As autumn approached, I realized that I hadn’t read or reviewed any biographies of memoirs, my favorite type of nonfiction in two years! So after watching a fascinating 60 Minutes profile about Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, I decided to read her new memoir My Beloved World.
Sotomayor’s book primarily concentrates on her personal life from 1962 through 1992 rather than her tenure on the Supreme Court. Using a very approachable, informal writing style, Sotomayor meticulously describes how she had to overcome many adversities such as juvenile diabetes, living in the Bronx public housing projects and enduring her father’s alcoholism and untimely death during her childhood and adolescence. All these experiences significantly shaped her and gave her the self-confidence and courage to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer and eventually a federal district court judge. Moreover, Sotomayor graduated from Princeton and Yale Law School mainly due to her own stubborn perseverance and fierce determination, a supportive mother who valued education and affirmative action.
This very inspirational memoir shows that anyone can fulfill their goals despite seemingly insurmountable hardships if they believe in themselves and receive encouragement from family, teachers and friends. Ultimately, My Beloved World is an uplifting tribute to the human spirit.
I stayed pretty obsessed with everything about Dorothy Parker after finishing Ellen Meister’s delightfully whimsical novel Farewell Dorothy Parker over the summer. I quickly immersed myself in Parker’s Complete Stories and Complete Poems which featured an insightful introduction by biographer Marion Meade. All this binge reading compelled me to tackle Meade’s definitive 1988 biography, Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?
Meade’s well researched and exhaustive biography extensively chronicles Parker’s fascinating and rather decadent life by comprehensively detailing her unhappy childhood, two failed marriages, her literary, play and screenplay writing career, battles with alcoholism and involvement with radical politics. The book’s most enjoyable chapters focus on her years as Vanity Fair’s very opinionated and outspoken drama critic when she became the only female charter member of the Algonquin Round Table formed by New York Times drama critic Alexander Woollcott in 1919.
For the next ten years, Parker traded witty literary barbs and wisecracks with such literary greats as her best friend Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, Ring Lardner, Jr., George Kaufman and Edna Ferber. This constant daily camaraderie helped her develop her acerbic wit and eventually become America’s most famous (and most quoted) critic especially during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Dorothy Parker truly epitomized the flamboyant atmosphere of the Prohibition era in New York City.
Furthermore, Meade intersperses excerpts from Parker’s poems, short stories and literary reviews throughout the book to show the reader how her life experiences profoundly influenced her writing. Despite the biography’s lackluster second half describing Parker’s later years, Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell is This? provides an revealing glimpse into Dorothy Parker’s remarkable yet tumultuous literary and personal life.
After reading Meade’s biography, I remembered seeing the 1994 biopic Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle a few years ago. Not wanting to leave the 1920’s literary scene quite yet, I decided to re-watch it.
Directed by Alan Rudolph and starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, the movie effectively dramatizes Dorothy Parker’s reign as America’s literary darling in the 1920’s and 1930’s, her constant struggles with alcoholism, depression and failed personal relationships. Despite Jason Leigh’s uneven, affected and overly dramatic performance, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle authentically captures the ambience and witty banter of the Algonquin Round Table during its heyday.
Many of my loyal readers know that one of the first books I reviewed in this column was Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. So when I read a wonderfully candid New York Times Magazine article about Elizabeth Gilbert’s personal and professional life where she talked extensively about her new novel, The Signature of All Things, I rushed to the River Park Branch to put a hold on it before its October publication date. Although Gilbert’s new bestseller isn’t technically a biography or memoir, I figured I could take a fanciful literary detour since Gilbert had written one of the most popular memoirs of the 21st century.
Set primarily in early to mid-19th century Philadelphia, The Signature of All Things focuses on Alma Whittaker, daughter of the self-made and unscrupulous entrepreneur Henry Whittaker. Intellectually curious and fiercely self-reliant since childhood, Alma becomes a botanist despite 19th century conventions mainly due to strong encouragement from her father, an amateur naturalist himself.
For 25 years, Alma stays content with a productive, yet solitary life. Then in 1848, she falls in love with Ambrose Pike, an unconventional botanical illustrator. Unfortunately, she must suffer through an ill-fated marriage filled with tragic consequences.
After her father’s death in 1851, Alma leaves her sheltered life behind and escapes to Tahiti and Amsterdam to reinvigorate her botanical studies along with uncovering long buried family mysteries. This odyssey helps her discover her life’s true passion and purpose.
Gilbert uses an unusually evocative writing style reminiscent of Charlotte Bronte’s to recount her heroine’s extraordinary life. Part multigenerational family saga, part love story, The Signature of All Things is an incredible adventure story of spiritual self-discovery.
For more information, visit the library’s web site at www.libraryforlife.org . Thanks for reading! Happy Holidays!