New in Nonfiction

Here is what is new in Nonfiction at the bookstore.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
by Erik Larson 

In this mesmerizing portrait of the Nazi capital, Larson plumbs a far more diabolical urban cauldron than in his bestselling The Devil in the White City. He surveys Berlin, circa 1933–1934, from the perspective of two American naïfs: Roosevelt’s ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, an academic historian and Jeffersonian liberal who hoped Nazism would de-fang itself (he urged Hitler to adopt America’s milder conventions of anti-Jewish discrimination), and Dodd’s daughter Martha, a sexual free spirit who loved Nazism’s vigor and ebullience. At first dazzled by the glamorous world of the Nazi ruling elite, they soon started noticing signs of its true nature: the beatings meted out to Americans who failed to salute passing storm troopers; the oppressive surveillance; the incessant propaganda; the intimidation and persecution of friends; the fanaticism lurking beneath the surface charm of its officialdom. Although the narrative sometimes bogs down in Dodd’s wranglings with the State Department and Martha’s soap opera, Larson offers a vivid, atmospheric panorama of the Third Reich and its leaders, including murderous Nazi factional infighting, through the accretion of small crimes and petty thuggery.

Jack Kennedey: Elusive Hero
by Chris Matthews

Out of his gut interest in politics and love of reading biographies of American heroes, Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hardball, probes the details of the 35th president’s life and career to find out what Jack was like. He begins this book wanting to discover how Kennedy became the leader who, at a moment of national fear and anger (the Cuban missile crisis), could cut so coldly and clearly to the truth. Drawing on interviews with friends and former staffers, as well as on such familiar biographical incidents as Kennedy’s rescue of the PT-109 crew and his resulting back injury, Matthews reveals a man who through inner direction and tenacious will created himself out of the loneliness and illness of his youth and who taught himself the hard discipline of politics through his own triumphs and failures. For example, from the Bay of Pigs—considered one of Kennedy’s failures—JFK learned that there must be both clarity and completion when the stakes are highest and most desperate; know your enemy and your goal; and hold fast to what you’re attempting. With this resolve, Kennedy reacted to Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis with a detachment that resisted the easy path of war that others recommended. Matthews’s stirring biography reveals Kennedy as a “fighting prince never free from pain, never far from trouble, and never accepting the world he found.”

The Death of King Arthur: Thomas Malory’s The Immortal Legend
A Retelling by Peter Ackroyd

Having successfully reworked Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for modern audiences, British editor, novelist, and critic Ackroyd (Dickens: Public Life and Private Passion) turns his talents to Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, transforming the 15th-century compilation of Arthurian medieval romances into an eminently readable narrative. Rather than precisely translating Malory’s Middle English, Ackroyd renders the original’s tone and spirit in modern prose. Readers will recognize Arthur and Galahad, Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristram and Isolde, Merlin, Mordred, and Morgan LeFay, the Sword in the Stone and the Lady of the Lake—portrayed with all their pride, self-doubt, flaws, and frustrations. We see knights caught in a medieval catch-22, trying to abide by a code of chivalry that was difficult even in that era. Their adventures produce enough dastardly villains, doomed loves, magic spells, and heroic deeds to equal the most imaginative contemporary fiction, while relations between the knights and the ladies they rescue, ravish, revere, revenge, or reject yield a surprising range of emotions and complications. Though scholars might prefer a more exact version of Malory’s work, most readers will welcome Ackroyd’s straightforward storytelling and this celebration of Britain’s literary and cultural tradition.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
by Robert K. Massie

The Pulitzer-winning biographer of Nicholas and Alexandra and of Peter the Great, Massie now relates the life of a minor German princess, Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, who became Empress Catherine II of Russia (1729–1796). She was related through her ambitious mother to notable European royalty; her husband-to-be, the Russian grand duke Peter, was the only living grandson of Peter the Great. As Massie relates, during her disastrous marriage to Peter, Catherine bore three children by three different lovers, and she and Peter were controlled by Peter’s all-powerful aunt, Empress Elizabeth, who took physical possession of Catherine’s firstborn, Paul. Six months into her husband’s incompetent reign as Peter III, Catherine, 33, who had always believed herself superior to her husband, dethroned him, but probably did not plan his subsequent murder, though, Massie writes, a shadow of suspicion hung over her. Confident, cultured, and witty, Catherine avoided excesses of personal power and ruled as a benevolent despot. Magnifying the towering achievements of Peter the Great, she imported European culture into Russia, from philosophy to medicine, education, architecture, and art. Effectively utilizing Catherine’s own memoirs, Massie once again delivers a masterful, intimate, and tantalizing portrait of a majestic monarch.

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Posted on December 8, 2011, in Authors, Book Review, New Hardback, Non-Fiction. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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