Julie Andrews: An Intimate Biography
by Richard Stirling (St. Martin’s)
Home: A Memoir of My Early Years
by Julie Andrews (Hyperion)
Several adjectives aptly describe Stirling’s biography—tactful, judicious, informative—but intimate is decidedly not one of them. The book’s value lies in its full account of its subject’s work on stage and screen, rather than in its report of her personal life. We do learn that she embraced psychoanalysis before her marriage to the equally enthralled director Blake Edwards, and that actually they met coming to and from their mutual psychoanalyst. For a measure of what all that time on the couch wrought, Andrews’s memoir, beautifully told in a remarkably natural, authentic voice, is the place to go. Revisiting a childhood filled with pressures and trials of all sorts, with too much stage-door parenting and too little of the more supportive variety, the mature woman, liberated to tell her tale, reveals herself at last, like Chaucer’s Criseyde, truly “myne owene woman, wel at ese.”
Relish: The Extraordinary Life of Alexis Soyer, Victorian Celebrity Chef
by Ruth Cowen (Trafalgar Square)
Many great French chefs have conquered England and become culinary celebrities, but Alexis Soyer stands alone. Unlike Escoffier, he didn’t just come and cook in great hotels. Forever associated with the London club where his classic, eponymous dish, Lamb Cutlets Reform, is still on the menu, Soyer cut a swath wide and deep through Victorian society. Everyone who was anyone, from Disraeli to Dickens, ate his food in grand houses and at banquets, but he also licensed Crosse & Blackwell to market his sauces and relishes for wider consumption. He fed the starving from a soup kitchen during the Irish potato famine of the 1840s and, a decade later, revamped army food in the Crimean War. His personal story is a roller coaster of fortunes made and lost, his ending ignominious. Relish tells it all with verve and conviction, although anyone who has actually tried Lamb Cutlets Reform will realize how tastes have evolved in the time since Soyer ruled.
Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante
by Lily Tuck (HarperCollins)
Equal parts literary biography and liberation tract, this engaging volume—the first nonfiction foray by the acclaimed novelist Tuck—elegantly achieves its dual aims. Informed by her own early experiences in Italy’s capital, the author traces an unconventional life and a volatile spirit, from Morante’s modest beginnings to her self-willed work to her flight from Fascists to her tempestuous marriage (to fellow writer Alberto Moravia, with whom she enjoyed “Sartre/Beauvoir of Italy” status and ran in similarly heady boho circles—think Bertolucci, Visconti, Pasolini, Calvino, Levi, et al.). After that come prize-winning tomes (Arturo’s Island, History), and an oddball exhumation, among other surprises. Though Tuck’s style is crisp and her tone cool, she takes the measure of Morante’s controversial writing with care and compassion. Rarely have subject and biographer been so aptly matched.
by Elizabeth Strout (Random House)
In this superb “novel in stories,” at once poignant and hopeful, Strout has hit upon a form that highlights her considerable skill at revealing a character by coming at her from every angle. Only a few of these stories, set in a coastal Maine town, center on Olive Kitteridge, who is flinty, tactless, defensive, more honest with others than with herself—in other words, strikingly believable—but she appears at least peripherally in each of them, underscoring the idea that one person can play myriad, sometimes surprising roles within her circle of acquaintance. As Strout explores relationships between parents and children, and lovers young, old, illicit, and married, she’s particularly adept at showing the complex coincidence of tenderness and fury, appreciation and disappointment that exists between those who are closely tied. And ultimately, by eschewing sentimentality in favor of clear-eyed understanding, she renders her prickly character sympathetic.
