Sunday, August 24 will mark the 200th anniversary of the night British troops set fire to the White House, the only time other than 9/11 when the U.S. capital city sustained a direct attack. First Lady Dolley Madison had fled the building just hours before the redcoats arrived, famously exclaiming "Save that painting!" and ordering that a precious Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington be removed from the wall and carted off to safety, along with the red velvet curtains from the White House drawing room.
British journalist Peter Snow gives a stirring account of that fateful night, as well as the days before and after, in When Britain Burned the White House: The 1814 Invasion of Washington. The book was published in the U.K. last year to glowing reviews and was released this week in the U.S. by Thomas Dunne Books.
Snow keeps the action moving and adds immediacy by citing the letters, diaries and other accounts of those who witnessed (or participated in) the attack. As the British advanced, Americans on horseback sounded the alarm to the fearful residents of Washington, D.C. "Fly, fly! The ruffians are at hand. If you cannot get away yourselves, for God's sake send off your wives and daughters, for the ruffians are at hand." Under the command of Admiral George Cockburn and Major General Robert Ross, British invaders set fire not only to the White House, but to the U.S. Capitol building as well. "Never shall I forget my tortured feelings," one resident recalled, "when I beheld that noble edifice wrapt in flames, which . . . filled all the saddened night with a dismal gloom."
If you've always been a bit hazy about what led to the War of 1812 (and why it was still going on two years later), Snow's excellent account of these crucial events in U.S. history will sharpen your understanding—and make you surprised and grateful that the U.S. today counts Britain among its staunchest allies.
The book currently near the top of Amazon's Movers and Shakers list is one you may not have heard about — and we hadn't either, until today.
The surprise title is The Most Dangerous Animal of All, which had been kept under wraps by publisher HarperCollins until today's release date. Author Gary L. Stewart, writing with co-author Susan Mustafa, asserts that a search for his biological father led to a disturbing conclusion: Stewart's father was the notorious Zodiac Killer, who murdered at least seven people in an unsolved crime spree in Northern California in the 1960s and 1970s. The killer's murderous rampage inspired the 2007 David Fincher film Zodiac, as well as several documentaries. While many suspects have been mentioned, no conclusive proof of the killer's identity has ever emerged.
A HarperCollins spokesperson told New York magazine that the book had been vetted by company lawyers who concluded it was "legally sound." The company says Stewart, who was adopted and now lives in Baton Rouge, began his search for his father at the age of 39 after his birth mother contacted him for the first time.
Expect much controversy in the coming weeks as experts on the mysterious case debate the merits of Stewart's evidence.
This fall, Jesmyn Ward followed up her 2011 National Book Award-winning novel Salvage the Bones with Men We Reaped, a poignant memoir in which she reflects upon the untimely deaths of five men in her life over the course of five years. Our reviewer calls the book—which came in at #4 in our list of the Best Books of 2013—"searingly honest and brutal." (Read our full review here.) We were curious about the books Ward has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites. She graciously agreed, sharing four recommendations, in fact:
SON OF A GUN By Justin St. Germain
Justin St. Germain’s memoir Son of a Gun has stuck with me like few other books this year. He and I have both written about our losses, to understand them better, and so others will, too. Although the circumstances are quite different, we bonded over these shared experiences. Justin tragically lost his mother to murder, in 2001, just after the World Trade Centers came down. She was shot by Justin’s step-father, his mother’s fifth husband. I remember that time clearly: a whole nation suffering from grief. I had recently lost my brother, so spent those days doubly reeling, as did Justin. We both began our books as Stegner Fellows and spent time talking about how to approach these challenging topics. Son of a Gun is not a who-done-it, and it’s more than simply a memoir of loss, although that would be enough. Justin looks at the wider context of guns and violence in the United States, particularly in the West, where he’s from. And he examines the terrible plight of women who are victims of domestic violence. In his careful telling, Justin helps us all understand not only his mother but the culture of violence that leads to stories like these.
THRALL: POEMS By Natasha Trethewey
I am a new mother and I teach, so poetry, which I’ve always loved, has real appeal for pleasure reading. Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall is among my recent favorites. Natasha was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, not far from where I grew up, and she and I have tread some similar terrain in our work, too, about race and history, complicated family, the South, but she does it with so much elegance! Her use of imagery, the precision and grace of her language, the overall craft of her work. She is rightly our Poet Laureate.
