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?
Diane Setterfield's debut, The Thirteenth Tale, was a smashing success with both critics and readers when it was published in 2006. It may have been seven long years since then, but it looks like her follow-up, Bellman & Black, was well worth the wait. Our reviewer describes the book as, "a slow-burning, creepily realistic tale, woven together with practical but often magically transformative prose," and concludes with: "Quite simply, Setterfield has done it again." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Setterfield has been reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share:
By Andrew Miller
My love of France and my fascination with graveyards are what drew me to this book—and the fact that my sister, whose opinion I value above all others, was raving about it. It turned out to be my read of the year. The material is dark, the characters vividly alive and the history as fresh and present as my own life. But what really enamored me was the prose: so delicious I wanted to lick the pages.
By Mark Cocker
This book was meant to be research for me, but it quickly turned into one of those reads you remember for decades. Mark Cocker writes like a poet, and we're used to novels that sound poetic, but this is not a novel. When nonfiction is crafted as beautifully as this, it reaches a whole new level. Rooks and crows reveal their magic and their mystery, and Cocker knows how to share his fascination in a way that transforms our sense of our own humanity.
GIVING UP THE GHOST
By Hilary Mantel
Everyone is reading Hilary Mantel's Cromwell series, and so they should: it's magnificent. But don't let that prevent you from looking elsewhere in her work. There is no one like Mantel for understanding the many ways in which human beings can be haunted, and her memoir is packed with ghostly moments, where the border between what is and what is not becomes transparent thanks to the precision and thoughtfulness of her prose. It is genius, and she makes it look like simplicity itself.
Raise your hand if you occasionally find yourself more enthralled by the lives—in particular, the love lives—of writers than by their actual works. (A couple of authors who come to mind are Lord Byron and Anaïs Nin.) If your hand is aloft, as mine is, then you'll surely be as thrilled as I am about the just-published Writers Between the Covers by Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon.
The subtitle pretty much says it all: The Scandalous Romantic Lives of Legendary Literary Casanovas, Coquettes, and Cads—and yes, Byron and Nin are among them, along with the likes of Flaubert (Casanova), de Beauvoir (coquette), Mailer (cad) and many others. It's a fun and delectably juicy read.
Below, Schmidt and Rendon share what first inspired them to take a peek under the covers, dishing up six titillating tidbits they discovered along the way.
Classic writers had more than just their ink-stained manuscripts to keep them company. As sex symbols, soul mates and the celebrities of their day, they were enmeshed in love triangles, whirlwind romances, dysfunctional marriages, clandestine courtships and more.
We first became intrigued by the subject of writers’ deliciously complicated romantic lives while researching our previous book, Novel Destinations, which features literary landmarks. Visiting the homes and haunts where famed writers lived, loved and found inspiration, we repeatedly found ourselves sidetracked by the “love” aspect.
Where was the hidden door Victor Hugo used as an escape route for his mistress? Was it true Charles Dickens had a thing for his sister-in-law? Who was Edith Wharton’s secret trans-Atlantic lover? How closely did F. Scott Fitzgerald’s plot lines resemble his stormy, fast-living life with Zelda?
Looking for answers to tantalizing questions like these led to Writers Between the Covers. What we discovered is that when it comes to literary love lives, what happened off the page was often a lot spicier than what was written on it:
• Edie Parker’s wedding gift to Jack Kerouac was bail money. The pair swapped vows while he was under arrest and handcuffed to a detective, who treated the newlyweds to a steak dinner before returning the groom to the slammer until his release could be arranged. Not surprisingly, Kerouac and Parker’s marriage didn’t last long.
• Agatha Christie was the lead character in her own whodunit. The crime novelist made international headlines when she disappeared for 11 days after her husband admitted to an affair. Her cheating spouse was pilloried by the press and suspected of doing away with her, but she eventually resurfaced—after sparking the largest manhunt for a missing person ever in England.
• Nosy tourists rented telescopes to spy on some infamous poets. They trained their instruments on a villa overlooking Lake Geneva, where Percy and Mary Shelley sought refuge after fleeing England in the wake of a scandal. Popular poet Percy had dumped his pregnant wife to run off with 16-year-old Mary, whom he later married. Adding fuel to the gossipers’ fire, the couple was joined at the villa by Lord Byron, a bard with a notorious reputation of his own.
• Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe should have heeded their critics. “Egghead Weds Hourglass” screamed one newspaper headline when the opposites-attract pair wed in 1956, while negative predictions and snap judgments were doled out by pundits like Truman Capote, who quipped the marriage could be called “Death of a Playwright.” Marilyn’s camp also discouraged the nuptials, concerned that her all-American image would be tarnished by the playwright’s “unpatriotic” leftist politics. The naysayers were right: less than five years later, wedded bliss came to a bitter end in a Mexican divorce court.
