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A Great Improvisation
Cover of A Great Improvisation
A Great Improvisation
Franklin, France, and the Birth of America
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"In December 1776, a small boat delivered an old man to France." So begins a dazzling narrative account of Benjamin Franklin's French mission, the most exacting–and momentous–eight years of his life.
When Franklin embarked, the colonies were without money, munitions, gunpowder or common cause; like all adolescents, they were to discover that there was a difference between declaring independence and achieving it. To close that gap Franklin was dispatched to Paris, amid great secrecy, across a winter sea thick with enemy cruisers. He was seventy years old, without any diplomatic training, and possessed of the most rudimentary French. He was also among the most famous men in the world.
Franklin well understood that he was off on the greatest gamble of his career. But despite minimal direction from Congress he was soon outwitting the British secret service and stirring passion for a republic in an absolute monarchy.
In A Great Improvisation Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff offers an utterly fresh and thrilling account of Franklin's Parisian adventure and of America's debut on the world stage. Schiff weaves her tale of international intrigue from new and little-known primary sources, working from a host of diplomatic archives, family papers, and intelligence reports. From her pages emerges a particularly human Founding Father, as well as a vivid sense of how fragile, improvisational, and international was our country's bid for independence.
"In December 1776, a small boat delivered an old man to France." So begins a dazzling narrative account of Benjamin Franklin's French mission, the most exacting–and momentous–eight years of his life.
When Franklin embarked, the colonies were without money, munitions, gunpowder or common cause; like all adolescents, they were to discover that there was a difference between declaring independence and achieving it. To close that gap Franklin was dispatched to Paris, amid great secrecy, across a winter sea thick with enemy cruisers. He was seventy years old, without any diplomatic training, and possessed of the most rudimentary French. He was also among the most famous men in the world.
Franklin well understood that he was off on the greatest gamble of his career. But despite minimal direction from Congress he was soon outwitting the British secret service and stirring passion for a republic in an absolute monarchy.
In A Great Improvisation Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff offers an utterly fresh and thrilling account of Franklin's Parisian adventure and of America's debut on the world stage. Schiff weaves her tale of international intrigue from new and little-known primary sources, working from a host of diplomatic archives, family papers, and intelligence reports. From her pages emerges a particularly human Founding Father, as well as a vivid sense of how fragile, improvisational, and international was our country's bid for independence.
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About the Author-
  • Stacy Schiff is the author of Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for biography, and Saint-Exupéry: A Biography, which was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. Her most recent books include Cleopatra: A Life and The Witches: Salem, 1692. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was a Director's Fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. Schiff lives in New York City.
    Susan Denaker's extensive theatre credits include numerous plays in the West End of London, national tours, and many English Rep companies, including a season with Alan Ayckbourn's company in Scarborough. More recently in the United States, Susan has appeared in Our Town and Sweet Bird of Youth, both at the La Jolla Playhouse, and Breaking Legs at the Westport Playhouse.
Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine Most histories of the American Revolution focus on the battles, the Declaration of Independence, and George Washington. This book is a different, welcome, and altogether enthralling account of Franklin's eight-year diplomatic mission to France to obtain weapons and friends for America's cause. Narrator Susan Denaker reads with an informed, authoritative voice that suits the subject and amplifies the text. She is clear and measured, enunciates every word, and has a marvelous command of French pronunciation. However, she fails to convey the importance of these events and personalities, and that results in an unsatisfying flatness as the book progresses. This is a trailblazing book, but unfortunately Denaker reads it as if it were an old story. R.I.G. (c) AudioFile 2005, Portland, Maine
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from February 7, 2005
    Numerous bestselling volumes have been written recently on the man one biography called "the first American." Pulitzer Prize–winner Schiff (for Véra

    ) eloquently adds to our understanding of Benjamin Franklin with a graceful, sly and smart look at his seven-year sojourn in France in his quasi-secret quest to secure American independence by procuring an alliance with the French. Drawing on newly available sources, Schiff brilliantly chronicles the international intrigues and the political backbiting that surrounded Franklin during his mission. "A master of the oblique approach, a dabbler in shades of gray," she writes, "Franklin was a natural diplomat, genial and ruthless." She deftly recreates the glittering and gossipy late 18th-century Paris in which Franklin moved, and she brings to life such enigmatic French leaders as Jacques-Donatien Chaumont, Franklin's closest adviser and chief supplier of American aid, and Charles Vergennes, the French minister of foreign affairs, who helped Franklin write the French-American Alliance of 1778. Franklin also negotiated the peace of 1783 that led not only to the independence of the colonies from Britain but also to a bond between France and America that, Schiff says, lasted until WWII. Schiff's sure-handed historical research and her majestic prose offer glimpses into a little-explored chapter of Franklin's life and American history. Agent, Lois Wallace. (Apr. 2)

    Forecast:
    This should receive excellent review coverage, which will boost sales, and perhaps the blurb from Joseph Ellis will help.

  • Library Journal

    April 1, 2006
    Pulitzer Prizewinning author Schiff (Vra [Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov] ) presents a highly detailed narrative of eight years in the life of Benjamin Franklin. In December 1776 he landed on French soil from a small boat and for several years negotiated loans and gifts and understandings with France that probably saved the fledgling United States from defeat by its British overlords. He was 70 years old at the time, his French was clumsy at best, and he was one of the most widely known men in the world from his scientific explorations and popular writings. Franklin, with no diplomatic training though he had served the United States in England, pulled off remarkable coups, e.g., obtaining the Franco-American Alliance of 1778 and the peace treaty of 1783. Schiff brings out singular details of those years: agonizing physical problems (psoriasis, kidney/bladder stones, and gout) and intricate relationships with John Jay and John Adams (cosigners of the treaty), Thomas Jefferson, and John Paul Jones. Franklins great strength was that he saw the goals clearly and pursued them calmly, logically, and relentlessly. As an audio presentation, this book is ordinarySusan Denaker is clear and articulates well, but the pacing is pretty much the same throughout, and the overall effect is unexciting. The text, however, is invaluable and belongs in all collections that include American diplomatic history and narratives of the Revolutionary War. Don Wismer, Cary Memorial Lib., Wayne, ME

    Copyright 2006 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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A Great Improvisation
A Great Improvisation
Franklin, France, and the Birth of America
Stacy Schiff
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