Nonfiction Previews, March 2012, Pt. 3: Barthes and Bodanis, Kasher and Kasparov

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Farrar. Mar. 2012. 288p. ISBN 9780374532345. $28. CRITICAL THEORY/CULTURE
In his 1957 classic, French literary critic/philosopher Barthes argued that modern societies create myths of their own, centered on iconic topics ranging from astrology to the Tour de France, that embody the values of mass culture. This new publication replaces the 1972 translation, which was incomplete, with a full-scale, authoritative rendering from Pulitzer Prize‚ winning poet, critic, and translator Richard Howard. Not for every public library but a key work in a half-century of intellectual discussion and really exciting for us French and philosophy lovers. And, hey, Goodreads has over 2000 ratings, averaging 4.1 out of 5 stars.

Blair, Joe. By the Iowa Sea: A Memoir of Disaster and Love. Scribner. Mar. 2012. 288p. ISBN 9781451636055. $24. MEMOIR
Fifteen years after he and his bride cheerfully departed their wedding on a motorcycle, Blair found himself slaving away in the heating and air conditioning business to support four children, one of whom is autistic, and trying to hold together a fraying marriage. How to rekindle a sense of purpose? The hard way: by living through a terrible flood. Blair’s essays, which have appeared in places like Salon and the New York Times (including one called Sandbagged), are forthright, heartfelt, and precisely written, so this should be good.

Bodanis, David. The Ten Commandments: The Hidden History of the Truths We Live By. Walker. March 2012. 336p. ISBN 9780802716538. $26. RELIGION/HISTORY
The Ten Commandments: they’re not just a bunch of rules trotted down the mountain by Moses. Bodanis, who gave us the best-selling E=mc¬≤, explains that the commandants originated at a time when Bronze Age empires were tumbling and torn or displaced populaces needed updated rules for living together. He goes on to show how influential the Ten Commandments have been over the millennia; for instance, the ninth commandment, which forbids bearing false witness, led to the notion of innocent until proven guilty. Great idea for a book and not strictly for the devout.

Carl, Lüc. The Drunk Diet : How I Lost 40 Pounds . . . Wasted: A Memoir. St. Martin’s. Mar. 2012. 368p. ISBN 9781250001825. $25.99. MEMOIR/DIETING
A New York‚ based bar manager, party promoter, musician, and DJ with long hair and lots of leather, Carl realized he was one chunky hunk and decided to drop some weight. But he couldn’t drop liquor, something every diet book said was essential. Here’s how he lost 40 pounds while sticking with the bottle. Rumor has it that, unlike the sleek new Carl, this will be big.

Halloran Andrew R. The Song of the Ape: Understanding the Languages of Chimpanzees. St. Martin’s. Mar. 2012. 288p. ISBN 9780312563110. $25.99. NATURAL HISTORY
A primatologist at the Maderas Rainforest Conservancy in Nicaragua, Halloran knows a lot about how chimpanzees communicate. It’s something he’s been thinking about since he watched some chimps he was tending hop into an unmoored rowboat and, clearly directed by their alpha male, steer it to their island. Intriguing reading for science lovers.

Kasher, Moshe. Kasher in the Rye: The True Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient, and Then Turned 16. Grand Central. Mar. 2012. 304p. ISBN 9780446584265. $24.99. Downloadable: Hachette Audio. MEMOIR
You’ve seen him on E!’s Chelsea Lately and Comedy Central’s The John Oliver Stand Up Program, maybe even caught him getting best of fest kudos at the Aspen Comedy Festival and Just for Laughs. Now over-the-top comedian Kasher spills about his dark childhood, starting with psychoanalysis by age four and drug use by age 12, commitment to various mental institutions by age 15, and being abducted by his mother, which landed him in Oakland’s rough-tough public schools. It’s all true (I’ve confirmed). And brutally funny (with the accent on brutally). I had it so easy. Wow.

Kasparov, Garry & others. The Blueprint: Reviving Innovation, Rediscovering Risk, and Rescuing Free Markets. Norton. Mar. 2012. 288p. ISBN 9780393081473. $26.95. BUSINESS
Arguing that we’re not as innovative as we think we are‚ the internal combustion engine running our cars, for instance, was invented in 1876‚ the authors argue strenuously for abandoning government regulation and short-term financial goals and instead risk focusing on increased research and development in disruptive technologies that will lead us forward and create new jobs. Some agenda! But the authors have appropriate credentials. Kasparov is, of course, a risk-embracing World Chess Champion, while PayPal cofounder Max Levchin is now Google’s vice president of engineering and Peter Thiel was one of the initial investors in Facebook. Heady stuff for informed readers.

Nagorski, Andrew. Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power. S. & S. Mar. 2012. 320p. ISBN 9781439191002. $28. HISTORY
In this obvious companion to Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, Nagorski, a three-time winner of the Overseas Press Club Award, surveys the Americans in Germany as Hitler started the march toward war. Among them were apologists and indifferent observers, as well as those genuinely alarmed, like journalist William Shirer. Author of Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II, Nagorski got himself expelled from the Soviet Union in 1982 for telling it like it was, so expect no-holds-barred writing. Essential for anyone interested in World War II.

