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78 of 83 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lively, witty, and fun
Founding Fathers are hot stuff these days. Benjamin Franklin, with two major bios in the past three years (Morgan and Isaacson) and re-publication of others by H.W. Brands and Gordon Wood, may be the hottest. Into this crowd wades Stacy Schiff, whose elegant and witty biography of Vera Nabokov won a 2000 Pulitzer (and whose previous bio of Saint-Exupéry garnered a...
Published on May 9, 2005 by David J. Loftus

versus
32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Some original material but anecdotal and baroque prose
I wanted to like this book, which delves more deeply than

others--and through previously unmined sources--into Franklin's years as Revolutionary America's representative in France. It was there that he established his most significant historic legacy, by securing French support in manpower and money which was both critical to the success of the American...
Published on June 7, 2006 by Marc E. Nicholson


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78 of 83 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lively, witty, and fun, May 9, 2005
By 
Founding Fathers are hot stuff these days. Benjamin Franklin, with two major bios in the past three years (Morgan and Isaacson) and re-publication of others by H.W. Brands and Gordon Wood, may be the hottest. Into this crowd wades Stacy Schiff, whose elegant and witty biography of Vera Nabokov won a 2000 Pulitzer (and whose previous bio of Saint-Exupéry garnered a nomination). Why step from uncommon byways onto a crowded boulevard?

Happily, Schiff's breezy, cosmopolitan, but never superficial style is excellently suited to the open-minded satirist and scientist, and a tale that reads like a cruel farce. _A Great Improvisation_ focuses on just eight years of Franklin's 84-year life, starting in 1776 when he was sent to Paris by the Continental Congress at the age of 70 to get France into the war. Fortunately, France regarded Franklin as a celebrity genius, which was more than many of his colleagues back home in Congress thought of him.

Franklin was "honest, but not too honest, which qualifies in France as a failure of imagination." He could "indulge in the ingenious and wholly specious argument, a staple of French conversation." His defense of French admiral d'Estaing was "a shining tribute to benevolent ignorance. (And one that happened accidentally to be accurate.)" Surrounded by spies, he had papers and money stolen. The other Americans in Paris squabbled endlessly with one another, accusing the French of deceit and intrigue even more than the British. Franklin's co-commissioner, Arthur Lee, "was ideally suited for the mission in every way save for his personality, which was rancid."

Poor trans-Atlantic communications enabled the Paris delegation's enemies to poison Congress against them, especially Franklin, who risked censure several times. He also was beset by psoriasis boils, gout and bladder stones. Schiff does not neglect Franklin's poor relations with much of his family, and his flirtations with French ladies, widowed and married. It's a wonder it all came out so well. Not a little of the credit goes to Franklin's skill as "a natural diplomat, genial and ruthless." When he was "rebuffed, he played hard to get"!

France ended up backing the colonies' successful revolution with men, arms, ships, and aid that would be worth $13 billion today. Americans who carp about Gallic "ingratitude" for their 1940s rescue might consider whether we were paying a 160-year-old debt.

With writing this good, it's startling to encounter a false note: more than once, Schiff uses "adverse" when "averse" is the word she wants. The book also shows rare but regrettable signs of sloppy editing. Franklin's grandson Temple is said to be 18 upon their arrival in Paris in mid 1777, but thirty pages and five months later he is 17. The news of Burgoyne's capture as a prisoner after the Battle of Saratoga is reported to hit Paris on Dec. 4, 1778, which is a year late.

Nevertheless, Schiff handles a broad array of characters and events with élan. Her book reads like a spirited production by Merchant-Ivory.
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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Benjamin Franklin deserves his place on the face of the $100 bill!, January 28, 2007
By 
Geoffrey Woollard (South East Cambridgeshire, England) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (Paperback)
In my British ignorance, I had led myself to believe that there was only one version of the life of Benjamin Franklin - that of the unique and unparalleled polymath and all-American hero, born in the British Empire but buried at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the great republic that he helped to create.

