These are five books people are talking about this week -- or should be:
1. Wrestling with His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, 1849-1856 by Sidney Blumenthal (Simon & Schuster)
In this second volume of a quartet of books on the political life of Abraham Lincoln, Blumenthal focuses on the 16th President’s evolution from defeated Whig into emerging leader of a rough coalition that became the Republican Party. Blumenthal, a well-known member of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s inner circle, shows how Lincoln helped to shape the vision of the new party, drawing on doctrines of the anti-slavery movement and the defunct Liberal Party. Lincoln did some of his best thinking traveling on his horse Old Bob between rural county courthouses in Illinois. Reflecting his own instinctive feel for politics, Blumenthal explicates Lincoln’s political education with passion and deep insight, focusing here on a particularly pivotal period. As this part of his story draws to a close, the future president makes his 1856 declaration to a conservative old Whig former judge and fellow lawyer, T. Lyle Dickey: “I tell you that this nation cannot exist half slave and half free.”
2. Ernest Hemingway: A Biography by Mary V. Dearborn (Alfred A. Knopf)
In her preface to Ernest Hemingway: A Biography, Dearborn notes that she has previously written about two major American writers who defined masculinity in their lives and fiction: Norman Mailer and Henry Miller. She realized that no woman had yet written a Hemingway biography, and she was convinced that her freedom from the baggage of the Papa Hemingway legend allowed her to understand this “remarkably complex man and brilliant writer” in a new way. Dearborn wields both deep research and striking imagination as she charts Hemingway’s path from his childhood in an eccentric household, through the newsreels featuring him “whistling devilishly” from his hospital bed during World War I, through Key West, the famous failed marriages, the heavy drinking in Cuba and, finally, Idaho. Dearborn acknowledges the dangers of retrospective diagnosis but writes that in addition to drinking too much, it was “probable that Hemingway also suffered from mental illness that included mania and depression so severe it became at times psychotic.” She is particularly poignant about Hemingway’s tragic end, writing: “It is painful to contemplate how Hemingway ceased engaging with a world he made new for us.”
3. Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan (Alfred A. Knopf)
Commencement, Sullivan’s charming 2009 debut, focused on a quartet of Smith College students, and their lives after graduation, and with each subsequent novel, Maine (2011) and The Engagements (2013), her range has grown, leading to Saints for All Occasions. Sullivan has made slightly dysfunctional Irish-Catholic family sagas her trademark, but with Saints for All Occasions, she delivers a big-hearted, sweeping social novel that is sharpened by her psychological acuity and understanding of how family dynamics play out over time. While not explicitly political, this novel of immigration and dislocation and acculturation is undeniably resonant today. Sullivan focuses on two sisters leaving Ireland for Boston in the late 1950s, and her story lurches through the turbulent decades to follow, providing a mixture of droll humor, heartbreak, and redemption.
4. There Your Heart Lies by Mary Gordon (Pantheon)
At the core of Mary Gordon’s deeply affecting There Your Heart Lies is Marian, a complex woman who spurns her elite New York Catholic family and sets off for Spain at the age of 19 to work as a nurse for the loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War. Gordon, a Barnard professor and author of seminal novels like Final Payments and The Company of Women, and the memoirs The Shadow Man and Circling My Mother, has Marian at 92, living on the Rhode Island Coast with her granddaughter. In chapters that segue between Marian’s time in the 1930s in Spain and New York, and conversations with her granddaughter sixty years later, Gordon brilliantly illuminates a resilient, compelling woman with fierce ideals. Marian’s conversations with her granddaughter convey not only her own idealism but also the repression and intolerance of the Catholic church – and they set the younger woman off on her own journey to Spain.
5. This Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America’s Middle Class by Elizabeth Warren (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company)
Senator Warren’s new book, a call to arms, hit the New York Times Best Seller list at #1, and it may please her fans to know that it pushed Bill O’Reilly and Bruce Fairstein’s Old School, a protest against “snowflakes” and defense of “traditional values,” off the top perch. Paul Krugman raved over This Fight is Our Fight in his New York Times review, describing it as a “smart, tough-minded” book and a manifesto of “enlightened populism,” one that rails against the concentration of wealth in the elite while offering capsule portraits of those in the stressed middle-class. The book may not be a fully formed blueprint for a progressive political revival, but it certainly provides arguments to keep fighting. “It’s an important contribution,” Krugman says, “even if it isn’t the last word.”