What then must we do?
Ill Fares the Land
By Tony Judt
(New York: Penguin, 2010)
Ill Fares the Land makes for a brisk if chilling read. “We have entered an age of insecurity: economic insecurity, physical insecurity, political insecurity,” it begins. “The last time a cohort of young people expressed comparable frustration at the emptiness of their lives and the dispiriting purposelessness of their world was in the 1920s.”
I knew about the 1920s from my grandfather, Whittaker Chambers.
With the precision of a bullet
Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic
(New York: Random House, 2009)
It takes talent to write about someone else’s interesting life in a book that is interesting itself. The biographer would have to be, say, an author, scholar and translator. Such a person could write a biography about an intellectual polyglot, polymath, “journalist, novelist, essayist, autobiographer, and writer of scientific speculations” — and Casanova.
A User’s Guide
(Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2008)
Biography requires insight, argues Dr. Carl Rollyson in his latest book, Biography: A User’s Guide. To appreciate the person studied — to trust the subject of a biography — the biographer must know the subject so well as to be able to assess the subject’s self-honesty. Rollyson discusses this issue on pp. 164-168. The subject is Martha Gellhorn; the biographical form, her letters (collected by Caroline Moorehead); the example, a look at Hiss Case protagonists Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss.
When Men Were the Only Models We Had:
My Teachers Barzun, Fadiman, Trilling
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002)
Carolyn Gold Heilbrun may have mentioned Whittaker Chambers only a few times in passing in her 2002 memoirs When Men Were the Only Models We Had, but she sheds more light on Chambers and his contemporaries than many others.
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What I Learned from Older Women
(New York: Crown Publishers, 2000)
Marie Brenner, who has penned the amazing, gripping investigative thriller The Insider among other books, put together one book I found rather misleading. Ostensibly, Great Dames is, according to the subtitle, about women she learned from. A few chapters into the book, however, we readers realize she did not know many of them very well. In fact, she relies heavily on anecdotes from others and from her subjects’s memoirs. Diana Trilling is a good example, and Brenner’s treatment of Whittaker Chambers a good case in point.
The Lost Spy:
An American in Stalin’s Secret Service
(New York: W. W. Norton, August 2008)
Official website: thelostspy.com
Lauren Kim: dust jacket designer
[Reviewed from a galley copy provided by the publisher]
In 1992, Boris Yeltsin held out a dossier with a file inside to an American official:
Moles, Mysteries & Deadly Games
Tennent H. Bagley
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
The Hiss-Chambers mention is noteworthy:
Alger Hiss was another beneficiary of willful neglect of the obvious. His secret collaboration with Soviet Intelligence was known to Western authorities long before he moved up to play a substantive role in conferences where America’s posture toward the Soviet regime was being worked out, and more than a decade before he was finally brought down before a court… Why do we fall prey to hoaxes, deceptive tricks, lies, and misrepresentations that seem obvious to others less emotional or less involve? Why, once duped, do we then hang on to our misconception, sometimes against the evidence of our senses? Why, when supplied with that evidence, are we more likely to attack its suppliers — a Burtsev, Bukharin, Marton, Sneevliet, or Chambers — instead of the deceiver?> (pp. 272-273)