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.
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.
When explosions rocked the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, three people were killed and 260 injured, among them Jeff Bauman. Standing with friends to cheer on his girlfriend, who was running in the race, Bauman saw a man whose appearance and demeanor didn’t fit the crowd leave a backpack and walk away. Bauman was about to suggest to his friends that they move farther up the street when the pack exploded, taking both his legs with it. Stronger is Bauman’s account of his injury and recovery, and a tribute to working-class Boston resilience.
Biz Stone is cocky. Charming. A self-described genius. In Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind, he offers readers a glimpse of how he got that way. If his name doesn’t ring a bell, consider that the “little bird” he’s referencing is the Twitter logo—he’s the co-founder of the site, and the reason we now think in 140-character phrases.
Blake Bailey has written notable biographies of authors John Cheever and Richard Yates, both difficult and brilliant men. While he was sifting through their lives, he was also reflecting on his own. The Splendid Things We Planned is the resulting portrait, a story of mental illness and addiction and the difficult orbits they force upon the healthy. It’s also a tribute to one family’s best efforts and inevitable failings.
The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success is true to its title, flipping an entrenched view of success on its ear. Author Megan McArdle argues for the value of failure, not just in business but law enforcement, job hunting, even love. Writers like to toss around the Samuel Beckett advice to “fail better,” but what does that mean in practice?