As recently as February of last year, just before the coronavirus shut theaters, David Mamet was working. (The Christopher Boy’s Communion, which he both wrote and directed, premiered at L.A.’s Odyssey Theatre for a limited run and featured a star-studded cast led by William H. Macy.) The prolific playwright has brought his magic touch to both the stage (Glengarry Glen Ross, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize; Speed-the-Plow) and the screen (Heist, The Untouchables), delivering cynical, street-smart works that don’t shy away from controversy. Here, Mamet recommends the authors you never knew you needed, with input from the late Shel Silverstein.
Twelve Against the Gods: The Story of Adventure, by William Bolitho
Please allow me to introduce you to the works of William Bolitho. I learned of him from my great friend Shel Silverstein, who said that there are some books so good you want to hug them to your chest, and some so damned good you just want to eat them. As I do the following.
Shel started me off with Twelve Against the Gods, Bolitho’s most famous work, 12 sketches of men and women who defied fate—Alexander the Great, Lola Montez, Napoleon, Isadora Duncan, etc. See also Leviathan and Camera Obscura, sketches of life in England and in the U.S. Bolitho wrote while he was a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. He’d fought for Britain in the First World War, and wrote through the 1920s, died at 39, and is one of the great writers of the 20th—or any other—century.
One might compare his sketches to those of Ben Hecht in 1,001 Afternoons in Chicago, grisaille glimpses of 1920s urban half-life. Hecht’s book is magnificent. The Bolitho is something beyond that. Mencken said that he “wrote like a Man From Mars.”
The American Heresy, by Christopher Hollis
I recommend to you also the works of Christopher Hollis, an interwar English schoolmaster, Member of Parliament, and essayist. His interests range over various histories (Eton, the Oxford Union, the Papacy, the Jesuits, politics, culture, and law). Do read The American Heresy, an examination of Jefferson, Calhoun, Lincoln, and Wilson. It is the reasoned and perfectly written High Tory view of the development of American politics, jaw-droppingly antithetical to received American wisdom.
Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896–1899 and Vimy, by Pierre Berton
To round out my report of late discoveries: the works of Pierre Berton. He was an interwar Canadian journalist, novelist, and historian. His father had climbed the Chilkoot Pass in the 1897 gold rush, and Berton grew up in the gold-rush town of Dawson, in Yukon, Canada.
Berton wrote 25 books of Canadian history. Put off by the extent of his oeuvre, I was delighted to find not only that every book was enjoyable, but that the large land mass to the north of America was not a suburb, and not only a country but one with a fascinating and bizarre history. I recommend his Klondike and Vimy, the history of the Canadians’ ground-breaking victory there in World War I. This last is the best book I’ve ever read on warfare.
That oughta hold you.