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“Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third,” T.S. Eliot said. James Joyce called Dante Alighieri “my spiritual food,” and Russian poet Anna Akhmatova learned Italian just to read him. The influence of Dante and his Divine Comedy permeates Western history and, clearly, the consciousness of even the most modern writers. And yet the 700th anniversary of his death in September 2021 went largely unmarked, at least in the United States. Just a few months tardy, Alessandro Barbero’s Dante: A Life arrives on these shores, translated from the Italian by Allan Cameron. Surprisingly, this is the first book by Barbero, a highly regarded historian and novelist in his native country, to be published in America.

Seven hundred years after Dante Alighieri’s death, a new biography parses the elusive life of one of civilization’s greatest poets.

Many of the details of Dante’s life, even the date of his birth, are lost to time, but Barbero is an indefatigable detective when it comes to piecing together a narrative from the historical record. His mission is not merely to sketch the possibilities of Dante’s private life but, perhaps even more so, to place Dante within the context of his times. The turn of the 14th century was a turbulent age on the Italian peninsula, and Dante was a native son of Florence, that most powerful city-state. Though likely of humble origins, the Alighieri clan had high aspirations, and Dante ambitiously immersed himself in the politics of the day. He aligned himself with the Guelphs, who supported the Pope, against the emperor-supporting Ghibellines. This divisiveness further fractured as the Guelphs themselves split into warring factions, which eventually led to Dante being banished from his beloved city. He lost his land, social status and wife and spent the last 20 years of his life in exile.

Dante’s literary legend has long been tied to his muse, Beatrice—a young woman whom he only encountered on two occasions, nine years apart. Again, Barbero plumbs the historical record to flesh out Beatrice’s story and discern how her veritable non-relationship with Dante nonetheless inspired some of the world’s great love poetry. In what might be viewed as an early form of metafiction, Dante made himself a character in the Divine Comedy, and so Barbero seeks clues to his familial and political relationships from within the pages of the epic poem, as well.

Still, given the gaps in the record, Barbero’s Dante is less biography or literary study than medieval history as seen through the foggy lens of one seminal man’s life. It raises the inevitable question that always surrounds genius: From where did this ordinary man spring, only to go on to create one of humanity’s masterpieces? Despite his erudition, Barbero is no better equipped to answer that question than his predecessors, but his well-timed work reminds us of Dante’s greatness and, perhaps, will send us back to the original source material to puzzle out the answer for ourselves.

Seven hundred years after Dante Alighieri’s death, a new biography parses the elusive life of one of civilization’s greatest poets.

Johnny Cash is remembered for his familiar greeting (“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”), his booming bass-baritone voice and his signature chugging guitar lines. Many of his songs delve into his experiences with addiction, such as “I Walk the Line,” and his tempestuous love affairs, such as “Jackson”—but many of his most famous songs also demonstrate Cash’s close attention to poverty and marginalization, like “Man in Black” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” Michael Stewart Foley’s Citizen Cash: The Political Life and Times of Johnny Cash offers a broader glimpse of this aspect of Cash’s music.

Drawing on untapped archives, Foley explores Cash’s life and music, illustrating how Cash’s impoverished childhood in rural Arkansas, where he witnessed brutal acts of racism and injustice, led to what Foley calls a “politics of empathy.” Foley writes that Cash “came to his political positions based on his personal experience, often guided by his own emotional and visceral responses to issues.” Foley traces the development of Cash’s politics over the course of his musical career, from Cash’s Sun Records days to his final recordings with producer Rick Rubin in the early 2000s. Foley also closely focuses on “The Johnny Cash Show,” and especially the closing segment of the show called “Ride This Train,” to illustrate the ways that Cash invited guest musicians such as Odetta and Stevie Wonder onto the show to break down racial barriers and confront American society’s tendency to divide rather than unite. Foley points out that Cash’s “empathy was not so much rooted in solidarity as it was based on witnessing: documenting sorrows and struggles, making it possible for . . . the subjugated, the exploited, the marginalized to be seen.”

Citizen Cash usefully combines biographical detail and cultural analysis with music history to provide an in-depth portrait of the ways Cash acquired his political and social ideas and wove them into the fabric of his music.

With unique depth, Citizen Cash combines biography, cultural analysis and music history to examine Johnny Cash’s political and social ideas.

In Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty (9 hours), broadcast journalist Anderson Cooper joins historian and novelist Katherine Howe to recount the rich and tumultuous history of his mother’s family, the Vanderbilts. The engaging and detailed narrative explores the chaos and charm of the Vanderbilt name and the family’s social status from the 19th to the 21st century.

Cooper’s narration is even, his voice distinctly resonant and professional throughout, yet there is a notably heartfelt quality to his memories of his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt. His tender descriptions of her dignity and optimistic spirit—in spite of the public and media scrutiny that came with being a Vanderbilt—lend a touching and respectful tone to this in-depth look at an American dynasty.

This revealing family history will be especially interesting to readers who loved Cooper’s The Rainbow Comes and Goes, a book of letters between Cooper and his mother, and those who enjoy celebrity memoirs such as The Boys by Ron and Clint Howard.

