A portrait of Thomas Jefferson’s passionate belief in Enlightenment values and how it determined his personal character and that of the young nation.
Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Gordon-Reed (American Legal History/Harvard Law School; The Hemingses of Monticello, 2009, etc.) and Onuf (Emeritus, History/Univ. of Virginia; The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 2007, etc.) are fascinated by the many shifting “selves” of Jefferson: father, husband, slave owner, diplomat, politician, and cosmopolitan. His broad sense of himself as “the most blessed of patriarchs” is both a beautiful notion and mostly correct as well as a patronizing illusion considering that he was the master of numerous slaves at his Monticello plantation and, literally, their father. In this meticulously documented work exploring Jefferson’s many roles in life, the authors take the great man at his word rather than how they think he ought to be: “We instead seek to understand what Thomas Jefferson thought he was doing in the world.” Subsequently, the work proves to be a subtle, intriguing study of his Enlightenment ideals, beginning with his great hope in his fellow white Virginians as the ideal republicans who (with his help) abolished primogeniture, possessed a “fruitful attachment to land,” and “knitted together…tender attachments,” such as strategic arranged marriages among the upper class. However, his vision was problematic since he and his observant granddaughter Ellen, who lived for a spell in the North, documented well the differences between the slothful Southern temperament and the Northern industrious one, while the ills of slavery, which Jefferson himself wrote about in Notes on the State of Virginia, would not go away—and indeed, his own ties to the Hemingses could not be hidden. The authors make some trenchant observations regarding the effects of living in France on Jefferson’s tempering of the republican ideals, in showing him both the dangers of extremism and the hope of “ameliorating” his slaves’ conditions by incorporating them into his patriarchal family.
An elegant, astute study that is both readable and thematically rich.
On an undercover mission for the British Secret Service in Nazi Germany, Maisie Dobbs must face not only the horrors of the Third Reich, but very real reminders of her own tragic past.
It’s 1938, and Maisie is finally back in England following a stint as a nurse in Spain during the Spanish Civil War (A Dangerous Place, 2015). Her homeland still holds the ghosts of her former life with her late husband, James, who died in a plane crash. Distraction comes in the form of a summons from the British government and her old friend Robert MacFarlane, for whom she’s done clandestine work in the past. This time, Maisie is asked to travel to Munich as Edwina Donat, the daughter of Leon Donat, a wealthy British industrialist and publisher who’s been wrongfully imprisoned in Dachau. Donat is of great value to the British government, and the secret service has secured his release but only if his daughter—the real one is too ill—is the one to fetch him. Maisie can more than handle herself, even against the Führer and his omnipresent SS men, and after MacFarlane gives her a quick lesson in firearms, she’s off. Complicating things is Elaine Otterburn, the woman Maisie blames for James’ death. Convinced by the influential Otterburns to persuade the hard-partying Elaine to return home from Munich, Maisie discovers that Elaine may be entangled in something more dangerous than just drinking with the Gestapo.
Winspear elegantly balances Maisie’s emotional turmoil and dogged patriotism with the growing tensions of a Europe on the brink of war.
A bright confection of a book morphs into a story of dignity and backbone.
Simonson follows Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (2010), her charming debut, with another comedy of manners nestled in a British village. This time she deepens the gravitas and fattens the story, which begins on the cusp of World War I. Pettigrew fans will cheer to find romance mentioned on the second page and class snobbery on the fourth. The heroine, Beatrice Nash, quickly follows, aboard a train bound for coastal Rye and a job teaching Latin in the village grammar school. This itself—a woman teacher in 1914—is a breach in tradition that foments small-town intrigue amid petticoats and decorated millinery. A pair of suffragettes mildly scandalizes the villagers, but Beatrice is more bedeviled by the politics of her financial dependency. An orphan at 23, she is self-aware but still green. Her patron, Agatha Kent, is bracketed by intriguing nephews Hugh Grange and Daniel Bookham, soon to be officers, and there is a smart local gypsy youth who stirs real feeling even as he lies to join the troops. Writing cleanly, Simonson has an observant eye and a comic touch, particularly in the person of a vainglorious American author, “swaying a little as the bulk of his torso sought equilibrium above two short legs and a pair of dainty feet.” She complicates Rye with the arrival of Belgian refugees and sends the reader, alongside key menfolk, into the lethal Flemish trenches. An epilogue touches down in summer 1920. The novel starts slowly—it takes until Page 282 for Beatrice to reach the classroom—and a few bromides clutter the denouement, but this book is beautifully plotted and morally astute. Even the callow American has his part to play.
