LJ Best Books 2016

A jury of our peers discussed, debated, disagreed, and finally declared LJ’s annual Top Ten Best Books of the year, selected by our editors, as well as Top Five lists for genre fiction, nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, and SELF-e titles. VISIT THE WEBSITE

LJ’s Reviews of RUSA’s Notable Nonfiction & Poetry | ALA Midwinter 2016

Check out LJ‘s reviews of the 2016 selections of RUSA’s (Reference and User Services Association) Notable Books List, an annual best-of list comprised of 26 written for adult readers and published in the U.S., including fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. The list was announced Sunday, January 10, during the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting in Boston.

Bell, Jim. The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission. Dutton. Feb. 2015. 352p. notes. bibliog. ISBN 9780525954323. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698186156. SCI
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NASA launched two Voyager probes in 1977, hoping to explore Jupiter and possibly Saturn. The wildly successful mission continued to Uranus, Neptune, and beyond; in 2012, Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft to enter interstellar space. Voyager 2 should traverse the ill-defined edge of the solar system soon, possibly even this year. With warmth and gentle, self-deprecating humor, planetary scientist Bell (The Space Book: From the Beginning to the End of Time, 250 Milestones in the History of Space & Astronomy) recaps Voyager’s surprising discoveries, notes how the mission has influenced subsequent research and exploration, and summarizes recent observations from the boundary between the solar wind “bubble” and the rest of the Milky Way. The book offers a brief bibliography. (Unfortunately, while the finished title will include color images, these weren’t available for review.) Some older books about Voyager cover more thoroughly technical details and specific findings, but the substance of this work is its focus on the human side of the story. Bell’s interviews of friends and colleagues illustrate the uncommon devotion of the mission personnel and their strong emotional ties to the project. VERDICT A highly enjoyable read for anyone with an interest in popular science.—Nancy R. Curtis, Univ. of Maine Lib., Orono

starred review starBerman, Ari. Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. Farrar. Aug. 2015. 384p. notes. index. ISBN 9780374158279. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780374711498. POL SCI
Berman (contributing writer, The Nation; Herding Donkeys) has written the first book on the political and judicial career of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) since its original passage and subsequent successful litigation in the late 1960s. It covers the VRA’s setbacks from conservative attacks up to the present day in the aftermath of Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, when part of the act was ruled unconstitutional. Most of the cases surround Section 5, which mandates federal approval of electoral laws in covered jurisdictions, almost all in the South, before going into effect. Berman also exposes at length that changes to electoral procedures intended to disenfranchise minority voters were not always prevented by the act—weakening majority-minority districts via racial gerrymandering, for instance, and more recent examples such as campaigns against voter fraud. In this way, Berman’s text distinguishes itself from others that mainly assess the events leading up to and surrounding the act itself, such as Gary May’s Bending Toward Justice. VERDICT General readers will appreciate the panoramic survey of the cases in which the VRA has been challenged and defended in federal and state courts and legislatures, and the fair inclusion of voices from both sides of the arguments. A timely and needed addition to the voting rights debate.—Jeffrey J. Dickens, Southern Connecticut State Univ. Libs., New Haven

Bourne, Joel K., Jr. The End of Plenty: The Race To Feed a Crowded World. Norton. 2015. 400p. photos. notes. bibliog. ISBN 9780393079531. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393248043. SCI
“This is the story of the race to feed the world without wrecking it,” and as journalist Bourne (National Geographic, Audubon, Science, Outside) tells it, a scary story it is. Spiraling world populations—by 2050 there could be ten billion of us—coupled with lagging agricultural productivity point toward a future where grain supplies cannot keep pace with demand, driving food prices higher, hitting the poorest hardest. Social calamity will ensue. The reasons for faltering agricultural systems are multiple and complex, and Bourne, raised a farm boy and trained in agronomy, does a fine job of sorting its many facets and shaping them into an uncommonly readable text. He travels the world—India, China, Eastern Europe, Africa, Brazil, and back here in North America—to report the problems and possible solutions to the looming food crisis. His argument for another “green revolution,” without the environmental degradation that resulted from the first, is balanced and thorough. The book begins and ends with consideration of Robert Malthus and his population theories, giving his title a circular structure that neatly reinforces Bourne’s principal point: all the agricultural advances in the world will come to naught unless human numbers are controlled.
Verdict A hugely important issue receives lucid, compelling treatment in this valuable work.—Robert Eagan, Windsor P.L., Ont.

