Books About Curious Minds, Recommended for the Curious Minded – New York Times

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Joon Mo Kang

Dear Match Book,

I enjoy a good mystery as much as the next reader, but my favorite reading consists of biographies, as well as the letters and diaries, of artists and writers. The books I’ve most enjoyed recently include Megan Marshall’s biography “Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast.” Marshall’s book “The Peabody Sisters” is one of my all-time favorites. I also enjoyed “At the Existentialist Café,” by Sarah Bakewell, for its portrait of the group of writers and philosophers connected in various ways to existentialist thought. Robert D. Richardson Jr.’s books on Emerson, Thoreau and William James provided brilliant insights into the history of transcendentalism. Other recent reads include “The Art of Rivalry,” by Sebastian Smee, and “You Must Change Your Life,” by Rachel Corbett. All such amazing and wonderful books! I’m looking for something equally absorbing to carry me through the summer months.

KAREN RACZ
SHELBURNE, MASS.

Dear Karen,

Literary stars: They’re not just like us! Ernest Hemingway shot sharks with a machine gun. Emily and Anne Brontë plotted adventures in an imaginary realm they named Gondal. Emily Dickinson spoke to visitors through half-closed doors. The unconventional lives of artists and writers have given biographers plenty to write about.

Lost and Found

Two absorbing books subvert the typical conventions of biography and tell the stories of celebrated writers’ lives through their possessions. In the extravagantly evocative “Hemingway’s Boat,” Paul Hendrickson traces about 27 years of Ernest Hemingway’s tumultuous life through his beloved 38-foot cabin cruiser, Pilar. “She wasn’t a figment or a dream or a literary theory or somebody’s psychosexual interpretation — she was actual,” Hendrickson writes.

The nine objects owned by Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë and affectionately cataloged by Deborah Lutz in “The Brontë Cabinet” are smaller treasures, including miniature books, a walking stick and a brass collar that fit around the large neck of Emily Brontë’s dog, Keeper. Lutz uses the humble items to tell stories about the 19th-century writers’ domestic and creative lives, placing them in the larger context of Victorian culture.

A Good Impression

The narrow focus of “Mad Enchantment,” Ross King’s rich, lively examination of Claude Monet and his water lilies, sharply captures the career of an artist during the last years of his life. Paragraph by paragraph, King weaves historical details — the charms of Monet’s property in Giverny and the town itself, the artist’s irascible moods and his work habits — with finesse, drawing back frequently to chart the fluctuating critical reception that greeted Monet’s work in his lifetime.

Portrait of a Lady

Since you enjoyed “The Peabody Sisters,” I recommend “Clover Adams,” Natalie Dykstra’s fascinating biography of the photographer, Civil War relief volunteer and troubled high-society hostess who — along with her husband, the writer and historian Henry Adams — was part of a powerful social circle that included H. H. Richardson and Henry James. Dykstra scrutinizes Adams’s artfully composed photographs, taken in the years leading up to her suicide in 1885, to look for signs of Clover’s deteriorating state of mind.

Of Two Minds

Your reading list tilts toward celebrated writers and thinkers closely associated with New England. Two fascinating books about intimate relationships in the lives of two very different 19th-century literary luminaries align with your tastes. “Eden’s Outcasts,” John Matteson’s grounded and perceptive biography, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008, captures the difficult though loving relationship between Louisa May Alcott and her father, Bronson. The bond examined by Brenda Wineapple in “White Heat” — which brims with crackling immediacy — features an even more unlikely pair: the reclusive genius Emily Dickinson and her posthumous publisher, the writer, abolitionist and Union Army colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Though they corresponded for nearly 25 years the friends met in person only twice.

Faithfully Yours

Your affinity for letters and for Megan Marshall’s biography of Elizabeth Bishop makes me think that you might already have read “Words in Air,” the correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton. I can’t stop recommending it. Another one of my favorite collections of 20th-century letters, “Zora Neale Hurston,” collected and edited by Carla Kaplan, offers a fascinating portrait in wild, passionate words and anecdotes of the author of the novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and the folklore collection “Mules and Men.” Hurston’s letters are a vital connection to the Harlem Renaissance; her correspondents include fellow writers and intellectuals W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Carl Sandburg and Dorothy West (whom she sometimes calls “Dot”). For biographical context read the letters with “Wrapped in Rainbows” — Valerie Boyd’s insightful and compassionate biography of Hurston — close at hand.

Yours truly,
Match Book

Do you need book recommendations? Write to matchbook@nytimes.com.

Check out Match Book’s earlier recommendations here.


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