The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796
by Christopher Duggan (Houghton Mifflin)
The story of how an Italian-speaking region of Europe moved from a patchwork quilt of states and foreign-occupied territories into a true nation usually begins with Garibaldi, Cavour, and the mid-19th-century Risorgimento, or national resurgence. This absorbing study, however, traces the beginnings of that progression to the forces unleashed by the Napoleonic incursions into the Italian Peninsula. Duggan takes his title from Verdi’s opera, and it suits his book perfectly, because of the dramatic tale he unfolds as well as his attention to the crucial role played by cultural forces in the evolution of Italy as a nation-state. This is the story of how Italy came to be; it’s also the scarcely less colorful story of its monarchy and descent into Fascism and (eventually) its turbulent but nonetheless enduring democracy. Duggan concludes with a disquieting look at the forces that threaten to pull the still-fragile nation apart in the 21st century.
A Summer of Hummingbirds
by Christopher Benfey (Penguin Press)
For the past quarter century, readers have been learning through myriad accounts about the frenetic whirl of sexual activity that surrounded—and even occasionally took place within—the hothouse world of Emily Dickinson. A professor of English at Dickinson’s alma mater, Mount Holyoke College, Benfey knows this terrain—geographical as well as atmospheric—and visits it anew. In addition, through a series of concentric circles and connections of various kinds, he draws in well-known figures from the wider world, including Henry Ward Beecher and Mark Twain. But his unique contribution is finding a unifying force in the cult of the hummingbird, an evocative image of daring and freedom in a restrictive time. In so doing, he brings a fresh perspective to this too-often overheated topic, providing new contexts, insights, and depth.
The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke
by Timothy Snyder (Basic)
In the 20th century, as Europe’s dynasties disappeared and the Continent’s maps were constantly in flux following wars large and small, some princes saw opportunities. Few aspirations could have been as quixotic as Archduke Wilhelm von Habsburg’s hankering to rule over Ukraine, parts of which had been on the fringes of his family’s Austro-Hungarian Empire. Yet the Yale historian Timothy Snyder is so knowledgeable about the interstices of central and eastern European history and culture that he makes this story a plausible historical “might have been.” Predictably, Wilhelm’s highly individualistic quest broke on the rocks of conflicting nationalisms and ideologies, and his end was disastrous. In 1948, he died in the land he longed to rule, shortly after beginning a 25-year sentence in a Soviet prison there, for, among other things, “aspiring to be king of Ukraine in 1918.” This prince may have been Red for a Habsburg, but he wasn’t Red enough for Comrade Stalin.
Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West
by Deanne Stillman (Houghton Mifflin)
Though inextricably bound to America and the American Way, mustangs—the wild horses that “blazed our trails, fought our wars, served as our most loyal partners”—have been alternately brutalized and brushed aside by those to whom they’re most bound. That’s the premise put forth by Stillman, author of the well-regarded Twentynine Palms, who, after learning of the sadistic December 1998 slaughter of 34 wild horses outside Reno by two marines and a third perpetrator, was spurred to action: “The horse deserved its own account,” she argues, “through the entire American saga.” The result is a tale so brisk, smart, thorough, and surprising—Jewish conquistadors, Nixon-as-protectionist, the true origin of the horse revealed (!)—that any overly ardent equine-patriotic pronouncements (“the ever-defiant mustang that is our true representative, coursing through our blood as he carries the eternal message of America”) are happily forgiven.
Claim of Privilege
by Barry Siegel (HarperCollins)
There’s something distinctly (and thankfully) old-fashioned in the literary journalism practiced by Siegel, a Pulitzer Prize–winning former Los Angeles Times correspondent and current University of California at Irvine professor. In his latest title, he turns his gimlet eye on a 60-year-old imbroglio: the 1948 crash of a B-29 Superfortress that killed three civilian engineers, the 1949 lawsuit brought by their respective widows, the Air Force cover-up that ensued, and the landmark 1953 Supreme Court ruling (U.S. v. Reynolds) that established the state-secrets privilege, used ever since for all manner of governmental prerogatives, from document concealment to “enemy combatant” detention to civil-liberties erosion. Siegel here employs all his estimable powers—deep reportage, meticulous methodology, shrewd analysis—in pursuit of the story, establishing in the process an incontrovertible legal continuum from the early Cold War era to the post-9/11 one. The result is revelatory.