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Between the Lines: Get A Life
(March 2002)
By David Pitt

Unless you believe in reincarnation, you pretty much have to accept that the life you have is the only one you're going to get. But there is, at least, a way to sample the lives of others.

William Lee Miller, a university professor and ethicist, has given us Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography (Knopf). It explores the usual Lincoln-bio question - how did a guy with little formal education, from untamed Illinois, become president of the United States? - from a slightly different perspective. Lincoln was great, Miller tells us, we can all agree on that; but he was also good. Abraham Lincoln was a good man, with a rigid moral code and a natural tendency toward honesty. Miller's research seems impeccable, and his analysis of Lincoln's character seems well supported by the documentary and anecdotal evidence. Miller's prose could be a little less stodgy, but that's just nitpicking. If you've read any of the other zillion or so Lincoln biographies, this one will help put them in a larger context.

It's time (apparently) for another book about Albert Speer, the architect who drafted the plans for Adolf Hitler's postwar Germany, became Hitler's minister of armaments, and secured for himself a place in history as one of the most villainous of the Nazi villains. But was he really as bad as people say? In Speer: The Final Verdict (Orion), Joachim Fest asks us to consider the possibility that the architect may be a tad misunderstood. Speer was a man full of contradictions: he was personally ambitious, but never bought into the rampant greed and corruption that was destroying the Nazi party from within; he was one of the few people with whom Hitler had a personal relationship, but he was not a member of Hitler's "inner circle." Fest, the editor of Speer's own remarkable book Inside the Third Reich, presents Speer as an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary events. It seems a fair assessment.

Here's Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street (Random House), a new biography of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist by Richard Lingeman. Like Miller and Fest, Lingeman zooms in on his subject, focusing on the small details that make up the bigger picture. Lewis, who gave us such astonishing novels as Main Street and Babbitt and Elmer Gantry and Arrowsmith, was a chronicler of America in the 1920s; his stories crossed all boundaries: he wrote about the poor, the wealthy, the high-class, the low-class. He charted the impact "modern society" was having on humble, traditional values. Lingeman charts Lewis's own evolution, as he moved from novelist to cultural icon. It's an evolution that, in many ways, mirrored the evolution of the society he wrote about. If you're a fan of Lewis's splendid novels, you must read this biography.

Similarly, if you're a fan of Saul Bellow - who also won a Nobel Prize for his brilliant fiction - you have to pick up Bellow: A Biography (Modern Library), by James Atlas. This methodical and perceptive life story chronicles the author's marriages, his relationships with friends and colleagues, his profession and personal ups and downs. Atlas never feels like he's intruding on his subject (he wrote the book mostly without Bellow's participation), maintaining a respectful distance, apparently uninterested in scandal or gossip. Bellow writes fiction (The Adventures of Augie March, Ravelstein, Henderson the Rain King) that is completely original; fiction that requires its readers to dig into it, sift through its imagery and language to find its hidden meaning(s). Dig into Atlas's book, and you may just catch a glimpse of the hidden Bellow.

If you were paying attention to the headlines a few years ago, the name Wen Ho Lee will probably ring a bell. He's the Los Alamos scientist who was accused of being a spy, arrested, stuck in solitary confinement for close to a year. While the world debated public safety, international espionage, and racial profiling (Dr. Lee was born in Taiwan), while this humble man was being portrayed as a spy at least as evil as the Rosenbergs (convicted, half a century earlier, of conspiring to steal the secrets of the atom bomb), he kept on saying the same thing: I'm innocent, I'm innocent. Now, in My Country Versus Me (Hyperion), written by Lee and Helen Zia, he shows that he was, in fact, innocent. He shows how, in an atmosphere of suspicion and prejudice, anyone can be a threat - even if he hasn't done anything wrong. The book'll probably make you a little angry ...