As part of our Best Books of 2013 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
On April 9, 1959, the world was introduced to the Mercury Seven—instantly turning America’s first astronauts into mega-celebrities. Along for the ride were their wives, swept up in a whirlwind of swanky parties, LIFE magazine photo shoots, even tea with Jackie Kennedy. Lily Koppel turns the spotlight on these women, interviewing more than 30 of them to craft a fascinating and touching account of the good, the bad and the ugly of their extraordinary lives.
Remember the days when "snail mail" was just, well, plain ol' mail? Simon Garfield's new book, To the Letter, is a timely ode to the art of letter writing, which is quickly on its way out of practice, thanks to the advent of all things digital. As Garfield explains it, “It is a book about what we have lost by replacing letters with email—the post, the envelope, a pen, a slower, cerebral whirring, the use of the whole of our hands and not just the tips of our fingers.”
Bookworms and lovers of the written word will especially enjoy Garfield's exploration of letters by authors such as Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Lewis Carroll and Virginia Woolf. The book also includes photographs of especially quirky or historically important letters—and yes, even the love letter gets some attention.
Watch the trailer below and get inspired to dig out your stationery:
Do any of you keep up with letter writing? Interested in reading To the Letter?
Do you find yourself compulsively re-watching Rushmore, The Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Life Aquatic? Is your go-to Halloween costume a member of the Tenenbaums? If so, The Wes Anderson Collection is definitely a book for you.
Written by Dallas film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, who has been following Anderson's work since his film debut in 1993 with the 12-minute short Bottle Rocket, this book is brimming with candid conversations between Seitz and Anderson, details on his creative process, charming original artwork by Max Dalton and stills from each of his films. Seitz calls this book “a tour of an artist’s mind, with the artist as guide and amiable companion.”
Check out the fantastically made book trailer (in the visual style of Mr. Anderson, naturally) from Abrams:
We know there are plenty of Wes Anderson fans out there! Does this look like a worthy Christmas gift for anyone on your list?
Chances are, you're still on the hunt for the perfect gift for more than one person on your list this year. Let us help you out! The BookPage 2013 Holiday Catalog is filled with more than 150 books that are sure to delight readers of all ages and interests.
Whether you're looking for the latest blockbuster mysteries, award-winning fiction, the hottest YA novels, colorful picture books, scrumptious cookbooks, awesome audio books or utterly intriguing nonfiction, we've got you covered. The hardest part just may end up being having to narrow down all of the choices!
But we won't delay you any further—go ahead and dive right in!
Award-winning author Richard Holmes is well known for his biographies of Romantic poets, as well as his 2009 bestseller, The Age of Wonder. In his latest book, Falling Upwards, Holmes turns his attention to the fascinating history of ballooning, documenting more than two centuries of experiments and explorations in aeronautics, anchored with a dash of autobiography. Our reviewer declares: "Erudite and chatty, this is a book for everyone who has ever dreamed of flying." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Holmes has been reading lately, so we asked him to recommend three recent favorites, which he graciously agreed to share:
For nearly 40 years I have written biographies of Romantic poets, but in the last decade I have become fascinated by biographies of Romantic scientists. It turns out that they are an equally wild bunch of characters! In fact there are many similarities between them—the idea of the brilliant “creative moment” is common to both groups, and so is a certain kind of inner solitude and daring. I am always on the lookout for unusual imaginative ways of exploring this endlessly intriguing (and relevant) subject. So here are three of my current favorites, each using quite different approaches to the Life Scientific: autobiography, fiction, poetry.
HOW A CHILD BECOMES A SCIENTIST
Edited by John Brockman
I keep diving back into this collection of 27 quirky autobiographical essays, each about 10 pages long, in which distinguished modern scientists do something very unusual for them: They look back at their own childhoods and try to define what first set them ticking. They include Richard Dawkins reading Doctor Doolittle books in South Africa; the cosmologist Paul C.W. Davies seeing the star Sirius glimmering through winter trees; and Mary Bateson learning genetic circuit patterns while putting up Christmas tree lights. Other notable memories come from Freeman Dyson, Lynn Margulis and Steven Pinker—who characteristically doubts the psychological authenticity of the whole project. Uneven in writing quality, but endlessly intriguing and often disarmingly funny.
