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.
One day in January 2010, Aubert de Villaine received a cardboard tube in the mail. Inside was a map of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, his vineyard, more detailed than any map he himself owned. There was also a note threatening to poison his vines unless a one million euro ransom was paid. Despite the detailed map, De Villaine doubted the threat, which turned out to be real; the vines were in fact poisoned. Shadows in the Vineyard is not a conventional true crime story, but then, poisoning the rarest and most expensive wine in the world is not your average crime.
Journalists typically don’t like to write about themselves. It comes from years of writing in the third person and striving for objectivity. And with so many critics of the press, reporters assume no one likes them. Robert Timberg grapples with this issue in his moving memoir, Blue-Eyed Boy. After nearly 40 years as a journalist and three noteworthy books, perhaps he has a story to tell. But he also has self-doubts. Then he looks in the mirror and sees his disfigured face. It is an image he has been trying to forget since 1967, when as a young soldier in Vietnam, just days away from the end of his tour, he suffered third-degree burns from a land mine explosion. He finally decides to confront this defining moment of his life. “I want to remember how I decided not to die,” he writes. “To not let my future die.”
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.
If we choose, we can avoid most forms of art. Architecture is not one of them. It is all around us. In his wide-ranging and stimulating new book, Bricks and Mortals: Ten Great Buildings and the People They Made, Tom Wilkinson explores many of the aspects—morality, power, economics, psychology, politics and sex are some—that help us better understand how architecture “shapes people’s lives and vice versa,” from ancient times to the present. His diverse selection of buildings includes Nero’s Golden House in Rome and the Festival Theatre in Beyreuth, as well as the Finsbury Health Centre in London and the Footbridge in Rio de Janeiro. Ten buildings are covered in detail, serving as springboards to discussions of related subjects.
Nature writer Nick Jans first spotted the large tracks of a wolf while cross-country skiing near his home in Juneau, Alaska, in December 2003. Two days later, while relaxing in his hot tub, he caught a glimpse of the animal itself. Nick raced out to see him, and soon he and his wife, Sherrie, became infatuated with the beautiful black wolf.
While teaching a group of volunteers about marine stewardship one morning, researcher Ken Balcomb was confronted with a crisis the likes of which he'd never seen: an inexplicable mass stranding of beaked whales. While racing up and down the Bahamas coastline, trying to save lives or at least preserve specimens for autopsy, he struggled to comprehend what could have caused the whales such trauma. When the U.S. Navy's sonar program was implicated, Balcomb was torn; proud of his own service record, he nonetheless broke confidentiality about Navy practices to try and save the lives of whales. Joining forces with environmental lawyer Joel Reynolds, the two face off against a government in the throes of a national security panic in War of the Whales.
Although he speaks repeatedly of his “two Italies”—a phrase he borrows from the poet Shelley—Joseph Luzzi is neither fully at home among the coarse elements of Calabrian culture his immigrant parents brought with them to America nor within the borders of Italy itself, what with its infuriating mix of high art and low purpose. But it is this unresolved quality of Luzzi’s musings—the back and forth tugging of a splendid mind—that makes this book so alive and such a pleasure to read.
At the age of 12, when his father was imprisoned for not paying his debts, Charles Dickens was sent to work in a factory. He walked to his job, to his meager lodgings, to find his dinner in a market stall and to visit Marshalsea prison, where the rest of his family was living. Dickens never lost this habit of walking. And as Judith Flanders reveals in her stunning new book, The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London, the sights, sounds and smells of the city that infuse his novels were not simply the work of a brilliant imagination but “the reportage of a great observer.”
“In the summer of 2005, I was at a Burger King with Harper Lee.” With those tantalizing opening words, former Chicago Tribune reporter Marja Mills has us hooked. We want to know not just why the reclusive Harper Lee is talking to a journalist, but also why she and the novelist are sitting in a Burger King, of all places.