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  • Jeff Somers 5:00 pm on 2018/01/22 Permalink
    Tags: biographies, , expert accounts   

    20 Books by People Who Actually Know What They’re Talking About 

    Fiction can show us lives and worlds that don’t exist, or that we have no access to. History can help us understand our world. Biographies can help us understand the people in it. But many books are written at a remove—no matter how well-researched or how well-written, the author didn’t actually experience what they’re writing about, so there’s always a tiny piece of the puzzle missing. That’s not the case with these 20 books, all written by people who experienced something few others have. In other words, these are books by people who know what they’re talking about.

    Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery, by Scott Kelly
    Unless you’ve spent a year in space being studied, you have nothing on Scott Kelly, who holds the current American record for consecutive days in space. As a result, Kelly’s thoughts on our space program—including its necessity and utility—are worth reading, as is his description of the challenges that face anyone intending to spend a long time in space. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s really to head into orbit, Kelly’s book offers the most up-to-date and informative account ever written.

    Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer
    It’s the eternal conflict: you’re curious what it’s like to climb Mount Everest, especially under less-than-ideal conditions, but you just microwaved a burrito and you don’t feel like flying out to Nepal to find out. Read the next best thing: Krakauer’s classic book details a disastrous expedition to the summit of the mountain in 1996—an expedition he experienced firsthand, and one that six experienced climbers didn’t come back from. If this book doesn’t cure you of any lingering curiosity about climbing mountains, you’ll just have to go climb one.

    Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen
    Ever wondered what it’s like to be declared a danger to yourself and placed in a mental hospital? Wonder no more, as Kaysen’s memoir (the basis for the film of the same name) details the events when that precise scenario happened to her in 1967, when she was 18. Although Kaysen committed herself, she describes the bullying techniques of the psychiatrist who pushed her to do so, and explains what life is really like in one of those places.

    Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea, by Steve Callahan
    The title says it all. While competing in a race across the Atlantic Ocean in 1981, Callahan got caught in a storm and lost his boat. Luckily, he managed to grab his emergency kit and get into the six-person raft he’d taken along as a precaution. For the next 76 days he drifted on the ocean, teaching himself how to catch fish, make repairs, and generally stay alive. If you’ve ever drifted during a stressful meeting and wondered what it might be like to be lost at sea, Callahan’s epic memoir will tell you.

    No Easy Day, by Mark Owen
    Written by one of the SEAL team members on hand when Osama Bin Laden was killed, you won’t get a clearer idea of what it’s really like to be a member of the elite special forces unit than the one you’ll find in this book. Owen’s career spans many headline-grabbing moments, as well as several that were never publicized. By the end, you’ll understand a bit better what it takes to be a Navy SEAL from someone who’s actually been one.

    Blue Latitudes, by Tony Horwitz
    What was it like to be an explorer in the age of the sail, out on the ocean in a rickety wooden ship? Horwitz decided to find out. He worked as a crew member on a replica of Captain Cook’s ship as it followed the famous explorer’s route into the unknown. We may not be able to quiz Cook or his crew on what it was really like to sail into the unknown in the 18th century, but Horwitz provides a pretty close account, because he actually did it. Except for the “18th century” part.

    Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts
    This is a fictionalized account of real events, and Roberts’ account of his own life is contested by some, but in general, the facts are right: the author was sentenced to prison in Australia, escaped to Bombay, and lived there for a decade. Whether or not every single thing in Shantaram is true doesn’t matter; what you get from it is a sense of what it’s really like to live on the sketchier side of one of the world’s most crowded cities, a view most tourists will never see.

    Kon-Tiki, by Thor Heyerdahl
    Say you want to know what it might have been like to be ancient Perusians crowding onto balsa wood rafts and sailing west to settle the Polynesian islands. Thor Heyerdahl found out, by building his own raft and sailing from Peru, arriving three months later at Puka Puka. Proving that it was possible for primitive people to travel incredible distances, he also saved you the trouble of building your own flimsy raft and finding out what that adventure might be like.

    And the River Flowed as a Raft of Corpses, by Yamaguchi Tsutomu
    Ever wonder what it’s like to directly experience an atomic blast? Mr. Tsutomu actually experienced it—twice. He was in Hiroshima when the bomb dropped in 1945, and then in Nagasaki when the second bomb dropped three days later. That kind of luck will kill you, but Tsutomu survived both incidents, and went on to become a writer and poet. While adapting some of those poems, translator Chad Diehl includes a translation of Tsutomu’s account of the bombings as well, so you can scratch “experience atomic destruction (twice)” off your bucket list.

