A rightfully monumental biography, Ron Chernow‘s Grant (Penguin Press, $40) is a finely crafted portrait of a complex man. Chernow, awarded the Pulitzer for his life of George Washington, details the life of the Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant by exploring the underbelly of military success. He starts by exposing Grant’s vulnerabilities, which figured in the future commander-in-chief’s memoirs as the modest ambitions of a young soldier at West Point. Suspecting he lacked the skill to succeed as a warrior, Grant was nonetheless determined to lead and command. He studied hard. Became a skilled equestrian, developed strong mapping skills, and eventually proved himself on the battlefield, despite skepticism from journalists and fellow soldiers who were aware of Grant’s struggle with alcoholism. Chernow also illuminates much about Grant’s staunch criticism of slavery, his resignation from the army, his newly formed political awakenings, and infamous financial problems. Later, as the eighteenth president, Grant emerges from the tragedy of Lincoln’s assassination and his own scandals as “America’s most famous man” who, as Mark Twain notes, “saved the country from destruction.” Prepare to be deeply immersed in this account of an immortal American life.
Now that Bob Dylan is officially a Nobel laureate and has accepted his 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, a new book by Harvard Professor Richard F. Thomas arrives and opens a dialogue on the relevance of Dylan’s artistry, classical literary references, and his importance to “the great American song traditions.” In Why Bob Dylan Matters (Dey Street, $24.99) Professor Thomas expands on the basic outline of his freshman seminar class and adds his own personal and cultural connections to the songs. In one example he traces the cultural significance of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and concludes with the urgency of its questions. The answers are timeless. Dylan often borrowed folk melodies and created something new out of them. From the early influences of Woody Guthrie to the ancient classical poets, and including Dante, Machiavelli, Gogol, Balzac, Maupassant, Hugo, Dickens, and Melville, Thomas looks at how Dylan’s songs borrow and steal from a wide range of literary and song traditions and transform them all into the phenomenon folks simply refer to as “Dylan.”