By Andrea Barrett
I first discovered Andrea Barrett through her haunting novel of 19th century polar exploration, The Voyage of the Narwhal. But then I found she also wrote short stories about scientists, which seemed even more intense and thought-provoking. Barrett has the gift of making science history feel extraordinarily fresh, moody, sexy and strange. Here, you will meet old Carl Linnaeus and his “English Pupil” in wintry Sweden; young Alfred Russell Wallace going mad in the steaming Amazon; or the idealistic Victorian doctor Lauchlin Grant (who is pure fiction among several authentic historical characters) struggling on a remote Canadian quarantine island with a public cholera epidemic (emigrants from the Irish famine) and private heartbreak. Absolutely gripping. I now see that this won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1996, and I’m not surprised. I also hear Barrett has a new collection, Archangel, just out this fall. I can’t wait.
DARWIN: A LIFE IN POEMS
By Ruth Padel
Having clambered through several huge scholarly biographies of Charles Darwin during his recent bicentenary, I was delighted and astonished to come across this wonderful, short, quicksilver book. It is nothing less than an intimate look at the life of the great naturalist in 160 pages—but written entirely as a sequence of poems. Brilliantly inspired by Darwin’s own letters, often in Darwin’s own imagined voice, its emotional center is Darwin’s stoic marriage, shaken by the divisive problem of his wife Emma’s religious beliefs, and torn by the terrible death of their 10-year-old daughter Annie. There is plenty here to give both Evolutionist and Creationist something to think about, and from a new perspective. It turns out that distinguished poet Ruth Padel is not only a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Zoological Society (London), but also Darwin’s great-great-granddaughter. Well, that’s Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics for you.
Get ready to add to your TBR stack! The LibraryReads December list is out and features 10 books coming out next month that have librarians across the country buzzing and eager to share with their patrons.
Topping the list is romance maven Sarah MacLean's latest addition to her best-selling Rules for Scoundrels series, No Good Duke Goes Unpunished (coming 11/26). Check out our interview with MacLean in which she dishes about her affinity for historic romances and the giant, juicy secret that's revealed in the book. (Don't worry—no spoilers.)
Whether you're craving a well-crafted mystery or a compelling memoir—or just about anything else—the LibraryReads December list offers an eclectic mix of options. Is there one you're especially looking forward to reading?
Dear Mrs. Kennedy: The World Shares Its Grief
By Jay Mulvaney and Paul De Angelis
St. Martin's Griffin • $13.99 • ISBN 9781250041739
Paperback edition published November 2013
In late November 1963, a young boy who lived across the street in our suburban Nashville neighborhood wrote a letter to Jacqueline Kennedy, sending his childlike condolences after the assassination of her husband. Many weeks later, the older kids in the neighborhood were surprised (and more than a little envious) to hear that little Timmy had received a card in the mail from the widowed first lady:
My young neighbor was one of 900,000 correspondents who received the response cards, a massive effort that required a staff of some 3,000 volunteers. Since Congress had granted Mrs. Kennedy lifetime franking privileges after the assassination, the envelopes in which the cards were mailed did not have stamps, but instead displayed a facsimile of her signature.
Jacqueline Kennedy's determination to respond to all those who wrote is one of many remarkable stories in Dear Mrs. Kennedy: The World Shares Its Grief, a collection of condolence letters from the archives of the Kennedy Library. Compiled and put into context by authors Jay Mulvaney and Paul De Angelis, this quietly touching book is available in a new paperback edition to mark the 50th anniversary of JFK's death.
Those who wrote to Mrs. Kennedy included world leaders (Winston Churchill), political supporters and opponents (Strom Thurmond, Richard Nixon), Hollywood stars and grief-stricken everyday citizens, including one teenage girl from Connecticut:
Jones Tree Farm
Dear Mrs. Kennedy,
Over on the next hill about a mile away there is a monstrous Norway Spruce planted on the day of Mr. Lincoln's death. It is the one remaining tree of twelve that a man planted there a hundred years ago.
On that black day last November I asked my father for two blue spruce to plant in memory of your wonderful husband. Dad gave them to me and I planted them and they lived through their first winter and are growing fine. They are only about a foot tall now but I certainly hope they will grow forever. . . .
How you had and have the courage to face life and the world is beyond me. I believe you are braver than any war hero and its too bad all people couldn't have your virtues.
I know I'll never forget your courage on that day last November. . . . Even 50 years from now when I'm 64, I know I'll remember as clearly as I do this minute the shock, the grief, and how I cried my eyes out, and prayed for you and he.
Very sincerely yours,
Do you recall the tragic events of 1963? Or is it distant history for you? Are you interested in the flood of JFK retrospectives?