Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Five New(ish) Nonfiction Books--World War II Crew, Thatcher's Legacy, Female Sexuality, Reporters on the Run, and The Advantages of Being Ignorant of Our Own Death.

Jason warned me that June 4 was a big on sale date, but the heavy schedule of new releases left me overwhelmed with choices. What to cover? I finally decided that the nonfiction looked more interesting, despite the allure of Colum McCann's TransAtlantic. I'll leave that for another post.

The first title off the shelf is The Boys in the Boat: Nine Amiercans and Their Epic Quest for Gold a thte 1936 Berlin Olympics (Viking), by Daniel James Brown. It's about the University of Washington crew team (the author lives outside Seattle), using as primary source materials the diary of one of the members, Joe Rantz, a kid who, as the publisher says, overcame a devastating family history and crushing poverty to compete against "the German and Italian crews under Adolf Hitler's gaze." He's got nice quotes from James Bradley, Nathaniel Philbrick, and Laurence Bergeen (popular historian side) and a Mary Whipple and Luke McGee (the crew side--most of us have no idea who crew superstars are). I guess Weinstein has film rights. Jerry Harkavy in The Arab Times (first time I've quoted from them) says "it’s a quintessentially American story that burnishes the esteem in which we embrace what has come to be known as the Greatest Generation."

It seems everyone is doing trailers nowadays. Here's the one for The Boys in the Boat:

Keeping to that hemiphere, Charles Moore's Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands,  the Authorized Biography (Knopf) has been out for several weeks and was released in a timely fashion after the subject's passing. This is an official biography, written by a longtime journalist. I am very impressed with its heft. Good paper!

I read a couple of reviews which were on the boring side. This is volume one, she had several suitors, she had to overcome misogynist barbs, and so forth. Sir Malcolm Rifkind in The Scotsman (another quoting first) writer, on worrying about the task of plowing through a huge volume, "I need not have feared. Moore’s biography is, in fact, outstanding. Not only is he the first biographer to have had unrestricted access to her personal papers and every surviving private letter written by her, he also approaches each historical event with which she was involved as an opportunity to understand better her personality, beliefs, fears and prejudices."

One of the weird things I noted is that many reviewers have enjoyed quoting exactly how many pages the Moore book is, Rifkind only includes the body, not the index and notes (758), while Margaret Quamme in the Columbus Dispatch must have included the endpages to get from 860 to 896. She wonders if the book might be "too much of a good thing," observing "American readers might wish for a shorter and more focused biography. Moore, though, assumes that his readers already have a clear understanding of the intricacies of the British political and economic system."

This is getting a little dry. But since we are speaking of women and power, I wonder if a transition to What Do Women Want: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire (Ecco), by Daniel Bergner, might be just the counterpoint. It's a "bold and captivating" adventure in the world of sexuality by a contributing writer to The New York Times. Lizzie Crocker in The Daily Beast finds that "Bergner seems to be onto something when he comes to the conclusion that women also crave sexual novelty—and that they struggle with monogamy just as much as their male counterparts"

It might just be me, but I think the book could have been a bit more fleshed out. 197 pages, pretty large spaces between the lines, $25.99 price point. As an alternative, if there was nothing more to be said, I might have shrunk the trim size to a more impusle-y trim, ditched some of the white space, and gotten the book under $20.  But that's just me.

Junius and Albert's Adventures in the Confederacy: A Civil War Odyssey, by Peter Carlson (Public Affairs) is a rather intriguing title for a nonfiction book. Per historian James McPherson, it's about "two Northern war reporters who were captured by the Confederates at Vicksburg," noting that "for the Civil War, truth is indeed stranger than fiction." The publisher notes that their journey is one of the great escape stories in American history, packed with drama, courage, horrors, and heroics, plus moments of antic comedy.

Carlson is a longtime Washington Post reporter and columnist who now pens a column for American History magazine. He's got some nice quotes from David Finkel (who was at a table with me at a convention dinner), Paul Hendrickson (who is edited by another person at another dinner) and Christopher Buckley (whose addition gives the notion that the book is funny).  Steve Weinberg in the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune notes that while there are comic elements, the book is more harowing than funny.

And finally there is Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind (Twelve), by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower. Hachette, I'm loving that you are moving away from the 99 cent price point for upmarket books. I just think it looks so bargain basementy. Let's hope that Harper and Macmillan follow suit. To me, even pricing (00) says quality and 95 cent pricing says classic. Either one works for me. I'm glad nobody has jumped on 97 cent pricing, as that means clearance, at least at Gap-owned stores. Was I talking about a book here?

Yes! Per the publisher, these two acclaimed scientists have a revolutionary theory that alters out understanding of human evolution. It says that the human leap in evolution was psychological, specifically the willful ignorance of our own deaths. Apparently the authors talked about this and years later Vakri, on learning that Brower died, completed Brower's manuscript with this theory. Variations of this theory include our propensity to smoke and eat fatty foods.

Want to know more? Varki has a nice interview in Publishers Weekly. One thought: "One of the theories about major depression is that depressed people are the true realists—if you really want to know the facts, talk to them. The rest of us, fortunately, are in a state of denial and optimism. What is optimism? Denial of reality. What is extreme optimism? Extreme denial of reality."

Michael D. Langan reviews the book in the Buffalo News. "This book is a warning about this remarkable ability of denying reality. It is a gift, the authors write, which will either lead to our downfall or be our greatest asset."

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