Nonfiction Short Take: Murder in Matera – Helene Stapinski

Combining armchair travel, history and true crime, this memoir is a beach read for nonfiction readers. Stapinski is a journalist who has worked for both the NYT and NPR; her previous memoir explored her family’s criminal history in New Jersey. The Guardian said of that book that it “is not your ordinary memoir…she sews together family history, local history and personal history…. And there is never a dull moment.”

The same could be said of this new book that reaches farther back in her family’s history to a sun-drenched Italian village and the mystery of her great-grandmother and the murder she was said to have committed.

Italian-American author Stapinski mines her immigrant family’s roots to write a part memoir, part murder mystery…. The author posits that the darker side of her genealogy may have consequences for her own family: ‘All of us, I thought, are made up not only of what we know, but of all that we don’t know as well,’ she writes—as if the violence, revenge, and curses that accrued along with ignorance and poverty in Southern Italy in the 19th-century are somehow transmitted through DNA. The book—enlivened by anecdotes about Italian culture—will appeal to armchair travelers who long to visit the caves and culture of Matera.”
Publishers Weekly

“Stapinski continues her investigation into her family’s checkered past. The narrative begins as an enticing page-turner, an investigative jewel sending readers racing to the next clue…”

Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy (9780062438454) by Helene Stapinski. $26.99 hardcover. 5/23/17 on sale.

Nonfiction Short Take: Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy – Nicholas Reynolds

Just when you thought every dark nook and cranny of Hemingway’s life had been explored, military historian Nicholas Reynolds arrives with new information that suggests Hemingway worked as a spy during WWII—both for OSS and the NKVD (a precursor of the KGB)!

Reynolds has spent his career in military intelligence, including a decade as curator of the CIA Museum where he first discovered clues that suggested Hemingway’s WWII activities included some spycraft.

[An] engrossing story of Hemingway’s disillusionment with American politics, his sympathy with communism, and his attraction to adventure and subversion.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Drawing on his intelligence background, Reynolds uncovers a trove of documents that point to American novelist Ernest Hemingway’s recruitment in 1940 by the NKVD. … Reynolds ably researches Hemingway’s World War II adventures, both in Cuba and Europe, including clandestine activities supporting America’s war effort. … An intriguing study highlighting the tension between Hemingway’s Soviet sympathies and his identity as a U.S. patriot. … Recommended for Hemingway enthusiasts and for readers interested in the history of Soviet espionage.”
   — Library Journal

Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961 (9780062440136) by Nicholas Reynolds. $27.99 hardcover. 3/14/17 on sale.

New Biography: Krazy – Michael Tisserand

Does George Herriman’s name not ring a bell? Maybe his creation Krazy Kat does. A surreal, seemingly slapstick comic strip it was also playful, dark and subversive—a piece of 20th century pop culture that influenced everything that came after it. Charles Schultz once noted that “Krazy Kat was always my goal.” Maus creator Art Spiegelman said, “For me and my generation, Herriman loomed really large, because Herriman crossed all kinds of boundaries, between high and low, between vulgar and gentile.”

Michael Chabon contextualizes Herriman this way: “One could argue the claim, confidently, persuasively, and with an all-but-inexhaustible store of ever fresh evidence, that George Herriman was one of the very great artists in any medium of the 20th century.”

In Shelf Awareness, reviewer Bruce Jacobs of Watermark Books discusses Herriman’s work this way:

A multilingual combination of vaudeville pratfalls and violence, minstrel show imitation, the optimism and good-heartedness of Chaplin’s Tramp, and the Beckettian dialogue of Vladimir and Estragon, Krazy Kat was a precursor of the chaos and upheaval of the 20th century. An example from April of 1921 says it all:

“IGNATZ: Now, “Krazy,” do you look upon the future as a pessimist, or an optimist?

“KRAZY KAT: I look upon it as just mist–

“Herriman’s vision, sketches and dialogue influenced the epochal comic strips of Charles M. Schulz and Gary Trudeau. With substantial background fieldwork, Tisserand eloquently demonstrates that this self-effacing, mixed-race high school graduate from the streets of the Tremé, laboring for 40 years over a schedule of daily cartoons, became the inspiration of a century of artists, intellectuals, filmmakers and writers.”


“Essential reading for comics fans and history buffs, Krazy is a roaring success, providing an indispensable new perspective on turn-of-the-century America.”
—  Kirkus (starred review)

 “Tisserand weaves American history, pop culture, and racial politics with biography to elucidate and celebrate the life of cartoonist George Herriman (1880–1944), the creator of the Krazy Kat comic strip. Readers gain a glut of insight into the development of Krazy Kat, and the many ways the character served as an outlet for Herriman to playfully explore the human condition, which Tisserand sets against the backdrop of Herriman’s own little-known racial identity. Though Herriman passed as a white man his whole life, he was actually African-American, born during Reconstruction to a Creole family that hid its racial identity….This is a gripping read at the intersection of pop culture and American history.”
Publishers Weekly

Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White (9780061732997) by Michael Tisserand. $35.00 hardcover. 12/6/16 on sale.

Nonfiction Short Take: The Wars of the Roosevelts – William J. Mann

This is carefully researched—and very dishy–account of the inner workings of the Roosevelt family by a biographer who reads like a novelist. Mann’s last book, Tinseltown, was an NPR Book of the Year and ET said that “Mann’s call sheet of colorful characters is so richly painted, they not only make the Roaring ‘20s come to life, they’re so bizarre they seem like they could only exist in a movie.” The Roosevelts family is just as vivid here.

A compulsively readable account of the decades long rivalries, grudges, and battles between and within the Roosevelt families of Oyster Bay and Hyde Park. . . . . Perhaps best known for his popular film biographies and histories, and thus no stranger to tales of scandal and cover up, feuds and intrigue, Mann writes sympathetically about all the Roosevelts but particularly the black sheep, the nonconformists whose births into this powerful family imposed special burdens.”
Kirkus (starred review)

The Wars of the Roosevelts: The Ruthless Rise of America’s Greatest Political Family (9780062383334) by William J. Mann. $35.00 hardcover. 12/6/16 on sale.


New Nonfiction: Moscow Nights – Nigel Cliff

Baby Boomers will remember this remarkable Cold War story of a young piano prodigy from Texas who traveled to Moscow and won the First International Tchaikovsky Competition. The Russians had no intention of giving this prize to anyone but a Russian—but when the 23-year-old American prodigy began to play he galvanized the nation finally leading Soviet Premier Khrushchev to demand that the judges give Van Cliburn the prize—music forming a bridge between the two superpowers and temporarily dialing down tensions in a world on the brink of nuclear war.

(Ticker tape parade in in NYC after the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition – NYT/file)

“Cliff brilliantly weaves together the politics, personalities, and pianism surrounding the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958. This portrait of a Cold War moment focuses on two remarkable people. The first is Van Cliburn, the courtly, eager 23-year-old from Kilgore, Tex., who combined a winning American openness with a heartfelt love of Russian music. The second is Nikita Khrushchev, an eccentric peasants’ son who survived Stalin and went on to undo the worst of his oppressions….Cliburn’s mother and teachers had instilled in him a love of Russian repertoire that Moscow audiences grasped from round one….This is a well-researched, fascinating look at a special relationship between Van Cliburn and the U.S.S.R. that lasted through low points (the downed U-2, the Cuban missile crisis) and high ones, all the way up to the 1987 summit that resulted in eliminating most of the world’s strategic nuclear arsenal.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A sympathetic yet rounded portrait of the pianist…Highly recommended for readers interested in music (especially classical music and the piano) and the history of the Cold War.”
Library Journal (starred review)

A thrilling delight…compulsively readable…It’s Vanya all the way in a biography for music lovers, Cold War devotees, and all readers seeking a true feel-great story.”
Booklist (starred review)

“A rousing, well-researched biography… Throughout the author vividly reprises major historical events…Sweeping history combines with a sensitive rendering of Cliburn’s extraordinary passion.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story-How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War (9780062333162) by Nigel Cliff. $28.99 hardcover. 9/20/16 on sale.

Book of the Week: Love Wins – Debbie Cenziper and Jim Obergefell

No surprise that a major feature film is in the works for this. Reading this book, I couldn’t help but think of the groundbreaking AIDS film, Philadelphia. Love Wins put a similarly human face of the fight for marriage equality.

Washington Post reporter Cenziper manages a large cast of characters and nicely weaves together a number of complex plotlines. But at the heart of the story is Jim Obergefell’s struggle to have his marriage recognized by the State of Ohio after his husband’s death from ALS so that John Arthur’s death certificate would not forever identify him as single, invalidating their decades-long relationship.

Equally moving to me was the story of their attorney, Al Gerhardstein, a Cincinnati attorney who had spent decades advocating for civil rights. He saw in this case of a grief-stricken man whose pain was compounded by the state’s refusal to recognize the most important relationship in his life the legal opening that would lead the to one of the most important civil rights achievements of our time.


