From “Game of Thrones” to The Pillars of the Earth, popular culture offers up medieval stories where royals grab for power, where crucial alliances are built between church and state, where important people suddenly fall over dead after a sumptuous meal, poisoned by a hidden rival. But this world did, in fact, exist, and the subject of Kirstin Downey’s fascinating new biography, Isabella: The Warrior Queen, maneuvered through it with unlikely and thrilling success.
To imagine what life was like growing up in a French village in the early 15th century, don’t think of A Year in Provence. Think of modern-day Syria.
Cleopatra, Nefertiti: These are the names that come to mind when thinking of the legendary female rulers of ancient Egypt. In her highly engrossing The Woman Who Would Be King, Egyptian scholar Kara Cooney shines a spotlight on Hatshepsut, Egypt’s largely overlooked, longest-ruling female pharaoh, who led her country through a period marked by peace, prosperity and architectural achievement.
Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson is such an iconic military figure that he is legendary to Civil War scholars and schoolchildren alike. So it’s hard to imagine an author breaking new ground with another Jackson biography. But S.C. Gwynne does just that in Rebel Yell, which deserves comparisons to Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War for its depth of knowledge and graceful narrative. Gwynne, a 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist for Empire of the Summer Moon, casts Jackson as a human being, not as a bronze figure towering over a battlefield. Readers will come away from Rebel Yell with an understanding of the man that goes beyond his military exploits.
While there’s something fascinating about old medical equipment and collections of oddities, it’s harder to truly appreciate the reality of life before modern surgery, let alone the ostracism and pain faced by individuals who suffered from conditions routinely corrected today. In this compelling biography of Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter (1811-1850), Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz brings a poet’s sensibilities to the life of an American surgeon who was at the forefront of advances in medical education and reconstructive surgery.
Real life spy Kim Philby had a level of charm that fictional spy James Bond could only aspire to. To meet Philby, it seemed, was to fall under his convivial sway. Thus, when it was disclosed in 1963 that this very proper, well-placed and Cambridge-educated Englishman had been spying for the Soviet Union since 1934, two people were particularly shaken by the revelation: Nicholas Elliott, his longtime drinking buddy and colleague at MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service, and James Angleton, the zealous spymaster at America’s Central Intelligence Agency. Both men had regarded Philby as the supreme exemplar of their shadowy trade. Of course, he was.
Miles J. Unger’s magisterial new biography, Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces, tells its subject’s life story through the lens of his art—appropriately so, given Michelangelo’s willful transmutation of the role of the Renaissance artist. When Michelangelo began his apprenticeship, artists were seen as little more than craftsmen, churning out statuary and paintings to decorate the villas and churches of the wealthy nobility. Michelangelo’s greatest achievement—in Unger’s portrayal—is not to be found in his artwork (the statue of David or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel) but rather in his creation of the artist himself as secular genius.
Robert L. O’Connell’s Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman includes a photograph of the celebrated Civil War general with his staff. While the other men strike classic poses and gaze into the middle distance, Sherman sits slightly slumped, legs crossed, jacket unbuttoned, glittering eyes focused directly on the camera. It fits with the popular notion of Sherman, the man who invented “modern war” and whose soldiers burned a path of destruction through the American South.
On September 13, 1993, the day Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, several dozen CIA officers quietly gathered at the grave of Robert Ames in Arlington National Cemetery. While most of the world focused on the hope of Middle East peace, those at Ames’ grave paid tribute to an operative who may have made that peace possible, even though few knew what he had accomplished—not the presidents he served, not members of Congress, not even his own family.
In the middle of her otherwise fascinating story about reclusive heiress Huguette Clark, Meryl Gordon’s narrative suddenly flattens. The daily details of Clark’s life during this long period of seclusion are assembled from wan notes to almost-lost relatives, bank statements and legal correspondence, and the memories of the few close friends who received cards and phone calls—but never visits—from Mrs. Clark.