Thursday, December 6, 2012

Cathy's Holiday Recommendations For Non-Fiction Lovers

From the National Book Award–winning author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression comes a monumental new work, a decade in the writing, about family. In Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon tells the stories of parents who not only learn to deal with their exceptional children but also find profound meaning in doing so.

Solomon’s startling proposition is that diversity is what unites us all. He writes about families coping with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disabilities, with children who are prodigies, who are conceived in rape, who become criminals, who are transgender. While each of these characteristics is potentially isolating, the experience of difference within families is universal, as are the triumphs of love Solomon documents in every chapter.

All parenting turns on a crucial question: to what extent parents should accept their children for who they are, and to what extent they should help them become their best selves. Drawing on forty thousand pages of interview transcripts with more than three hundred families, Solomon mines the eloquence of ordinary people facing extreme challenges. Whether considering prenatal screening for genetic disorders, cochlear implants for the deaf, or gender reassignment surgery for transgender people, Solomon narrates a universal struggle toward compassion. Many families grow closer through caring for a challenging child; most discover supportive communities of others similarly affected; some are inspired to become advocates and activists, celebrating the very conditions they once feared. Woven into their courageous and affirming stories is Solomon’s journey to accepting his own identity, which culminated in his midlife decision, influenced by this research, to become a parent.

Elegantly reported by a spectacularly original thinker, Far from the Tree explores themes of generosity, acceptance, and tolerance—all rooted in the insight that love can transcend every prejudice. This crucial and revelatory book expands our definition of what it is to be human.

From the #1 bestselling author of Fiasco and The Gamble, an epic history of the decline of American military leadership from World War II to Iraq

History has been kind to the American generals of World War II—Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley—and less kind to the generals of the wars that followed. In The Generals, Thomas E. Ricks sets out to explain why that is. In part it is the story of a widening gulf between performance and accountability. During the Second World War, scores of American generals were relieved of command simply for not being good enough. Today, as one American colonel said bitterly during the Iraq War, “As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”

In The Generals we meet great leaders and suspect ones, generals who rose to the occasion and those who failed themselves and their soldiers. Marshall and Eisenhower cast long shadows over this story, as does the less familiar Marine General O. P. Smith, whose fighting retreat from the Chinese onslaught into Korea in the winter of 1950 snatched a kind of victory from the jaws of annihilation.

But Korea also showed the first signs of an army leadership culture that neither punished mediocrity nor particularly rewarded daring. In the Vietnam War, the problem grew worse until, finally, American military leadership bottomed out. The My Lai massacre, Ricks shows us, is the emblematic event of this dark chapter of our history. In the wake of Vietnam a battle for the soul of the U.S. Army was waged with impressive success. It became a transformed institution, reinvigorated from the bottom up. But if the body was highly toned, its head still suffered from familiar problems, resulting in tactically savvy but strategically obtuse leadership that would win battles but end wars badly from the first Iraq War of 1990 through to the present.

Ricks has made a close study of America’s military leaders for three decades, and in his hands this story resounds with larger meaning: about the transmission of values, about strategic thinking, and about the difference between an organization that learns and one that fails.

Spanning the years of 1940-1965, The Last Lion picks up shortly after Winston Churchill became Prime Minister-when his tiny island nation stood alone against the overwhelming might of Nazi Germany. The Churchill conjured up by William Manchester and Paul Reid is a man of indomitable courage, lightning fast intellect, and an irresistible will to action. The Last Lion brilliantly recounts how Churchill organized his nation's military response and defense; compelled FDR into supporting America's beleaguered cousins, and personified the "never surrender" ethos that helped the Allies win the war, while at the same time adapting himself and his country to the inevitable shift of world power from the British Empire to the United States.

More than twenty years in the making, The Last Lion presents a revelatory and unparalleled portrait of this brilliant, flawed, and dynamic leader. This is popular history at its most stirring.

For the first time, legendary singer, songwriter, and guitarist Neil Young offers a kaleidoscopic view of his personal life and musical creativity. He tells of his childhood in Ontario, where his father instilled in him a love for the written word; his first brush with mortality when he contracted polio at the age of five; struggling to pay rent during his early days with the Squires; traveling the Canadian prairies in Mort, his 1948 Buick hearse; performing in a remote town as a polar bear prowled beneath the floorboards; leaving Canada on a whim in 1966 to pursue his musical dreams in the pot-filled boulevards and communal canyons of Los Angeles; the brief but influential life of Buffalo Springfield, which formed almost immediately after his arrival in California. He recounts their rapid rise to fame and ultimate break-up; going solo and overcoming his fear of singing alone; forming Crazy Horse and writing “Cinnamon Girl,” “Cowgirl in the Sand,” and “Down by the River” in one day while sick with the flu; joining Crosby, Stills & Nash, recording the landmark CSNY album, Déjà vu, and writing the song, “Ohio;” life at his secluded ranch in the redwoods of Northern California and the pot-filled jam sessions there; falling in love with his wife, Pegi, and the birth of his three children; and finally, finding the contemplative paradise of Hawaii. Astoundingly candid, witty, and as uncompromising and true as his music, Waging Heavy Peace is Neil Young’s journey as only he can tell it.

