Nonfiction Previews, November 2012, Pt. 1: Deirdre Bair, Oliver Sacks, John Updike

Ball, Edward. The Tycoon and the Inventor: A Gilded Age and the Birth of Moving Pictures. Doubleday. Nov. 2012. 448p. ISBN 9780385525756. $29.95; eISBN 9780385535496. Downloadable: Random House Audio. BIOGRAPHY
Originally scheduled for April 2012 and featured as a Pick last October, this is the story of how photographer Eadweard Muybridge invented stop-motion photography‚ the first step on the road to motion pictures‚ when asked by railroad tycoon and former California governor Leland Stanford to show that at one point a galloping horse’s four hooves leave the ground simultaneously. The dramatic Muybridge later killed his wife’s lover, though he was acquitted after a lot of media coverage. National Book Award winner Ball (Slaves in the Family) here combines art, science, true crime, and history-in-the-making in rough-and-tumble Gilded Age San Francisco.

Bair, Deirdre. Saul Steinberg: A Biography. Nan A. Talese: Doubleday. Nov. 2012. 752p. ISBN 9780385524483. $40; eISBN 9780385534987. BIOGRAPHY
The creator of fabulously spiky, satirical drawings and cartoons‚ everyone knows the iconic New Yorker cover that makes the rest of the country look like a really little slice of the pie‚ Steinberg was born in Romania and educated in Italy, which he fled with the rise of fascism. He became a U.S. citizen, a commissioned navy officer, and a member of the OSS in a single day, then went on to become one of the artistic lights of the postwar era. National Book Award winner Bair (for Samuel Beckett) got to rummage through 177 boxes of never-before-seen materials to write this biography. Nothing else out there on Steinberg, and what a fascinating life.

Coyne, Tom. Bury Me at the Finish Line: One Plodder’s Quest To Understand Where We’re Running To. Gotham: Penguin Group (USA). Nov. 2012. 304p. ISBN 9781592406548. $26. SPORTS
Author of the best-selling A Course Called Ireland, Coyne does golf but otherwise has never been that big on exercise. So he surprised himself by opting to run in the 2010 Marathon de Paris (though, hey, I’d go to Paris for anything). To make sure he followed through, he drafted some friends‚ a breast cancer survivor, a beer-belly Brit, and a chain-smoking waitress‚ to train with him, enticing them with an all-expenses-paid trip to the City of Light. Here he examines the fun of the run while reflecting on how the sport has turned into a mega-industry.

de Margerie, Caroline. American Lady: The Life of Susan Mary Alsop. Viking. Nov. 2012. 256p. ISBN 9780670025749. $26.95. BIOGRAPHY
A descendant of Founding Father John Jay, born in Rome and raised partly in Argentina, Susan Mary hit Paris in 1945 with first husband William Patten and met everyone, from FDR to Churchill to Garbo. After Patten’s death, she married renowned columnist Joseph Alsop and with him became a legendary powerbroker, dominating Georgetown society for four decades. A fascinating-sounding book about a fascinating-sounding American woman, written by a French author who is now a member of the Conseil d’√âtat, the highest administrative court of France.

Glassie, John. A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change. Riverhead: Penguin Group (USA). Nov. 2012. 240p. ISBN 9781594488719. $26.95. SCIENCE/HISTORY
A former contributing editor to the New York Times Magazine, Glassie tells the story of Athanasius Kircher, a 17th-century scientist much admired in his day for discoveries that have since proven to be, politely put, half-cocked. Magnetism is not the force driving the universe, his translations of Egyptian hieroglyphics were all wrong, and what’s this about his proudly displaying a mermaid’s tailbone? An entertaining reminder that skepticism can be good.

Guerrieri, Matthew. The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination. Knopf. Nov. 2012. 368p. ISBN 9780307593283. $26.95; eISBN 9780307960924. MUSIC
Da-da-da-dum! Here’s what looks to be the only book available to lay readers offering an in-depth examination of Beethoven’s beloved and magisterial Fifth Symphony. Guerrieri, music critic for the Boston Globe, explores both the sources and the long-term impact of the symphony, which was, by the way, a source of inspiration during World War II to both the Nazis and the Allies. If this book seems specialized, just remember that Beethoven has nearly a million followers on Facebook‚ take that, rock stars! And a similar title, Stuart Isacoff’s A Natural History of the Piano, turned out to be a sleeper hit for the publisher last fall.

Homans, John. What’s a Dog For? The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend. Penguin Pr: Penguin Group (USA). Nov. 2012. 256p. ISBN 9781594205156. $25.95. PETS
Lots of books out there on the human-canine relationship. But Homans, executive editor of New York magazine, homes in on a particular aspect of our love affair with dogs‚ our treating them as if they were human beings. (Um, they aren’t?) Inspired by his Lab mix, Stella, who started out as his companion in neighborhood rambles and quickly became the centerpiece of the family, Homans considers scientific studies about evolutionary theory, cognitive behavior, and the consequences of dog ownership (great for our health). What a dog for? To learn from and love.

Keller, Timothy. Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. Dutton. Nov. 2012. 272p. ISBN 9780525952701. $25.95. Downloadable: Penguin Audio. RELIGION
Pastor of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Keller is heard by thousands of congregants on Sunday morning‚ and his best-selling spirituality titles are read by millions. Here he considers how believers can find meaning and maintain their values in the jungle-out-there world of business today. No easy outs here; Keller helps folks practice what gets preached.

