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on January 19, 2016
not very readable--too convoluted
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on August 26, 2005
Stacy Schiff tells of Ambassador Franklin's lengthy stay in Paris at a time critical to our country's independence. I found the writing style of the author to be overly complicated and sometimes choppy. She favors the view that the U.S. owed a profound debt to France that was ignored by most American leaders, at the time of the Revolution and since. Paper is wasted on the story of Temple Franklin, a person of little apparent worth and no current interest. I do not think Ben Franklin or his many and valuable contributions were as neglected in his final days by his fellow Americans as is asserted by Ms. Schiff, who seems to me enveloped with the airs of a high intellectual in this particular effort at popular history.

(Readers interested in this period, might like Walter Stahr's recent and very good book on John Jay.)
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on May 13, 2006
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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on August 22, 2012
A perfect example of how an author's personal style can destroy a very interesting book. With tiresome convoluted sentences', and glib and painfully clever writing. It reads like it was written by a very erudite French courtesan of the era. I stuck with it for 100 pages. But this book is just unreadable. It's really a shame because the content is great.
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on October 15, 2015
Stacy Shiff authored what I consider to be a very expansive tome on Cleopatra and much that touched her life, and those that she in turn, touched. It was a fascinating and expansive treatment of the subject, describing an incredible person.

Based on that work, my expectations for A Great Improvisation were high. Yes, to a significant extent "A Great Improvisation: Franklin (et al)" delivers, yet it delivers so much intricate detail, the story stalls to the level that it becomes boring. In my own view, as a published author myself, an editor could trim this work to about one-half the pages of the current publication, with the result that the story would move forward and hold the reader's interest.
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on November 15, 2011
Stacy Schiff makes us wonder how a wounded, ailing fledgling dis-United States ever established itself and ultimately thrived. In "The Great Improvisation" she shows us the reasons for Benjamin Franklin's lifelong successes--a comprehensive ability to be whatever his customers need him to be. In this case his customers are the bureaucrats of King Louis's court, the French women who flock to his side, the natural philosophers (scientists) and literati of Europe, and nearly everyone except his fellow American representatives to French and other European powers for a single purpose: the Colonies are flat broke and need money, lots of money, to outfit their ragged, generally undisciplined militiamen, buy arms and ammunition, and simply survive long enough to outmaneuver and outlast the British army and King George. By planned and unplanned procrastination, skullduggeries, silences, lack of correspondences, obfuscations, avoidances and outright lies Franklin frustrates and infuriates the likes of John Adams and other American emissaries to European courts yet squeezes out of the French funds and arms for the rebel Americans, significantly contributing to French financial ruin and its own bloody Revolution. The real delight here is less history than personalities as Ms. Schiff "gives us the dirt" on the cadre of conniving Colonial contenders for Franklin's crown; the backbiting and pettiness of Adams and other major diplomats, their jealousies of Franklin, and their rancid attempts to have him replaced read like a bad diplomatic romance novel. In fairness Ms. Schiff does not spare Franklin for his abuses: a paucity of dispatches back to the Colonial government; his abysmal family morals and behavior toward his wife and son; his slackard's ways at critical moments; and his avoidance of confrontations that turn petty grievances into major disruptions. Thankfully his tormentors are far bigger scoundrels than he, the French--especially its well-educated and aristocratic women--love rustic old Ben, and his scientific, literary and intellectual reputation consistently clears his paths of stones too big to walk over. In a nutshell, gout-ridden Franklin succeeds and saves his new nation from British victory.

Ms. Schiff masterfully weaves a thousand and more strands and bits of human folly and achievement into a delightful, humorous tale of one man's often erring, sometimes stumbling but ultimate success in helping the Colonies become a nation, albeit still more states than united, and gives us a unique view of a man and the difficult birth of his nation. While you're reading and certainly when you've finished this laudable history, you may see present US politics as tame indeed, all the while wondering how we ever even managed to get started. An ugly, awkward birth it was, but thank the "man for all seasons" and any necessary reason for the USA ever finding itself on any world map as a nation. According to Ms. Schiff's account, the United States of America is truly a magnificent improvisation, and she knows who's to blame.
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on February 19, 2013
As a proud American the hidden truthes of this life are remarkable to say the least. The fact that he was in Great Britain representing the colonies with Great Britain his choice for a number of years is little known. Over time he seemed to begin to believe that Britain was a bully. He fell in love with the American dream and he played a pivotal role in France working for America against Britain. America may not have happend without his presence. I subsequently read the other works by Stacy Schiff. Cleopatra was so much fun to read. She is one of the best history writers of our time.
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on June 1, 2016
Benjamin Franklin is one of the most remarkable Americans to have had a hand in our birth as a nation. This is a side of our American Revolution that was unknown to me. This book gives a real feeling for what went on in France during the Revolution and afterwards. I am amazed at the amount of research that must have gone into the writing of it.
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on October 5, 2013
Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer Prize winner, has written another outstanding book. A Great Improvisation won the 2006 George Washington Book Prize. As with her other works, this book is a wonderful telling of the role Benjamin Franklin played in France on behalf of the United States as well as his own interests. Schiff does not gloss over Franklin's imperfections, but rather places them squarely in the context of the man so that the reader can delight in understanding Franklin. This is key because Franklin acted out of a myriad of interests and some of those were deeply personal. While Franklin fulfilled his duties in France, he did so in a way that alienated many people including those who worked with him on a daily basis.

Schiff also portrays the main characters that worked with Franklin such as Silas Deane, Arthur Lee, John Adams, and the French Foreign Minister, comte de Vergennes. Vergennes was the most important of the French, but Schiff also delves into the many French who interacted with Franklin over his time in Paris which was almost nine years. Schiff manages to convey the long and tedious time Franklin spent fighting with his colleagues as they rode the ups and downs of the Revolution. Diplomats get a very non glamorous job during war, but they play a major role in the success of a country in war. Franklin and company were no exceptions.

Schiff also explains the desperation which surrounded the American mission as well as the success of the British in penetrating the mission with its spies. In a truly bizarre scenario, the British had first rate knowledge of what the Americans were doing, yet could not parley that into wartime success. The book is good with the details about the other things Franklin did in Paris besides work for the Americans. Those details flesh the book out and give it more than a monotone diplomatic history feel. The lack of footnotes hurt badly. I prefer footnotes in my history books. Other than that the book is an excellent read and I highly recommend it.
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on June 11, 2016
Outstanding work by a Pulitzer Prize author. How Franklin persuaded the King of France to help the colonies rebel against the King of England makes an engrossing and entertaining read. Get to know Franklin, Adams, and a cast of characters that will keep you wondering what happens next.
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