    Ice Bound, by Jerri Nielsen
    This is a twofer: Dr. Nielsen was both trapped at an isolated South Pole facility and forced to perform surgery on herself and treat herself with chemotherapy when she diagnosed herself with cancer. Unable to be transported out and unable to get anything in, Nielsen—the only doctor on staff—had to perform her own biopsy and then administer her own treatment for four months before weather conditions allowed rescue. So, if you’re wondering what it’s like to be at the South Pole and/or what it’s like to perform surgery on yourself, this is the book for you.

    Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain
    Bourdain offers a surprisingly rare glimpse into the world of restaurant kitchens, both high-end and beyond sketchy. If you’ve ever been curious what it’s like to be a chef or to work in a professional kitchen, prepare to be beyond surprised at what actually goes on in some of the most famous kitchens in the world. Since he’s a world-famous chef who worked in those kitchens, he sure knows what he’s talking about.

    The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean Dominique Bauby
    Wondering what it’s like to be paralyzed may not be on you list of things to do today, but it offers the sort of calibration most of us need—after all, how bad are your troubles if you can still move? Bauby, the hugely successful editor of French Elle, suffered a stroke at the age of 43 that left him completely mute and paralyzed—except for his left eye. He dictated this book by working out a system of blinked code. If you want to gain a new appreciation of simply being in control of your body, read this book.

    Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup
    Northup’s famous memoir of slavery in 19th century America lays out the brutality, racism, and insanity of the practice in stark terms. Tricked and kidnapped, Northup’s decade lost in the plantation system will turn stomachs and shame anyone who wants to talk about the Civil War being about “states’ rights.”

    Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah
    Most people in the West are dimly aware of the phenomenon of child soldiers in Africa, but Ishmael Beah was a child soldier, sucked into the army at age 12. His candid depiction of the drug-fueled brutality he was forced to enact is harrowing, and his rescue at age 15 likely saved not just his life, but his soul. As clear a depiction of the evil that men do as you’ll ever read—from someone who was there.

    West with the Night, by Beryl Markham
    What’s it like to fly solo across the ocean? Beryl Markham can tell you. The first pilot to go nonstop from Europe to America, as well as the first woman to fly alone across the Atlantic, Markham’s memoir describes a life that was pretty fascinating even before she got into the cockpit. These days it might seem as if there are no new worlds to explore and no new records to set, but reading Markham’s book will at least let you know what it was like when an individual could just decide to do both.

    Night, by Eli Wiesel
    With fascism somehow back in the air like a virus, this is the ideal time to learn what experiencing the final destination of such thinking is like. Wiesel’s firsthand account of surviving the Nazi Holocaust is not easy reading. It is disturbing, and frightening, and necessary, because Wiesel was there, and he tells you in unflinching terms what it was like to survive a genocide.

    The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller
    Most of us take our senses for granted, and we live in a world designed around our ability to see and hear. Keller, rendered deaf and blind before she was two years old, managed to communicate somewhat with her family. At the age of six she began working with Anne Sullivan, who patiently broke through Keller’s isolation, teaching her how to interact with the world. Keller’s autobiography is a remarkable glimpse into what it’s like to exist without the basic senses most of us use to navigate our world.

    New Jack: Guarding Sing Sing, by Ted Conover
    What’s it like to be a prison guard? If you think you know from TV shows, you’ll be surprised to find out what it’s really like from Ted Conover. A journalist, Conover tried to shadow guards but was denied permission, and so he simply applied for a job, then spent a year working at the prison. His account is eye-opening, showing how the brutality of our prison system affects not just the prisoners, but the guards as well.

    Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member, by Sanyika Shakur
    Shakur, formerly Kody Scott, was so brutal as a member of the Crips, he earned the nickname Monster—this from his fellow gang members, who weren’t exactly gentle themselves. Locked up in solitary confinement for his crimes, Scott became Shakur, a convert to Islam and a reformed human being. His account of what it’s like to be in the L.A. gangs so often depicted in movies is sobering, as is his exploration of the societal failures that drove him into that life in the first place.

    When Breath becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
    What’s it like to die? We can’t know, Kalanithi’s memoir describing his terminal diagnosis and final years of life is a firsthand account of living with the sure knowledge that your time on Earth is limited. Our mortality is something we often avoid contemplating, but Kalanithi had no choice. His memoir should be required reading, if only for the perspective it offers.

    The post 20 Books by People Who Actually Know What They’re Talking About appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 7:00 pm on 2017/12/06 Permalink
    Tags: , biographies, , ,   

    The Best History Books, Biographies, and Memoirs of 2017 

    2017 was a monumental year for the world, and just as great a one for books that look back on how we got to here. These 25 books encompass a wide range of subjects, writing styles, and personalities, but they all have one thing in common—by shedding light on the past (even if only the life and experiences of a single person), they all broaden our understanding of what it means to be living in the world today.

