For many readers, the idea of picking up a nonfiction tome during the summer is anathema. The very word — “nonfiction” — somehow feels weightier, as if absorbing the book’s contents is going to require more effort on their part.
That’s why, in compiling this list, I’ve headed straight for books that will make you forget that you’re reading something serious enough to find a home in the non-fiction section of a library or bookstore. The characters in them are just as vibrant and alive as any you’d find in a novel; indeed, in some cases, they are so astonishing that you’d be forgiven for thinking that their authors actually had invented them out of whole cloth. Their narratives are fast-paced, their stories compelling and engaging. (In a few cases, I actually found myself walking around the house with the book in front of my nose, unwilling to put it down long enough to do something mundane like pour myself a glass of lemonade, or move the clothes from the washer to the dryer.)
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Best of all? By the time you’ve finished, you’ll have accumulated a vast repository of useful knowledge and interesting facts with which to baffle and impress everyone you know, about everything from pirate ships to the beacons that enable air travel; from the perils of technological innovation to those of well intentioned philanthropy; from the golden age of New York journalism to the “golden” age of Wall Street investment banking.
“Skyfaring” by Mark Vanhoenacker
When we board a long-haul flight, we tend to give little thought to its pilot, beyond hoping that he’ll get us to our destination safely. Vanhoenacker is one of those individuals piloting Boeing 747s worldwide, and he takes us not just into the cockpit, but into the interior life of a pilot — what it’s like to experience not only jet lag but “place lag”; how pilots swap routes (“I’ll give you my Johannesburg for your Los Angeles”), sometimes because their bodies cope better with flying west than east; how flying through cumulus clouds, the kind featured in rococo paintings, is akin to “walking on air”. Into this elegant narrative, Vanhoenacker weaves a mass of technical detail about flight today, and what’s involved, from beacons marking the way to calculating the weight of the fuel his plane must carry. You’ll never, ever think about air travel the same way again, and if you read this on a flight, the author’s own fascination may just prove contagious enough to offset the irritation of the toddler in the seat behind you kicking you in the small of the back. (Knopf; June 2015; $25.95)
“Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker” by Thomas Kunkel
When he was still a child, North Carolina native Joseph Mitchell decided that New York was the right city for him — and the city, in its turn, opened its arms to him when he moved there on the eve of the Great Depression, in the autumn of 1929. Working like a demon, Mitchell began turning out the meticulously written and carefully observed profiles for which he would become so well known that his newspaper even used his byline to advertise on the sides of buses. Ultimately, it was The New Yorker with which Mitchell’s fate would be most closely entwined. When people today think of a golden age of New York, it is Mitchell’s New York – dirt, grime, war and economic woes notwithstanding. This is a biography worthy of Mitchell himself — and of his city. (Random House; April 2015; $30.00)
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“Losing the Signal: the Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry” by Jacquie McNish & Sean Silcoff
The world is awash in business books and corporate histories. But Canadian journalists McNish and Silcoff have gone several steps further, and produced a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare’s attention. The story of what happened to BlackBerry isn’t about a single company, however, as the authors wisely note: It’s about how ambitious entrepreneurs deal with change and challenges to their ideas, and about how they respond to an evolving marketplace. So even as you read, with a kind of shiver of schadenfreude, about BlackBerry’s vicissitudes, there’s plenty of food for thought here about what this means on a much broader stage. (Flatiron Books; May 2015; $27.99)
“We’re Still Here Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City” by Roberta Brandes Gratz
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, urban planners, philanthropists and politicians all had Big Ideas about what to do about New Orleans. Some were bizarre — like just tearing it down completely and scattering the city’s population around the country, an idea made feasible since anti-blight funds were available for demolition but not for rebuilding. Others were aggressively ambitious: using the damage as a way to reinvent New Orleans as some kind of model 21st city. Roberta Brandes Gratz tells us what has actually worked: a kind of patchwork grassroots set of efforts that have evolved organically, with locals teaming up with volunteers who ended up making New Orleans their new home. While there are no rose-tinted spectacles here, Gratz has put firmly to one side the gloom and doom stories of Katrina itself to focus on the rebuilding, and how it is working. And while her book focuses squarely on New Orleans, there are plenty of lessons here, about urban development, about inner-city poverty, about racism, about education reform and even democracy itself, that we could all learn if we read carefully between the lines. (NationBooks; June 2015; $27.99)
“Straight to Hell: True Tales of Deviance, Debauchery and Billion-Dollar Deals” by John LeFevre
For years, Goldman Sachs obsessively tried to find who on earth was behind the Twitter account @GSElevator, which tweeted overheard comments allegedly made by Wall Street bankers, such as, “I never give money to homeless people. I can’t reward failure in good conscience.” When it turned out that John LeFevre, a former Citigroup bond markets exec in Asia, was behind the moniker — and that while he had once received a job offer from Goldman, he had never worked there — Simon & Schuster canceled the book’s publication, leaving it to be picked up by Grove Atlantic. (It’s dedicated to LeFevre’s wife and children, “on the condition that you never read it.”) True, the contents won’t surprise or even shock anyone who has read other books about Wall Street’s misdeeds, and the narrative stops dead just as the financial crisis gets going. And if you think that this is all there is to Wall Street, well, you’ll need to stop and think again. But it’s a fun summer read that offers a useful corrective to the pious platitudes uttered by Wall Street CEOs at their just-ended annual meetings. (Atlantic Monthly Press; July 2015; $25.00)
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“Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship” by Robert Kurson
The 17th century version of rabble-rousing Wall Street bankers, who indulged their every appetite to excess and broke all the rules, may well have been the pirates of the Golden Age of Caribbean buccaneering. In this fast-paced, artfully structured yarn, two ocean-going adventurers head off in search of the rarest of all possible underwater wrecks, something far harder to find than a galleon stuffed with pieces of eight: what is left of the flagship of a British pirate captain, sunk off the Dominican Republic more than three centuries ago. Time is racing — new laws may stop the treasure hunters in their tracks, while claim jumpers are watching their every move. And their sponsor has his own fixed idea about where the wreck is. They’ll have to delve back into the documented history and above all, start to think like their mysterious pirate, who had suddenly abandoned his respectable career as a merchant ship’s captain, in order to stand a chance of success. (Random House; June 2015; $28.00)
There’s not a dull moment of reading in any one of these gems.
Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: