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Culture Watch

In this issue:


It is Elizabeth Edwards's kindness and honesty and common sense that shine through every chapter of Saving Graces. In Imperium, Robert Harris has given us more than just the life of a great orator and politician; he has also given us the voice, mind and soul of his narrator. If you want a sweet escape and some fun re-living the decades from 1962 to the present, you’ll like Spring and Fall.

And Consider This
Hidden Kitchens
is high in entertainment value, as well as being informative for those of us who enjoy kitchen talk and action



by Elizabeth Edwards, © 2006

Published by Broadway Books, NY

Hardback: 337 pp

This autobiography is a more-than-detailed account of the events in the life of Elizabeth Edwards, wife of John Edwards, the Democrats’ 2004 Vice Presidential candidate It is also a resounding testament to the power of the networks we all create from the people around us, networks that serve to hold us up, help us out, and deepen our experiences.

As the title indicates, Elizabeth Edwards feels herself blessed in this regard, and the book is a love letter to the people who have enriched her life, from her family and close friends, to her smiling mailman. Whether the contacts are life-long or merely a snatched moment, she is deeply grateful for their positive presence in her life.

And a fascinating life it is. As the daughter of a military pilot, she spent her childhood moving between cultures as widely disparate as a small city in Japan and the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. The eldest of three children, Elizabeth — a brilliant student (brilliant being my word, not hers, although she modestly admits to having done well in school) — speaks of her family, both her childhood family and the family she and her husband have created, with enormous love and appreciation.

Her fondness for everyone in her support group, all the way back to childhood, leads her to recounting long lists of names from every stage of her life. At times this can seem tedious to those of us who do not know the individuals, and yet these “saving graces” are, after all, what this book is all about. (And for many of us seniors, her ability to recall all those names is amazing.)

Edwards was a practicing lawyer until the death of her sixteen-year-old son, Wade. Her description of her grief over that loss goes beyond heartbreaking, as she speaks honestly and painfully of the process of mourning (which does not end), and of the many avenues she traveled, seeking ways to turn her pain into positive actions. Inspired by her son’s observation that many of his classmates didn’t have access to computers, after his death she and her husband founded the Wade Edwards Learning Lab across the street from his high school. It is a place where students can go to seek help with homework, or use computers under the guidance of a knowledgeable staff.

Mrs. Edwards also reached out to the Internet, participating in several grief support groups at that time, and later, during her battle with breast cancer, connecting with others who have dealt with the disease. In both instances, she quotes from several of the meaningful messages she received. She notes that the Net’s great strength is community, something many of us at Senior Women Web know well. As she says, when you are unable to sleep at 4 a.m., it is a lifesaver to know that you can go online and find someone else, somewhere in the world, who understands your pain.

Her introduction to the political world also receives carefully annotated attention, as she and her husband move to Washington, DC after his election to the senate. Through all the campaigns, one is constantly aware that they are very much a team, a team with formidable intelligence and earnest intentions. It scarcely matters whether or not one agrees with their world view: Edwards’s ability to articulate it is a welcome breath of fresh air in a world of political hyperbole.

There are entirely too many women in this world who will be able to relate to Edwards’s discovery of a lump in her breast, followed by the diagnosis, announcement to friends and family, and the series of treatments that followed. But there probably won’t ever be another woman whose husband was running for the office of Vice President of the United States when her cancer was detected, just eleven days before Election Day. Afraid that a prompt announcement would bring accusations of looking for a sympathy vote, she made the laudable decision to withhold the bad news until after the election. We get a glimpse of the stress that decision cost her when, on Election Day, she tells us that she fell apart and sobbed after receiving an unflattering hairdo. Her tears caused the young hairdresser to dissolve in tears also. Edwards resolved the situation by taking the youngster aside and — swearing her to absolute secrecy — explaining that the cause of her tears was really the lump in her breast, not the hairdo.

It is Edwards’s kindness and honesty and common sense that shine through every chapter of Saving Graces. She comes across as anything but a typical Washington wife, and this reader, at least, would vote for her in second, if only she were the one running.


Update: The Nights and Days of Elizabeth Edwards by the Wall Street Journal's Monica Lnagley posted on the John Edwards blog


by Robert Harris, © 2006

Simon & Schuster, publishers

Hardback: 305 pp

With Imperium, British writer Robert Harris, author of (among other things) the brilliant Pompeii, has once again written a book that evokes another time and place, suffusing it with energy that makes it not only accessible, but also of immediate interest to the modern reader.

This reviewer must confess to a great love for the ancient world (stirred perhaps by tough little Miss Diveley, who with a nervous passion and annoying thoroughness taught Latin to teenage girls). But Harris’s novel doesn’t require a reader’s partiality or even knowledge of the Rome of Pompey and Caesar. On its own, it is lively enough to draw you in and keep you turning the pages.

The book is a novel, but it also has claim to biography, since it is written in the voice of Tiro, slave and secretary to Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great orator/lawyer/politician of the first century BC. Tiro is not merely a convenient invention of Harris’s mind: he actually existed, and indeed in his later years really did write a life of Cicero. Alas, his book was lost in the chaos that ended the Roman Empire. Mr. Harris takes the liberty of attempting to recreate Tiro’s story, and acquits himself very well indeed.

Although Cicero himself was a masterful writer (and indeed is the standard against which all Latin prose is measured), we have Tiro’s abilities to thank for the transcription of many of his master’s speeches. He invented a shorthand which enabled him to take down speech verbatim, and used it whenever his master spoke in the senate, as well as to record meetings with friend and foe. We take this ability for granted, nowadays, but Tiro’s invention unsettled a few Roman politicians in much the same way that hidden tape recorders do our own.

The politics of ancient Rome will, in fact, seem familiar. They were both as vicious and convoluted and often corrupt as our own — or perhaps I should put it the other way around: ours often seem no better than theirs, and after 2000 years of supposed progress, that’s pretty depressing.

Cicero was not born to an aristocratic Roman family. In fact, he was from a small town, and although he had studied philosophy and law in Athens and Rhodes, he was considered a provincial. But he was ambitious and brilliant, and set himself a very high goal: the consulship of Rome. That he reached his aim within twenty years is an astounding achievement. He did so without family connections or vast wealth (although he married money), on the merits of his energy and brains and staunch defense of republican (small r) principles. He also managed to get around the strong resistance of the old-family aristocrats, who were pretty much united in opposition to him.

The story begins with his courtroom defeat of a prosecutor named Hortensius, a man until then known as the finest lawyer in Rome. It ends almost 20 years later, with his election as Consul. Perhaps someday Harris will give us a sequel that takes us through the ensuing 20 years of Cicero’s life, to his exile, recall, and, a year after the assassination of Caesar (in which he didn’t take part, but which he applauded) to his ultimate execution at the age of 63. The latter was brought about by his great enemy Marc Antony.

What gives this book its special resonance is the voice that Harris has chosen to give to Tiro. It is the voice of a dedicated servant, but it is also the voice of an intelligent man who, while he performs his duties admirably, dreams of freedom. His devotion to Cicero is not blind, but he neither does he seek to lay bare his master’s flaws, or to pass judgment on his actions. In fact, he tells his story straight, like any good recording secretary, with very few asides. But through the magic of his writing, Harris has given us more than just the life of a great orator and politician; he has also given us the voice, mind and soul of his narrator.


Page Two of Reviews>>

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© 2006 Julia Sneden for SeniorWomenWeb

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