    You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir, by Sherman Alexie
    As well as a beloved author, Alexie has been a poet, filmmaker, and screenwriter. He’s won praise and generated controversy for his outspokenness, especially when Arizona recently banned his works from schools as part of a cull of Mexican-American studies programs. His first memoir tackles the complex and difficult relationship he had with his mother. Her death Forced Alexie to confront his bond with the intelligent but often abusive woman he left behind.

    Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose, by Joe Biden
    Joe Biden, former Vice President and possible future presidential candidate, lost his son Beau to brain cancer after a momentous struggle. When Beau was in the midst of his fight against the disease, he made his father promise that he would be all right. Over the next year, Joe Biden served his country as Vice President while his son slowly lost his battle. In this remarkable memoir, Biden opens up about that period of his life, discussing with disarming intimacy the personal and political struggles he endured while working to make the world a safer place and trying to decide if he would run for president in 2016. Biden’s wisdom and advice for anyone who has lost someone close to them is powerful, and his insights into life’s problems come from someone who has dealt with some of the most difficult challenges in modern times on the world stage.

    Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden
    The 1968 Tet Offensive changed the course of the Vietnam War, and its startling, shocking success more or less made American defeat there inevitable. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese surprise attack during the New Year holiday was not only a military success, but a success of propaganda as their forces were instructed to “behave like winners” as they fought. Bowden digs in to how, exactly, the surprise was pulled off and traces the many threads of consequences that followed, resulting in one of the best books on Vietnam ever written. Bowden expertly walks the reader through the single but momentous action, using several set-pieces to illustrate what the fighting was like on both sides.

    Grant, by Ron Chernow
    Pulitzer-winning author Chernow tackles one of our most disappointing—and perplexing—presidents with another sharply-written, deeply-researched book. Chernow sets out to prove that Grant, the brilliant general, was a far better president than he’s usually given credit for. Chernow has his work cut out for him, but he paints a detailed picture of Grant as a man of action who withered in inactivity, a man whose alcoholism followed a unique cycle of binging followed by lengthy periods of sobriety, a man often mistaken for homeless prior to the Civil War who brought a willingness to engage the Confederate armies head on to his tactics that proved to be the key to winning the war. As he did with Alexander Hamilton, Chernow takes a familiar but opaque figure of American history and fleshes him out, revealing the human being under the engravings—for better or worse.

    Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West, by Tom Clavin
    Bringing a level of factual rigor to the legend of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson in Dodge City isn’t an easy task; the story of those pioneering lawmen, and the famed gunfight at the OK Corral, is slathered with mythic overtones. In this revealing work, Clavin strips away the unnecessary flourishes to focuses on the facets of the story he can verify—and that unadorned tale turns out to be just as fascinating, especially his telling of the lesser-known Dodge City War, a bloodless affair that saw Earp and Masterson return to the area years later to firmly establish the rule of law, once and for all. You might think you know the story of Dodge City’s most famous gunslingers, but like as not, you only know the Hollywood version. Here’s your chance to fix that.

    It’s Not Yet Dark: A Memoir, by Simon Fitzmaurice
    A doctor gave filmmaker Fitzmaurice four years to live following an ALS diagnosis in 2008. By 2010, he was at death’s door, and given little hope, but nevertheless chose to take extraordinary measures to stay alive. In the years since, he’s fathered twins and continued to work as a documentarian. Fitzmaurice talks candidly about his daily struggles, but also about the family that sustains him in a life that’s radically different from the one he’d planned for.

    The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, by Masha Gessen
    Gessen takes a personal approach to tracing Russia’s transformation from collapsed empire into “mafia state,” following four principle figures (herself, Boris Nemtsov’s daughter, Seryozha, scion of a political reformist, and Lyosha, a homosexual in what is rapidly becoming the most homophobic nation in the world. This intimate focus grants a frightening immediacy to the story of a country that was once perceived as a triumph of democracy over totalitarianism but now seems to have reverted back to its fascist roots almost entirely. Along the way are plenty of insights into the current political situation around the world, making this as much an important work of history as it is a memoir.

    Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann
    Considering how important they were in shaping the modern age, the Osage Indian murders of the 1920s are remarkably little-known today. When the Nation became incredibly wealthy after oil was discovered on their land, more than 20 of its members of were murdered between 1921 and 1926. As public outrage grew, the federal government was pressured into putting the obscure Bureau of Investigation, led by a young Herbert Hoover, in charge of the case. Hoover used the notoriety of these awful crimes to establish what would soon be known as the FBI as the nation’s preeminent investigative body, and himself as its all-powerful chief. Grann, of The Lost City of Z fame, does a marvelous job catching you up on vital history that’s been nearly forgotten.

    Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari
    History normally looks back and attempts to say, with certainty, what did or didn’t happen. Harari takes a different approach: looking forward. While admitting that no one can accurately predict the future, he attempts to take all the information on hand and make bold predictions as to the most likely course of future human history—and his conclusions aren’t very reassuring. While he sees plenty of achievements in store for us, his theory is that humanity’s progress is inevitably making us insignificant, resulting in a future where we won’t be in control of our existence—if we’re even still around (the “post-human future” is certainly in the tea leaves.) It’s up to you to decide if Harari makes his case—but whether you agree or not, the time spent with this book is worthwhile.

    Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson
    Isaacson begins with the presumption that Leonardo da Vinci was perhaps the most creative genius in human history and proceeds from there, digesting more than 7,000 pages of notes da Vinci left behind and producing this biography. Unlike anything else you’ve ever read about the most famous artist of the 15th and 16th centuries, Isaacson paints a portrait of a restless mind that exhibited unusual curiosity and made magical connections between disciplines that had never been made before. At the same time, he shows da Vinci as a man whose always-churning mind could leave many projects unfinished as he dashed from idea to idea. When one of our best modern writers tackles one of the most famous minds in history, it’s time to pay attention.

    The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors, by Dan Jones
    The Order of the Poor Knights of the Temple, known today as the Templars, began existence as a group of impoverished knights who protected pilgrims to the Holy Land in exchange for charity. From these humble beginnings sprang one of the most powerful and influential knightly orders in history. Gaining patronage, property, and political power, the Templars grew so great they were eventually demonized and destroyed by rival powers in Europe. Jones tells the story of the Templars in brisk writing that makes their rise and fall viscerally exciting, informative, and fascinating.

    The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home, by Denise Kiernan
    As the conversation about income inequality ramps up, this book is the ideal historical complement. In the late 19th century, George Washington Vanderbilt II was the world’s richest bachelor, and he chose to put his immense resources into building the largest private home ever constructed, a 175,000 square foot mansion sitting on 125,000 acres of land. Uninterested in romance, Vanderbilt nonetheless married the well-bred but impoverished Edith Dresser, who suddenly found herself queen of a city-sized estate. A spice of schadenfreude comes into play as Vanderbilt’s fortunes decline and the family is thrust into the sort of economic downturn that most people would recognize, even if on a vastly different scale, and Edith emerges as a heroine of sorts as she struggles to save her family and her huge, lavish home.

    The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir, by Ariel Levy
    Celebrated writer Levy tells her life story with verve and gusto, exploring as a central theme the way the universe laughs at our plans. As a young child Levy was taught she could do anything, but also warned not to depend on a man for support. As her star rose as a writer for New York Magazine and elsewhere in the 1990s her life began taking unscheduled detours: she married an older woman with substance abuse problems, she conceived a child using a sperm donor but suffered a miscarriage, and she never lost a burning desire to seek adventure and new experiences. The end result is a compelling and compulsively readable memoir.

    Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit, by Chris Matthews
    For younger generations, the Kennedy name may no longer be magic, but Chris Mathews does great work to remind everyone just how special the Kennedy family was at one time. Although JFK gets most of the attention, Hardball anchor Chris Matthews knows that Bobby Kennedy was almost as important, and came very close to being president himself—and may well have been if he hadn’t been cut down in the prime of life just like his brother. Matthews doesn’t sugarcoat the ruthlessness that made plenty of enemies for Bobby Kennedy, but he also captures the younger Kennedy’s keen intellect and growing empathy for people who were not as fortunate as him, traits that would have made him a great president, had he lived.

    The American Spirit: Who We Are & What We Stand For, by David McCullough
    McCullough is one of the most celebrated historians in American history. He has written absorbing accounts of the Wright Brothers, John Adams, and the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge—winning two Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards along the way. A thinker like that naturally makes a lot of speeches in front of a lot of audiences, and he compiles here some of his best—speeches made before Congress, before academic audiences, before groups of fellow historians. This is stirring stuff, the sort of of clear-eyed, patriotic, smart rhetoric we need more of in these divisive and confusing times. McCullough brings a calm authority to his words, equal parts comforting and energizing. It is an ideal book to read if your faith in our institutions is fading.

    Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, by Eric Metaxas
    If you ever doubt that one person can alter the course of history, look no further than Martin Luther, a young monk who sought only to spark debate when he posted his 95 Theses to a church door. Instead, Luther’s startling moment of protest launched what came to be known as the Protestant Revolution and remade the Christian faith. Metaxas offers up a fresh perspective on a man so famous he’s more myth than reality these days, finding the humanity underneath the history.

