Bound Feet & Western Dress by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang

Pang-Mei Natasha Chang has written a very moving book about the astonishing life of her great aunt Chang Yu-i. Yu-i was born to a prosperous family in China in 1900, the year of the Boxer Rebellion. Fortunately, before she died in New York City in 1989, at the age of 88, Yu-i told her story to her great-niece, the author of this book.

I’ll refrain from spoiling the story for readers who hope to read this book. Hopefully it is enough to say that Yu-i’s story and her challenges were unique. The author does an excellent job of interviewing Yu-i and received thoughtful and generally unsentimental answers about her personal saga, but I have been left with hundreds of questions. I feel the need to know more about Yu-i. Why did she do something? What was she thinking? I really need to know what made Yu-i tick.

The twentieth century was a tough time for China and for all the Chinese who emigrated. Given her sheltered upbringing, Yu-i would seem to have been far less prepared than most to meet the challenges she faced, but in fact she prospered. Although political events were obviously swirling all around Yu-i during this turbulent period, but her story focuses more on her personal challenges and the social system into which she was born.

This lovely book is further enriched by relatively brief references to the author’s own life story. As Chang tells her great aunt’s story, she also reveals aspects of her own life, including the family pressure she felt growing up, as well as the racial slurs she endured. Her life lacks the drama of her great aunt’s life, but this book is a testament to her own upbringing and her struggles to find the right career path.

It is worth noting that I have written this review just a few hours before my book club meets to discuss it. It will be fun to discuss it this evening without worrying about spoiler alerts!

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Dance to the Piper — Agnes DeMille’s Remarkable Account of How She Invented Herself as a Unique Dancer and Choreographer

Agnes DeMille, the amazing choreographer of Oklahoma, Rodeo and many other ballets and dances, wrote a number of memoirs, the first of which is Dance to the Piper. In this first installment of the story of her life, DeMille recounts growing up in early Hollywood as a member of an early and highly renowned motion picture dynasty, headed by her uncle Cecil B. DeMille. She writes movingly of her early fascination with dance and her watching and meeting the great Anna Pavlova, when DeMille was a child and Pavlova was at the end of her career. DeMille’s family pushed her in many ways but was downright hostile to her dancing aspirations.

DeMille was a pioneer. She forged a career doing what she really wanted to do. There were no roadmaps for an aspiring dancer born in 1895. Indeed, in the face of family opposition, a late and sporadic dance education and something less than a classic ballet dancer’s body, it is bewildering to read about how DeMille created her career. It wasn’t like today where there are ballet schools everywhere and a significant number of ballet companies are scattered across the United States. DeMille wanted to dance and created dances for herself, in part because she saw no alternative.

DeMille’s writing is clear and unsentimental. She manages to write a story about herself and her projects without coming across as an obnoxious braggart. She sees the humor of her failed efforts and the sleezy producers and impresarios determined to fleece her. She also acknowledges people such as Martha Graham, who gave her sage advice. The backstory to this brilliant memoir is that DeMille pretty much knew everyone in dance during the first half of the twentieth century and beyond.

DeMille acknowledges her family’s failings (and strengths) and then moves on. Her gift is to appreciate what her family has given her whilst still recognizing where and how she feels her family fell short. Ultimately, DeMille’s gratitude toward her family overpowers the negative and is very moving.

Anna George DeMille, Agnes DeMille’s mother, is a fascinating side story throughout the memoir. She transforms from being a successful Hollywood wife actively trying to sabotage her daughter’s dance aspirations to becoming a stunned and shattered divorcée. Ultimately Anna is her daughter’s biggest booster, and one can see see that her ultimate gift to her daughter was instilling in Agnes the confidence and determination that took her to greatness.

If you love dance and dance history, this book is a must. Even if you aren’t a big dance fan, this is a great story of someone who went from having an unformed idea of simply wanting to dance and to create dance to blasting through the conventions of her day and making a huge contribution to the dance world.

A Lucky Child — A Moving Holocaust Memoir from the Point of View of a Child Survivor

This is a particularly compelling Holocaust memoir because the author has written it as he perceived it as a child. While the author acknowledges that his memory is imperfect and that it is too late to consult the adults witnesses to his story, this book does a remarkable job of showing what it meant to somehow make it through the Holocaust as a young boy.

