Two brothers who changed the world, a submarine commander who helped propel the United States into the Great War, a writer who delved deeply into the lives of the people next door by drawing upon his own complicated experiences, the lives of the Gipper and de Gaulle and a wild and fascinating story of an astronaut left behind on Mars. Some of my summer reading and a half-dozen suggestions for the dog days.
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The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. The brothers who, if not exactly invented flight, refined the theory and technology that created the modern era were, amazingly, bicycle mechanics in Dayton, Ohio. The outstanding narrative historian David McCullough captures all the failures and triumphs of Orville and Wilbur, while never stinting the human side of what they set out to do – create a dependable aircraft that would revolutionize the idea of human flight. The Wright Brothers is not the very best of McCullough – I still love The Path Between the Seas and Mornings on Horseback – but it’s a great tale well told.
The same can be said for Erik Larsen’s Dead Wake, the story of the last crossing of the massive British passenger liner Lusitania. Most everyone knows the broad strokes of the story. The luxurious ship, the biggest and fastest of the day, sets out from New York bound for Liverpool during the tense days of World War I in 1915. The German government took out ads in New York papers warning passengers that they traveled at their own risk through waters patrolled by commerce raiding German U-boats.
The big ship sunk twenty minutes after being torpedoed off the Irish coast with the loss of 1,198 passengers and crew, including 128 Americans. The sinking, not surprisingly, created an international crisis and came close to drawing the U.S. into the war. The Kaiser secretly ordered his navy to avoid passenger liners after the big ship went down, but when the Germans re-introduced the policy of “unrestricted submarine warfare” early in 1917 the United States declared war. Even knowing how this story ends has not prevented Larsen from producing a page-turner. He is particularly effective in describing the cramped and dangerous life of the thirty-four crew members aboard U-20, the sub that sank the Lusitania.
Jay Begley’s biography of novelist, poet, critic and essayist John Updike came out last year, but I didn’t discover this gem until this summer. Literary biography can be tough and dense stuff, but Begley has produced a nuanced and often fascinating profile of the prolific Updike who died of cancer in 2009. I had the good fortune to spend a fascinating day with Updike when he visited Boise, Idaho some years ago and Begley captured all the charm, humor, self-awareness and occasional darkness of the writer that I observed for a few hours.
The critics either love or hate Updike, but I suspect we’ll be reading him long after many of his contemporaries are dead and gone – and not just for the sex. If you liked Updike’s Rabbit or his many, many great pieces in The New Yorker, you’ll enjoy Begley’s even-handed, but not uncritical assessment of the man and the writer. It’s the best kind of literary biography and it is simply called Updike.
I keep reading about American presidents, because I can’t seem to get enough of the details about the central character in all our politics. I eagerly approached H.W. Brands’ big door-stop of a biography of Ronald Reagan hoping that the talented writer and researcher had finally produced “the” great book on the Gipper. I was disappointed, but still recommend the book as a basic “life” of the consequential and controversial 40th president.
If you’re looking – as perhaps I was and still am – for a historian to really explain Reagan, you’ll be disappointed. Brands is a great story teller, like his subject, but what seems to be missing is an effort to place of Reagan in the larger context of 20th Century American politics. Was he the Republican FDR? Was he the last of an old type of Republican or the first of a new type? Did Ronnie make Goldwater conservatism popular, or was his personal magnetism more important? We’ll wait for another book to grapple with those kinds of questions.
Brands gets all the basic stuff of Reagan’s remarkable political life jammed in this book and for a general reader wanting a breezy survey of his presidency Reagan – A Life will do the trick. Brands has touched broadly on the memoirs and news accounts of the Reagan era, but I’ll keep hoping for someone to make the deep dive into the archives, the papers and reports of the Reagan presidency in the way McCullough has done for Harry Truman or Robert Caro for LBJ.
I’m guessing most Americans know little about Charles de Gaulle, the one-star French general who nearly singlehandedly created the idea of “Free France” once the Nazis had overrun and occupied his country in 1940. Some may vaguely recall that Mon General came back to power in the late 1950’s and found a way to extricate France from a bloody civil war in Algeria, re-wrote the French Constitution and ruled the country with a firm hand, a huge ego and a domineering personality for a decade. Today it is not an overstatement to say that de Gaulle, and the myth of de Gaulle, is at the very center of French politics and culture. Some contend his memory shadows over France as Napoleon’s once did.
There is hardly a town of any size in France without its Place de Gaulle or Boulevard Mon General. The modern French political state is covered with de Gaulle’s fingerprints. After reading Jonathan Fenby’s superb biography – The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved – I started to understand what de Gaulle means to France – and the world. De Gaulle’s personal story – wounded and captured in World War I, fleeing the Fall of France in 1940 to fight on in Africa and eventually in Europe, retirement to write his memoir (which is excellent, by the way), his return to politics with fights with the U.S. over NATO, nuclear weapons and France’s place in the world – is equal to the life of a Churchill or an Eisenhower. The General, as large in death as he became in life, must rank in the top tier of “most important persons” in the 20th Century. Fenby, a British journalist, obviously admires de Gaulle, but sees him in all his haughty and magnificent glory.
When de Gaulle was finally finished in 1969 he remarked to an aide:”The French want to get rid of de Gaulle today but you will see the growth of the myth 30 years from now.” About that, like so much else, Mon General was correct. De Gaulle’s was a great and important life and Fenby has written about it with style, grace and historical context. If you want to understand France a little better, you need to understand de Gaulle a little better.
Finally, for something completely different: an American astronaut left behind for dead by his mates on desolate Mars. Andy Weir’s smart, hilariously funny and scientifically detailed novel would typically be the last thing to get placed on my bedside table. Science fiction, space travel, etc. is just not my thing, but I absolutely loved The Martian.
As Weir says of his best-selling novel: “After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, [astronaut] Mark [Watney] finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.
“Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first.”
No spoiler alert. Read the darn book to appreciate the twist and turns that propel the novel and make you at one with this poor bastard stuck on Mars.
As amazing as is Weir’s book, the story behind the story is nearly as amazing. The Martian begin as a serialized, self-published story on Weir’s website, free to anyone who wished to download the novel. Fans soon begged for an e-reader version, which Amazon insisted must cost 99 cents. Thousands downloaded the book, an agent called and Random House decided it might sell in a print addition. It did, as in bestseller lists. Matt Damon will star in the movie that is out this fall.
It also appears, as the Washington Post has reported, that The Martian has been a huge PR Godsend for NASA, which still says a manned mission to Mars is the agency’s next big goal. It should be.
Weir’s book is far out, as in the fourth planet from the Sun, but also seriously plausible. He digs deep for facts and reasoning to make the case that his hero can actually figure out a way to survive on the surface of Mars and Weir infuses the narrative with quirky and irreverent humor that will have you laughing out loud and demanding to read a passage out loud to anyone nearby. It’s that good.
As my son said, “we’ll see how Hollywood can screw up” a really fine and entertaining book.
See you at the library.