But Stacy Schiff's extremely readable and obviously well-researched book that covers the period of Dr. Franklin's life when he was an envoy of the second Continental Congress to the Court of King Louis XVI of France also covers the controversy that surrounded this amateur ambassador, stirred most particularly by the brothers Arthur Lee and William Lee of Virginia and John Adams of Massachusetts, later to be the second President of The United States. The former seem to have been motivated by Southern superciliousness and arrogance, 'qualities' battered out of their kind in the later 'War for Southern Independence' by the descendants of the likes of the latter, possessors of their own special sort of sanctimonious superiority complexes.

I can forgive the Lee family for almost anything, for one of my all-time American heroes is General Robert Edward Lee, but it is clear that his older relatives, Arthur and William, disgraced themselves, Virginia and their infant nation by their constant sniping at the one man who was winning over French opinion and, more importantly, attracting French cash and much, much more, for General Washington's army. As to Adams, his distaste for the venerable Dr. Franklin is sufficiently well-documented not to be doubted. The motive for this distaste can reasonably be attributed in part to his narrow and God-fearing New England background, especially when contrasted with Franklin's leading and learned role in enlightening America. The one was old Massachusetts, through and through, whilst the other early 'escaped' to Philadelphia.

I don't suppose it suited some of his critics that Benjamin Franklin was a 'liberal,' not only in his personal and family life but also in his general tolerance of others and his enjoyment of the female attractions of the French Court and of Paris. Of course, they might just have been jealous of the old boy, who, well into his seventies, was getting away with what a twenty-year-old might not have dared to attempt.

Not all were detractors of the good doctor: I was delighted to read - and will remember - the marvellous quote (which I hope is not apocryphal) of the Virginian who was to become the third President of The United States. Mr Jefferson, upon arriving at Versailles in May, 1785, is said to have been asked: "Is it you, Sir, who replaces Dr. Franklin?," to which another of my all-time American heroes replied: "No one can replace him, Sir; I am only his successor."

But, for me, the most surprising portion of this book is its thorough cataloguing of the ingratitude of America and Americans towards Franklin and towards France, without whose financial sacrifices and physical support in the shape of armies and navies, the War of Independence was more likely to have gone the way of innumerable other local revolts. In the absence of French help and of the efforts of Franklin, King George III and his successors would likely have remained the supreme governors, based in London, of all of the squabbling colonies.

Indeed, it seems that it was not until 1917 that the American Government realised - even if it did then - that a deep debt of gratitude was owed to France. By then, of course, Dr. Franklin and King Louis XVI were long dead, but the damage of unpaid debts had been done. France, her treasury depleted by the equivalent of the many billions of dollars spent in the name of America, was riven asunder by her own dreadful revolution that has coloured the judgements of world statesmen and French politics ever since. I well remember, back in the 1960s, when my wife and I first took our young children to visit the areas of northern France that had been fought over so many times in two great wars. We stopped off in a small and attractive village to buy a newspaper and all that was available was "L'Humanité," the Communist party's organ. Some sections of the left-leaning French peasantry still contrast sharply with my right-facing fellow peasants of rural England, a reflection of our different histories.

By my British lights, perhaps Dr. Franklin should have done that which his contemporary critics claimed he was doing - fail. But succeed he did, and America and Americans, at least, can and should be grateful for that, to him and, of course, to France, as well as to her eminent foreign minister at the time of Franklin's vital assignment, the half-forgotten Comte de Vergennes.

On balance, I believe that Benjamin Franklin deserves his place on the face of the $100 bill, and Stacy Schiff's first-rate and five-star book deserves to be read; and not only read, but marked, learned, and inwardly digested.
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32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Some original material but anecdotal and baroque prose, June 7, 2006
By 
I wanted to like this book, which delves more deeply than

others--and through previously unmined sources--into Franklin's years as Revolutionary America's representative in France. It was there that he established his most significant historic legacy, by securing French support in manpower and money which was both critical to the success of the American Revolution and an unintended catalyst for the subsequent French Revolution.

