A thorough, understated account of the life of the pioneering author and how his addictions and fiction intersected.
Before his suicide, David Foster Wallace (1962–2008) pursued a host of paths as a writer. He was a showy ironist who drafted his Pynchon-esque debut novel, The Broom of the System (1987), while an undergraduate student at Amherst. He was a bright philosopher who wrote at length on Wittgenstein and infinity. He was a skilled (if not always factually rigorous) reporter who covered state fairs, politics and tennis with intelligence and style. But the biggest inspiration for his admirers was the compassion, wit and understanding of our media-soaked age that emerged in later novels like Infinite Jest (1996) and the posthumous The Pale King (2011). In this appropriately contemplative biography, New Yorker staff writer Max (The Family that Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery, 2006) avoids overdramatizing climactic events in Wallace’s life, though it had plenty of emotional turmoil. Wallace was hospitalized for addiction and depression multiple times, and even at his steadiest he could collapse into rages. (Max chronicles in detail Wallace’s disastrous relationship with memoirist Mary Karr.) Max emphasizes the psychological tug of war within Wallace, who struggled to reconcile his suspicion of mass media with a habitual gulping down of hours of it; his high-minded pursuit of art with a need for emotional and sexual attention; and his resolve to blend entertaining fiction and dense philosophy. Max draws upon the rich trove of Wallace’s papers (he was an inveterate letter writer) and dozens of interviews, from Alcoholics Anonymous sponsors to literary contemporaries like Jonathan Franzen. Wallace’s family relationships get relatively short shrift, but it’s clear that under the veneer of a successful, brainy novelist was an eager-to-please native Midwesterner.
A stellar biography of a complicated subject: Max's portrait skillfully unites Wallace’s external and internal lives.
National Book Award–winning journalist Solomon (The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, 2001, etc.) uses issues raised by disability to examine the nature of parenthood, the definition of disability and the ability to control reproduction to create designer children.
More than a decade ago, when he was assigned to cover a student protest at the Lexington Center for the Deaf in Queens, N.Y., over the hiring of a CEO with normal hearing, the author began to look at medical and cultural issues raised by disability. The protesters demanded that deafness not be considered a disability, but rather a neuro-diversity on par with ethnic diversity. Some members of the deaf community even considered cochlear implants in young children as “a genocidal attack on a vibrant community” because of the linguistic richness of sign language. Solomon also wrote a piece on child prodigies based on an interview with the Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin, and he followed with a story about the lives of dwarfs based on the experience of a friend who sought role models for her daughter. Gradually, Far from the Tree began to take shape as the author explored more deeply the question of disability. Additional chapters cover Down syndrome (a genetic disorder), autism (of unknown origin), transgenderism and more. Solomon writes about the transformative, “terrifying joy of unbearable responsibility” faced by parents who cherish severely disabled children, and he takes an in-depth look at the struggles of parents of autistic children who behave destructively. He also explores the fascinating mental lives of independently functioning autistic individuals and speculates on the possibility that geniuses such as Mozart and Einstein were at the far end of the spectrum. Throughout, Solomon reflects on his own history as a gay man who has been bullied when he didn't conform to society's image of masculinity.
An informative and moving book that raises profound issues regarding the nature of love, the value of human life and the future of humanity.
The award-winning author of Death at an Early Age (1967) tells the stories of the later lives of poor children who grew up in the Bronx.
Kozol (Letters to a Young Teacher, 2007, etc.) has worked with children in inner-city schools for 50 years. In this engaging, illuminating, often moving book, he recounts the lives of poor black and Latino children—many now close friends—who once lived in Manhattan’s Martinique Hotel and were relocated in the late 1980s, upon the closing of that crowded and filthy shelter, to Mott Haven, a poor Bronx neighborhood. As the children grew into young adulthood, Kozol kept in touch with them and their families through visits, emails and phone calls. In a series of intimate portraits, he describes the astonishing odds the children faced and how many managed, with the critical help of mentors and caring others, to achieve successful lives, both in the conventional sense of graduating from college, but above all, by becoming kind and loving human beings. There is Leonardo, recruited by a New England boarding school, where he emerged as a leader; the introspective Jeremy, who befriended a Puerto Rican poet, got through college and took a job at a Mott Haven church that is central to the lives of many; and the buoyant, winning Pineapple, whose Guatemalan parents provide the emotional security of a warm home. “I’m going to give a good life to my children,” says Lisette, 24, after her troubled brother’s suicide. “I have to do it. I’m the one who made it through.” Some children are still struggling to find their way, writes the author, but they do so with “the earnestness and elemental kindness” that he first saw in them years ago.
Selected and edited letters by the author of Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five and other enduringly popular novels, letters that reveal Vonnegut’s passions, annoyances, loves, losses, mind and heart.
