A philosophy book may cause some to shrug with indifference, but Sarah Bakewell has a knack for making big ideas and their thinkers fascinating and readable. She achieved such excellence and readability with her book How to Live: A Life of Montaigne In One Question and 20 Attempts At an Answer about Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). Montaigne is best known for perfecting the essay as a literary genre.
Last week, Bakewell’s new book arrived with a focus on existentialism.
At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Others received rave forecasting reviews, with Library Journal issuing the verdict: “Highly recommended for anyone who thinks.” An interesting cast of characters populates the book, aside from those in the long title, including political theorist Hannah Arendt, authors Iris Murdoch and James Baldwin, and more. From the publisher’s website:
“Interweaving biography and philosophy, [At the Existentialist Café] is the epic account of passionate encounters — fights, love affairs, mentorships, rebellions, and long partnerships — and a vital investigation into what the existentialists have to offer us today, at a moment when we are once again confronting the major questions of freedom, global responsibility, and human authenticity in a fractious and technology-driven world.”
You can read a short excerpt here. Bakewell’s How to Live, by the way, won the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography.
Soon to be published is what strikes me as a quirky and potentially fascinating anthology of childhood infatuations with celebrated media stars or iconic characters. Contributors in Crush: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing and the Power of Their First Celebrity Crush include Carrie Fisher, Stephen King, James Franco and Jodi Picoult, plus others. Crushes range from Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie in the 1960s Dick Van Dyke Show to Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones.
Here’s the opening for Jodi Picoult’s contribution, when she’s six years old and running away from home:
“I stuffed a toothbrush, a hairbrush, and a change of clothes into my pillowcase, I scrawled a note for my mother and left it on my bureau. Then I sneaked downstairs and slipped out the back door into the smothering heat of an August night, intent on running away to be with the one person I was certain would appreciate me.
“The note read: I have gone to live with Donny Osmond. Don’t try to come after me.”
If existentialists and media crushes don’t interest you, perhaps Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled England for 44 years, will. Author John Guy writes about the Tudor queen, daughter of Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn, at the height of her power using new archival material.
“In this magisterial biography of England’s most ambitious Tudor queen, John Guy introduces us to a woman who is refreshingly unfamiliar: at once powerful and vulnerable, willful and afraid. In these essential and misunderstood forgotten years, Elizabeth confronts challenges at home and abroad: war against the Catholic powers of France and Spain, revolt in Ireland, an economic crisis that triggered riots in the streets of London, and a conspiracy to place her cousin Mary Queen of Scots on her throne. For a while she was smitten by a much younger man, but could she allow herself to act on that passion and still keep her throne?”