Stephen King called Abigail Thomas’ memoir A Three Dog Life “the best memoir I have ever read,” and Thomas has another winner with her latest, What Comes Next and How to Like It.
Thor Hanson’s The Triumph of Seeds is an unexpected delight. Composed in charming and lively prose, the book introduces readers to a variety of quirky figures—biologists, farmers, archaeologists and everyday gardeners—who have something profound to say about a seemingly mundane topic: those little kernels that, against tremendous odds, have managed to take root all around us.
What with all the CSI television dramas, books by FBI profilers and frightening news stories about serial killers, we’ve become quite familiar with the concept of the criminal psychopath, a person without remorse. But even now, most of us are shocked when a child is a murderer. In 1874, when our current ideas about mental illness were still in their infancy, 14-year-old Jesse Pomeroy seemed to many like a demon from hell.
The tactics may have changed, but the intent remains the same: North Korea is a mysterious, insular country that above all loathes the United States. Today, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un retains his tight grip on power through imprisonment and purges. His threats against the United States include missile testing and computer hacking. But Kim’s modern-day machinations simply mirror the early actions of his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, who took control of North Korea following World War II and established the Kim family dynasty. Blaine Harden’s new book, The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot, describes the formation of that dynasty and offers one explanation for why North Korea hates the U.S.
Those who find the physical world a sufficient source of intellectual and emotional enrichment are likely to be both puzzled and annoyed by A Death On Diamond Mountain. Why would the two middle class American men at the center of the story—both well-educated and neither from a particularly religious family—become so fixated on achieving “enlightenment” through Tibetan Buddhism that their quests take over virtually every aspect of their lives? And given the inward focus of their questing, why should their story matter? The real drama here arises from the charismatic woman both men loved and who ultimately set them at odds with each other.
In his engaging and provocative Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy, Emory University anthropologist and neuroscientist Konner (The Tangled Wing) admits that his book contains something to offend everyone. The idea that important differences in gender identity and behavior are based in biology will not please feminists, and the idea that women are superior to men will offend a lot of men, he writes.
J.C. Hallman had only a passing awareness of writer Nicholson Baker when he quite impulsively became obsessed with the man and his work. He not only had erroneously thought that Baker was British, but considered him a “nonessential” writer. That indifference changed into fixation nearly overnight. Hallman plunged into all of Baker’s fiction and nonfiction, a project that morphed into the deeper contemplation of literature and life that he chronicles with candor, humor and insight in B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal.
You don’t have to be an expert on Chinese proverbs to discern what might happen when an egg meets a stone, but you will understand much more about modern China and its struggling people when you meet this fearless egg: Chen Guangcheng, the narrator of the riveting memoir The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China. Born in 1971, blind since infancy, growing up in dire poverty, Chen learns to escape all his constraints. Barred from the village school and its force-fed propaganda, Chen instead learns from his father that the folktales and myths of his homeland carry a message: As surely as empires will rise, corruption will bring them down. Justice must find its way.
At this moment on the other side of the world, a girl is sitting in the dark. A rare skin disease prevents exposure to the sun, to a shining bulb, even to the benign glow of a Kindle screen. She covers up the slightest cracks of light with tin foil. What do people who pass her house on the street think of these ceaseless black-out blinds, she wonders. She doesn't find out.
In an interview some years ago, Erik Larson, author of such bestsellers as The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts, called himself “an animator of history” rather than a historian. Indeed, he has always shown a brilliant ability to unearth the telling details of a story and has the narrative chops to bring a historical moment vividly alive. But in his new book, Larson simply outdoes himself.