Thomas Buergenthal has had a significant career as the American judge on the International Court of Justice and as a professor of international law. In many ways those accomplishments pale in comparison to the remarkable story of his surviving the Holocaust as a child. In A Lucky Child — A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy, Buergenthal recounts the remarkable story of how he made it through the Holocaust. Since he experienced the Holocaust as a child who was frequently on his own, Buergenthal didn’t have a sophisticated idea of what was happening or why. He just encountered events as they happened and somehow managed to survive. He went from being a likely spoiled only child in very comfortable circumstances to being hunted and ultimately separated from his parents. Fortunately he picked up just enough street smarts and made some lucky choices at the right time. And, he had some courageous adults who stepped up the plate and looked out for him at opportune times.

All in all, it is an amazing and staggering story that makes you ache for the author and his family and for all the children who weren’t so lucky.

What I am Reading Now

I am always in the middle of ten or more books, and some of the ones I am reading now are worth mentioning. In no particular order, these are some of the books I am reading now:

1. Bad Days in History by Michael Farquhar (a fun gift from my sister, this little historical gem cheerfully provides information on some unfortunate (or worse) event that occurred on every day of the year; I’ve been reading it day by day this year, and it is a fine way to start the day)

2. She’s Leaving Home by William Shaw (this British mystery is set in the London of the Beatles and combines a depressed down-on-his-luck police detective who is actually appealing with an intriguing murder and lots of comic characters; it is particularly interesting because of the sexist climate and the probationary female constable who becomes a major player; I am really enjoying it)

3. Dance to the Piper by Agnes De Mille (a famous memoir by the dancer and choreographer, who also happened to be the niece of Cecil B DeMille and who grew up in early Hollywood; I am loving the story of her youth and her commentary on dance as an art form and as a profession)

4. Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard (a non-fiction account of President James Garfield and the man who assassinated him; this isn’t as funny as Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell, but it has similar appeal; I am learning a lot about Garfield and really like the man; I am reading this because it was selected by my book club, and I’m sorry I’ll be missing the meeting that discusses it)

5. Grotesque by Natsuo Kirin (a creepy Japanese thriller with a seemingly amoral narrator; oddly intriguing)

6. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (I came to Patchett only recently, and I’m really loving this novel)

7. The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende (after avoiding Allende for years because I didn’t like one of her first novels, I am really enjoying this novel so far)

8. Blood in the Water — The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson (this is a lengthy, harrowing accounting of the Attica prison uprising in 1971; there are no heroes thus far, but there are many people who are behaving very badly; until I started reading this book I hadn’t realized and had probably to some extent forgotten all the factors that led to this disaster where an untrained mob of guards, state troupers and others brutally put down a prison takeover and then exacted a horrifying and highly racist revenge; this is an important book and we all need to be on top of this story because these problems continue and there will be similar disasters unless we start thinking and taking intelligent action)

9. Becoming Ms. Burton by Susan Burton and Cari Lynn (this is a compelling and well-told memoir of Susan Burton, a former drug addict who spent many years in the criminal justice system until she got clean and started being part of the solution; this is an important contribution to our thinking about ways to help troubled people instead of just locking them up again and again)

10. Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking

Royal Renegades — The Children of Charles I and the English Civil Wars

Linda Porter’s Royal Renegades — The Children of Charles I and the English Civil Wars tells the saga of Charles I, his wife Henrietta Maria, and their many children, including future kings Charles II and James II. Nearly 400 years later, it is difficult to fathom how this close family functioned at all once the Revolution hit. Family members were spread across Britain and the Continent. Communication was difficult, both because of distance and military restrictions. The parents and their children were often compelled to act on their own initiative and frequently under straightened financial circumstances. The children were young — the two eldest sons were in their early teens — when the king’s conflicts started, and the battling lasted for years. Two of the younger children were held captive in England for years, and of course the Charles I also was ultimately captured and executed. Looking back it seems bizarre that the King seemed never to have fully assessed his peril or what the consequences might be if he failed on the battlefield and at the negotiating table. Yet he was cursed with his own implacable sense of his own prerogative and seemingly had no one to provide him with realistic political advice. The Queen had managed to escape to France, her homeland, and spent her time trying to find allies and funding for the her husband. Together, she and the King might have been able to reach a less gruesome conclusion, but then again her Catholicism was one of the major reasons for the family’s unpopularity.

