Every summer I offer up some of the books I’ve read in the past year and happily invite readers’ recommendations to me. I’m always on the prowl for a good read. This summer’s book review will be in two parts. First, the non-fiction.
If you’re looking for light summer reading, do not try to read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest, The Bully Pulpit : Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism. Not that the book isn’t both good and readable, as are all her previous ones. Goodwin, a longtime friend, is nothing if not a consummate story teller. It’s just that the book is heavy, as in, weighs too much. At 900+ pages, it’s impossible to hold it stretched out and relaxing at the beach or even in bed at night. I gave up after 50 pages, gave away the hard cover and downloaded it on my Kindle. Relief! (My husband then had to repurchase a hard-bound copy for himself.)
Teddy Roosevelt was larger than life and Taft was, well, larger. The era was dynamic. So summer is a great time to tackle The Bully Pulpit. The issues at the turn of the last century were much as today’s, economic injustice, environmental protection, freeboot capitalism and regulation. Unlike today, however, there was still a belief that government could and should effect constructive change. For the educated classes, life seemed enormously civil. As a former journalist, I found most interesting the close working relationship between progressive era journalists like Sam McClure, Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, a collaboration that wouldn’t be tolerated today.
Historian David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris takes us back to the late 19th century when living in Paris was assumed to be an important part of one’s education, especially for American writers, artists, sculptors, doctors, men and women of letters. The Paris experience figured importantly in American history. And, if you love meandering the various neighborhoods in the “city of lights,” McCullough provides the enduring essence of century-old settings that can still be found in Paris.
Speaking of Paris, I also enjoyed Kati Marton’s much lighter Paris: A Love Story, a memoir of her marriages to late ABC anchor Peter Jennings and late diplomat Richard Holbrooke. As the book makes clear, she cheated on them both. She was foreign correspondent for ABC and authored several books. Paris has been the touch point for her, a place where she shared important experiences and in which she sought a haven at difficult periods of her life. A consummate Washington insider, Marton’s anecdotes are enticing reading even for people who don’t have that personal linkage with Paris. For those who do, the book, while not great writing, is downright delicious.
Also in the non-fiction category is Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art. The effect may not have been as sweeping as the subtitle implies, but the fraud was a significant one. Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo tell the true story of a master con artist, John Drewe, who put together an enterprise including a talented art copier and clever agents and distributors. Drewe bilked museums, galleries and private buyers out of millions. He became an expert at forging provenance, the exhibition, ownership and sales history of each of his paintings. By promising philanthropic donations to certain archives, he was able to slip the faux provenance records into the authentic ones, using his nefarious scheme to alter the history of art. Drewe sold more than 600 pieces of fake art between 1986 and 1995. We end up half admiring his gall and creativity, and half wondering at the gullibility and/or greed of the people and institutions who grabbed up his masterpieces at too-good-to-be-true prices.
In a totally different vein is Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. Shavit has been called the “most talented Israeli journalist of his generation.” He alternately criticizes the doves and hawks, the Israelis and Palestinians. He explores the triumphs and failures of Zionism, the rigidity of the right-wing orthodox on the West Bank and the hedonism of youth in Tel Aviv night clubs. (The book has been criticized for twisting facts around the destruction of Palestinian towns in 1948.) But it captures the vibrancy and contradictions of life in Israel today, much as did Ze’ev Chafetz’ book Heroes and Hustlers, Hardhats and Holymen: Portrait of the New Israel more than 20 years ago. But, rather than being warm and optimistic like Chafetz’ book, Shavit’s portraits leave one with a sense of despair that there is any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Still, this book is a must read.
Finally, if you haven’t already read Mark Leibovich’s This Town, add it to your list. Now available in paperback, it is a witty but wise picture of all the narcissistic, double-dealing, self-serving, self-aggrandizing folks in politics and the media in our nation’s capital. Nearly a year since its publication, the reasons for loathing Washington have only multiplied. This Town is both serious and great beach reading. And, oh yes, I must disclose his folks are close family friends, and I have known and loved Mark since he was a toddler. That shouldn’t deter you from getting the book.
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