starred review starCoates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Grau. 2015. 176p. photos. ISBN 9780812993547. $24; ebk. ISBN 9780679645986. MEMOIR
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In this extended open letter to his young son, Samori, Atlantic national correspondent and senior editor Coates (The Beautiful Struggle) reflects further on his unlikely road to manhood and escape from the maw of America’s tradition—nay, heritage—of destroying the black body. Mixing memoir, discourse, and outcry, Coates details what it has meant and what it means to be black in America, especially what it has meant and means to be a black male. His review pays special attention to the American Dream amid the physically painful and exhausting realities of U.S. ghettos from slavery to the killing fields of Detroit, Chicago, and Baltimore, where he grew up living in fear. Pleading for his son to understand the struggle even as it shifts in time and place, Coates cautions against illusions that America’s racism exists in a distant past that needs not be discussed. VERDICT This powerful little book may well serve as a primer for black parents, particularly those with sons. However, it is also a provocative read for anyone interested in a candid perspective on the headlines and the history of being black in America. LJ Best Book. [See Prepub Alert, 4/27/15]—Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe

Ham, Paul. Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Aug. 2014. 640p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781250047113. $35; ebk. ISBN 9781466847477. HIST
The debate over the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has waxed and waned over the past 70 years, with strong opinions both for and against. Gar Alperovitz’s 1996 study set the stage for the most recent historiographical investigations, and Ham’s latest survey updates the conversation. This deeply researched narrative is especially valuable for its attention to the daily lives of Japanese individuals who experienced the destruction firsthand. Ham (correspondent, London’s Sunday Times) also provides detailed background on the science behind the development of the atomic weapon and how it came to be used the first time. He asserts that the bombings were an unnecessary exercise in demonstrating American military power, arguing that the Japanese were mostly defeated by a recent economic blockade and an ineffectual army. The Soviet invasion of Japanese Manchuria on August 9, 1945—the same day as the bombing of Nagasaki—and the decision to retain Emperor Hirohito empowered moderates within the Japanese government to believe surrender was a foregone conclusion. Verdict Ham’s excellent work will serve as the next installment in the ongoing debate. Essential for libraries with military collections as well as casual readers interested in World War II.—Ed Goedeken, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames

starred review starLarson, Erik. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. Crown.
Mar. 2015. 464p. maps. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780307408860. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780553446753. HIST
DeadWaketoChris.inddWhen veteran captain William Thomas Turner accepted the pinnacle position within Cunard Steamship Company, commander of the RMS Lusitania, he never imagined the danger that lay ahead. Bestselling author Larson (In the Garden of Beasts; The Devil in the White City) traces the liner’s final voyage by intertwining narratives of Turner with those of notable passengers such as Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat, trailblazing architect Theodate Pope, and suffragette Margaret Mackworth. Hardest to shake are descriptions of impulsive Captain Schwieger and his disheveled German crewmates torpedoing vessels, reveling in the shrill of explosions; and imposing British spymaster Blinker Hall stealthily monitoring Schwieger’s U-20 as it discreetly, or so it thought, hunted targets. Rounding out the primary cast are a trio of political players: an ambitious Kaiser Wilhelm, a disciplined Winston Churchill, and an infatuated (and ergo distracted) Woodrow Wilson. Using archives on both sides of the Atlantic, Larson describes the Lusitania’s ominous delayed departure and its distressing reduced speed. He vividly illustrates how these foreboding factors led to terror, tragedy, and ultimately the Great War. VERDICT Once again, Larson transforms a complex event into a thrilling human interest story. This suspenseful account will entice readers of military and maritime history along with lovers of popular history. LJ Best Book. [See Prepub Alert, 9/8/14]—Stephanie ­Sendaula, Library Journal

