a lot of warrior imagery, so clearly I should talk about Y.A. Tittle next. His book, Nothing Comes Easy, recounted lots of old football yarns. Of course, I was particularly interested in his career with San Francisco, where he and R.C. Owens invented the ally-oop. Sports stars are not writers, in general, even when they have writers helping them, so the driving force was content, not style.

The next manly man on my list is Theodore Roosevelt, the subject of David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback. I have had this book for almost thirty years now and just got around to reading it (I received it from my eighth grade social studies teacher along with my award for the subject). The book is not a complete biography, but rather an exploration of Teddy’s early life and initial forays into politics. A good read. And, no, actually, my T.R. is not named for him.

Does Malcolm X count as a manly man? I wouldn’t personally want to have crossed him. His autobiography revealed a man I would have enjoyed meeting, a man of active intelligence and deep conviction with the unusual ability to adjust his thinking when new facts arise. Wish we had a few more people like that around.

Black Boy by Richard Wright has many of the same themes. Wright writes with a more consciously formal manner and with less controlled anger. His story is wrenching. I had read part of it before, in high school, and I had hoped to find that same edition because I remember the preface he wrote to that one; he wrote that it is very difficult to tell the truth. When I was fifteen, I had no idea what he meant, so the words stuck in my head. Now I’d like to have his exact words, because I get it. No such luck yet. I did not exactly like the book, but I am glad I read it.

I have a thing about Louisa May Alcott. A lot of girls become attached to Little Women of course. I am a little more obsessed. I have, including this new one, five biographies of her, in addition to all her works for kids and as many of her adult works as I’ve run across. Susan Cheever’s book is an interesting entry into the field. I do not understand, however, how it is that biographers make mistakes about the books. Every single biography I have read has some kind of d’oh moment about a character or situation from one of the books that jumps out at me. Admittedly, I have read the books eight zillion times, but surely someone else has? As a companion, I read Richard Francis’s book Fruitlands about the Alcott commune experiment and its dreadful failure. Fascinating, how dreams fail when one does not have skills or application.

Mark Twain’s autobiography covers the same time period from a totally different direction. It’s hilarious and tragic and hugely worth reading. Huge is an apt word for the 663-page tome that is Volume I. Just read it. What he knew and what he has to say are just as important now as ever.

The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball is the kind of book that makes a person think about running off to found a Fruitlands community. Girl meets hunky farmer, moves to the country, builds a prosperous farm, lives happily ever after. Sure, there are the parts about dirt and dogs that have to be put down and trusty old horses that can’t go on. But did I mention the hunky farmer? And the sex? And the food? Fortunately, I am still attached to reality.

U and I by Nicholson Baker is worth reading because it’s by Nicholson Baker. Beyond that, it’s an interesting exploration of the relationship of one writer to another and of the functioning of inspiration and memory. Joe Bob says check it out.

Edward Holmes’s biography, Mozart (link is to the biography, but there seems to be a new and better edition with correspondence in it), was fun reading. Like all musical biographies, if I could read music better or understand the underlying theories, I would have got more out of it, but it wasn’t just one musical quotation after another. No surprise, but life can be challenging for an artist of any kind.

In the same general region centuries later, Marie Vassiltchikov kept a diary. Her account of wartime Germany from the perspective of a conspirator against Hitler blends the horrifying and the ordinary—bombs drop, but girls still need new hats. When the plot against Hitler fails, she recounts all the sad details of the punishment of most of the conspirators. She herself escapes.

I’ve already written some about my reading in Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. I didn’t always like it, but it was always thought-provoking. Nock’s assertion that not everyone is educable keeps bumping around in my brain, for example. It’s one of those things I wrestle with while listening to vice-principals give annoying speeches with grammatical errors at graduations.

Yet more reading tomorrow!

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