Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Book Review: The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal - by Lily Koppel

The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal, by Lily Koppel

This is one of those books that, had it not been for so much positive buzz from book bloggers, I might not have known to look for. Sure, it might have caught my attention on the New Books shelf at the library, but I wouldn't have snagged it as fast as I did. And that would have been my loss.

Because of the book blogger buzz, I had high expectations for this book - and let me tell you, I was not disappointed. This is the story of Florence Wolfson, who receives a red leather diary from a family friend on August 11, 1929, her 14th birthday.

Florence's diary is a "Milestones Five Year Diary, allowing for five years of entries to be chronicled side-by-side on a single page. The diary's 365 pages, one for every day of the year, were marked at the top with the month and date. Passage through time could be measured at a glance. Each fleeting day would be logged on just four pale blue lines." (pg. 24)

Florence chronicles every single day between 1929 and 1934. She writes of the pursuit of creative artistic passions - drawing, literature, writing, theater, music - as well as the physical and emotional pursuit of young men and yes, several of her girlfriends who she became intimate with. As a teenager, Florence captures all the details of her young loves - male and female - all taking place in the spotlight of 1930s New York City. Lily Koppel's lyrical description of New York's heyday sparkles more than the city itself, making the reader feel as if one is right there walking the streets of gold.

"Florence's city had a heartbeat. She was there, at the center of things. The sexy, steely city operated like a well-oiled machine before her eyes. The thundering El tracks created a filmstrip of sun and shadows on Third, Sixth, and Ninth Avenues. Boxy automobiles with names like Pierce-Arrow, Stutz, Packard, and Studebacker drove down the streets. One young man taking her for a ride in his new roadster dared to rev up to forty!

The streets were crowded. Men wore fedoras and women wore gray, brown, and occasionally maroon suits, with calf-length skirts cut on the bias and razor-sharp pleats, all clicking along on high heels. They seemed to be walking too fast, like actors in a jumpy olf black-and-white reel. Not a strand of hair protruded from under the hard line around the faces. The world was spinning faster and faster. No one wanted to be left behind."

Ironically, soon after she writes her last entry in August 1934, Florence's diary is indeed left behind. Months morph into years, years become decades, decades give way to Y2K. Meanwhile, the diary lingers forgotten in a trunk, frozen in time until 2003. That's when it is found by New York Times reporter Lily Koppel. It would be another three years before the diary was reunited with the former girl within the pages.

I loved everything about this story. It was fascinating to me that Florence was still alive (especially after learning that so many of her contemporaries died young) and that Lily, through the efforts of a private investigator, was able to track her down. I loved reading then 92-year old Florence's words as prologue to the book, and Lily's impressions of meeting Florence. I especially loved Florence's passion for literature, as shown in her creation of a literary salon. I wrote about this concept of literary salons then and now for my Sunday Salon post on July 26, and am still thrilled with the knowledge that Lily Koppel somehow found it and mentioned it here on her blog. (If you haven't checked out Lily Koppel's blog, you really should.)

And finally, yes, it is very much on purpose that I am posting this blog entry on August 11, Florence's birthday. It has been exactly 80 years since Florence Wolfson received that red leather diary. I doubt you're reading this, Florence, but if so, you are wished a very happy 94th dance around the sun.

Here's what other bloggers had to say about The Red Leather Diary:

Julie, from BookingMama


Dar, from Peeking Between the Pages

Dawn, from She is Too Fond of Books

If I missed yours, please let me know ... I'd love to read your thoughts on this, too.

1 comment:

JoAnn said...

How appropriate to post this on Florence's birthday! We're all lucky that Lily even found the diary, much less Florence herself. I loved this book, too.