A contemporary of Berryman, Bishop, and Lowell, William Meredith shared neither the bohemian excesses of the Beats nor the exhibitionist excesses of the “confessional” poets. Rather, he was known as a poet whose unadorned, formal verse marked him as a singular voice. Effort at Speech, the definitive collection of Meredith’s life work, contains poems chosen by the author from throughout his career, as well as several new works and an essay by Michael Collier placing Meredith in his times.
Whittaker Chambers is the first biography of this complex and enigmatic figure. Drawing on dozens of interviews and on materials from forty archives in the United States and abroad–including still-classified KGB dossiers–Tanenhaus traces the remarkable journey that led Chambers from a sleepy Long Island village to center stage in America’s greatest political trial and then, in his last years, to a unique role as the godfather of post-war conservatism. This biography is rich in startling new information about Chambers’s days as New York’s “hottest literary Bolshevik”; his years as a Communist agent and then defector, hunted by the KGB; his conversion to Quakerism; his secret sexual turmoil; his turbulent decade at Time magazine, where he rose from the obscurity of the book-review page to transform the magazine into an oracle of apocalyptic anti-Communism. But all this was a prelude to the memorable events that began in August 1948, when Chambers testified against Alger Hiss in the spy case that changed America. Whittaker Chambers goes far beyond all previous accounts of the Hiss case, re-creating its improbably twists and turns, and disentangling the motives that propelled a vivid cast of characters in unpredictable directions.
Here is the voice of both witness and functionary. Lynch stands between “the living and the living who have died” with outrage and amazement, awe and calm, straining for the brief glimpse we all get of what mortality means to a vital species
Jamaica Kincaid’s brother Devon Drew died of AIDS on January 19, 1996, at the age of thirty-three. Kincaid’s incantatory, poetic, and often shockingly frank recounting of her brother’s life and death is also a story of her family on the island of Antigua, a constellation centered on the powerful, sometimes threatening figure of the writer’s mother. My Brother is an unblinking record of a life that ended too early, and it speaks volumes about the difficult truths at the heart of all families.
Bologna: nightfall, June 1858. A knock sounds at the door of the Jewish merchant Momolo Mortara. Two officers of the Inquisition bust inside and seize Mortara’s six-year-old son, Edgardo. As the boy is wrenched from his father’s arms, his mother collapses. The reason for his abduction: the boy had been secretly “baptized” by a family servant. According to papal law, the child is therefore a Catholic who can be taken from his family and delivered to a special monastery where his conversion will be completed.
With this terrifying scene, prize-winning historian David I. Kertzer begins the true story of how one boy’s kidnapping became a pivotal event in the collapse of the Vatican as a secular power. The book evokes the anguish of a modest merchant’s family, the rhythms of daily life in a Jewish ghetto, and also explores, through the revolutionary campaigns of Mazzini and Garibaldi and such personages as Napoleon III, the emergence of Italy as a modern national state. Moving and informative, the Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara reads as both a historical thriller and an authoritative analysis of how a single human tragedy changed the course of history.
For a man who insisted that life on the public stage was not what he had in mind, Thomas Jefferson certainly spent a great deal of time in the spotlight–and not only during his active political career. After 1809, his longed-for retirement was compromised by a steady stream of guests and tourists who made of his estate at Monticello a virtual hotel, as well as by more than one thousand letters per year, most from strangers, which he insisted on answering personally. In his twilight years Jefferson was already taking on the luster of a national icon, which was polished off by his auspicious death (on July 4, 1826); and in the subsequent seventeen decades of his celebrity–now verging, thanks to virulent revisionists and television documentaries, on notoriety–has been inflated beyond recognition of the original person.
For the historian Joseph J. Ellis, the experience of writing about Jefferson was “as if a pathologist, just about to begin an autopsy, has discovered that the body on the operating table was still breathing.” In American Sphinx, Ellis sifts the facts shrewdly from the legends and the rumors, treading a path between vilification and hero worship in order to formulate a plausible portrait of the man who still today “hover[s] over the political scene like one of those dirigibles cruising above a crowded football stadium, flashing words of inspiration to both teams.” For, at the grass roots, Jefferson is no longer liberal or conservative, agrarian or industrialist, pro- or anti-slavery, privileged or populist. He is all things to all people. His own obliviousness to incompatible convictions within himself (which left him deaf to most forms of irony) has leaked out into the world at large–a world determined to idolize him despite his foibles.
From Ellis we learn that Jefferson sang incessantly under his breath; that he delivered only two public speeches in eight years as president, while spending ten hours a day at his writing desk; that sometimes his political sensibilities collided with his domestic agenda, as when he ordered an expensive piano from London during a boycott (and pledged to “keep it in storage”). We see him relishing such projects as the nailery at Monticello that allowed him to interact with his slaves more palatably, as pseudo-employer to pseudo-employees. We grow convinced that he preferred to meet his lovers in the rarefied region of his mind rather than in the actual bedchamber. We watch him exhibiting both great depth and great shallowness, combining massive learning with extraordinary naïveté, piercing insights with self-deception on the grandest scale. We understand why we should neither beatify him nor consign him to the rubbish heap of history, though we are by no means required to stop loving him. He is Thomas Jefferson, after all–our very own sphinx.
With dashing originality and in prose that sings like an entire choir of sirens, Cynthia Ozick relates the life and times of her most compelling fictional creation. Ruth Puttermesser lives in New York City. Her learning is monumental. Her love life is minimal (she prefers pouring through Plato to romping with married Morris Rappoport). And her fantasies have a disconcerting tendency to come true – with disastrous consequences for what we laughably call “reality.”
Puttermesser yearns for a daughter and promptly creates one, unassisted, in the form of the first recorded female golem. Laboring in the dusty crevices of the civil service, she dreams of reforming the city – and manages to get herself elected mayor. Puttermesser contemplates the afterlife and is hurtled into it headlong, only to discover that a paradise found is also paradise lost. Overflowing with ideas, lambent with wit, The Puttermesser Papers is a tour de force by one of our most visionary novelists.
Here is Just’s masterpiece – an epic chronicle of three generations of Washington power brokers and the womenfolk who loved them (except when they didn’t). The Washington Post described this book as “a fascinating if ultimately painful fairy tale, complete with a family curse. The decline of the Behls represents the decline of Washington from the bright dawn of the American century into the gathering shadows of an alien new millennium.”
In Le Divorce, Diane Johnson delightfully recounts the adventures of two sisters from California who make a modern pilgrimage to the City of Light.
Pregnant and abandoned by her French husband, Roxeanne Walker de Persand turns to her younger sister, Isabel, for support, while the powerful Persand family exerts subtle but firm control over her decision whether or not to divorce. Complicating matters is the disposition of a family heirloom, a painting in Roxy’s possession that is suddenly discovered to be worth millions. In the midst of a variety of schemes, the stakes are suddenly raised by a crime of passion, disrupting everyone’s motives and plans.
Not since Edith Wharton penned her brilliant portraits of Americans abroad has an American novelist so perfectly captured the possibilities and perils of succumbing to the allure of Paris.