• W.B. Yeats’ wife used the occult to spice up their sex life. On their honeymoon, Georgie Yeats was devastated to learn that her spouse was still in love with someone else, but she salvaged the marriage by pretending to fall into a trance. As though guided by a spirit, she sent her husband reassuring messages that he had done the right thing in marrying her. The technique worked so well that Georgie used it to her advantage for years, even sending Yeats messages from the spirit world on how to satisfy her in bed.
• Trailblazing feminist Simone de Beauvoir once thought about becoming a nun. The French philosopher and novelist reconsidered after a crisis of faith, instead scandalizing society in the 1930s by vowing to live her life with the same freedoms as a man. Her controversial actions included an open relationship with fellow academic Jean-Paul Sartre and penning the groundbreaking work The Second Sex.
Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
Touchstone • $17.99 • ISBN 9781451666175
Published October 29, 2013
If you're familiar with Allie Brosh's wildly popular blog, Hyperbole and a Half, then you're no doubt jumping for joy that she's just published a book based on it. If all of this is new to you, trust me—by the third page in, you will be simply in love with the odd little being depicted on the book's cover. Trust me. That odd—crudely drawn yet o-so-expressive—little being represents Brosh in this amusing (often laugh-out-loud), honest and touching collection of illustrated essays about her life, from her childhood antics to living with dogs to her struggle with chronic depression as an adult—and lots of moments in between.
Already a New York Times bestseller, Hyperbole and a Half brims with warmth and sincerity, even—perhaps most—when Brosh is at her most self-deprecating. Crack it open, and you will crack a smile; you most definitely will laugh; and you'll no doubt look forward to more adventures with that odd little being.
What do you think, readers? Will you be reading this book? What are you reading this week?
Since his death in 2005, Richard Pryor has been named as the No. 1 comedian of all time by Comedy Central and continues to influence the American comedy scene to this day. In Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him, authors David and Joe Henry draw from a wide range of sources and personal experiences, including conversations with Pryor himself, in their exploration of the man behind the comedy legend.
While the Henry brothers' admiration for Pryor certainly shines through, Furious Cool does not shy away from the darker details of Pryor's rise to fame—his turbulent upbringing, emotional conflicts and drug abuse are all essential details in this story, making this a very honest and engrossing read.
Watch the great documentary-style trailer from Algonquin below:
Are you interested in reading Furious Cool? Any other biographies on your list?
Patchett's latest book, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, is a collection of essays that spans her 20-year career and covers a wide range of topics, including her attempt to get into the L.A. Police Academy and her love of opera. According to our reviewer, each chapter is "told in simple, appealing prose that feels like a phone conversation with a good friend." (Read the full review.)
We were curious about the books Patchett has been reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share:
My husband is a doctor, and so a lot of his friends are doctors. They work together in a hospital; they have their own lunchroom. When they get stuck trying to figure out what's wrong with a patient, they call each other to talk through the possibilities and get advice. It's not so different for writers. While we don't all work in the same place (unless we live in Brooklyn), we bounce ideas off one another. We seek solace and advice through letters, emails, phone calls and through reading one another's books. Three of my best friends have novels out now, and they've all been to my bookstore, Parnassus Books in Nashville, while on tour. It's no surprise my favorite books of late were written by my favorite people (listed in order of pub dates).
This is the sequel to the very successful The Apothecary. Maile wrote two novels and two collections of short stories for adults (all fantastic) before turning her considerable talents to middle school children. I have almost no ability to read fiction for young people, a shortcoming, I know, but I found these books riveting. Maile brings the full force of her extraordinary intelligence and imagination to bear on magical, scientific and geo-political themes. Plus the boy gets the girl.
People have a tendency to believe that the first book of yours they read was also the first book you wrote, so many readers who were introduced to Liz through Eat, Pray, Love (there were more than 8 million of them) neglected to notice that she had already written three other books before that, two of them fiction. So while it may come as a surprise to some that her new book is a complicated and brilliant novel about a 19th-century botanist who is devoted to moss, those of us who have read all her books always knew she had it in her. (Read our interview with Gilbert about The Signature of All Things.)
by Donna Tartt
Donna once told me the reason her books take so long to write (her last one, The Little Friend, was published 12 years ago) is that they are about as long as three regular novels. They are certainly three times as complex as a regular novel, and about 10 times as ambitious (and maybe 20 times as beautiful). David Copperfield as nothing on her hero, Theo, who is spun out into the world by a terrorist attack with nothing but one perfect painting to hold himself together. It's a classic.
What do you think, readers? Will you be checking out This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage or any of Patchett’s recommended books?
It's that time of year again. In addition to looking forward, as we always do, to the books releasing in the coming months, we're also taking time to reflect upon all of the amazing books that have come out this year. Soon we'll be sharing our 50 Best Books of 2013, but to tide you over until then, here are our 13 favorite cookbooks of the year, as selected by our esteemed cooking columnist, Sybil Pratt. Warning: Some serious stomach rumbling may occur as you proceed down the list!
