DEAD WAKE: THE LAST CROSSING OF THE LUSITANIA
By Erik Larson. (Crown, 430 pages, $28.)
We all know what happened to the Lusitania: It sank. But in “Dead Wake,” Erik Larson gives us the full story, weaving the lavish excursion of the doomed passengers; the back story of the captain; the cogitations of Winston Churchill and the British code breakers, who knew the danger but decided not to warn the United States, and, of course, the stealth of Walther Schweiger, captain of the U-boat that brought the ship down. In the tradition of Larson’s previous books, this is a riveting, suspenseful tale.
By Oliver Sacks. (Alfred A. Knopf, 64 pages, $17.)
In these four graceful essays written in the two years before he died, Oliver Sacks looks at life, old age — and death, square in the eye. In “Mercury,” he is on the verge of turning 80, “glad to be alive.” He is amazed at his fate: “I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over.” The essay “My Own Life” was written right after he got the news about his cancer and dire prognosis. “I cannot pretend I am without fear,” he writes. “But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude.” First published individually in the New York Times, together these pieces form a wise and profound quartet.
UNFAITHFUL MUSIC & DISAPPEARING INK
By Elvis Costello. (Blue Rider Press, 674 pages, $30.)
Packed with memories as well as the stories behind some of his wonderful songs, Elvis Costello’s memoir is funny and entertaining. He drops names like mad, but that’s because he’s worked with so many: T Bone Burnett, Paul Simon, Tony Bennett, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan (who once met up with him after a show in Minneapolis). He pokes fun at himself: “You take the next verse, Elvis,” June Carter whispered during a performance of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” “I can’t,” Elvis whispered back, “because you’ve already sung all the verses I know.”
H IS FOR HAWK
By Helen Macdonald. (Grove Press, 300 pages, $26.)
Helen Macdonald had been fascinated by falconry from the time she was a girl, setting out on walks across the English countryside with her father. But after her father died, Macdonald found herself drawn to the largest, most dangerous hawk of all, the goshawk. By immersing herself in training this feral bird she worked through her grief, although she nearly went mad in the process. “H Is for Hawk” weaves threads of mourning, love and nature in some of the most gorgeous writing I’ve read all year.
By Stacy Schiff. (Little, Brown, 498 pages, $32.)
Stacy Schiff opens this big, engaging history by telling us what didn’t happen. Nobody was burned at the stake; there was no chicken blood, no voodoo, no boiling cauldrons. And then, for 600 pages, she tells us what did happen, starting with the minister’s daughters who began throwing fits. Their antics swept Salem as well as two other towns into the hysteria. Daughters accused mothers; husbands their wives; the accused were tortured until they confessed. In the end, 14 people died — 13 hanged, and one man crushed under a pile of stones.
HUMANS OF NEW YORK: STORIES
By Brandon Stanton. (St. Martin’s Press, 428 pages, $29.99.)
This collection of Brandon Stanton’s street photography is fun — what characters he finds, what cryptic things they say! The guy in the safety vest: “My wife has been teaching me to express my emotions.” The woman waiting for the subway: “I shouldn’t have moved in with him just because I was lonely.” The teen in the white T-shirt: “I’m always checking the Wikipedia pages of my idols to see where they were at my age.” Some photos have poignant confessions and full anecdotes; some just have labels. But together they create a fascinating cross-section of humanity.
PARIS IN WINTER
By David Coggins. (PowerHouse Books, 268 pages, $24.95.)
Without preamble, Minneapolis artist David Coggins plunges readers into New Year’s Eve 1997 in Paris, a swirl of Champagne, magicians, cafes, tipsy men in party hats. Coggin has visited Paris every December for years, and this book is a collection of anecdotes and watercolors from 11 visits. The food is better in winter, he says — more comforting. Attire is more interesting, people “swathed in wool, silk and denim.” This lovely, personal book is more vignette than story, studded with vivid observations.
Coggins will sign books at the Minneapolis Institute of Art at 2 p.m. Dec. 13.
RAIN: A NATURAL AND CULTURAL HISTORY
By Cynthia Barnett. (Crown, 355 pages, $25.)
Cynthia Barnett travels back in time, all over the world and into outer space to trace the history of rain. She writes about hurricanes and drought, cloud-seeding and rain dances, flooding and raindrops. At one point, she heads to the wettest place in the world. But it doesn’t rain, while back home it is so wet that moss grows on her house. “After thousands of years spent praying for rain or worshiping it,” she writes, “humanity has managed to change the rain.”
By Patti Smith. (Alfred A. Knopf, 253 pages, $25.)
From her table in the corner of a Greenwich Village coffee shop, Patti Smith drinks coffee, jots in notebooks. “M Train” takes us deep into her life, her past, her travels, her observations, her thoughts on writers and, most of all, her losses. Smith’s husband died at age 44; her brother died a month later. “We want things we cannot have,” she writes. “We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. … Please stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow.” Smith’s prose is deeply specific and dreamy. It is a beautiful read.
By George Hodgman. (Viking, 278 pages, $27.95.)
Our first glimpse of Betty is of a woman with a head full of curlers, peering into the guest room, “like a camp counselor on an inspection tour.” And we are in love. George Hodgman’s memoir of his mother at the end of her life is affectionate and often funny (often very funny). Betty, in her prime, had a blonde bouffant, couldn’t cook, drove too fast, blared rock ’n’ roll, smoked like a chimney and was, he said, perfect. But now, she is cranky, forgetful, scared, frail and growing frailer. Theirs is a complicated, prickly relationship, but one, Hodgman makes clear, that is based on love.
THE ANNOTATED ALICE
By Lewis Carroll; edited by Martin Gardner. (W.W. Norton, 364 pages, $39.95.)
My father gave me this book when I was a child; back then, it was a scholarly paperback, and it did not grab me. This new edition, though, will grab anyone who loves Alice; it is big and beautiful, loaded with illustrations, and the updated annotations have room to breathe. You can learn the nuances behind Lewis Carroll’s prose: whose work the Mock Turtle parodies; the origin of “Jabberwocky”; the political satire in Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations.
By Michael Meyer. (Bloomsbury Press, 365 pages, $28.)
In his second book about China, Minnesota-born Michael Meyer set out to document life in remote villages. He moved to Wasteland, the village where his wife grew up, and lived there for three years. His graceful book is travel memoir and social history as he explores a fast-vanishing way of life in the village and beyond. “In Manchuria” won a Lowell Thomas silver medal for best travel book of the year.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune’s senior editor for books. On Twitter @StribBooks.