Nonfiction: Substance in the Summertime

'Around the Bloc' cover

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As with most clich├ęs, there's some truth to the idea that when summer rolls around, readers yearn for what booksellers call "potato chip books" — easily digestible thrillers and romance novels. But people with a taste for literary snack food, enjoy it year-round.

Those of us who crave books with a little more substance aren't put off by some extra sunshine. We savor it. Longer days and weeklong vacations promise the chance to catch up on the books we couldn't find time for otherwise.

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Page-Turning History

I admit "history" is an ugly word to many people — one associated with all-night cram sessions and dog-eared study guides. (Psst — which came first, 1066 or 1492?) But really, history is just the story of how humans lived in the days before Britney Spears' first marriage.

About the Writer

By day, Alan Greenblatt is a staff writer for Governing, a monthly magazine on state and local government. He moonlights as a jazz writer with articles in the Washington Post and dcjazz.com.

And a good history book reads more like a juicy magazine piece than a turgid textbook. Take Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen. It's the story of Magellan's voyage around the globe, something you might not have thought much about since fifth grade. In Bergreen's hands, however, it's a great adventure story, complete with enough plot elements — political intrigue, sexual adventurism, travelogue — to keep anyone happy, even those of us with no interest in navigation.

Part of the tension in this telling is that Bergreen clearly can't decide whether Magellan should be scorned for his treatment of his crew or admired for his achievement. By contrast, Adam Hochschild is working with a clear cast of villains and heroes in Bury the Chains, his history of the abolitionist movement in Britain.

Hochschild doesn't hold back from depicting the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade or conditions at Caribbean sugar plantations, but his focus is on Thomas Clarkson, the Quakers and others who moved this issue to the public and eventually Parliament's front-burner. Hochschild keeps his cast of characters manageable, fully aware that even if the writer maintains charts to keep his characters straight, readers don't. The outcome of his tale may be a foregone conclusion, but Hochschild weaves his various narrative strands in ways that provide maximum suspense.

Similarly, Joseph J. Ellis, in His Excellency: George Washington, avoids what he calls "historical hindsight." It's clear to us that Washington's army would prevail during the Revolutionary War, but there were certainly moments of doubt at the time. The book's brevity is welcome. Even when Ellis sums up an important battle in a paragraph, he doesn't stint in explaining its importance to the tides of war. Ellis employs swift language and modern metaphors to make this sometimes oblique figure understandable and complex.

The Court of Current Events

In addition to long-dead figures from history, nonfiction writers are awfully good about giving us inside dope about the way we live now, providing more insight, context and detail about the trends and institutions of our day than the daily prattle of blogs and cable TV.

The Supreme Court seems certain to swirl in controversy during the coming weeks and months as potential nomination fights get under way, and two books pull back the velvet curtains on the workings of the secretive justices. A new paperback edition of Closed Chambers by Edward Lazarus — one of the few to clerk and tell (he worked for Harry Blackmun in the late 1980s) — accounts for events over the last five years, from Bush v. Gore to Guantanamo.

Linda Greenhouse, the celebrated Court reporter for The New York Times, has drawn from a trove of documents left behind by Lazarus' old boss in writing Becoming Justice Blackmun. The book offers stories about court machinations and is rooted in the human tale of the friendship and estrangement of Blackmun and Chief Justice Warren Burger. (If you want to learn a lot about how American justice operates at a less lofty level, pick up Steven Bogira's Courtroom 302, his fascinating and sobering account of a year spent watching the proceedings in one courtroom in Chicago.)

The Writer's Life

The late novelist Carol Shields used to say that contemporary readers are hot for biographies because they present the full arc of life stories that so often get truncated in modern fiction. A number of recent memoirs combine the story of the writer's life with the circumstances of that life, giving us relatively pain-free entree into other cultures.

One of several good recent books about Iran, a country that seems ever ready to edge to the center of the American consciousness, is In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs by Christopher de Bellaigue, who covers the country for The Economist and is married to an Iranian woman. Encountering the stuff of life in Iran — Tehran traffic, religious festivals — de Bellaigue draws out the stories of people he meets along the way. He is a perceptive portraitist and glides easily between present-time narrative and a compelling accounting of the Islamic revolution and Iran-Iraq war's continuing human and political costs.

