Reading Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore

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  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (October 1, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307958345
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307958341

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Jane Franklin and brother Benjamin were so close they were called “Benny and Jenny.” Unlike her famous and learned brother, Jane Franklin could not even spell correctly, though she loved to read, probably making her way through all her brother’s works and those books he sent to her. At any rate, she appreciated books but somehow never bothered learning to spell, herself. What’s the explanation? We’ll never know.

Whereas Ben was arguably the most famous and beloved man in the Colonies, a world traveler who spent his time rubbing elbows with the elite, Jane was a wife and mother struggling to make ends meet for her husband and houseful of children. Adding to her stresses, her husband was a less than reliable provider. There could hardly be a greater difference between these two siblings.

Though they didn’t see each other often, brother and sister kept up a regular correspondence, Jane’s missives mispelled disgracefully, her brother’s letters witty and well-written, lifting the heart of his impoverished, overworked sister. To her brother’s credit, he pulled the family from the brink of bankruptcy more than once. Unfortunately, he wasn’t in a position to help the day to day quality of their lives or be there in person to give his sister support. But he did what he could, from a distance, without crossing the boundary into sacrificing himself and his own ambition, even for his beloved Jenny.

Beset by illness in the Colonies, Jane lost child after child. Two of her older sons were severely problematic. Though helped out by their Uncle Ben, who set up various apprenticeships for them, it’s suspected both had mental impairments of some kind, resulting in their losing position after position – to the chagrin of their uncle and mother, both. Exactly what afflicted them isn’t known but their behavior was often erratic, outside the bounds of normally rambunctious young men.

Needless to say, life was grueling for Jane Franklin, both physically and mentally, her situation mirroring that of most Colonial wives and mothers. Her one advantage was having a wealthy brother with endless connections, though the bed she made with her inadequate husband and passel of twelve children was of her own making. Yet, she managed to stay relatively upbeat, trusting in God’s providence, somewhat frustrated by her brother’s state of unbelief. In any case, it helped buoy her up from the often grim realities of life.

Jill Lepore’s book is one of those nominated for the 2013 National Book Award, in the category of Nonfiction. Remember I was going to see if I could get through any of these before the winner was announced? Well, Lepore’s is the first, the one I know I’ll have finished before the deadline – God willin’ and the creek don’t rise. Though I now own all the fiction, uncharacteristically it’s the nonfiction I’m after first. Curious.

There is precious little information about Jane Franklin. Only her brother’s letters to her, plus a scant few which were saved (she wasn’t famous, so her missives weren’t valued) and a very short, four page record she kept – which she called her Book of Ages, in which she wrote in birth and death dates of family members – survive. We know which books were in her library and bits of what was said about her. For the rest, Lepore extrapolates from her brother’s life, what is known of her children and common life in the Colonies. The result is a fascinating glimpse into the life of a woman frustratingly obscure, whom it would seem would be next to impossible to research. Yet, Lepore has done just that. Based on very scant data, she’s managed to bring Jane Franklin to life in a manner I find terribly impressive. It gives me a frustrating feeling of “I want to do that!” Now, I just need a subject… And a lot more writing skill. Aside from that, I’m ready to step into Lepore’s tracks.

I’m just over halfway through the book, which is equal amounts text and bibliography/appendices. The length of the book, 464 pages, is deceiving. If you’re considering giving this one a read, allow for its being only half the stated length. If you want to go through the supporting and additional materials, that’s another thing. Of course, I plan to get through all that, as well, out of my love for Colonial history. It doesn’t have to be now, though. I can put it aside, getting back to the extra stuff whenever. This is a historical period near and dear to my heart. I’ll put it with the other books in my Colonial collection.

Having no knowledge of the other Nonfiction nominees, I can’t say if I’d predict Lepore as the winner. She’s done a great job with sparse material but I’m not sure how universal the appeal of the book really is. Tough to say. In other words, I don’t want to say I have reservations she’ll win but I do have reservations. Not to say this isn’t a great read. It is that.

