The Christmas season is full of touchstones: Santa with the Rockettes at Radio City, small kindnesses from strangers and boisterous shouts of, “God bless us, every one!” These new books pair nicely with a crackling fire on a frosty night.
“Running a totalitarian regime is simple: tell the people what they’re going to do, shoot the first one to object, and repeat until everyone is on the same page.” Such was life in Ukraine for young Lev Golinkin and his family, and it might have been tolerable had he not also suffered daily beatings in school for being a Jew. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the family fled to Austria where they lived in a refugee hotel before immigrating to the U.S. A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka is the story of that journey and of Golinkin’s struggle to reclaim his identity.
If you've ever seen a story about food stamps or poverty and wondered how people end up there, you need to read Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America. Author Linda Tirado wrote a post about why the poor make such “terrible decisions,” it went viral, and she offers an expanded take on the subject here.
Upon hearing that Randall Munroe, NASA roboticist turned webcomic all-star, is writing a collection of “What If?” columns, a number of you will immediately make plans to buy the book. Don’t worry, you’ll love it. But this review is for the rest of you, who are curious if a bit confused.
Multitasking at work through texts and emails, pumping breast milk for your baby, then grabbing a decaf latte solo as a treat afterward: Is this you? It turns out our collective drive for greater efficiency is leading to lower productivity, reduced immunity and general malaise.
One day in January 2010, Aubert de Villaine received a cardboard tube in the mail. Inside was a map of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, his vineyard, more detailed than any map he himself owned. There was also a note threatening to poison his vines unless a one million euro ransom was paid. Despite the detailed map, De Villaine doubted the threat, which turned out to be real; the vines were in fact poisoned. Shadows in the Vineyard is not a conventional true crime story, but then, poisoning the rarest and most expensive wine in the world is not your average crime.
While teaching a group of volunteers about marine stewardship one morning, researcher Ken Balcomb was confronted with a crisis the likes of which he'd never seen: an inexplicable mass stranding of beaked whales. While racing up and down the Bahamas coastline, trying to save lives or at least preserve specimens for autopsy, he struggled to comprehend what could have caused the whales such trauma. When the U.S. Navy's sonar program was implicated, Balcomb was torn; proud of his own service record, he nonetheless broke confidentiality about Navy practices to try and save the lives of whales. Joining forces with environmental lawyer Joel Reynolds, the two face off against a government in the throes of a national security panic in War of the Whales.
Fond looks back at profound dysfunction have become so commonplace, it’s a wonder there’s not a “crazy parenting” section in bookstores to help the next generation of memoirists get a leg up. At this point, crazy itself is not sufficient reason to publish. In Take This Man, Brando Skyhorse, who won a PEN/Hemingway Award for his first novel (The Madonnas of Echo Park), captures the details of his dysfunctional upbringing with note-perfect language and does so in pursuit of the truth about his family.
Philippe Petit’s famous tightrope walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974 was just one of many such performances by the artist. He made the crossing without a permit or permission to be in the building, so it’s little wonder he thinks of his actions as “coups” and has titled his book Creativity: The Perfect Crime. This is not a how-to book—it’s more of a this-is-how-I primer—but close readers will come away with both inspiration and useful instruction.
On the heels of her death in February comes an intriguing new book examining the legacy of Shirley Temple. Author John F. Kasson confines his study to the child star’s impact on popular culture at a time when escapist entertainment was both luxury and dire necessity. The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression may sound like hyperbole, but Temple’s impact on the nation’s self-image proves unimpeachable.