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On Immunity: An Inoculation

Eula Biss (Graywolf)

Biss, while making an unimpeachable case for childhood vaccination, delves into the metaphors that accompany notions of purity and invasion, and recounts the medical history of vaccine development. It’s a touching personal story that seeks to understand why the antivax crowd exists and why it’s such a well-meaning, if misguided, movement.


Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David

Lawrence Wright (Knopf)

Wright’s meticulous account of the 1978 Camp David Accords weaves a nail-biting chronicle of the accords themselves with the histories of the three leaders and the land that has been an unending center of conflict since biblical times. It’s an unparalleled work and one that deserves to be called objective.



Emmanuel Carrère, trans. from the French by John Lambert (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

No run-of-the-mill biography, this witty, fascinating portrait of the paradoxical Edward Limonov—a far-right ally of Serbian war criminals and principled opponent of Putin; a butler in New York City; and a literary rock star in Paris—has biographer Carrère giving himself a supporting part in the story as he ponders his own relationship to a confounding man who mirrors Russia’s many transformations.


The Empathy Exams: Essays

Leslie Jamison (Graywolf)

Jamison is ever-probing and always sensitive in her first collection of essays, providing a heady and unsparing examination of pain. Her observations of people, reality TV, music, film, and literature serve as starting points for unconventional metaphysical inquiries into poverty tourism, prison time, random acts of violence, abortion, bad romance, and stereotypes of the damaged woman artist.


Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison

Nell Bernstein (New Press)

An unsparing look at the U.S. network of detention centers for juvenile offenders, in which more than 66,000 youths are currently confined. Journalist Bernstein shows both abuse-ridden institutions and those dedicated to reform, but concludes that the system as a whole seems impervious to positive change.


Fire Shut Up in My Bones: A Memoir

Charles M. Blow (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

In this brave and affecting memoir, New York Times columnist Blow describes growing up poor, African-American, and sexually conflicted in the 1970s Deep South, and of overcoming the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of an older cousin.


Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story

Rick Bragg (Harper)

Writing closely with Lewis, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Bragg (All Over but the Shouting) offers this rollicking, incendiary tale of the man who kick-started rock and roll and blazed a fiery trail strewn with heartache, happiness, regret, and music.


Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard

John Branch (Norton)

New York Times reporter Branch’s chronicle of Derek Boogaard’s winning but tragic life as hockey’s greatest enforcer is as tense and exciting as a hockey game. Branch captures the sorrow and anguish of a young athlete’s career collapsing due to the combination of drugs and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and asks piercing questions about violence in sports.


The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation

David Brion Davis (Knopf)

In the magisterial conclusion to his trilogy, Davis examines the end of the institution of slavery, the unintended consequences of its abolition, and the tragic legacies of its existence—primarily racism—that remains today. It’s a difficult and complex book, with lessons to be learned.


John Wayne: The Life and Legend

Scott Eyman (Simon & Schuster)

Drawing deeply on interviews with family and friends, biographer Eyman (Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford) chronicles Wayne’s life and work from his birth in Winterset, Iowa, to his football hero college days at USC; his slow rise to stardom; his marriages; and his enduring screen presence.


The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas

Anand Giridharadas (Norton)

Competing visions of the American Dream clash in this rich account of a hate crime and its unlikely reverberations. Giridharadas follows the encounter between Mark Stroman, a racist ex-con in Dallas who went on a killing spree targeting men he wrongly thought were Arabs after 9/11, and Raisuddin Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi-born convenience-store clerk who was shot but survived, and went on to campaign to spare Stroman the death penalty.


On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

Alice Goffman (Univ. of Chicago)

Sociologist Goffman, who spent six years living in a low-income Philadelphia neighborhood, looks at the world of fugitives in America. She considers the frayed relationships, limited opportunities, and ingenious coping methods common in lives spent in “fear of capture and confinement”—in a country where nearly five million are on probation or parole.


The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

Jeff Hobbs (Scribner)

Writing with novelistic detail, Hobbs narrates the life of Robert Peace, his college roommate at Yale, from a Newark, N.J., ghetto, born to an impoverished single mom and a father who went to prison for murder. After getting a biology degree, Peace returned to Newark to became a drug dealer and was eventually shot to death by rivals


Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble

Marilyn Johnson (Harper)

Many archaeologists credit Indiana Jones with sparking their passion, but Johnson may well inspire a new generation to take up this calling with her latest book, in which she travels the world, getting her hands dirty as she studies archaeologists in their natural habitats.


Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered That Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants

Ruth Kassinger (Morrow)

Kassinger stops to smell the flowers and captures their stories in the process. Ostensibly a memoir that divulges how she grafted her mind onto the world of botany, Kassinger’s enthralling read covers the evolutionary and intellectual histories of plants.


The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Elizabeth Kolbert (Holt)

With a series of essays on the otherwise depressing topics of species extinction and ecosystem collapse, Kolbert delivers an engaging and entertaining account of humanity’s fraught relationship with nature and still finds reasons for optimism.


Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh

John Lahr (Norton)

In what promises to be the definitive biography of Tennessee Williams, former New Yorker drama critic Lahr paints a portrait of the playwright with the same vitality and honesty that Williams brought to characters like Blanche Dubois and Maggie the Cat.


Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life

Hermione Lee (Knopf)

An illuminating biography that shows how the Booker Prize–winning novelist drew her characters not just from real life but from her own life, moving from Fitzgerald’s upbringing amid a remarkably accomplished family to her difficult adulthood.


Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man

Thomas Page McBee (City Lights)

McBee’s memoir sets out to answer the question, “What makes a man?” But the result is more generous, more inspiring, and more creative than the usual gender binaries. His meditations bring him a hard-won sense of self bound to inspire any reader who has struggled with internal dissonance.


Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local—and Helped Save an American Town

Beth Macy (Little, Brown)

Through the story of the Bassetts, a family from Virginia, whose Bassett Furniture Company was once the world’s largest producer of wooden furniture, Macy, a native Virginian, traces the effects of globalization on American manufacturing.


The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan

Jenny Nordberg (Crown)

Journalist Nordberg, with subtle, sympathetic reportage, explores the lives of bacha posh—girls who are made over as boys so that their parents can claim the honor of having a son.


Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China

Evan Osnos (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Osnos, the New Yorker’s former Beijing correspondent, captures how swelling individualism and the controlling political structure play an equal role in shaping the rising superpower. Profiles of artists, entrepreneurs, dissidents, and others give a firsthand quality to this sweeping panorama.


The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan

Rick Perlstein (Simon & Schuster)

How did a supposedly washed-up actor-turned-politician of the right-wing fringe nearly steal the 1976 Republican presidential nomination? Perlstein’s encyclopedic chronicle of 1973–1976 examines the Nixon years and why swaths of Americans pined for a figure like Ronald Reagan.


Capital in the 21st Century

Thomas Piketty (Harvard Univ.)

Politically controversial? You betcha. Too long and dense for casual readers? Most definitely. But it’s been roundly hailed as one of the—if not the—most important economic books of the year, reframing debates about inequality and the nature of capitalism. Piketty’s scholarship has changed the conversation.


The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

Steven Pinker (Viking)

Forget Strunk and White’s rules; Harvard psycholinguist Pinker has created an iconoclastic writing guide that relies for its many insights on cognitive science. Every writer can profit from—and every reader can enjoy—Pinker’s suggestions.


Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights

Katha Pollitt (Picador)

With arguments that are both lucid and sensible, Pollitt debunks the myths surrounding abortion, and analyzes what abortion opponents really oppose: namely women’s growing sexual freedom and power. This groundbreaking book reframes the debate to show that, “in the end, abortion is an issue of fundamental human rights.”


Little Failure: A Memoir

Gary Shteyngart (Random)

In his typical hilarious writing style, novelist Shteyngart traces his journey from his birth in Leningrad and his decision to become a writer at age five to his immigration to America and his family’s settling in New York City in 1979.


Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War

Helen Thorpe (Scribner)

Thorpe traces the lives of three women in the Indiana National Guard who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, highlighting how profoundly military service changed their lives and the lives of their families. Twelve years in the making, this visceral narrative shows the disconnect between the civilian population and the veterans, and how the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is primarily shouldered by the poor.


A Fighting Chance

Elizabeth Warren (Metropolitan)

In recent years, political memoirs—an increasingly popular subgenre in 2014—seem to have taken a forward-looking turn, more geared toward ensuring a career than reflecting on it. Freshman senator Warren’s book stays humbly rooted in her past, offering a frank and lively account of how she became the banking and finance industry’s fiercest nemesis.


Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free

Héctor Tobar (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Tobar movingly revisits the story of the 33 miners who spent 69 days in 2010 trapped in Chile’s San José Mine. He captures, with compassion and without sensationalism, the experience of surviving more than 2,000 feet underground, and of emerging above ground into a media frenzy.


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