Hero-worshipping Lawrence of Arabia

Plus, adventures of a prison librarian, a new novel by Andrew Pyper, a composer on his autistic twin sister, Annie Proulx’s dream home and one amazing dame
Hero-worshipping Lawrence of Arabia
He was the most important individual soldier of the First World War, a hero of mythic stature | Everett Collection/CP; S.W. Zwemer; Illustration by Taylor Shute

Hero-worshipping Lawrence of ArabiaHERO: THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
Michael Korda

In mid-1914, Thomas Edward Lawrence was a shy, short (five foot five) polyglot (French, German, Arabic, Turkish) British scholar and textbook Freudian neurotic—a masochist with an outsized Oedipal complex, the illegitimate son of an Anglo-Irish baronet who had run away with the family governess. Still only 25, he had already walked across 1,500 km of the Mideast, then part of the Ottoman Empire, and had deliberately inured himself to pain and deprivation, while honing his leadership skills. He was possessed of a sense of destiny, the exact shape of which must have seemed obscure even to him. It is impossible to guess how his life might have unfolded had events not conspired, in the form of the First World War, to provide him with a field of operation large enough for his charisma and his military genius.

Korda, 77, the former editor-in-chief of Simon and Schuster, is a born hero-worshipper, and the author of earlier biographies of Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower. In Lawrence of Arabia, Korda has found a figure worthy of his absorbing, detail-rich style, one who exceeds his previous subjects in sheer personal drama and rivals Ike in historical importance. Lawrence became one of the greatest guerrilla leaders of all time, mastering the small (devastating raids on enemy railways) and the large: as Korda convincingly argues, if his hero’s Mideast mapmaking, respectful of ethnic territory and ancient trade routes, had been followed after the war, the region might not have become the bloody mess it is today.

It’s possible to quibble with one of Korda’s central themes: that the anonymous, meat-grinder nature of combat during the Great War means that only a single warrior remains instantly recognizable. Canadians do remember Billy Bishop, for one, and—if only because of Snoopy—the Red Baron is probably more famous to Americans than their own Sgt. York. But on a larger, worldwide stage, Korda proves himself correct: T.E. Lawrence was the most important individual soldier of the war, a hero of mythic stature whose accomplishments still reverberate in contemporary geopolitics.

Avi Steinberg

Readers who persevere through the sapless autobiographical first chapters of Running the Books will be rewarded unbelievably—so much so it’s maddening—by its second half, where Avi Steinberg’s real book begins. Steinberg is a Harvard-educated former yeshiva-boy-turned-slacker who takes a job as a Boston prison librarian because he has nothing better to do. The early chapters of the book introduce us to his pain: “stress-related back problems,” garden-variety Jewish identity issues, the death of a grandmother he admits to having barely known. But it is only when this wan buffet of minor aches gets put away, replaced by the smorgasbord of hard-core hell belonging to the prisoners who frequent Steinberg’s library—suicidal junkie mothers who abandoned infants, pimps who had put Grade 9 girls into the slave trade—that Steinberg finds his real beat as a storyteller.

One wonders why Steinberg’s editor let him spend quite so long on his weenie shpilkes before giving us the mesmerizing world of the library, where the stacks serve as mailboxes for the “kites,” or notes, prisoners leave each other (Steinberg also writes, touchingly, of “skywriting,” where inmates stand in windows and draw love letters to each other in the air), and all manner of plan is hatched, including a script for a cooking show amazingly titled Thug Sizzle. Steinberg is genius in recording the prison’s pimping patois, and shows a gifted journalistic ability in capturing the heartbreak of some of the prisoners’ lives in just a few strokes.

When the false starts of his own existence veer back once or twice in these later chapters (should he marry his girlfriend? He’s not sure he’s ready), one is in a more forgiving mood. Steinberg has redeemed himself by the book’s end. His editor? Not so much.

Hero-worshipping Lawrence of ArabiaTHE GUARDIANS
Andrew Pyper

“You’d be surprised,” Trevor’s high school girlfriend tells him when he returns to his hometown of Grimshaw, Ont., for a funeral. “Even in a town this small, people forget.” Trevor, now 40, is convinced all of Grimshaw must see an eerie connection between the recent disappearance of a local girl and the death of a beautiful young woman some 24 years ago. For Trevor—and for his childhood friends, Ben, Randy and Carl—most everything is connected to that death, and to the house where it took place.

The boys first venture into the abandoned property across the street from where Ben lives when they are eight. Ben leads them there to share the news that his father is dead, having driven his car into a hydro pole—on purpose, Ben believes. As his friends console him, they hear a woman moaning from upstairs. It isn’t clear whether she is in the throes of passion or terror—whether she is even alive. What is certain as they scramble out the back door is that the boys have had their first brush with lust, violence and the kind of grief that doesn’t let go.

Eight years later, they seem to have emerged unscathed. They all play on the town’s celebrated hockey team, the Guardians. They are still close friends. They’ve moved beyond pictures of Farrah Fawcett to real girlfriends. But, from his bedroom in the attic, Ben has been keeping a close watch on the place across the street. He sees something suspicious on the eve of their music teacher’s disappearance and convinces his friends that they have a moral duty to investigate. Soon, the boys become guardians of another kind—of a secret, and, it would seem, of a ghost.

Though his characters sometimes fall flat (a not uncommon malady of mystery fiction), Pyper’s plot hits a near-perfect pace, moving steadily forward to the rhythmic beat of question-clue-question-clue. No spoiler alert is necessary to reveal that every puzzle has its answer—save one. Because, while there is little doubt that ghosts do indeed exist in this story, the problem of what “being haunted” really means remains.

