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.
In 1961, Michael Rockefeller, the 23-year-old son of then New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, disappeared along the coast of southwest New Guinea.
The recent Harvard grad was on a trip collecting art from Asmat tribes—mostly elaborate woodcarvings—when his catamaran capsized. After he and a companion waited overnight for rescue, Rockefeller tied two empty gasoline cans around his waist, and headed for shore, never to be seen again.
The official records state that he was drowned at sea, but author Carl Hoffman has been possessed by the mystery for years, and in his new book Savage Harvest, he aims to settle the question of Rockefeller's fate. Through visiting the same village, interviewing Asmat kinsmen, studying the tense political climate of the time and combing through archives of official documents along with Rockefeller's personal correspondence, Hoffman comes to the grim conclusion that he was cannibalized. Whether Hoffman's evidence is substantial enough is for the reader to decide, but it is a tense and riveting read nonetheless.
Watch Hoffman narrate the documentary-style trailer below:
What do you think, readers? Are you interested in new insight into this historical mystery?
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?
In that engrossing account, Summerscale documented one of Scotland Yard's very first cases, the 1860 murder of a three-year-old boy. This early example of an investigation that used modern detecting methods was breathlessly followed in the papers and inspired writers from Poe to Conan Doyle to Collins.
Mrs Robinson's Disgrace (Walker), to be published on June 19, is also about a case that made major headlines in the papers and scandal sheets of the day: one of the earliest divorce trials. A lonely middle-class wife, Isabella Robinson, ignored by her husband, begins keeping a diary that chronicled her infatuation with a married doctor, and her other innermost passions. Five years pass, until the fateful day in 1858 when her husband Henry discovers—and reads—the diary. Infuriated and outraged at the intimate entries, which to him prove that his wife has had an affair, Henry Robinson sues for divorce on grounds of adultery. The ensuing trial confounded various Victorian ideas about female sexuality, while confirming their society-threatening danger.
Sounds even more fascinating than Mr Whicher. Will you pick it up?
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
Random House • $35 • ISBN 9780679456728
To be published November 8, 2011
The fact that I've been anticipating this book for months is no secret to Book Case readers. Having finished it over Labor Day weekend in preparation for interviewing Massie for our November issue, I'm happy to report that this was a book worth waiting for. Eight years in the making, backed up by Massie's decades of research on the Russian family, Catherine the Great is an expertly crafted page-turner of a life story.
One of the things that makes Massie's biographies so wonderful to read is the way he is able to empathize with his subjects, and try to understand their motivations, without lionizing them. While it's clear he likes and respects Catherine and her accomplishments, he doesn't try to hide her flaws.
Since I know that what many people are curious about when it comes to Catherine the Great is her love life, here's a passage where Massie examines her relationships with a succession of younger "favorites" over the last 20 or so years of her life.
What was Catherine seeking in these ornamental young men? She has suggested that it was love. "I couldn't live for a day without love," she had written in her Memoirs. Love has many forms, however, and she did not mean sexual love alone, but also companionship, warmth, support, intelligence, and, if possible, humor. . . . Desire for love and sex played little part in attracting her lovers to her; they were motivated by ambition, desire for prestige, wealth and, in some cases, power. Catherine knew this. She asked them for things other than simple sexual congress. She wanted an indication of pleasure in her company, a desire to understand her point of view, a willingness to be instructed by her intelligence and experience, an appreciation of her sense of humor, and an ability to make her laugh. The physical side of her relationships offered only brief distraction. When Catherine dismissed lovers, it was not because they lacked virility but because they bored her. One need not be an empress to find it impossible to talk in the morning to a person with whom one has spent the night.
What are you reading this week?
Here's a fun news item for a Friday: Kate Beaton, Canadian cartoonist extraordinaire, will be publishing a collection of her drawings with Drawn & Quarterly this fall. According to the deal announcement, the book will take readers "on a romp through history and literature with dignity for few and cookies for all, with comic strips about famous authors, their characters, political and historical figures, all drawn in Kate Beaton's pared-down, excitable style."
