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Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates (Random/Spiegel & Grau)

Coates's book, presented as a letter to his teenage son, is brief but immense in its scope, traversing his own youth, recent concerns about police violence against African-Americans, and the legacy of American racism. It will be remembered as a classic.

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The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World

Andrea Wulf (Knopf)

Though his name is scattered across the geography of the Americas and his ideas are now commonplace, Prussian-born naturalist, explorer, and writer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) is a nearly forgotten figure. Wulf restores the man who first posited the concept of human-induced climate change.

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Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

William Finnegan (Penguin Press)

In this panoramic and fascinating memoir, longtime New Yorker staff writer Finnegan pays tribute to the ancient art of surfing in a revealing and magisterial account of a beautiful obsession.

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The Light of the World: A Memoir

Elizabeth Alexander (Grand Central)

Poet Alexander's memoir is an elegiac narrative of the man she loved, artist and chef Ficre Ghebreyesus, who died in 2012. Fashioning her mellifluous narrative around the beauty she found in him, Alexander is grateful, patient, and willing to pursue a fit of magical thinking that he might just return.

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The Man Who Wasn't There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self

Anil Ananthaswamy (Dutton)

The more we learn about neurological ailments, the more we learn about the brain and its inseparability from the rest of the body. Ananthaswamy leads a tour through a range of disorders—both commonplace and bizarre—and those who suffer them, complicating our notions of what a self really is.

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Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen

Philip Ball (Univ. of Chicago)

Invisibility as a concept has a longer, stranger history than most would imagine, and Ball follows its twists and turns as he grapples with the philosophical and practical notions of the invisible. Myth, magic, and science merge as Ball discusses invisibility's impact on power and culture.

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Fracture: Life and Culture in the West, 1918–1938

Philipp Blom (Basic)

The interwar years were not free of conflict; it's just that conflict played out in arenas other than the battlefield. Fashion, fascists, and futurism vie for attention as Blom investigates how individuals and societies in the West dealt with the collapse in values caused by WWI—with warnings for our current era.

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How to Bake π: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics

Eugenia Cheng (Basic)

Cheng takes something universally loved—food—and uses it to explain a similarly vast topic that's not quite as popularly embraced: math. She turn abstract concepts into accessible forms and lays out how mathematicians think, demystifying a field of beauty that is still too often viewed with fear and suspicion.

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It Starts with Trouble: William Goyen and the Life of Writing

Clark Davis (Univ. of Texas)

From small-town East Texas and the WWII-era Navy, Goyen emerged to write his masterpiece, The House of Breath, and forge friendships with the likes of Anaïs Nin and Katherine Anne Porter. Davis's lively biography returns a long-overlooked writer to his place in American literature, illuminating Goyen's troubled but brilliant life and career.

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Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Space Flight

Margaret Lazarus Dean (Graywolf)

In this mix of memoir and history, Dean seeks to find out why America has ceased funding its spaceflight program after 50 years. She revels in NASA's accomplishments, while bemoaning our collective inability to appreciate them, in a heady mix of wonder and disappointment delivered with aplomb.

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City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis

Edited by Keith Gessen and Stephen Squibb (Faber and Faber/n+1)

Gessen and Squibb, founders of the magazine n+1, assemble essays about different American cities into a panoramic look at urban America—its colorful past, current stagnation, and potential revival. While the authors typically find political dysfunction and economic polarization, a few of them also find signs of hope for economic and environmental revival.

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Kissinger's Shadow: The Long Reach of America's Most Controversial Statesman

Greg Grandin (Metropolitan)

Grandin uses Henry Kissinger's graduate thesis as a lens through which to view his subsequent influence over U.S. policy. The book is harsh and unforgiving, but regardless of your views on Kissinger, it's a fascinating work. Grandin goes beyond simple criticism to observe how the powerful statesman's mind worked.

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Sinatra: The Chairman

James Kaplan (Doubleday)

In this follow-up to his bestselling Frank: The Voice, Kaplan chronicles the 17-year span beginning with Sinatra's Oscar-winning role in 1954's From Here to Eternity and ending with his (first) retirement in 1971, in this vast, engrossing biography of Sinatra's mature years.

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Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of the 'New Yorker'

Thomas Kunkel (Random)

As the author of classic New Yorker profiles such as "Joe Gould's Secret," Joseph Mitchell has long deserved his own biography, and Kunkel supplies it with this vivid portrait, which captures Mitchell's love for New York City, his blending of fact and fiction, and a three-decade-long case of writer's block.