China is another country that's blinking brightly on our national radar screen, but most of the current books about China are roughly as thoughtful as the many that warned of the supposed Japanese threat to the U.S. economy about a decade ago.

Jung Chang, a Chinese expatriate, has a decade-in-the-making biography of Mao coming out this fall, but her 1992 Wild Swans remains well worth reading. It's the story of how she and two earlier generations of her family suffered under various repressive regimes throughout the course of the 20th century. Each daughter embraced incoming leaders with optimism and idealism — hopes that were soon squelched. There's plenty of suffering in this book, but Wild Swans is also a powerful tale of survival, well told by someone who made it out when that was still the best option.

Many booksellers are eager to recommend a current title about another family buffeted by great political upheavals. In Them, the author Francine du Plessix Gray traces the remarkable trajectory of her mother and stepfather's lives. Born in Russia, they fled to France after the Soviet revolution, only to move west again with the advent of World War II. In New York, they created successful third lives, rising to the top of the fashion world, but becoming emotionally icy parents to the writer.

What happened to the families who stayed behind in Soviet Russia is part of the story told by Stephanie Elizondo Griest, a young journalist from Texas, in Around the Bloc, her account of the time she spent living in Moscow, Beijing and Havana. Freeing herself from a dull "and then I went here" chronological approach, Griest makes each chapter, in effect, its own short story.

The richest material is derived from the year she spent in Moscow as a student. She doesn't bother us much with accounts of classes. Instead, she relates how Muscovites in 1996 were adjusting, or failing to adjust, to capitalism and the Mafiya.

Movies and Music

Summer is not typically a great season for the arts — unless you like cheesy sequels to big screen blockbusters or updates of old TV shows — but that's all the more reason to catch up with critical voices offering their own takes on the state of particular arts.

"Hollywood is very good at caressing your face and lifting your wallet," says David Thomson, the author of The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood.

Although the book runs the course of 20th century film, it isn't a proper survey text, which misled some reviewers. Instead, Thomson, the author of the authoritative New Biographical Dictionary of Film, concentrates his attention on handful of key players, turning the lives of notable figures from Louis B. Mayer to Stephen Spielberg into deeply intuitive parables of success or disappointment.

If Thomson is in a melancholy mood, Gary Giddins remains an enthusiast, never giving up on jazz, an art form that has been declared near death for most of my listening life. At this point, Giddins says, there's little point for him in criticizing records that most of the buying public will never have heard of otherwise. Instead, he hunts for winners and presents his trophies in Weather Bird, a selection from 14 years' worth of his sadly discontinued Village Voice column.

Even as he laments the fact that we're living through "the only period in jazz history when the most resourceful, energetic and irreverent musicians are over 65," Giddins finds plenty of new talent, such as pianist Jason Moran, "brimming with wonder, urgency and here's mud in your eye elation." Giddins doesn't just bang the drum blindly, though. No critic of this music has ever been better at explaining in words why particular performances work. This is a book that will lead you to a lot of great music issued during supposed dark days.

Sometimes the best advice for finding great reads comes from writers themselves, which is why the badly titled The New New Journalism will serve as a fine guide to other books. Robert S. Boynton runs New York University's magazine program and has gotten many prominent nonfiction writers to show up for campus interviews about their craft, which have been edited and collected here. The list includes the likes of Susan Orlean, Jon Krakauer and Michael Lewis, as well as old hands such as Jane Kramer and Calvin Trillin.

As is generally the case, the writers give up their best material when discussing their work as a whole, which is why this book will help you decide which of the most highly touted nonfiction books of the day you might want to go back and read.

The title of the collection is a play on what Tom Wolfe called "the new journalism," which emerged during the 1960s and was an attempt to borrow narrative devices from fiction to spruce up reporting. The generation of journalists featured by Boynton believes in immersion, which is to say they try their best to share or inhabit the lives of their subjects and present them fully but often without comment or judgment. That's why their accounts of mountaineers, poor families in the Bronx and the inner workings of the fast food industry have won them acclaim, controversy and an enviable number of hungry readers.

Gaining a sense of how other people live and a clue as to how they think are two of the richest rewards of reading. The point of picking up a book is not to escape from the world — which is the point of the movies David Thomson hates the most —but to embrace it. That's a worthy goal in all seasons.

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