Barbara’s Nonfiction Picks, Nov. 2013, Pt. 2: Jung Chang, Nora Ephron, Wil S. Hylton, Richard Kurin, Ann Patchett, Claudia Roth Pierpont

Chang, Jung. Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. Knopf. Nov. 2013. 352p. ISBN 9780307271600. $30. BIOGRAPHY
First a Red Guard, then the recipient of a doctoral degree in linguistics from England’s Bristol University, then the hugely best-selling author of Wild Swans and Mao, Jung Chang has a remarkable life story. And the life story of her subject is even more remarkable. Made a concubine at age 12, Cixi gave birth to Emperor Xianfeng’s only male heir and had herself appointed regent when he succeeded to the throne as a four year old in 1861. When her son died, she had a young nephew appointed emperor and continued what many consider a wise and enlightened reign until her death in 1908. With a five-city tour to Houston, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

Ephron, Nora. The Most of Nora Ephron. Knopf. Nov. 2013. 576p. ISBN 9780385350839. $35. LITERARY COLLECTIONS
From her journalism (like her famous piece on being flat-chested), to her best-selling novel, Heartburn (about her failed marriage to Carl Bernstein), to her portraits of famed women, dazzling movie scripts, and recent blog posts on political and aging, here’s 40 years of writing from the beloved literary star whose recent death shook us all. Hilarious goodness; big New York Times advertising.

Hylton, Wil S. Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II. Riverhead: Penguin Group (USA). Nov. 2013. 240p. ISBN 9781594487279. $27.95. HISTORY/MILITARY
I’ve heard persuasive raves about this work by Hylton, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. His concern: the Pacific theater of World War II, from which more than 56,000 U.S. troops are still missing—two-thirds of all American MIAs over the past century. Hylton highlights the issue by focusing on an American bomber lost somewhere over the small, scattered archipelago of Palau on September 1, 1944, with 11 men on board. For 60 years, the U.S. government, children of the airmen, and a cutting-edge team of scientists and scuba divers have made efforts to find them. NPR interest.

Kurin, Richard. The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects. Penguin Pr: Penguin Group (USA). Nov. 2013. 624p. ISBN 9781594205293. $50. HISTORY/UNITED STATES
Lincoln’s hat, Harriet Tubman’s hymnal, Sitting Bull’s ledger, Cesar Chavez’s union jacket, the Enola Gay bomber, even Dorothy’s ruby slippers—these are among the objects featured here that tell the story of America. Kurin, the Smithsonian Institution’s under secretary for history, art, and culture, worked with the institution’s curators and scholars to put together this compendium, which matches photos of each object with a discussion of its creation or discovery and its significance. This museum-based visual approach to history, exemplified by Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, certainly pays off.

Patchett, Ann. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Harper: HarperCollins. Nov. 2013. 320p. ISBN 9780062236678. $28.99. lrg. prnt. CD: HarperAudio. MEMOIR
The author of six novels, including the Orange Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award winner Bel Canto, Patchett has also written two affecting works of nonfiction. Here’s another, which pulls together essays appearing in the Atlantic, Harper’s, Vogue, and the Washington Post to offer overall perspective on Patchett’s life, from a topsy-turvy childhood to the sorrows of a bad first marriage and the joys of a second happy one. A sense of what truly grounds Patchett—her writing, her friends, her husband—emerges from these pages. Sure to be loved.

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books. Farrar. Nov. 2013. 368p. ISBN 9780374280512. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780374710446. LITERARY CRITICISM
Written by a longtime staff writer at The New Yorker who focuses on the arts, this work is not a biography of Philip Roth. Nor is it a straightforward evaluation of his works. Instead, Pierpont looks at the whole—the man, the writing, and the mythologies that have grown up around both—to show us the meaning of a great writer. Interestingly, Pierpont has known Roth for several years and can add telling personal detail. Not to be missed by those serious about their literature; note that Pierpont is a National Book Critics Circle Award nominee for Passionate Minds.

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.