Gotham’s Greats Get Super-Bios

030507 article sp books Gotham’s Greats Get Super BiosIt’s a season of cliffhangers. Who will emerge as top dog in a transatlantic face-off when Don DeLillo and Ian McEwan each publish a new novel on the very same day? Will anyone come up with a better title for a book about working moms than The Feminine Mistake, by Vanity Fair writer Leslie Bennetts (Hyperion, April 3)? Will Michael Chabon’s new novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (HarperCollins, May 1), put to rest the suspicion that the author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is drastically overrated? Can Al Gore win a Pulitzer—for The Assault on Reason (The Penguin Press, May 22)—to match his newly acquired Oscar? And are the barbarians truly at the gates, as the super-smart Cullen Murphy suggests in Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (Houghton Mifflin, May 1)? And, finally, can the Almighty withstand the polemical brilliance of a man who’s still working overtime to justify the Iraq War? To find out, just order a copy of Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Twelve, May 1).

The June 5 battle of the literary heavyweights looks like an even match. Mr. DeLillo has more at stake: Falling Man (Scribner) is about 9/11, and if you get that wrong, you get pummeled; also, it’s been a long 10 years since Underworld—the last time he delivered a knockout punch. Mr. McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday) is less ambitious—an intimate look at a fraught honeymoon—but he’s coming off back-to-back triumphs with Atonement (2002) and Saturday (2005).

Christopher Buckley has come up with the season’s best subject for a novel: His Boomsday (Twelve, April 2) is a political comedy about euthanasia. On a darker note, Jim Crace, author of Quarantine (1997) and Being Dead (1999), sets a post-apocalyptic fable, The Pesthouse (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, May 1), in a ruined America. And if you’re in the mood for a quick nocturnal tour of Tokyo, there’s Haruki Murakami’s After Dark (Knopf, May 8).

Closer to home, it’s a rich season for books about Gotham, including biographies of two titans whose careers spanned the 20th century, Brooke Astor (b. 1902) and the arts impresario Lincoln Kirstein (1906–1996): The Last Mrs. Astor: A New York Story (Norton, May 21), by Frances Kiernan, and The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, by Martin Duberman (Knopf, April 17). Not so well known, but just as fabulous, writer and editor Leo Lerman (1914-1994) left behind a vast trove of letters and journals, now collected in The Grand Surprise (Knopf, April 10), edited by Stephen Pascal.

Manhattan money matters come under scrutiny in The Last Tycoons: The Secret History of Lazard Frères & Co. (Doubleday, 4/17), William D. Cohan’s account of a firm whose history stretches back 150 years and features such outsize players as André Meyer, Felix Rohatyn, Steve Rattner, Michel David-Weill and the current capo di tutti capi, Bruce Wasserstein.

And speaking of great men, our nation’s longest-serving President gets a massive one-volume biography with a succinct title: FDR (Random House, May 15), by Jean Edward Smith. Are you ready for a double dose of Albert Einstein? Walter Isaacson, the former chief executive of CNN and managing editor of Time magazine, whose last biography was of Ben Franklin, gives us Einstein: His Life and Universe (Simon & Schuster, April 10). Mr. Isaacson’s competition is Jürgen Neffe’s Einstein (F.S.G., May 1), which was a best-seller in Germany.

Two literary greats, Edith Wharton (1862–1937) and Ralph Ellison (1913–1994), get new biographies, too. Wharton has been studied extensively, and we already have three superior accounts of her life and work (by Louis Auchincloss, R.W.B. Lewis and Cynthia Griffin Wolff), but Hermione Lee’s Edith Wharton (Knopf, April 15) is a welcome addition to the canon. In comparison, Arnold Rampersad had a clean slate to work with: His Ralph Ellison (Knopf, April 20) is the authorized biography. Mr. Rampersad, who’s written about Langston Hughes and Richard Wright and W.E.B. DuBois, also dabbles in sport: He helped Arthur Ashe write his memoirs and produced a biography of Jackie Robinson.

Adam Begley

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