Book bits

Three books about early Americans, review of "Death and the Maidens," and readers' picks.

Death & The Maidens

Author: Janet Todd

'His whole existence was visionary, and there breathed in his actions in his looks and in his manners that high and superhuman tone which we can only conceive to belong to a superior being," gushed his sister-in-law Claire Clairmont about Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

But perhaps closer to earth and reality was the comment of Everina Wollstonecraft, a more distant relative to the poet by marriage. "Shelley was certainly a man of Genius and great feeling – but the effects of both were perverted by some unhappy flightings of mind that led him to cause much unhappiness to his connections," she sighed.

Much unhappiness, indeed. Shelley's story leaves in its wake a trail of women whose lives were destroyed or at least disturbed by the dreamy visionary (not to mention his several children, most of whom did not survive their precarious childhoods.)

Among the young lives unsettled by Shelley, one of the most quickly forgotten was that of Fanny Wollstonecraft, illegitimate daughter of feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, and half-sister to Wollstonecraft's second daughter, Mary, author of "Frankenstein" and wife of Shelley. In her closely researched and intelligently crafted book, Death and the Maidens, Scottish academic Janet Todd carefully pieces together what is known about Fanny, who appears to have been a sensitive young woman, caught in the cross tides of too much genius.

Fanny stepped into the glare of celebrity while still an infant when her mother, Mary, featured her in her popular memoir "Letters from Sweden," a book which ultimately became a favorite of Shelley's. Shortly before her death, Mary married Enlightenment philosopher William Godwin, a thinker who decried family ties as "selfish." Godwin was fond of his bright, affectionate stepdaughter but ultimately became too wrapped up in his own concerns to note her struggles.

Finally Fanny was tugged into the vortex surrounding Shelley when he ran off with Fanny's two teenage stepsisters, leaving Fanny to cope with a scandal, an aggrieved family, and few prospects of her own.

But "Death and the Maidens" reaches beyond the sad tale of a young life turned tragic to paint a vivid picture of life – and particularly, the lives of women – amidst the rich but messy intellectual turmoil of the early 19th century.

Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and Shelley all aimed for the stars. Fanny's life is the heartbreaking reminder of how often they failed to see what was right under their noses.

– M.K.

Books Online

It started as a kindness to her colleagues. Suzanne Beecher headed up a software company and was sorry to realize that her busy employees had so little time for reading. So she started typing up chapters from popular books and e-mailing them to her workers.

That idea soon morphed into www.dearreader.com. Interested readers pick a "club" (fiction, nonfiction, classics, business, romance, mystery, etc.) and sign up to receive via e-mail enough text to provide a five-minute reading break. At the end of the week (some two or three chapters into the book), the e-mails stop and readers need to decide if they are interested enough to procure a copy of the book on their own.

There is no charge for the service and dearreader.com gets permission for all excerpts provided. It's a simple idea that seems to have turned into a win-win proposition for readers and publishers alike.

Readers' picks

The Judgment of Paris by Ross King, interweaves the history of Paris 1840-1870 with a focus on Edouard Manet and the lives and times of the men and women who became the Impressionists. – William Knapp, Dry Ridge, Ky.

I've just finished Patricia Hampl's The Florist's Daughter, a memoir about her life growing up as the daughter of a florist and a very domineering mother. This is a taut, expertly written book, and the account gripped me so profoundly that I read it in two sittings. – Patricia Lucas, Gary, Ind.

Currently, I am reading The Eye of the Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. Gibran is a Lebanese Christian author who lived and wrote in the early 20th century. I find him lyrically inspiring and can only let him speak for himself.– Daniel Jacobson, Silver Spring, Md.

Yankee From Olympus: Justice Holmes and His Family by Catherine Drinker Bowen brings the autocrat to my breakfast table, along with his illustrious father and famous son, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who went from Civil War combat to serve on the Supreme Court. – Dave Horn, Bloomington, Ind.

Sea of Glory by Nathaniel Philbrick is a great story of the little-known US exploratory expedition of 1838-42. The account of this extended voyage is a great seagoing adventure story. – William N. Butler, Naples, Fla.

Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen by Bob Greene is a personal history of World War II veterans and the many Nebraskans who served at the canteen night and day, providing food and kind words for service men and women traveling by train. It's a wonderful history of those times.– Janet Graham, Mercer Island, Wash.

WHAT ARE YOU READING? WRITE AND TELL US AT kehem@csps.com.

Three books about early Americans

Plenty of scholars today seem determined to prove that America's Founding Fathers were either committed Christians – or staunch secularists. That's what makes So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle Over Church and State by Forrest Church so refreshing a read. Church, who is a minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York, has written a balanced, intelligent account of the complex relationship between church and state that has defined American public life from the start.

"Forget the coonskin cap; he never wore one," begins Robert Morgan's highly readable new biography of Daniel Boone. In this well-researched account, Morgan offers a portrait of Boone as a soldier, explorer, thinker, and early environmentalist. Morgan, an author and professor at Cornell University who says he has been fascinated with Boone since boyhood, brings fresh context and depth to this portrait.

Their correspondence tells the tale not only of the birth of a nation but also of a great partnership between two exceptional beings. In My Dearest Friend, the correspondence between John and Abigail Adams is published in full for the first time. Edited by Margaret Hogan and C. James Taylor, the managing editor and editor in chief of the Adams Papers, these letters make enjoyable and edifying reading.

– Marjorie Kehe

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