Great writers, good storytelling, fascinating subjects — these are the basis for the Best of the Best authors and books for Holidays 2014. Their métier is nonfiction, whether deep science or memoir, and they are superb researchers, often taking years or more to master their subjects. That’s combined with artful storytelling to make a meaningful read.
If you look carefully, you’ll see these books have links to each other –biodiversity, the threat of extinction, longevity, ancient places, deep relationships with humankind, and with people who continue to touch our lives long after their deaths. These books represent time in a variety of individual interpretations – and they will stand the test of time on your bookshelf or that of a friend. Read and be inspired!
Oldest Living Things in the World, Rachel Sussman, with essays by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Carl Zimmer. Brooklyn-based Rachel Sussman spent 10 years in her epic quest to photograph the oldest living things on the planet. She calls herself a contemporary artist; that hardly accounts for the years of study and travel it took her to find and photograph examples of extreme longevity– continuously living organisms that are 2,000 years old and older. Her pilgrimage began in Japan with a trip to Jomon Sugi, a cypress more than two thousand years old. Where it leads her – from the Antarctic to the Mohave Desert– is for you to find out! Here’s how she describes her work, “ [It] spans disciplines, continents, and millennia: it’s part art and part science, has an innate environmentalism, and is underscored by an existential incursion into Deep Time. I begin at ‘year zero,’ and look back from there, exploring the living past in the fleeting present. This original index of millennia-old organisms has never before been created in the arts or sciences.” Beautifully photographed and printed, Oldest Living Things is a book to keep and pass on to your grandchildren. In a few generations, the “dinosaur species” she has captured – almost all of which are flora and fungi – may succumb to the vagaries of climate change and burgeoning population. Two videos including TED talk Article in The New Yorker
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert (Henry Holt & Co). The New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert has twice in recent years written epic works on the fragility of the planet – and life on it. Kolbert’s skill as a reporter is her ability to research and gain an astonishing command of scientific research, facts and trends. The New York Times calls her “one of our very best science writers.” In an age of easy journalism – all of the online fluff – she works the old-fashioned way (we used to call it “shoe leather” reporting) to share what she has learned and synthesize complex issues. Her latest book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History has been called a major “…book about the future of the world, blending intellectual and natural history and field reporting into a powerful account of the mass extinction unfolding before our eyes.”
In a Guardian interview, she states, “One-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater molluscs, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are heading towards oblivion.” Read an excerpt New York Times review Watch the Kolbert interview on Tavis Smiley
Edward O. Wilson Let us count the ways how Ed Wilson has graced the planet for eighty-five years. Known for sometimes ruffling feathers in the science community, he possesses a deeply inquiring mind that seeks and finds new perspectives. For decades, he was an educator whose “intro to bio” course at Harvard was SRO.
He’s a talented communicator, author of some 30 books and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes; a visionary who used his TED “wish” in 2007 to envision an accessible directory of all organisms that became the Encyclopedia of Life (still underway). If the books below – released in 2013 and 2014 — aren’t tempting enough, then look at The Naturalist (a memoir) or Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Just about anything EO Wilson has written is worth giving or getting as a gift. Ed Wilson’s facebook page
A Window on Eternity: A Biologist’s Walk through Gorongosa National Park (Liveright) 2014, is Wilson’s newest release and like many of his works, he looks at the future of the Earth through a scientist’s lens. This time he travels to Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique – one of the most biodiverse places on the planet – to see what was nearly destroyed and how it is being restored. Along the way he uses his faithful pocket lens to consider the small, marvels at the diversity of this place, and conducts a bioblitz. Wilson avers that biodiversity is “vital to the future of the Earth and to our own.” Who would disagree? New York Times review
The Meaning of Human Existence, Edward O. Wilson ( Liveright) 207 pp (2014). Best said by the Washington Post’s reviewer,” …Wilson tries yet again, in The Meaning of Human Existence, to convince ordinary readers of the scientific view that humans have evolved, along with millions of other species, from earlier life forms, entirely by natural processes, without guidance from any supreme being. He has his work cut out for him.” Washington Post review and New York Times