What happened was a tragedy for this family that somehow remained close in an era when royal parents and their children had little ordinary contact or apparent affection for one another. On the eve of his execution the King was allowed time with two of his youngest children, and the tenderness of those meetings is heartbreaking, all these years later. Those two children died, but four of their siblings lived to adulthood, with much of their time spent in France and the Netherlands before the two older brother returned to England after the Restoration. It was an oddly international family, searching for allies and coming together and then separating because of circumstances time and again. For the most part, their strategically arranged marriages afforded the children little happiness, although Charles I and Henrietta Maria, ultimately seemed to have loved each other.

This book’s strength is its portrayals of Charles I and his family, coupled with a useful history of the English Revolution and a healthy injection of the power politics of that era

How I Miss P. D. James!

I know she led a long, rich and successful life, but how I miss P. D. James! Despite my long-standing aversion to the short story genre, I found James’ collection Sleep No More — Six Murderous Tales to be absolutely wonderful. These stories, which were published between 1973 and 2006, diverge from James’s usual sensitive, thoughtful mysteries starring Adam Dalgliesh. Unlike a full length mystery novel, these stories are written from the perspective of the actors rather than the detective. They are characterized by seemingly normal people going rogue and being astonishingly brutal about getting what they want. There is no agonizing. Some are written in the first person, which makes the amoral quality of them even more jarring. The plots are clever and are the main point of these tales. Personality is far less in the forefront than in a typical James novel. It is as if James came up with six interesting schemes for how murders were devised and committed and then simply wrote them down without belaboring how a detective might discover who did them. Since this is P. D. James, there is far more to it. She swiftly and effectively sketches compelling characters and settings and then she brutally presents the murder. These are well worth reading.

These stories also suggest that one way to write a mystery would be to start with scaffolding of a well thought out, clever pot and only then write the novel around it. I wonder if James did that. Anyway, these are great stories!

The Vermeer Interviews — Conversations with Seven Works of Art

Bob Raczka’s The Vermeer Interviews — Conversations with Seven Works of Art has be one of the coolest, most informative books I’ve read in a long time.  I found a lone copy secreted away in the children’s book section of the Frick Museum here in New York.  I am not a child and have no children to read to at this point, so I almost passed on it.  Thankfully my love of Vermeer overcame any age-appropriate related hesitation.  I realized that I was being an idiot and obviously had to buy this book.   Thank goodness I did.  The Vermeer Interviews is a classic and well worth reading by art lovers of any age.

The book’s premise is that the author Bob Raczka interviews the characters in seven Vermeer paintings.  He interviews the geographer, the milk maid, etc.   They respond with patience and humor.  They tell him what they are thinking and point out some of the compositional details of their paintings.  They talk about shape, light, color, tone and so many other aspects of their paintings.  They also give some background on the history and culture of the times as they discuss the objects in their pictures.   I particularly liked the way the interviewer kepy trying to nail down the precise meaning of each picture, only to have the subjects posit that the picture might mean any number of things and that perhaps Vermeer wanted to leave things open-ended.   Best of all, the quiet feeling behind Vermeer’s luminous paintings pervades these lovely interviews.

This book provides an imaginative introduction to art history and theory.  Raczka’s explanations and his gentle reminders that the viewer is free to consider multiple interpretations are very welcome and encouraging.  This book could be read to a young child as a gentle yet enthusiastic way of looking at art, particularly in connection with a visit to a museum.  My guess is that many elementary school readers could read it themselves.  As for adults, let’s just say that it is completely enjoyable and that it has informed my thinking about these paintings far better than any dry museum description could do.   I really appreciated the enthusiastic tutelage on Vermeer’s art.

Really, you need to read this book!  Also, I just Googled Bob Raczka, and it appears he has written quite a number of books, and many of them are art-related.  I can’t wait to read how he embraces Van Gogh!

