Great writers, good storytelling, fascinating subjects — these are the basis for the Best of the Best authors and books for Holidays 2015. Their métier is nonfiction, whether deep science, history 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.
Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957, Helen Molesworth; with Ruth Erickson. Yale University Press $75
Founded in 1933, Black Mountain College in North Carolina–a bold experiment in creative education in art, music, dance, and poetry– hosted an astonishing array of artists who taught or studied there in the 24 years it operated. “I’ve really come to see Black Mountain as the wellspring of the American avant-garde,” says Helen Molesworth, editor of the book and curator of a new exhibition on Black Mountain. Among its instructors were Josef and Anni Albers, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, Karen Karnes, M. C. Richards, and Willem de Kooning, and students included Ruth Asawa, Robert Rauschenberg, and Cy Twombly.
The exhibition, organized by Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, contains 260 works by nearly 100 artists and is now traveling. Individual essays in the book look at diverse aspects of the college program and continuing legacy. A must-read for anyone interested in how American art was shaped in the 20th century. Richly illustrated. Radio interview on WBUR (Boston). Article in The New Yorker Yale University Press
THE EDGE OF THE WORLD: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe, Michael Pye. (Pegasus, $27.95.) This book will leave you breathless –turning each page (as I am now doing) to learn more facts and insights about the North Sea and how it transformed Europe. Pye is an amazing scholar who has mined every ancient document and obscure source – and synthesized his findings into a highly readable account of the North Sea as pivotal in the development of northern Europe and beyond. It leaves behind the notion of the “dark ages” as a huge interregnum between 400 AD (end of the Roman Empire) and the Renaissance.
The level of detail – much of it unknown to a popular audience, will leave you reeling in discovery — this comprehensive book is a sheer pleasure for its insights. His throw-away facts are powerful: how the Frisians “reinvented” money and later paper became the stand-in for commodities at the Bourse in Antwerp (trading exchange). How double-entry bookkeeping invented by Simon Stevin –and promoted in a book he wrote and distributed widely –transformed business practices. Pye lays out the power of beguines (holy women)who enjoyed extraordinary independence and security through their own intelligence and ingenuity: They laid out the dead, farmed, grew their own vegetables, taught Latin, loaned money, made business deals. You learn about the Hansa [the name of the gang that took Christ prisoner in Gesthemane]–– and the Hanseatic League, and the rites of initiation in Bergen (Norway), which if they didn’t kill you, actually made you “a man” — being keel-hauled under ships, beaten with clubs, and smeared with feces. How windmills migrated from England to Flanders to meet new needs. Pye reorients our thinking about the development of Europe, and covers everything from Roman outposts in the north, to the Saxons, to how Netherlandish artists who exerted major influence on the wealthy the Mediterranean. The whole book is a revelation. New York Times review
SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard (Liveright Publishing) 606 ppp illus. $35
If you look down and about while in Rome, you’ll find the acronym SPQR –“Senatus Populusque Romanus,” or “The Senate and People of Rome”—imprinted everywhere, on manhole covers, roads (and wall markings). Beard’s book is an ample chunk of history that can make your own explorations of Rome that much richer. In a recent TIME interview, Cambridge University classicist Beard notes, “The Romans would not have understood the concept of an illegal migrant. …the underpinning of Rome in its foundation myths [is] as a place of asylum: Aeneas is a war refugee, Romulus has no citizens, so he says, ‘Come on, everybody! Runaways, criminals, ex-slaves, you just come here, this is an asylum!’” Thus she bookends millennia with an observation that pertains to how today’s migrants are coming from former Roman outposts into contemporary Mediterranean society once part of Rome. There’s so much to learn from the nearly 1,000 years she covers and in a fresh way. TIME interview
In our 2014 list of “Best of the Best,” we recommended Robert Hughes’s promethean Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History, (originally hardcover, Alfred A Knopf) Now in paperback
A powerhouse art critic (formerly Time Magazine) and prolific writer, Hughes has written a biography of the city – once the center of the “civilized” world – with all of its spectacle, intrigue and physical beauty. Read more in our Green News Update article from 2014
THE INVENTION OF NATURE: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, Andrea Wulf. (Alfred A. Knopf) 473 pp Illustrated. Alfred A. Knopf. $30.