Edited and annotated by his friend and fellow Hoosier novelist Wakefield (The Hijacking of Jesus: How the Religious Right Distorts Christianity and Promotes Prejudice and Hate, 2006, etc.), Vonnegut’s letters, arranged by decade, reveal his wit and literary style, as well as his demons. Wakefield annotates lightly and introduces each decade with a swift biography and commentary. Mostly, however, the letters stand alone—and stand tall, indeed. A letter from 1945 tells his worried parents about his experiences as a POW in Dresden during the firebombing; the final letter declines an invitation to appear at Cornell. “At 84,” wrote Vonnegut, who died in 2007, “I resemble nothing so much as an iguana, hate travel, and have nothing to say. I might as well send a spent Roman candle in my stead.” Vonnegut remained close to his many relatives, and readers can chart his personal life here—his first marriage (ended in divorce), his relationships with his children (some were adopted), his second marriage (to photographer Jill Krementz). That marriage was often difficult, and he writes bitterly about finding evidence of her infidelity. His professional growth chart is here, too—his early struggle, his time teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, his rising celebrity and fame, and his struggles to write later in his life. The political Vonnegut is much in evidence, as well. There are fiery letters about censorship and book burning and some anti-conservative rhetoric. Wakefield also includes Vonnegut’s touching letters to encourage other writers and to deal with an angry daughter.
Vonnegut’s most human of hearts beats on every page.
King (Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven, 2010, etc.) tells the story of the most famous painting no one has really seen, at least since the 16th century: The Last Supper, the masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci that began deteriorating almost as soon as the paint dried. King places the painting in its political, social and artistic context, describing both the meaning of da Vinci’s work and the violent 15th-century Italian world that spawned it. Proof that art, like life, sometimes happens when you’re making other plans, da Vinci’s greatest painting came about because his dream project—an enormous horse-and-rider sculpture honoring the father of his patron, Lodovico Sforza—was scuttled when Italy needed the bronze for war. For the next two years, da Vinci painted the scene of Jesus and his disciples on the wall of a monastery. In its masterful use of perspective, complementary color and achievement of lifelike detail, it marked a turning point for Western art. King plumbs the painting’s religious, secular, psychological and political meanings, registered in the facial expressions and hand positions, the significance of the food on the table and, most fascinatingly, the salt spilled by the betraying Judas. (And no, Dan Brown, Mary Magdalene is not in it.) Alas, da Vinci’s ignorance of the fresco technique meant the pigments did not bond to the plaster, and the paint would begin flaking within years. As early as 1582, it was described as being “in a state of total ruin.”
Thankfully, King’s book is an impressive work of restoration—the author helps readers see this painting for the first time.
Exceptional memoir by the most famous of the West Memphis Three.
In 1993, Echols (Almost Home, 2005) was convicted, along with Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., in the case of the sadistic sex murders and mutilations of three young boys in the woods around their hometown of West Memphis, Ark. The state’s case was based almost entirely on the confession wrung out of Misskelley, who, writes the author, had the “intellect of a child” and who recanted soon afterward. Witnesses’ testimonies to Echols' “demonic” character sealed the defendants’ fates. Baldwin and Misskelley each received life sentences; Echols, perceived to be the ringleader of an alleged “satanic cult,” was sentenced to death. Over the next decade, an HBO trilogy of documentaries on the case, collectively titled Paradise Lost, helped spark an international campaign to free the West Memphis Three. Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins and Peter Jackson were among the celebrities who became personally involved in the case; thanks to their efforts, and especially those of Echols’ wife, Lorri, whom he met during his prison term, the three were released in August 2011. Those bare facts alone would make for an interesting story. However, Echols is at heart a poet and mystic, and he has written not just a quickie one-off book to capitalize on a lurid news story, but rather a work of art that occasionally bears a resemblance to the work of Jean Genet. A voracious reader all his life, Echols vividly tells his story, from his impoverished childhood in a series of shacks and mobile homes to his emergence after half a lifetime behind bars as a psychically scarred man rediscovering freedom in New York City. The author also effectively displays his intelligence and sensitivity, qualities the Arkansas criminal justice system had no interest in recognizing during Echols’ ordeal.
Essential reading for anyone interested in justice or memoir.
A jovially combative riposte to anyone who thought that death would silence master controversialist Hitchens (Hitch-22, 2010, etc.).
Even as he lay—or sat or paced—dying in the unfamiliar confines of a hospital last year, the author had plenty to say about matters of life and death. Here, in pieces published in Vanity Fair to which are added rough notes and apothegms left behind in manuscript, Hitchens gives the strongest possible sense of his exhausting battle against the aggressive cancer spreading through his body. He waged that battle with customary sardonic good humor, calling the medical-industrial world into which he had been thrust “Tumortown.” More arrestingly, Hitchens conceived of the move from life to death as a sudden relocation, even a deportation, into another land: “The country has a language of its own—a lingua franca that manages to be both dull and difficult and that contains names like ondansetron, for anti-nausea medication—as well as some unsettling gestures that require a bit of getting used to.” One such gesture was the physician’s plunging of fingers into the neck to gauge whether a cancer had spread into the lymph nodes, but others were more subtle, including the hushed tones and reverences that came with the business. Hitchens, famously an atheist, visited the question of whether he should take Pascal’s wager and bet on God, concluding in the negative even as good God-fearing citizens filled his inbox with assurances that God was punishing him for his blasphemies with throat cancer. A reasonable thought, Hitchens concludes, though since he’s a writer, wouldn’t such a God have afflicted his hands first?
