In mid-20th-century Manhattan, before real estate became engulfed by developers and their ghastly towers, a group of artists made their home on Coenties Slip, a sliver of street in the financial district. Obscure and struggling, they went on to become famous and rich, but they may have been happiest in the crumbling warehouses that once housed sail-makers. Ellsworth Kelly, his ex-lover Robert Indiana, James Rosenquist, and a few others created a community that produced astonishing art. Prudence Peiffer, who works at MoMA, has written a splendid group biography that pays homage to an irretrievable era of artistic productivity that still resonates today. The Slip is its own masterpiece.
In the category of You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, Completely Mad is the saga of two men with one consuming ambition: to cross the Atlantic in a rowboat. Alone. Both finished their journeys within days of the first landing on the moon, in 1969. John Fairfax, from the Canary Islands, headed to Florida, and Tom McClean, from Newfoundland, with his compass, set off for Ireland. If you guessed their journeys would not be free of gales, sharks, and near drownings, you would be right, and James R. Hansen captures their exploits with verve. No spoilers, but here is a teaser: McClean crossed the ocean several times, and at age 81 lives in Scotland with his wife and latest boat, built to the exact specs of an adult sperm whale—65 feet long and 25 feet high—and this time powered by diesel engines and not by oars. Even the most dedicated landlubber will be enthralled by this book.
Nineteen sixty-eight is not exactly an ignored year by historians, given its assassinations (Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.), riots in the streets, and the Vietnam War, but Luke A. Nichter has done what seems like the impossible: bring fresh life and new insight into an election year that pitted Richard Nixon against Hubert Humphrey, with George Wallace lurking in the wings. Lyndon Johnson looms over the narrative as a president who did not want Humphrey to win, thinking Nixon would be likelier to support the war, and, along the way, L.B.J. in retirement would remain the nation’s top Democrat. Nichter relies heavily on the diaries of the Reverend Billy Graham, who served as conduit for messages between Nixon and L.B.J., and Nixon’s promise not to gut Great Society programs sealed L.B.J.’s tacit support. This is an absolutely riveting read, and proof that in the right hands, history can be re-written for the right reasons.