The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks (Viking, 2015)
This novel fleshes out the stories of the Old Testament about David, king of Israel. Brooks does a good job of showing all sides (good and bad) of David’s character, from the point of view of his prophet Nathan. Women are not neglected in this tale. Although overall they are treated very badly by the male characters, their stories are told as fully human beings living in a time when they are not respected. Unfortunately (male or female) in this book everyone’s life is full of violence, blood, and death, which is (as far as we know) how things really were. It’s hard to believe that the psalms that we still sing today came from this man, out of this time period.
Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking, 2016)
This is not quite a biography of Benedict Arnold, but not quite a history of the American Revolution either. The book ends abruptly when John Andre is hanged for his part in Benedict’s Arnold’s treason; it fails to tell us what Arnold did with the rest of his life and when and where he died. It seems a bit rude to not tell us what happened, unless Philbrick is planning a sequel. The book is quite interesting and well-written, and obviously based on copious primary sources which Philbrick quotes extensively. If you’re at all interested in American history you will certainly enjoy and learn a lot from this book. I particularly enjoyed the battlefield maps since as a resident of the northeastern United States I have driven through most of the locations on them.
The Thomas the Tank Engine Man: The Life of Reverend W. Awdry by Brian Sibley (Lion Books, 2015)
This is the 20th anniversary edition of the biography of Rev. Awdry originally published in 1995, coincidentally the year I remember as the peak of Thomas mania in my household. The 1990’s were a period of resurgence of interest in the Railway Series for young children because that is when the books came to American television. As I learned from this fascinating book, the books I read to my three year old daughter were originally published in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, the Rev. Wilbert Awdry’s son Christopher took over the series in the 1980s; Rev. Awdry died in 1997. The book is full of details about Wilbert Awdry’s life as a Church of England clergyman, father of three children, and writer of the series of children’s books about anthropomorphic steam engines that continues to be popular today. At the Philadelphia Flower Show yesterday there was a track layout with Thomas, Henry, James, Gordon and Percy that had toddlers very excited. Rev. Awdry, not surprisingly a lifelong model railroad enthusiast, would have been pleased. Sibley’s biography, with chapter headings in keeping with the railway theme and dozens of photographs, provided much insight into the book production process and in particular the succession of illustrators responsible for the iconic colorful engines that became my daughter’s favorite toys.
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell (Riverhead Books, 2015)
Fans of Sarah Vowell’s work have been waiting for this book, and it doesn’t disappoint. If you knew that there’s currently a Broadway show about Alexander Hamilton, you’re probably the sort of history geek who will enjoy this book. This biography of the Marquis de Lafayette definitely has to be the funniest biography of him out there. I was interested to learn that Lafayette was only 19 when he came to America – and that he left his young wife and children behind in France. Vowell’s casual style combines real historical research (using primary sources) with in-person visits to all the relevant parks and battlefields, providing great travel reviews for those of us who like to listen to visit historical sites. Vowell visited Valley Forge, Brandywine, Monmouth, and Yorktown and recounts the highlights of those battles from the modern perspective (with special attention to Lafayette’s role of course). I recently visited Valley Forge park, so this was a genuine help to me as well as an entertaining read.