Summer Reading Extravaganza : A Lifetime of Reading
By David Pitt
Here, sit down beside me and I'll tell you about some life stories that're perfect summer reading.
Here's Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress (Viking, hardcover), a biography of the car manufacturer by Douglas Brinkley. Ford did some great things, had some magnificent ideas, but he was, as Brinkley makes quite clear, a complex man with a lot of less-than-magnificent aspects. He was, for example, not what you might call a hands-on inventor: his talents lay in the conception, but it was other people who did the actual work. He was an anti-Semite and a pacifist (this was in wartime, when pacifism was not such a popular stance). He was a mixture of brilliance and ordinariness, of good and bad. He was an innovator in a field with many innovators, part of the fierce competition to be the first to develop a mass-produced automobile. This is a long book, nearly 900 pages, with sixty pages of notes, but it somehow manages to be lively, fast-paced, and exciting. An important biography of an important man.
From wheels to wings. To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight (The Free Press, hardcover), by James Tobin, chronicles Orville and Wilbur's quest to be the first to develop a practical airplane capable of carrying human passengers: manned flight, in other words. Like Henry Ford, the Wrights were in a race, competing with rival innovators, and Tobin puts their accomplishments in their historical context. He shows us that the Wright Brothers didn't just come out of nowhere, stuffed full of brilliance and adventure and earth-shattering ideas. They were part of a scientific revolution, part of something that was going on in various places around the world. Powered flight was going to happen, and it was going to happen soon. The Wright Brothers did what a lot of other people were poised to do; they just did it first. Of course, that was still pretty darned impressive.
Jump forward more than half a century. It's 1961, and NASA is putting the first American astronaut into space. At the same time, thirteen women are training to become the country's first female astronauts. The Mercury 13 (Random House, hardcover), by Martha Ackmann, is their story. It's an exhilarating story -- the trainees were there at the beginning, when space flight was new and daring and vaguely science-fictiony -- but also a maddening one. While the USSR put its first woman astronaut into space in 1963, the Mercury 13, despite passing the same tests as their male counterparts (the Mercury 7), were ridiculed and dismissed and, eventually, forgotten. The U.S. didn't get around to putting its own female astronaut into space for another couple of decades. The book spotlights an important stage in the American space program that is, today, almost entirely neglected.
Speaking of space -- get ready for a brilliant segue -- Isaac Newton was one of the first scientists to recognize the importance of understanding how space worked. Newton's famous laws are constructed out of what James Gleick calls 'the foundation stones of knowledge: time, space, motion.' He says this in Isaac Newton (Pantheon, hardcover), his vastly informative biography of the man who created pretty much a whole science in his fertile mind. Gleick is extremely good at making complex notions accessible to the layman -- check out Chaos, or Genius -- and this book is like an immersion course in the life and thoughts of Newton. He was a unique man who quite literally changed the world, and Gleick affords him the respect and admiration he deserves.
Do you like crossword puzzles? Then check out Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8) (Putnam, hardcover), a memoir by television journalist Sandy Balfour. Subtitled 'A Memoir of Love, Exile, and Crosswords,' it's the story of a man who wandered around for a while, until he figured out what he wanted to do, and who developed, along the way, an abiding love for those often-baffling word puzzles. The personal story is nice, and interesting, but I confess that I was most interested in the crossword stuff: the subculture of aficionados, the people who create them, and the clues to solving them (the solution to the title, for instance, is 'rebelled': the word 'belle' inside the word 'red'). It's a lot of fun.
Genuine Authentic (HarperCollins, hardcover), by Michael Gross, is a biography of Ralph Lifshitz, the Bronx-born young man who, after much dreaming and struggling, became the head of an international fashion empire. Of course, long before the world knew who he was, he had changed his name, to Ralph Lauren. Gross begins the book with an author's note describing his efforts to enlist Lauren's cooperation in writing the book -- cooperation that, he says, was at first offered, then withdrawn. As unauthorized biographies go, this one's fairly good: decently well documented, mostly even-handed, and generally free of the viciousness and gossip that characterize so many books like it. It's probably not the definitive Lauren biography (that one is yet to be written), and we keep getting the sense there are things we're not being told, but it's interesting and enlightening.
Also interesting and enlightening is Stand Facing the Stove (Scribner, paperback), by Anne Mendelson. This is what is sometimes called a dual biography -- it tells the stories of Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, the mother and daughter who gave the world Joy of Cooking (not, it must be stressed, The Joy of Cooking), the cookbook that became pretty much the standard of cookbooks. It began its life humbly: after her husband's death, Irma Rombauer paid for the publication of her cookbook; this was in 1931. Five years later the book was reissued by a commercial publisher, and it sort of took off from there. It kept being reissued and revised, by Irma and then by her daughter, Marion, and it kept growing in popularity. This really is a splendid book: not only does she tell us about the two Rombauers, Mendelson also tells us about the nasty battle between the authors and their publisher, and about the surprisingly competitive world of cookbook-writing. There are so many unexpected delights in this book that you'll be astonished.
Mike Royko, who died in 1997, was one of America's most read, most debated, most controversial newspaper columnists. Royko: A Life in Print (PublicAffairs, paperback), by F. Richard Ciccone, is a detailed, insightful biography of the Chicago newspaperman. Royko's writing career spanned four decades. He wrote more than 8,000 columns, and, at his peak, was syndicated to more than 600 newspapers. He was a muckraker before that became a bad word, before everybody called himself a journalist. He was outspoken, and he didn't particularly mind if what he wrote made people angry. His story is the story of the evolution of journalism in America, and both stories are downright riveting.
Look for more in our summer reading extravaganza ...
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