Barbara’s Nonfiction Picks, Jan. 2014, Pt. 5: Dow, Grandin, Moore, & More

Brewster, Joe & Michèle Stephenson. American Promise: Raising Black Boys To Succeed in School and in Life. Spiegel & Grau. Jan. 2014. 400p. ISBN 9780812994483. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780812994490. EDUCATION
The black male achievement gap is a real problem even for successful parents like Harvard-trained psychiatrist Brewster and Columbia Law School graduate Stephenson, who became concerned when their son, Idris, began slipping behind at his private New York City school. Both a wake-up call and a practical guide, this book is companion to the authors’ documentary film, which will be airing on PBS’s POV. Pushed back from October 2013; a relentlessly important and inspiring book.

Dow, David R. Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book About Life. Twelve: Hachette. Jan. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9781455575244. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781455551774; lib. ebk. ISBN 9781455575237. Downloadable: Hachette Audio. MEMOIR
Founder and director of the Texas Innocence Network, Dow has represented more than 100 death row inmates in their state and federal appeals, an experience he articulated with quiet, bracing passion in The Autobiography of an Execution. That book was a Barnes and Noble Discovery Award winner and a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, which bodes well for this more personal book on death. When his father-in-law and his beloved dog Winona are both diagnosed with terminal illnesses, Dow is compelled to reconcile with loss and the extraordinary impact of death on a family. With a 50,000-copy first printing and an author tour to Dallas, Austin, Houston, New York, and Washington, DC.

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States. Norton. Jan. 2014. 416p. ISBN 9780393239539. $27.95. HISTORY
Our language, our institutions, and our current obsession with the royal baby notwithstanding, the United States has not been shaped solely by its British antecedents. Fernández-Armesto, the William P. Reynolds Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, offers an Hispanic perspective on this country that starts with the conquistadores, then moves through the colonies in Puerto Rico, Florida, and the Southwest, missionary efforts in the Far West through the late 1700s, and the vibrant Hispanic presence today. Good for a wide range of readers.

Grandin, Greg. Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World. Metropolitan: Holt. Jan. 2014. 320p. ISBN 9780805094534. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781429943178. HISTORY
Having triumphed with Fordlandia, a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Grandin returns with the equally eye-opening story of Capt. Amasa Delano. In 1805, Delano, a seal hunter by trade, boarded a foundering Spanish slaver and distributed food and water, initially failing to notice that the slaves had taken over the ship. When the truth dawned, his reaction was surprisingly violent for someone with abolitionist New England roots. Yes, this same incident inspired Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno. Pushed back from October.

Henderson, Artis. Unremarried Widow: A Memoir. S. & S. Jan. 2014. 272p. ISBN 9781451649284. $25. MEMOIR
Award-winning journalist Henderson surprised herself by marrying a conservative Texan soldier, then suffered tragedy when the helicopter carrying her husband crashed in Iraq, leaving her “an unremarried widow” (in military parlance). Here she recounts her life with Miles, the rigors of a military marriage, and her efforts to right herself after Miles’s death. She also explains how his death parallels her father’s death in a plane crash she herself survived at age five and how she has grown closer to her widowed mother. Already in demand.

Medsger, Betty. The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI. Knopf. Jan. 2014. 592p. ISBN 9780307962959. $29.95. HISTORY
In 1971, a break-in at the FBI offices in Media, PA, and the subsequent release of FBI files to newspapers nationwide led to the reformation of the bureau for the first time since its creation in 1924. It also facilitated Daniel Ellsberg’s earth-shattering release of the Pentagon Papers. Though the break-in was hugely important in U.S. political history, the perpetrators were never identified. Medsger, who reported on the break-in for the Washington Post, has finally tracked them down and interviewed them, along with the investigating FBI agents. With a documentary scheduled to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and both the ACLU and the National Security Archive in Washington, DC, actively interested in promoting discussion of the book, expect attention. Certainly timely.

Moore, Thomas. A Religion of One’s Own: A Sacred Way of Life in a Secular World. Gotham Bks: Penguin Random. Jan. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9781592408290. $27.50. RELIGION
A monk for 12 years, Moore eventually left the monastery—and wrote Care of the Soul, a spiritual guide that has sold more than a million copies. Here he offers a road map to those who have abandoned religious institutions or never had an affiliation to begin with but feel a yearning for spiritual connection. Drawing on the works of distinguished authors, philosophers, and artists, plus his own experience and the experiences of others ranging from a classical pianist to a friend who revels in floral arrangements, he explains how each of us can craft our own brand of spirituality.

Taylor, Astra. The People’s Platform: And Other Digital Delusions. Holt. Jan. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9780805093568. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780805095456. MEDIA STUDIES
The Internet is a great democratizing force that gives us all equal say, right? Wrong, argues Taylor, a vanguard cultural critic and documentary filmmaker. Taylor sees the Internet as a reinforcement of real-world inequalities, where the already celebrated get even more celebrated, sharing what’s hot gets the most attention (and advertising), and advertising (not creative thought) is what counts. If we want the Internet to be truly democratic, we can’t just sit back and let technology rule. We have to take action.

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.