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The Fourth Part of the World
Toby Lester
Free Press

What’s in a name? In the case of America and the mysterious Renaissance map that first called it such, nothing less than a global cast of century-spanning characters, epic explorations, and literally cosmic ideas. In this marvelously imaginative, exhaustively researched account, Lester—a longtime Atlantic writer and contributing editor—parses a 500-year-old parchment and, using its story as the basis for his own, charts a course for today’s Western worldview. And what a voyage it is: tracking how two little-known German scholars, residing in rural France, made an improbable leap of cartographic faith with their Waldseemüller map; how their epoch-accelerating work delineated America from Asia; and how, after being lost and found in the churn of history, “America’s birth certificate” was acquired in 2003, for $10 million, by the Library of Congress. Guiding the reader Virgil-like through the Age of Discovery, Lester introduces a chronologically and conceptually vast array of Great Men (Columbus, Vespucci, Polo, Copernicus, et al.), competing theories, monastic sages, forgotten poets, opportunistic merchants, unfortunate slaves, and more. That he relates it all so cleanly and cogently—via elegant prose, relaxed erudition, measured pacing, and purposeful architecture—is a feat. That he proffers plentiful visual delights, including detailed views of the legendary document, is a gift. This map, Lester writes, “draws you in, reveals itself in stages, and doesn’t let go.” Nor does this splendid volume.

Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong
Terry Teachout
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Teachout, an estimable critic, biographer, and former jazzbo, draws on newly available recordings and writings to limn the fullest portrait to date of the most popular and beloved figure in 20th-century music. This volume candidly explores the intersection of messy life events (drug use, marital strife, embouchure woes, and a public, segregation-prompted lambasting of President Eisenhower), personal paradoxes (a moody, profane, passive disposition at odds with the signature smile and deeply charismatic persona), and great art. It also offers shrewd analyses of many Armstrong compositions, including the chart-topping yet critically dismissed later works. Best of all, it smartly—and simply—finds unity in contradiction:

He was a man of boundless generosity who preached the stony gospel of self-help, a ferociously ambitious artist who preferred when he could to do as he was told, an introspective man who exploded with irrepressible vitality when he stepped into the spotlight, a joyous genius who confounded his critics by refusing to distinguish between making art and making fun.

The Man in the Wooden Hat
Jane Gardam
Europa Editions

In 2005 Gardam published Old Filth, an atrociously titled novel widely acclaimed for both style and story, in which an irreproachable English barrister reviews his life. This companion novel presents his marriage from the point of view of his stalwart and pragmatic wife, Betty. It’s a long and, from all appearances, contented union, built on a foundation of lingering sexual secrets, and for Betty (though not for her husband), shot through with disappointment. Gardam’s tale shifts between Hong Kong and England over the course of the second half of the 20th century (Filth, the barrister’s nickname, is an acronym for “Failed In London Try Hong Kong”), and she evokes both exotic and domestic scenes with a few intense, luscious, painterly details. Although a superb illustration of the simultaneity of selfishness and selflessness in marriage, the novel renders Betty a far less developed character than its predecessor did her husband. This is hardly the Mrs. Bridge to Old Filth’s Mr. Bridge.

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