The acclaimed biographer of Theodore Roosevelt recommends a neglected World War II novel, the story of a piano, and a biography turned literary detective story.
As something of a maverick among American presidential biographers (born and bred in Kenya, a trained classical pianist, more literary than political in style), Edmund Morris sees nothing unusual in the fact that he has written a life of Beethoven as well as the controversial Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan and the bestselling The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, and Colonel Roosevelt. Morris has a consequent fondness for “sleepers”—top-quality books hard to categorize, or so different from others in their genre that they have escaped general notice. Here he lists three of his favorites.
By James Gould Cozzens
“This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by a writer now unjustly forgotten is the finest piece of American fiction to emerge from World War II. That’s not just my opinion: among cognoscenti of the genre (readers who value fine prose above blood-and-guts sensationalism), Guard of Honor has always been esteemed a classic. Although it rises to a shocking climax, there is no actual warfare. The action takes place entirely stateside, on an Army Air Force base in Florida, during three days of September, 1943. Cozzens (who at that time was a staff officer in the Pentagon) deploys an enormous cast of characters and constructs a narrative drama out of unpromising materials, including press relations, a misplaced memo, and a white fist crashing into a black jaw. For readers who can resist flicking ahead to the final page, it ends on a note of transcendant beauty.”
By Katie Hafner
“You do not have to have the slightest interest in music to be captivated by this strange book, part psychodrama, part mechanical primer (who would have thought piano tuning could be so fascinating?), part biography. The weirdest thing about it is that you get to care more about the piano (Model CD318 in the Steinway production catalogue) as the central character than you do about Gould and his near-blind technician Charles Verne Edquist—human as they are in Hafner’s sympathetic hands. When the piano encounters a misfortune (I won’t spoil her story), you groan as if a child has been hurt.”
By Janet Malcolm
“Most serious biographers will testify that at a certain stage in their research, as they pursue their subject down countless trails, they begin to feel pursued themselves, by a mysterious Something that, when it catches up, turns out to be the book they are about to write. And usually it’s quite different from what they expected. Which is to say, it wants to be written in one way and no other. Janet Malcolm sets out, as many other scholars have done, to write an orthodox biography of Sylvia Plath. She ends up publishing a literary detective story, wherein the people she tracks down as witnesses become as mysterious as the great poet they remember.”