My Pick
Didion, Joan. Blue Nights. Knopf. Nov. 2011. 208p. ISBN 9780307267672. $25; eISBN 9780307700513. lrg. prnt. CD: Random Audio.
In December 2003, Didion’s husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, died of a heart attack while only daughter Quintana Roo lay hospitalized with a bout of pneumonia that had led to septic shock. Quintana recovered to attend the services but died of a hematoma in 2005, even as her mother was promoting The Year of Magical Thinking, a brave and determinedly dry-eyed look at mourning a spouse. Here, Didion focuses on her daughter, recalling Quintana’s life while asking herself the questions parents inevitably ask about what they did wrong and what important clues they might have missed. The book opens on July 26, 2010, Quintana’s wedding anniversary, during those blue summer hours when the sun can’t quite set. Essential reading for anyone who has ever mourned, has fretted as a parent, or simply loves good writing‚ that is, nearly all of us. With a 200,000-copy first printing and a five-city tour to Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, DC.

My Pick
Ferguson, Niall. Civilization: The West and the Rest. Penguin Pr: Penguin Group (USA). Nov. 2011. 400p. ISBN 9781594203053. $35.
You’ve heard it said before: China and Ottoman Turkey had advanced empires at a time when Europeans were living in mud huts. A lot has changed in the past 500 years. Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University and the author of highly praised works like The Ascent of Money, Ferguson has his own explanation for the rise of the West: it developed six important new concepts, or killer applications (love that technospeak), that other civilizations lacked: competition, science, the rule of law, consumerism, modern medicine, and the work ethic. Now things are changing, not so much because the West is sliding but because the rest of the world has latched onto those apps. Thought-provoking, relevant, and possibly controversial; the nonfiction book on this list I most want to see.

Ackroyd, Peter. London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets. Nan A. Talese: Doubleday. Nov. 2011. 208p. ISBN 9780385531504. $25; eISBN 9780385531511.
Multiple award‚ winning novelist/biographer Ackroyd’s London: The Biography told us everything we ever wanted to know about London above ground; here’s his take on the underground springs, Roman amphitheaters, Victorian sewers, and tube stations that lie beneath the city’s pavements today. Not your average read for tourists; London: The Biography was almost cheekily thorny and ruminative.

Ascher, Kate. The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper. Penguin Pr: Penguin Group (USA). Nov. 2011. 208p. ISBN 9781594203039. $35.
Ascher examines that modern microcosm, the skyscraper‚ a small city thrust into the air‚ considering both how it functions and what its cultural import is. Currently a real estate VP who has worked for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and has advanced degrees from the London School of Economics, Ascher has a bead on this target. With a national tour.

Belafonte, Harry with Michael Shnayerson. My Song: A Memoir. Knopf. Nov. 2011. 448p. ISBN 9780307272263. $30; eISBN 9780307700483. lrg. prnt. CD: Random Audio.
Belafonte broke racial barriers, appealing to both white and black audiences, while helping along the Civil Rights Movement and befriending everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt to Nelson Mandela. His up-from-poverty memoir will have wide appeal; with a 150,000-copy first printing andan 11-city tour to Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, DC.

Bonin, Richard. Arrows of the Night: Ahmad Chalabi’s Long Journey to Triumph in Iraq. Doubleday. Nov. 2011. 272p. ISBN 9780385524735. $26.95; eISBN 978038553503. CD: Random Audio.
When his wealthy Shiite family was forced into exile during the 1958 revolution that put Saddam Hussein in power, Ahmad Chalabi vowed revenge. After several failed attempts at igniting a coup, he sought support of the U.S. government, first securing funding for Iraqi opposition groups and then delivering defectors whose testimony about Saddam Hussein’s possession of WMD proved to be untrue. Pretty sobering how government can be manipulated; an important book from 60 Minutes producer Bonin.

Crumb, R. The Complete Record Cover Collection. Norton. Nov. 2011. 96p. ISBN 9780393082784. $27.95.
Renowned comic book artist Crumb, who’s responsible for immortal strips like Keep On Truckin’ and Fritz the Cat, first began drawing album covers when Haight-Ashbury buddy Janis Joplin asked him for a cover for her album Cheap Thrills. Since then he’s drawn hundreds of covers not only for new artists but for forgotten masters, often refueling interest in their works. Here you’ll find every cover he’s done; calling all music and comic art fans.

Cussler, Clive. Built for Adventure: The Classic Automobiles of Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt. Putnam. Nov. 2011. 288p. ISBN 9780399158100. $50.
Action hero Dirk Pitt loves classic cars, as does his creator; Cussler owns over 100. Here, 54 of these beauties (e.g., a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost Touring, a Mercedes-Benz 630K) are displayed in vibrant color; I’ve seen some samples. Even more for car fans than Pitt fans.

Gaddis, John Lewis. George F. Kennan: An American Life. Penguin Pr: Penguin Group (USA). Nov. 2011. 800p. ISBN 9781594203121. $39.95.
One of our most significant diplomats, George F. Kennan was responsible for this country’s four-decades-long policy of containment regarding the Soviet Union, a policy he later claimed was misinterpreted. Gaddis, the Robert A. Lovett Professor of History at Yale University, began interviewing him almost 30 years ago, also plunging into his personal papers with plans to write a definitive biography. But since these papers covered not only politics but deeply personal matters, including Kennan’s struggle with depression, the two men agreed that the work would not appear until after Kennan’s death. Should be an eye-opener; a book I’m especially anticipating.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Looking at African American History, 1500-2008. Knopf. Nov. 2011. 880p. ISBN 9780307593429. $50.
Of course you trust Gates, Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard, to deliver an indelible (near-definitive?) history of African Americans ranging from the conquistadores to President Barack Obama. Fresh scholarship and more than 800 images, plus a 60,000-copy first printing; important for most collections.

