Words and Music: Confessions of an Optimist by Stephen Rubin

This book is compulsively readable, partly because the author has been a major-league publisher for decades, with many famous authors, and partly because he can be surprising in his indiscretions. Zubin Mehta turns out to be “a jerk,” Bill O’Reilly is “honorable,” and Tina Brown, whose Vanity Fair Diaries he published, is a “cuddly barracuda.” Of course, Stephen Rubin also gave the world The Da Vinci Code, an astounding best-seller that should have been printed in purple, given its prose, and that netted Rubin himself a $1 million bonus the year it was published. He is candid about the foibles of fellow publishers but just as frank about his own mistakes, such as ordering Nan Talese not to bid on Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater. On the other hand, he was happy to see her husband, Gay Talese, leave him for Knopf, “where his books never sold at the level they paid him.”

Rubin’s other passion is music, which he shared with his much-adored wife, Cynthia Robbins, who died in 2010, and much of the book’s charm rests in his early days as a writer of profiles of classical-music stars, for The New York Times. You may come to this book for the publishing gossip, but you also will be entertained by his thoughts on Pavarotti. “I saw him once without a shirt, and it was truly horrifying.” And this in the middle of an ode to the man!

Dinner with the President: Food, Politics, and a History of Breaking Bread at the White House by Alex Prud’homme

What a thrill it must be to have dinner at the White House! Well, not if you had dined with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He would have surely begged you to take him to a restaurant, so sick he was of liver and string beans, and, always, oatmeal for breakfast. (F.D.R. tore out ads for cornflakes from newspapers to remind the staff that other foods existed.) On the other hand, if you had attended the wedding of Ulysses S. Grant’s daughter, you would have been treated to soft-shell crab on toast, beef tongue in aspic, woodcock and snipe, and spring chicken with herbs. And that was breakfast!

Alex Prud’homme, who collaborated with his great-aunt Julia Child on her memoir, My Life in France, has set out not just to chronicle what has been served at the White House for public and family meals but to explore how meals and drink could be used and misused for political and diplomatic ends by the occupants of the White House. And then there are examples that must be set for the nation, which led to Bill Clinton’s giving up Big Macs for soy burgers engineered by none other than Dr. Dean Ornish.

The book also wittily details the travails of the White House chefs, some of whom had to radically adjust their menus for the new eater-in-chief. Or didn’t want to, as in the case of the French chef the Johnsons inherited from the Kennedys. Apparently, there were only so many times he could prepare a cold garbanzo-bean purée, a dish that he declared was “already bad hot.” An added bonus: a selection of recipes that allows you to serve your guests William Howard Taft’s mussel soup and Eisenhower Steak, finished off with a dish of ice cream that every president since Jefferson has loved, save one: Bill Clinton. He’s allergic.

We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America by Roxanna Asgarian

This is a shocking story, not just because it chronicles how a white married couple drove themselves and their six Black adopted children over a California cliff in 2018 but how an unjust child-welfare system helped lead to this tragedy. Roxanna Asgarian deftly deals with the history of how we have handled children in trouble, whether they be orphans, abandoned or sent away by their biological parents, or in trouble with the law. And through so many of these cases runs the common thread of abuse. How we help them is often a disgrace, determined so much by class and race and income that good outcomes depend far more on luck than they should.

Words and Music and Dinner with the President are available at your local independent bookstore, on Bookshop, and on Amazon. We Were Once a Family will be available beginning March 14