Anderson Cooper’s tender descriptions of his mother’s optimistic spirit lend a touching and respectful tone to this in-depth look at the Vanderbilt dynasty.

When we think of women’s contributions to World War II, what often comes to mind are bandanna-headed Rosie the Riveter types taking over factory work while the men were away. However, women journalists also reported on the war, facing challenges that male journalists did not, and their contributions are frequently overlooked.

Biographer Judith Mackrell’s wonderful new book, The Correspondents: Six Women Writers on the Front Lines of World War II, examines the war through the eyes of six reporters from this time. Mackrell posits that, though these women had a harder time accessing the front lines or the important political and military figures of the day, creative workarounds led to more nuanced and interesting coverage. “Over and over again,” Mackrell writes, “it was the restrictions imposed on women which, ironically, led to their finding more interestingly alternative views of the war.”

The six women Mackrell focuses on are Virginia Cowles, an American correspondent who started her career as a New York City society reporter; Sigrid Schultz, a brilliant and brave Berlin-based reporter whom readers may remember from Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts; Clare Hollingworth, an ambitious and idealistic young Brit; Helen Kirkpatrick, whose college internship in Geneva led to a lifelong love of covering international relations; Virginia Cowles, an upper-class Bostonian who covered the war while remaining “disconcertingly glamorous in lipstick and high heels”; and Martha Gellhorn, a dazzling writer whom history primarily, and unfairly, remembers as Ernest Hemingway’s third wife.

Mackrell effortlessly weaves together the personal and professional stories of these six journalists, producing a hearty biography that feels almost like a novel with its rich details. She brings each woman to life, tracing her childhood and entry into journalism, as well as her work and romantic life, against the backdrop of a simmering conflict that boiled over into a disastrous war. Although these women covered hard news, delivering scoops about impending military moves, they also wrote human stories that almost certainly would have been underreported had the war been left entirely to male correspondents.

For example, Martha Gellhorn, one of the first reporters to bear witness to the Dachau concentration camp, wrote about one Polish inmate in the camp infirmary who was so wasted that his jawbone “seemed to be cutting into his skin.” After that experience, she wrote, “I know I have never again felt that lovely easy lively hope in life which I knew before, not in life, not in our species, not in our future on earth.”

Judith Mackrell’s biography of six female journalists during World War II feels almost like a novel with its rich details.

The key to Angela Merkel’s extraordinary political achievements lies in her beginnings. The first half of her life was spent in East Germany, where she withstood the pressures of a police state. She learned that freedom of thought and action cannot be taken for granted. As the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, Merkel also believed in the importance of love as expressed by deeds, not just words, and in serving others. Although she became a brilliant physicist, she had wide interests and was quietly ambitious. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, she welcomed the chance to pursue politics in a united Germany.

In The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel, former NPR and ABC News reporter Kati Marton explores the public and very private life of the woman who served for 16 years as the head of the German state, which now generally reflects Merkel herself: stable, moderate and civil. Marton, who spent her childhood in Hungary during the Cold War under a totalitarian regime, is a perfect choice to write Merkel’s biography.

Merkel’s rise was spurred on by a combination of self-control, strategic thinking, passive aggression and luck. In 1991, she assumed a cabinet position in Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s newly unified Federal Republic of Germany. In 1998, however, after a political scandal, she publicly opposed his continuing in office. When she became chancellor in 2005, she did not bring specific policies to the office. Instead, she brought a belief in Germany’s permanent debt to the Jews; precise, evidence-based decision-making; and a loathing for dictators who imprison their own people.

At an event for volunteers who had helped with refugee settlement, Marton asked Merkel which single quality sustained her during her long political life. Merkel responded, “Endurance.” Marton’s beautifully written, balanced and insightful biography should be enjoyed by anyone interested in global politics or a fascinating life story.

This absorbing biography explores the public and very private life of Angela Merkel, the woman who served for 16 years as the head of the German government.

In her autobiography, All In (18 hours), Billie Jean King tells of her triumphs and struggles both on and off the tennis court, from her hardscrabble childhood in Long Beach, California, to her present-day life in New York City.

Growing up in the 1960s, King’s inquisitive and rebellious spirit reflected the era, as she refused to wear white skirts as a young player. Later, she launched the Women’s Tennis Association and built a career with her husband and business partner. But years of keeping her sexual orientation a secret took a toll on King, physically and emotionally. Her book celebrates the honesty, hard work and love that bolstered her and encouraged her to fight for inclusion and equity.  

In the energetic audio production, King brings her punchy, passionate personality to her percussive narration. Her voice is compassionate and down-to-earth as she relates her experiences of forging relationships with a colorful cast of characters who have joined her in her journey. In moments of pain and joy, King connects deeply with her audience through audible tears and laughter, culminating in an inspiring and cathartic listening experience.

In the energetic audiobook edition of her autobiography, Billie Jean King connects deeply with her audience through audible tears and laughter.

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