Barbara’s Picks, Oct. 2013, Pt. 3: Basbanes, Boyle, Cahill, Drabble, Goleman, Holmes, Lepore, MacGregor, Venter, & Winterson

Basbanes, Nicholas A. On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History. Knopf. Oct. 2013. 448p. ISBN 9780307266422. $35. HISTORY
Having given us a much-loved trilogy of books about books—A Gentle Madness, Patience and Fortitude, and A Splendor of Letters—Basbanes has written a thoroughgoing chronicle about the stuff books are traditionally made of: paper. He starts with its invention in China 1800 years ago, considers its use for everything from currency to the blueprints that facilitated the Industrial Revolution, and records a visit to the National Security Agency, where 100 million secret documents have been pulped and recycled as pizza boxes. Pretty much irresistible.

Boyle, T.C. T.C. Boyle Stories II: The Collected Stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle, Vol. II. Viking. Oct. 2013. 944p. ISBN 9780670026258. $45. SHORT STORIES
The author of 14 celebrated novels—e.g., Drop City was a National Book Award finalist—Boyle excels in the short form as well. His stories, which frequently appear in venues like The New Yorker and Harper’s, have won him the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. In 1998, T.C. Boyle Stories combined his first four collections; here, we have his three most recent collections, plus 14 new stories previously unavailable in book form. Reflecting Boyle’s typically twisty, running-wild imagination, these new works offers scenarios from giants bred for battle to a reclusive writer upended by the experience of receiving a minor award. Nearly 1000 pages of writing—how astonishingly prolific is that?

Cahill, Thomas. Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Changed Our World. Nan A. Talese: Doubleday. Oct. 2013. 384p. ISBN 9780385495578. $30.50; ebk. ISBN 978-0-385-53416-1. CD/downloadable: Random Audio. HISTORY
Hungering for more after reading Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve? Just can’t get enough of that crazy Renaissance family, the Borgias? Look no farther. In this sixth in his wildly popular “Hinges of History” series, Cahill covers the startling artistic and scientific advances, power struggles and religious schism, exploration and emerging individualism that defined the late 14th to early 17th centuries. With a five-city tour to Boston, Washington, DC, Chicago, San Francisco, and Portland (OR).

Drabble, Margaret. The Pure Gold Baby. Houghton Harcourt. Oct. 2013. 304p. ISBN 9780544158900. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780544157767. LITERARY FICTION
Having announced in 2009 that she would stop writing fiction for fear of repeating herself, Drabble has, thankfully, had a change of heart. Here she offers a wrenching but clear-eyed look at the responsibilities of motherhood. Pregnant owing to an affair with a married professor, graduate student Jessica Speight gives birth to golden, glowy Anna. It soon becomes apparent that Anna will never be a normal child, and both character and reader must adjust to a different understanding of parenting. With a 30,000-copy first printing and strong reading group promotion.

Goleman, Daniel. Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. Harper: HarperCollins. Oct. 2013. 320p. ISBN 9780062114860. $28.99. CD: HarperAudio. PSYCHOLOGY/BUSINESS
In 1995, Goleman published the hugely influential Emotional Intelligence, which now boasts nearly six million copies in print in 40 languages worldwide. A chapter in that book prompted editors at the Harvard Business Review to ask Goleman to write a separate piece. That piece—“What Makes a Leader?”—became the most requested reprint in the review’s history and is the inspiration for his latest work. Goleman’s answer to the question he posed would seem to be attention (or, alternately, focus), something often lacking in this hyped-up, hopped-up world. Goleman argues for three kinds of attention—inner, other, and outer—and declares that to excel in any area of endeavor from business to the arts we need all three. Fortunately, he’s got some best practices to offer in this regard. With a 200,000-copy first printing; a book I could clearly use.

Holmes, Richard. Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air. Pantheon. Oct. 2013. 416p. ISBN 9780307379665. $35; ebk. ISBN 9780307908704. SCIENCE/HISTORY
A best seller that raked in both the Royal Society Prize for Science Writing and the National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science outline numerous bold scientific adventures, ballooning among them. Here Holmes details the history and consequences of ballooning, starting in the late 1700s and proceeding through acute Anglo-French rivalry, the long-distance voyages of the American entrepreneur John Wise and French photographer Felix Nadar, and the seven-mile-high flights of James Glaisher, FRS, which launched the new science of meteorology. Another book to make your wonder; with a five-city tour to Albuquerque, Dallas, Houston, New York, and Washington, DC.

Lepore, Jill. Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin. Knopf. Oct. 2013. 464p. ISBN 9780307958341. $27.95. HISTORY
A Bancroft Prize winner and chair of Harvard’s History and Literature Program, Lepore offers a study of someone virtually unknown—Jane Franklin, the sister of Benjamin Franklin and one of his closest confidantes. The sharply observant Jane influenced her brother’s thinking, and he wrote more letters to her than to anyone else. Lepore draws on recently discovered documents, objects, and portraits to tell her story, which inevitably limns not just an unusual woman but an unusual time in American history. Look for an advance piece in The New Yorker, where Lepore is staff writer. With an eight-city tour to Boston, Kansas City, Madison, Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

MacGregor, Neil. Shakespeare’s Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects. Viking. Oct. 2013. 335p. ISBN 9780670026340. $36. HISTORY
In A History of the World in 100 Objects, British Museum director MacGregor used artifacts from the museum’s collection to tell the story of human history. The result was an absolute stunner, as I am sure this book will be as well. Here, MacGregor works with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the BBC to portray 20 objects (in more than 100 color photographs) that sum up Shakespeare’s world. Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation map represent the age of exploration, for instance, while a bishop’s cup suggest the religious turmoil of the time. If all the world’s a stage, here Shakespeare’s world and his stage become one.

Venter, J. Craig. Life at the Speed of Light. Viking. Oct. 2013. 256p. ISBN 9780670025404. $26.95. LIFE SCIENCES
Famed for sequencing the human genome—no small accomplishment, that—Venter has most recently led a group of scientists in the creation of “synthetic life.” Soon, we could be writing genetic code for new species, which doesn’t mean the creation of phantasmagorical creatures. Generating energy, producing food and clean water, cleansing the environment, even our own evolution—all are possible outcomes of this new development. Founder/CEO of his own not-for-profit research organization dedicated to genomic research and twice cited among Time’s 100 most influential people, Venter has the feisty cool to explain the basics of biological engineering while asking that bigger question, What is life?

Winterson, Jeanette. The Daylight Gate. Grove. Oct. 2013. 240p. ISBN 9780802121639. $24; ebk. ISBN 9780802193025. LITERARY/HISTORICAL FICTION
England’s James I hated Catholics and wrote a book condemning witchcraft; during his reign, the High Mass and the Black Mass were equated as heresies punishable by a slow, ugly death. Winterson takes us to James’s realm, to an old hunting ground called Pendle Hill—“some say the hill was the hunter—alive in its black-and-green coat cropped like an animal pelt”—where 13 women have gathered on Good Friday, 1612. Two are already charged with witchcraft, and magistrate Roger Nowell imagines the remainder are part of a coven. Or are they simply family and friends trying to help the innocent? Even if the 1612 Pendle witch trials didn’t have their echo 70 years later in Salem, MA, American readers will want to grab this book for E.M. Forster Award winner Winterson’s superbly cool, bristly prose and deft handling of history while imagining something darker beyond. Praise from the British press has been rousing.

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.