The buzzer blared from the door of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The night watchman peered into the grainy video monitor and saw two men in police uniforms. The men persuaded the watchman to open the door. Once inside, the men bound and gagged the watchman and a fellow security guard and made off with $500 million in stolen art. Among the 13 masterpieces taken in the March 18, 1990, heist were Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee and Vermeer’s The Concert.
The African-American struggle continues in every corner of the nation, from small towns like Ferguson, Missouri, to the boroughs of New York. Thus, Black History Month arrives at a critical time in America. The question is: Can we learn from history? These selections shed new light on the black experience and offer perspectives on the often painful evolution of race relations in America.
Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson is such an iconic military figure that he is legendary to Civil War scholars and schoolchildren alike. So it’s hard to imagine an author breaking new ground with another Jackson biography. But S.C. Gwynne does just that in Rebel Yell, which deserves comparisons to Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War for its depth of knowledge and graceful narrative. Gwynne, a 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist for Empire of the Summer Moon, casts Jackson as a human being, not as a bronze figure towering over a battlefield. Readers will come away from Rebel Yell with an understanding of the man that goes beyond his military exploits.
Ramita Navai sets it straight from the beginning: “In order to live in Tehran, you have to lie,” she writes in City of Lies, a gripping portrait of life inside Iran. “Lying in Tehran is about survival.”
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.”
French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi is best characterized by the following passage: “He was an egoist in human affairs; a humble man in the scale of the cosmos.” This elegant writing comes from Elizabeth Mitchell in Liberty’s Torch, the tale of how Bartholdi proposed the creation of the Statue of Liberty and spent much of his life making it happen. He knew that the statue’s completion would bring him fame. But he also knew that it would become a lasting symbol of what America represents: freedom and opportunity.
This cloak-and-dagger account reveals the intriguing details of how the novel Doctor Zhivago came to be published during the height of the Cold War. Written by Russian poet Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago was kept under wraps by its author, who feared retribution from the Soviet government for the book’s critical portrayal of the 1917 Russian Revolution and its tepid treatment of socialism.
Contemporary views of the Mormon Church have been shaped by influences as disparate as the Broadway hit The Book of Mormon, the HBO series “Big Love” and the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney. Suffice it to say that most Americans have a shallow understanding of Mormonism. Some view Mormons as squeaky-clean apostles doing door-to-door missionary work. Others label Mormons as hedonistic polygamists, even though multiple marriages have been prohibited for more than a century by the official Mormon Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, March 2014
Walter Kirn has penned a number of imaginative novels, including Up in the Air and Thumbsucker, which were both made into movies. But nothing in the pages of those books could match the bizarre, real-life experiences Kirn relates in his new memoir, Blood Will Out.
African Americans have been struggling for independence, equality and respect from the moment they were brought to the New World in chains. As that struggle continues today, it’s instructive to look back on our turbulent history to learn from the past and hopefully improve on the future. The five books featured here can help us to do just that, examining historical themes that serve as milestones on the journey of progress.