    The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, by Kate Moore
    Whenever someone questions the need for laws protecting workers and everyone else from the deprivations of profit-seeking companies, this story should serve as educational. In the early 20th century, more than a dozen women were employed to paint watches with luminous paint based on the radioactive material radium. These women were fine artists who were able to manipulate their brushes expertly, often using their mouths to twist the brushes to a fine point in order to do the detail work. Soon after, many began suffering terrible medical problems, including lost teeth and disease jawbones, sparking a decades-long legal and medical battle that redefined worker’s rights and workplace safety.

    Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, by Liza Mundy
    Stories of World War II often focus on the heroic deeds of male soldiers, but newly declassified documents reveal a shadow army of women who also did their part—the codebreakers. Recruited from colleges and secretarial pools for their math skills, these women were set to the task of breaking enemy codes, but their efforts and achievements were top secret, and their stories largely unknown—until now. Battling the expected sexism and hostile attitudes of their male counterparts and supervisors, tens of thousands of women helped to end the war much more quickly than it would have otherwise, and Mundy rescues their stories from obscurity and gives them the credit they deserve. In fact, she makes a solid case that without these women, we might not have won World War II at all.

    Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War, by Lynne Olson
    When Hitler and the Nazis overran much of Europe, Great Britain was flooded with refugees from all nations and walks of life—including people who had implored the British to help them, to no avail, as the German army crashed over their borders. Olson chronicles story after story of heroism, betrayal, heartbreak, and triumph, from the Polish codebreakers who helped Bletchley Park decipher the Nazi codes, to the governments in exile that formed. The experiences and contributions of these dislocated people had a direct impact on the outcome of the war, and many of their stories will be inspirational, even seven decades later.

    The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story, by Douglas Preston
    Preston, also known as one half of the team writing the Agent Pendergrast series of thrillers, details his involvement with a team seeking to prove the existence of a lost city in the Honduran wilderness. Legends tell of a city destroyed by a series of natural cataclysms, abandoned as cursed, and forbidden for centuries. Using a combination of cutting-edge technology and boots on the ground, Preston and his team locate two large sites and a wealth of archaeological treasures to prove that a lost civilization once existed in an area of the world where no human being has set foot in centuries. Preston’s skill as a novelist makes the deep-dive into the past at once entertaining, gripping, and informative.

    Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge, by Helen Rappaport

    History can sometimes seem a bit like looking at a diorama behind glass, leaving you to wonder what it was like to actually be there. Rappaport solves this problem with this fascinating new look at the Russian Revolution, focusing on foreigners from Western nations who were in Petrograd as the powder keg of revolution exploded. Glimpse the beginnings of a violent uprising that transformed an empire (and the world) from the perspective of the confused, scared people who were on hand to witness it. From barricaded offices to views of riots, Rappaport’s lively writing offers a “you are there” approach to history that is sobering in its immediacy.

    Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by, by Thomas E. Ricks
    Context is everything. Although they lived at the same time, were born in the same country, and fought many of the same enemies, Winston Churchill and George Orwell never met, and there’s no evidence they ever even read each other’s work. Ricks places these two remarkable men side-by-side, however, and finds common ground in their shared philosophies and hatred of tyranny. A study of the lives of two men who never interacted might seem like a strange approach to history, but the result is a deeper look at the larger picture of culture and society that shaped their views, and the impact each had on the world around them.

    The Odyssey of Echo Company: The 1968 Tet Offensive and the Epic Battle to Survive the Vietnam War, by Doug Stanton
    One of the most effective techniques in a history book is to focus on a single event, exploring every facet in order to illuminate a larger related tapestry. Stanton does just this with his exploration of the Tet Offensive, the chaotic attack North Vietnam launched on January 31st, 1968 in an effort to destabilize the south and push American forces out of the country. The forty men of Echo Company of the 101st Airborne Division (an army reconnaissance platoon) had just arrived in country, and found themselves enduring a grueling, seemingly endless battle against a desperate, implacable enemy. The gripping descriptions of endless fighting combined with testimonials about the less-than warm welcome the soldiers received when they returned home help to explain the Vietnam era in terms anyone will understand.

    Where the Past Begins, by Amy Tan
    Bestselling novelist Tan’s unconventional memoir finds her on a journey through her own past via spontaneous storytelling: using fluid writing to search through her own memories to reveal the inspirations and traumas that have shaped her works. In the process, Tan reveals difficult truths about her childhood, and makes connections and uncovers memories that she herself was shocked by.

    We’re Going to Need More Wine: Stories That Are Funny, Complicated, and True, by Gabrielle Union
    Actress Union tells her story with wit and sensitivity, a story that includes her struggles as one of a few black students in a predominantly white high school, the devastating rape at gunpoint that almost broke her, and her recovery and pursuit of a high-octane Hollywood career. Union addresses topics including parenting, raising black kids in a culture often perceived as steeped in racism, and teen sexuality—always with disarming humor and perceptive insights that mark this as much more than a typical Hollywood vanity memoir. Without much of a filter, Union comes across as a nuanced survivor who has managed to keep both her sense of humor and her ability to love despite her experiences.

