I’d recommend James Agate’s The Selective Ego (out of print but available from Amazon and other used-book dealers). You don’t have to be an intellectual to be a great diarist, and Agate, the spectacularly self-involved drama critic of the London Sunday Times from 1923 until his death in 1947, wrote about the printable parts of his life with careful evasion (he was given to masochistic practices of the grossest sort) and colossal panache. This concise compilation of entries from Ego, the nine-volume series of diaries that Agate published in the Thirties and Forties, is a superlative bedside book, hugely amusing and easily readable in random snatches.
David R. Dow’s The Autobiography of an Execution is an astonishingly well-written memoir by Texas’ best-known death-row lawyer, in which he describes the nuts and bolts of how his clients make their (usually inevitable) way to the grave. No matter how you feel about capital punishment — and especially if you support it, whether staunchly or uneasily — this sobering book will bring you face to face with the arbitrary, often capricious way in which the death penalty really works.
Concerning What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years by Ricky Riccardi, I can’t do better than to repeat my dust-jacket blurb: “The later years of Louis Armstrong are one of the most fascinating untold tales in the history of jazz. What a Wonderful World is indispensable to anyone with a serious interest in the greatest jazz musician of the twentieth century.” If you liked my Armstrong biography, you need to read this book.
Wesley Stace’s Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer is a historical thriller in which the lives and work of Peter Warlock, Constant Lambert, and Carlo Gesualdo are blended into the hair-raising tale of an unworldly music critic who writes an opera libretto for a flint-hearted composer, who returns the favor in the most malevolent way imaginable. The author (better known in pop-music circles as John Wesley Harding) has done a virtuosic job of fusing fact with fiction, and the result is one of the few novels with a musical setting in which the background is rendered accurately. Absolutely not for musicians only, though those who already know the dramatis personae will be dazzled by the sure-footed skill with which Stace has put their real-life stories to novelistic use.
Finally, try Richard Stark’s Butcher’s Moon — the best of Donald E. Westlake’s pseudonymous thrillers about Parker, the toughest burglar who ever lived, in which he goes up against an entire big-city crime syndicate — with a little help from a lot of friends. Out of print for years and years, Butcher’s Moon is the ultimate Parker novel, best read as an installment in the series but comprehensible and satisfying on its own.
— Terry Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal. His latest book is Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.
Read more summer book recommendations here.