Ron Hansen’s beautiful and sad Exiles (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23) is a fictional account of two historically-based stories: the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins’s effort to discipline his creative spirit and live a more obedient life, and a shipwreck that occurred off the coast of England in 1875. Most of the Deutschland’s passengers and crew were finally saved, but 64 died, among them five Franciscan nuns on their way to America. Hopkins had been a brilliant student at Oxford; influenced by Cardinal Newman, he converted to Catholicism and became a priest. In order to conform to the demands of his superiors, he gave up writing poetry, but the shipwreck loosened something in him. Hopkins was so moved by the victims’ deaths that he wrote a long poem (included in the back of the book). His poetry was not recognized while he was alive and only became appreciated decades after his death, when it was rediscovered by Virginia Woolf and the modernists.

My favorites of Ron Hansen’s novels are about the challenges of faith. (Mariette in Ecstasy is another.) The Exiles (Picador, $14) of the title are the great British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, banished to Ireland, and five Franciscan nuns who were sent to America to work. Hopkins, from a well-off family, was a university student at Oxford when he converted to Catholicism. A brilliant and original mind, he was out of step with the demands of strict obedience. For a long time he gave up poetry, but an 1875 freak shipwreck on the Thames that killed 44 passengers, including five nuns from Germany, loosened something in him and he wrote a long poem in honor of the lost sisters (included in the book). Two years later he wrote “a clutch of poems that were so original and are now so esteemed.” This arresting book is about the creative spirit that disturbs ordinary men.

Exiles: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780312428341
Availability: Not On Our Shelves—Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Picador - June 23rd, 2009

Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek and author of Franklin and Winston, says of Jackson that “the virtues and vices of this single man tell us much about the virtues and vices of our country.”  American Lion (Random House, $30) is Meacham’s portrait of Jackson’s years in power. He draws on previously unavailable letters of Jackson’s intimate circle. Jackson was born in the Carolina backwoods; his father died before his birth, and he was orphaned at 14. He received little formal schooling, and when Harvard bestowed an honorary degree on him in 1833, John Quincy Adams refused to attend Harvard’s “disgrace in conferring her highest honor upon a barbarian who would not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name.” Jackson assumed the presidency in 1829 amid ongoing secessionist crises.  He advocated extending freedom and democracy to the poorest whites and he worked to expand the powers of the presidency in ways that Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt would follow.  A champion of the common man, he was also the first president to insist upon deference due the chief executive.

As the roster of journalist-historians grows, the world of academic historians increasingly regards them as doctors see chiropractors.  Although the academics may grumble, Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, demonstrates in American Lion (Random House, $18) that he knows how to research new primary sources and gather the fruits for a fresh assessment of Andrew Jackson’s presidency. Because Meacham heavily invokes character and setting, he is regarded as a “popular historian”; thus The New York Times described this biography as “enormously entertaining.”  But Meacham finally received the respect he deserves for this monumental study: it won the Pulitzer Prize. The Jackson he describes was a rich contradiction of kind and brutal, populist and haughty—in short, a colorful character who defies easy definition.

American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House Cover Image
ISBN: 9780812973464
Availability: In Stock—Click for Locations
Published: Random House Trade Paperbacks - April 30th, 2009

The Post-American World (W.W. Norton, $25.95), by Fareed Zakaria, is a wise and succinct overview of the political changes in the world: the rise of China and India, especially, but of many other nations as well. Zakaria well understands that the United States is vitally important to world stability, but he says that we must play a different role, one involving consultation, cooperation, and compromise. Above all, we must stop “cowering in fear from the other.” 

The Post-American World: Release 2.0 Cover Image
ISBN: 9780393340389
Availability: Not On Our Shelves—Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: W. W. Norton & Company - May 21st, 2012