On the Page: Christine Quinn and John Horne Burns

Christine Quinn_memoirWith Patience and Fortitude: A Memoir

Christine Quinn

(William Morrow, 256 pp., $24.99)

City Council speaker and mayoral candidate Christine Quinn insists that her new memoir—conveniently timed for release just as voters are starting to tune into the election—is intended to be personal, not political.

The volume provides an intimate account of Ms. Quinn’s childhood on Long Island, including how she coped with her mother’s losing battle with cancer, her struggles with bulimia and alcoholism, and how she became the city’s second most powerful elected official and potentially its first female and openly gay mayor.

Poignant and touching at times and marked by Ms. Quinn’s signature brash humor, the book offers insights into the forces that shaped her outsized personality—as well as giddy details of her headline-grabbing 2012 wedding, including her search for the perfect dress (thwarted at one point by the discovery that Khloé Kardashian had walked down the aisle in her first pick, prompting Ms. Quinn to “dramatically” take to the bathtub and give her fiancée the silent treatment).

But that gushing makes the volume all the more disappointing to political readers looking for insights into Ms. Quinn’s time as speaker, including her controversial decision to overturn term limits and her relationship with the current mayor—which are all but overlooked.

The memoir also feels repetitive and hastily written. (Sample sentence: “I’d be the first one there and the last to leave, which is my philosophy of work. I believe that you should be the most prepared person in the room, and the first to arrive and the last to leave …”) It gives the impression that this is nothing more than the latest political calculation in Ms. Quinn’s master plan. —Jill Colvin

Dreadful 1Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns

David Margolick

(Other Press, 400 pp., $28.95)

The greatest war novel that you’ve probably never heard of was written by John Horne Burns, who served behind the lines in North Africa and Italy during World War II. The Gallery, published in 1947, is a gritty, unromantic portrait of the Allied occupation of Naples. Gore Vidal called it “the best book of World War II.” William Zinsser wrote that it was “the proto-Vietnam novel.” Paul Fussell referred to it as “an extraordinary contribution to American literature.”

Mr. Burns, who was gay, was a proud but altogether unhappy man; he liked to use the majestic plural in his ribald and highly entertaining letters, which animate David Margolick’s often dreary and deeply researched biography of this now mostly forgotten man. (It takes its title from a word in Mr. Burns’s invented vocabulary meant to denote homosexuality.) “It is a long job on the war in Italy,” Mr. Burns wrote of The Gallery, “and is, I fear, at least as good as War and Peace.” He never made good on the promise he held, however, following up with two clunkers; he died a sad, drunken expatriate in 1953.

With the cooperation of Mr. Burns’s family—who long denied his homosexuality and “shut down Burns scholarship”—Mr. Margolick is the first biographer with full access to Mr. Burns’s wonderful letters. This book is a well-rounded portrait of an enigmatic man, but you finish it wanting more—hoping, perhaps as I did, that someday those letters will be published in full. A collection like that might very well be Mr. Burns’s last great work. —Matthew Kassel