I took Gossip (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25) on vacation but allocated it to my time slot of “playtime reading”; by the end of the first chapter, I had promoted it to the status of the “thoughtful and enjoyable.” By the time I finished it, I had chosen four friends on my holiday gift list to whom I want to introduce Joseph Epstein, a wonderful essayist and former editor of Phi Beta Kappa’s journal, American Scholar, and certainly not a National Enquirer, scandal-loving kind of guy. Nevertheless, he unabashedly loves hearing and spreading dish, a practice he defends with his belief that even superior novelists, Jane Austen and Barbara Pym included, thrive on gossip to keep the reader involved and the world going round. During his long career, Epstein has had an earful, out of which come some very funny anecdotes as well as insightful ruminations. Describing his personal preferences in the gossip universe, he names “the items that feature the comedy of human behavior: the comedy, that is, of people trying to live up to their own probably too high pretensions.”
Before there was Katharine Graham at The Washington Post, there was Cissy Patterson (1881-1948), editor-in-chief at The Washington Times-Herald. The life of this Newspaper Titan (Knopf, $37.50) is colorful enough to keep readers turning all 500-plus pages of local author Amanda Smith’s insightful new biography. No more experienced than Graham was when she came to the job, Patterson was also every bit as successful, raising the Times-Herald from a lackluster low-circulation daily to the leading newspaper in our capital city. Patterson’s very personal style of journalism insisted upon the sensational and transformed the paper into a “pugnacious, tattling, picture-packed” tabloid with an enormous legal budget for libel suits. Patterson matched this with her equally flamboyant private life. An impulsive, fun-loving, and backbiting collector of personal enemies, she lived a life straight out of a Henry James novel.
She was born into minor Prussian nobility in 1729 and named Sophia Augusta Fredericka, but she would die 67 years later as Catherine The Great (Random House, $35), an empress of tremendous intellect and passions. Robert Massie, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Peter the Great, has written a masterfully researched and compelling account of Catherine’s draconian childhood and disastrous arranged marriage, at age fourteen, to the mentally and physically impaired heir to the throne of a culturally backward Russia. The marriage was never consummated, but Catherine had three children by three different lovers. During her reign she became a politically powerful and culturally influential force, leading armies, negotiating treaties, and corresponding with Voltaire and Diderot in an attempt to bring the aesthetic ferment of the French Enlightenment to an unsophisticated population. She also recruited European doctors to bring modern medical practices to St. Petersburg and Moscow, where she founded those cities’ first medical schools and hospitals. Massie is so skilled at writing biography, and his subject is such a brilliant, multi-dimensional, and magnetic woman, that the combination makes for one of the best books of the season.