Lizard, Sal with Jonathan Lane. Being Santa Claus: What I Learned about the True Meaning of Christmas. Gotham: Penguin Group (USA). Nov. 2012. 256p. ISBN 9781592407569. $20. MEMOIR
After his hair and beard turned snowy white when he was only in his twenties, Lizard did what every guy should do in that predicament: he opted to play Santa, a job he’s been at year ’round for more than 20 years. More than a life account, this book offers inspiration drawn from the experiences he’s had in his custom-made red velvet suits, e.g., little children can make a big difference in this world, and they’re awe-struck about seeing Santa off-season. A national tour, though probably not by sleigh.

Nasaw, David. The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy. Penguin Pr: Penguin Group (USA). Nov. 2012. 832p. ISBN 9781594203763. $40. Downloadable: Penguin Audio. BIOGRAPHY
Celebrated for his biographies of Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst, Nasaw takes on another larger-than-life figure: Joseph P. Kennedy, businessman, Hollywood mogul, founding chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, U.S. ambassador to Britain as World War II commenced, and, of course, father to our 35th president. Nasaw evidently secured unrestricted and exclusive access to all of his subject’s papers and will address the big questions still hanging around, e.g., was Kennedy an isolationist, a Nazi sympathizer, a bootlegger? And did he really buy JFK’s elections?

Perelman, Deb. The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. Knopf. Nov. 2012. 336p. ISBN 9780307595652. $35; eISBN 9780307961068. COOKBOOKS
Just ask the Smitten Kitchen’s 63,000 Facebook fans or its four million unique visitors per month: Perelman’s supremely helpful, visually stunning, wittily worded food blog really did deserve to be named one of 2011’s best blogs by Time magazine. (I know because I just checked it out and have already cribbed the recipe for Pasta with Garlicky Broccoli Rabe.) Perelman’s recipes are accessible but not Betty Crocker plain; this is fun, energized eating. Get it! With a six-city tour to Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

Phillips, Kevin. 1775: A Good Year for Revolution. Viking. Nov. 2012. 640p. ISBN 9780670025121. $36. HISTORY
Every American schoolchild will tell you that 1776 was a very good year for the American Revolution. But contrarian Phillips, Pulitzer finalist for The Cousins’ Wars, makes a case for 1775 as the revolution’s make-or-break year. That’s when Congress delivered a bunch of sharp ultimatums to Britain, British troops and royal governors were sent packing, and local Patriots grabbed the reins of government. Britain never recovered. Great for argumentative nonfiction book groups.

Sacks, Oliver. Hallucinations. Knopf. Nov. 2012. 336p. ISBN 9780307957245. $26.95. CD/downloadable: Random House Audio. MEDICINE
Hallucinations: they don’t belong wholly to the insane. Illness or injury, intoxication or sensory deprivation, or simply falling asleep can cause any one of us to see (or hear, or smell, or sense) swirly, twirly things that aren’t there. Everyone’s favorite neurologist is back to explain types of hallucinations, what they tell us about the brain’s workings, and how they have influenced art and culture. Who knew medicine could be so much fun.

Schwartz, John. Oddly Normal: One Family’s Struggle To Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality. Gotham: Penguin Group (USA). Nov. 2012. 288p. ISBN 9781592407286. $26. MEMOIR
A national correspondent with the New York Times, Schwartz faced a terrible tragedy three years ago when his 13-year-old son attempted suicide after coming out to his classmates. Frustrated by the school’s inability to help a student who didn’t fit the mold, he and his wife sought out organizations that could help Joe realize that he wasn’t alone or freakish. Here’s an account of their experiences, clearly as much a parental guide as a memoir.

Talbot, Margaret. The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father’s Twentieth Century. Riverhead: Penguin Group (USA). Nov. 2012. 416p. ISBN 9781594487064. $28.95. MEMOIR
A New Yorker staff writer, Talbot takes a personal approach to telling the story of popular culture in early 20th century America. She tells the story of her father, Lyle Talbot, born in Nebraska in 1902, who became a magician’s assistant, actor with a traveling theater troupe, romantic lead in early talkies, character actor in big Warner films, and, finally, Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver regular. From small-town life to the big screen; sounds enticing, and lots of in-house excitement.

Updike, John. Always Looking: Essays on Art. Knopf. Nov. 2012. 224p. ISBN 9780307957306. $45. ART CRITICISM
After Just Looking (1989) and Still Looking (2005), here’s a final, posthumous volume of essays from a writer whose art criticism was as good as his fiction. The 15 pieces are taken mostly from the New York Review of Books, though readers will also find‚ and revel in‚ The Clarity of Things, the 2008 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities and as definitive a statement as we’ll get of Updike’s approach to criticism. With more than 200 color illustrations to go with commentary ranging from Degas to Serra. Bravo!

wa Thiong’o, Ngugi. In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir. Pantheon. Nov. 2012. 256p. ISBN 9780307907691. $25.95; eISBN 9780307907707. MEMOIR
A 2009 Man Booker International Literary Prize nominee and an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience in his native Kenya in the late 1970s after his arrest for writing a controversial play, wa Thiong’o here follows up a first volume of memoirs called Dreams in a Time of War‚ which, by the way, was a Samuel Johnson Prize nominee. This new work covers wa Thiong’o’s high school years in 1955‚ 59, which places it smack in the middle of the Mau Mau uprising that eventually led to the end of British colonial rule. Nobel-worthy reading, I’ll bet; wa Thiong’o is often mentioned for the prize.

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.