by Mike Davis (Verso)
Arguing that “no other weapon in the history of warfare has proven to be such a promiscuous equalizer of combat between elephants and fleas,” Davis, a prolific leftist historian, traces the evolution of the car bomb from the explosives-laden horse wagon that the anarchist Mario Buda detonated on Wall Street in 1920 to the “improvised explosive devices” of today’s Iraq. Despite characteristically overheated prose, Davis creates a fascinating genealogy that raises chilling questions about the future of terrorism.
West from Appomattox
by Heather Cox Richardson (Yale)
This well-written and perceptive history considers Reconstruction as a national—rather than strictly Southern—phenomenon that united the North, South, and West, and created the creed of middle-class individualism that would define the 20th century. Richardson skillfully details some glaring contradictions—that the Wild West was settled only with significant government intervention, for example, and that the era’s new egalitarianism excluded large groups of people deemed insufficiently white, male, or “hardworking”—and shows the sway this doctrine still holds today.
by Arnold Rampersad (Knopf)
You don’t often find a biography as beautifully written as this one. Ellison, who wrote the Great American Novel but then allowed its achievement to prevent him from ever completing another, will always be something of an enigma. But if anyone can finally provide more answers than questions about this most complex of men, it is Rampersad in this vivid, graceful, and exceptionally intelligent work.
by Hermione Lee (Knopf)
Lee, the author of a magisterial biography of Virginia Woolf, uses her prodigious knowledge and uncommon perspicacity to bolster her claims for Wharton as a pioneering modern woman as well as a great writer, but not everyone will warm to the formidable figure presented in her book. It’s all very well to acclaim Wharton’s boldness and toughness, but when you read her vicious assessment of Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance, along with some anti-Semitic and other very nasty racist remarks, you realize that modernism allowed the embrace of some dark gods.
by William Stevenson (Arcade)
Vera Atkins was a Romanian Jew who became more British in her manner than most natives, but whose intimate knowledge of Continental Europe enabled her to run a very successful undercover operation in Nazi-occupied territory. Her story, with its many successes bought at a terrible price by some of the female operatives, is far more intricate and exciting than the world of James Bond.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh: First Lady of the Air
by Kathleen C. Winters (Palgrave Macmillan)
While giving some attention to Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s poetry and best-selling prose, as well as the trauma of her son’s kidnapping and murder, this brief biography focuses on her crucial role as Charles Lindbergh’s co-pilot and navigator. Anne accompanied her husband in tiny two-passenger aircraft as they helped lay the groundwork for Pan Am’s transatlantic, transpacific, and intercontinental passenger routes. It would seem that after Amelia Earhart and her British counterpart, Amy Johnson, Anne Morrow Lindbergh was the most consequential woman pilot of her time—and unlike them, she didn’t die in the course of her exploits.
by Tennessee Williams, edited by Margaret Bradham Thornton (Yale)
This tome provides an acute glimpse into the mind, art, and life of the preeminent mid-century American playwright. Williams’s world as recounted here is as messy and as haunted and as sad as might be expected, but the writer springs from these pages a humane, scrupulous, honest, and very likable man.
by Hugh Trevor-Roper (Yale)
Best known for his sterling The Last Days of Hitler, Trevor-Roper was also a noted scholar of the Reformation and its era. For three decades before his death, in 2003, he worked on this absorbing study of Theodore de Mayerne, a once-famous but now-forgotten 17th-century royal physician and occasional diplomat/spy. The biographer, a lifelong student of diplomacy and the son and brother of doctors, brings his intriguing subject to life.
The Mistress’s Daughter
by A. M. Homes (Viking)
Those who have read A. M. Homes’s fiction would expect a memoir from her to be diamond-hard, with flashes of humor as well as brightness. They will not be disappointed by this book, in which she tells of her bruising adult encounters with the unappetizing pair who had given her up for adoption in her infancy 30 years earlier. In meeting with the adult Homes, the biological parents got both more and less than they were seeking, and Homes got only grief from them, but her readers get a story to treasure.
Room for Doubt
by Wendy Lesser (Pantheon)
The three intensely personal essays that make up this trenchant little volume display Lesser’s talent for brilliant, merciless self-criticism. She emerges as quirkily attractive and consistently interesting.
by Archon Fung, Mary Graham, and David Weil (Cambridge)
What you don’t know will hurt you, especially when it comes to information on, say, how many patients die in your local hospital or which toxins are contaminating your drinking water. The authors, three Boston-based researchers, offer examples from the United States and other countries of individuals and political groups encouraging policies that coax and/or force companies and governments to release information they would rather hide.
Impotence: A Cultural History
by Angus McLaren (Chicago)
Viagra promises to relegate to history the affliction explored in this learned, always diverting study. Alas, its author avers that in fact the little blue pills are simply the latest in a long line of “charms, aphrodisiacs, and herbal remedies consumed in ages past for similar purposes.” The best thing about this book is that it’s a true history, beginning with manhood in ancient Greece and Rome and going on through Freud and Marie Stopes before concluding in our own chemically dependent age.
The Cigarette Century
by Allan M. Brandt (Basic)
This examination of the cigarette’s place in American life, written by a Harvard medical historian, manages to be both an engrossing cultural history and a passionate, exhaustively researched indictment of a public-health catastrophe that happened largely in plain sight. From a 1929 publicity stunt imploring women to “Light another torch of freedom! Fight another sex taboo!” to the rise of that most distinctive advertising icon, the smoking spokesdoctor, Brandt outlines how the industry ingeniously built and preserved its customer base even as evidence of smoking’s harmful effects mounted beyond question. Having served as a plaintiff’s expert witness in recent tobacco-liability litigation, Brandt argues that the industry has survived such trials and is now focused on expanding its reach throughout the developing world. With access to new markets, he writes, tobacco products stand to claim a billion lives worldwide in the 21st century, 10 times the death toll they caused in the 20th.
In the Driver’s Seat
by Helen Simpson (Knopf)
English writer Helen Simpson is mordantly funny and unafraid of life’s big issues, such as love, aging, and war. While the stories in this collection are as vigorously written as her previous works, they lack the subtlety and complexity of which Simpson is capable. The touching “Early One Morning” and the multi-themed “Constitutional” are sparkling exceptions, though, and well worth the price of admission.
This Human Season
by Louise Dean (Harcourt)
Dean, also English, sets her remarkable second novel in 1979, in the midst of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, and tells her story alternately from the point of view of a political prisoner’s mother and of one of his guards. Her research is both impressive and unobtrusive, and she develops her characters with unwavering clarity and sympathy. Here, as in her first novel, Dean evinces a remarkable maturity of outlook and supreme control of her form.
by Anita Shreve (Little, Brown)
Shreve, with her serene style and impeccable pacing, returns to familiar territory: the house on the New Hampshire coast that was the setting for The Pilot’s Wife, Fortune’s Rocks, and Sea Glass. Here, a young widow gets drawn into a rivalry between two adult brothers, with heartbreaking consequences.