by Lore Segal (New Press)
A refugee from the Anschluss, Segal is particularly interested in how people establish and maintain connections when thrust into a new milieu. These wry, finely honed, interlocking stories (some first published in The New Yorker) center on a young Austrian woman, recently transplanted from New York, who joins an institute “that paid its members … to read and write and think” in a small Connecticut town.
by Annie Dillard (HarperCollins)
This is a humane story of the way a straying husband and a forgiving wife negotiate their decades-long relationship—a relationship that involves both infidelity and, eventually, an unusually complex domestic arrangement. Although Dillard’s examination of all manner of human interactions is nuanced, and her evocation of Cape Cod is at once precise and gorgeous, the author is more essayist and poet than novelist; she assesses emotion, rather than creating it, and so holds the reader at a distance.
SOCIETY and CULTURE
by Jeff Wiltse (North Carolina)
In this intelligent, compelling social history, Wiltse traces the development of American municipal swimming pools from 19th-century public baths intended to cleanse the Great Unwashed, to optimistic New Deal public works, to the postwar boom in private-pool construction that left millions “swimming alone.” A serious historian (“The consequences of the sexualization of pool culture have been profound, especially for women”) writing about a serious subject, the author details with palpable regret the public pools’ failure to live up to the democratic promise ascribed to them by one 1930s booster: “Take away the sham and hypocrisy of clothes, don a swim suit, and we’re all the same.” Wiltse also highlights the complex and ironic dynamics of social change (the first pool in the North to be integrated by gender, in St. Louis in 1913, for example, was also the first to be segregated by race), and he argues, poignantly and persuasively, that the great retreat into the backyard that accompanied suburbanization and the decline of the central cities has led to “atomized recreation and diminished public discourse.”
The Book of David
by David Steinberg (Simon & Schuster)
The likable, well-known Canadian comic’s first book finds him plying his well-worn sermonizing shtick and proto–Larry Sanders name dropping–cum–celeb bashing. His tongue-through-cheek pronouncements aren’t likely to win converts, but his hand-wringing, Old Testament–spoofing asides are a nice sop to the Borscht Belt faithful.
The Enigma Woman
by Kathleen A. Cairns (Nebraska)
At the time James M. Cain’s noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice appeared, a real slice of that kind of Californian life was unfolding in a Los Angeles courtroom and in the sensationalistic press. After a trial in 1934 for murdering her abusive husband, which featured inadequate defense counsel and a judge who was summoned to take the witness stand against her, Nellie May Madison became the first woman in Southern California sentenced to execution. Cairns tells her story with considerable sociological and psychological acuity. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this tale is how the cut-and-dried, seemingly heartless justice system of the 1930s ultimately produced a punishment that was just and enlightened and would generally satisfy today’s more liberal attitudes toward spousal abuse and homicide.
Troublesome Young Men
by Lynne Olson (FSG)
That arch-determinist Tolstoy would doubtless have said that England in 1940 so desperately needed a savior that someone like Winston Churchill simply had to arise and rescue it from disaster. According to this riveting book, which mixes personal drama and gossip with high politics, it took a lot of scheming by a fascinating assortment of maverick and established politicians to bring the right man to 10 Downing Street at the right time. Olson tells her story with verve, never letting the reader forget what was really at risk—and what might have happened if these particular troublemakers hadn’t been so willing to stir the political pot.
The Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854–1861
by William W. Freehling (Oxford)
The second part of Freehling’s monumental study of the Civil War’s causes and the South’s road to secession skillfully outlines the political fissures within pre–Civil War Dixie. While the Deep South argued consistently against any sort of compromise, states farther north such as North Carolina and Virginia—less dependent on the slave economy—held out hope, even after Lincoln’s election, for accommodation with the Union. Occasional cringe-inducing efforts at an aphoristic, “literary” style notwithstanding, this sure-to-be- lasting work—studded with pen portraits and consistently astute in its appraisal of the subtle cultural and geographic variations in the region—adds crucial layers to scholarship on the origins of America’s bloodiest conflict.
BIOGRAPHY and MEMOIR
Coltrane: The Story of a Sound
by Ben Ratliff (FSG)
Overheated prose seems to follow Coltrane like an insistent stream of bum notes, but Ratliff, the dauntingly omnivorous New York Times critic, manages cool restraint in this clear-eyed, nuanced consideration of the jazz giant’s influence. Central to Ratliff’s success is his avoidance of that most Ken Burnsian of pitfalls: the temptation to apply an evolutionary model when evaluating America’s greatest original art form—a temptation amplified when the subject is the visionary commonly held to be the “last major figure in the evolution of jazz.” Laudable, too, is the structural tack taken: The book is neatly bisected, with the first half devoted to the saxophonist’s artistic development (especially the spiritually questing final decade), while the second contextualizes and meditates on the transcendent frequencies that resulted.
The Diana Chronicles
by Tina Brown (Doubleday)
It seems to be the perfect fit of author and subject: two chic blondes adept at understanding image and how to manipulate it. Brown also has some genuine advantages, not least the distinction of actually having spent some time talking to (although not interviewing) both Diana and Charles. Her familiarity with the social and media milieus in which Diana played out her saga is evident throughout this knowing, glossy book, which is a lively read, with plenty of gossip. Some of it is all too familiar, though there is an occasional new tidbit, piquant if not always credible. But Brown fails to answer the admittedly difficult questions she has posed: Just who was Diana, and what did she signify? What was behind the extraordinary reaction to her death, and to what extent does that emotion linger, 10 years after her awful end?
The Lives of the Poets
by Samuel Johnson; edited by Roger Lonsdale (Oxford)
In his trenchant critical biographies of 52 17th- and 18th-century poets, Samuel Johnson assessed the characters and creations of the great (Milton, Dryden, Swift, Pope) and the now-all-but-forgotten (see his sweetly gallant defense of his friend, the fraud and inveterate sponger Richard Savage). True, Johnson’s judgment can be wacky—he pronounces Milton’s “Lycidas” “easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting.” But his writing—with its offhandedly authoritative tone—is so consistently felicitous that it almost doesn’t matter what he says. Now these masterpieces have a worthy scholarly edition. Lonsdale’s exhaustive notes and commentary and his stylish, penetrating introduction place the work in its historical and literary context. But more than that, they’re profoundly and truly illuminating—it’s impossible to imagine future readers absorbing Johnson’s work without Lonsdale’s insights and revelations.
Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry
by Holly George-Warren (Oxford)
Autry, the entertainment quintuple threat (five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame) whose sweetness, swagger, and “chameleonic artistry” helped him overcome his hardscrabble origins and influence a generation, married Wild West tropes to vaudeville sensibilities and thus helped bridge the pop-culture divide of the 19th and 20th centuries. Along the way, he served in a world war, hobnobbed with presidents, bought a Major League Baseball team, and amassed a fortune; yet alcohol and infidelity dogged his progress. This is a thorough, no-nonsense account of a singular life, and the prolific music writer George-Warren employs a brisk, assured style that hews to the Cowboy Code.
Circling My Mother: A Memoir
by Mary Gordon (Pantheon)
Approaching her mother from many angles—via her work, her sisters, her husband, her love of singing, her friends, her priests—but filtering all through the lens of a daughter’s memory, Gordon assembles a collage-like portrait that is at once a particular and moving story of one woman’s life and a sketch of an American Catholic working-class experience over the course of the 20th century. Gordon, supremely skilled at both rendering a scene with vivid immediacy and extracting significance from it, writes with irresistible intelligence and honesty.