Never mind her chances for an award. I recommend the book, based on its deeply thoughtful account of Colonial life, told from the unique perspective of the previously unknown sister of a great thinker, writer, politician and inventor, who is herself one step above illiterate. It’s a unique take on Colonial history and beautifully written.

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The Finalists: National Book Award, 2013

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Out of the Man Booker frying pan, into the NBA fire. I bounce from torture to torture, gritting my teeth in angst from the wanting.  So bad it makes my stomach hurt.

OCD much? Yes. Yes, I do. When you get a chance I’d like another serving, if there’s any left. And there’s always more, sooner or later.

 

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First, the fiction:

• Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers, Scribner/Simon & Schuster

• Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland, Alfred A. Knopf/Random House

• James McBride, The Good Lord Bird, Riverhead Books/Penguin Group (USA)

• Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge, The Penguin Press/Penguin Group (USA)

• George Saunders, Tenth of December, Random House

[Kushner was a 2008 NBA fiction finalist, Lahiri won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize, and Pynchon was a 1964 fiction finalist and won the award in 1974 for Gravity’s Rainbow. Saunders is a MacArthur fellow.]

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Alright. I own The Lowland and The Good Lord Bird. I know I had a copy of Tenth of December but haven’t seen it lately, not since I read a couple of the stories and thought meh, it’s okay. Note that, now. Since I had a meh reaction, it’s likely to win. [SEE: Man Booker, 2013.] May as well go ahead and send her flowers.

Pynchon… Well, it’s Pynchon. You either know what I mean or you haven’t had the pleasure. And I don’t have the book.

Don’t have the Kushner, either. Here’s what author Lauren Groff had to say about The Flamethrower:

 

Every so often, you’ll come across a book that burns so hot and bright it’ll sear a shadow on your vision. For a while afterwards, everything you look at will have the book’s imprint on it; your world will be colored in the book’s tones, and you will glimpse the book’s characters on the street and feel your heart knocking in your chest for a few blocks, as if you’d escaped a close call.

This is how I felt after I read Rachel Kushner’s brilliant The Flamethrowers. The night I finished it, I dreamt of racing motorcycles across sun-shot salt-flats and of floating in glimmering Italian swimming pools. In the morning, I tried to describe the book to a friend but I eventually faltered into silence.

This is a beautiful book, I finally said, a book full of truth, a book about art and motorcycle racing and radicalism, about innocence and speed and stepping up to a dangerous brink, a book very deeply about the late seventies in New York City and its powerful blend of grittiness and philosophical purity.

Oh, said my friend. So. What is it about?

I tried again. I said: It’s a love story, about a young artist under the sway of an older, established artist, scion of a motorcycle family, who betrays her, and she joins up with an underground group in Italy. It feels like a contemporary European novel, philosophical and intelligent, with an American heart and narrative drive, I said.

Oh, said my friend.

Just read the book, I said and my friend did, and loved it to speechlessness, as well. Wow, is all he could say when he returned the book to me.

 

Hmm. Not sure that encourages me much. I’m not one for motorcycles on salt flats. On the one hand, I loved Lauren Groff’s The Monsters of Templeton, so her opinion isn’t without influence. On the other, I know most authors will sell their souls to help other writers sell books, because what goes around comes around. Not being privy to Groff’s relationship with Kushner, I can only speculate it’s an overblown review – since the prose lays it on a mite thick – but maybe the book is roughly half as good as she asserts.

What scares me are the words “Every so often,…” Ever heard a movie preview? This is the literary equivalent of “In a world where…” Lauren, Lauren, Lauren. At least you were blatant, I give you that. And it’s not that I’m against your promotion of Rachel Kushner, in theory. I’m more jealous of my time, angry when it’s wasted.

But okay. If I can read a few pages for free I’ll give it a whirl.

 

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And the nonfiction:

• Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, Alfred A. Knopf/Random House

• Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

• George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

• Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832, W.W. Norton & Company

• Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief, Alfred A. Knopf/Random House

[Lepore is a Bancroft Prize recipient and Pulitzer Prize finalist, who served as a NBA nonfiction judge in 2011, and Wright was a 2006 finalist. Taylor won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in History.]

