Archive for February, 2013


Set in NYC in the late 1800’s / early 1900’s, Clara and Mr. Tiffany is the semi-imagined story of the life of Clara Driscoll, a woman in her mid-late 30’s who was the designer of the famous Tiffany lamps.  Clara worked at Tiffany studios, which was run by Louis Comfort Tiffany – the son of the Tiffany who founded Tiffany & Co jewelry.  Clara worked in an all-woman department because Mr. Tiffany felt that they were better able to see the colors needed to make the stained glass panels and lampshades that were designed in that department. He had a very important rule – the girls all had to be single. If any of them got married, they would have to leave.

Clara lived at a boardinghouse and met very interesting and friendly people there. She experienced the first “wheels” (bicycles) and rode the NYC subway when it opened.  Despite all of these interesting people and things in Clara’s life, the book just couldn’t generate enough excitement to make it a quick read. It was actually a pretty long book that dragged in many parts.  Clara is written in the same style of Girl with a Pearl Earring, or Luncheon of the Boating Party, but it is nowhere near as well-written as those.  It might be the detail that Susan Vreeland used when describing the lampshades or the work that went into the stained glass panels, but I found myself skimming a lot.  This was not my favorite work by this author.


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After a long period of reading nothing but novels and books for entertainment, I finally reminded myself that I am meant to be switching to nonfiction every once in a while.  So, I picked up Nothing to Envy and was absolutely stunned. 

Written in 2009, the book follows the lives of about 5 North Koreans.  The author interviewed them after they defected to South Korea and they told her of their lives back in North Korea.  Much of the book focuses on living in Chongjin, a large industrial city in the northern part of the country. That is where many of the defectors come from because it is the largest city closest to the narrowest part of the river separating North Korea from China. 

The stories of their lives are incredible.  The brainwashing that they experienced was remarkable and their expected love and devotion for the father/ leader (initially Kim JongSun, and then his son Kim Jong Il).  Because they were so cut off from the outside world, North Koreans did not think that anywhere else had it any better.  They lived in constant fear of being reported to the worker’s party, even if they were loyal citizens.  They never had enough to eat, they could not travel freely, they rarely had electricity, and they could only live in government-provided housing, working in government-provided jobs, and eating government-provided rations.  Many of these jobs stopped paying in the worst of times, and yet people were still expected to work (even when there was no electricity and the factories could not run).  When they went to get their rations, they got none and were forced to hunt for edible weeds to supplement their soup broth.

The most incredible part of the book details the hardships of living through the 1990’s when a severe famine affected all of the country’s residents and millions died, while the government either refused to take outside aid or the food aid ended up on the black market selling at the cost of monthly wages.

Nothing to Envy is very well-written and paints a very detailed picture of daily life in North Korea.  It was interesting to read knowing that Kim Jong Il recently died and was succeeded by Kim Jong Eun.  I highly recommend this book!

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I loved this book!  It reminded me so much of The Paris Wife (about the wife of Hemingway) and of Loving Frank (about the mistress of Frank Lloyd Wright).  It is similar to those books not only because it tells the woman’s side of the story, but because the men are so similar – their megalomania, their womanizing, their talents and their fame.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the daughter of the US ambassador to Mexico was attending Smith College when she went to Mexico City to spend Christmas with her family and met Colonel Charles Lindbergh “Lucky Lindy”.  He had just completed his 1927 solo flight to Paris across the Atlantic and was a huge hero across the world.  Anne’s sister Elizabeth was the “beauty” of the family, and so Anne was surprised that Charles invited her, not Elizabeth, to take a solo flight with him early one morning in Mexico.

Without getting to know each other, Anne and Charles married and soon became the most famous couple in America.  The press followed them everywhere they went – they had to wear disguises if they wanted to go to the theater, and  they usually ended up in hiding at their friends the Guggenheim’s mansion and estate or at Anne’s family home in New Jersey.

