Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by Henry Wiencek. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (336 pp.) Wiencek, author of The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White and other historical works, has written an important book certain to trouble admirers of the political thinker and renaissance man known as Thomas Jefferson. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” he wrote. An emancipationist early on in his life, he in fact exploited for commercial purposes the more than 600 slaves he owned during his lifetime, treating brutally the young boys who worked in his nail factory at Monticello. He talked a good game, played the enlightened master, but knew better: the trees and roads at Monticello were all artfully arranged, says Wiencek, to prevent visitors from seeing the slave quarters. Noted contemporaries, including Lafayette and Thomas Paine, urged Jefferson to act on slavery. Out of financial self interest, he failed to do so. Wiencek’s painfully revealing book will force many to rethink the greatness of the Sage of Monticello.
Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else by Chrystia Freeland. Penguin (330 pp.) A reporter for The Financial Times, The Economist, and other publications, Freeland makes an ambitious attempt to tell us about the new global elite and the great income inequality. She reminds us of the first Gilded Age in the American 1890s, and notes that whereas that headlong era grew out of the industrial revolution and the opening of the American frontier, the present gilded age and a new plutocracy are the result of a world economy reshaped by the technology revolution and globalization. The super-elite identify not with their native countries but their own class worldwide. “Their lives are driven not by culture or seasons or family tradition, but by the requirements of the latest deal or the mood of the markets,” writes the author. Indeed, they are a nation unto themselves. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, such as Bill Gates, we never get to hear much from these new plutocrats in these data-rich pages. Money, it would seem, still buys privacy.
Nica’s Dream: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness by David Kastin. W.W. Norton (272 pp.) Kastin tells the story of Kathleen Annie Pannonica (Nica) Rothschild (1913-88), a European aristocrat whose devotion to modern jazz and such musicians as Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk made her a legendary figure in American jazz circles. Her New York hotel rooms and suburban home became crash pads for the many bebop musicians she subsidized. She supported Monk through innumerable crises; Parker’s death in her Hotel Stanhope suite in 1955 caused a scandal. Kastin describes Nica’s pampered early life, her service with the French Resistance, and her jaunts in her Rolls to 52nd Street jazz clubs where her love of the music and respect for black artists won her many friendships. An engaging, well-written footnote to an explosive period in jazz.
If I Was a Highway: Essays by Michael Ventura, with photographs by Butch Hancock. Texas Tech University Press (236 pp.) “I would forever associate unbounded happiness with a car and a road,” writes Ventura, a novelist whose “letters at 3 AM” have long appeared in the Austin Chronicle. This attractive, oversized gathering of more than 40 of those columns takes us from Ventura’s home base of Lubbock, in West Texas, to towns across the country, whose land and people he views from the window of his ’69 lime-green Chevy Malibu. He meets Neal Cassady’s wife, Carolyn, who explains the Beats sought conventional lives; sets foot in Bob Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota; and reflects on personal matters, such as aging (he is pushing 60), meditation, his parents (his mother’s psychosis, his father’s flight at 40), communal living, and the catechism classes of his Brooklyn youth. He quotes the Zen poet Basho: “The journey itself is the home.”
One and Only: The Untold Story of ON THE ROAD and Lu Anne Henderson, the Woman Who Started Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady on Their Journey by Gerald Nicosia and Anne Marie Santos. Viva Editions (244 pp.) Just when you thought there was nothing more to say about On the Road, Nicosia (Memory Babe) offers a biography of Lu Anne Henderson, the attractive teenager (and first wife of Beat figure Neal Cassady) who was the model for “Marylou” in Kerouac’s classic novel. Drawing on interviews conducted in 1978, Nicosia upends the traditional portrait of Lu Anne as a mindless slut and shows her to have been a thoughtful woman who “played a unique and irreplaceable” role in Cassady’s life. She coaxed Cassady and Kerouac into the friendship without which there would have been no Beat Generation. Nicosia succeeds in restoring Lu Anne’s humanity. “We were poor, but we made do the best we could,” she says. “We had purposes and plans, just like everyone does.”
Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller by Tracey Daugherty. St. Martin’s (548 pp.) Heller’s great success was Catch-22, and Daugherty does a splendid job of telling the story of that novel, which puttered along for years in manuscript before its 1961 publication by Robert Gottlieb at Simon & Schuster. At one point, Heller was working with nine different drafts, handwritten and typed. His NYU mentor was Maurice Baudin, a generous English professor. There are wonderful moments with Heller’s agent, Candida Donadio, a character with a keen eye for talent, who sometimes exclaimed in delight: “I thought my navel would unscrew and my ass would fall off.”
Divine Rebels: American Christian Activists for Social Justice by Deena Guzder. Lawrence Hill. (305 pp.) Jesus advocated for the poor, lost, and marginalized, not the powerful, wealthy, and pious. You’d be hard-pressed to realize that by listening to right-wing Christians. Freelance journalist Guzder profiles 10 of “the most beautiful holy rebels alive today.” Part of a long, little-recognized tradition of Christian social activism, they include John Dear, Catholic priest and pacifist; Charlotte Keys, evangelist and founder of Jesus People Against Pollution; Jim Zwerg, former minister and Freedom Rider; Robin Harper, war tax resister; and Shane Claiborne, a founder of The Simple Way in Philadelphia. Informative and inspiring.
Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin. Little, Brown (296 pp.) In this gem of reporting, two Washington Post staffers describe the alarming rise of a parallel top secret U.S. government. Conducted out of 33 large complexes located in the nation’s capital and elsewhere, the “gigantic” counter-terrorism apparatus has grown out of the “cult of fear” following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Top Secret America is awash in data, with few experienced analysts, and much wasteful duplication. The authors note the 230,000-person Department of Homeland Security will be headquartered in $3 billion digs on the grounds of the former St. Elizabeths psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C.
The Siege of Washington: The Untold Story of the Twelve Days that Shook the Union by John Lockwood and Charles Lockwood. Oxford (352 pp.) After the fall of Fort Sumter on April 14, 1860—the first military action of the Civil War–many felt certain Confederate forces would invade Washington, D.C., which was surrounded by slave states. For 12 nerve-wracking days, the Union capital lay vulnerable, with only a few hundred soldiers and no fortifications. In this brightly written account, two historians recreate a time when Washington residents standing on high ground could see Confederate flags across the Potomac in Alexandria, VA. Many fled; others remained and hoarded food; militia guarded government buildings. But the attack never came—the South lacked the needed arms and materiel—and Lincoln’s call for reinforcements brought an outpouring of “brave and true men” from Northern states.
Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted by Justin Martin. Merloyd Lawrence/Da Capo Press (496 pp.) We’ve had other biographies of journalist and public administrator Olmsted (1822-1903), perhaps best known as the father of American landscape architecture, but Genius of Place offers a nicely rounded portrait that has the feel of a labor of love. Long intrigued by his subject, Martin was married in Olmsted’s Central Park and has lived in the Forest Hills Gardens, Queens, community planned by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. Olmsted emerges as an indefatigable figure: a reporter on the slave-holding South for the early New York Times, a contributor to E.L. Godkin’s weekly Nation, and the designer of more than 30 city parks (he gave us the words “parkway” and “midway”) and the U.S. capitol grounds. He was also a leading reformer. This lively rendering of “a hard man” who created beauty should have wide appeal.
Moneymakers: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Notorious Counterfeiters by Ben Tarnoff. Penguin (369 pp.) Only in America. Long before there were feds to crack down, counterfeiting thrived in the loosely bound colonies and states of America, writes Tarnoff, a young Harvard graduate. The colonies were the first Western governments to print easily forged paper currency; their financial affairs were a mess. This entertaining debut focuses on three criminals who manned the printing presses ably: Owen Sullivan (1720-1756), an Irish immigrant with a knack for winning colonists’ trust in phony paper; David Lewis (1788-1820), a Robin Hood-like counterfeiter in backcountry Pennsylvania; and former gold prospector Samuel Curtis Upham (1819-1885), who sold bogus Confederate currency from a storefront during the Civil War. While telling their tales, the author shows how these get-rich-quick schemers “embodied the nation’s speculative spirit.”
Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber. Henry Holt (320 pp.) Washington Post reporter Wilber interviewed over 100 people and scoured diaries and official documents to craft this gripping account. He details the life and actions of the suicidal, would-be assassin John Hinckley, who opened fire outside the Washington Hilton on March 30, 1981; the life-saving work of surgeons in a chaotic trauma center; and the courage and good humor of President Reagan (“Rawhide”), who was loosing blood and in pain. There are vivid portraits of Secret Service agents, the badly wounded White House press secretary James Brady, and cuckoo Secretary of State Alexander Haig, Jr., a former Army general, who mistakenly told the nation, “I’m in control.”
Spark: How Creativity Works by Julie Burstein. HarperCollins (272 pp.) The strangest things inspire people to create. In these pages we hear from Isabel Allende, Yo-Yo Ma, Tony Kushner, Donald Hall, and others who have appeared on Public Radio’s “Studio 360,” produced by Burstein and hosted by novelist Kurt Andersen, who offers an illuminating foreword. The notion of “beginner’s mind,” that Zen state of being an amateur open to experience, runs through these stories, says Andersen. Poet Stanley Kunitz talks about his winding garden; painter Chuck Close recalls how childhood disabilities affected his work; musicians Alison Krauss and Robert Plant describe their magical collaboration across musical traditions. Good stuff.
Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema by David A. Kirby. The MIT Press (264 pp.) British scientist Kirby takes a semi-academic look at science and the movies. Moviegoers will be fascinated to learn how much—and how little—filmmakers draw on experts to get things right. In filming Minority Report (2001), Steven Spielberg listened to physicists, computer scientists, and engineers. Stanley Kubrick’s staff consulted with 65 universities and research groups in making 2001: A Space Odyssey. Is it worth it? “Bad science” may be avoided, says Kirby. But it’s hard to say whether good science is critical to a film’s success. The “scientifically ludicrous” Armageddon (1998) had a higher box office than the more accurate Deep Impact (1998).