Backlist: Get Ready to Read!
The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt
and the Golden Age of Journalism
(Doris Kearns Goodwin)
This is a five-star effort by the author of Team of Rivals and a woman who is an outstanding historian. The background of her tale is the start of the twentieth century and she portrays with great excitement the possibilities of that era and the feeling that everything was up for grabs. She reveals the corruption of the politicians and robber barons of the late nineteenth century and how their ways needed to be addressed and challenged. As always, Goodwin writes after huge research and with great detail; and the characters are so completely and freshly embodied that they become like actual people you’ve actually met.
At the centre of the story is the decades-long friendship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Between them and together these two men take on the monopolies, the power of the bosses, the clear need for the protection of labour and the need for sweeping reforms. Central to their work is muckraking journalism and its growth at the time. The true purpose and history of investigative journalism starts here! The fraudulent businessmen and senators are also all here – and you are provoked to wonder how much has changed and what needs an exposé written today. This is a brilliantlyconvincing book about the need for change and for fairness and justice, both then and now. It also makes me want to know even more about William Howard Taft, who ultimately–after his presidency– became America’s Chief Justice. As with all of Kearns’ books, a bit of mental and physical effort is required. But stick with it. It’s definitely worth the exercise!
The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)
I gather this book has divided the critics. I am firmly on the “pro-Tartt” side! Yes, it has flaws. Yes, it probably is about 10-15% overwritten and could do with a bit of pruning. And yet … and yet … The cumulative impact of this novel is much like that of Dickens or Dostoevsky or George Eliot. Its range of references is startling and its cultural intelligence awesome. The book is extremely well-written throughout, and in its portrayal of the State of the Nation Today it’s breathtaking in capturing every nuance from upstart and established “high society” in New York to flophouse thugs in Las Vegas; from genuine appreciation of “high art” that provokes appreciation of great painting, music, and literature, to a portrayal of “tacky” that is energetic, authentic and totally irresistible. Its range of popular culture references is delightful and huge. The people in this novel are extremely real–especially the boy Theo, around whom it centres.
Theo’s adventures clearly want us to reference Huck Finn and the Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye; but the overall structure and approach is modern-day Dickensian and the plot and characters in some ways offer a mixture of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations brought into the modern world. None of this feels self-conscious. And though you could write a footnote to each page, you can also read the book as simply a rip-roaring up-to-the-minute adventure/thriller. Also, referencing books like The Great Gatsby, this novel is told in the voice of a narrator whom one comes to realize is not entirely reliable, has hidden agendas, and doesn’t always remember things as he should. It makes the ending problematic for some. Are we to believe the philosophizing is Donna Tartt’s summary of her meanings? Or, as I prefer to think, are we to be wary of Theo’s conclusions? The energy never flags; and the writing is never anything but superb. Donna Tartt catches tones of voice of a range of characters from all walks of life, describe her settings meticulously (Park Avenue, collapsed real estate developments in Las Vegas, Amsterdam) and writes a book you believe, even though it begins with a parallel world terrorist attack that never happened. Once you accept that, the rest simply makes sense and you are off skiing down the steepest fictional slopes in some time. The detail and dialogue also make me think of a latter day Henry James. Donna Tartt has put ten years into writing this novel and I think it was worth every second; she delivers one of the best reading experiences of this or any other year.
Other books to consider:
Wilkie Collins, A Life of Sensation (Andrew Lycett)
The writer of The Moonstone, the book T. S. Eliot called the ‘greatest’ English detective novel, was a man of secrets and mysteries as weird as some of his fictional plots. This excellent biography tells you all about it. In a colourful book, Lycett gives Collins a well-deserved place alongside his friend Charles Dickens.
Johnny Cash: The Life (Robert Hilburn)
This book is rich, illuminating and utterly frank telling of the life story by a music journalist who knew Cash, and his wife June Carter well. This convinces one that Johnny Cash achieved real and, at times, profound artistry – and lived through highs and lows that verge on the mythic. Full of original research and access to materials the family had never before shown, this is a strong and compelling telling of the life story of one of the most influential musicians of popular culture, both in the worlds of Country and Western and Rock.
1913: The Year Before the Storm (Florian Illies)
With all the reminiscences and retellings of the tales of World War I, its outbreak, its aftermaths, this is an essential and fascinating reference book. What happened month by month in 1913 – especially in the world of culture? Through little snippets of biography and documentary evidence, we experience the world of Picasso and Stravinsky, of Rilke and Freud and Jung, of the emerging talents of Coco Chanel and Charlie Chaplin – a world that was about to be blown away by a war that is somehow implicit and yet, one thinks, avoidable still. Poignant and laconic, this is a powerful evocation of what Hobsbawm saw as the final year of the long 19th century and the beginning of the turbulent, awkward 20th century. Put it on the shelf next to Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with the Amber Eyes.
An Officer and a Spy (Robert Harris)
The novelization of all the characters and all the convolutions that you ever wanted to know about the Dreyfus Affair in France and were too confused to figure out. At last, all is clear! If you pay attention, that is. As convincing as his books about Cicero, Harris did his research for us all. Fact and fiction are reliably integrated.
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing
(Anya von Bremzen)
Heartbreaking, poignant, angry and comic by turns, this is a memoir of growing up in the Soviet Union and then becoming a refugee or exile in America, all seen through the prism of Soviet cooking and the food that was available or unavailable to Anya and her mother in Russia. My wife, who is Polish, related to descriptions of the long queues, the rationing and the disappointments that are described and found it all personally evocative; and we both related to the warm portrayals of the people and the fearsome and sometimes funny experiences. A unique social history, this book is a reminder of the cultural, personal and nutritional contributions to our lives of good (and bad) food. It’s also a charming, heart-warming read!