Ardent Audible listener with a long commute!
On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama was elected to his first term as President. Three days later, I read a nice piece in the Washington Post by Wil Haygood. "A Butler Well Served by this Election" was the too brief story of Eugene Allen, a Black butler who served eight presidents, retiring during the Reagan administration. Later, watching the inaugural on television, the camera panned to Allen, and a commentator mentioned he was there as a special guest of the President's. Allen must have had interesting stories, but he was discrete and I thought they had died with him in 2010.
I was thrilled to find "The Butler: A Witness to History" (2013) at the top of the Audible crawl. "Wow," I thought. "A story I always wanted to hear more of, and one of the narrators is Forest Whitaker!" I like his voice so much I'd listen to him reading a refrigerator repair manual. It was the fastest Audible purchase I've made, and I don't regret it.
I thought I would be listening to a lengthier biography of Allen, or perhaps a novelization of the movie, but "The Butler" book is really a companion to the movie. According to this book, the movie "The Butler" is partially fictionalized, and a dramatic conflict was created between Allen and a radicalized son. This book first discusses how Haygood came up with the original story idea, and his lovely interviews with Allen and his wife, Helene. The book discusses Allen's relationships with the presidents he served, but briefly -it's a short book. It also discusses the tragedy Allen honored to vote for Obama, and then his physical struggle to attend the inauguration.
There's also a section on the difficulty bringing "The Butler" to the screen. Oprah Winfrey discusses the history of Blacks in film, as actors, directors and producers. I am familiar with all of the actors she mentioned, but the directors in the 1920's and 30's were new to me.
I'm giving the book a story rating of "3" because, as an Audible, it wandered. I wasn't always sure what point was being raised.
[If you found this review helpful, please let me know by clicking 'helpful'.]
In 1642, Dutch Golden Age Master Rembrandt van Rijn completed "The Night Watch". The three most important subjects of the painting are in sunlight, and the other 31 people - the military company of the two men in sunlight - are shaded, using a technique called chiaroscuro. Someone looking at "The Night Watch" quickly would notice the featured soldiers and the girl watching them, but miss the other people in the background, who are doing very interesting things - and make up most of the picture.
When I listened to Denise Kiernan's "The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II" (2013) I realized that I knew about the stars of the atomic program - Robert J. Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, General Leslie Groves - but the whole story of making the atomic bomb has been in chiaroscuro.
Kiernan focuses on the women involved in the project, from Caddy (spelling may be wrong, since I was listening), a black woman janitor who worked overtime to help buy a B-25 bomber; unskilled high school graduates recruited from the surrounding area; well educated female statisticians and scientists who, before the war, had been discouraged from their 'unsuitable choices' for degrees; to Lise Meitner, a German physicist of Jewish descent who fled Nazi Europe whose research on fission was crucial to engineering the bomb itself. Clinton Engineering Works (CEW) was the operation of huge plants that extracted enriched uranium. One of the largest plants was built by woman-owned HK Ferguson, Inc, in just 66 days.
These accomplishments are astounding - especially for blacks and women who were paid less for doing the same jobs as white men, because, after all . . . Well, they could. That was as stupid then as it is now. I was pretty saddened to hear that blacks were segregated both from whites, and men from women - even if they were married. One black man, injured in an accident, had medical experiments conducted on him without his consent. A very well qualified black scientist wasn't sent to Oak Ridge because he would have had to live in a Hutment (shack).
"The Girls of Atomic City" made me realize that, like a quick glance at "The Night Watch," I'd missed most of the picture - and I didn't even know it. It's a great listen.
About the audio - well, I wasn't wild about Cassandra Campbell's narration. Her character narration was good, and I particularly liked the Italian accent she needed to use for some people. However, on the explanatory prose - well, there's no reason to elongate one syllable words interminably.
[If this review helped, please press YES. Thanks!]
I am a huge fan of Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead" (2013). I thought Lily Koppel's "The Astronaut Wives Club" (2013) would be the antithesis of "Lean In", but I was intrigued by a great review on NPR's Morning Edition. One of my earliest memories is of the January 27, 1967 fire that killed three astronauts on the launch pad, and I suddenly wondered how those wives had handled that.
Curious, and bolstered by Audible's no questions asked return policy in case I didn't like the AWC (as the members of "The Astronaut Wives Club" refer to the group) I decided to listen.
The AWC is a fascinating study of a place (Texas) and time (late 1950's and the 1960's) where NASA created what appeared to be the perfect community to nurture astronauts into space and eventually to the moon. The wives, followed by Life magazine and hoards of hungry press, presented a convincing facade of suburban living , cooking streak-and-eggs breakfasts, wearing exquisite dresses, with carefully coifed hair. The wives were expected to be rocks of support, not letting their own families or the rest of the world know how frightening what their husbands were doing was.
The facade was just that - a mask, and the members of the AWC joined together to support each other and mortar the cracks that inevitably formed. While their husbands competed on making history in space (and sometimes on the ground with the number of 'Cape Cookies' they could bag), the AWC supported each other with ham loaf, tuna casseroles, jello molds, and chats over plenty of coffee and cigarettes.
Most of the AWC didn't work outside the home, but most middle and upper class women didn't at the time. Being an astronaut's wife was like being an unwilling star of an unrelenting reality show.
I had initially held the members of the AWC in disdain because they seemed to derive their identities from their husbands, but like other women of that era, they did not have the options we do half a century later.
The AWC was and is a space pioneer "Lean In" group.
The narration was a bit off - not everyone could have had a Texas accent - but the pace was good.
Audible, you're safe. I won't be returning this one.
[if you found this review helpful please let me know by pressing the helpful button. Thanks!]
Join me on GoodReads too!
If you’ve read as many books and seen as many documentaries about Titanic as I have, you’ll willingly add this book to your list.
It’s like a little collection of biographies of people whom you already know a little about. Having seen movies and TV series and documentaries, you’ll recognize most names and already have an understanding of how the main characters relate to one another. This book fleshes that out in more detail by providing additional background information and interesting facts about the key players’ lives.
Survivor’s recollections of the sinking itself were compelling, as well as the long cold wait for rescue. (Wouldn’t that make an interesting movie? A couple whose vacation plans are interrupted when their boat (The Carpathia) alters course to rescue Titanic survivors…).
I was not expecting to learn anything new, but I did! Not just trivia like how many napkins and nutcrackers and wine bottles were on board the Titanic (LOTS) but about how so many passengers were bound for Canada for example, and what their plans would have been had they survived the sinking.
The book also includes a lot of details of the days in New York just after the sinking; I found this the most interesting of all because this part of history is often overlooked. Attention is usually always focused on the boat, very little to the people left behind. I had no idea there were so many imposter-grievers! People pretending they lost loved ones in the sinking!!
The “what ever happened to” section at the end where we learn the long term fate of survivors is poignant (although a little ghoulish) because it exposes how an experience like this can impact a person deeply for life.
It was a great read – I highly recommend it.