john adamsI was walking across a parking lot of a strip mall at night (when I am all old-makeup-Winona Ryder-in-Edward Scissorhands, these scenes be my main memory of overly paved and overly franchised Southern California) talking to a guy I was about to have dinner with. We saw one of the ubiquitous John Adams posters featuring one of my biggest celebrity crushes, Paul Giamatti, when my pal laughed.

“Gee, they must be running out of people to make miniseries about,” he said.

Of course, I turned all schoolmarm-ish, rattling off a list of Mr. Adams’s formidable accomplishments vaguely recalled from elementary school, but the more I thought about it, I got what he was saying.

When we think of the Founding Fathers (which we do so much more than the fascinating Founding Mothers.  I am planning on reading more about Martha Washington), we think of the bigger celebrities—the George Washingtons, the Thomas Jeffersons, the Benjamin Franklins. If it weren’t for the fact that his similarly-named son, John Quincy Adams became President (a fact easily remembered and noted in elementary school), I do think we’d have let Mr. Adams fade into that James K. Polk-y twilight of “well, they were Presidents, but eh.”

After reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of John Adams though by David McCullough, I happily acknowledge my ignorance and tip my hat (a backwards baseball cap, natch) to John and Abigail Adams, two of the most fascinating individuals I’ve ever read about.

Upright to a fault, a very New England-y mix of pride and humility, John isn’t thoroughly likable throughout all his many amazing accomplishments and feats. Even a great number of his peers found him impeccably moral and upstanding but too single-minded, too proud and not enough of a politician.

In the end, after a long and impressive service to the creation of the United States (arguably the greatest of any of the Founding Parents), he served as President for one term before being narrowly defeated for reelection.

Like life, the book loses much of its sparkle and energy towards the end of Adams’s life, but such is the way with almost all biographies, and there are enough fascinating details of life at the time in America and Europe alike (plus charming touches, like Abigail’s acquisition of a songbird in a cage in France and sad ones, like melancholy-tinged cameos by Marie Antoinette) to delight even the least interested reader of history.

Of course, Abigail comes across as the more fascinating figure—and you want to beat John about the head and shoulders for his jokey, dismissive response to her famous “remember the ladies” letter—and the book picks up momentum whenever the two of them are together physically.
Great book, but now I need to see Paul Giamatti in all his sexy, wild-animal glory in a powdered wig.

Woof.

duchessKeira Knightley determined my next reading choice, which is as it should be. In fact, I wish that she would call me every so often and tell me what to read in her fantastic British accent. Did I mention that she’s one of my favorite actresses?

Anyway, I heard that her next movie will be The Duchess, the film adaptation of Amanda Foreman’s Whitbread Prize-winning biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the 18th century aristocrat who lived an extraordinary life and had more of an influence British politics than almost anyone else of her time, male or female. (Amazing, seeing how women had practically no political rights at the time.)

As the leader of the ton, the elite of society, she directed fashion (including bizarre ornaments to be worn in towering hairstyles and enormous ostrich feathers) and sold newspapers to a public hungry for tales—real or imagined—of anything she did. She wrote a novel and several pieces of music, was an accomplished harpist and left behind a record of letters and writings that is the greatest source historians have for the political climate of the time.

A passionate Whig, she pioneered a series of public relations campaigns to whip up support for her party that prefigured modern politics. She (along with her sister, Harriet) hit the streets, wearing herself to exhaustion going door-to-door to gain votes—an unprecedented role for women at the time. With her as the crafty hostess, Devonshire House became the Whig’s political power center of England, a salon where more meetings and deals came together at her tables than in actual Parliament. She wrote letters and used her influence with great men, including the Prince himself, to fight for the Whig cause.

She was a dear friend of Marie-Antoinette and visited the captive queen after the French Revolution had begun. She was a passionate student of botany, mineralogy and chemistry. She also lived an unconventional home life, allowing another woman, Lady Elizabeth “Bess” Foster, to become the third party in her marriage as it subtly shifted into a ménage-a-trois. She also racked up crippling gambling debts which she never completely escaped, had multiple love affairs and an illegitimate daughter.

For almost her entire life, Georgiana lived at the forefront of the social and political scenes of her time as one of its most famous, respected and (sometimes) reviled figures. I enjoyed reading this biography and its glimpse into the amazing lives the wealthy could lead in 18th century Europe: the travel, leisure and political opportunities they enjoyed boggle the mind today.

We all feel that our lives are so busy and full today, but to imagine how different things were back then—Georgiana, carrying her illegitimate child and having confessed a portion of her debts to the Duke, is sent away to roam through Europe and have her child secretly—it’s insane to think about.

Foreman writes gracefully and with a sense of humor, bringing Georgiana to life with her flaws and shining characteristics all intact. Readable and funny and tender and informative, this book was fantastic.

Although I didn’t know anything about “the Duchess” beforehand, I couldn’t stop reading and even teared up a little at the end with her death. This amazing woman who lived a life bigger and broader than almost any of her contemporaries, writes a letter to her deaf son, Hart, the night before her health starts to really fail, that touched me. Something about her words just struck me—one of her generation’s greatest members speaking to her child about a sort of immortality on the cusp of her own impending death:

I feel and fear that I give too much latitude to my pleasure in writing to you, but indeed no mother ever lov’d a son as I do you. I live in you again…I see in you still more perhaps than even in [your sisters] what my youth was.