Aficionados of Downton Abbey and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society will sigh with pleasure.
In her eighth novel, a coming-of-age story set in rural Pennsylvania, Quindlen (Still Life with Bread Crumbs, 2014, etc.) focuses on a young woman buffeted by upheavals in her personal life and a threat to the farmland her family has owned for generations.
Mimi Miller is 11 when we meet her, a farm girl who sells corn by the side of the road and, at night, eavesdrops on her parents’ conversations by way of a heating vent. Her mother is a nurse, strong-willed and unsentimental, her father a genial man who farms and fixes things. Mimi has two older brothers, the stalwart Edward and the wastrel Tommy, as well as an agoraphobic aunt who lives in another house on the Millers’ property. Government officials are lobbying the Millers and their neighbors to relocate so their flood-prone area can be turned into a reservoir. Meanwhile, the charming but feckless Tommy enlists in the Marines, then goes seriously astray when he returns home. Mimi, by contrast, excels at schoolwork—science in particular—and finds an ardent, if not entirely appropriate, suitor. Quindlen, a Pulitzer Prize–winning essayist and former reporter, writes with great empathy, making you care deeply about her characters. Her language is simple but true: “Sometimes there are things that you’ve rehearsed so many times, thought about so often, that when they happen it’s like they already happened a long long time ago,” Mimi says of her father’s passing. Perhaps there is a bit too much summing up in the book’s final chapter, but it still manages to be quite stirring, in an Our Town sort of way.
There are familiar elements in this story—the troubled brother, the eccentric aunt, a discovery that hints at a forbidden relationship—but they are synthesized in a fresh way in this keenly observed, quietly powerful novel.
Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.
The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.
Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.
Smith’s latest novel (Bright and Distant Shores, 2011, etc.) is a rich and detailed story that connects a 17th-century Dutch painting to its 20th-century American owner and the lonely but fervent art student who makes the life-changing decision to forge it.
Marty de Groot, a Manhattan lawyer plagued by infertility and the stuffiness that comes from centuries of familial wealth, has one special thing to his name: a collection of 17th-century Dutch paintings, including rare pieces by female artists of the era. At the Edge of the Wood is the only work attributed to Sarah de Vos, and it’s hung above the marital bed in Marty’s Park Avenue triplex for generations. Until one fall day in 1957 it’s plucked off his wall and replaced by a meticulously executed forgery. Behind this deception is not a mastermind but an Australian graduate student named Ellie Shipley, who was approached by a secretive art dealer to replicate the painting. Ellie lives and thinks like a member of the Dutch golden age, boiling rabbit pelts in her claustrophobic Brooklyn apartment for glue, pulling apart antique canvases to understand their bones, and building them up again layer by layer. This is a woman who sees herself in de Vos and would do anything to merge their legacies together. In showing how this is a monumental occasion in Ellie's life, a truly intimate experience for her, Smith turns forgery into art, replication into longing, deceit into an act of love: Ellie works in “topography, the impasto, the furrows where sable hairs were dragged into tiny painted crests to catch the light. Or the stray line of charcoal or chalk, glimpsed beneath a glaze that’s three hundred years old.” The narrative stretches from a period of grief in de Vos’ life that compelled her to paint At the Edge of the Wood, to 1950s New York to the year 2000 at a museum in Sydney where original and forgery meet—in turn reconnecting Ellie with Marty. “Here comes Marty de Groot, the wrecking ball of the past”: just one example of the suspense Smith manages to carry throughout his narrative, suspense bound up in brilliant layers of paint and the people who dedicate their lives to appreciating its value.
This is a beautiful, patient, and timeless book, one that builds upon centuries and shows how the smallest choices—like the chosen mix for yellow paint—can be the definitive markings of an entire life.
An inside-out look at the frenzied and at times surreal work environment of tech startup HubSpot.
