Fall Books: A Literary Leafpile

Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach
By Meryl Gordon
Houghton Mifflin, 400 pages, $28

Picking up where Frances Kiernan’s biography of Brooke Astor, The Last Mrs. Astor, left off, Meryl Gordon’s Mrs. Astor Regrets tells the riveting—and depressing—story of the last days of New York City’s most beloved philanthropist. It’s a saga that can be summed up in tabloid headlines like “Astor Disaster,” “DA’s Kick in the Astor” and “Astor Will a $ham.” As Brooke Astor was living out the last years of her long life, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, those closest to her began to worry over her care and welfare, questioning the decisions and motives of her son Anthony Marshall, who oversaw her estate. Mr. Marshall’s son Philip ultimately built a case against his father, who was indicted on criminal charges related to his mother’s financial affairs. Ms. Gordon’s book doesn’t drop any bombs, but it will surely stand as the most comprehensive account of one of the most bizarre family sagas in the recent history of New York.

Hillary Frey

 

Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America
By Jay Parini
Doubleday, 320 pages, $24.95

Inspired by Melvyn Bragg’s Twelve Books That Changed the World (all 12 of which were written by British authors), Jay Parini had the good idea of doing something similar for America: In Promised Land, he guides us methodically from the 17th century (William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation) to the 20th (Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique), weighing the cultural impact of 13 seminal books with scholarly deliberation .

Of course, important, transformative books aren’t always books you want to read. Unless you’re expecting, no need to acquire a copy of Dr. Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care; and at least one of Mr. Parini’s baker’s dozen (Mary Antin’s memoir, The Promised Land) has the musty odor of a book bound for deep obscurity. But some are newly relevant: Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, which emerged from the crucible of the Depression, could be just the ticket now that history seems so keen to repeat itself; and the age of Obama cries out for a fresh look at W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk.

Adam Begley

 

“Have You Seen …?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films
By David Thomson
Alfred A. Knopf, 1,024 pages, $39.95

David Thomson published The Biographical Dictionary of Film in 1975, and it’s been a mainstay ever since for any self-respecting cinephile. His new tome, Have You Seen…?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, is a similarly encyclopedic look at films Mr. Thomson loves, finds interesting or absolutely hates (look out, Sound of Music!). Alphabetically arranged from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to Zabriskie Point, it covers a chronological span from L’Arrosseur Arrosé—that’s 1895—to last year’s Oscar winner, No Country for Old Men.

Mr. Thomson is never shy about his opinions, and while you might disagree with some of his assertions (we’d like to have a long talk with him about Peter O’Toole’s performance in Lawrence of Arabia), his affection and enthusiasm for movies is infectious. Though the book is far too giant (an entry per page) for subway or beach reading, it will rightfully earn a permanent spot up on the shelf next to The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, to be thumbed through as reference or a reminder of titles to add to the Netflix queue.

Sara Vilkomerson

 

The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism
By Geoff Nicholson
Riverhead, 288 pages, $24.95

Ideally one would resist, when reviewing a book about walking, the urge to use adjectives such as peripatetic or perambulatory or, heaven forbid, pedestrian. And yet it’s difficult to summon more appropriate words for The Lost Art of Walking, a loose collection of thoughts and stories about moving through the world on two feet.

Mr. Nicholson is clearly an avid walker, importing from his native Britain an irresistible urge to roam. Along the way he touches on walking in film (see, e.g., Charlie Chaplin, John Travolta) and lingers on the world of competitive walking, whose denizens can cover dozens of miles a day. Mr. Nicholson also spends long chapters in both Los Angeles and New York; in the latter, walking is a “thrillingly dangerous activity”—more than 20 percent of all automobile-pedestrian encounters happen here.

In the end, the rambling, unfocused and somewhat itinerant philosophizing adds up to less than a book’s worth of material, something Mr. Nicholson seems to grasp: “You can dress it up any way you like,” he writes, “but walking remains resolutely simple, basic, analog.” A good reminder, that.

Jesse Wegman

 

Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity
Edited by Michael Lewis
W. W. Norton & Co., 352 pages, $27.95

For Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity, Vanity Fair’s recently hired business writer Michael Lewis collects a dizzying array of articles, more than 50 pieces of journalism to review Wall Streets upheavals, from the crash of ’87 and pin-pricking of the Internet bubble to the current subprime mortgage disaster. Mr. Lewis, who made his name nearly 20 years ago with Liar’s Poker, a book based on his insider’s view as a former investment banker at Salomon Brothers, wrote seven of the articles in Panic himself, and there are also are entertaining selections from Dave Barry and Lester C. Thurow, picking through Wall Street’s wreckage. But readers looking to allay their financial anxiety won’t find much relief here. Most of the articles illustrate a familiar point: We keep making the same mistakes, over and over again. Mr. Lewis writes: “Financial panics have become almost commonplace: events that are meant to occur every few years. Could this be because the financial system was built on an idea that badly underestimates the risk of catastrophes—and so conspires with human nature to create them?” Seems like it!

Gillian Reagan