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I’m excited to get started on a new, well-received, biography of George Washington. It’s called Washington: A Life, written by Ron Chernow, whose last book was a wonderful biography of Alexander Hamilton. Here is a synopsis of the book, published at Barnes and Noble: “In Washington: A Life celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly…

Washington: A Life

I’m excited to get started on a new, well-received, biography of George Washington. It’s called Washington: A Life, written by Ron Chernow, whose last book was a wonderful biography of Alexander Hamilton. Here is a synopsis of the book, published at Barnes and Noble:

“In Washington: A Life celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation. With a breadth and depth matched by no other one-volume life of Washington, this crisply paced narrative carries the reader through his troubled boyhood, his precocious feats in the French and Indian War, his creation of Mount Vernon, his heroic exploits with the Continental Army, his presiding over the Constitutional Convention, and his magnificent performance as America’s first president.

“Despite the reverence his name inspires, Washington remains a lifeless waxwork for many Americans, worthy but dull. A laconic man of granite self-control, he often arouses more respect than affection. In this groundbreaking work, based on massive research, Chernow dashes forever the stereotype of a stolid, unemotional man. A strapping six feet, Washington was a celebrated horseman, elegant dancer, and tireless hunter, with a fiercely guarded emotional life. Chernow brings to vivid life a dashing, passionate man of fiery opinions and many moods. Probing his private life, he explores his fraught relationship with his crusty mother, his youthful infatuation with the married Sally Fairfax, and his often conflicted feelings toward his adopted children and grandchildren. He also provides a lavishly detailed portrait of his marriage to Martha and his complex behavior as a slave master.

“At the same time, Washington is an astute and surprising portrait of a canny political genius who knew how to inspire people. Not only did Washington gather around himself the foremost figures of the age, including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, but he also brilliantly orchestrated their actions to shape the new federal government, define the separation of powers, and establish the office of the presidency.

“In this unique biography, Ron Chernow takes us on a page-turning journey through all the formative events of America’s founding. With a dramatic sweep worthy of its giant subject, Washington is a magisterial work from one of our most elegant storytellers.”

General Wesley Clark wrote a review of the biography at The Daily Beast: “This isn’t an easy book to carry, at almost 900 pages. But it is an easy book to read, with crisp narrative, pertinent evidence, and sparkling insights, the reader returns again and again, seeking those elusive qualities of character and leadership in a single great man, without who our history would have been so different. This is a book for every American—a masterpiece of biography.”

Posted by Joel on November 14 2010 • Books

Under the Sun

I’m a great fan of Bruce Chatwin’s writing. I’ve read all of his works aside from one of his “novels” (fans will know why I put that in quotes) as well as two biographies, so I was excited to learn that a volume of his letters is to be published in February titled Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin. The book is already available in the UK, and author William Dalrymple, who knew Chatwin, writes a wonderful review of his book. In his review, Dalrymple writes of an encounter with Chatwin that was a typical experience for all those who met him. A painter whom he knew invited him to a lunch that was for his friend.

“That friend turned out to be Bruce Chatwin, and the lunch was one of those encounters that happen only once or twice in a lifetime and that really do change the direction you end up taking. Chatwin, I thought, was simply astounding. As we sat in the panelled dining room, surrounded by whispering pin-striped clubmen, my small fragments of glazed tile were the starting point for a conversational riff that moved from the nomads of Mongolia in the thirteenth century and cantered over the steppes to Timurid Herat, then leapt polymathically to Ibn Battuta, Ibn Khaldun, Sufi sheikhs and the shamans of the Kalahari bushmen; before long we were being told about Taoist sages, Aboriginal “dreaming” pictures and ancient Cycladic sculpture and thence, as coffee came, via Proust and Pascal and Berenson, to Derek’s portraits, and the latter’s story about sharing a railway carriage with Robert Byron who performed a pitch-perfect imitation of Queen Victoria, using the train’s antimacassar as the Queen’s mourning veil.”

I am actually a big fan of The Songlines, which Darylmple considers one of his lesser works here in this review. It is hard to describe what it is about Chatwin’s writing that is so unique, but I think Darylmple gets to it closer than I am able. Again from the review of his letters:

“Everything he wrote made clear the degree to which he seemed to have been everywhere and read everything. His range was unparalleled. Obscure writers and unlikely places tripped off his pen in an intoxicating stream: The Mountains of the Air, Osip Mandelstam, Li Po, Dahomey, the Novgorod Chronicles. Disparate ideas from different ends of the earth suddenly found themselves connected in exhilarating leaps of imagination and insight: Chekhov waltzed past arm in arm with Ibn Khaldun; Gauguin found himself nestling up to Mad Kit Smart and a tribe of “Kipling’s fuzzy-wuzzies”; “the couturier Madeleine Vionnet” put in an unexpected appearance in the same paragraph as Herodotus, Baudelaire and St Francis of Assisi. The humdrum and tedious evaporate in a white heat of breathless exotica. In Chatwin books, people nonchalantly eat fricassee of crocodile and drink cocktails of sour milk, crushed millet and honey. Even a childhood trip to Filey seems outlandishly literary by the time Chatwin has finished with it.”

Posted by Joel on November 07 2010 • Books