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And I have zero of these titles. Dang it.

Lepore’s book is about Ben Franklin’s younger sister, Jane. HELLO! I need read no further. I am reeled in. Number one, it’s American history. Two, it’s Colonial American History. And three, the Ben Franklin connection. I love Ben Franklin.

Hitler… I could live the rest of my life without reading another book related to the Holocaust. May have to take a  pass. Not sure my heart can take it.

Packer’s The Unwinding:

A riveting examination of a nation in crisis, from one of the finest political journalists of our generation

American democracy is beset by a sense of crisis. Seismic shifts during a single generation have created a country of winners and losers, allowing unprecedented freedom while rending the social contract, driving the political system to the verge of breakdown, and setting citizens adrift to find new paths forward. In The Unwinding, George Packer, author of The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, tells the story of the United States over the past three decades in an utterly original way, with his characteristically sharp eye for detail and gift for weaving together complex narratives.
     The Unwinding journeys through the lives of several Americans, including Dean Price, the son of tobacco farmers, who becomes an evangelist for a new economy in the rural South; Tammy Thomas, a factory worker in the Rust Belt trying to survive the collapse of her city; Jeff Connaughton, a Washington insider oscillating between political idealism and the lure of organized money; and Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire who questions the Internet’s significance and arrives at a radical vision of the future. Packer interweaves these intimate stories with biographical sketches of the era’s leading public figures, from Newt Gingrich to Jay-Z, and collages made from newspaper headlines, advertising slogans, and song lyrics that capture the flow of events and their undercurrents.
     The Unwinding portrays a superpower in danger of coming apart at the seams, its elites no longer elite, its institutions no longer working, its ordinary people left to improvise their own schemes for success and salvation. Packer’s novelistic and kaleidoscopic history of the new America is his most ambitious work to date.

 

YES! YES! YES! A thousand times YES!

Alan Taylor’s book on slavery – YES!

Wright on Scientology? Not so much. Intriguing in its way but yuck.

Lepore, Packer, Taylor. In a pinch, just Lepore and Packer. And Kushner. And Pynchon. And it ain’t gonna happen. Perhaps a better woman could juggle so much but not this woman. What gets read will get read – my new mantra. But I do want to sample a few of these, as I’m able. And I’ll report back, as is my habit, with my largely uninformed opinion as to who should win what. When it’s over I’ll compare my notes with those of the NBA. We’ll laugh, we’ll cry. It will be a cathartic experience.

 

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For poetry and YA, I’m not reading any of these. Poetry I’m not keen on. YA I am, to an extent, but I have to cut things off somewhere:

 

Poetry

• Frank Bidart, Metaphysical Dog, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

• Lucie Brock-Broido, Stay, Illusion, Alfred A. Knopf

• Adrian Matejka, The Big Smoke, Penguin Poets/Penguin Group USA

• Matt Rasmussen, Black Aperture, Louisiana State University Press

• Mary Szybist, Incarnadine: Poems, Graywolf Press

[Four of this year’s poetry finalists are on the list for the first time, the exception being Frank Bidart, who is a three-time National Book Award Finalist (1997, 2005, and 2008) and a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.]

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• Kathi Appelt, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, Atheneum Books for Young Readers/Simon & Schuster

• Cynthia Kadohata, The Thing About Luck, Atheneum Books for Young Readers/ Simon & Schuster

• Tom McNeal, Far Far Away, Alfred A. Knopf/Random House

• Meg Rosoff, Picture Me Gone, G.P. Putnam’s Sons/Penguin Group (USA)

• Gene Luen Yang, Boxers & Saints, First Second/Macmillan

[The young people’s literature list includes two prior NBA finalists: Kathi Appelt in 2008 and Gene Luen Yang in 2006, when Yang was the first graphic novelist to be selected as a NBA finalist.]

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Thar she blows, my dears. Thar she blows.

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