The bestselling author deals with one of the most satisfying good-vs.-evil battles in history, the year (May 1940 to May 1941) during which Churchill and Britain held off Hitler.
Bookshelves groan with histories of Britain’s finest hour, but Larson (Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, 2015, etc.) employs a mildly unique strategy, combining an intense, almost day-to-day account of Churchill’s actions with those of his family, two of his officials (Frederick Lindemann, who was Churchill’s prime science adviser, and Lord Beaverbrook, minister of air production), and staff, including private secretary Jock Colville and bodyguard Walter Thompson. Since no one doubted they lived in extraordinary times and almost everyone kept journals and wrote letters, the author takes full advantage of an avalanche of material, much of which will be unfamiliar to readers. Churchill remains the central figure; his charisma, public persona, table talk, quirks, and sybaritic lifestyle retain their fascination. Authors have not ignored his indispensable wife, Clementine (Sonia Purnell’s 2015 biography is particularly illuminating), but even history buffs will welcome Larson’s attention to their four children, especially Mary, a perky adolescent and his favorite. He makes no attempt to rehabilitate Winston’s only son, Randolph, a heavy-drinking spendthrift whose long-suffering wife, Pamela, finally consoled herself with a long affair with American representative Averell Harriman, which was no secret to the family and was entirely approved. Britain’s isolation ended when Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, but Larson ends on May 10. The Blitz was in full swing, with a particularly destructive raid on London, but that day also saw Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s second in command, fly to England and engage in a wacky attempt (planned since the previous autumn) to negotiate peace. Nothing came of Hess’ action, but that day may also have marked the peak of the Blitz, which soon diminished as Germany concentrated its forces against the Soviet Union.
A captivating history of Churchill’s heroic year, with more than the usual emphasis on his intimates.
More life reflections from the bestselling author on themes of societal captivity and the catharsis of personal freedom.
In her third book, Doyle (Love Warrior, 2016, etc.) begins with a life-changing event. “Four years ago,” she writes, “married to the father of my three children, I fell in love with a woman.” That woman, Abby Wambach, would become her wife. Emblematically arranged into three sections—“Caged,” “Keys,” “Freedom”—the narrative offers, among other elements, vignettes about the soulful author’s girlhood, when she was bulimic and felt like a zoo animal, a “caged girl made for wide-open skies.” She followed the path that seemed right and appropriate based on her Catholic upbringing and adolescent conditioning. After a downward spiral into “drinking, drugging, and purging,” Doyle found sobriety and the authentic self she’d been suppressing. Still, there was trouble: Straining an already troubled marriage was her husband’s infidelity, which eventually led to life-altering choices and the discovery of a love she’d never experienced before. Throughout the book, Doyle remains open and candid, whether she’s admitting to rigging a high school homecoming court election or denouncing the doting perfectionism of “cream cheese parenting,” which is about “giving your children the best of everything.” The author’s fears and concerns are often mirrored by real-world issues: gender roles and bias, white privilege, racism, and religion-fueled homophobia and hypocrisy. Some stories merely skim the surface of larger issues, but Doyle revisits them in later sections and digs deeper, using friends and familial references to personify their impact on her life, both past and present. Shorter pieces, some only a page in length, manage to effectively translate an emotional gut punch, as when Doyle’s therapist called her blooming extramarital lesbian love a “dangerous distraction.” Ultimately, the narrative is an in-depth look at a courageous woman eager to share the wealth of her experiences by embracing vulnerability and reclaiming her inner strength and resiliency.
Doyle offers another lucid, inspiring chronicle of female empowerment and the rewards of self-awareness and renewal.
A collection of personal journal entries from the feminist writer that explores power dynamics and “a subject [she] kept coming back to: women strong in public, weak in private.”
