As the weather warms up, so do book lovers’ options. The spring season always sees a new crop of amazing releases. Check out these 10 new must-reads in nonfiction.
Read more new and notable nonfiction.
Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama
Though Bechdel had previously enjoyed a cult following with her longstanding comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, she raised the bar for graphic narrative with her book debut, Fun Home (2006). That memoir detailed her childhood in the family’s funeral home, her closeted and emotionally distant father’s bisexuality, his questionable death (an accident that was most likely a suicide) and the author’s own coming to terms with her sexuality. On the surface, this is the “mom book” following the previous “dad book.” Yet it goes more deeply into the author’s own psychology (her therapy, dreams, relationships) and faces a fresh set of challenges. For one thing, the author’s mother is not only still alive, but also had very mixed feelings about how much Bechdel had revealed about the family in the first volume. For another, the author’s relationship with her mother—who withheld verbal expressions of love and told her daughter she was too old to be tucked in and kissed goodnight when she turned 7—is every bit as complicated as the one she detailed with her father. Thus, Bechdel not only searches for keys to their relationship but perhaps even for surrogate mothers, through therapy, girlfriends and the writing of Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, Alice Miller and others…She writes that she agonized over the creation of this follow-up for four years. It is a book she had to write, though she struggled mightily to figure out how to write it.
Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation
In recent years Bissell has built a reputation as an expert on video games, culminating with the scattershot Extra Lives. Here he covers a wider swath but provides more coherence, in part because a more consistent theme emerges: the necessity of calling shenanigans on the artificiality of much of mass culture, and the difficult search for glimmers of integrity. In “Escanaba’s Magic Hour,” Bissell follows the filming of an indie movie in his hardscrabble Upper Peninsula hometown and cannily reveals subtle parrying between the townsfolk and the visiting filmmakers. In “Writing about Writing about Writing,” he demolishes the rhetoric of how-to writing guides, slapping the genre for its disingenuously upbeat declarations. In “Cinema Crudité,” he investigates the anti-genius of Tommy Wiseau, director of the contemporary camp classic, The Room. Bissell can tear into his subjects with a ferocity and brutal wit that recalls Dwight Macdonald, as when he writes about the would-be literary provocateurs of the Underground Literary Alliance or celebrated historian Robert Kaplan, whom he damns as an “incompetent thinker and a miserable writer.” Bissell’s more common tone, though, is that of the exasperated critic weary of conventional thinking, and he bookends the collection with pieces that drive that point home…Stellar cultural writing—Bissell has the knowledge and wit to earn his provocations.
The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson
Robert A. Caro
This installment covers Johnson’s vice presidency under John F. Kennedy, his ascension to the presidency after the Kennedy assassination and his initial nine months as president. As in the earlier volumes, Caro combines a compelling narrative and insightful authorial judgments into a lengthy volume that will thrill those who care about American politics, the foundations of power, or both. Even Johnson acolytes, sometimes critical about portions of the earlier volumes, are less likely to complain about their hero's portrayal here. While documenting the progression of his subject's character flaws, Caro admires Johnson's adroit adaptability…The fifth volume is in the works, and it is expected to cover Johnson's election to the White House and his full term, with the conduct of the Vietnam War ceaselessly dogging him. The author writes that the next book "will be very different in tone.”
Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power
With admirable restraint, New Yorker contributor and two-time Pulitzer winner Coll demonstrates how the merger of Exxon and Mobil has allowed the company to wield more power and wealth than even the American government, in the manner of John D. Rockefeller. Exxon had functioned as an independent corporate state since its antitrust breakoff from Standard Oil in 1911, and was ranked by profit performance in the top five corporations from the 1950s through the end of the Cold War. With the catastrophic spill of the Valdez in Alaska in 1989, the network of secrecy and internal security within Exxon was exposed but hardly tempered. The iron chief who emerged from the crisis, Lee Raymond, reappraised risk and security within the organization and took a hard line against efforts to extract from it punitive damages. Moving the headquarters to Texas in 1993, the company retrenched in its nose-thumbing determination to encourage and supply America’s thirst for oil, casting around at more far-flung spots in the world that could provide the crude—such as where Mobil held attractive assets, in places like West Africa, Venezuela, Kazakhstan and Abu Dhabi. The Exxon-Mobil merger in 1999 created a global behemoth and also provoked small wars at drilling spots where the poor and disenfranchised deeply resented the foreign workers on native soil and disrupted the extraction by violence and insurgency. Raymond and his cohorts’ cynical spin on the denial of global warming and the role of the burning of fossil fuels makes for jaw-dropping reading, as does the company’s cunning manipulations of the war in Iraq to garner an oil deal.
Farther Away: Essays
Franzen returns with a nonfiction collection that includes book reviews, reportage and personal reflections on such topics as the social scourge of cell phones and the pleasures of birdwatching, but the collection as a whole is haunted by the author’s relationship with David Foster Wallace, a peer similarly lauded for erudition and seriousness of purpose who committed suicide in 2008. Wallace’s suicide provides the emotional ballast for the title essay, an account of Franzen’s sojourn to an impossibly remote island where he hoped to escape the demands of modern technology, see some exceedingly rare birds and scatter the ashes of his dead friend. The piece functions as travelogue, a reckoning with the novel Robinson Crusoe and a howl of despair at the suicide of a friend, and Franzen’s formidable intelligence and literary skill combine these strands into an unforgettably lyrical meditation on solitude and loss. Elsewhere, the author makes impassioned cases for such obscure novels as The Hundred Brothers and The Man Who Loved Children, recounts hair-raising adventures protecting endangered birds on Cyprus from poachers, wrestles with Chinese bureaucracy and the ethical implications of golf and, in a whimsical, digressive faux interview with the state of New York, manages a highly amusing impersonation of Wallace’s lighter work…An unfailingly elegant and thoughtful collection of essays from the formidable mind of Franzen, written with passion and haunted by loss. Read more about the new Franzen book here.
Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power
In her hard-hitting debut, popular MSNBC host Maddow examines how the country has lost control of its national-security policy. The author holds Dick Cheney, to whom the book is dedicated (“Oh please let me interview you”), responsible for much that has gone wrong, associating the former vice president with the presidential prerogative of war-making powers. Cheney, writes Maddow, had been nursing these ideas since his days as chief of staff to President Gerald Ford, and he elaborated on them in his minority report on congressional investigation into the Iran-Contra affair. American forces are now accompanied by an equal or greater number of private contractors who perform functions that used to be reserved to the military, without either accountability or military control…Maddow documents how the budgetary element has also gone out of control and raises important questions about the safety of the nuclear arsenal. She grounds her argument in the Founding Fathers’ debates about going to war, and how difficult they intended to make the process—a state of affairs that is opposite to what is represented now. Read more about Maddow’s book here.
The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer
To this day, the bleary-eyed visage of the 9/11 mastermind being hauled off by authorities after a successful raid on his hideout in 2003 remains the most recognizable image of the hated international terrorist. McDermott and Los Angeles Times chief terrorism reporter Meyer explode that superficial frame with a taut, espionage-thriller–like narrative. The authors render characters on both sides of the law—the hunters and the hunted alike—in rich detail, ably evoking their clear motives and desires. While Osama bin Laden became the main symbol of America’s war on terror, it was actually KSM who tirelessly traveled the globe recruiting young Muslim men for his ongoing war on the West, directing their actions, outfitting their operations and setting them loose upon an unsuspecting populace. FBI Special Agent Frank Pellegrino was on his heels from the very beginning, when, in 1993, KSM tried to destroy the World Trade Center with a truck bomb left in a tower garage…A surprising, sobering look at one of the deadliest terror networks in history, and the American spy agencies charged with bringing it down.On Celestial Music: And Other Adventures in Listening
Moody is also a musician of semi-pro status, with a couple of albums by his group the Wingdale Community Singers and a solo set under his belt. This collection of his writing about music for various journals is characterized by passion, inspired insight and a generous sampling of warm humor. The essays cover an astonishing amount of genre ground. Moody’s catholic tastes run the gamut from rock to left-field experimental sounds, and he’s a sensitive listener who almost always connects with the heart of the matter. He tackles the challenges of writing about the most fundamental of human emotions as he carves a playlist out of the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs; explores the expression of spirituality in the work of the evangelistic rock group the Danielson Famile; ponders what music in Heaven might sound like in the title story, which springs off a live recording by Otis Redding; muses on the affect of the Pogues’ music, viewed through the prism of lead singer Shane McGowan’s alcoholism; and excoriates the soullessness of modern European pop in a tart and frequently hilarious jeremiad about the drum machine…For Moody, music is most of all about rapture, and he communicates his feelings with an ardor and intelligence all too rare in these waning days of music criticism. Check out our interview with Moody here.
Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love
“This is my love letter to San Francisco,” writes Salon founder and CEO Talbot. “But if it’s a valentine, it’s a bloody valentine, filled with the raw truth as well as the glory about the city that has been my home for more than three decades now.” More than a retread of beatnik and hippie years or a series of chapters on colorful characters (has any city boasted more than San Francisco?), the author encompasses the city’s essence. He seeks to make sense of how San Francisco became a magnet for those who felt they didn’t fit elsewhere, how it sparked the “Summer of Love,” a race war, a murder of its mayor and his charismatic ally (in which the author finds the police department “deeply implicated”), radical bombings, a high-profile kidnapping and the most notorious mass suicide in human history (Jonestown, in exile from San Francisco, which the author says should more appropriately be considered a “slaughter”). Talbot loves his city deeply and knows it well, making the pieces of the puzzle fit together… “Cities, like people, have souls,” he writes. “And they can be broken by terrible events, but they can also be healed.”
Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens
In the late 18th century, European astronomers scurried about the globe measuring the transit of Venus, hoping, at last, to learn the size of our universe. Until this busy narrative, Wulf had turned her eyes more earthward with three previous outings about gardens. Here she glides easily into the heavens, where she clearly explains how Venus’ transit across the sun, which occurs every 105 years (and each time does so twice, at eight-year intervals—one will occur in June 2012), gave Enlightenment astronomers a chance to figure out such things as the distance between the earth and the sun. Their 1769 calculation—transit-derived—was quite close. The author follows the two international attempts, in 1761 and 1769, to accomplish the measurements from various global viewing points, describing in grim detail the vast difficulties of travel and communication, the geopolitical complications (wars didn’t help) and the various personalities of potentates and scientists that characterized the endeavor…More than 100 pages of back matter reveal the sturdy research undergirding the lively narrative. Like a nonfiction National Treasure with myriads of Nicholas Cages darting around—in a good way. Enlightening Enlightenment fare.
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