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H Is for Hawk

Helen Macdonald (Grove)

In this elegant synthesis of memoir and literary sleuthing, an English academic finds that training a young goshawk helps her through her grief over the death of her father.

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Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help

Larissa MacFarquhar (Penguin Press)

New Yorker staff writer MacFarquhar explores the power—and limitations—of altruism, to intriguing, sometimes heartbreaking effect. She profiles various "do-gooders" with an uncommon dedication to helping others, including the founder of a leper colony in India, an animal-rights activist driven to improve the lot of chickens, and a couple who adopt 20 children.

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Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs

Sally Mann (Little, Brown)

Photographer Mann's sensuous and searching book—a Southern Gothic memoir set amid a catalogue of material objects—finds her pulling out family records from the attic, raising questions about the unexamined past and exploring how photographs "rob all of us of our memory," as she calls upon ancestry to explain the mysteries of her own character.

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Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

Mary Norris (Norton)

This witty debut from longtime New Yorker copy editor Norris is part memoir—covering her over-three-decade-long tenure in the magazine's legendary copy department—and part guide to commonly encountered usage, grammar, and punctuation problems. Her copy-editing subjects engage, from the New Yorker's use of diaeresis marks, to profanity on the printed page, to the controversial hyphen in Moby-Dick.

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Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader

Edited by Maura Reilly (Thames & Hudson)

Nochlin has been a groundbreaking art critic and curator for decades, but this is the first collection entirely devoted to her writing on the topic with which she is most associated: female artists.

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The Givenness of Things: Essays

Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Count on Pulitzer–winner Robinson (Gilead) to diagnose the problems of our historical moment with clarity and grace. Steeped in Calvinist-inflected humanism, her essays look backward (to the Reformation, Shakespeare, and Jonathan Edwards, among other subjects) and forward (to the epidemic of violence in modern American life, and to the implications of neuroscience).

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The Argonauts

Maggie Nelson (Graywolf)

In a fast-shifting terrain of "homonormativity," Nelson plows ahead with an intelligent and disarmingly candid memoir about trying to simultaneously embrace her identity, her marriage with nomadic transgender filmmaker Harry, and motherhood.

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So You've Been Publicly Shamed

Jon Ronson (Riverhead)

Ronson ruminates, amusingly and unsettlingly, on shame in the social-media age, interviewing celebrities who atoned for misdeeds in the public eye, and everyday people whose lives were ruined by ill-considered tweets.

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The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?

Dale Russakoff (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

In one of the finest education surveys in recent memory, Washington Post reporter Russakoff takes an eagle-eyed view of the struggle to reform the Newark school system, revealing the inner workings of a wide range of systemic and grassroots problems (charter schools, testing, accountability, private donors) plaguing education reform today.

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What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing

Brian Seibert (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

New York Times dance critic Seibert offers a fascinating, sharply written cultural analysis of tap, that most American of dances.

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One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway

Åsne Seierstad, trans. from the Norwegian by Sarah Death (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Journalist Seierstad delivers a vivid and suspenseful account of the 2011 massacre that killed 77 people in her native Norway. She writes with a reporter's passion for details and a novelist's sense of story. The book is at once an unforgettable account of a national tragedy and a portrait of contemporary Norway.

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Guantánamo Diary

Mohamedou Ould Slahi, edited by Larry Siems (Little, Brown)

A Guantánamo detainee endures a hellish ordeal in this narrative that exposes the dark side of the "war on terror." This searing account—published with heavy redactions while its author is still detained—is a harrowing artifact.

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My Life on the Road

Gloria Steinem (Random)

In this powerfully personal yet universally appealing memoir, Steinem, a staunch advocate for reproductive rights and equal rights for women, writes candidly for the first time about her itinerant childhood spent with her father, who itched to be constantly in motion, and her mother, who gave up her own happiness for that of others.

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Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning

Timothy Snyder (Crown/Duggan)

Snyder responds to critics of 2010's Bloodlands with a detailed analysis of how the collapse—rather than the excess—of Central and Eastern European nation-state power (instigated by both the Nazis and Soviets) led to the Holocaust. He also offers Hitler's concept of lebensraum as an example of the way ecological crises—imagined or real—are perpetual sources of socio-political conflict.

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