One definition of what makes a first-rate biographer is the ability to pluck a neglected figure from the past and bring that person so vividly to life that you wonder why the dust had not been blown away earlier. Say the name Garfield today and more likely than not you will think of a cat, and that may partly be because James Garfield served as president of the United States for only a few months before he was shot, in July 1881, by a disgruntled office seeker and died in September. He had never sought the highest office in the land, having become the Republican Party nominee as a compromise candidate on the convention’s 36th ballot. What distinguishes Garfield is his remarkable career before he reached the White House, at age 49: as preacher, Civil War brigadier general, amateur mathematician, and a progressive congressman who helped steer Reconstruction. C. W. Goodyear makes the persuasive case that Garfield may be the most accomplished American statesman of the 19th century, elected to help heal a nation still suffering the wounds of a civil war. You will read no better account of 19th-century American history this season.
If you think that no writing guide is as good as William Strunk and E. B. White’s classic, The Elements of Style, then this book will persuade you otherwise. Lane Greene is the language columnist for The Economist, and in this revised edition of that publication’s esteemed guide, Greene emphasizes anew what Winston Churchill once declared: “Short words are best, and old words, when short, are best of all.” A thesaurus, used unwisely, is a damnation, since it can tell what words have similar meanings but not the same meaning. As Greene points out, “get” and “obtain” may seem the same, but watch the look on your companion at a party when you offer to obtain her a gin-and-tonic. Of particular fun is the list of words to avoid (most publications have one, including Air Mail), and so if you aspire to write at The Economist, by no means use “iconic” or “proactive” or “wannabes” in your cover letter.
This is not your average coming-of-age novel, unless your average coming-of-age character is a Korean-American 17-year-old growing up in a rural Washington trailer park who is wrongly accused of being his uncle’s accomplice in taking a car dealer hostage and is deported to Korea and forced to serve in its military. If you think I am skipping a few narrative steps here, you are right, but trust me: the saga of Beyonghak “Bucky” Yi, told in his voice, is dark, funny, and wholly revelatory for Bucky and reader alike.