Hero-worshipping Lawrence of ArabiaTWIN
Allen Shawn

The author and well-regarded composer is the son of long-time New Yorker editor William Shawn and the brother of actor Wallace Shawn. But as he made clear in his first book, Wish I Could Be There (2007), for him the most influential member of his family was literally absent from much of his life: Allen’s twin sister Mary. Institutionalized since age 8, Mary is autistic and—contrary to current pop stereotypes that make all autistic people emotionally distant but intellectually brilliant—cognitively impaired. Mary’s 1956 institutionalization left Allen, as he writes in Twin, in an “ocean of disquiet that manifested itself in panic attacks and a lifelong struggle with agoraphobia.”

Yet, given the genetic component of autism, the bonds forged by twins, his own anxiety disorders and his father’s legendary eccentricities—William’s fear of elevators was notorious enough to spark a rumour that he carried a hatchet in his briefcase in case he was ever trapped in one—Allen was always bound to wonder some day about autism spectrum disorders. The underlying theme of Allen’s fascinating, melancholy and often unsettling memoir of his childhood before and after his twin’s departure are questions he resists even framing. How far off that spectrum am I? How much of my disorders are inherent, rather than a response?

Allen remembers being Mary’s instinctive interpreter when his frustrated parents could not understand her wants, as fluent in her non-verbal communication as he was in English. And even now, Allen writes, he can’t but think Mary’s verbal difficulties are a matter of choice, that she has coped with the world as “freely” as he has. No medical authority is liable to agree with him, but Twin remains a remarkable book, a wrenching account of the tie that binds Allen to a sister he knows he can never truly understand.

Hero-worshipping Lawrence of ArabiaBIRD CLOUD
Annie Proulx

At 75, with a Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Shipping News and an Academy Award-winning film adaptation of her short story “Brokeback Mountain” to her credit, Annie Proulx is entitled to a few indulgences. And so, as she tells us in Bird Cloud—her first work of non-fiction in over two decades—she has spent a good deal of the last decade building what she hoped would become her ideal home, a place where “perhaps, I will end my days.”

A bird-shaped cloud in an otherwise clear sky on her first visit gave name to the 640-acre Wyoming ranch that Proulx chose as her future homestead. With abundant wildlife, and golden cliffs leaning over the North Platte River, Bird Cloud’s ruggedness and remoteness suits Proulx just fine. In the company of workers with names like the James Gang, Uphill Bob and Catfish, Proulx suffers the predictable agonies of home-building—weather delays, shoddy work. And some less predictable—a tiff over a fence after a neighbour’s cow fell from the cliffs to its death, a Japanese soak tub leaking into her enormous library. As construction stretches out over several years, Proulx uncovers the stories of the sheep ranchers and Native Americans of Bird Cloud’s past, and fills pages with notes on the behaviours of the ranch’s birds. She also includes some of her own family history, lovely snapshots framed by frequent moves due to her father’s “obsessive desire to escape his French-Canadian heritage and reinvent himself as a New England Yankee.”

Imperfect though the house is in the end—the access road is impassable in winter and Proulx has to live elsewhere in the snowiest months—“a kind of wooden poem” is how she comes to think of Bird Cloud. It might also describe her memoir. There is, of course, Proulx’s singular writing, bleak but evocative, with the occasional glint of lightness and humour. But Bird Cloud doesn’t bring us much closer to knowing the reclusive Proulx. It is instead an engaging view on the endless appetite for observation that translates into prize-winning fiction.

Hero-worshipping Lawrence of ArabiaKAY THOMPSON: FROM FUNNY FACE TO ELOISE
Sam Irvin

Kay Thompson was one amazing dame—a rainmaker who put together radio shows in the 1930s, a vocal coach at MGM who “put the sob” in Judy Garland’s voice, and an author who created an iconic feminist character in Eloise. Thompson (née “Kitty” Fink) wore pants and directed television specials when women did not. She was Frank Sinatra’s vocal guru, Liza Minnelli’s godmother, Noël Coward’s playmate, Gene Kelly’s charades partner, Fred Astaire’s nem-esis, Lena Horne’s matchmaker, and Andy Williams’s much older girlfriend.

Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise is an engrossing biography that leaves no lyricist, lover, radio station, studio executive, club owner or band leader unnamed. That’s its most impressive accomplishment and its biggest flaw. It can be tedious to read about the unknowns. But things get dishy during Thompson’s nightclub era (1947-1955), when her act with the Williams Brothers caught fire. To keep up the pace, Thompson became a patient of the infamous Dr. Max Jacobson, who gave celebrities injections of speed.
Eating only Fig Newtons and drinking Coke, Thompson was known as the life of the party. The next milestone for Thompson was the silver screen, where she upstaged Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire in Funny Face. But her career didn’t progress as planned. “Bolstering the careers of others was a bittersweet endeavour for someone who craved the spotlight so intently,” notes author Sam Irvin.

Irvin preserves Thompson’s star-studded exploits with the attention to detail that Thompson would approve of, but the author is best when charting Thompson’s talent for reinvention. At 46, she became a bestselling author as the creator of Eloise, a precocious girl living in New York’s Plaza Hotel. When Thompson’s controlling personality alienated the book’s illustrator, Hilary Knight, her career took another turn. At the age of 64, she conquered New York as a fashion show producer and doyenne of style. Eccentric and parsimonious, Thompson did not grow old gracefully. Irvin credits Liza Minnelli for taking in the mercurial Thompson from 1973 until her death in 1998 at the age of 88.