by William T. Vollmann (Ecco)
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men meets The Rough Guide, as the astonishingly prolific Vollmann (whose recent works include a 3,300-page treatise on the nature of human violence, and a National Book Award–winning novel) here meditates on poverty, asking poor people on six continents the direct and often complicated question, “Why are you poor?” Vollmann relates numerous haunting vignettes but no silver linings, and creates a remarkably detailed picture of the banality of human suffering, as well as of the limits of writerly observation in altering or ennobling it: “In appropriate contradiction of this book’s hopes and pretenses, poor people’s answers are frequently as impoverished as their lives.”
by Mira Kamdar (Scribner)
America’s obsessive focus on China tends sometimes to obscure how amazingly fast India is transforming itself into an economic superpower. This briskly written, vivid account shows how that subcontinental country’s films, technology, and service industries have made India an ever-growing presence on the American scene. Time to recognize yet another awakening giant snapping at our heels.
by Deborah Cohen (Yale)
What is it about the British and their home fixtures and furnishings? Perhaps classical education made the Roman household gods—lares and penates— a byword among Britain’s upper crust. In any case, all that stuff crowded into Victorian rooms, along with that overstuffed furniture, speaks volumes about the stuffiness of 19th-century British society. This diverting, tellingly illustrated book takes us through the dim heart of Victorian clutter and into the fresh air of the modern design that swept it away.
by Götz Aly (Metropolitan Books)
The Wages of Destruction
by Adam Tooze (Viking)
Hitler’s Beneficiaries crisply shows how the Nazi regime starved and depleted its subject nations, thereby raising Germans’ standard of living and— disturbingly—gaining their often- enthusiastic support. The Wages of Destruction is a vast tome of economic history, a category seldom recommended to the general reader. But this exhaustively researched study cogently argues that the Nazis’ scheme for world domination was at least as grounded in economics as in military might, and it locates, at the very heart of his ambitions, Hitler’s determination that Germany displace the United States as the world’s dominant economic power.
by Stephanie E. Smallwood (Harvard)
This deeply researched, tightly focused, and skillfully evocative look at the Atlantic slave trade, 1675–1725, details the experience of crossing the ocean— an ordeal fatal to many of the slaves who were forced to undertake it.
Blitz: The Story of December 29, 1940
by Margaret Gaskin (Harcourt)
The Luftwaffe launched bigger air raids during the Blitz, but none captured the public imagination, then and afterward, like the incendiary attack of the Sunday night after Christmas 1940—an event memorialized in the iconic image of St. Paul’s Cathedral silhouetted against the burning city. Gaskin, a London journalist, deftly evokes the desperation as water pumps run dry, and the horror as millions of books burn on Paternoster Row while one beautiful Wren church after another is destroyed.
Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature
by Linda Lear (St. Martins)
With Renée Zellweger playing Beatrix Potter in a biopic, it seems safe to say that the children’s book author and illustrator is, for now at least, more famous than Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter. Of course, there wouldn’t be a movie if Potter hadn’t invented and immortalized those enchanting rabbits, but there might still have been this book, since she was also an important British conservationist and naturalist (mycologists later confirmed her findings on fungi and lichens). This comprehensive biography presents the multifarious facets of Potter’s life, from her quietly rebellious girlhood in a conventional family, through her literary and artistic work, to her role as the formidable Mrs. Heelis, chatelaine of virtually all she beheld and preserved in England’s picturesque Lake District.
John Betjeman: A Life
by A. N. Wilson (FSG)
John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man
by John Heilpern (Knopf)
Two biographies of 20th-century British men of letters bring us England’s teddy bear, John Betjeman, and its teddy boy, John Osborne. Wilson’s biography of Betjeman—minor poet, savior of England’s Victorian architecture—became infamous before it reached these shores, because it includes, embarrassingly, a rival biographer’s hoax. This hiccup shouldn’t eclipse the fact that the book is that rare thing: a first-rate biography of a second-rate figure. Osborne, for his part, was always tormented and tormenting, the scourge of the Establishment and also of those around him. The angry young man never stopped looking back in anger—he titled his last book, after all, with his catchphrase, Damn You, England—and Heilpern, in this comprehensive biography, tells us where all that rage came from. He also puts under a very necessary microscope Osborne’s two wonderfully compelling but not always reliable memoirs.
The Gospel of Food
by Barry Glassner (Ecco)
In his previous book, the sociologist Glassner showed us why the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. In this latest effort, he applies the same pragmatism to the ever-more-complex interlocking worlds of food, gastronomy, and health. The result is another work of refreshingly sensible skepticism about all manner of nostrums that offers some sound advice to avoid extremes, in either practice or expectation. Along the way, Glassner gives sharp views of the restaurant scene and piquant portraits of some of its stars.
Alice Waters and Chez Panisse
by Thomas McNamee (Penguin Press)
American cuisine today probably has no greater star than Alice Waters, founder of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse restaurant. As a leading champion of organic food and sustainable agriculture, Waters has transformed food culture in the United States. Now someone who hobnobs with Bill Clinton and the Prince of Wales, she is still concerned that poor children obtain the benefits of organic produce, even if they have to learn to grow it themselves. This biography provides too much information, especially of the gossipy variety, but even that supplies context for the spectacular effusions served forth by her protégé Jeremiah Tower, in his 2003 memoir, California Dish.
The Iron Whim
by Darren Wershler-Henry (Cornell)
Witty and idiosyncratic, this history of typewriting says more than one might think possible about the subject. The author, a Canadian scholar, ranges from the QWERTY/Dvorak format wars to the 2004 “Memogate” scandal that brought down Dan Rather; in one chapter, he entertainingly debunks the notion that a band of monkeys, given typewriters and time, would eventually reproduce Shakespeare’s works. Wershler-Henry’s most interesting achievement, however, is documenting how the typewriter, once a dreaded totem of mechanization, has become an object of nostalgia, in a process that will surely repeat itself as technology advances. After all, as he writes, “Typewriting died a violent death, and … violent deaths lead to hauntings.”
by Rachel Sherman (California)
A Yale sociologist provides this consistently interesting (but distractingly jargony) ethnography of two luxury hotels and the nuanced interactions between guests and staff there. Sherman, who worked a variety of hotel jobs while doing her research, offers an often entertaining look inside a well-oiled service machine (as a concierge, she fielded such requests as “find live crab … find blue roses … make appointment with German- speaking dentist”), while raising necessary questions about labor, justice, and our common humanity in an age when some people go hungry while room service is ordered for well-heeled dogs.
The Custodian of Paradise
by Wayne Johnston (Norton)
In this wildly dramatic novel, Johnston, ever bold in character, plot, and setting, has plucked the 6-foot-3-inch, intellectual, hard-drinking, and intensely independent Sheilagh Fielding from his earlier book on Newfoundland, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, and set her down on a long-abandoned island in the waning days of World War II to review her past.
by Trezza Azzopardi (Grove Press)
Two young misfits negotiate old betrayals, long-standing attachments, and fresh love, in a windy town on Britain’s North Sea. As always, Azzopardi thrusts her readers inside her characters’ skins with her tight focus, stream-of-consciousness style, and use of the present tense. There’s lots of charm here, as well as suspense and occasional moments of madness.