Twelve Books about group dynamics, American originals, French attractions, Italian masters, and other innovators and artists who changed the world
The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire. Whether praised as "the large policy" or condemned as imperialism, America's expansionist military and economic moves beginning in 1898 transformed the country into an emerging empire. Driving the process was a combination of arrogance, opportunism and conflicting ambitions. In The True Flag, Stephen Kinzer sheds fresh light on the Spanish-American War, US occupation of Cuba and annexation of the Philippines, and especially the crucial roles played by war-lover Teddy Roosevelt, anti-imperialist Mark Twain and the equivocating presidential hopeful, William Jennings Bryan.
Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley. This masterpiece of dual biography is filled with revelations and insights that reverberate through the centuries since Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminist breakthroughs and her daughter Mary Shelley’s literary masterpiece, Frankenstein. The complex lives, loves, politics, struggles, and defiant brillance of these two literary giants are brought vividly to life. For anyone concerned about sexual politics and human liberation, this is essential reading.
Young Radicals: In the War for American Ideals. This vivid look at five political trail-blazers who ran headlong into the disaster of world war and repression a century ago vibrates with contemporary resonance. A great story-teller, Jeremy McCarter follows and illuminates the intersecting lives and struggles of John Reed, Max Eastman, Alice Paul, Walter Lippmann and Randolph Bourne. Both cautionary and inspiring, Young Radicals is a reminder that, even in ominous times, the battle for ideals isn't over and the vision of a Beloved Community survives.
At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails. This evocative, masterful study brings the history and key figures of existentialism into vivid focus. Sarah Bakewell's writing, rich with vignettes, biographical sketches, and lyrical passages, reveals the inspirations, missteps, and impacts that made the philosophy so influential. Warmly revisiting the intersecting lives of leading voices like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and Martin Heidegger — along with their flaws — Bakewell recreates an era while illuminating its still-relevant struggles.
The Mistress of Paris: Catherine Hewitt’s brightly written biography is both engaging and full of myth-busting revelations. Focussing on the one of most extraordinary women of 19th century France, popularly known as Comtesse Valtesse, she has revealed a brilliant, complex figure who rose from poverty to the summit of society by the 1870s.
Known as a courtesan, and proud of that status, she was also much more — the author of a popular veiled autobiography before she reached 30, the subject of paintings by Manet and other prominent artists, the heroine of an Emile Zola novel, and the owner of marvelous homes and art financed by her many lovers. But beyond that, she was also a self-taught intellectual force who influenced culture, fashion, even the course of international politics.
The Mistress of Paris is the amazing story — one very well told — of a superstar celebrity who began at the bottom, and successfully recreated and liberated herself during the belle epoque. Until recently, the life of Valtesse has been veiled in mysteries. Some of them still remain. But Hewitt has taken a major step toward placing the great V back where she belongs — at the center of attention.
The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the Camera. A stylish and captivating portrait of a major cultural innovator, one whose talent, imagination and prescient ideas had a profound impact on photography, publishing and flight. Long overlooked, Felix Nadar was an irrepressible spirit at the center of French life for decades, and Adam Begley’s approach is appropriately vivid and irreverent, sprinkled liberally with excellent illustrations that showcase Nadar’s diverse skills, famous associates, and thrilling adventures.
Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project. This revelatory biography eloquently celebrates the life and legacy of a citizen diplomat and arts pioneer, a real life Don Quixote who championed cultural pluralism, prisoner rights and artistic freedom in tumultuous times. Susan Rubenstein DeMasi combines infectious enthusiasm with thorough research and great storytelling, along the way illuminating Henry Alberg's road from WWI era journalist, human rights advocate and "intellectual anarchist" to founder/ director of the Federal Writers Project, a New Deal program that transformed America's literary landscape. DeMasi's book is a vital, long-overdue addition to American literary history.
The Kindness of Strangers: A smart, engaging autobiography by Salka Viertel, screenwriter, actress, and close friend of literary and popular icons during the first half of the 20th century. Viertel’s “incorrigible heart” comes alive in a vividly told story — from her early life and theater career in Poland, Germany and Austria before and after World War I, work with Berthold Brecht and others artists, and tumultuous personal life, to her emergence in the 30s and 40s as a key figure in Hollywood’s emigre community. A close friend and collaborator of Greta Garbo, Viertel helped to create some of Garbo’s indelible film roles, and in her memoir also offers a revealing look at how films were made (and sometimes not made) in Hollywood’s “golden age.”
Orson Welles, Volume 3: One Man Band. This is Orson Welles in all his complexity, from filming his landmark Othello and MacBeth through his European exile, the making of Touch of Evil, The Trial and Chimes at Midnight, and struggles as an actor, director and celebrity. Resuming his multi-volume bio after the Hollywood years, Simon Callow is honest enough to show the flaws (and there were many), but never loses sight of Welles' originality and genius. Must-read film history.
Eyes on the Street: An engaging exploration of Jane Jacobs, the inspired writer who changed how we look at cities, economics and ourselves. Robert Kanigel's approach is intimate and sympathic, following Jane Jacobs from childhood through WWII "propaganda" writing and her groundbreaking early work on architecture to the combination of activism and bold thinking that redefined the city and defeated New York "master builder" Robert Moses. Moving to Canada in 1968, Jacobs continued to explore new ideas, influenced Toronto's development approach, and successfully managed to balance "celebrity" status with the dogged pursuit of a human-scaled, family-centered life.
Leonardo Da Vinci: Walter Isaacson’s book is a revelatory exploration of renaissance art and culture, the nature of genius and the complex relationship between art and science, experiment and experience. Of course, it is also the story of how and why Leonardo da Vinci created some of the world’s great artworks, as well as his insatiable curiosity, complex personal life, remarkable imagination, and enduring influence on our world. A truly magnificant achievement.
Dante in Love: This sprawling examination of Dante’s life, writing and times revisits his doomed political career, radical philosophy, religious and sexual obsessions, and crucial role in creating the Italian identity. It also suggests that, especially in The Divine Comedy, he may have anticipated the cultural schisms, disillusionment and democratic threats currently on display.
As author A.N. Wilson explains, “The old political systems, like the old religions, assumed that we all spoke the same language about our shared inner life. That is no longer the case....Human beings were never in history so alone as they are today, never less certain that they possessed anything in common. Dante, poet of dislocation and exile, poet of a new language, has immediate things to say to us which he has not perhaps said in history before.”