Obviously we know that their first son, Charlie, was kidnapped and that the kidnapping did not have a happy ending.  The kidnaping and its effect on Anne and Charles play a large part in this book.  The Aviator’s Wife, however, focuses on Anne – showing her as a hero in her own right, as she became Charles’ co-pilot and even the first woman glider pilot.  Anne was also a writer and published some popular and well-received books.  The Aviator’s Wife shows how much Charles controlled Anne and that, although he was a hero to the rest of the world, he was a controlling, dominating man at home with her and with their five children.

I loved The Aviator’s Wife especially because of the power that it gives to Anne and the telling of her story.

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I’ll make this a short review because the main point of my review is: If you want to read about Frank Lloyd Wright, read Loving Frank, and give The Women a pass.

The Women is told from the point of view of a former assistant of Frank and works backwards from his last mistress / wife to his first mistress.  It starts with the story of Olgivanna (Olga) and her daughter Svetlana in about 1950.  Olga, Frank’s final wife, was a young former dancer with a small daughter when Frank fell for her and brought her to Taliesin.  Olga’s story is generally the same as Mamah’s was (Frank’s first mistress) – she was hounded by the press and faced a current wife refusing a divorce.  Olga, however was a bit different in that she became pregnant and had a daughter with Frank.  Working backwards from Olga, Frank’s second wife Miriam was the main part of this novel because she caused the most disruption to Frank and Olga’s lives.  Miriam met Frank just after Mamah died and she and Frank got married once Frank’s first wife finally granted a divorce.  Miriam was addicted to drugs and was ultimately not quite right in the head.  She became a bit of a stalker of Frank of Olga.

The same themes exist in this book – Frank’s quirks, his megalomania, his lack of money, his womanizing… but it is just not as well written as Loving Frank.  The book does add more information about Olga and Miriam, who are not in Loving Frank, but to me, Mamah’s story is the most compelling.

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The Reinvention of Love is a short book written primarily from the point of view of Charles Saint-Beauve – a writer in 1850’s Paris who becomes friends with Victor Hugo right before Hugo gains his popularity.  Saint-Beauve and Hugo’s wife – Adele Hugo – begin an affair that forms the basis for the book that follows them until they both grow quite old and Hugo is a literary beheamoth.  The book is apparently based on actual events.

I did not like The Reinvention of Love at all because I absolutely hated Saint-Beauve and I didn’t care very much for Adele either.  Thank goodness it was a short book because I don’t know that I could have finished it if it were any longer!  I do not recommend this one!!

(I don’t know that I will be reading any more of Helen Humphreys’ books because I have not had much luck with them! (See my review of  The Lost Garden: A Novel)

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Loving Frank takes place in Oak Park, IL in 1908.  Oak Park is a close suburb of Chicago, and where Frank Lloyd Wright designed many of his prairie-style homes.  Mamah (“May-muh” – a nickname for Martha) and Edwin Cheney hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design a house for them, and through her daily contact with Frank for the plans of their new house, Mamah developed feelings for the artist.  Mamah was a well-educated woman, fluent in many languages, who was beginning to think that her life as a suburban mother was a waste.  Despite Mamah and Edwin having two young children, and Frank and his wife Catherine having 6 children, Frank and Mamah began an affair.

Ultimately Frank and Mamah told their significant others of their affair and went to Europe to be together for a while.  Neither spouse would grant a divorce and the scandal of the affairs became extremely popular tabloid fodder.  Loving Frank is told from Mamah’s point of view and the majority of the book focuses on their time in Europe.  They were primarily in Berlin and Italy while Frank worked with a publisher of prints of his work.  Mamah felt increasingly depressed and guilty about having abandoned her husband and her two children.  She happened upon a women’s empowerment book written by Ellen Key, a Swedish author, and through lucky meetings and discussions, became the translator for Ellen Key’s books – giving Mamah a bit of a new lease on life and at least giving her a bit of direction.  Loving Frank then follows Frank and Mamah to Wisconsin, where Frank designed and built a house for the two of them.

Loving Frank is based on the true story of Frank and Mamah’s relationship and Mamah is the star of the story, while Frank is made out to be a pretty selfish, self-absorbed artist.  I warn any potential readers of researching their relationship until after you read this book because there is a twist at the end that I absolutely did not expect.  I thoroughly enjoyed this portrait of Mamah and Frank’s story.

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