Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal, by Yuval Taylor (W.W. Norton)

The rewards of friendship too often elude the biographer’s gaze, but in this rich and nuanced story of “collaborators, social and literary gadflies, and very close companions” Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, Yuval Taylor evokes this pair as they launched their careers. Taylor doesn’t sugarcoat the relationship between the two stars of the Harlem Renaissance as they drove through the rural South collecting folklore and working on a play. Drawing from their letters and his own close, perceptive readings of their work, Taylor relates their painful falling out while also recognizing that their friendship “played a vital role in establishing the identity of African-American literature in its time — and throughout its future.”

Don’t Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times, by Irsad Manji (St. Martin’s Press)

Irsad Manji — a refugee from Africa, a Muslim who happens to be gay and an advocate for liberal Islam — calls for a new kind of diversity that depends on respectful and thoughtful listening. The founder of the Moral Courage Project, which “means doing the right thing in the face of your fears,” argues against attachment to identity labels. In this cogent, persuasive book, Manji calls for relating, not berating, because evolution of the social system depends on honest conversation without fear of offending others.

Theater of the World: The Maps That Made History, by Thomas Reinertsen Berg, translated by Alison McCullough (Little, Brown)

Armchair travelers and international adventurers follow maps around the world, and in this handsome and compelling book, Norwegian journalist and writer Thomas Reinertsen Berg focuses on the creation of maps. Segueing from Stone Age to Internet Age, he relates stories of how maps were created, reflected value judgments, and shifted over time.

We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress, by Craig Morgan Teicher (Graywolf Press)

There is an ache when Craig Morgan Teicher writes of his shock and dislocation after his mother’s death when he was 14, but there is also profound inspiration in how he found poetry as a way to communicate. This engaging set of essays may have been motivated by the question of a poet’s spark, but rather than focus on himself, Teicher looks for answers in how other poets are attracted to the poetic form of expression. Particularly fascinating are his insights into how poets influence other poets, and Teicher has a broad sweep on a wildly different set of poets from Constantine Cavafy to Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbury.

The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America, by Tommy Tomlinson (Simon & Schuster)

Obesity is one of our most persistent social stigmas, and in his thoughtful, beautifully written memoir, Tommy Tomlinson explains how it feels to grow up dramatically overweight in America. A gifted writer who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in Commentary for his work in the Charlotte Observer, Tomlinson recounts in detail his lifetime addiction to food and his constant craving for Krispy Kremes, greasy cheeseburgers and bags of Ruffles potato chips, which led him to 460 pounds. Tomlinson must now vigilantly monitor his caloric intake and lifestyle in a constant battle to lose weight, suffering not only with shame but also with the uncomfortable and dangerous effects of his condition. In a nation where obesity is so widespread, Tomlinson’s journey of self-determination and discovery is one in which millions of Americans can find inspiration.


Elizabeth Taylor and Adam Cohen are co-editors of the National Book Review.