Cultural critic and essayist Roiphe (Cultural Reporting and Criticism/New York Univ.; The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End, 2016, etc.), perhaps best known for the views she expressed on victimization in The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism (1994), is used to being at the center of controversy. In her latest work, the author uses her personal journals to examine the contradictions that often exist between the public and private lives of women, including her own. At first, the fragmented notebook entries seem overly scattered, but they soon evolve into a cohesive analysis of the complex power dynamics facing women on a daily basis. As Roiphe shares details from her own life, she weaves in quotes from the writings of other seemingly powerful female writers who had similar experiences, including Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, and Hillary Clinton. In one entry, Roiphe theorizes that her early published writings were an attempt to “control and tame the narrative,” further explaining that she has “so long and so passionately resisted the victim role” because she does not view herself as “purely a victim” and not “purely powerless.” However, she adds, that does not mean she “was not facing a man who was twisting or distorting his power; it does not mean that the wrongness, the overwhelmed feeling was not there.” Throughout the book, the author probes the question of why women so often subjugate their power in their private lives, but she never quite finds a satisfying answer. The final entry, however, answers the question of why she chose to share these personal journal entries with the public: “To be so exposed feels dangerous, but having done it, I also feel free.”
An intriguing examination of the complexity of female power in a variety of relationships.
A fresh, urbane history of the dramatic and melodramatic belle epoque.
When Barnes (The Only Story, 2018, etc.), winner of the Man Booker Prize and many other literary awards, first saw John Singer Sargent’s striking portrait of Dr. Samuel Pozzi—handsome, “virile, yet slender,” dressed in a sumptuous scarlet coat—he was intrigued by a figure he had not yet encountered in his readings about 19th-century France. The wall label revealed that Pozzi was a gynecologist; a magazine article called him “not only the father of French gynecology, but also a confirmed sex addict who routinely attempted to seduce his female patients.” The paradox of healer and exploiter posed an alluring mystery that Barnes was eager to investigate. Pozzi, he discovered, succeeded in his amorous affairs as much as in his acclaimed career. “I have never met a man as seductive as Pozzi,” the arrogant Count Robert de Montesquiou recalled; Pozzi was a “man of rare good sense and rare good taste,” “filled with knowledge and purpose” as well as “grace and charm.” The author’s portrait, as admiring as Sargent’s, depicts a “hospitable, generous” man, “rich by marriage, clubbable, inquisitive, cultured and well travelled,” and brilliant. The cosmopolitan Pozzi, his supercilious friend Montesquiou, and “gentle, whimsical” Edmond de Polignac are central characters in Barnes’ irreverent, gossipy, sparkling history of the belle epoque, “a time of vast wealth for the wealthy, of social power for the aristocracy, of uncontrolled and intricate snobbery, of headlong colonial ambition, of artistic patronage, and of duels whose scale of violence often reflected personal irascibility more than offended honor.” Dueling, writes the author, “was not just the highest form of sport, it also required the highest form of manliness.” Barnes peoples his history with a spirited cast of characters, including Sargent and Whistler, Oscar Wilde and Sarah Bernhardt (who adored Pozzi), Henry James and Proust, Pozzi’s diarist daughter, Catherine, and unhappy wife, Therese, and scores more.
Finely honed biographical intuition and a novelist’s sensibility make for a stylish, engrossing narrative.
