Wedlock: the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore

by Wendy Moore
Published by Crown, 2009, $26.95

Reviewed by Sharon Shervington, June 5, 2009

Imagine being one of the wealthiest women on the planet, widowed and with young children. Still, you’re barely into your second decade. Your father, your greatest protector, is no longer their to look out for your interests. Then imagine a man you think loves you – even fighting an illegal duel in your honor. So you marry him, and suddenly your fortune is no longer your own. That is what happened to Mary Eleanor Bowes in the late 18th century. Within hours of the marriage, literally, Prince Charming turns into Mr. Hyde, abusing her physically, imprisoning her and separating her from both her children, her money, even her beloved servants. And it was all absolutely legal. Shortly, the countess is a mere shadow of her former self, in a society where divorce was nearly unthinkable. Finally she gathers the strength to withstand the rage and abuse sent her way by those who believe that divorce is worse than death, not to mention her vicious, adulterous husband.

Wedlock is an interesting look at the historic reality of power as anathema for women. As such, it shows how far society has developed, in terms of availability of divorce for women as well as inheritance laws (although in England, a great deal of property remains entailed to this day.) This book reads like a historical Ann Rule and really spans the genres, working as history, biography and alas, true crime.

The Handbook to Building a Better World

by with Stephanie Land
Published by Perigee, 2009, $14.95
ISBN 978-0-399-53487-4

Reviewed by Sharon Shervington, June 5, 2009

How to turn your good intentions into actions that make a difference.

This nuts and bolts compendium of ideas for those who want to make a difference contains everything from how to find the right volunteer situation and how to manage the scheduling and other aspects of this important work to behind the scenes way to support non-profits, from serving on the board to planning an event. The handbook helps readers to find a focus whether local or global and how to evaluate the best uses of one’s skills.

Eco Barons: The Dreamers, Schemers and Millionaires Who Are Saving Our Planet

by Edward Humes
Published by Ecco, 2009, $26.99

Reviewed by Sharon Shervington, June 5, 2009

And not a moment too soon. In addition to the uplifting stories of some whose commercial empires might make them seem like unlikely candidates for this work, Mr. Humes provides a wealth of compelling statistics about everything from the appalling rate of species extinctions per year to figures on the size of some of the world’s truly wild places. Among the moguls that we get to know are the founders of both Esprit and Burt’s Bees. We also meet the former park rangers who have become leading legal minds in the field of eco-legislation.

Mr. Humes has been writing nonfiction for many years, and it shows. With vivid prose and a grand sense of place, readers can almost feel the ambiance, the color, of such places as the wilds of Chile and Patagonia. He won the Pulitzer for the definitive yet controversial Monkey Girl, a hard look at evolution versus intelligent design and has also written extensively about the legal system, particularly in the areas of juvenile justice and mistaken identity. A wonderful website provides an exciting window into his extensive oevre.

House of Cards: a Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street

by William D. Cohan
Published by Doubleday, 2009, $27.95
ISBN 978-0-385-52826-9

Reviewed by Sharon Shervington, June 5, 2009

Should accounts of the financial collapse on the Street generally leave you with more questions than answers then House of Cards is for you.  It has a lot of answers. It’s hard not to be outraged at this up close and personal look at the men who were willing to risk anything to take home a fat bonus (often as much as $15 million a year or more) year after year after year. Ok, and yes it was a power trip too. See the private jets, the private dining rooms, the Palm Beach compounds. As the implosion in newspapers continues and while other forms of media metamorphose, accountability can be a hard thing to nail down. But Mr. Cohan does an exemplary job at just that, which explains the weeks that House of Cards spent on the New York Times Bestseller List.

At 450 pages, not including sources, this is definitely a bit of a tome and a time commitment, and there are some passages that could be tightened. Still, it gives the kind of information that we all need about what is really going on in our country, and without a lot of spin. The debacle didn’t happen overnight and the book is divided not only into chapters but into three sections that explain, first what happened in the 10 days leading up to the Bear-Stearns collapse. This section lays the groundwork on a number of levels; we meet the key players – the top executives at the bank (the fifth largest investment bank) as well a brief look at the other big financial players and their leaders, other banks and investment houses and the Feds (Geithner, Bernanke etc).

Also in this section, we begin to get comfortable (as much as one ever can) with the strange and exotic instruments that were dreamed up to make astonishing amounts of money for those with access. House of Cards is able to deal with this complex and urgent material in a way that other forms of media cannot — with real depth. As such, it is an important illustration of the expanded power that books have in our democracy today. It is particularly interesting as well because, as in other media, there is now tremendous concentration in publishing. In one way that might be an advantage, as people all over the globe will have some access to identical material, and this is a crisis that has had a huge impact all over the world.

