"BERLIN 1961: KENNEDY, KHRUSHCHEV, AND THE MOST DANGEROUS PLACE ON EARTH" by Frederick Kempe (Putnam, $29.95)
The author vividly recreates the high-stakes Cold War story of the fateful months leading up to the Aug. 13, 1961, construction of the Berlin Wall. Kempe describes how Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev came to regard his U.S. counterpart, President John F. Kennedy, as weak-willed and so terrified of nuclear war that he'd appease Soviet bloc aggression in exchange for peace. Kempe's eye-opening and well-researched history should trigger a serious re-evaluation of President Kennedy's tumultuous first few months in office, a time when the young president went eye to eye with Khrushchev in a perilous game of brinksmanship.
"IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS: LOVE, TERROR, AND AN AMERICAN FAMILY IN HITLER'S BERLIN" by Erik Larson (Crown, $26)
The author of "Devil in the White City" brings us inside the murky world of Berlin during the first year of Hitler's reign. Larson details the efforts of U.S. Ambassador William Dodd to warn the State Department about Hitler's dangerous ambitions, while also portraying the scandalously carefree life of Dodd's beautiful daughter, Martha, as she throws herself into love affairs with some of Berlin's most lethal men (including both the head of the Gestapo and a Soviet spy).
"GRANT'S FINAL VICTORY: ULYSSES S. GRANT'S HEROIC LAST YEAR" by Charles Bracelin Flood (Da Capo Press, $27.50)
In this inspiring tale of resilience, biographer Flood describes an aging, ailing Ulysses S. Grant confronting both bankruptcy and throat cancer, while working tirelessly to finish writing his classic "Memoirs." Flood relates how a bedridden Grant finished his book through amazing effort, submitting it to his publisher, Mark Twain, just four days before his death.
"THE LONGEST WAR: THE ENDURING CONFLICT BETWEEN AMERICA AND AL-QAEDA" by Peter Bergen (Free Press, $16)
CNN's national security analyst (and author of the acclaimed "Holy War, Inc.") offers readers a detailed history of the U.S.-led war against Al-Qaida, from the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. What's unique here is that Bergen describes this murky, complex war's failures and successes from the perspectives of both the United States and Al-Qaida, making this a must-read for anyone interested in national security issues.
"LIFE, On the Line" by Grant Achatz (Gotham, $27.50)
Chef Grant Achatz has won every major culinary award, from America's Outstanding Chef to having his Alinea named Best Restaurant in America by Gourmet magazine. But Achatz's toughest challenge wasn't creating a great restaurant: it was surviving the cancer that destroyed his ability to taste and nearly killed him. His memoir is both deeply moving and impossible to forget.
"ONE HUNDRED NAMES FOR LOVE: A STROKE, A MARRIAGE, AND THE LANGUAGE OF HEALING" by Diane Ackerman (W.W. Norton, $26.95)
This amazing memoir describes how tragedy struck best-selling author Ackerman and her novelist husband Paul Wilson eight years ago, when he suffered a massive stroke and lost his ability to speak. The devastated Ackerman couldn't write about the tragedy for a long time, but her "One Hundred Names for Love" is an awe-inspiring true story of overcoming obstacles and a meditation on the enduring nature of love.
"STEVE JOBS" by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster, $35)
A timely biography of the late co-founder of Apple, a man who basically defined business innovation in the realm of technology over the past three decades. Isaacson ("Benjamin Franklin") had incredible access to Jobs in the final two years of his life, conducting 40 interviews with Jobs himself and hundreds with Jobs' family, friends and colleagues. This book should become the definitive bio of the genius behind Apple's success.
"FIRE SEASON: FIELD NOTES FROM A WILDERNESS LOOKOUT" by Philip Connors. (Ecco, $24.99)
Minnesota native Philip Connors describes his experiences as a mountain lookout in New Mexico, exploring his own reactions to the rugged landscape and how it liberated him from conventional life. He ultimately finds what he's looking for on the mountaintop: "I do not so much seek anything as allow the world to come to me, allow the days to unfold as they will." All lovers of nature will understand the Thoreauvian allure and beauty Connors so gracefully describes.
"BOOMERANG: TRAVELS IN THE NEW THIRD WORLD" by Michael Lewis (W.W. Norton, $25.95)
Best-selling author and explainer-in-chief Lewis displays his typically breathtaking ability to humanize complexity, getting behind the confusing headlines from today's business pages to explain the collapse of the global financial system in places like Iceland, Greece and Ireland. It's an ugly picture of horrific risk management, outright fraud and terrible planning (and it affects all of us), but nobody's described the mess better.
"THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WALK IN THE WORLD: A PEDESTRIAN IN PARIS" by John Baxter (Harper, $14.99)
Paris resident Baxter gives us a pedestrian's view of Paris, which he considers the world's most walkable city: "The essence of Paris," he writes, "is lost if seen through the double glazing of a hotel room or from the top of a tour bus. You must be on foot" to appreciate its splendor. If you're not up to dropping a few grand on a Paris vacation, reading Baxter's gossipy, literary walking tour of Paris (past and present) is the next best thing.
"THE SWERVE: HOW THE WORLD BECAME MODERN" by Stephen Greenblatt (W.W. Norton, $26.95)
A renowned Shakespeare scholar offers a groundbreaking work of intellectual history and adventure, describing how one nearly lost ancient manuscript, Lucretius' "On the Nature of Things," changed the course of human thought and led to the emergence of science as we know it. Greenblatt's pulsating narrative reveals how the Renaissance began when Lucretius' beautiful poem was accidentally discovered on a shelf, triggering a newer, more modern way of thinking about the universe, religion and matter.
"BILL MOYERS JOURNAL: THE CONVERSATION CONTINUES" by Bill Moyers (New Press, $29.95)
Moyers has selected dozens of the world's greatest thinkers as interview subjects. He asks open-ended questions that display his intense curiosity and intellectual engagement, and then allows his interviewees space to share their wisdom. The results are marvelous conversations, brimming with big ideas and deep insights, with the likes of satirist Jon Stewart, author William Greider, anthropologist Jane Goodall, novelist Louise Erdrich, economist Simon Johnson and more.