Louisa May Alcott was one of the most successful and bestselling authors of her day, earning more than any of her male contemporaries. Her classic Little Women has been a mainstay of American literature since its release nearly 150 years ago, as Jo March and her calm, beloved “Marmee” have shaped and inspired generations of young women. Biographers have consistently attributed Louisa’s uncommon success to her father, Bronson Alcott, assuming that this outspoken idealist was the source of his daughter’s progressive thinking and remarkable independence.

But in this riveting dual biography, award-winning biographer Eve LaPlante explodes these myths, drawing from a trove of surprising new documents to show that it was Louisa’s actual “Marmee,” Abigail May Alcott, who formed the intellectual and emotional center of her world. Abigail, whose difficult life both inspired and served as a warning to her devoted daughters, pushed Louisa to excel at writing and to chase her unconventional dreams in a male-dominated world.

In Marmee & Louisa, LaPlante, Abigail’s great-niece and Louisa’s cousin, re-creates their shared story from diaries, letters, and personal papers, some recently discovered in a family attic and many others that were thought to have been destroyed. Here at last Abigail is revealed in her full complexity—long dismissed as a quiet, self-effacing background figure, she comes to life as a fascinating writer and thinker in her own right. A politically active feminist firebrand, she was a highly opinionated, passionate, ambitious woman who fought for universal civil rights, publicly advocating for abolition, women’s suffrage, and other defining moral struggles of her era.

In this groundbreaking work, LaPlante paints an exquisitely moving and utterly convincing portrait of a woman decades ahead of her time, and the fiercely independent daughter whose life was deeply entwined with her mother’s dreams of freedom. This gorgeously written story of two extraordinary women is guaranteed to transform our view of one of America’s most beloved authors.

In this riveting chronicle, which accompanies a documentary to be broadcast on PBS in the fall, Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns capture the profound drama of the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Terrifying photographs of mile-high dust storms, along with firsthand accounts by more than two dozen eyewitnesses, bring to life this heart-wrenching catastrophe, when a combination of drought, wind, and poor farming practices turned millions of acres of the Great Plains into a wasteland, killing crops and livestock, threatening the lives of small children, burying homesteaders' hopes under huge dunes of dirt. Burns and Duncan collected more than 300 mesmerizing photographs, some never before published, scoured private letters, government reports, and newspaper articles, and conducted in-depth interviews to produce a document that may likely be the last recorded testimony of the generation who lived through this defining decade.

Nate Silver built an innovative system for predicting baseball performance, predicted the 2008 election within a hair’s breadth, and became a national sensation as a blogger—all by the time he was thirty. The New York Times now publishes, where Silver is one of the nation’s most influential political forecasters.

Drawing on his own groundbreaking work, Silver examines the world of prediction, investigating how we can distinguish a true signal from a universe of noisy data. Most predictions fail, often at great cost to society, because most of us have a poor understanding of probability and uncertainty. Both experts and laypeople mistake more confident predictions for more accurate ones. But overconfidence is often the reason for failure. If our appreciation of uncertainty improves, our predictions can get better too. This is the “prediction paradox”: The more humility we have about our ability to make predictions, the more successful we can be in planning for the future.

In keeping with his own aim to seek truth from data, Silver visits the most successful forecasters in a range of areas, from hurricanes to baseball, from the poker table to the stock market, from Capitol Hill to the NBA. He explains and evaluates how these forecasters think and what bonds they share. What lies behind their success? Are they good—or just lucky? What patterns have they unraveled? And are their forecasts really right? He explores unanticipated commonalities and exposes unexpected juxtapositions. And sometimes, it is not so much how good a prediction is in an absolute sense that matters but how good it is relative to the competition. In other cases, prediction is still a very rudimentary—and dangerous—science.

Silver observes that the most accurate forecasters tend to have a superior command of probability, and they tend to be both humble and hardworking. They distinguish the predictable from the unpredictable, and they notice a thousand little details that lead them closer to the truth. Because of their appreciation of probability, they can distinguish the signal from the noise.

With everything from the health of the global economy to our ability to fight terrorism dependent on the quality of our predictions, Nate Silver’s insights are an essential read.

One of the bestselling authors of Plato and a Platypus travels to Greece with a suitcase full of philosophy books, seeking the best way to achieve a fulfilling old age

Daniel Klein journeys to the Greek island Hydra to discover the secrets of aging happily. Drawing on the lives of his Greek friends, as well as philosophers ranging from Epicurus to Sartre, Klein learns to appreciate old age as a distinct and extraordinarily valuable stage of life. He uncovers simple pleasures that are uniquely available late in life, as well as headier pleasures that only a mature mind can fully appreciate. A travel book, a witty and accessible meditation, and an optimistic guide to living well, Travels with Epicurus is a delightful jaunt to the Aegean and through the terrain of old age led by a droll philosopher. A perfect gift book for the holidays, this little treasure is sure to please longtime fans of Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar and garner new ones, young and old

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