starred review starMcCullough, David. The Wright Brothers. S. & S. May 2015. 336p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781476728742. $30; ebk. ISBN 9781476728766. BIOG
McCullough (John Adams; 1776) effectively blends impeccable writing with historical rigor and strong character definition in his biography of Wright brothers Wilbur, the abstract thinker and introvert; and Orville, the extrovert and hands-on doer. They had limited formal education, with the author instead attributing his subjects’ success to industry, imagination, and persistence, as seen in their early enterprises as newspaper publishers, printers, and bicycle salesmen in Dayton, OH. Credit is also accorded to their widowed father, Bishop Milton Wright, as well as their sister Katharine for their support of “Ullam” (Wilbur) and “Bubs” (Orville). Highlights of McCullough’s narrative include his discussions of the Wrights’ innovative conception of wing-warping as a means of flight control; the brothers’ first controlled, powered, and sustained heavier-than-air human flight at Kitty Hawk, NC, on December 17, 1903; the issuance of the Wright flying machine patent #821,393 on May 22, 1906; the Ohioans’ ongoing search for markets abroad; and the elder Wright’s perfect flying demonstrations at Le Mans, France, even as Orville was nearly killed in a similar performance before army brass at Fort Myer, VA. The author closes with the incorporation of the Wright Company, patent infringement suits filed against competitor Glenn Curtiss, and the deaths of Wilbur (1912), Milton (1917), Katharine (1929), and Orville (1948). VERDICT A signal contribution to Wright historiography. Highly recommended for academicians interested in the history of flight, transportation, or turn-of-the-century America; general readers; and all libraries.—John Carver Edwards, formerly with Univ. of Georgia Libs.

starred review starMontgomery, Sy. The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness. Atria. 2015. 272p. bibliog. ISBN 9781451697711. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781451697742. SCI
This book’s big reveal may be up front in the title, but that doesn’t detract from the delight of discovering just what, exactly, an octopus’s soul might look like. Naturalist Montgomery (The Good Good Pig) admirably demonstrates the complexity, intellect, and personalities of the octopuses she has come to know at the Boston Aquarium—sweet-natured Athena, steadfast Octavia, mischievous Kali—without ever resorting to easy anthropomorphism. Her science is accessible but not overly simple, and the details she offers about these creatures bring them into sharp focus: they are sophisticated camouflage artists, can solve puzzles, and show distinct preferences for people, places, and tastes. Along with an abundance of fascinating octopus lore, Montgomery illuminates her own quest to understand the creatures better and paints vivid portraits of the people who are similarly drawn to them. Her affection for her subjects, both human and cephalopod, shines through. VERDICT Anyone captivated by the natural world, from interested middle school readers and up, will be engrossed by this account of a strange—and unexpectedly beautiful—animal. [See “Editors’ Spring Picks,” LJ 2/15/15.]—Lisa Peet, Library Journal

Smith, Patti. M Train. Knopf. Oct. 2015. 272p. photos. ISBN 9781101875100. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781101875117. MEMOIR
This unusual memoir is a blend of adventures, the everyday, travels, dreams, and reflections on writing, creativity, and life. Smith (National Book Award winner for Just Kids; Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee) is an original. She shares detail-rich scenes of her tiny Rockaway Beach bungalow before and after Hurricane Sandy; an encounter with chess master Bobby Fischer in Iceland; presenting a talk for an explorers’ organization in Berlin; visiting the graves of Yukio Mishima and Jean Genet; an imaginary conversation with the bust of Nikola Tesla; her favorite corner spot in Café ‘Ino in Greenwich Village; and, especially, her event-filled and joyous time with husband Fred “Sonic” Smith before his passing in 1994. Those seeking a conventional autobiography of this writer/performer/artist will not find it here—and a traditional presentation isn’t Smith’s intent. Her creatively structured approach conveys the essence of Smith, whose writing style is musical in texture, often cinematic in description, and always eloquent. She weaves insightful ponderings on literature, cafés, music, TV, art, childhood, place, and more into the selected episodes of her life. Her trademark Polaroid photos, interspersed throughout, add a strikingly appealing touch. VERDICT In many ways, this book defies categorizing, and that is one of its many charms. It is absorbing and lingers long after its end. Fans of Smith will enjoy this as will writers, artists, and all those inspired by a creative mind. For circulating collections. [See Prepub Alert, 4/6/15.]—Carol J. Binkowski, Bloomfield, NJ

