The Road to Character by David Brooks

road to characterDavid Brooks is a New York Times columnist and a best-selling author.  This book contains biographical sketches of ten famous people:  Frances Perkins, a member of Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet; President Dwight Eisenhower; St. Augustine; civil rights leaders Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph; General George Marshall; English novelist George Eliot; English author Samuel Johnson; French author Michel de Montaigne, and Dorothy Day, a champion of the poor.  The focus of each sketch is the individual’s lifelong struggle to overcome weaknesses and develop character.

The book emphasizes inward growth, not improvement in the ability to achieve wealth, power, and status.  Brooks believes that humility is necessary for a person to grow in character and that this is often difficult in our era of the “big me,” with its emphasis on self-aggrandizement.  This makes sense to me; if a person considers himself already extraordinary, he probably will not be sufficiently aware of his weaknesses to carry out the moral struggles important for character development.

Brooks shares some interesting statistics on contrasts between the past and our present time.  On a narcissism test, with statements such as “I like to be the center of attention,” “I am extraordinary,” “I like to look at my body,” and “Somebody should write a biography of me,” the median score has risen 30 percent in the past twenty years.  In a 1950 Gallop poll, 12 percent of high school seniors thought that they were very important people; in 2005, this figure was 80 percent.  Few people ranked fame as an important life goal in 1976, but in 2007, 51 percent of young people chose becoming famous as a top personal goal.

If you aren’t interested in reading the entire book, you might want to read the sketches of the individuals who intrigue you.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Midnight in Siberia by David Greene

midnightThe author of this book, a former Moscow bureau chief for NPR, is now co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition.  His description of his trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway is very readable and interesting.  He focuses, not on the scenery and architecture, but on the lives and thoughts of the Russians whom he interviews.  If you’re interested in modern Russian society and in what Russians think about Stalin, Putin, and democracy, or in their hopes for the future, you’ll find Greene’s narrative thought-provoking.

Greene writes about his stay in Moscow, about the experience of traveling on a Russian train, and about places where he stopped along the way, including scenic Lake Baikal and a Russian bathhouse.  He interviews Russians young and old, male and female, from a variety of backgrounds, including activists, musicians, a professor, and business people.

One interesting quotation from an interview is that tragedy is “the way the soul of a Russian person is built.”  Other Russians in Midnight in Siberia express similar stoic views.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy : Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott

liar temptressThis is the fascinating story of four women who served as spies during the Civil War.

Belle Boyd was only seventeen when she became a spy for the Confederacy.  Her youth, her ability to entrance men, and her amazing courage brought her great success.  Once she completed her mission while under fire from both Union and Confederate armies!

Emma Edmonds, a soldier and spy for the Union, portrayed herself as a man, calling herself Frank Thompson.  She assisted wounded and sick soldiers, fought alongside her male comrades, and completed spy missions.  Throughout the war, she only disclosed her true identity to two people.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow was a Confederate spy; her mature charms won over Northern politicians, who shared information with her.  She met with leaders in England and France, including Napoleon III, trying to persuade them to assist the Confederacy.  Shortly before the end of the war, she drowned in the Cape Fear River.

Elizabeth Van Lew was the leader of a Yankee spy ring.  Her greatest feat, perhaps, was placing a former slave as a maid in Jefferson Davis’ home.  This woman had a photographic memory and, while she cleaned Davis’ office, she memorized the documents on his desk, as well as his conversations.  Then the information went straight to the Union leaders!

Abbott gives lively accounts of the exploits of these four women, while including many details about life during the Civil War era.  She relies on memoirs, journals, and a wide variety of other sources, documenting them in over fifty pages of notes and bibliography.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Too Late to Say Goodbye by Ann Rule

By early December, 2004, Jenn Corbin had already bought presents for her two young sons and begun decorating the familyToo Late Christmas tree.  To most people, the Corbins seemed to be a happy, normal family – Jenn’s husband Bart was a dentist, she was a preschool teacher, they had a beautifully decorated home in an Atlanta suburb, and they enjoyed outings on their houseboat in Lake Lanier.

Then, early in the morning, Jenn’s seven-year-old son arrived at the door of some neighbors, stunning them with his words, “My mom isn’t breathing. My daddy shot my mommy – I need you to call 911.”

