Nonfiction Previews, May 2013, Pt. 2: Biographies of Robert Oppenheimer, Henry Ford, and John Hay Plus Six Key Memoirs

Baltzley, Brandon. Nine Lives: A Chef’s Journey from Chaos to Control. Gotham: Penguin Group (USA). May 2013. 320p. ISBN 9781592407910. $26. MEMOIR
Baltzley went from prepping vegetables at a gay bar as an eight-year-old with an addict mother to cooking the best at various Michelin-starred restaurants while touring with the heavy metal band Kylesa. But on the verge of culinary superstardom as opening chef at Chicago’s much-buzzed Tribute, he checked into rehab to confront his alcohol and cocaine addictions. Raw in lots of ways, then; you know what to expect when Baltzley identifies himself in his bio as “a recovering addict, which is not something to be proud of but something to build on.”

Balding, Clare. My Animals and Other Family. Penguin Pr: Penguin Group (USA). Apr. 2013. 272p. ISBN 9781594205620. $26.95. MEMOIR
Not a May title, but it just dropped into the schedule, and I wanted to give you a heads up. Noted British sports presenter/journalist Balding’s father trained championship horses for the queen, so Balding grew up surrounded by more than 100 classy equines and a pack of dogs—her true family, because to her parents she was decidedly second place. Here she recounts what she learned from her animal kin. A No. 1 best seller in Britain, perhaps partly because she is high profile there, but certainly animal lovers and anglophiles here will be charmed.

Brockes, Emma. She Left Me the Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Me. Penguin Pr: Penguin Group (USA). May 2013. 288p. ISBN 9781594204593. $26.95. MEMOIR
Many families have secrets, but the one Brockes uncovered after the death of her glamorous but rather mysterious mother, Paula, was a shocker. Raised in South Africa with an alcoholic father who roundly abused her and her seven half siblings, Paula fled to London—but not before shooting him five times yet failing to kill him. (The father was later taken to court for his abuses but was cleared of all charges.) An award-winning journalist—she’s been named Young Journalist of the Year and Feature Writer of the Year in Britain—Brockes should tell this story well; an initial read suggests that she maintains a reporter’s sharp eye about a personally painful story.

Buchanan, Jessica & Erik Landemalm with Anthony Flacco. Impossible Odds: Love, Courage, and Heroism; the Kidnapping and Rescue of Jessica Buchanan. Atria: S. & S. May 2013. 320p. ISBN 978147672516. $26; eISBN 9781476725192. MEMOIR
While working on a demining project in Somalia for the Danish Refugee Council, Buchanan was kidnapped with fellow council employee Poul Hagen Thisted and held for three months in north-central Somalia. In January 2012, in a move meant to show that America will not tolerate threats against its citizens, the two were rescued by members of a Navy SEAL Team 6 unit. The news coverage was extensive, but Buchanan should offer her own perspective.

Monk, Ray. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center. Doubleday. May 2013. 848p. ISBN 9780385504072. $40; eISBN 9780385504133. Downloadable: Random Audio. BIOGRAPHY
Author of Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, winner of both the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys  and the Duff Cooper prizes, University of Southampton, U.K., philosophy professor Monk here takes on an even more enigmatic character. Robert Oppenheimer led the Manhattan Project but was sufficiently stunned by the atomic bomb’s destructive power that he refused to participate in the creation of the hydrogen bomb. That eventually lost him his security clearance. The portrait of a brilliant physicist who loved Sanskrit and engaged in radical politics, this should fascinate.

Omar, Qais Akbar. A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Memoir. Farrar. May 2013. 384p. ISBN 9780374157647. $26. MEMOIR
Omar’s account of his childhood will humble you. Forced to flee Kabul with his family when the mujahedin took over Afghanistan, he was kidnapped with his father when the family ventured homeward. Upon the release of father and son, the family fled again, hiding out for a year behind the massive Bamiyan Buddha sculptures (since destroyed) and learning carpet weaving from itinerant weavers before finally returning to Kabul. At age 18, Omar thwarted the Taliban, at that point in power, by opening a secret carpet shop where boys and girls could work and, with school forbidden, be instructed by his parents (his father was a teacher and his mother a banker). Perfect for readers of books like Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s The Dressmaker of Khair Khana and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran; with a reading group guide.

Quinn, Christine. With Patience and Fortitude: A Memoir. Morrow. May 2013. 352p. ISBN 9780062232465. $26.99; eISBN 9780062232489. MEMOIR
Quinn grew up in a middle-class, Irish, suburban New York family and is proud to be serving her beloved New York City—as the first female and first openly gay speaker of the New York City Council. Her memoir ranges from coming-of-age experiences like acknowledging her sexuality and facing her mother’s death from breast cancer to highlights of her career. Good for tri-state area readers and all those addicted to politics; Quinn could go far.

Snow, Richard. I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford. Scribner. May 2013. 384p. ISBN 9781451645576. $28; eISBN 9781451645590. BIOGRAPHY
A former editor of American Heritage magazine and a wide-ranging author of fiction, nonfiction, and documentary (e.g., Ric Burns’s award-winning PBS film Coney Island), Snow here offers an account of Henry Ford, focusing on his inventive drive and rise to fame and fortune with the introduction of the Model T. Yet as Snow explains, even as Ford changed America, his own personality flipped over to the dark side. Watch this one; actually, I would have expected more promotion.

Taliaferro, John. All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt. S. & S. May 2013. 672p. ISBN 9781416597308. $35. BIOGRAPHY
Former Newsweek senior editor Taliaferro, author of books like In a Far Country, has an especially intriguing subject here: John Hay, secretary to Abraham Lincoln (he was there at the delivery of the Gettysburg Address and the death of the President), who remained in politics, finally to serve as William McKinley’s secretary of state and then Theodore Roosevelt’s. That’s some sweep in history, so this story should enthrall, as should personal details about a man who knew Mark Twain and Henry James and found Henry Adams a rival in love.

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.