Letters to a Young Scientist, Wilson writes in a direct and personal style to young people (inspired by Rainier Marie Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet) who have chosen the sciences as their path. He covers the intimate and the big stuff too – creativity, building a career, and the pathway to success. The NPR radio interview also includes a book excerpt. Wilson’s TED Talk to young scientists
The Social Conquest of the Earth, Edward O. Wilson (Liveright, W.W. Norton) 330 pp. Wilson investigates eusocial species –i.e. humans and certain insect species exist in communities, live with multiple generations, and perform acts of altruism for each other. While his mid-1970’s Sociobiology had critics who rejected his premise (species advance through cooperation and collaboration with kin selection), this new work is basically a disagreement with (or repudiation of) his earlier work. No one can say better what’s in EO Wilson’s head than himself. But suffice it to say, if you pick up this book you’ll be intrigued and challenged, and learn more than a thing or two from one of the brightest minds on the planet.Video and Q&A with Carl Zimmer
The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee. (Scribner) 571 pp. illus. Now in paperback. The term omnis cellula e cellula e cellula coined by German researcher Rudolph Virchow describes the accidental mutation of a single cell that unleashes the irrepressible power to overreplicate. “If we seek immortality,” Dr. Mukherjee writes, “then so, too, in a rather perverse sense, does the cancer cell.”
A “biography” of the disease by oncologist and first-time author, Mukherjee infuses his work from ancient Egypt (the first description of breast cancer tumor written on papyrus) to the war on cancer (Mary Lasker and Richard Nixon) to heroic scientists (Harold Varmus, Robert Weinberg) stoking the flames of hope with research and new drugs. This book is the first written by Mukherjee – we hope not the last—and is being adapted for a motion picture. New York Times review and podcast (20 mins) with Mukherjee. Radio interview with Fresh Air/Terry Gross (40 mins) Book review by Janet Maslin (New York Times) New documentary based on the book 2014
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot. (Crown). 369pp. Now in paperback. Ten years of research and passionate commitment by Rebecca Skloot produced a magnum opus on African-American Baltimore resident Henrietta Lacks, and the cancer cells she unwittingly furnished that sparked a revolution in medical research while she was being unsuccessfully treated Johns Hopkins Medical Center for cervical cancer. Miraculously, Henrietta’s cells, which came to be known as HeLa cells, were so successful they never stopped being capable of reproducing. “If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the effects of the atom bomb; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.”
There is a deeper and darker human story here too – neither Henrietta Lacks or her family ever gave permission to use her cells or benefited in any way from the miracle, while a multi-million-dollar research industry flourished from decades of harvesting the cell lines. Washington Post review Radio interview (Fresh Air/Terry Gross)
An exceptional writer and storyteller Oliver Sacks (Awakenings; The Man Who Mistook His Wife for as Hat), often includes himself and his own conditions as a way of illuminating the human conditions he addresses.
In The Mind’s Eye, Oliver Sacks. (Alfred A. Knopf, London Picador) 263 pp, $26.95), Dr. Sacks takes on the stories of people – including himself—who have lost some indispensable senses and abilities: e.g. ability to recognize faces, to sense three dimensions, or the power of speech. Dr. Sacks also reveals his personal exploration of learning to see after eye cancer and loss of vision to one side. Excerpt
Hallucinations (his latest book), Sacks examines “mind-altering experiences,” including his own, “to illuminate what hallucinations tell us about the organization and structure of our brains, New York Times Sunday Review Listen (NPR story)
Science Friday (NPR) Read an excerpt
Oaxaca Journal (Vintage $14.95) Any trip with Dr. Oliver Sacks, whether into the human mind, or in this case the historically rich province of Oaxaca Mexico, is worth your time. The ostensible mission is a group trip by the American Fern Society to study ferns, one of Sacks’s passions. But Sacks also ends up keeping a handwritten journal, meditating on Mesoamerican civilization, coffee, and, what else ? – people. Sacks’ web site NPR audio interview on the book
All the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo, (Random House, 256 pp, $27) (2012 National Book Award for nonfiction). Mumbai (India) is the fourth most populous city in the world – some 20.5 million people live in the metro area. When Katherine Boo began writing her first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, she selected Annawadi, just a half-acre area (approx. 23,000 sf) hidden by a cement wall that is home to 3,000 mumbaikars. Despite her own health issues, she spent four years there, with an open lake of sewage and petrochemicals nearby.