Sullivan, Rosemary. Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva. Harper. Jun. 2015. 752p. photos. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780062206107. $35; ebk. ISBN 9780062206145. BIOG
Sullivan’s (Villa Air-Bel) biography of Svetlana Alliluyeva (1926–2011), daughter of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, is insightful and thoroughly researched. Drawing from Svetlana’s personal lifelong correspondence and interviews with family and friends, Sullivan paints a portrait of a woman at times conflicted over her sense of self, often used as a pawn in the battle of ideology between East and West, and forever caught, despite her own efforts, in her father’s shadow. When Svetlana defected, she traded political oppression for freedom of expression. She also experienced the unsettling transition away from a privileged position within Soviet society to being a functioning member of the capitalist West. Her lack of proficiency with matters of finance, along with her frequent struggles to find love and happiness, were major, long-standing themes. Sullivan frequently highlights instances when Svetlana’s lack of fiscal acuity or her willingness to be influenced by those who claimed her affections exacerbated difficult situations or even assisted in their creation. VERDICT This excellent and engrossing biography is suitable for anyone interested in Russian history or in Svetlana’s struggle to make a difference in a world that never could separate her from her father. [See Prepub Alert, 9/14/14.]—Elizabeth Zeitz, Otterbein Univ. Lib., ­Westerville, OH

Poetry

Betts, Reginald Dwayne. Bastards of the Reagan Era. Four Ways. (Stahlecker Selections.) 2015. 84p. ISBN 9781935536659. pap. $15.95. POETRY
Half the poems in this arresting, tough-minded collection from Beatrice Hawley Award winner Betts (Shahid Reads His Own Palm) are titled “For the City That Nearly Broke Me,” and the elegiac tone extends to all black men in harsh America: “Many gone to grave: men awed/ by blood, lost in the black/ of all that is awful:/ think crack and aluminum.” We think a lot about drugs and guns, street fights and prison and handcuffs as Betts recalls the “black cauldron” of the Eighties and his own burdened life. As he says in the title poem, “I graduated high school numb,/ Already caged with a dead man rattling ’bout my head,” and the rattling is heard throughout. VERDICT An extraordinary portrait; read it and weep. (LJ 11/15/15; LJ Best Book)—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

starred review starHarjo, Joy. Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. Norton. Sept. 2015. 144p. ISBN 9780393248500. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393248517. POETRY
conflictresolutions8415In her first volume of poetry in more than ten years, Harjo (Crazy Brave), a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation, travels the Trail of Tears, moving from a bend in the Tallapoosa River to the banks of the Arkansas. The poems, typically juxtaposed against short, jazzy prose introductions, are often narrative and as often songs with repeated refrains, even litanies—hardly surprising, as Harjo is a performer as well as a poet. In each poem, there is music that riffs and sings and sometimes drums, as well as a sense of community and connection: “To understand each/ other is profound beyond human words.// This is what I am singing.” Yet while the volume is imbued with story and song, tales and invocations, and myth, chants and epistles, at its heart is ceremony, the need to create and re-create, to bless and restore. Ceremony elevates and expiates experience, and in many ways these poems are rituals of becoming, allowing us to heal, to become better, to become again: “Every poem is an effort at ceremony./I ask for a way in.” VERDICT A poignant collection that will draw in a range of readers; appropriate for many libraries. LJ 8/15 [See Prepub Alert, 6/14/15]—Karla Huston, Appleton, WI 

 

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