Beaton is probably most famous for her "Dude Watching with the Brontes" cartoon (if you haven't seen it, do click!) but her takes on history and other literary icons (a few to sample: the Fitzgeralds, Crusoe from Friday's POV, Nancy Drew, Mary Shelly) on her website, Hark! A Vagrant, are always hilarious. And then there are the random topics, like peasant courtship . . . oh, just head over there and read them all.
A few more favorites are after the jump. Definitely excited about having a browsable book of these at my fingertips.
Another 2011 release we have our eye on is Ruth Brandon's Ugly Beauty (Harper). Coming in February, the book is a dual biography of Helena Rubinstein and the founder of L'Oréal, Eugène Schueller, who faced off during the early days of the cosmetics industry. Though Rubinstein's company made her into the first female millionaire, Schueller's brand eventually triumphed, albeit at the price of his reputation—his rise to the top during the 30s and 40s meant collaborating with the Nazis.
From the catalog:
[C]ultural historian and biographer Ruth Brandon uses their conflict to ask important contemporary questions about feminism, standards of beauty, and the often murky intersection of individual political aims and the role of business. Drawn from incredible archival material and a vast historical record, Ugly Beauty is a riveting true story that reads like a thriller, filled with remarkable twists, turns, and larger-than-life characters.
As a Francophile who welcomes any excuse for a summertime celebration, le quatorze juillet is one of my favorite holidays. To commemorate the French fete nationale, pour a kir or other apèro and sit down with one of these reading selections.
The grand finale of the fireworks display at the Eiffel Tower on July 14, 2009.
France in fiction
Anyone with an interest in French literature shouldn't miss Suite Francaise, or any of the rediscovered works of Irène Némirovsky, a Franco-Russian novelist who chronicled WWII in her books as the country crumbled around her.
There's a lot of Marie Antoinette fiction out there, but Sena Jeter Naslund's moving portrait of the misunderstood queen, Abundance, belongs at the top of the list.
And who could forget Peter Mayle, whose Year in Provence sparked the "expat memoir" craze of the turn of the millenium? He's now moved on to novels like A Good Year, which became a movie starring Russell Crowe.
[gallery columns="4" orderby="rand"]
French lives and history
French cuisine is (deservedly) world-famous, and French chef Jacques Pépin is one of its best-known faces. In his memoir, The Apprentice, Pépin discusses the influences on his cooking style.
Few write as lovingly about the joys of French food and culture as Julia Child, and her posthumous memoir, My Life in France, is excellent reading. Her great-nephew, Alex Prud'homme, talked to BookPage in 2006 about the book.
Mirelle Guiliano caused a sensation with French Women Don't Get Fat—in a BookPage interview about her follow up, French Women for All Seasons, she shares more secrets for staying slim.
Books about the ups and downs of expat living in France abound, but anyone who's ever tried to master the language should not miss David Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day. For a more traditional take, Catherine Sanderson's Petite Anglaise is a charming look at an Englishwoman's transition to French culture.
And don't miss the works of Graham Robb, an Englishman who brings the culture and history of France to life in his well-researched and readable books. I'm in the middle of Parisians right now and loving it.
Do you have a favorite book with a French angle?
At the Guardian, they're running an interesting series of brief essays by writers about "the writers who inspired them." Though some of the writers veer off course to describe artists (Margaret Drabble, for example, chooses Van Gogh—and John Banville shares a story about his yellow Lab, Ben!), all are worth reading.
It got me thinking about who my literary hero would be. I'm not a writer myself (unless blogging counts!), but maybe in the "if I ever write a novel . . ." sense. Who is yours?
Any architecture or history buff would be pleased to find The Secret Lives of Buildings under the tree. Through the eyes of first-time author Edward Hollis, an architect who specializes in restoring historic buildings, readers will discover that iconic structures like the Parthenon, the Berlin Wall and even the Vegas Strip have led more storied lives than we realize. Hollis shares them with a fairy-tale charm, says reviewer Anne Bartlett, even going so far as to begin "most of his chapters with 'Once upon a time.' "
Still not convinced? We at BookPage enjoyed this book so much that it made it onto our list of 2009's Top 10 Nonfiction books.
You can find more great gift ideas in our holiday catalog.