With summer bearing down and a long holiday weekend under way, the idea of escaping into books has taken hold.
I’ve got piles of reading around the house and am looking forward to spending more time soon with “Man in Profile,” Thomas Kunkel’s new biography of Joseph Mitchell, the New Yorker writer of exceptional skill and legend who spent his last three decades on the magazine payroll in an epic inability to publish anything. And with the third volume (of a projected 17 or so) of Ernest Hemingway’s collected letters; this one, scheduled for publication in October, covers his prolific, fame-cementing period of the late 1920s. And with Paolo Bacigalupi’s eerily atmospheric and topical novel, “The Water Knife,” about Western water wars, which happens to be the current selection of The Star’s FYI Book Club.
I also can’t wait to get back to Lawrence Wright’s long and riveting New Yorker piece about the families of five Americans who had been taken hostage in Syria. And then there’s that 33-year dump of Jeb Bush’s tax returns — well, that can wait.
But some other recent reads, one about the past and one about the present, resonate with current and compelling themes.
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▪ Joseph J. Ellis is one of the premier historians of the nation’s founding period and he now distills a lifetime of attention into a new take on the fragile years following the Revolutionary War. In “The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783 - 1789” (Knopf), Ellis focuses on four key architects of a politically feasible federal government and a new Constitution.
Erecting a lasting nationhood was hardly inevitable given the powerful pull of individualism and sovereignty among the newly independent states. But George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison successfully navigated the messy debates that arose in the face of America’s post-revolution “impending ruin.” The drama of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia ensued, and among its imperfect results was the framework of a “nation-sized republic” and its three-branched federal government. The road to ratification by the states was no cakewalk.
The “quartet” had an inspiring group of supporting players, including financier Robert Morris, the visionary Thomas Jefferson and Gouverneur Morris, who skillfully drafted the Constitution and its resounding opening shot: “We the People of the United States.”
Ellis is a fine writer, and this book zips along crisply. He also has an ear for the timeless echoes of that political conflict, especially given today’s divisiveness over the role of government, the relative rights of the states and the meaning and interpretations of the Constitution a couple of centuries later.
He sides with Madison’s great insight that the Constitution was a “living” document, an “ever-shifting political dialogue that, like history itself, was an argument without end.”
▪ A French female journalist adopts an assumed identity as a young Muslim convert and attracts the attention of a high-ranking Islamic State fighter. Sounds like a thriller, but it’s a true story, which the pseudonymous Anna Erelle recounts in “In the Skin of a Jihadist” (HarperPerennial). Erelle had reported on the tide of young Europeans who were being recruited to join the ISIS revolution. After she watches an online ISIS video, she triggers the interest of Bilel, a French Islamic State militant. He gloms on to young Melodie, Erelle’s invented alter-ego, like a heat-seeking, hormonal missile. He pronounces her his wife and commands her to join his life of paradise in Syria.
Alternating googly-eyed Skype banter with shades of brutal rhetoric, Bilel reveals the tactical deceptions of the Islamic State’s devastating social-media campaign.
As a journalist, I wanted more at the end about the nature of the story that Erelle feverishly finishes after, figuratively, dumping Bilel at the altar. But her book has enough of a page-turning quality to stay engaged along with its behind-the-scenes view of a nightmare that is all too real.
Steve Paul, editorial page editor: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter: @sbpaul.