The second section of the book entitled “Why It Happened: 85 Years” is all about the culture and the shapers of the culture that led to the catastrophe. Here we learn of the firms founding and the three larger-than-life personalities that left an insurmountable imprimatur on the company even after leading it to dizzying heights. The aggression, ruthlessness, quirks and brilliance are minutely examined from management styles, to cigars, wives, bonuses and surprisingly bridge, providing the book’s juicy dish. But it is the how it was done that is the just-as-juicy meat and potatoes; the traders and brokers, the managing directors, the sale of bonds, mortgage bonds, CDOs (collateralized debt obligations) and the rest of the alphabet soup of instruments, are the code that shows just how it all fell apart. It is a heretofore secret code that has conferred great power, and requires the expertise of someone like the author, whose accomplishments span both finance and journalism, to properly decode. One comes away with the impression that “House of Cards” is perhaps too generous to describe it all. And that everything floated dangerously close to a crapshoot. Leverage ratios, for example, were at times at something like 40 to one, which to put it more plainly means there were slim assets indeed to back up the billions of dollars of deals that were occurring on a daily basis.

All in all, this is a perfect storm of the worst that could happen in global finance with conditions including deregulation, politics, personality and plain old greed leading to a catastrophic payday.

Ava’s Man

by Rick Bragg
Published by Knopf, 2001, $25.00
ISBN 0676793495

Reviewed by KNS Maré, October 3, 2008

I never saw him with my own eyes. I know him only from faded black-and-white photographs taken during the Depression, and through the rich, vivid, Technicolor memories of his children . . .

That was Rick Bragg’s introduction of his granddaddy, Charlie Bundrum, “the finest man I never knew,” in Bragg’s powerful 1997 memoir, All Over but the Shoutin’. Bundrum’s life, times, and considerable legacy of fiercely-held personal and family allegiances are now the subject of Bragg’s latest book, Ava’s Man.

In Ava’s Man, Bragg’s masterful storytelling and vivid portraiture combine to create an incredibly moving and truly unforgettable tale that is at once a deeply poignant form of hero worship, and yet also a clear-eyed, two-fisted, no bullshit account of how poor Southerners survived the Great Depression. “The Depression, endured in the lifetimes of people we know, was our time of heroes and martyrs,” Bragg writes. And to Bragg, and possibly to every one who reads this book, Charlie Bundrum is one of the most compelling examples of both: a complex, mercurial man who loved and lived life deeply, simply, and proudly; a man who made and drank moonshine, yet who never missed a day’s work; a stomp-dancer, story-teller, river-loafer and hammer-fisted fighter whose whipsteel thin body barely contained the anger and strength of ten men, yet who also possessed a loving protectiveness towards his family that twenty men more might never hope to possess:

[His] [family] would have loved him anyway, if times had not been so hard, if he had not saved them from it, but would they have loved him as much? It is easy to be liked when the world has no jagged edges, when life is electric blankets and peach ice cream. But to be loved, a man needs a dragon. History gave him one.

Bragg’s personal quest to discover just what it is that makes a man a good man runs throughout both All Over but the Shoutin’ and Ava’s Man. He tells of having been virtually abandoned by a violent, alcoholic father, and of being perpetually haunted by the unspeakable pain and self-sacrifice that his mother endured for the sake of her children. In Charlie Bundrum, Bragg seems to have found the perfect blend of his own mother’s indomitable yet tender love for her family, and that yet untamed (and yet unnamed) source of vitality from which all of the excesses of Southern manhood flow—for good or for ill: “Men drank. Men worked. Men fought. By the time you were thirteen or fourteen, you were a man, or else something pitiful.”

Indeed, in reconciling the opposites of Charlie Bundrum, Bragg seems to reconcile his own contrary impulses and convictions, thus effecting something miraculous, like something from the Book of Isaiah: Yea verily, The Redneck roaring down the crowned blacktop driving the primer-spotted muscle car while throwing Tony Joe White’s sound and his own empty beer cans out the car window WILL lie down with The Journalist who is empathic, astute, and a champion of the down-trodden, Amen.

Like its subject, Ava’s Man is so much larger than its appearance. With this second memoir, Bragg has captured a family’s brightest star and its darkest nights. Few biographies are as fun-filled as this one, and even fewer biographers can match Bragg’s ability to bring to life people and times he has never personally seen, or exceed his skill at rendering mythic the common everyday heroism that is too often overlooked.

A gifted storyteller still needs to find the perfect tale to tell, and it seems the perfect tale will wait and wait until just the right storyteller comes along. Ava’s Man is just that perfect combination, and I cannot recommend it enough.

(c) Copyright 2001 by KNS Mare’