After his father suffered a heart attack in 2014, journalist Sharlet (English and Creative Writing/Dartmouth Coll.; Radiant Truths: Essential Dispatches, Reports, Confessions, and Other Essays on American Belief, 2014, etc.) traveled from his home on the Vermont/New Hampshire border to his father’s home in Schenectady, usually at night. “It seemed easier,” he writes, “the steep twisting road more likely to belong to me alone; the radio, when I could find a station, less clogged with news and yet more alive with voices. Night shift voices” that revealed “other people’s nightmares and dreams, projected onto the black night-glass of the car windows.” When he stopped for gas, food, or just to rest, he took snapshots, which he posted on Instagram along with moving narratives about the people he met during those interludes. Travels to Los Angeles, Nairobi, Russia, and Ireland yielded additional portraits of vulnerable “night shift voices,” individuals “around whom the veil of the world is very thin.” One of the longer pieces focuses on 61-year-old Mary Mazur, a disabled woman whose closest companion is a potted plant, which she carries with her when she forays out of her motel room, near midnight, to buy a Thanksgiving turkey. A mother at 19, her three children were taken from her around 1982, when she herself entered the social services system. Now, lonely and wheelchair-bound, she exclaims, “I’m not like everybody else!” Neither is Jared Miller, a “sweet soul” who started abusing drugs in the military and died of an overdose six months after Sharlet met him; or Charley Keunang, a homeless man in his 40s, killed by a police officer who claimed he reached for a gun—a claim contradicted by body-cam footage. Charley immigrated to the U.S. from Cameroon hoping to be an actor, got involved in a robbery, served 14 years in federal prison, and ended up on skid row. Gentle, dignified, and respectful, Charley was “one black life that mattered, no more or less than any other.”
An intimate, poignant look at life at the margins of society.
A feminist, activist, and prolific writer recounts her emergence from solitude and vulnerability.
“To have a voice,” writes Solnit (Whose Story Is This?: Old Conflicts, New Chapters, 2019, etc.) in her absorbing new memoir, “means not just the animal capacity to utter sounds but the ability to participate fully in the conversations that shape your society, your relations to others, and your own life.” As a young woman in San Francisco in the 1980s, Solnit lacked the “three key things that matter in having a voice: audibility, credibility, and consequence.” Instead, she felt silenced by a society that effaced women, circumscribed their freedom through harassment and violence, and insisted that they learn “deferential limits.” So she became expert “at the art of nonexistence, since existence was so perilous.” At 19, “young, ignorant, poor, and almost friendless,” Solnit was finishing her last semester at San Francisco State University, living in a dingy residential hotel, when she found an affordable, light-filled studio apartment. Furnished with pieces she found on the street or in thrift stores, the tiny apartment, where she lived for the next 25 years, became a refuge from a pervasive threat of violence. A joyous walker, she was often “followed and yelled at and mugged and grabbed.” In the news, movies, and TV, women were beaten, raped, and murdered by boyfriends, husbands, or serial killers: “Even if none of these terrible things happen to you,” writes the author, “the possibility they might and the constant reminders have an impact.” Books offered another kind of refuge where “I ceased to be myself, and this nonexistence I pursued and devoured like a drug.” Solnit traces her discovery of communities—artists, punk musicians, gay men and women—that sustained her and the people and places that inspired many of her books. Writing offered her a way of participating in the world, probing “what’s hidden beneath the assumptions or conventions,” illuminating forgotten people and places, and showing “how invisibility permits atrocity.”
A perceptive, radiant portrait of a writer of indelible consequence.
Gornick’s (The Odd Woman and the City, 2016) ferocious but principled intelligence emanates from each of the essays in this distinctive collection.
Rereading texts, and comparing her most recent perceptions against those of the past, is the linchpin of the book, with the author revisiting such celebrated novels as D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, Colette's The Vagabond, Marguerite Duras' The Lover, and Elizabeth Bowen's The House in Paris. Gornick also explores the history and changing face of Jewish American fiction as expressions of "the other." The author reads more deeply and keenly than most, with perceptions amplified by the perspective of her 84 years. Though she was an avatar of "personal journalism" and a former staff writer for the Village Voice—a publication that “had a muckraking bent which made its writers…sound as if they were routinely holding a gun to society’s head”—here, Gornick mostly subordinates her politics to the power of literature, to the books that have always been her intimates, old friends to whom she could turn time and again. "I read ever and only to feel the power of Life with a capital L," she writes; it shows. The author believes that for those willing to relinquish treasured but outmoded interpretations, rereading over a span of decades can be a journey, sometimes unsettling, toward richer meanings of books that are touchstones of one's life. As always, Gornick reveals as much about herself as about the writers whose works she explores; particularly arresting are her essays on Lawrence and on Natalia Ginzburg. Some may feel she has a tendency to overdramatize, but none will question her intellectual honesty. It is reflected throughout, perhaps nowhere so vividly as in a vignette involving a stay in Israel, where, try as she might, Gornick could not get past the "appalling tribalism of the culture.”