But I come away from the book rather disappointed, because while the writer has done her homework and obviously knows her source material, all that learning has been imperfectly translated into written form. And the reason appears to be that Ms. Schiff is more a literary stylist (and a good one) than a historian, and she is so intent on producing a witty book with turns of irony and serendipity on almost every page, that it gets in the way of a clear history. The language of the book itself often resembles the convoluted baroque aesthetic characteristic of the France Franklin experienced--meaning it is often a slow and less than transparent read, even if eventually entertaining.

But too entertaining. The effort to offer up humorous anecdotes sometimes takes the author down irrelevant byways and, above all, interferes with a clear and analytical exposition of the history. There is too much of pure daily narrative (occasionally trivial)--this happened, then that, then the other thing--without an overarching analytical framework. When that framework does sporadically appear, in particular as regards French attitudes and motives in supporting the American Revolution, it is not always internally consistent at different points of the book. Maybe French attitudes/motives evolved over time. Or maybe the book is just inconsistent, since broad synthesis is not its strength.

That said, the book is not to be dismissed. It is a contribution to the canon of Revolutionary Era histories and biographies. It does, in a bobbing and weaving manner, offer some insight into French motives for assisting the colonies (essentially to even the score with Britain for the latter's defeat of France in the French and Indian War, while hopefully ensuring that the US would remain a weak power ideally dependent on France). Above all, it well illustrates how hapless the Continental Congress was, at least as regards foreign relations; how amateurish and internally riven US representatives to Europe (and particularly in France) were during this period, acting at cross purposes and often out of petty spite. (Franklin stands out as the exception. John Adams comes in for a devastating portrait.) Above all, both in the aforementioned aspects and by focusing on how much the American Revolution depended on the foreign (mainly French) loans Franklin secured rather than American self-taxation, this book provides a new perspective--as does another recent book "Iron Tears" by Stanley Weintraub--regarding how much the American Revolution was not so much "won" by the colonies as by the largesse of the French and the mistakes of the British.

The latter contributions justify purchase of the book by Revolutionary Era afficionados. But for other audiences, I would say the book falls between two stools: it is neither rigorous, analytical history, nor pure entertainment. It falls somewhere in between, and that is its weakness.

All that said, Ms. Schiff obviously has done her homework in original sources, and deserves thanks for bringing those sources to light.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Writing syle interferes with content, January 28, 2008
By 
L. Bowes (Arlington, VA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (Paperback)
Despite enjoying a lot of books from this genre, I found this book to be almost unreadable. The author is too intent on bowling you over with her writing to write clear and interesting prose.

Here's an example:
"The slippery stew which was a Paris thoroughfare accounted for the city's most singular danger. No man who had the means walked through the filth of the streets, and no man who had the means hired a driver with any respect for the individual who did."

I think I understand what this means, but I'm not even sure I do. In any case, I think it is an arrogant exaggeration to make a statement like this. I guess she knew about every man in Paris.

For what it is worth, I am in a book group and there seemed to be universal dislike of this book for similar reasons. I didn't attend, however, because I could not force myself to read past page 80.
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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Poorly written, May 13, 2006
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This review is from: A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (Paperback)
I'm giving up on this book. It reads like a first draft. Sentences like the following on page 71 abound: "When you hear not so often as you wish, remember, our silence means our safety," the Committee of Secret Correspondence - now doing business as the Committee for Foreign Affairs, although Franklin, who had never mastered the original name, was not to know for months - soothed the envoys, whom they understood to be starved for news.

Schiff needed a good editor but didn't get one. This certainly isn't Pulitzer grade material. I wonder if the publisher rushed this book into print in time for the 300th anniversary of Franklin's birth.