Certainly, Hitchens died too soon. May this moving little visit to his hospital room not be the last word from him.
New York Times Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Egan (The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, 2009, etc.) returns with the story of the astonishing life of Edward Curtis (1868–1952), whose photographs of American Indians now command impressive prices at auction.
This is an era of excessive subtitles—but not this one: “Epic” and “immortal” are words most fitting for Curtis, whose 20-volume The North American Indian, a project that consumed most of his productive adult life, is a work of astonishing beauty and almost incomprehensible devotion. Egan begins with the story of Angelina, Chief Seattle’s daughter, who in 1896 was living in abject poverty in the city named for her father. Curtis—who’d begun a Seattle photography shop—photographed her, became intrigued with the vanishing lives of America’s Indians and devoted the ensuing decades both to the photography of indigenous people all over North America and to the writing of texts that described their culture, languages, songs and religion. Curtis scrambled all his life for funding—J.P. Morgan and President Theodore Roosevelt were both supporters, though the former eventually took over the copyrights and sold everything to a collector during the Depression for $1,000—and spent most of his time away from home, a decision that cost him his marriage. His children, however, remained loyal, some later helping him with his project. As Egan shows, Curtis traveled nearly everywhere, living with the people he was studying, taking thousands of photographs. He nearly died on several occasions. Egan is careful to credit Curtis’ team, several of whom endured all that he did, though, gradually, he became the last man standing, and he reproduces a number of the gorgeous photographs.
Lucent prose illuminates a man obscured for years in history’s shadows.
A Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer lauds the political genius of Thomas Jefferson.
As a citizen, Jefferson became a central leader in America’s rebellion against the world’s greatest empire. As a diplomat, he mentored a similar revolution in France. As president, he doubled the size of the United States without firing a shot and established a political dynasty that stretched over four decades. These achievements and many more, Time contributing editor Meacham (American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, 2008, etc.) smoothly argues, would have been impossible if the endlessly complicated Jefferson were merely the dreamy, impractical philosopher king his detractors imagined. His portrait of our most enigmatic president intentionally highlights career episodes that illustrate Jefferson’s penchant for balancing competing interests and for compromises that, nevertheless, advanced his own political goals. Born to the Virginia aristocracy, Jefferson effectively disguised his drive for control, charming foes and enlisting allies to conduct battles on his behalf. As he accumulated power, he exercised it ruthlessly, often deviating from the ideals of limited government he had previously—and eternally—articulated. Stronger than any commitment to abstract principle, the impulse for pragmatic political maneuvering, Meacham insists, always predominated. With an insatiable hunger for information, a talent for improvisation and a desire for greatness, Jefferson coolly calculated political realities—see his midlife abandonment of any effort to abolish slavery—and, more frequently than not, emerged from struggles with opponents routed and his own authority enhanced. Through his thinking and writing, we’ve long appreciated Jefferson’s lifelong devotion to “the survival and success of democratic republicanism in America,” but Meacham’s treatment reminds us of the flesh-and-blood politician, the man of action who masterfully bent the real world in the direction of his ideals.
An outstanding biography that reveals an overlooked steeliness at Jefferson’s core that accounts for so much of his political success.
The author of Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America (2010) returns with the story of America’s first voyages to the Middle Kingdom, where Americans and Chinese looked at each other with wonder, alarm and calculation.
Dolin begins at the end of the American Revolution. With America’s relationship with England in ruins, the country looked to the Far East. On July 22, 1784, the Empress of China sailed into the Pearl River in China. The author, whose grasp of the intricacies of international trade is firm, proceeds confidently and skillfully through a complex narrative. He describes the beginnings of trade with China, examines the mystery of silkworms and shows how China established Canton as the center for their trade with the West, whose residents craved silk but also tea (and serving sets). Soon, thousands of vessels—British and American—were sailing on the Pearl, and the most profitable commodity swiftly became opium. Everyone loved it, especially the English and the Chinese, and Americans profited handsomely from the trade. Dolin introduces us to some important American names—including Robert Morris, John Ledyard, John Jacob Astor, Robert Forbes, Harriet Low—and he relates the adventures of the first Chinese to come to America, who became sort of carnival attractions. The author also describes the perils of the voyage, the designs of the ships (and the rise and fall of the clipper ship) and the American involvement in the Opium War.
A rich, highly readable examination of the seeds of poppies, trade, greed, grandeur and an international partnership that remains uneasy and perilous.