It’s reassuring to discover that heroes, both ancient and modern, are not somehow supernaturally endowed after all. Indeed, they may come by their skills quite naturally. In the thoroughly absorbing Natural Born Heroes, which tracks heroism from the times of Zeus and Odysseus to the World War II bravery of a motley crew of fighters, Christopher McDougall makes it clear that incredible acts of strength and endurance are doable. His extensive knowledge of fitness training, nutrition and physiology winds artfully around a tale of superhuman resistance during the Nazi occupation of the Greek island of Crete, Hitler’s designated launching pad for the invasion of Russia.
The Folded Clock, as crafted by novelist Heidi Julavits, is intricate and delicately worked. Time doesn’t flow linearly in this memoir as we might expect. What at first glance appears to be the diary of a writer in her 40s living an enviable life—an apartment in Manhattan, a house in Maine, sabbaticals in Europe—turns into a structure more complex, like an origami crane. Meditations on marriage and friendship appear and reappear. Diary entries might skip six months, or jump back a year. Julavits arranges the raw material of her diary in such a way as to provoke insight across the units of time that we normally experience: the day, the week and the month.
The end of World War II in Europe brought a wide range of reactions, especially in Germany. From concentration camp prisoners to top Nazi officers, from refugees crowding the roads to soldiers eager to see the war finally over, there was a mixture of heartbreak, relief, chaos and disbelief. For German novelist Walter Kempowski, who died in 2007, researching and compiling those responses, through eyewitness accounts, letters and diaries, became a lifelong mission. The result was 10 volumes and a diary of his project’s progress.
“Let’s get one thing straight right from the beginning: I didn’t set out to be a comma queen.” In fact, Mary Norris explored quite a few interesting career paths before finding her calling as a copy editor at The New Yorker. Her work life began at the age of 15, checking feet at a public pool in Cleveland. She went on to drive a milk truck, package mozzarella at a cheese factory, and wash dishes (all the while managing to pursue a graduate degree in English).
It’s rare that a memoir is so emotionally engaging that a reader may wish to reach back through time and envelop the author in a warm parental hug. But that’s the impulse poet Tracy K. Smith engenders in this account of growing up as a dutiful daughter in a small town in northern California during the 1970s and ’80s. “My mother was proud of my decorum,” Smith recalls. “She liked having a little girl who instinctively wanted to obey.” Smith was much more than a compliant child, though. She was also preternaturally attuned to everything happening around her and determined to find a place for it in her rich imagination.
Los Angeles would not exist as the sprawling, highly populated global center it is today were it not for one man. At the turn of the last century, William Mulholland, a civil servant self-educated in the ways of water engineering, all but willed Southern California’s future when he masterminded one of the greatest engineering projects of all time: the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
Both born in 1884, Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth could have been classmates in school. It’s easy to imagine Eleanor sitting up front (or even helping teach the class) and Alice occupying a back-row spot, launching spitballs and making wisecracks.
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.