Two Quick Book Reviews: River of Doubt and Literary Brooklyn

“Whatever we read from intense curiosity gives us a model of how we should always read.” — Ernest Dimnet, The Art of Thinking

Photo by Ugur Akdemir on Unsplash

It’s simultaneously quarantine season and Spring here in the autumn of my life. As my thoughts turn once more to getting rid of things, and spring cleaning, I was out in my garage sorting through my books there in order to fill another box for Goodwill. (If you or someone you know in the Twin Ports area sells books on, contact me.)

My parents always had shopping bags of paperbacks that they used to exchange with Grandma, continuously rotating their “reading for entertainment” collection. Grandma was also a collector of hardbacks. She belonged to the Book of the Month Club and other such things. She had more books than anyone I knew, and by my early teens I saw them as a personal library to dip into. Looking back on my life I’m almost astonished at how many books I’ve read that later became Hollywood films. It started with some of my grandmother’s books like Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Planet of the Apes (1968) and Andromeda Strain (1971).

All this to say, I like books. At this point I will borrow a line from Cervantes’ Don Quixote: “There is no book so bad,” said the bachelor, “but something good may be found in it.”

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Photo by the author.

Literary Brooklyn

This book was gifted to me by someone from Brooklyn who bought a couple of my paintings and is involved with the Indie Film movement. The subtitle reads, The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life. It opens with a map of Brooklyn showing the various addresses of various major authors who held a residence there. One gets the impression that this book emerged from a walking tour of Brooklyn authors’ homes.

One advantage of living in Europe, and to a lesser degree the East Coast, is the amount of history associated with various places. Places have power, and the homes famous people have occupied work like a touchstone of sorts, giving us a connection to this historical figures of the past. (This is why music tourism in recent years has grown in power. Bob Dylan’s houses draw fans almost daily to Duluth and Hibbing, though for a season I doubt we’ll have many visitors at this moment in time.)

In Brooklyn you can find eight places associated with Walt Whitman, five of Henry Miller’s residences, the various homes of Thomas Wolfe, Arthur Miller, William Styron, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and John Dos Passos, among others.

It’s no surprise so many writers took residence in Brooklyn, due to its proximity to the publishing industry. Literary Brooklyn is actually a method of organizing a catch all collection of literary biographies. People visiting Brooklyn who want to see the places Walk Whitman lived might be interested in knowing more about his personal life. The same goes for the other men and women whose writings proved so influential.

I jumped to the middle of the book when I first received it, because I was unaware that Thomas Wolfe lived in Brooklyn. Then again, that’s a story for another day.

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The River of Doubt by Candice Millard

The subtitle of this book is intriguing: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey. I’d read a couple Teddy Roosevelt biographies, but remembered nothing from this interlude in his life. When I first thought of his dark journey, I seem to recall that around age 22 his heart was broken and he went out to Montana or somewhere West and spent two years as a cowboy on the range, mingling with common people and learning what the world outside elite Eastern Society Life was about. (Turns out, his wife died two days after giving birth to a girl.) It was a time of healing and re-visioning that produced the leader-adventurer he later became with the Rough Riders and his presidential Bully Pulpit.

What do president’s do after they’ve stepped down from ruling the world (even if only in their minds)? After you’ve experienced your dream job, it has to be a challenge finding meaning again. I frequently cite Buzz Aldrin here, who achieved his dream of walking on the moon and then had to deal with “now what?”

Teddy Roosevelt did not step down. He was defeated and had to come to grips with this. He chose a new “Big Challenge” and it was daunting. He would explore an unexplored tributary of the Amazon River where none had dared go before. In addition to piranha, natives with poison darts, whitewater rapids that destroyed their canoes, near starvation and loss of life, Roosevelt himself was on the brink of suicide. “What in the world was I thinking?” crossed his mind more than once. It’s an adventure story of rare proportions with intrigue, murder and needless deaths, alongside a major figure dealing with his private demons.

When I read books like these, and especially good biographies, I am impressed at the amount of work that has gone into them in terms of research. These are not books you just slap together. Someone had to pay the bills that enabled these writers to spend years assembling the raw materials that became these stories. Kudos to Hughes and Millard for having had the opportunity to pursue your passion in these projects.

Related Links

A Walt Whitman Birthday Party
Who Was Theodore Roosevelt?

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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