    The post The Best History Books, Biographies, and Memoirs of 2017 appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Ross Johnson 9:30 pm on 2017/07/31 Permalink
    Tags: biographies, , ,   

    August’s Best New Biographies and Memoirs 

    It’s Not Yet Dark, by Simon Fitzmaurice
    Doctor gave filmmaker Fitzmaurice four years to live following an ALS diagnosis in 2008. By 2010, he was at death’s door, and given little hope, but nevertheless chose to take extraordinary measures to stay alive. In the years since, he’s fathered twins and continued to work as a documentarian. Fitzmaurice talks candidly about his daily struggles, but also about the family that sustains him in a life that’s radically different from the one he’d planned for.

    Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J. D. Vance
    Vance has accomplished something extraordinary with this complex and insightful memoir, now in paperback, in which he discusses his own family history, going deep below the surface to uncover truths that speak to the state of American culture in the 21st century. He tells a story of upward mobility, and of the grandparents who left extreme poverty in Kentucky’s Appalachia to build a middle-class family. On the surface, it’s a triumphant story of one generation doing better than the last, but Vance digs deeper to examine the legacies of poverty and want, including abuse and alcoholism, and the ways in which the family has never truly escaped its past.

    Hail to the Chin: Further Confessions of a B Movie Actor, by Bruce Campbell, Craig Sanborn, and John Hodgman
    Over a long and varied career, Bruce Campbell has somehow managed to craft an A-list career out of a variety of B-movie credits, largely by willing to have a laugh at his own expense. It’s been 15 years since his last memoir, and the intervening decade-and-a-half has seen him take on roles in some of the biggest blockbusters of the era (Spider-Man, for example) and develop an enviable social media presence. The new book promises plenty of pictures alongside Bruce’s trademark self-deprecating humor.

    The Bettencourt Affair: The World’s Richest Woman and the Scandal That Rocked Paris, by Tom Sancton
    Though little discussed in the United States, there’s no juicier story than that of the later years of Liliane Bettencourt. Currently 94, the L’Oréal heiress is literally the richest woman in the world, and has been all over the French news for more than a decade. She became the benefactor to a photographer to the tune of well over a billion dollars, leading to an estrangement with her children. The ensuing scandal has allegedly involved secret tapes, Swiss bank accounts, and envelopes full of cash handed off to France’s highest-profile politicians. It’s a family drama at its heart, but that means something a bit different when the family’s worth $40 billion.

    Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America, by John Lewis
    There are few Americans with a more impressive lives and careers than Congressman John Lewis. In this memoir, Lewis discusses his experiences during the Civil Rights Movement as a means of offering guidance to anyone who wants to change the world, or even just to live to a higher standard. Now in paperback, the award-winning book includes a new introduction that brings his story up to date and into our present political moment.

    Stronger, by Jeff Bauman with Bret Witter
    In 2013, Jeff Bauman became the face of the Boston Marathon bombing when pictures of him in a wheelchair went around the world. Bauman was not only at the center of the explosion of the first bomb, he also got a look at the bomber, and set off a manhunt when he awoke in the hospital to tell what he saw. Bauman’s memoir tells of the investigation and of his experiences that day as it follows the journey of his rehabilitation. Bauman will be played by Jake Gyllenhaal in the forthcoming movie based on the book.

    Stanton: Lincoln’s War Secretary, by Walter Stahr
    Digging deeply into still-relevant American history, Stahr takes on the life of Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War under Lincoln during the American Civil War. He was a prickly, complicated figure who was nevertheless seen by Lincoln as entirely indispensable in managing resources, movements, and soldiers. The secretary was often seen as ruthless in his treatment of those resistant to the idea of war, but was also lauded for his genius as he took the reins of government, briefly, during the crisis around Lincoln’s assassination. Stahr’s previous work was an award-winning biography of Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Henry Seward, so we’re looking forward to this new consideration of a major figure of the era.

    Shooting Ghosts: A U.S. Marine, a Combat Photographer, and Their Journey Back from War, by Thomas J. Brennan and Finbarr O’Reilly
    This dual memoir is a story of war, to a point, but it’s largely a story of aftermath and recovery. Brennan, a U.S. Marine, and Finbarr, a conflict photographer, became friends during their shared experiences in the field, and returned home together when Brennan was injured by a Taliban ambush in Afghanistan. The alternating narrative tells of the horrors of war, and also of the challenges faced when returning home. Both of the men remain haunted by the things that they saw and did, but also have learned to find a measure of peace in their friendship.