“This gripping portrayal of the pivotal moment in the fight for marriage equality in Ohio includes childhood memories and romance as well as tense moments in court. The tale is told through the life stories of the lead plaintiff, Jim Obergefell; his terminally ill husband, John Arthur; and lawyer Al Gerhardstein. Written in the third person, though Obergefell is listed as author alongside Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Cenziper, the book is so full of dialogue and personal anecdotes that it feels as much like a biography as a legal history….As Obergefell and Gerhardstein literally walk out of the courtroom into the sunlight together, readers will feel they’ve been completely guided into seeing the people behind the cases”
Publishers Weekly

Told with a novel’s narrative drive, this recounting of the landmark Supreme Court case, Obergefell v. Hodges, which guaranteed same-sex couples the right to marriage, is taut, tense, and highly readable. . . . This book would make a great movie, and in the meantime, it is an excellent choice for book groups looking for exciting nonfiction.”
Booklist (starred review)

“[An] affecting, eloquent account… The authors ably create the suspense of anticipation and winnow the legal issues for lay readers. Uplifting, well-written story of personal courage and political empowerment.”
Kirkus Reviews

“If you’ve ever thought to yourself ‘how can I possibly win against these huge odds?’, this is a story for you. Because you will never forget Jim Obergefell and his lawyer Al Gerhardstein, two men who fought with every ounce of will they could muster. This book will become a classic.”
— Erin Brockovich

Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality (9780062456083) by Debbie Cenziper and Jim Obergefell. $27.99 hardcover. 6/14/2016 on sale.

New Nonfiction: Diane Arbus – Arthur Lubow

Arbus is arguably one of the few modern photographers who actually changed how we look at and feel about pictures. Her work has influenced everyone from Sally Mann to Stanley Kubrick. Her groundbreaking images of people we might normally turn our glance away from—circus performers, nudists, transgender people—were direct and arresting, like nothing people had seen before.

She was the first American photographer to be featured at the Venice Biennale, the subject of a MOMA retrospective in the 1970s that was seen by over a million people, and Aperture’s monograph on her is one of the bestselling photography books of all time. Arbus was controversial at the time and her legacy continues to be fraught even 40 years after her death by suicide at 48.

A Google search will give you hundreds of her images; below is one of the most famous, courtesy of The Met and of course copyright of the Arbus Estate.


This new biography by Lubow is the first major assessment in over twenty years and Lubow has managed to interview many of the people who were central to Arbus’s life, none of whom have spoken publicly about her before, and many of whom are in their eighties and nineties. His extensive interviews with the subjects of Arbus’ photographs gives us a new behind-the-scenes look at the artist.

This will be reviewed widely, starting with the WSJ, USA Today, Boston Globe, AP, NY Review of Books, American Scholar, New York Magazine and Washington Post Book World. Bookforum has a first serial and a feature will appear in the Arts & Leisure section of the Sunday NYT.

 “With 12 years of scrupulous research and a critic’s eye, Lubow turned a routine magazine assignment for the New York Times into the defining biography of photographer Diane Arbus….The book explores how Arbus’s lifelong depression, an incestuous relationship with her poet brother, other damaging love affairs, and ongoing financial distress may have led to her suicide at age 48. Relying primarily on interviews with friends, lovers, and colleagues, as well as Arbus’s previously unavailable correspondence, Lubow provides not only a comprehensive assessment of her groundbreaking work but, perhaps more significantly, a revealing documentary of Arbus’s often-tortured life. The biography’s only flaw is the lack of Arbus’s photos (the estate denied access); Lubow is forced to rely on wordy descriptions and exhaustive citations. But fans of her work will have no trouble calling up the iconographic portraits from their personal memory banks. And as Arbus frequently acknowledged, ‘The subject… is always more important than the picture.’
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

The author produces a thorough, sympathetic portrait of a complicated woman who, from childhood on, stood out as ‘totally original.’ . . . Lubow sharply captures Arbus’ restlessness, pain, and artistic vision.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Wow! A good biography is a balancing act: sifting through stories that sometimes contradict each other, giving enough detail to make the subject come to life on the page without getting bogged down in extraneous facts. Arthur Lubow does an absolutely stunning job, giving us not only the story of Diane Arbus’s life and career as a photographer, but also tracking down the circumstances and stories behind many of her beloved, iconic photographs. The result is a lively, articulate portrait of a brilliant, troubled artist.”
— Carol Schneck Varner, Schuler Books and Music, Okemos, MI

Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer (9780062234322) by Arthur Lubow. $35.00 hardcover. 6/7/16 on sale.