Yet Another Little Known, Yet Very Consequential Woman –The Woman Who Smashed Codes

Jason Fagone’s The Woman Who Smashed Codes — A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikey Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies is a significant contribution to women’s history and to the history of code-breaking.  Elizebeth Friedman (1892-1980) carved out an amazing career for herself.  She was raised in a small town in the Midwest.  She only went to college because she insisted upon it.  Ironically, Swarthmore rejected here.   Upon graduation from a relatively obscure college,  Friedman insisted upon looking for a job befitting her talents and interests.  She had studied poetry and philosophy in college, so non-teaching jobs did not readily present themselves.  Undeterred, Friedman kept looking.  Code breaking wasn’t exactly on her radar screen, but through luck and perseverance she started working for a rich eccentric with an interest in code breaking as it related to Shakespeare.  Ultimately she broke from the eccentric’s private colony and moved on to crack bootlegging codes and then to breaking Nazi codes during the Second World War.  Very few people came close to being able to do what she and her similarly talented husband William Friedman were able to do, but their story — particularly her story is little known.  Happily J Edgar Hoover and his FBI come out looking vainglorious and feeble, as the the Coast Guard and Elizebeth Friedman shine.

The book is well written and extensively researched and provides a fascinating story about a woman most people have never encountered and whose tracks were pretty well covered by confidentiality agreements and the likes of J Edgar Hoover. Friedman herself contributed to her undervalued obscurity by generally avoiding attention and insisting that her husband was more worthy of notice.  Coming on the recent movie about Alan Turing, this is yet another important contribution to understanding how World War II espionage worked, on both sides.  This important biography also shines some light on what it was like to live and work in Washington during and the 1930’s and the war period.

Every time I run across a biography of a highly consequential women who worked in obscurity, I wonder how many more are out there.  Thank you, Mr. Fagone for bringing Elizebeth Friedman the attention she deserves.

The Story of Arthur Truluv — A Warm and Lovely Novel by Elizabeth Berg

Elizabeth Berg’s The Story of Arthur Truluv shows the benefits of unexpected friendships and connections.  Arthur Moses is a good man who steadfastly grieves the passing of his wife.  Arthur’s willingness to reach out to others in a sensitive way and to be open to others who reach out to him makes him one of the most lovable characters I’ve encountered in recent fiction.  Arthur isn’t a saint or conventionally heroic, but he is astute and compassionate.  He is, however exactly the right friend, for the bullied and forlorn 18 year old Maddy Harris.  Together they do good things.

The Story of Arthur Truluv reminded me a little of the charms of A Man Called Ove, but with fewer rough edges.  I can’t imagine anything better than to age like Arthur does — to befriend the friendless and help them find some happiness and peace.  It is tough to be as good as Arthur is without being smug or without being cloying, but Elizabeth Berg has deftly sketched a wonderful character and reminded me that I need to read more of her books.

Little Ladies — Bold Women in Black History, An Inspiring, Informative and Very Important Book for All of Us

You really need to get this book, for the children you know and for yourself.  You will learn something, and you will be inspired!

Biographies are my favorite kind of history — always more fun and memorable than lists of battles and elections.  As a child, I read probably hundreds of biographies published in the Childhood of Famous Americans series.  Those highly entertaining books gave me my first understanding of  American history from all sorts of perspectives.  I particularly focused on the books about women who were famous for what they themselves had done, as opposed to those whose fame derived from their husbands, inspired me to think about what was possible.  Their stories were really important to me.
Vashti Harrison’s wonderful Little Leaders — Bold Women in Black History is similarly important and inspiring.  Little Leaders is written for children, but everyone should read it.  Really.  I guarantee you will learn something and you will be impressed.  I wish this book had been around when my daughters were young because it is designed to  spawn countless conversations about the struggles these women faced, the difficulties they surmounted, the sources of their inspirations and then their amazing contributions.   Harrison offers up capsule biographies and appealing illustrations of 40 remarkable black women.   The title Little Leaders, together with the simple illustrations of these women as girls, make the point that all the featured women started out as girls, and that their childhood interests often led directly to their later achievements.  These stories also provide lots of good background information about what life what like for these women and others of their time.  The happy result is that the reader ends up knowing a lot more than just what happened to a particular individual.  This is such a good way to inform children about their history and to provide context for their own times and their own opportunities and responsibilities.

Harrison includes famous women, as well as women who may not be so famous but clearly deserve to be.  It is no criticism of the book that I kept thinking of other black women who might have been included.  In fact the books just made me think of a whole host of people that deserve to be better known and celebrated.

This book belongs in every child’s library.