    Whose story are you most looking forward to?

    The post August’s Best New Biographies and Memoirs appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 6:42 pm on 2016/06/15 Permalink
    Tags: , , biographies, , ,   

    Read Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, the Inspiration Behind the Broadway Juggernaut 

    In 2007, Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda picked up a copy of Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow, in an airport bookstore. He became obsessed with it and was soon inspired to start work on the Broadway show Hamilton, bringing his hip-hop inflected New York style to the 18th-century story of one of America’s most talented—and most overlooked—Founding Fathers. The show won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and recently came thisclose to tying a record for most Tony Awards when it received 11 at the 70th Annual Tony Awards.

    Miranda isn’t alone in his love of Chernow’s book. Originally published in 2004, Alexander Hamilton was an instant hit, sitting on the bestseller lists for months. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Chernow (he won for 2011’s Washington: A Life), it was celebrated as one of the most readable biographies of the modern age. In light of Hamilton mania, there couldn’t be a better time to add it to your to-read pile.

    An orphan turned Founding Father
    It’s kind of amazing that more people aren’t familiar with Alexander Hamilton in this country. He was a Founding Father, after all. He fought alongside Washington. He shaped the earliest policies of the new country. He almost single-handedly invented the American economy. Add to that his colorful life: born illegitimate, orphaned at a young age, he nevertheless found sponsors for his college tuition and at the age of eighteen, joined a militia company to go fight for what he believed in. After the war he became a member of Washington’s first cabinet, and under President John Adams he was ready to lead an army against France in a war that never quite happened. And, most famously, he worked tirelessly to defeat Aaron Burr in the tied election of 1800, setting off a chain of events that ended when Burr fatally wounded Hamilton in a duel.

    If, after reading all that—which is a shallow dip into the incredible life Hamilton packed into forty-seven years—you’re not itching to start this book now, you are dead inside. Or possibly not American. Or both.

    An enemy of powerful men
    So how is it that such a talented man, such a force in the early days of the United States of America, a man who had such a profound influence on our shared history, is so relatively unknown? Aside from his many personal flaws—not the least of which was agreeing to fight in duels—Hamilton made a lot of enemies because he was one of those brilliant men who often acted without considering diplomacy. Two of those enemies were named John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, men of considerable talent, power, and influence in their own right—and it’s fair to say they both worked very hard to destroy Hamilton in life and beyond, and did a pretty good job of it. Chernow’s book, therefore, isn’t just another biography of a historical figure, it’s the biography of Hamilton, the book that almost single-handedly retrieved Hamilton from the dustbin of history and put him back in the hearts and minds of Americans everywhere.

    The book that inspired the show
    Which brings us to Hamilton, the amazing Broadway show. This is the book that inspired it. Let’s say that again: the Broadway show that everyone is talking about, that no one can get tickets to, that people enter a lottery for every day of their lives and never seem to win (but we’re not bitter), was inspired by Ron Chernow’s book. The show is almost entirely sung through, which means that with one exception, you can listen to the soundtrack and hear every song and every line written for it—which makes reading Chernow’s book while listening to the cast recording what scientists call an awesome experience.

    Chernow Himself
    Alexander Hamilton was an extraordinary man. He exploded out of his youth and achieved more in his forty-seven years than most people do in twice the time. And that incredible talent and his placement in history make him an easy subject to obsess over—but let’s not forget what Ron Chernow brings to the table. Alexander Hamilton is easily the most readable history published in recent years, a book that is fun to read but never sacrifices facts, research, or insight. The combination of clear, enjoyable prose and the incredible facts of Hamilton’s life make this a history books that you’ll happily make time for—and miss after you’ve turned the last page.

    We may never get to see Hamilton live on stage. But we can read this incredible book—and now’s the time to do it.

    Shop all history >
  • Jeff Somers 7:00 pm on 2016/05/05 Permalink
    Tags: biographies, , , great dads, great dads in history   

    10 Biographies of Awesome Dads 

    Father’s Day isn’t just about your dad and the lame gift you probably bought him at the last-minute (another tie? really?). It’s about all the dads; any man who starts a family and then puts everything he has into raising his children. Most fathers aren’t famous, although considering what we put them through they should all get five minutes every year where their picture is on every TV screen for one minute and everyone has to stand and applaud.

    Being a good dad isn’t a new thing, either—history, even the bloodiest and craziest periods in history is crammed full of famous dads who would definitely get one of those “World’s Greatest Dad” mugs. Here’s ten super-famous men who were, among many other things, awesome fathers.

