Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary
By Joe Jackson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30)
This graceful biography tells the fascinating story of the Oglala Lakota medicine man Black Elk, whose life was profoundly changed at age 9 when he experienced a powerful vision. He fought at Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee and traveled throughout Europe with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Jackson's measured, deeply researched book also shines a light on American Indian culture — and how the U.S. government worked steadily to take it apart.
By Melissa Sweet (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $18.99)
Yes, this is billed as a book for children, but I defy you to find an E.B. White fan of any age who doesn't fall in love with this gorgeous, very original biography. Melissa Sweet has used old photographs, facsimiles of White's manuscripts, White's words and her own mixed-media artwork and graceful prose to tell the life story of one of America's most beloved writers. (And whom does she quote about White's importance? Minnesota writers Joyce Sidman and Kate DiCamillo.)
Emily Dickinson (The Folio Society, $29.95)
Jane Lydbury's wood engravings — reminiscent of the work of Rockwell Kent — grace this lovely collection of Emily Dickinson's poems, introduced by poet Lavinia Greenlaw. "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry," Dickinson once wrote to a friend. "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." Read this potent book slowly. Beware your head.
By Hope Jahren (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95)
Hope Jahren doesn't mind sleeping in her lab, smashing up cars, scrounging for equipment, living on fast food, blowing things up — it's all in the name of science. Jahren is a renowned professor of geobiology at the University of Hawaii, and her memoir traces her journey from misfit child in Minnesota to three-time Fulbright winner. She successfully juggles the themes of sexism and mental illness — she is bipolar — but the heart of the book is her friendship with her lab partner, Bill, a man as brilliant and as peculiar as she. Their deep friendship illuminates the peculiar solitary, passionate life of the researcher.
Edited by Laura Miller (Black Dog & Leventhal, $29.99)
The best novels are written with a strong sense of place — sometimes a real place, sometimes a fictitious place. In this impressive book, we visit nearly 100 imaginary places from literature. Some are well-known, such as Alice's Wonderland, Samuel Butler's Erewhon, Tolkien's Middle Earth, Huxley's Brave New World. Others are more obscure: Stanislaw Lem's planet Solaris, Vladimir Bartol's 11th-century fort called Alamut. A key at the back of the book reveals who wrote each piece (contributors include a wide range of writers, academics and critics), and each world is lavishly illustrated.
The Song Poet
By Kao Kalia Yang (Metropolitan Books, $27)
This second memoir by St. Paul writer Kao Kalia Yang is a lovely ode to her father, a traditional Hmong song poet and keeper of his people's culture. The first half, told through his eyes, is of the family's life in war-torn Laos and their escape across the Mekong River into Thailand. The second half, told through her eyes, recounts their new life in St. Paul. The United States provided sanctuary and opportunity, but life here also meant struggling with the language; backbreaking, low-paid work, and — for parents and children alike — overt racism.
By Nigel Cliff (Harper, $28.99)
Van Cliburn was a gawky young pianist with a deep love of the Russian romantic composers when he went off to Moscow in 1958 to take part in the first International Tchaikovsky Competition — and won. In this entertaining biography, Nigel Cliff gently schools the reader on Cliburn's life, U.S.-Soviet relations and the Cold War, all laced with lively anecdotes and a deep understanding of politics and music.
War Diaries 1939-1945
By Astrid Lindgren (Yale University Press, $30)
Anyone who thinks World War II was only about the Holocaust and the German occupation of Paris should read this brief, compelling journal kept by Astrid Lindgren. The Swedish author of "Pippi Longstocking" writes with enormous empathy and intelligence about the Russian invasion of Finland, the occupation of Norway and food shortages and hardships from Greece to Yugoslavia to Romania to Iraq. "I haven't the stamina to write about all this misery," she says, and yet she presses on, with grace.
Mansfield Park: An Annotated Edition
By Jane Austen, edited by Deidre Shauna Lynch (Belknap/Harvard, $35)
"Mansfield Park" is not Jane Austen's best loved novel, but it is possibly her most controversial; one character makes his money through the slave trade, and the story line reverberates with passion and illicit love, with hints of incest. The latest in Harvard University's Austen project, this edition is introduced and annotated by scholar Deidre Shauna Lynch, and beautifully illustrated with full-color maps, paintings and photographs. This is a coffee-table book that folks — Austen fans in particular — will actually read.
The Art of Beatrix Potter
By Emily Zach (Chronicle Books, $40)
The creator of Peter Rabbit and his tiny friends was a serious artist who focused on nature — tiny creatures, yes, but also landscapes, flora, gardens and farms. Organized by geography — London, Scotland, the Lake District and Wales — this full-color book pulls together work from Beatrix Potter's sketchbooks and elsewhere. Her style ranges from meticulous and scientific to impressionistic, her medium from pen-and-ink to watercolor to a mix of both. And her painting of three guinea pigs in a basket will melt your heart.
By Richard Sylla (Sterling, $35)
The Alexander Hamilton renaissance continues with this large-format biography that is perhaps half words and half pictures. None of Lin-Manuel Miranda, sadly, but plenty of serious bewigged portraits, engravings, political cartoons of the time and maps — several of which fold out, one large enough to frame. With very readable text by Hamilton scholar Richard Sylla.
I Contain Multitudes
By Ed Yong (Ecco, $27.99)
Perhaps you don't spend a lot of time thinking about microbes and cannot imagine reading an entire book about them, but Ed Yong's "I Contain Multitudes" is a fascinating and very human examination of the symbiosis between human cells and microbial cells. "If we ignore them," Yong writes, "we are looking at our lives through a keyhole."
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune's senior editor for books.