While Mumbai is a top center of commerce and the birthplace of Indian cinema, her stories are not at the 30,0000-foot level; rather intimate and in many respects terribly painful in revealing the hopes, hates, aspirations, realities, and corruption of people who yearn for “a clean job” and possibilities. The book is being brought to the stage by playwright David Hare at The National Theater in London during the fall 2014 season. New York Times review and an essay about Boo
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed (Alfred A Knopf) 315 pp $25.95 Strayed’s 1100-mile solo hike on the grueling Pacific Crest Trail came after death, divorce and drugs nearly robbed her of a future life. Among her challenges, the greatest changes of elevation of any American scenic trail, passing through high and low desert, forest and alpine ecosystems, and perhaps the greatest reward, a reclaimed life. The book has been adapted as a major motion picture (Wild) scheduled for release in December 2014. Radio interview w. Diane Rehm
The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter 473 pp. illus (Center Street) $26.99. Now in paperback. George Clooney made the movie (Monuments Men), but the page turner is thanks to a small, spectacular “band of British and American art scholars took to the battlefields of Europe to rescue thousands of cultural treasures from Nazi pillagers and the collateral damage of armed conflict.”
Several of them worked are well-known to US museums where they worked post World War II: James Rorimer (director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), George Stout (a talented art conservator) and Charles Parkhurst who wasa deputy director of the National Gallery of Art (in DC). Today we have them to thank for saving some of the world’s most important art works by Rembrandt, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci among others. Boston Globe book review
Berlin: Portrait of a City through the Centuries by Rory MacLean (St. Martin’s. 421 pp $27.99) “Why are we drawn to certain cities?” asks writer Rory MacLean. No single book captures the complex and changing identity of Berlin – a city “built of brick, stone and eccentricity,” explains historian Gerard De Groot – but this book is worth your attention. MacLean uses some 24 characters, most real and several composites, as Berlin residents across the centuries, with a combination of analysis, fiction and impressionistic writing. Here you’ll find Fredrick the Great, brilliant Jewish economist Walther Rabenau, Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, artist Käthe Kollwitz, playwright Christopher Isherwood, and Marlene Dietrich, along with the almost-archetypes of evil –Fritz Haber (developer of poison gas), filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and Joseph Goebbals.
Esteemed travel writer Jan Morris notes in her Telegraph review, “This grandly ambitious work has a noble intention: to re-create through art and imagination the whole historic presence of a great capital, from its beginnings to the present day….” Read the review
Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History, Robert Hughes 498 pp illustrated (Alfred A Knopf) $35. Now in paperback. A powerhouse art critic (formerly Time Magazine) and prolific writer, Hughes wrote a biography of the city – once the center of the “civilized” world – with all of its spectacle, intrigue and physical beauty. Read the lengthy review and you won’t hesitate for a moment to get or read this book. It’s a “guided tour through the city in its many incarnations, excavating the geologic layers of its cultural past and creating an indelible portrait of a city in love with spectacle and power, an extravagant city that, in Mr. Hughes’s words, still stands today as ‘an enormous concretion of human glory and human error.’” For my part, there are far, far too few illustrations – you’ll need a prodigiously illustrated art book or two as a companion while you read. New York Times review Q&A with Hughes
The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns. 700 pages $60. The seven-part Ken Burns’ PBS TV series in fall 2014, is amplified in this 700-page book with nearly 800 photographs and text on the American family dynasty that begat the national park system, conservation mindedness, Social Security, the New Deal, the United Nations and more. Teddy, FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt left an imprint that continues today. “…no other American family ever touched so many lives,” says one reviewer. Details on the TV series and book and Goodreads review
Be joyful in this season – and in all seasons — that these award-winning writers are joined by scores of other scientists, historians and nonfiction writers who still believe in books and the art of writing well!