Savage Lands by Clare Clark (Mariner, $15). Clark’s novel gives readers a history of 18th-century French settlers in Louisiana woven together with a love story, though not a happy one. Clark’s main protagonist, however, is Louisiana itself, conjured by magical descriptions of the lush yet ruthless landscape.
Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis (Vintage, $15). Ellis’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book focuses on seven events from the early American republic—including a dinner, a duel, a friendship, and a farewell—and manages to spin out the whole history of the making of America. A real page-turner.
Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson (Bedford, $16). Jefferson published his only book in the early 1780s. Ostensibly, it’s about Virginia, but it’s also a celebration of America’s spectacular landscape. From his rapturous descriptions of rivers to his lists of the most glorious forest trees, Jefferson reveals just how important nature was for him.
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner (Penguin, $16). One of my favorite novels of all time. Stegner tells the story of a retired professor, Lyman Ward, who struggles to write an account of his grandparents’ journey to the Western frontier. No author has ever evoked the American West as vividly.
John Adams by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, $20). Few historians can bring their subjects to life the way David McCullough does. Instead of putting a halo above the second president’s head, McCullough paints a portrait of a man who was short-tempered but passionate, vain but honest. His Adams is a politician who regarded himself as a farmer—and also a man deeply in love with his wife, Abigail.
The Papers of James Madison, Retirement Series edited by David Mattern (Univ. of Va., $85). I love reading the Founding Fathers’ letters. Madison’s during his retirement illustrate that he was not only a brilliant legal mind and politician but also the forgotten father of American environmentalism. Unlike his contemporaries, he understood that ours is a fragile ecological system that can be easily destroyed, and he insisted that man has to return what he takes from nature.
—Author and design historian Andrea Wulf has written three books about the history of gardening. Her latest is Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation, recently published by Knopf
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