Literature knows few champions as ardent and insightful—or as uncompromising—as Gornick, which is to readers’ good fortune.
Having written about milk, salt, oysters, and frozen food, Kurlansky (Milk!: A 10,000-Year Food Fracas, 2018, etc.) turns his pen to an iconic fish on the brink of extinction.
“How many species do we lose when we lose a salmon?” asks the author toward the end of this handsomely illustrated work of natural history and environmental advocacy. The answer is that we do not know for certain, but the salmon is part of a chain of life that ranges from tiny insects to large mammals and birds. Every species, then, unlocks the door to many other species, and allowing any species to diminish is to threaten the whole web of life. So it is with the salmon. Kurlansky covers all the bases, from life cycle and reproductive history to the fact that the salmon is particularly vulnerable precisely because it spends part of its life in salt water, part in fresh water. The author observes that ideal salmon habitat includes rivers that run clear and clean and that are undammed, which are increasingly rare except in very remote places such as the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia, which may turn out to be where salmon make their last stand. Certainly it won’t be on the Columbia River, where Lewis and Clark saw a horizon of flashing fins two centuries ago, whereas “by 1975, a total of 14 dams were blocking the main Columbia River, 13 were on the Snake [River],” numbers that don’t begin to take into account the thousands of smaller dams along the tributaries. Kurlansky offers a dauntingly long list of things that need to happen if the salmon is to be saved, ranging from dismantling dams to checking climate change, restoring forests and apex predators, ending the use of pesticides, and removing homes and roads from riverbanks in favor of galleries of trees. “If we can save the planet,” he writes, “the salmon will be all right." And if not, we must conclude, not.
In championing a critically important part of the natural world, Kurlansky sounds an urgent alarm that commands our attention.
A massive investigation of economic history in the service of proposing a political order to overcome inequality.
Readers who like their political manifestoes in manageable sizes, à la Common Sense or The Communist Manifesto, may be overwhelmed by the latest from famed French economist Piketty (Top Incomes in France in the Twentieth Century: Inequality and Redistribution, 1901-1998, 2014, etc.), but it’s a significant work. The author interrogates the principal forms of economic organization over time, from slavery to “non-European trifunctional societies,” Chinese-style communism, and “hypercapitalist” orders, in order to examine relative levels of inequality and its evolution. Each system is founded on an ideology, and “every ideology, no matter how extreme it may seem in its defense of inequality, expresses a certain idea of social justice.” In the present era, at least in the U.S., that idea of social justice would seem to be only that the big ones eat the little ones, the principal justification being that the wealthiest people became rich because they are “the most enterprising, deserving, and useful.” In fact, as Piketty demonstrates, there’s more to inequality than the mere “size of the income gap.” Contrary to hypercapitalist ideology and its defenders, the playing field is not level, the market is not self-regulating, and access is not evenly distributed. Against this, Piketty arrives at a proposed system that, among other things, would redistribute wealth across societies by heavy taxation, especially of inheritances, to create a “participatory socialism” in which power is widely shared and trade across nations is truly free. The word “socialism,” he allows, is a kind of Pandora’s box that can scare people off—and, he further acknowledges, “the Russian and Czech oligarchs who buy athletic teams and newspapers may not be the most savory characters, but the Soviet system was a nightmare and had to go.” Yet so, too, writes the author, is a capitalism that rewards so few at the expense of so many.
A deftly argued case for a new kind of socialism that, while sure to inspire controversy, bears widespread discussion.