Power, Faith, and Fantasy
by Michael B. Oren (Norton)
In this survey of U.S.–Middle Eastern engagement, a leading Israeli historian argues that our relationship with the Middle East has always been inseparable from our sense of ourselves. “On balance,” he concludes, “Americans historically brought far more beneficence than avarice to the Middle East and caused significantly less harm than good.”
Dancing in the Streets
by Barbara Ehrenreich (Metropolitan)
The author of Nickel and Dimed probes the curious history of “collective joy,” portraying the advance of Western civilization as a determined campaign to purge ecstasy and fellow feeling from daily life. Although Ehrenreich’s scope is vast, and the more visceral type of communitarianism she calls for is appealing, her book lacks the passionate urgency of its ostensible subject and remains somewhat inert.
The Averaged American
by Sarah E. Igo (Harvard)
In what could be a companion volume of sorts to Ehrenreich’s book, a scholar meditates on the rise of public-opinion polling in the U.S. and the peculiar brand of self-knowledge-at-a-distance for which we have Gallup and Kinsey to thank. Igo notes that although such surveys have become more scientific, they remain inescapably reductive, so that Americans have learned “what their metaphorical, but not their actual, neighbors were thinking and doing.”
Where We Lived
by Jack Larkin (Taunton)
A fascinating and beautifully photographed survey of American homes built between 1775 and 1840 reveals an astonishing variety of dwellings as well as certain common bonds: cramped spaces, persistent smells, no privacy to speak of.
by John Patrick Diggins (Norton)
The author, a prominent conservative historian, concedes that Reagan was a relativistic enabler of Big Government and had little use for organized religion, but nevertheless regards him as a truer conservative than many who claim the mantle today. Diggins’s ability to glimpse Reagan’s contradictions clearly (and explain why those contradictions made Reagan, in a way, all the more himself) leaves his subject at once more legible and more mysterious.
Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind
by Peter D. Kramer (HarperCollins)
A brief, compelling reassessment of Freud by the author of Listening to Prozac. Although the great analyst was “more devious and less original than he made himself out to be,” Kramer generously concludes that “the gradual revelation of a less straightforward, less competent, less lovable Freud contains an affirmation of Freudian precepts”—particularly that “what is hidden in people may not be admirable.”
by Victoria Glendinning (Free Press)
The husband of Virginia Woolf provided so much information in his brilliant autobiography that perhaps there has seemed no need till now for a full, well-researched biography. But Glendinning—one of Britain’s most celebrated biographers—presents us with a perceptive, understated account, especially for the years after Virginia’s death. She describes, in ways Woolf himself could not, the trials of a semi-outsider in the Bloomsbury world—a Jew; a poor man; a practical, persistent intelligence amid genius. Civil servant in the Empire (with the conscience and prescience of Orwell), novelist, distinguished publisher, historian, political analyst and adviser, journalist, and editor, Leonard Woolf famously summed up his career as so many hours of “perfectly useless work.” Glendinning doesn’t buy it, and offers a more apt and cheerful assessment.
by Claire Tomalin (Penguin)
Tomalin’s book appears only a few months after the revised edition of Michael Millgate’s magisterial biography of Thomas Hardy, and the author acknowledges her debt to Millgate. But readers of her earlier biographies, especially Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self (2002), will know that Tomalin has something special to offer. In a style both scholarly and entertaining—often in short, fast-paced sentences—Tomalin examines the emotional paradoxes of her notoriously opaque subject. She turns fresh attention to Hardy’s first marriage: the book opens with Emma’s death—the moment, Tomalin writes, “when Thomas Hardy became a great poet.” Sympathetic and often wry, Tomalin is most innovative when exploring the biographical ironies of Hardy’s poems.
by Howard Pollack (California)
At nearly 900 pages, Pollack’s study intends to be definitive—as did its shorter predecessor, William Hyland’s George Gershwin (2003). Pollack devotes fewer than 200 pages to straight biography, but in the rest he discerningly surveys Gershwin’s compositions (including recently discovered ones) in historical and musical detail. The book, in fact, is a remarkable compendium of detail. This alone will probably make it definitive, though Hyland writes more subtly about Gershwin’s personality. Still, one is grateful for Pollack’s wealth of anecdotes, like Kitty Carlisle’s dismissal of Gershwin’s love letters as “hardly of a tone to inspire serious feelings.”
Four Days to Glory
by Mark Kreidler (HarperCollins)