Rule details the lives of Jenn and Bart Corbin, as well as the story of a woman whose death fourteen years earlier might have had connections with Jenn’s murder, and describes the two investigations.  One of the most interesting parts of the book is about Jenn’s amazing online relationship with a mysterious person.

Rule, formerly a police officer, has written more than two dozen true crime bestsellers.

If you, like me, enjoy reading true crime books, don’t miss this one!

Also – read The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule’s book about serial killer Ted Bundy, who was an acquaintance of Rule’s before she (or anyone else) suspected him of murder.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Founding Mothers by Cokie Roberts

If you enjoy reading history, take a look at this book!  We hear a lot about the founding fathers but not as much about the rolesfounding of women during the pre-Revolutionary period, the war, and George Washington’s terms in office.

The book begins with the story of Eliza Pinckney, mother of two outstanding patriots, who ran three plantations – at the age of sixteen!  Not only was she successful in her task; she gloried in introducing new crops to her fields.

Kitty Greene was the wife of General Nathanael Greene, the hero of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.  Her lively personality helped to raise morale among American troops, and, after the war, she played a key role in the invention of the cotton gin.

Martha Washington, who was with her husband in those difficult days at Valley Forge, helped the soldiers in many ways.  Abigail Adams’ letters show her grasp of politics and serve as a major historical resource.  Benjamin Franklin’s wife was among the many women handling business matters while their husbands were away at war, on diplomatic missions, or running the new nation.

During Washington’s first term in office, he became so discouraged that he wrote a farewell address.  Jefferson and Hamilton feared that the nation was not yet strong enough to survive without his leadership, but it was a woman, Eliza Powel, who convinced him to accept another term.

Founding Mothers shows the difficulties of women’s lives in this period – economic hardships, the dangers of living in a nation at war, the limitations on rights for women, and their loneliness when husbands were away from home, sometimes for years at a time.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Orchard House by Tara Austen Weaver

orchardThe author and her mother see an overgrown yard and rundown house with gardening potential – and her mother buys the property, after an afternoon filching blackberries from the bushes there.

Making this unruly land an orderly place of vegetable plots and fruit trees turns into a daily ordeal.  Weaver’s mother, with her unbending work ethic, is up to it, at least at the beginning, but she is aging, and after a serious back injury, the author has to practically chase her mom away from gardening chores, and much of it falls on her.  After all, Weaver has her own vision of the place to maintain, one of an inviting home and yard for nieces to play in, and a gathering point for family and friends.

Weaver uses the setting as backdrop to her ruminations about her relationships with her mother and brother.  Their mom had to be the single parent raising them, and as such she has distanced herself from certain emotions.  Working the gardens allows the author to reconnect with her mother to some degree.

The author also learns the value of community, whether it’s from close friends or plant experts, and finds insight from others as she struggles with the garden, her mother, and herself.

Orchard House reminds me of another book I read several years back – This Organic Life by Joan Dye Gussow, in which she describes her trials in creating a garden next to the Hudson River.  I would recommend both.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Mockingbird Next Door; Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills

mockingbirdIf you haven’t read Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-prizewinning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, read it before reading this biography.  It’s one of the most-beloved 20th-century novels and one that everyone should read!

In 2001, Marja Mills, a Chicago Tribune reporter, had an assignment to do research for an article that would fit in with To Kill a Mockingbird’s selection for the “One Book, One Chicago” program (similar to Greensboro’s “One City, One Book”).  The editor told her, “Monroeville, Alabama…It’s Harper Lee’s hometown.  We know she doesn’t give interviews. But I think it’s worth going there anyway.”

This book tells how Marja Mills did get an interview with Harper Lee.  That was just the beginning of a warm relationship.  Harper Lee and her sister Alice eventually encouraged Marja to rent the house next to the one they lived, and she became one of their close friends.  From eating in informal restaurants and washing clothes in the laundromat to fishing trips, she accompanied Harper Lee on many an excursion, and they spent hours in conversation.  Marja also spent a great deal of time with Alice, who continued to practice law into her 90’s, and with the sisters’ friends.  If the idea of spending time with Harper Lee in Monroeville has any appeal to you, this is as close as you’re likely to get!

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)


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