Of all the weird twists in the 40-year drama of building the Washington Monument, perhaps the oddest was in 1855, when a band of rebels staged a coup and seized the project, largely because the board overseeing the construction had accepted a commemorative stone from Pope Pius IX. The Know-Nothing Party faction didn’t give back the monument until 1858.
Historical figures tend to become one-dimensional in our minds over time. We remember Princess Diana’s beauty and generosity, Andy Warhol’s artistic genius and George Gershwin’s unmistakable melodies, but we don’t always acknowledge their personal struggles. Veteran journalist Claudia Kalb asks us to do just that in Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder, a collection of 12 seemingly disparate stories of luminaries in architecture, science, politics and more.
Journalist and globe-trotter Eric Weiner, perhaps best-known for his bestselling book The Geography of Bliss, continues his pursuit of big questions in The Geography of Genius. Why, he wonders, do some conditions give rise to networks of innovators who transform the world? As such a question suggests, Weiner is thinking about genius in a fresh way.
In The Dawning Moon of the Mind: Unlocking the Pyramid Texts, Susan Brind Morrow offers a new translation of the ancient Pyramid Texts that finds poetry, science and thought itself bursting from every line.
Within a few months of the stunning July 4, 1976, Israeli raid on the airport at Entebbe, Uganda, to free hostages taken by pro-Palestinian terrorists who had hijacked a commercial airliner, three books had been written about the operation. That was just the beginning, as more books followed, along with multiple movies and documentaries. So, other than to commemorate the upcoming 40th anniversary of the raid, why do we need another book? In Saul David's view, the story "had not yet been properly told"—and he set out to fix that. With Operation Thunderbolt, he has succeeded.
Ancient Rome helps define the way we understand the world and think about ourselves. The ideas of liberty and citizenship, the Western calendar, phrases such as “beware of Greeks bearing gifts” and much more came from this one source. Renowned classicist Mary Beard, a professor at Cambridge University, has spent much of the last 50 years studying the literature of the Romans and the thousands of books and papers written about them. Her magnificent, eminently readable SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome is an authoritative exploration of how a small and unremarkable village became such a dominant power on three continents.
James A. Michener had his Tales of the South Pacific. Now comes Simon Winchester—an equally engaging storyteller—with his tales of the vast Pacific, all 64 million square miles of it. To make such a gargantuan subject manageable, he selects specific events which he says symbolize larger cultural, political and scientific truths about the region.
Subversive historian Sarah Vowell offers another idiosyncratic chronicle of our nation’s coming-of-age with Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. This lively account of the Marquis de Lafayette and the American Revolution is of a piece with Vowell’s previous books, which include Assassination Vacation (2005), a tour of sites dedicated to murdered American presidents, and The Wordy Shipmates (2008), a raucous look at the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. These seem like sober subjects, but Vowell enlivens the proceedings with her prickly persona, her thing for slang and her taste for recondite factoids of Americana.
Tightly paced and furiously entertaining, The Witch of Lime Street tells the fascinating story of the rise of spiritualism in the years after World War One. With an entire generation lost to the trenches and the Spanish flu, charlatans and hucksters emerged in force to put grieving families in touch with their beloved dead. This was the era of séances, table rapping, ectoplasm and “spirit photography”—done with a camera that supposedly captured an image of you posing with your dearly departed’s ghost.
An imposing book by virtue of size alone, the 640-page Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives is also decidedly ambitious. The dual biography explores the profoundly different paths taken by two iconic and influential German artists in the years before and after Hitler’s rise to power.