Hertog, Susan. Dangerous Ambition: Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson; New Women in Search of Love and Power. Ballantine. Nov. 2011. 528p. ISBN 9780345459862. $30; eISBN 9780345459879.
Paralleling the lives of British journalist/novelist Rebecca West and American Dorothy Thompson, the first female head of a news bureau, Hertog should have lots to say about women, power, and writing in the early to mid-20th century. Her Anne Morrow Lindbergh was critically acclaimed and sold nicely; her current book will get a sophisticated push, given the author’s connections (e.g., Cosmopolitan Club, New-York Historical Society) and plans to work with libraries holding these authors’ papers (e.g., NYPL). Great for the literate crowd.

Hughes, Robert. Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History. Knopf. Nov. 2011. 528p. ISBN 9780307268440. $35.
Time‘s chief art critic for three decades starting in 1970, Hughes is the right man to tell us about the glory that remains Rome. He doesn’t stop with painting, sculpture, and architecture but covers Rome’s entire history through the millennia, using as a framework his discovery of the city starting in 1958, when he arrived as a young student. With 32 pages of color photos; I’m betting on this one. With a 50,000-copy first printing.

Isacoff, Stuart. A Natural History of the Piano: From Mozart to Modern Jazz, and Everything in Between. Knopf. Nov. 2011. 416p. ISBN 9780307266378. $30; eISBN 9780307266378.
From the transformative music of Mozart, Beethoven, and Lizst, through technical advances made by classical performers from Vladimir Horowitz to Glenn Gould, to the ear-twisting contributions of jazz musicians like Fats Waller and Cecil Taylor, Isacoff gives us a history of piano music and performance. He should know; currently teaching at SUNY Purchase College Conservatory of Music, he founded Piano Today magazine and edited it for 30 years. Not exactly for Lady Gaga fans, but plenty of people still tickle the ivories. With a 25,000-copy first printing.

Lethem, Jonathan. The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, etc. Doubleday. Nov. 2011. 592p. ISBN 9780385534956. $32.50; eISBN 9780385534963.
In a collection of pieces from his entire career that encompasses essay, memoir, and fiction, renowned novelist Lethem touches on everything from cyberculture, sex in the cinema, and book touring to Marlon Brando, Bret Easton Ellis, and the borough of Brooklyn. His aim? To consider the role of the novelist in contemporary culture. Absorbing reading for the smart set.

Markoe, Merrill. Cool, Calm, and Contentious. Villard. Nov. 2011. 288p. ISBN 9780345518910. $24; eISBN 9780345518934.
The original head writer for The Late Night Show with David Letterman and crowned by People the funniest woman in America, Emmy Award winner and canine-themed novelist Markoe returns with a biting collection of essays. Among her aperçus: virginity is something to be gotten rid of quickly, then never discussed again, like body odor. Buy where people want laughs.

Neely, Patrick & Gina Neely. The Neelys’ Celebration Cookbook: Down Home Meals for Every Occasion. Knopf. Nov. 2011. 288p. ISBN 9780307592941. $28.95; eISBN 9780307700629.
You’ve seen them on the Food Network series Down Home with the Neelys, even if you haven’t eaten at Neely’s Bar-B-Que in Memphis. Now you can cook holiday meals with them, drawing on 120 recipes ranging from Hoppin’ John Soup to One-Handed Turkey Burgers. With a 200,000-copy first printing and a ten-city tour to Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Memphis, Nashville, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, DC; buy wherever cookbooks circulate.

Pollan, Michael (text) & Maira Kalman (illus.). Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. Penguin Pr: Penguin Group (USA). Nov. 2011. 192p. ISBN 9781594203084. $22.95.
Released in 2009 and much praised for its advice on eating well in every sense of the word, this work by food journalist/activist Pollan is updated with illustrations from the artist who also dolled up Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Could be a great way to get people to eat their vegetables.

Rhodes, Richard. Hedy’s Folly. Doubleday. Nov. 2011. 336p. ISBN 9780385534383. $26.95; eISBN 9780385534390.
Thank your Hollywood stars that glamour puss Hedy Lamarr, who trained as an engineer, invented spread-spectrum radio with avant-garde composer George Antheil. (It’s U.S. Patent 2,292, 387.) Allowing the rapid switch of communications signals through a range of frequencies, spread-spectrum radio makes cell phones, GPS, and radio-guided torpedoes possible. I’ve heard this story but suspect that multiple award winner Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb) will make it even better.

Toll, Ian W. Pacific Crucible: War in the Pacific, 1941‚ 1943. Norton. Nov. 2011. 544p. ISBN 9780393068139. $32.95.
Winner of the Samuel Eliot Morison and William E. Colby awards for Six Frigates, Toll clearly has the expertise to discuss the first months of the Pacific War, when the U.S. Navy scrambled back from its worst defeat to gain the edge in the fighting. History readers will want for sure; with a seven-city tour to New York, Washington, DC, Norfolk, VA, Annapolis, Seattle, San Diego, and San Francisco.

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.