Nonfiction Favorites

Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own Cover Image
ISBN: 9780525575320
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Published: Crown - June 30th, 2020

Decades after James Baldwin’s death, his social vision and insights into the psychic and moral anguish of racism are as piercingly relevant to the America of today. In Begin Again (Crown, $27), Eddie S. Glaude Jr. blends biography, memoir, and literary analysis of Baldwin’s works to present a passionate appeal for Americans to grapple with the enduring “lie” at the core of America’s soul-sickness. This lie—a blind devotion to maintaining America’s self-perception as mostly innocent— is exactly what Baldwin sought to undermine through his writing. Baldwin’s disillusionment and struggle for sense following the civil rights movement of the ‘60s provides parallels for the disorientation many might be feeling today in Trump’s America. Fans of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jesmyn Ward’s The Fire This Time will appreciate Glaude’s blunt-force lyrical style. A timely and charged read, Begin Again brings Baldwin’s witness to bear on the present in an evocative way that imagines a better world. In Baldwin’s own words: “Not everything is lost. Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated. If one refuses abdication, one begins again.” Sly Samudre

Caste (Oprah's Book Club): The Origins of Our Discontents Cover Image
ISBN: 9780593230251
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Published: Random House - August 4th, 2020

In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Random House, $32), award-winning journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson makes a compelling case that racism is a manifestation of a deeper and more intractable system—a caste structure that ranks people on the basis of such human differences as skin color. While examining other caste hierarchies in world history—notably those of India and Nazi Germany—Wilkerson contends that caste achieved its most violent manifestation in the treatment of American Black people. But the book is more than just a powerful, illuminating argument for overcoming structural racial inequality. Combining considerable scholarship and research with engaging storytelling and deep analysis, Wilkerson offers a way to see and talk about ourselves differently. Coming now, amid America’s renewed reckoning over race, her book is persuasive evidence that a deep excavation and resetting of the nation’s foundations must happen before genuine equality can be achieved. Bradley Graham

Chasing Chopin: A Musical Journey Across Three Centuries, Four Countries, and a Half-Dozen Revolutions Cover Image
ISBN: 9781501188718
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Published: Simon & Schuster - August 11th, 2020

I fell in love with the elegantly-written Chasing Chopin (Simon & Schuster, $27) the moment I began reading an advance copy several months ago. Whether or not you are a classical music expert, it is worth joining Annik LaFarge on a wonderful journey that begins with her personal experiences as an amateur pianist and goes on to illuminate Chopin as a man and composer, explain the technological evolution of the piano, and offer a modern-day appreciation of Chopin’s music in shaping history and culture over the past few centuries. A review in The New York Times calls Chasing Chopin a “charming and loving new book.” Making the reading experience even richer is that LaFarge has assembled a wonderful companion website, with links to relevant pieces of music that can be listened to chapter by chapter. Lissa Muscatine

Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062248572
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Published: Ecco - July 28th, 2020

Take a stroll down memory lane. In everyday conversation, this phrase asks you to follow the speaker on a delightful visit to the past. A stroll down Memorial Drive (Ecco, $27.99), by Natasha Trethewey, is a profoundly different experience. Trethewey is already well known; a former U.S. Poet Laureate, she has published five collections of poetry including Native Guard, winner of a 2007 Pulitzer Prize. In her latest work, a memoir, she guides readers through the central tragedy in her life: when she was nineteen years old, her mother was shot and killed by her former stepfather. In this powerful account, Trethewey weaves together the many threads that led to this cataclysmic event, including life in the segregated South. While the murder inescapably looms over all else, this story is also about love: love between a daughter and mother, between family members learning to cope. This story will move you with its intimacy and beauty—here’s one stroll you won’t soon forget. Michael Triebwasser

Oak Flat: A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West Cover Image
ISBN: 9780399589720
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Published: Random House - November 17th, 2020

A consummate artist and narrative nonfiction writer, Lauren Redniss combined biography and science with hand-colored collages to profile Marie Curie in Radioactive and mixed research and interviews with her own typeface to convey the power of weather in Thunder & Lightning. To chronicle the ongoing struggle of Indigenous peoples, she pairs history, biography, and oral history with charged colors and pencil sketches whose strong lines bespeak the determination of the Apaches who are at the heart of her stunning Oak Flat (Random House, $30). Interviewing several generations from the San Carlos Reservation and residents of nearby towns, Redniss lets all sides have their say as she fleshes out the battle lines over the eponymous mesa, whose sacred grounds straddle a huge reserve of copper. Mining would mean forty years of jobs and then, if the past is any guide, a ghost town and a poisoned landscape; no mining would mean continuing poverty but also the thriving practice of ancient Apache ways, including the four-day Na’ii’ees, or Sunrise Dance, described in all its power and beauty by Naelyn Pike, the unforgettable Greta Thunberg of her people. Laurie Greer

Vesper Flights Cover Image
ISBN: 9780802128812
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Published: Grove Press - August 25th, 2020

Helen Macdonald describes Vesper Flights (Grove, $27) as a cabinet of curiosities: 41 essays to spark wonder. The pieces, some as short as three pages, cover birds, naturally, and the broader natural world; there are also flashes of autobiography and smart reflections on class while picking out nesting boxes. In an unsettling piece, Macdonald tramps through the Atacama Desert searching for extremophiles and instead finding dire signs of climate change. While delightedly observing bird migrations from the top of the Empire State Building, she also considers how the city’s light pollution affects the creatures’ journey. She needs to tell the whole story, with heart and intelligence. In the throes of Brexit grief, she follows the Swan Uppers on their traditional journey up the Thames, determined to account for every bird; though she expects to find the insularity of a typical English rite, instead she experiences hope in shared localness versus nationalism. This book is for bird people, nature walkers, and the rest of us, fingers-crossed and fearful, watching as our world changes around us. Suzanne Morgan