Barbara’s Picks, Nov. 2013, Pt. 3: Nonfiction from Auster, Bloom, Brotton, Gardiner, Halperin/Heilemann, Klima, & Robb

Auster, Paul. Report from the Interior. Holt. Nov. 2013. 352p. ISBN 9780805098570. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780805098594. CD: Macmillan Audio. MEMOIR
At 63, celebrated novelist Auster wrote an account of his body and of physical sensation generally that was published last year as Winter Journal. In this work he charts the life of the mind, particularly his intellectual growth, from his childhood adulation of movie cowboy Buster Crabbe, to writing his first poem at age nine, to his passage through the 1950s and topsy-turvy 1960s, which finally makes the book a coming-of-age mirror for many of us. The last section shuns language altogether—hard to imagine from the writerly Auster—to sum up what went before in images. Decidedly different, but remember that People magazine raved about Winter Journal, so he’s not out of reach.

Bloom, Paul. Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil. Crown. Nov. 2013. 288p. ISBN 9780307886842. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780307886866. CD: Random Audio. PSYCHOLOGY
Are we inherently good? Are we inherently evil? Are these traits inborn? Are they learned? Bloom, Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology at Yale, has spent years researching these crucial, much-debated questions and has an answer. He argues that morality is hardwired, showing that babies and toddlers can distinguish between good and bad actions and can feel empathy, guilt, shame, and anger. Alas, they are also naturally bigoted, tending to confine their moral sense to like individuals—those within their own group. But if we can learn to stop playing with rattles and saying gah-gah, we can learn to overcome the limits of this inborn morality. An important topic, and since Bloom’s 2011 TED Global talk has been viewed more than a million times, he is a known quantity.

Brotton, Jerry. A History of the World in 12 Maps. Viking. Nov. 2013. 544p. ISBN 9780670023394. $40. HISTORY
Maps would seem to represent a clear-cut reality, but as Brotton shows, often they have been used to push imperial, religious, or economic aims or ideas. Thus, the 12 maps he discusses here, which date from ancient Greece to Renaissance Europe to Google Earth and take in Buddhist and Islamic realms as well as the West, can give us in-depth cultural understanding of several millennia of human history. An award-winning author and professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary University of London, Brotton has an excellent idea here (who doesn’t love maps?). Check out the 48-page full-color insert.

Gardiner, John Eliot. Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach. Knopf. Nov. 2013. 608p. ISBN 9780375415296. $35; ebk. ISBN 9780385351980. MUSIC
Founder of the Monteverdi Choir and Players and L’Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique, renowned conductor Gardiner knows—and loves—his Bach. He’s in fact one of our best interpreters of Bach (I swear by my disc of the B Minor Mass) and has been communing with the great composer since World War II, when one of only two authenticated portraits of Bach hung in his parents’ home during World War II for safekeeping. Here he gets inside Bach’s music to tell us how it is constructed and how it works its magic.

Halperin, Mark & John Heilemann. Double Down: Game Change 2012. Penguin Pr: Penguin Group (USA). Nov. 2013. 512p. ISBN 9781594204401. $29.95. CD: Penguin Audio. POLITICS
National political correspondent for New York magazine and senior political analyst for Time, respectively, Halperin and Heilmann scored big with Game Change, a New York Times best seller that chronicled the 2008 presidential election. Now they’re back with coverage of the 2012 election, drawing on hundreds of interviews as they narrate events from the convention to Mitt Romney’s stumbles to the affirmation Barack Obama received at the polls. Already much anticipated.

Klíma, Ivan. My Crazy Century. Grove. Nov. 2013. tr. from Czech by Craig Cravens. 576p. ISBN 9780802121707. $30. AUTOBIOGRAPHY/HISTORY
If this were merely the autobiography of a world-class writer, second recipient of the Franz Kafka Prize, that would be enough. But, more tellingly, it’s the autobiography of a man who suffered under two totalitarian regimes: as a child, Klíma spent four years in the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp outside Prague, and thereafter he lived under Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, banned from publication for 20 years though he appeared in samizdat with Václav Havel, Milan Kundera, and others. Hence, he has a lot to say about the 20th century—and, knowing Klíma, he’ll say it well.

Robb, Graham. The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts. Norton. Nov. 2013. 448p. ISBN 9780393081633. $28.95. HISTORY
The Celts once reigned from the Black Sea to Scotland, contributing mightily to the ancient world with their work in the arts and the sciences. Then came Julius Caesar and the end of a civilization, though some Druids (the Celtic intelligentsia) communed in Britain for one last stand. Bicycling along the Heraklean Way, an ancient route stretching from Portugal to the Alps, Robb learned some fascinating things about the Celtic use of celestial mathematics to organize their world. Will his account be good? Just note that Robb is the author of three prize-winning biographies, each one selected as a New York Times Best Book of the Year

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.


  1. Izzy says:

    What an eclectic selection of titles! I like the sound of the Lost World of the Celts so I might keep an eye out for that and Game Change appeals to my inner political nerd. I’m reading the Auster title at the moment but I think I preferred The Winter Journal to this one — perhaps I’ll change my mind before I get to the end but in what I have read so far it seems his experiences are a little too universal for my tastes — I suspect a lot of bookish kids — and maybe even non-bookish kids — would relate. But then I guess that’s the point of ‘everyman’ …