    Paul Kalanithi
    Kalanthi’s tragic story—he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at the age of 35, and passed away at 37—produced several amazing essays and the book When Breath Becomes Air, in which he frankly discusses mortality, his oncoming death, and his emotional reaction to it. One of his most remarkable decisions was to start a family after his diagnosis, and he ends one of his published essays with the following sentences (you might want to have a tissue in hand before reading): “When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself … do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”

    Alexander Hamilton
    As Hamilton enjoys a resurgence of fame and appreciation in America, including the recent decision to keep his portrait on the $10 bill, it’s a good time to remember that this man whose father abandoned him had a large family, fathering eight children, several of whom went on to serve at high levels and with great distinction in the American government and in private business, attesting to Hamilton’s positive influence. Hamilton was not, of course, perfect; a scandalous affair more or less ended his active political career, and his eldest son, Philip, died in an 1801 duel eerily similar to the one that would claim Hamilton’s life a few years later. Still, considering how much Hamilton accomplished in his public life, it’s amazing he had time to be a father—just one more testament to his remarkable abilities.

    When you’re the first Western Roman Emperor in about four centuries, you’re obviously not living by other people’s rules. Charlemagne fathered nearly two dozen children while building his empire, but he was an unusually doting father who actually ensured each of his children received a first-class education, even his daughters, which was pretty progressive in the 8th century. Not only that, he refused to allow his daughters to marry in order to avoid political complications, but sanctioned common law arrangements and welcomed their (officially illegitimate) children with open arms. He even refused to execute one son who led a rebellion against him—which again, is progressive for the 8th century.

    William Jackson Smart
    Smart isn’t the most famous Civil War figure, but his true legacy is the incredible affection his children had for him. That affection was so powerful that when his daughter, Sonora, heard about the newly-created Mother’s Day, her memories of her father inspired her to stump for the creation of an equal observance for fathers. Being the inspiration for Father’s Day is a pretty strong testimonial for your parenting skills, even if you did fight on the wrong side of the Civil War.

    Charles Darwin
    Darwin, one of the foremost minds of the 19th century, was an extraordinarily doting father who lavished attention and affection on his ten children. Only seven of the Darwins’ children survived to adulthood, but those seven went on to distinguished careers and contributions to the world on their own merits. As a man who studied the genetic lines and development of living things, Darwin always worried about the fact that his wife Emma was a distant cousin of his, and watched his children carefully for signs of abnormality, but happily none ever manifested.

    Barack Obama
    Whatever your politics, one thing you can’t deny: President Obama has raised two remarkable children. The poise and respect with which Malia and Sasha conduct themselves while under the white-hot microscope of White House politics can’t be an accident, and anyone watching the Obamas must walk away wishing their parents were as smart, as cool, and as clearly doting as they are. While Obama’s political legacy may take some time to clarify, his legacy as a great dad is already well-established.

    Kirk Douglas
    Kirk Douglas is a remarkable man, still going strong at 99 (he claims the title of “world’s oldest blogger”) despite suffering a debilitating stroke at the age of 80. He fathered four sons, and while his family has seen its share of tragedy, it’s also seen a lot of success both in front and behind the camera as the second generation of the Douglas Family has carved out an empire in film and television as actors, directors, and producers. The Douglas Sons’ clear affection for their father is a monument to one of Hollywood’s great dads.

    Muhammad Ali
    Ali remains one of the most famous athletes in history, as well as one of the most famous sufferers of Parkinson’s Disease. The father of nine children between four marriages, Ali was very clear in his opposition to any of his children following in his footsteps as a boxer as concern over their health and safety trumped any thoughts of an athletic dynasty. His daughter Laila, surprisingly, was the sole child to follow in his footsteps; Ali eventually relented in his disapproval and supported her career, and Laila retired as an undefeated super middleweight champion.

    George H.W. Bush
    There have been two father-son Presidents in U.S. History; the first pairing was John Adams (#2) and his son John Quincy Adams (#6), but while Adams was obviously an incredibly capable man he struggled all his life with an inability to inspire affection, even among his sons. Bush is the contrast: a very capable, talented man who rose to the most powerful position in the world and raised a family that obviously reveres him—and whatever you think of his politics, there’s no denying #41 is a great father.

    One thing to note about Beyonce’s album Lemonade and all the implications it seems to make about his fidelity as a husband: there are no implications about his qualities as a father. In fact, every bit of information we have about Jay-Z as a dad indicates he’s a loving, doting father. Of course, considering how adorable his daughter Blue Ivy happens to be, it’s impossible to imagine anyone being anything but doting—still, for a music mogul whose own public image is usually pretty dour and stoic, Jay-Z’s obvious love for his daughter is pretty heart-melting.

    Dads are half of the equation for everyone in this world, after all, and these famous fathers demonstrate that while they might not be perfect, they got at least one thing right.

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