29 November, 2009

the lady of the house

i am a reader, always have been. i can and do read anywhere: the car, on airplanes, at gigs, outside, inside, morning, noon, or especially at night. my idea of perfection is to climb into bed and read until the early hours of the morning.

i read some fiction, some poetry, but i am mostly a non-fiction junkie, especially biographies. some of my very favorites include my multiple judy garland tomes plus books on tab hunter, anita o'day, bette davis, rudolph valentino, and mary pickford. you see where my taste leans, no, perhaps topples.

recently, a friend gave me "mary todd lincoln: a biography" by jean h baker. yes, that's right, mary todd lincoln the wife of the asassinated president. i must confess, i love it. i haven't been able to put it down all week. in fact, when i have crawled into bed after long days of driving and shows, instead of falling gratefully to sleep, i am trying to prop my eyelids open so i can read more about the complicated, ornery, and desperate mary T.

it's unfortunate that MTL (as i like to call my new BFF) has been reduced by history to a grieved widow. dig just under the surface, and she becomes a nationally despised grieved widow. dig a little deeper, and you find a despised grieved widow who felt she was a role model and shopped for the part. and dig deeper than that long sentence, and you find a woman trapped in the limited space allowed for women in her time.

MTL was a highly educated, clever and charismatic chiid of kentucky royalty. her upbringing of privilege led her to the uncomfortable intersection of having learned to speak her mind and the burdensome assumption of marriage and child-rearing. in an era where women were beginning to be seen and heard, MTL outran the expectations of her sex. known for her vicious and accurate imitations, her strong political opinions often got her into private hot-water. known for her ostentatious dress, her unpaid shopping bills often led to back-room political patronage to settle them. had MTL lived even a generation later, she'd have had wider latitude for her bright and sharp personality.

books like this remind me i am lucky to be living in the 21st century. for all the crazy people who would like to limit or judge my lifestyle, i have plenty of space to ignore them and explore my self, unfettered. i think that's part of my wonder and fascination with MTL. i try to imagine myself in her time, and i just fail to see how i'd manage. for all her notoriety, mary todd lincoln was bound by her corsets, both metaphorical and physical.

by the way, thought i might finish with a list of a few of my favorite independent bookshops around the country. by no means definitive:

malaprops, asheville NC
elliot bay, seattle WA
powell's, portland OR
a room of one's own, chicago IL
kramer books and afterwords, washington DC


  1. malaprops! lovely place.

    i'm sure you've found both of these, but in case you've somehow missed them, next time you roll through town:

    tattered cover, denver, co
    davis-kidd booksellers, nashville, tn

  2. Your idea of perfection and mine play nicely. I'm also a voracious reader and have many a night stayed up until the sun was shining through my window because I was caught up in some fantastic world via a book.

    I like to think of books as my friends and as a teenager I spent more time reading than talking on the phone.

    I adore bookstores and libraries... the older the better.