... which'll put you in the perfect mood for Sam Roberts's The Brother (Random House), the story of David Greenglass. If the name means nothing to you, don't panic: he's pretty obscure, these days. But, fifty-odd years ago, he was a very important man. It was his testimony that sent his sister and fellow spy, Ethel Rosenberg, to the electric chair. While his sister and brother-and-law were executed for their espionage, Greenglass (in exchange for his incriminating testimony) spent a mere ten years in prison. In 1960 he disappeared, and the world forgot about him until Roberts, an editor at the New York Times, tracked him down. This remarkable book reveals, for the first time, why Greenglass testified against his sister and brother-in-law, why he lied on the stand, why he made a deal that got him a lighter sentence in exchange for sending his flesh and blood to the executioner. Very, very unsettling stuff.

Also unsettling is Running With Scissors (St. Martin's Press), the autobiography of Augusten Burroughs, who, at the age of twelve, was sent to live with his mother's psychiatrist, a (let's be polite here) disturbed fellow who looked like Santa Claus and had a special fondness for electroshock therapy. Burroughs tells the story in a lively, humorous manner, but there's an undercurrent here that's dark, gloomy, and very scary. We might be laughing a lot, but we're also seriously spooked by this downright bizarre growing-up story.

On November 22, 1963, a few hours after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Texas, Aldous Huxley passed away in Hollywood, California. Born in 1894, the well-educated Englishman - grandson of the still-influential scientist, Thomas Henry Huxley - became one of the early twentieth century's most influential writers and, to use the popular generic term, thinkers. His novels - like Point Counter Point, Brave New World, Eyeless in Gaza, Crome Yellow - combined sharp cynicism, witty satire, and an almost prescient vision of the way the world was changing. Aldous Huxley: An English Intellectual (Little, Brown), by noted biographer Nicholas Murray is a detailed, compassionate, thoroughly captivating of this writer who is, these days, known more for his name than his works.

Another fellow known more by name than deed is Isaac Newton, the 17th-century son of Lincolnshire who, although he was born nearly two hundred years before the word scientist was coined, influenced the world in ways scientists are still discovering. In her preface to Newton: The Making of Genius (Macmillan), Patricia Fara writes that the book 'examines how Newton was converted into the world s first scientific genius.' She traces Newton's impact, shows how his elegant theories transformed the way we see the world. It's a subtle and grandly informative book.

Jim Squires was the editor of the Chicago Tribune, guiding his editorial staff to seven Pulitzer Prizes in eight years. When a change in management somehow led to his being terminated, he decided, of all things, to breed racehorses. This isn't quite as wacky as it sounds - he had been raising horses already for a couple of decades - but it was still a pretty odd career change. Squires's Horse of a Different Color: A Tale of Breeding Geniuses, Dominant Females, and the Faster Derby Winner Since Secretariat (PublicAffairs) tells the exciting story of his rocket-fast rise to the top of the field; barely more than a decade after he was chucked out of the Tribune, his horse Monarchos won the Kentucky Derby. I didn't know much about horseracing, didn't think I was particularly interested, and I found this memoir delightful. Fans of the sport will be utterly thrilled.

Speaking of newspapers, you might want to check out Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer (Knopf), by Henry Petroski. Growing up in 1950s New York - specifically, Queens - young Henry took on a paper route; this charming autobiography recounts his adventures as a paperboy, and the way the lessons he learned on the job prepared him for life as an adult. The book is also a splendid portrait of family life in the fifties, a trip back to a time that we like to call simpler, except it really wasn't, not for a boy trying to grow up.

Another portrait of growing up in the fifties, only not quite so homey, is Hamlet's Dresser (Scribner), by Bob Smith. 'In the summer of 1958,' Smith writes, 'I was a lonely, screwed-up kid' - life at home was pretty tough, with a mentally retarded daughter (sorry, but that's the way they described the condition, back then) and a, shall we say, unreliable mother. So Bob did what many troubled kids did, and still do: he ran away. Wound up working in a theater, where his love of Shakespeare led him to the best job in the world: Hamlet's dresser, the guy who takes care of the costumes of the actor who plays the tortured Dane. Smith dedicated his life to exploring, staging, and teaching, the works of ol' Will: to youngsters, to senior citizens, in church basements, in unused rooms, even, if you can believe it, in a hospital operating room (it wasn't being used at the time). This is the story of a man's love for words, his deep, almost spiritual connection with a writer who lived a long time ago, but whose words are as fresh today as they ever were.

And there you go: an easy way to step into other people's lives.
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