Category Archives: Non-Fiction

Nonfiction Paperbacks

The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World’s MOst Perplexing Cold Cases
Michael Capuzzo

Despite journalist Capuzzo’s obvious reverence for the crime fighters he profiles, his account of the formation of the legendary Vidocq Society is as scattered as many of the cold case files they wade through. Based in Philadelphia, the Vidocq Society was the brainchild of three wildly different men brought together by their desire to speak for the dead: freewheeling exboxer turned forensic sculptor Frank Bender; FBI and U.S. Customs agent William Fleisher; and pre-eminent forensic psychologist and profiler Richard Walter. What began as an informal meeting of colleagues in 1990 evolved into an expansive international think tank of sorts modeled and named after France’s famed criminal-turned-sleuth Eugène Vidocq, a model for Sherlock Holmes. The cases—ranging from Philadelphia’s long-festering “Boy in the Box” murder to the “Butcher of Cleveland,” a serial killer who taunted Elliot Ness in the 1930s—are fascinating, but Capuzzo (Close to Shore) loses much of his narrative momentum by abruptly shifting between the founding members’ individual backstories and homicides the society investigates. Yet there is no denying that the 82 “VSMs”(Vidocq Society Member) do an immeasurable service in the name of justice.

Colonelt Roosevelt: Theodore Roosevelt Goes to War, 1897-1898
H. Paul Jeffers 

The man who likened himself to a “”bull moose,”” says Jeffers in this sturdy second installment (after Commissioner Roosevelt, 1994) of his multivolume popular biography of the 26th president, intended to be elected chief executive in 1904. As it happened, the assassination of William McKinley carried Roosevelt into the White House in 1901. But if Roosevelt’s schedule was off, Jeffers convincingly explains, his aim wasn’t. Roosevelt emerged from the Spanish-American War with the White House right in his sights. Jeffers is most effective in describing Roosevelt’s role in organizing and leading the Rough Riders, but he exaggerates his subject’s role in the origin of the war that made this cavalry division famous. Relying heavily on Roosevelt’s own accounts, he misses the fact that, as Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt was widely regarded in the McKinley administration as a loose cannon, respected for his energy but not for his ideas. Still, this is a handsome narrative of a crucial period in the career of one of our country’s most colorful politicians.

Everyone Loves You When You Are Dead
Neil Strauss

Journalist Strauss, who has coauthored books with the band members of Mötley Crüe (The Dirt) and porn superstar Jenna Jameson (How to Make Love Like a Porn Star) now offers a terrific look at the dysfunctional livelihoods of stardom, a theme based on his many interviews for various publications. Strauss went back to his original interview tapes and notes in search of moments—mostly unpublished—that reveal “the truth or essence of each person, story, or experience.” He liberally and ingeniously cuts back and forth between scenes, such as pairing the youthful, arrogant claims of Oasis that the band could have been the Beatles in the 1960s with the tortured feeling of the Who’s aging leader Pete Townshend (“All we can do in the future is look back”). In other instances, he shows the self-doubt shared by Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner and actor Orlando Bloom. But the best moments come when Strauss has earned such trust of his subjects that he becomes part of some very weird scenes, all of which are presented in all their often hilarious detail: shooting guns with Ludacris, getting kidnapped by Courtney Love, making Lady Gaga cry, and shopping for Pampers with Snoop Dogg.

The Hare with Amber Eyes
Edmund de Waal

In this family history, de Waal, a potter and curator of ceramics at the Victoria & Albert Museum, describes the experiences of his family, the Ephrussis, during the turmoil of the 20th century. Grain merchants in Odessa, various family members migrated to Vienna and Paris, becoming successful bankers. Secular Jews, they sought assimilation in a period of virulent anti-Semitism. In Paris, Charles Ephrussi purchased a large collection of Japanese netsuke, tiny hand-carved figures including a hare with amber eyes. The collection passed to Viktor Ephrussi in Vienna and became the family’s greatest legacy. Loyal citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Vienna Ephrussis were devastated by the outcome of WWI and were later driven from their home by the imposition of Nazi rule over Austria. After WWII, they discovered that their maid, Anna, had preserved the netsuke collection, which Ignace Ephrussi inherited, and he settled in postwar Japan. Today, the netsuke reside with de Waal (descended from the family’s Vienna branch) and serve as the embodiment of his family history. A somewhat rambling narrative with special appeal to art historians, this account is nonetheless rich in drama and valuable anecdote. 20 b&w illus.

Loon: A Marine Story
Jack McLean

McLean’s debut is a perceptive memoir of the Vietnam war that is unique for the author’s background: McLean joined the Marine Corps after graduating from Phillips Academy, where George W. Bush was a classmate. Making excellent use of more than a hundred letters he wrote home from the war zone from November 1967 to July 1968, McLean reconstructs his time in the Marines with a sharp eye for detail and very readable—at times almost poetic—prose. McLean underwent a hellish tour of duty and in the fall of 1968 became the first Vietnam veteran to enter Harvard. He uses a good deal of reconstructed dialogue to tell his war story, a technique that in lesser hands only cheapens a memoir. But virtually all of McLean’s dialogue rings true, as does nearly everything else in the book. That includes this passage in which McLean remembers his baptism under fire a few days after he arrived in Vietnam: “It had been eerie, frightening, invigorating, chaotic, and surreal. Welcome to combat. It was not like the movies.”