Overton, Margaret. Good in a Crisis: A Memoir. Bloomsbury USA, dist. by Macmillan. Feb. 2012. 256p. ISBN 9781608197644. $24. MEMOIR
Described as a dark comedy (Nora Ephron without the flip)‚ and it is. Throughout an ugly four-year divorce, Overton dated wildly and was having sex with yet another inappropriate man when she discovered that she had a brain aneurysm. It helped that she is a physician, practicing anesthesiology in Chicago. After a big stretch of increasingly reckless behavior, when it was nevertheless four friends who died and two close family members who got into serious accidents, Overton came to see herself as a caregiver who needed to take better care of herself. So much in-house enthusiasm, for the writing as well as the content, that now I’m psyched.

Penn, Thomas. Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England. S. & S. Mar. 2012. 384p. ISBN 9781439191569. $28. HISTORY
We hear so much about Henry VIII, but what about his father? During England’s tumultuous late 1400s, Henry Tudor won the throne by defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, effectively ending the War of the Roses. He then established peace and stability, which he hoped to continue by arranging the marriage of his elder son to a grand Spanish princess. Editorial director of Verso Books, London, Penn holds a Ph.D. in medieval history from Clare College, Cambridge University, so he knows his stuff and should communicate it well. Not just for diehard historians, as this publisher would be aiming for a broad reach.

Read, Piers Paul. The Dreyfus Affair: The Scandal That Tore France in Two. Bloomsbury, dist. by Macmillan. Mar. 2012. 416p. ISBN 9781608194322. $30. HISTORY
In 1894, Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, a French officer of Jewish descent, was convicted of treason‚ a conviction stemming from entrenched anti-Semitism and eventually overturned as groundless. L’affaire Dreyfus sundered French society, defining the tensions of the era. Multiple award winner Read (e.g., Somerset Maugham, James Black Tait) should do a nice job here of summing it up for a new generation.

Scheiber, Noam. Untitled. S. & S. Mar. 2012. 352p. ISBN 9781439172407. $30. CURRENT EVENTS
Jonathan Alter’s The Promise covers President Obama’s first year in office; David Corn’s forthcoming Showdown: Inside the Obama White House will cover the third year, 2011. A senior editor at the New Republic, Scheiber takes a different tack, focusing not on a timeframe but an issue: Obama’s handling of the economic crisis. This is just in, so I can’t tell you much more, but it’s crucial to take a look.

Weiss, Gary. Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul. St. Martin’s. Mar. 2012. 272p. ISBN 9780312590734, $24.99. POLITICAL SCIENCE/CURRENT EVENTS
Remember the battered copies of The Fountainhead Rand devotees carried around? Thirty years after Rand’s death, with her ideas influencing everyone from Alan Greenspan and Glenn Beck to Congressman Ron Paul and the Tea Partiers, those books are more important than ever. Journalist/author Weiss (, gives his analysis. Insight on contemporary America‚ and it’s interesting to note that this book is not being classed even partly as literature.

West, Owen. The Snake Eaters. Free Pr: S. & S. Mar. 2012. 320p. ISBN 9781451655933. $26. CURRENT EVENTS
Fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq‚ and eventually getting out‚ means building up each country’s military forces, a job formally assigned to teams called American Advisors. West, a Harvard graduate, novelist, and third-generation marine, was deployed as an advisor to Iraqi Battalion 3/3-1, the Snake Eaters, eventually the first Iraqi soldiers granted independent battle space. Here he tells the story of the battalion, highlighting individuals and describing their rough combat in the city of Khalidya. Proceeds will go to the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation and to the families of fallen Snake Eaters. A different view.

Wilson, Andrew. Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived. Atria: S. & S. Mar. 2012. 400p. ISBN 9781451671568. $25. HISTORY
Like Richard Davenport-Hines’s forthcoming Voyagers of the Titanic: Passengers, Sailors, Shipbuilders, Aristocrats, and the Worlds They Came From, Wilson’s new book considers the Titanic‘s passengers rather than the shipwreck itself. But while Davenport-Hines focuses on the passengers’ backgrounds, British author Wilson investigates what happened to the survivors. Some were self-promoting, others so anguished that they eventually took their lives; all should have interesting stories to tell.

Wolff, Justin. Thomas Hart Benton: A Life. Farrar. Mar. 2012. 416p. ISBN 9780374199876. $40. BIOGRAPHY/ART
Born at the turn of the previous century into a populist family in small-town Missouri, Benton painted grand murals of American life that decked public buildings nationwide by the mid-1930s but were eventually dismissed by critics as patriotic and old-fashioned. Wolff, also author of Richard Caton Woodville: American Painter, Artful Dodger, sets out to give Benton context and show his real influence. Important for art history and American studies fans.

Young, Kevin. The Grey Album: Music, Shadow, Lies. Graywolf. Mar. 2012. 476p. ISBN 9781555976071. pap. $17. LITERATURE/CULTURAL STUDIES
Distinguished poet Young, whose Jelly Roll: The Blues was a National Book Award finalist, here starts by examining the African American tradition of lying‚ from tall tales to improvising to jazzing‚ and ends by showing the many ways that American culture is actually African American culture. The title comes from Danger Mouse’s inspired mashup of the Beatles’s The White Album and Jay-Z’s The Black Album. Winner of the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, this work is significant for smart readers.

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.