EVERY GRAIN OF RICE
By Fuchsia Dunlop
Everything you’ll need—a primer on basic ingredients, including Dunlop’s richly flavored, not-hard-to-find “magic” seasonings, essential tools, prep methods, cooking techniques, menu ideas and an extensive, illustrated glossary.
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A collection of 100 eminently doable recipes, inspired by local fishermen and farmers, by famed Charleston institutions past and present (check out the Cheese Spread from the hallowed Henry’s) and by dishes discovered in old cookbooks and memoirs.
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From Danny Meyer, CEO of the Union Square Hospitality Group, which includes many of New York City’s most admired restaurants, Michael Romano, his partner and culinary director of the group, and food writer Karen Stabiner comes more than 150 easy, affordable recipes, peppered with behind-the-scenes stories.
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An inspiring, heartfelt celebration of Italian tradition and Viviani's rags-to-riches (or scraps-to-scrumptious) life, from poor Florentine kid who started cooking with his great-grandmother at the age of 5 to celebrity chef and owner of three successful restaurants in the U.S.—with more than 150 recipes.
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Shows you how to cook like a Mexican mama, offering not the cheese-drenched, gluey stuff we norteamericanos so often mistake for Mexican, but the simple, healthy, comforting, sensational food that’s served in homes. ¡Buen provecho!
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With 200 recipes, this new paean to vegetables is big, beautiful and so bountiful that it’s not going to encourage moderation. Just looking at the luscious full-color photos is enough to make a committed carnivore morph into an advocate of the mostly veggie approach to everyday eating.
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A complete companion to mastering the art of putting up and putting by—making sweet preserves with fruit and savory preserves with vegetables, and using simple techniques for drying, freezing and storing seasonal produce. More than 220 recipes are organized by season and accompanied by stories (preserver extraordinaire West is also a gifted Southern storyteller) and essays.
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In 100 recipes using 10 ingredients or fewer, divided into eight chapters, Iyer presents his unique system for learning to cook Indian food. This is your own master class; each chapter is a course on a course with a specific technique that’s explained (or “unfolded”) in a special foldout with full-color, full-fun, step-by-step photos.
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A glorious selection of sauces and soups with suggestions for the pasta shapes that go best with them, recipes for making pasta from scratch and, most importantly, advice on approaching pasta as Italians approach this most-loved food that is “synonymous with family, hearth and home.”
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Gorgeous, fabulous and filled with recipes that will make even the most jaded cook jump for culinary joy. Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s unique realm of flavor is sunny, colorful, zesty and bold, appreciably Middle Eastern, with Mediterranean and Californian influences and universal appeal. They keep prep unfussy and simple. They want you to have fun with their food and, most of all, they want you to say “wow!”
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Goin, a true omnivore and true believer in seasonal and local cooking, is boldly, brilliantly creative, combining ingredients, layering and reinforcing flavors so that the sum of the dish is greater than its parts (some of the “parts” are divine by themselves). This is serious, challenging cooking, not dumbed-down, not simplified.
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The pièce de résistance of this year’s crop of grand cookbooks, a big, beautiful package, filled with luscious photos. First and foremost come the best recipes from Daniel, Boulud’s famed New York restaurant, with complex preparations inspired by classic French dishes and given a Boulud twist.
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Look for a review of this cookbook—the Top Pick!—in our December issue.
What are your favorite 2013 cookbooks? Have you tried making any of our Recipes of the Week this year?
Let’s get this over with: Scotch is whisky, everything else is whiskey. Our reviewer Eve Zibart, who shared her selection of some of the season's best drinks books in our November issue, would even argue that “Scotch whisky” is redundant. Here's Eve's take on a new offering from Princeton Architectural Press that highlights that perennially popular brown beverage.
Instant Expert: Whiskey, by Master of Malt and whiskey educator John Lamond, is for the habitual, and habituated, sipper. This pocket reference—which can be secured with a handy yellow elastic—emphasizes tasting notes, so its appeal may depend on how you view what used to be considered "winespeak." Flavors and aromas described as greenery, tarry rope, dark chocolate, cocoa, ripe orange, pineapple, pine needles, licorice, vanilla, marzipan, toffee, fennel, musk, cereal (no brand), peat (naturally), seaweed, iodine, melon, violets, cherry, smoky cough syrup (!), “mahogany-flavored chewiness” (who knew?), “homemade black current jam” (one longs to visit his pantry) and so on. This is exacting and pungent, but a few experiments will likely prove Lamond a reliable guide—and a fortifying one. He also lists some classic cocktails and great whiskey bars of the world, though sadly, the U.S. is scantly represented. At least the recipes don’t require a chemist.
Thanks, Eve! Looking for more books on the beverages that help make our holidays happy? Click here.