Is there a way to summarize the prodigious talents – and gifts – of Alexander Von Humboldt, a man whose 100th birth in 1869 was celebrated in cities all over the world (New York, Boston, Chicago, Baltimore, Dresden, Melbourne and Moscow) and who, today, is largely unknown by everyone but scholarly historians and scientists? Elizabeth Kolbert, the estimable New Yorker writer and author of multiple books, puts it this way:
“ Humboldt was… the Edmund Hillary of his generation [for climbing Chimborazo at 19,400 feet]. He was also a naturalist, an inventor, a prolific author, and a republican, in the French Revolutionary sense of the word. Several of his books became international best-sellers. Humboldt’s writings on his adventures in South America inspired figures as diverse as Charles Darwin and Simón Bolívar, who called him the ‘discoverer of the New World.’ As one of his translators put it, ‘It would need another Humboldt to encompass such a life and its works.’
Humboldt spent five years in South America — in some of Venezuela’s remotest and problematic places: the Llanos (a biodiversity-rich spot I have traveled to), the Rio Apure and the Orinoco; to Havana; and later to Cartagena (now Colombia), trekking across the Andes, on to Quito and finally climbing Chimborazo. He measured everything (even after his 42 crates of instruments dwindled). He collected thousands of plant specimens. His notes and writings eventually filled 34-volume publication; he paid a small fortune to have artists illustrate and engrave his works. And he charged a small fortune for the books.
Andrea Wulf is an endless well of enthusiasm and scholarship – see her mini-video on the book – on Von Humboldt. She did an estimable job in her book Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation, which chronicled the agrarian instincts and interests of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Her ability to tackle the nation’s most important founders in one work qualifies her for taking on the herculean life of Von Humboldt, warts and all. Darwin called him the “greatest scientific traveler who ever lived.” Read the book, and you’ll see why! Essay by Elizabeth Kolbert Humboldt’s Gift (New Yorker Oct 26, 2015). Andrea Wulf on the Diane Rehm Show (NPR)
The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, Robert Macfarlane. (Hamish Hamilton 2012 ) Hardcover. 433 pages
Is Oxford University an incubator for people with literary yearnings? Macfarlane is an Oxford Don with several well-received books under his belt (Mountains of the Mind and Wild Places). This book – called by the Guardian “an utterly beautiful and brilliantly written travel book”—is considered a continuation of how he explored the feral in modern Britain.
Chapters are organized by geological features: Chalk, Silt, Peat, Roots and Flint. Here you’ll find his delight in ancient roads, including old seapaths and ocean roads leading to Iceland and Norway, and “a branch line of the most famous pilgrimage route of them all, the Camino de Santiago.”
If you heart stirs at the prospect of a writer with the deep belief “that an outward expedition is the occasion for an inward voyage,” you’ll enjoy how Macfarlane keeps company with the past, with history, with his considerable knowledge of nature, as well as an assortment of wanderers, pilgrims and ghosts. Awards and honors: Orion Book Award Nominee (2013), Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award (2013) Guardian review and Video
Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, Carl Safina (Henry Holt and Co. 2015)
Carl Safina is a professor at Stony Brook University on Long Island, a marine conservationist, author of seven books, a MacArthur Fellow, and a popular TED Talk presenter (over 750,000 views). His love of free-living creatures and respect for their intelligence has driven him to his latest work, in which he travels to Africa, Yellowstone National Park, and the Pacific Northwest to observe “who” they are—in this case, great elephant gatherings, wolves, and killer whales.
