Being Prez: The Life and Music of Lester Young
by Dave Gelly (Oxford)
An innovative musician, accompanist extraordinaire, and proto-modern hipster, Lester Young remains a lesser light in the jazz firmament. Some of the reasons are obvious: although he dressed with conspicuous cool, he chose a spotlight-shunning artistic trajectory (he’s best known as a sideman, for Billie Holiday, Count Basie, and others), and he was shy, subtle, and sensitive—traits not usually associated with world- beating. Fortunately, Gelly puts everything in its proper place. Tracing an odd life and elusive legacy with exactitude, the British critic (and saxophonist) writes with a rare reserve—a concision and perception, really—that his subject would have appreciated. In so doing, Gelly shows his own modernist stripes: playing only the right notes, embracing contextual space, emphasizing the song above all else.
Nureyev: The Life
by Julie Kavanagh (Pantheon)
Anyone who’s read Julie Kavanagh’s dance criticism or her intuitive biography of the great British choreographer Frederick Ashton won’t be surprised at her ability to evoke the balletic artistry and physicality of Rudolf Nureyev. But the mercurial Russian superstar presents her with a much wilder character and a liberated libido far removed from Ashton’s closeted loucheness. Kavanagh proves as adept at writing about the netherworld of Manhattan’s leather sex temples, the Mineshaft and the Anvil, as about the rehearsal rooms and stages of Covent Garden. Never prurient, she has her biographical priorities straight, and so, in a way, she tells us, did Nureyev. “To Rudolf,” she writes, “sex was sex, and only dance warranted any form of consecration. ‘Stage is a cathedral,’ he once said, and morning class was his rite of purification.” Artistically this was undoubtedly true, for he remained a spellbinding performer for decades despite all the carousing painstakingly documented here. Sadly, however, that carousing undoubtedly led to his death from AIDS at 54, when he was apparently on the verge of beginning a new career as a conductor. Brilliantly analytical but consistently stylish and knowing, this is among the most satisfying biographies of the year.
Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life: The Public Years
by Charles Capper (Oxford)
The story used to be told that the dyspeptic Scotsman Thomas Carlyle, upon learning that the American bluestocking Margaret Fuller had declared, “I accept the Universe,” replied, “Gad!! she’d better.” But it turns out that their relationship was far more complicated than this lecture-room caricature suggests. Indeed, nearly everything we thought we knew about Fuller is more complicated and interesting than the books said. With the completion of Capper’s award-winning biography (the first volume appeared in 1992), our understanding of one of the most original and consequential “men of letters” in 19th-century America—this country’s first modern feminist—is as complete as the art of biography allows.
Swimming in a Sea of Death
by David Rieff (Simon & Schuster)
A devoted son writes a wrenching account of his mother’s determined but ultimately unsuccessful struggle against a hideous form of cancer. A recipe to move an audience, you’d think, but there’s an overarching sense of arrogance on the part of both writer and subject. Susan Sontag “came to being ill,” writes Rieff, “imbued with a profound sense of being the exception to every rule.” The way she flouted medical protocol, even when there were good reasons for it, becomes a cautionary tale about how not to behave in a terrible situation. Her actions led to suffering far more horrendous than it had to be. Sontag’s hubris was such that she seems to have believed that she would even be the exception to the universal human condition of death. Goethe harbored a similar belief, and although her talent wasn’t equal to his, her egotism was.
Last Night at the Lobster
by Stewart O’Nan (Viking)
The conscientious manager of the soon-to-be-defunct Red Lobster in a tired New England mall seems an unlikely hero, but O’Nan’s customary empathy and scrupulous attention to psychological and external detail coax poetry from the prosaic. Using an isolating pre-Christmas blizzard to intensify the sense of the restaurant as a world unto itself, and structuring the novel around the routine tasks of opening, running, and closing the establishment, O’Nan offers a moving look at the man who would lavish care on such a place and its people. This is the melancholy but never bitter story of a decent guy trying to do the right thing, a man whose only reward is a transfer to the Olive Garden.
by John Cowper Powys (Overlook Duckworth)
In this novel, first published greatly abridged in 1951 and now painstakingly restored, the eccentric Powys produced a vision of northern Wales in the Dark Ages, specifically one week in October 499 A.D., so packed with characters, their inner lives, and their side stories that it threatens to burst its covers despite its now-ample (more than 700) pages. Part historical novel, part magic realism, part romance, the book, told mostly from the point of view of the son of a Welsh prince of mixed blood, brings together Romans, Picts, Celts, Saxons, Scots, and shadowy forest folk—along with their customs and cults—in a time of intense flux, when Christianity is beginning to edge out older religions. Tolkienesque in its setting of wooded hills and mysterious mountains and its incorporation of sorcery and martial alliances, Porius is far more historically based than Tolkien’s fantasies (if still often inaccurate) and far more realistically human, and is therefore far messier.
by Lloyd Jones (Dial)
This charming short novel, which won the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, was favored to win the Man Booker Prize, but lost out to Anne Enright’s The Gathering. A pity, since it’s much more original, making some important points about the universality of archetypes and even of eccentricities. Set on a Pacific island devastated by war, it describes a white teacher’s efforts to fascinate his native pupils with the temporally and geographically far-off world of Dickens’s Great Expectations. Not just a delightful read, Mister Pip shows the cut and thrust of true multiculturalism.
Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa
by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs)
The story of how the discovery of gemstones and gold blew apart the agrarian Afrikaner paradise of the two all-white oligarchic Boer republics has never been told with more verve, clarity, and sound judgment than here. The book’s account of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902, a mere 40 pages, is a masterpiece of compression replete with memorable detail. Meredith’s analysis of how the black majority of the region, largely ignored by the contending juggernauts of British imperialism and Afrikaner nationalism, figured in this tale is as informed as it is salutary.
The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War
by David Halberstam (Hyperion)
Much of what Halberstam says in this work, completed just before his death last April, is astonishingly off. He argues, for instance, that the furious outcry that followed President Truman’s firing of General Douglas MacArthur in 1951 “was a kind of giant antiwar rally, not just anti–Korean War, but probably anti–Cold War as well.” Yet only seven pages earlier he quotes the MacArthur letter that led to his firing, in which the general stated his determination “to meet force with maximum counterforce” and added, “If we lose the war to Communism in Asia the fall of Europe is inevitable.” If you can say that the anger at the removal of an iconic figure of total warfare is an antiwar emotion, then why should anyone trust anything else you say?
The Warmest Room in the House: How the Kitchen Became the Heart of the Twentieth-Century American Home
by Steven Gdula (Bloomsbury)
Forget heart and hearth, argues the author of this inviting study of domiciliary evolution—home is where the stove is. Tracing the American kitchen’s century-long rise from lowly back room to glowing center of domestic life, Gdula scours the historical pantry, illuminating the development of food preparation, scullery technology, gastronomic design, and culinary celebrity. The decade-by-decade survey he serves up is a delight, rich but restrained.
Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours
by Noga Arikha (Ecco)
Thought for centuries to influence an individual’s mood, health, and character, the “four humors”—blood, phlegm, black bile, and choler—long ago fell out of medical favor. Or did they? The historian Arikha traces the humoral doctrine through the ages, exploring the intersection of folk wisdom and state-of-the-art science, and provocatively argues that the basic model continues to inform science in surprising ways. Arikha makes a compelling case that in the mind-body relationship, “the present is impregnated with our past.”