Rumor and reflection
Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers, and Swells: The Best of Early Vanity Fair (Penguin, Oct.) celebrates the 100th anniversary of the publication by highlighting its notable works from the 1910s to the 1930s. The most captivating aspect of this collection is that it features works written by several authors before they reached their peak. Included are sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay three years before she won a Pulitzer, a screenplay by F. Scott Fitzgerald five years before the release of The Great Gatsby, and an article by A.A. Milne—four years before Winnie-the-Pooh—detailing his life as a struggling writer. Also on hand are founding members of the Algonquin Round Table such as Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Robert E. Sherwood, of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame fame. Most amusing is e.e. cumming’s “When Calvin Coolidge Laughed,” a satirical account of the pandemonium—complete with falling skyscrapers and raging fires—that ensued after this fake event happened. Historians will appreciate writers’ serious reflections on World War I, Prohibition, and the stock market crash of 1929, as well as Janet Flanner’s biographical article on executioners’ families in Paris.
The doings of the Byron family were drawing room fodder in Victorian England thanks to Lord Byron’s affairs with members of both sexes. The debt-ridden poet strategically married wealthy Annabella Milbanke, but his carelessness led her to escape to the countryside with newborn Ada. Meanwhile, Byron eluded his creditors by journeying to France, never to return. The gossipy biography Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age (Melville House, Oct.) details how Byron’s only legitimate daughter studied mathematics as a child, an attempt by Annabella to counter the indiscipline she loathed in her estranged husband. Ada’s interest in the subject grew after meeting Charles Babbage, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University. Their frequent meetings led her to translate a paper on his analytical engine (the first mechanical computer) for Scientific Memoirs, adding meaningful explanations on the machine’s algebraic operations, yet the scientific community ignored her because of her gender. (Ada posthumously had a programming language named after her.)
Coming in November is Kate Williams’s Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte (Ballantine; Prepub Alert, 6/12/14). Born into a once-prosperous plantation family in Martinique, Joséphine was sent to France as a teenager to marry a family friend. (Her father’s philandering and gambling repelled potential suitors at home.) This is the story of how the unhappy marriage between Joséphine and her licentious husband, Alexandre—who barely acknowledged his legitimate children and relegated his wife to a convent—created the formidable persona she is known for today. Alexandre was executed during the French Revolution and his then-imprisoned wife was only spared owing to the downfall of Maximilien de Robespierre. Suddenly destitute, she subsisted by servicing—selling herself to notables, including an army commander and benefactor of young solider Napoleon Bonaparte. Williams provides an informal yet intimate look at the troubled relationship between Napoleon and the older woman who would become his wife and de facto political advisor. Napoleon’s family never warmed to the calculating widow who was unable to produce an heir, causing Napoleon to discard her for Marie-Louise of Austria. A scandalous and satisfying story for those who enjoy the seamier side of history.—Stephanie Sendaula
in the mood for some juicy nonfiction this fall? LJ Reviews Editor Stephanie Sendaula recommends three intriguing titles.