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
Isabel Wilkerson

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper’s wife, left Mississippi for Milwaukee in 1937, after her cousin was falsely accused of stealing a white man’s turkeys and was almost beaten to death. In 1945, George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker, fled Florida for Harlem after learning of the grove owners’ plans to give him a “necktie party” (a lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing Foster made his trek from Louisiana to California in 1953, embittered by “the absurdity that he was doing surgery for the United States Army and couldn’t operate in his own home town.” Anchored to these three stories is Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Wilkerson’s magnificent, extensively researched study of the “great migration,” the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to an “uncertain existence” in the North and Midwest. Wilkerson deftly incorporates sociological and historical studies into the novelistic narratives of Gladney, Starling, and Pershing settling in new lands, building anew, and often finding that they have not left racism behind. The drama, poignancy, and romance of a classic immigrant saga pervade this book, hold the reader in its grasp, and resonate long after the reading is done.


 

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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.

What’s New in Nonfiction

Every now and then I love a good nonfiction read and here is what caught my eye recently.

“[E]veryone finds their own version of Charles Dickens [1812–1870],” concludes award-winning British biographer Tomalin: Dickens the mesmerist, amateur thespian, political radical, protector of prostitutes, benefactor of orphans, restless walker—all emerge from the welter of information about the writer’s domestic arrangements, business dealings, childhood experiences, illnesses, and travels. Bolstered by citations from correspondence with and about Dickens, Tomalin’s portrait brings shadows and depth to the great Victorian novelist’s complex personality. Tomalin (Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self) displays her deep scholarship in reviewing, for instance, the debate about Dickens’s relations with Nelly Ternan, concluding that the balance of evidence is that they were lovers. She also highlights the contrasts between his charitable actions toward strangers and his “casting off” of several relatives from father to brothers to sons, who kept importuning him for money: “Once Dickens had drawn a line he was pitiless.” By the end of this biography, readers unfamiliar with Dickens will come away with a new understanding of his driven personality and his impact on literature and 19th-century political and social issues. Tomalin provides her usual rich, penetrating portrait; one can say of her book what she says of Dickens’s picture of 19th -century England: it’s “crackling, full of truth and life, with his laughter, horror and indignation.” Illus.; maps.

 

Much of Iran’s relationship with the West—and their mutual antipathy—stems from the muddled events of a single day: November 4, 1979, when Iranian militants overran the U.S. embassy in Tehran, launching a 444-day-long hostage drama. What’s often forgotten is that six Americans evaded their would-be captors and were protected and eventually extracted from Iran by Canadian diplomats. In this fascinating account of spycraft and compassion, Wright (Three Nights in Havana) puts newly unclassified documents to excellent use in recounting how Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor hid the Americans who had slipped out a side door and gathered intelligence for the U.S. government. Wright sketches the historic grievances that lay at the heart of the embassy takeover and dispels lingering myths—among them, that the occupiers were “idealistic student amateurs”—crafting an absorbing story of genuine heroism and suspense.

 

Known as the “Corrupting Sea” for the way the dense web of commercial relationships spanning its shores inexorably changes local cultures, the Mediterranean has seen the rise and fall of many of the world’s great empires, aided in the spread and propagation of the three great monotheistic faiths, and carried countless millions of immigrants and adventurers to a new life or a watery grave. This epic tome by Abulafia, a professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge, is a political history of the Liquid Continent–another of the sea’s monikers–tracing how the spread of ideas, goods, cultures, and armies across the sea has helped shape the modern world. Engagingly written, precisely documented, and liberally studded with tales of the fantastic and absurd, the book has much to offer the casual reader and is indispensible for specialists in the region. In such an expansive work, however, occasional frustration regarding the rapidly changing cast of thousands is inevitable, and nearly every page contains minor details deserving their own entire books. Abulafia’s central thesis, that human cultures shape their own destinies rather than live beholden to the currents, climate patterns, and natural ecosystems described by Fernand Braudel, the other great chronicler of the Mediterranean, is convincing. Maps.

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Happy Reading

Staff Pick

Huntin for Hope
by: Scott Russell Sanders

In these wise and luminous essays, Sanders takes on big themes: living a centered life, our relation to animals and to nature, the survival of human values in our greed-driven commercial culture. The leitmotif is his not-quite-extinguished hope for a livable, sane world offering people a decent future–a hope he nurtures despite the ecological devastation, family breakdown and moral decay he sees. Notable among these 15 adventurous essays are “”Skill,”” a meditation on the life-enhancing use or the misuse of one’s innate talents; “”The Way of Things,”” an attempt to reconcile modern cosmology with ancient beliefs in a divine creator; “”Body Bright,”” a Blakean call for cleansing the doors of perception, reconnecting with the planet and our fellow creatures; and “”Fidelity,”” which explores marriage as an arena for the fulfillment of desire. The thread through this labyrinth of ideas is Sanders’s account of backpacking in the Colorado Rockies with his son whose optimism tempers the fatherly pessimism. Although these beautifully written pieces are reminiscent of Wendell Berry’s essays in their economy, grace and moral passion, Sanders projects his own distinctive voice, at once recognizably Midwestern (he’s from Indiana by way of Ohio) and universal. Editor, Deanne Urmy; agent, John Wright.