Van Doren in his biography gives a better account of Franklin's years in Paris.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ponderous & slow, January 11, 2007
This book is a potted history of the events surrounding the arrival of Benjamin Franklin in the court of Louis XVI and the attempts by the American delegation to gain recognition and material support for the fledgling rebellious states from the kingdom of France.

Ms. Schiff's writing brings to life the intrigue of the royal court and the foibles and petty vanities of the different personalities, French, British and American, describing particularly well the wonderful Franklin himself, in all his apparent absent-mindedness but in reality his single-minded forcefulness.

Within this large tome a slim interesting volume is trying to emerge. There is no doubting that Stacy Schiff writes well; however, given that at least three men named Lee are mentioned in the text, clarity of writing is an essential requirement of the history to avoid confusion; Ms Schiff, to my mind sacrifices clarity of narrative for the flowery phrase. Footnotes - often comprising anecdotes more interesting than much of the text - are included to the point of irritation on most pages; these would have been better included in the text proper.

On balance, the book is worth a read, but only just.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Franklin the Fascinated Francophile, June 5, 2005
The most valuable insight author Stacy Schiff provides in her enlightening and entertaining historical treatise is that despite our own self-serving myths about emancipation, the American Revolution did not reflect the action of a single country coming of age. Rather, the revolution marked the debut of the United States onto the imperial stage where France and the rest of Europe had already been players. In fact, the foreign aid provided by France during the revolution was essential to the outcome of the uprising. Critical to getting these funds from the French monarchy was Benjamin Franklin, already 70 years old in 1776. The story of the 8 ˝ years he spent in Paris, persuading the French to support the fledgling American army in concrete as well as symbolic ways, is the subject of Schiff's book. The story of how it was obtained is fascinating and messy, as diplomacy often is. That's because Franklin knew that he and his compatriots had roles in a much larger drama. As the title implies, he was open to spontaneous inventiveness when it came to fostering foreign relations. Schiff attributes Franklin's success to his laissez-faire attitude, an ability to be logical without being pedantic, and a single-minded approach both genial and ruthless.

Franklin and his cause are always at the center of events in the book, but Schiff's in-depth and scholarly research, as well as a sharp gift for vivid period re-creation, makes us the labyrinth of personalities and complex issues involved. She effectively shows how the U.S. forged a rocky trans-Atlantic alliance with France, the ramifications of which are still being felt today. During those years, Franklin lived in houses teeming with French spies and British agents, having no secretary except his own adept grandson, and receiving from Congress new emissaries and contradictory or ineffectual directions. Adding to the challenge was the colorful French cast of characters with whom Franklin continually bargained. They ranged from Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the flamboyant secret agent who became an important early arms dealer; to the young Marquis de Lafayette, who received the weapons and sailed recklessly to America against the king's order; to the stubborn British ambassador to Versailles, the Viscount Stormont. Perhaps the most intriguing and heretofore unknown character was the Chevalier d'Eon, a cross-dressing dragoon officer who became a notable supporter of the young republic's cause. The American cast of characters was no less of a challenge to Franklin. His American colleagues in Paris-some of whom were also supposed to be representing America in France, and some of whom stayed on the congressional payroll but simply never went to their postings in other countries-were full of complaints about Franklin. Schiff paints a vivid picture of the infighting among Adams, Jay, Richard Izard, Arthur and William Lee, Silas Deane, and the various other American representatives. Then there is John Adams, whom Schiff sees as a cantankerous politician who resented Franklin as he was deified by his French admirers. What irked Franklin's American colleagues was the difference between the man and the myth.