Many scientists are uncomfortable with animal cognition, so perhaps Safina is treading where many others fear to go. “What drives my work,” he says, “is a devotion to conservation. And what drives that devotion is my deep love and wonder for the living world.” He looks at the origins of the human mind; and, surprise, he also takes on animal precognition. “Only humans have human minds,” he notes. “But believing that only humans have minds is like believing that because only humans have human skeletons, only humans have skeletons.” Read an excerpt. Read the New York Times review. Check out Dr. Safina’s web page and his TED talk
The Death of Cancer, Vincent T. DeVita,Jr, MD and Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn. (Farrar, Straus & Grioux) 338 pp $28
This is an exceptional memoir (written by father and daughter) that traces how cancer treatment has advanced in the decades since Dr. DeVita began practice as an oncologist; now 80, he has held top positions at Yale and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and has seen cancer treatment progress from the primitive to new protocols arriving yearly. New York Times reviewer Zuger notes, “… the average reader will come away from the book with a superb basic education in all things oncological, from events on the cellular level to those in the rooms where research agendas are settled and checks are written.” Here’s a primer on the development of sophisticated chemotherapy augmented with molecular genetics and modern immunology. New York Times review
One of our 2014 Best Reads is Siddhartha Mukherjee’s epic work, The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, (Scribner) now in paperback and recently a PBS documentary.
SPECTACLE: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, Pamela Newkirk. (Amistad/HarperCollins Publishers) 297 pp illus. $25.99.
Pamela Newkirk seeks the truth – and finds it – in the story of Ota Benga, a Congo boy who was probably abducted and brought to the United States to be on display as an African Pgymy. After an appearance at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, he was brought to New York and was put on display – locked in a cage with an orangutan at the New York Zoological Society (now the Bronx Zoo) –under the aegis of its director. Was it entertainment or propaganda? You will long for a better ending as you read this book; and while Ota Benga was eventually “rescued” by African-Americans in Brooklyn, his ending was tragic. Read an excerpt. Review in the New York Times
In recommending this book I am reminded of another, equally heinous case—of Minik, a six-year-old Inuit boy from Greenland who was brought to New York along with his father and several elders by explorer Robert Peary. The story is told in Give Me My Father’s Body: The Story of Minik, the New York Eskimo (by Kenn Harper, 2001), a book that is still in print. A day after they arrived they were put on display on the Hope, Peary’s ship, in their native furs– some 20,000 people came to “view” them at a quarter per person. Then they went on display at the American Museum of Natural History and lived in the museum’s basement. The adults died from tuberculosis; and Minik was handed over to a museum building superintendent to live at his home and go to school. Additional misfortune occurred when Minik discovered that his father was not properly buried as the museum had promised, but was stored in the museum’s collection. Minik too had a tragic end to his life.
RECLAIMING CONVERSATION: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle. (Penguin Press) 436 pp $27.95
“Facebook, Tinder, MOOCs, compulsive texting, the tyranny of office email, and shallow online social activism all come in for paddling” says writer Jonathan Franzen , reviewing Turkle’s new discourse for the New York Times. If you read Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, you’ll find that Turkle (an endowed professor at M.I.T.) took on technology and its addictive qualities, especially for teens and tweens. Here she makes the case for parents (and adults too!) to reclaim intimate connections only possible through face-to-face conversation. Franzen’s review has its own merits as an essay, and makes a great case for following up her previous book with a close read of this one. Radio story on Morning Edition
Franzen says,” Reclaiming Conversation is best appreciated as a sophisticated self-help book. It makes a compelling case that children develop better, students learn better and employees perform better when their mentors set good examples and carve out spaces for face-to-face interactions.” For both of her books, Turkle conducted hundreds of interviews with teens and adults to explore intimacy, human-technological interaction, constructed identities that exist only online, and the price we may pay for our e-addiction.
Our Best of the Best in 2014 includes award-winning books by E.O. Wilson, Oliver Sacks, Cheryl Strayed, Elizabeth Kolbert, Rebecca Skloot, and Siddhartha Mukherjee — among others. Here’s your chance to read reviews, listen to author interviews, and see book excerpts. Enjoy!