Booth, Robert. Death of an Empire: The Rise and Murderous Fall of Salem, America’s Richest City. Thomas Dunne Bks: St. Martin’s. Jun. 2011. 320p. ISBN 9780312540388. $25.99.
Mention Salem, MA, and people immediately think of witch hangings and strenuously judgmental Puritans. In fact, Salem was once America’s wealthiest city and is said to have produced the country’s first millionaire, Elias Hasket Derby. Not a huge book in terms of this list, but I could not resist, and I suspect others will be interested. Booth is curator emeritus of the Pickering House in Salem.

Common with Adam Bradley. One Day It’ll All Make Sense. Atria. Jun. 2011. 320p. ISBN 978141625875. $25. eISBN 978145162875.
Hip-hop star Common could talk about his two Grammy wins and burgeoning movie career. But instead he’s chosen to reflect on his childhood and the support he got from his parents, particularly his hardworking educator mother, then bring these reflections to bear on his own fatherhood. Not a flashy piece for fans who want only star power but something more serious; with a three-city tour to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Eilperin, Juliet. Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks. Pantheon. Jun. 2011. 320p. ISBN 9780375425127. $25.95.
Eilperin, who writes about science and politics for the Washington Post, doesn’t just go beneath the waves to visit sharks; she talks about the way they have influenced people and cultures over time. Give to readers after they get back from the beach.

Fagan, Brian. Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind. Bloomsbury, dist, by Macmillan. Jun. 2011. 400p. ISBN 9781608190034. $28.
Water is one of the most precious substances on Earth, and we’re about to run out of it. Here, acclaimed anthropologist Fagan shows just how important it is by tracing three ages of water: the millennia when cultures were necessarily built around it; the time of the Industrial Revolution, when humans figured out how to make it flow more easily and hence carelessly exploited it; and today, when we’re dealing with the consequences of that mistake. Important and, from a New York Times best-selling author, accessible to all.

Ferling, John. Independence: The Struggle To Set America Free. Bloomsbury, dist, by Macmillan. Jun. 2011. 352p. ISBN 9781608190089. $30.
It tends to get lost in our mythmaking that the decision to declare independence in 1776 was more hotly contested than today’s healthcare bill. A leading expert on the American Revolution here investigates what it took to get thirteen clocks to strike at once. I told you, books on the Revolution era are booming; see Publisher’s Perspective: The Meaning of Revolution.”

Green, Shawn & Gordon McAlpine. The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 mph. S. & S. Jun. 2011. 224p. ISBN 9781439191194. $24.
Two-time All Star Green had a 14-year career in baseball, but he’s not here to recount it. Instead, he wants to talk about the kind of spiritual grounding that made it possible for him to achieve baseball stardom and stay calm when a ball is streaking toward him at 95 miles per hour. McAlpine is a practiced journalist who’s also written three novels, including Joy in Mudville, so he seems like the right coauthor. Not so much for beer-guzzling fans as more reflective types.

Groom, Kelle. I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl. Free Pr. Jun. 2011. 224p. ISBN 9781451616682. $23.
Poets have written some extraordinary memoirs lately (think of Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and Alex Lemon’s Happy). Groom (Five Kingdoms) looks to join this bunch with a memoir that examines the pain of losing a child to leukemia and her subsequent redemptive effort to lick alcoholism. Promising, though I do have a complaint. Why must poets write memoirs to break into the big time? Oh well, as long as it gets folks reading their poems.

Jacobsen, Rowan. Shadows on the Gulf: A Journey Through Our Last Great Wetland. Bloomsbury, dist, by Macmillan. May 2011. 256p. ISBN 9781608195817. $25.
Surprise: the BP oil spill was not the worst thing to happen to the Gulf, argues Jacobsen. It’s what went before that’s wreaking havoc. The dispersants sprayed each day equaled the amount that pours into the Gulf from American’s dishwaters, hurricanes have destroyed as much marshland as oil slicks (thanks to misguided efforts by the Army Corps of Engineers), and shrimpers have hurt the Gulf’s ecology as well. Jacobsen sees the BP catastrophe as a last chance to set things straight. Author of the enticingly written American Terroir, an LJ Best Book of 2010, Jacobsen is hyperactive in the areas of ecology, food, and travel and should deliver good reading. With a nine-city tour to Memphis, Oxford, Jackson, New Orleans, Houston, Austin, Boston, Burlingston (VT), and Portland (ME).

My Pick
McKinley, Catherine. Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World. Bloomsbury, dist, by Macmillan. May 2011. 288p. ISBN 9781608195053. $27.
Indigo is a brilliant blue dye derived from a small, parasitic shrub that grows in the tropics. Its allure was so strong and trade in it so important that, like spice, it has shaped human history. Among other things, demand for indigo was an important (and rarely discussed) aspect of the slave trade. McKinley here chronicles how the indigo trade influenced both culture and economics and shows what the dye meant for fashion and even spirituality. McKinley’s story is also intriguingly personal; her Scottish forebears used indigo to dye their tartans, her Jewish forebears were rag pickers, and she is the descendant of both Massachusetts textile owners and African American slaves. Excellent for books clubs, this work should appeal to anyone who enjoys looking at history through a single, brilliantly lit window, as with Mark Kurlansky’s many single-subject books and Giles Milton’s Nathaniel’s Nutmeg.

Prud’homme, Alex. Clean, Clear, and Cold: The Fate of Fresh Water in the Twenty-First Century. Scribner. Jun. 2011. 352p. ISBN 9781416535454. $27. eISBN 9781439168493.
As he considers water use and abuse in today’s society, Prud’homme asks a fundamental question: is water a right (think air) or a commodity (think oil)? A practiced journalist (BusinessWeek, Time) and author (The Cell Game), he should offer some clean, clear, and cold thinking on the subject. Well worth considering; as a topic, water is heating up.

Unger, Miles J. Machiavelli: A Biography. S. & S. Jun. 2011.384p. ISBN 9781416556282. $28.
Unger did a magnificent job with Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de’Medici, so you can look forward to this work about the wily author of The Prince. Not just the life but the times, which included Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Cesare Borgia. For all history/biography lovers.

Wickenden, Dorothy. Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West. Scribner. Jun. 2011. 320p. ISBN 9781439176580. $26. eISBN 9781439176603.
In the early 1900s, two young women who had done college and the Grand Tour decided they weren’t yet ready for marriage and opted to head west to teach the children of homesteaders in Colorado. One was Dorothy Woodruff, the grandmother of author Wickenden, The New Yorker‘s executive editor. Wickenden uses letters sent home by her grandmother and friend Rosamond Underwood to reconstruct their experiences, particularly regarding the starry-eyed lawyer/rancher who hired them. Sounds both fun and illuminating; with a reading group guide.

Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.