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

Margaret Lazarus Dean (Graywolf)

Dean takes readers through NASA's "heroic era" of spaceflight to the "shuttle era," asking "What does it mean that we have been going to space for 50 years and have decided to stop?" It's a history and an elegy not just for the U.S. space program, but also for the optimism and sense of wonder it inspired in a nation.

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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 assemble a panoramic essay collection about the current state of the American city. A recurring story emerges over the course of the pieces—one of past economic glory, current decline or decay, and future hoped-for renewal—but the selections, each from a different writer and focusing on a different city, are most remarkable for the specificity of their insights, whether into fracking in Williston, North Dakota, or reality television in Whittier, Alaska.

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Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab

Steve Inskeep (Penguin Press)

NPR Morning Edition cohost Inskeep brings fresh insight to the events leading to the Trail of Tears, setting Andrew Jackson alongside the Cherokee leader John Ross in a nuanced dual biography that reveals how democracy in the early-19th-century United States developed at the expense of Indian rights and land.

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The Theft of Memory: Losing My Father, One Day at a Time

Jonathan Kozol (Crown)

Kozol (Savage Inequalities) shifts his gaze to old age and the heartbreaking but strangely consoling decline of his parents in this luminous memoir. Kozol recounts his father's last years, when Alzheimer's robbed him of his wits but not entirely of his personality. The author's approach is shrewd yet empathetic; he's raptly attuned to the emotional effects of these changes on his parents and himself. The result is a clear-eyed and deeply felt meditation on the aspects of family that age does not ravage.

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Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship

Robert Kurson (Random)

Kurson (Shadow Divers) takes readers on a wild ride alongside John Chatterton and John Mattera in their conquest to locate the elusive Golden Fleece, the 17th-century ship captained by Joseph Bannister, lost somewhere in the waters near the Dominican Republic. The result is a mind-blowing pirate story, one that even the staunchest landlubber will have a hard time putting down.

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Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs

Sally Mann (Little, Brown)

Mann's sensuous and searching memoir—a Southern Gothic rendering of a life with arresting images included—finds the photographer pulling out family records from the attic, raising questions about the unexamined past and how photographs "rob all of us of our memory," and calling upon ancestry to explain the mysteries of her own character.

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On The Move: A Life

Oliver Sacks (Knopf)

The celebrated bard of the brain's quirks reveals a flamboyant secret life and a multitude of intellectual passions in this rangy, introspective autobiography. Sacks's writing is lucid, earnest, and straightforward, yet always raptly attuned to subtleties of character and feeling in himself and others; the result, closely following his announcement that he has terminal cancer, is a fitting retrospective of his lifelong project of making science a humanistic pursuit.

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The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings—J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams

Philip and Carol Zaleski (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

The Zaleskis offer an epic-scale account of the informal Oxford literary club to which J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis belonged. According to PW's review, this group biography gives a warm, unexpected picture of the famous authors and their social circle as "a pipe-smoking, ale-drinking, loud-laughing group of friends."

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