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It’s Beginning to Hurt
James Lasdun
FSG

This exquisite collection of short stories illuminates the everyday agonies of the mind, its anxieties, obsessions, doubts, and yearnings. Most of Lasdun’s subjects are upper-middle-class, well-educated, small-business men from places around New York and London (Lasdun himself is a British expat who lives in upstate New York). They’re rather passive, self-reflective men, who’ve met with some trouble that they can’t quit worrying, as if it were a sore tooth. Relentlessly and with intense psychological insight, Lasdun lets his protagonists fret internally, revealing their essential character but remaining unchanged—a result both unsettling and true. Lasdun pins each observation to the page with grace and exactitude, rendering, with arresting clarity, abstractions ranging from the fears that surround a diagnosis of a fatal disease to the quality of morning light.

West of the West
Mark Arax
Public Affairs

By turns lucid, harrowing, and comical, this collection of dispatches paints a darkly impressionistic portrait of modern California. A journalist and native son, Arax puts paid to vestigial West Coast clichés and replaces them with ominous realities and discontents encountered during four years of intrastate travel. Migrants, exiles, dreamers, schemers, murderers, hippies, fundamentalists, conspiracists, environmentalists—all share space in these pages and in that vast Golden State. The possibility of crazy-quilt discursion looms high, but Arax calmly sews the diverse stories and dramatic studies into coherence and poignancy. The effortless mix here—memoir and reportage, psychography and geography—coolly achieves the author’s aim: “to find the truth and the lie of the California myth.”

Gardens
Robert Pogue Harrison
Chicago

There’s much more to gardens than the “green thought in a green shade” of Andrew Marvell’s poem, one of the many works of literature across the world and through the ages to which Harrison refers. A garden is as contradictory as life itself and as essential, he argues in this passionate piece of advocacy: a refuge and a burden, a place of repose and of labor, paradisal and perilous. Important to humanity since the early civilizations, the garden became increasingly relevant with growing urbanization and industrialization. It is perhaps even more so now, as we look to ecology and conservation for the means of planetary survival.

For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Chicago
Simon Baatz
Harper

Unlike Meyer Levin’s famous novel, Compulsion, which sought the motive for this shocking crime by going deep into the criminals’ minds, this book crisply disposes of the question with its telling title. Instead Baatz’s expertly told criminal procedural offers a clear, detailed exposition of the murder: how these two bright, supremely confident teenagers planned and executed what they were sure was the perfect crime, and how it immediately went awry, leading to their sensational trial but, thanks to their brilliant defense counsel, Clarence Darrow, not to their hanging.

The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation
Frederic Spotts
Yale

Despite the provocative title (a phrase from Jean Cocteau), this thoughtful study contains more understanding than finger-pointing. Those unlucky enough to have to live in Nazi-occupied France ran the gamut from Resistance heroes to enthusiastic collaborators; most just tried to get on with their lives and work. Spotts shows that those involved in the life of the mind and imagination were no exception. He presents the individual cases with a clear, and therefore subtle, eye: “Deciding how to react,” he writes, “posed excruciating moral and political choices.”

The Face on Your Plate
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
Norton

Countless books advocate healthy, humane eating, but few bring to the table the wealth of knowledge and insight found here. Not only the intensely personal account of a dedicated vegan, the book is buttressed with a wealth of scholarship, reflected in copious footnotes and a wide-ranging bibliography. But Masson’s rare combination of passionate advocacy and scientific perspicacity makes this book unusually powerful. As a psychoanalyst, he addresses the psychological and emotional barriers that keep people from adopting a compassionate lifestyle—and one so manifestly in their own interest, as well as society’s and the planet’s.

A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir
Donald Worster
Oxford

As the re-greening of America gathers momentum and grows fresh meaning, terms such as sustainability, biodiversity, and carbon footprint twine, kudzu-like, around the national parlance. How apt, then, that a measured, graceful, and thorough biography of the country’s iconic environmentalist should appear now. The Scottish-born Muir is best known as the founder and president of the still-vital Sierra Club. Yet he was no single-minded crusader. Rather, he was rife with seemingly irreconcilable contradictions: a gifted engineer and an inveterate tinkerer who somehow hewed to the naturalist’s leave-it-be credo; a domesticated husband and father most truly at home in Nature unbound; and the possessor—despite a deeply reflective temperament and penchant for solitude—of a keen activist ability to confer his preservation passions on influential friends (Emerson, TR) and parlay those personal beliefs into national parks and protected wilderness areas (Yosemite, Kings Canyon). He also did his part—via verbal and literary feuds with Gifford Pinchot—to forge the lingering preservation/conservation schism within the greater environmental movement. Worster treats his paradoxical subject—and Muir’s voluminous essays, dispatches, letters, and other writings—with scholarly diligence and heartfelt but modulated respect, letting Muir’s singular tale, his “special self,” tell itself, naturally.

Leonard Bernstein: American Original
Burton Bernstein and Barbara B. Haws
Collins

Jointly edited by Bernstein’s brother (a longtime writer at The New Yorker) and the historian and archivist of the New York Philharmonic, this well-illustrated volume presents views of the conductor/composer by a variety of musicians and critics. The upshot is a kind of Lenny album—but it’s very much the public figure, the whirlwind of titanic musicality and personality, on display here. The authors offer none of the salacious details about his personal life that have featured in biographies written since his death, in 1990—nor do they focus on the maestro’s left-wing politics (as does the intelligent but sometimes heavy-handed Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician, a new title by Barry Seldes). Refreshingly, Bernstein’s triumphs on the podium, in the theater, and on television (where his broadcasts for adults and the innovative Young People’s Concerts broke new ground) take center stage here.

Ziegfeld: The Man Who Invented Show Business
Ethan Mordden
St. Martin’s

As the hyperbolic subtitle shows, this book makes huge claims for its subject. But Mordden, chronicler par excellence of all aspects of Broadway, makes a convincing case for Ziegfeld’s unique importance. From his creation of the Follies that bore his name and reflected his twin passions for female pulchritude and spectacular stagecraft to his swan song as producer of the first great modern musical, Show Boat, Ziegfeld transformed burlesque into a new kind of American musical theater. In addition, he showcased such stars as Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, and Eddie Cantor. His name became a brand, signifying a grand style and a certain kind of extravaganza that only he could deliver.

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