In 2012, at the age of 51, longtime journalist Lyons was “unceremoniously dumped” from his position at Newsweek. The magazine, like so many other traditional media publications, was struggling to cope with digitization. (The irony is that the author covered technology for the magazine.) Forced to reinvent his career, Lyons took a risk by accepting the position of “marketing fellow” at HubSpot, a software-as-a-service marketing and sales company that had become “one of the hottest tech start-ups on the East Coast.” As the writer behind the satirical blog Fake Steve Jobs, the author could not have imagined a place so ripe for parody as HubSpot. Every detail of the hip office space, incompetent management, and delusional workforce described by Lyons in his hilarious and unsettling exposé is like something out of a scripted comedy (the author writes for HBO’s Silicon Valley). But beneath the showy display of unlimited candy, beer, and other sundry perks enjoyed by HubSpot’s employees, the culture Lyons experienced was ruthless, predatory, and unforgiving. Employees were routinely “graduated” (i.e., fired) without warning, oftentimes by younger, inexperienced managers. (The theme of ageism plays throughout.) HubSpot pitches itself as a mission-based company whose software will not only help their customers save money and increase profits, but also make the world a better place. These examples of Orwellian doublespeak and utopian jargon are commonplace at tech companies, and they are strategically employed to whip up fervor among employees, investors, and the press as well as disguise the fact that their business models are often ineffective. Lyons sums up the startup model: “Grow fast, lose money, go public.” For Lyons, his adventure at HubSpot was a case study in drudgery, and it turned out to be more pernicious than he could have guessed.
An exacting, excoriating takedown of the current startup “bubble” and the juvenile corporate culture it engenders.
A famous mother and famous son bond through email exchanges.
When Vanderbilt reached her 90s, her son, CNN journalist Cooper, realized there might not be many years left to interact, so they began to correspond via email, carrying out a conversation on the important things that have mattered in both their lives. Over the course of the following year, the two delved deeply into Vanderbilt’s childhood. She discusses the loss and effects she felt from never having known her father, who died when she was very young, the trauma she experienced during the well-publicized custody trial she endured at age 10, and the closeness she felt toward her governess rather than toward her biological mother. Vanderbilt writes with frankness about her impulsive love affairs and subsequent marriages to men she barely knew but who were older and filled the emptiness that only now she realizes was created by the lack of a father in her life. Cooper also explores some of his own issues during these mother-son conversations. He discusses his own anxieties and sense of loss when his father died and his trepidation at coming out as gay to Vanderbilt. The combination of questions asked and answered brings forth much more of Vanderbilt’s hidden life than that of Cooper, allowing readers insight into a woman whose name is known and who has shared much of her life through various memoirs. The perspective of old age and the distance from past events has allowed her to unveil these new aspects to her son and now to readers. The takeaway for mother and son is a closeness they didn’t have before, and their interchanges might prompt readers to do the same with their own elderly parents, perhaps with the same outcome.
Entertaining and thoughtful moments exchanged between a mother and son who have spent much of their lives in the spotlight.
Award-winning broadcast journalist Stahl (Reporting Live, 1999) shares the joys of being a grandmother.
The author began her career reporting on Watergate and has been a top correspondent for 60 Minutes for the past 25 years. Fortunately, her husband, author and screenwriter Aaron Latham, was able to assume a significant share of the responsibility for their only child, Taylor, leaving Stahl free to pursue her demanding career. In 2011, with the birth of her first grandchild, Jordan, she “was jolted, blindsided by a wall of loving more intense than anything I could remember or had ever imagined.” As someone who has covered suicide bombings in Israel and walked the streets of New York City on 9/11, she had considered herself to be unflappable. She experienced what she describes as an infatuation. Startled, she decided to investigate the importance of the role grandparents can play in the lives of their children and grandchildren. They often help financially, of course, and frequently step in as babysitters or even nannies to ease the burden on parents who are both working. “One in ten American children lives with a grandparent,” writes Stahl, “and a third of them count on their grandparents as their primary caretakers.” For the majority of grandparents, the responsibility is a sought-after joy rather than a burden, and grandparenting often provides a new lease on life for empty nesters. However, in cases of poverty, this may not be the case, especially when grandparents are called upon to assume full parenting and financial responsibilities. For Stahl, it was a second chance to experience the joys of parenting, but she had to continually remind herself not to criticize or give unwanted advice. Through the medium of her own experiences, the author delivers a wise and witty book.
A welcome guide for new grandparents and their children looking to savor the joys and navigate the pitfalls of grandparenting.