The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee (2014). If you are interested in Russia and Russian cultural life, this book is one you should read. It’s the story of Boris Pasternak and Dr. Zhivago, and how he wrote and distributed the book, and survived, during the worst years of Stalinist Russia, when cultural figures were being arrested and murdered every day. Well, in fact, his survival is a mystery (as was the survival of Ilya Ehrenburg, whose biography I read about a year ago) – perhaps it was a result of world wide notoriety (although this did not help people like Isaac Babel), perhaps the results of luck – but survive he did. He was able (while leading a strange life with, in effect, two families, one with his long time wife, and the other with his long time girl friend) to write in the worst of times, and gave his manuscript to a visiting Italian communist who took it out of the country. In spite of mixed critical reviews, the book (translated into several languages) became a world wide hit, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 (did he win it for the poet he was throughout his life, or for his first novel?) a prize he was not able to claim. Well worth reading.
Ike’s Bluff by Evan Thomas (2012). I had not read much about the Eisenhower years, so learned a lot from this book. A lot about the Eisenhower personality, a lot about the Eisenhower who held strong opinions about a number of things, but who held them close to his chest until the last minute as a facet of his carefully crafted political sense, the Eisenhower who was president during a period of time when many felt that nuclear weapons were like any other and should not only be threatened but should actually be used in war time, an Eisenhower dedicated to peace but who was somewhat misled by those who designed the U-2 spy plane missions and the plan to overthrow Castro. As all of Thomas’ books, this one is both readable and informative.
Democrat & Diplomat: the Life of William E. Dodd by Robert Dallek (2013). Historian Robert Dallek wrote his PhD dissertation on Dodd decades ago, and had it updated and published 45 years after it was written. Dodd of course was Roosevelt’s ambassador to Germany during the early Hitler years, and was given a bit of fame from the recent book In the Garden of the Beasts by Erik Larson. Dodd’s book gives a broader description of Dodd, far from the naive academic that I perceived from the Larson book. A southern scholar of American history, who taught at the University of Chicago, an intellectual historian fluent in German, he was not Roosevelt’s first choice for ambassador, but a good choice. And Dallek’s book lets you learn about Dodd (both as an academic – where the changes in southern historiography become important – and as an ambassador) without the enticing distractions of the antics of his daughter Martha.
Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh (1935). I had never read a Marsh mystery, so thought I would give it a try. Probably will not read another. This is a theatrical murder — blanks were to be fired in the final act of the play, but one night, the blanks weren’t blanks and the leading man was killed. Who done it? Who cares?
The Follower by Patrick Quentin (1950). Patrick Quentin is apparently the pen name of two authors who together wrote about 30 mysteries. As much as a thought that Enter a Murderer was a bit trite, this one was pure enjoyment. The young, impoverished, but ambitious engineer marries the free thinking daughter of New York society millionaires. He goes to South America for business, comes back early to surprise his new wife, finds her missing from their apartment, and discovers the bloody body of her former lover on the living room floor. Where is his wife? Who committed the murder? All sorts of things flit through his mind, as he hides the body, and tracks her down (after a few wild goose chases) in Mexico, where he finds her involved in all sorts of shenanigans, is totally disillusioned by her, but meets the love of his life. What more can you ask for?