Through all the back-biting treachery, Franklin managed to persuade the French government to support the war with its navy, gunpowder, thousands of soldiers, and provide contributions which would amount to thirteen billion in today's dollars. And, when the English finally admitted defeat, Franklin, along with John Jay and John Adams, negotiated a most beneficent peace. This is an impressive story providing yet another dimension to this familiar figure. Schiff has written a lively story with a cast of colorful characters and plot twists that could easily compare to a work of historical fiction. I recommend reading this book in tandem with John J. Miller's and Mark Molesky's polarizing "Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France" to get an even fuller context of the U.S. relationship with France through the years.
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20 of 25 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Grand Magniloquence, October 25, 2005
By 
RW (West of Boston, MA USA) - See all my reviews
There is no doubt that Schiff is a talented writer, yet it seems to me that in this work she intended to create an elegant, if not baroque, text first and a book about Franklin second. If not apparent by now, I found the writing style of this book to be sufficiently complicated that, for me, it got in the way of the story line. (For full disclosure, I listened to the CD Audio version rather than reading the text directly and the reader's voice is quite monotonous after a very short while.) The story line, while seemingly well-researched and historically accurate, does not come across as well organized. In fact it's downright cluttered at times, and it becomes very tedious to listen to (and I suspect to read as well) and often difficult to follow. I read with interest, a number of the previous reviewers who seemed pleased with the "breezy" and "engaging prose" Schiff weaves into this text prior to purchasing the book. Sadly, after having purchased the book already, I would characterize it as discursive, bordering on turgid. Unlike one of the other reviewers, I do not find that the absence of complicatedness in composition relegates one to 6th grade vocabulary; let's not confuse simplicity or straight-forwardness with the absence of either intelligence or interest. There's great value in economy and pithiness in writing (though I have chosen neither in this review--and nor has Schiff in her book!). :)

Folks, this is all about style, which each of you know is a purely personal matter. Those who are fond of flowery, verbose, complicated sentence structures will be thrilled with this book, and they'll probably learn a lot about Franklin's tour of duty in France too. Personally, I like history texts to read a bit more like a boxing match than a ballet...so, my copy of the CD Audio version is for sale if anyone is interested.
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15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Great Improvisation is a Great book on Franklin in France, June 8, 2005
Pulitzer Prize winning author Stacy Schiff has done an excellent job in her new book on Benjamin Franklin in France

during the American Revolution! Through his diplomacy; ability to win social cachet in haughty aristocratic Paris and his foxy skills at wheedling favor with Louis XVI and the foreign minister of France Vergennes this founding father brought bucks to America during the "times that try men's souls."

Schiff's prose sparkles as she delves into the details of Anglo French diplomatic complexities as Ben Franklin old, ill and at times very crotchety won France's money, soldiers and shipping to the side of the new nation.

Schiff has excellent commentary on such luminaries as ambassador John Adams who had a difficult time with Franklin;

the slippery Silas Deane; the Franklin hating Lee brothers from

Virginia and the man who succeeded Franklin in his position one

Thomas Jefferson. These were complex individual who often quarreled and quibbled during their stay in Paris.

Franklin loved France and Frenchwomen like Madame Helvetius and Madame Brillon made his visits to their lavish homes a time for the old diplomat to relax from the diplomatic wars at Versailles.

Schiff's book will not be everyone's cup of tea. Her story demands close attention appealing to those who find the story of America's birth fascinating as the diplomatic and Machiavellian story of how we won France as a powerful ally is told in great

detail.

This book will never be as popular as McCullough's 1776 which is a more exciting history of Revolutionary battles but the diplomatic battles were equally important. Schiff, therefore, deserves to be read. Anyone wishing a better understanding of Benjamin Franklin should enjoy the book.

While dry at times I found it to be a profitable read.
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Delicious Prose + Compelling Story = Great Read, April 26, 2005
By 
M. Katz (Seattle, WA) - See all my reviews
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Populated by characters worthy of Dickens (including a theatrical producer, a dyspeptic diplomat and a female impersonator), ranging from back alleys to country estates to the royal court, combining elements of espionage, political deal-making, dangerous liaisons and the price of fame, "A Great Improvisation" has a you-are-there immediacy and tells an irresistible story that just happens to be at the heart of our survival as a country.
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A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America
A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America by Stacy Schiff (Paperback - January 10, 2006)
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