I traveled seven centuries to make some new acquaintances in my 2017 reading. A dozen biographies, memoirs and historical portraits illuminated my tiny canon of knowledge of history, art, politics and literature. Some of these books were a bit like oatmeal; a little dense and somewhat chewy, but they stick to the ribs!
In time-travel order, here they are:
Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. Kindle. 624 pages. Published 2017, Simon & Schuster. One of the best books I read last year, but if you are not a student of art history, it’s a bit of work. Isaacson taught me how to really look at a painting. Not the easiest thing for me, as I am the person who likes to flit through the Louvre in half an hour. But very much worth it and the reproductions of Da Vinci’s art, even in the Kindle version, are excellent. Did you know, by the way that illustrator John Tenniel modeled the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland after one of da Vinci’s grotesques?
Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick. Kindle. 443 pages. Published 2016, Viking. I rate Philbrick just a teensy bit below David McCullough and Erik Larson for bringing history alive, but he chooses irresistible subjects that are must-reads. Here, he draws a painstaking portrait of Benedict Arnold and the factors that led a Revolutionary War hero to turn traitor. Philbrick’s treatment of George Washington here is a bit less sympathetic than Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life and that reminds me that history, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Mary Chesnut’s Diary by Mary Boykin Chesnut. Kindle. 388 pages. First published (posthumously) 1905. Penguin Classics, 2011. The CE read this book, a Civil War classic, and pressed it upon me – “You have to read this!” Chesnut was a southern “society lady”, part of Mrs. Jefferson Davis’ entourage throughout the war. Fiercely loyal to the South, she writes “Slavery has to go, of course, and joy go with it. These Yankees may kill us and lay waste our land for a while, but conquer us – never!” The diary she kept is a poignant chronicle of loss – by war’s end, she is selling her clothes for food.
Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman. Kindle. 636 pages. Published 1999, Knopf. Colette was one of the most fascinating women of her or any time, but this bio was a bit of a slog although well worth the effort. She electrified French literature with her sexually candid novels, happily shocked audiences by appearing topless on stage, lived with men, lived with women, yet remained relentlessly anti-feminist. Of her improbable life and irrepressible spirit, John Updike once quipped “In the prize ring of life few of us would have lasted ten rounds with Colette.”
Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill: A Brief Account of a Long Life by Gretchen Rubin. Kindle. 336 pages. Published 2004, Random House. Hundreds of books have been written about Sir Winston Churchill. He wrote forty three himself. There are 650 extant biographies of him. Where to even begin? I went for one of the slimmer volumes, this faceted overview that includes both heroic and critical views of “the last lion”. He failed spectacularly at Gallipoli in WWI but is considered by many to have “saved Western civilization” in WWII. Not a definitive biography but a fair one and a good place to start.
By Women Possessed: A Life of Eugene O’Neill by Arthur Gelb, Barbara Gelb. 886 pages. Published 2016, Penguin Group. In one of my book clubs, the members never look at the page count prior to assigning the book. And that’s how I ended up reading almost 900 pages about Eugene O’Neill. The Gelbs basically devoted their professional lives to writing about O’Neill and this is the culmination of their work. It is indisputably thorough. Every detail of O’Neill’s turbulent life, loves, plays and uncanny instinct for accumulating fabulous real estate are here. Excellent book if you are willing to put in the time.
The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters by Laura Thompson. Kindle. 400 pages. Published 2016, St. Martin’s Press. This was a terrific read! The Mitford sisters were born in England between 1904 and 1920 and were, variously to be tagged as writer, countrywoman, fascist, Nazi, communist and duchess. This book explains as well as any I have read the curious affinity many upper-class Brits had for Adolf Hitler and his aims. Highly recommended.
The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington by Gregg Herken. Kindle. 529 pages. Published 2014, Vintage. Nothing can really surprise us anymore about politics, so learning that a significant amount of Cold War policy was formulated not at the U.S. Capitol or the White House but at the Georgetown dining table of journalist Joseph Alsop is, I guess, no big deal. George Frost Kennan, Phil and Kay Graham, Frank Gardiner Wisner and others played fast and loose with geopolitics and the nascent CIA.
The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen. Kindle. 319 pages. Published 2012, Penguin Group. The subject is fascinating but the narrator is shockingly unreliable. Moscow-based journalist Masha Gessen has a personal anti-Putin agenda (well, who doesn’t?) and moreover, sees everything through a somewhat narrow LGBT lens, which unfortunately limits the value of this biography. No question that the guy is sinister, but I can’t recommend this book.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance. Kindle. 273 pages. Published 2016, Harper. Just in case you are one of the three people who has not read this book, it is a heartfelt survey of the making and breaking of white, working-class America. For Vance, “hillbilly” is not a perjorative term but a descriptive one of the predominantly Scots-Irish denizens of Appalachian America, many of whom were drawn to mid-20th-century Midwest factory jobs. He knows his subject and draws heavily on his own childhood experience in a “hillbilly” family. Vance recently moved back to Ohio – I predict he will be declaring political candidacy in 3, 2, 1…
In the Shadow of the White House: A Memoir of the Washington and Watergate Years 1968-1978 by Jo Haldeman. 464 pages. Published 2017 by Rare Bird Books, a Vireo Book. This might be the best memoir you didn’t read in 2017. As the wife of Watergate figure H.R. Haldeman, Jo provides a lucid, even-handed retrospective of the scandal that brought down the Nixon administration. Recommended.
Sing for Your Life: A Story of Race, Music and Family by Daniel Bergner. Kindle. 321 pages. Published 2016 by Little Brown and Company. You don’t have to be an opera fan to enjoy Ryan “Speedo” Green’s unlikely journey from juvenile delinquent to internationally-celebrated baritone. Green was pushed, pulled and lifted along his way by a series of “angels” who refused to let him fail. A plus of this highly-readable book is a behind-the-scenes look at the machinations of the Metropolitan Opera.
Next week: the recap continues…