Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World
by Margaret MacMillan (Random House)
Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power
by Robert Dallek (HarperCollins)
Powerful and Brutal Weapons: Nixon, Kissinger, and the Easter Offensive
by Stephen P. Randolph (Harvard)
Henry Kissinger and the American Century
by Jeremi Suri (Harvard)
In diplomacy, ideas must fight a grinding battle with circumstance. Very few statesmen possess what the first President Bush called “the vision thing,” and fewer still have been able to transcend the push and pull of events to force history to conform to that vision. In fact, only three American secretaries of state—Adams, Acheson, and Kissinger—have so succeeded.
While none of these books is definitive, together they form an impressive study of the relationship between ideas and power. Nixon was despised by most intellectuals (and reciprocated their disdain), yet as these works reveal, he and Kissinger had a similar worldview and a curious intellectual symbiosis, quite apart from their practical political partnership.
Despite its title, MacMillan’s volume shows Kissinger not merely as an éminence grise but as the essential player in much of the era’s drama. By far the most stylish and readable of these books, it’s also surprisingly pithy in its revelations—for example, Kissinger worried that the Chinese might spin the 1972 Sino-American Shanghai Communiqué “as a major American defeat.”
In Dallek’s detailed study of Kissinger and Nixon’s relationship, Kissinger dominates by his intellect, range, subtlety, and, of course, by his ability to flatter, manipulate, and forcefully yet pragmatically advocate a principle.
Randolph’s book is the driest of these works; it’s also the most specific and focused. In the spring of 1972, with the election looming, Kissinger and Nixon apparently concluded that the only way to break the logjam in the Paris peace talks with the North Vietnamese was to unleash the Linebacker bombing campaign. Drawing on extensive research and newly declassified materials, Randolph tells the story of how the White House overrode the objections of the Pentagon brass and the field command in Vietnam—which resulted in a display of shock-and-awe that was as impressive in the realm of realpolitik as it was on the battlefield.
Though relatively—refreshingly— brief, Suri’s book makes in some ways the largest claims for its subject’s enduring effect on American foreign policy. Probing thoughtfully into Kissinger’s background and character, Suri sees the secretary as the Cold War’s ultimate statesman. Eschewing polemics—indeed, none of these books do much ax grinding—this work explores what shaped and nurtured the phenomenon that was Henry Kissinger.
The Hellenistic Age: A Short History
by Peter Green (Modern Library)
Green draws upon a lifetime of scholarship to brilliantly sum up the 300-year Hellenistic age in less than 150 pages. Happily, this book’s brevity—admirable in itself, and in its concision, elegance, and authority—isn’t achieved at the expense of subtlety and complexity. Green makes good his promise to “study the three centuries of the Hellenistic age in a continuous ongoing diachronic narrative embracing the entire scene.”
The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein
by Martin Duberman (Knopf)
Few people have contributed more to ballet in America than Lincoln Kirstein, who imported George Balanchine and with him founded the New York City Ballet. Kirstein was also instrumental in creating Lincoln Center (which, contrary to popular legend, wasn’t named for him). One of the most perspicacious analysts of American culture, Duberman has painted a subtle, detailed portrait of a hard-driving force of nature. In addition, his profound knowledge of the byways of gay life in 20th-century America makes him superbly qualified to help us understand what made his subject—butch yet sensitive, bisexual yet lastingly married—tick.
Considering Doris Day
by Tom Santopietro (St. Martin’s)
Following the format of his book on Barbra Streisand, Santopietro makes a detailed survey of Doris Day’s career in film, records, and television. Breezy, adulatory, and long-winded (with plot summaries of nearly 40 films), this book offers serious insight into a relatively neglected life. The observations are apt—and often bold (“It is impossible to watch Pillow Talk today without responding to the gay subtext”).
Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters
by Elizabeth Brown Pryor (Viking)
Unlike his fellow warriors Grant and Sherman, Lee never wrote his memoirs. Nor are his extant writings, including his correspondence, readily available, since no modern editors have collected them (surprising, given Southerners’ veneration of this saintly rebel). Using the text of Lee’s letters to family and friends as her foundation, Pryor constructs a biographical narrative that successfully addresses the challenge Stephen Vincent Benét posed many years ago: “How to humanize / That solitary gentleness and strength / Hidden behind the deadly oratory / Of twenty thousand Lee Memorial days.”
John Donne: The Reformed Soul
by John Stubbs (Norton)
“No man is an island,” wrote Donne—and accordingly, Stubbs portrays him “back in the crowd,” a man whose soul was shaped by his relationship with the court and society of Reformation England, and whose mercurial shifts in public character were the result of his efforts to maintain his integrity during those troubled times. Though Stubbs examines the poems more for biography than for language, this is a major addition to Donne criticism.
How Sassy Changed My Life
by Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer (Faber and Faber)
Two journalists fondly recall the six-year run of the teen magazine Sassy, whose Seventeen-meets-Spy aesthetic tweaked the sugar-and-spice conventions of the genre and turned legions of teen girls on to feminism, irreverence, and alternative rock in the early 1990s. Jesella and Meltzer make a convincing case for Sassy’s lasting influence and poignantly reconstruct the lost world of Crystal Pepsi and Kurt Cobain in which the magazine briefly thrived.
All That Glittered: The Golden Age of Drama on Broadway, 1919–1959
by Ethan Mordden (St. Martin’s)
If any writer has made American musical theater his fief, it’s the prolific Mordden, but in this latest book he shows that his particular vision of Broadway extends to nonmusicals as well. The four decades he spotlights in this energetic, opinionated volume emerge as the apogee of commercial dramatic production, particularly the first decades, crammed as they were with productions by such luminaries as O’Neill, Molnár, and Coward. Mordden can manage to be simultaneously earnest and flip, a knack that’s at once formidable and a trifle insufferable. “Western Civilization,” he writes, “would be unthinkable without Noël Coward. Worse: uneducated.” The trouble with, and the charm of, this book is that for Mordden, the Great White Way is civilization—or perhaps even the entire known world.
by Ron Carlson (Viking)
This novel, in which three men labor on a fraught construction project in the mountains of Idaho, is a masterpiece of precision in its details, its structure, and the articulation of its themes. As Carlson, an acclaimed short-story writer (this is his first novel in 30 years), proceeds toward a well-earned, striking finish, he juxtaposes the salvation of daily, concrete work—assembling a grader, drilling postholes—with perfectly paced revelations about the grief in each man’s past. Neither affectedly stark nor stuffed with strained metaphor, Carlson’s novel is the distillation of reality that readers crave.
by Penelope Lively (Viking)
This English novelist’s books are dependably smart, seamless, and well-observed, if not always as vivacious as their author’s name might suggest. Here Lively creates three generations of women and traces the consequences of their romantic decisions over the course of the latter half of the 20th century, deftly noting the shifting social mores along the way.
The Sea Lady
by Margaret Drabble (Harcourt)
Here’s another novel spanning the second half of the 20th century by another English grande dame of letters. In this playful, gently biting, multifaceted story, a self-dramatizing doyenne of gender studies and a reticent marine biologist— both fantastically introspective and self-aware—review salient points of their pasts when they’re reunited in the seaside town where they met as children.
by Annie Dillard (HarperCollins)
Dillard is more essayist and poet than novelist, and her latest novel— a humane story of a man and woman negotiating marriage, his running off with a mutual friend, and their eventual return—holds the reader at a distance. Her observations on all manner of human emotions, however, and her evocation of Cape Cod, are compelling, gorgeous, and at times profound.