If there were ever a literary term that needed an image makeover, "nonfiction" is it. The word brings to mind dusty library stacks and doorstop-sized books about topics you didn't choose to read, but you were assigned to read.
Wipe those ancient images out of your mind. Our roundup of new nonfiction focuses on everything from rockers to retro gaming. There's also an inspiring and educational look at a little-known group of Americans who fought in the Battle of Britain, a marvelous menagerie of animals, and Bill Bryson's gentle and sweet memoir of life in 1950s and 1960s America.
Stones getting stoned
“Swinging London 67,” by pop artist Richard Hamilton, is a collage of newspaper clippings about early Rolling Stones gossip and drug arrests. It’s a riot of overlapping type and images that when examined closely, are too numerous to read. Still, this pop culture statement is more informative and interesting than Robert Greenfield’s “Exile on Main St.: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones” (Da Capo Press, $24).
Allegedly recounting the 1971 maelstrom surrounding the making of what is arguably the Stones’ greatest LP, “Exile on Main St.,” the book is more about celebrity gossip than music. Original Stones guitarist Brian Jones was dead and the band was at the peak of both fame and drug use. Keith Richards and Mick Jagger came into their own as a songwriting team, just as they grew apart personally. Jagger, with ritzy new wife Bianca, was starting to experiment with high society. Richards, shacked up with Jones’ ex-girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, was into heroin. With the nonstop parade of celebrities and drug dealers through the French villa where the Stones recorded, it’s a wonder “Exile” was completed.
It’s also a wonder that those Stones lived long enough to become the respectable business moguls/stadium rockers they are today. But that’s an old story everyone knows. Career rock biographer Greenfield tells his version in sad clichés like a hanger-on trying to convince friends he was actually there. Fans of dirt may enjoy this quick read. Fans of music should buy the “Exile on Main St.” LP instead. —Helen A.S. Popkin
History taxing in 'Monopoly'The enduring popularity of the rich uncle of board games, Monopoly (250 million copies sold worldwide), would seem to make it a natural for a non-fiction history. Unfortunately game exec and Monopoly historian Phil Orbanes' book, "Monopoly — The World's Most Famous Game & How it Got That Way" ($26, Da Capo Press), is a little long on history and short on capturing the fun of the game.
Orbanes writes in detail about the evolution of Monopoly, which began life as a politically charged educational title called "The Landlord's Game," and the way it became popular. When the book isn't wading through trademark battles of little interest to anyone besides game historians, the book tries to put to scale how the game achieved worldwide popularity. Key to its success, even in dark economic times: ".. its breadth of appeal, its analysis, its historical study, its role in shaping our economy's leaders, and its rise along with capitalism during the 20th century." Plus, Orbanes adds, "All that Monopoly money!"
The book becomes much more interesting when it goes beyond the game's chronology and brings the familiar board to life through the enthusiasm of its players. Obanes, a former Parker Bros. executive who once promoted the game through global tournaments, writes breathlessly about tourney tactics. Tip: forego Boardwalk and Park Place to buy the properties after "Go to jail," where players land more often. An appendix featuring the many versions of Monopoly, including photos, plus information about foreign editions will be invaluable to enthusiasts, but the rest of us would have more fun getting the game board out, passing Go and collecting $200. —Omar L. Gallaga
Thundering time warpFew people can recall their childhoods with vivid, accurate detail, never mind craft it into an engaging narrative that leads readers to see the world simultaneously through an adult’s and a child’s eyes. But Bill Bryson’s “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” (Broadway Books, $25) does exactly that with his exploration into his childhood in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Using a combination of reporting and humor, and a liberal dose of now-extinct product name-dropping (the Amana Stor-Mor refrigerator!), Bryson recalls both an era and a particular sort of approach to the world that belongs only to kids.
“Pleasurable as it was to watch nuclear blasts and take on a warm glow of radioactivity,” Bryson writes, “the real joy of the decade — better than flattops, rocket mail, spray-on mayonnaise, and the atomic bomb combined — was television. It is almost not possible now to appreciate just how welcome TV was.”
It’s in these moments, when he’s using his adult knowledge to recall his experiences, that he’s at his best. But the memoir has a tone that’s somewhat uneven, as Bryson switches between channeling Jean Shepherd’s gentle nostalgia infused with irony, David Sedaris’ acerbic wit, and The New Yorker’s heavily-researched historical supporting paragraphs. Still, getting lost in Bryson’s often-hilarious string of fond recollections isn’t difficult at all. —Andy Dehnart
Yanks soar in ‘The Few’The challenge for any author chronicling wartime is to convey the point of view of soldiers to civilians who might never know the wages of battle. In his book “The Few—The American ‘Knights of the Air’ who Risked Everything to Fight in the Battle of Britain” (Da Capo Press, $25), Alex Kershaw succeeds brilliantly by focusing on a small group of Americans who risked their lives and gave up their citizenship to fly for England’s Royal Air Force. They did so before the U.S. was dragged into World War II by the attack on Pearl Harbor, making their journey all the more remarkable.
In Kershaw’s skilled hands, the seven young Americans are portrayed in lively, exciting prose and with a minimum of melodrama. Using seemingly miles of research, from personal correspondence and interviews to an exhaustive bibliography, Kershaw’s book conveys England’s desperate air battle versus Germany’s Luftwaffe with understated authority. Filled with detailed accounts of air battles, but never losing sight of the drama on the ground, “The Few” provides a clear and heartbreaking view of wartime England. Winston Churchill, whose path crosses more than once with the pilots, inspires a nation while heroes like Eugene “Red” Tobin become instant celebrities, wisecracking Yanks adopted by the country they’ve come to defend as their own.
Drawn to the war by the promise of flying the advanced Spitfire and Hurricane planes, the Americans soon become deeply engaged in the grueling battle as they realize how high the stakes have become. In the end, the terrible toll of a war of attrition claims them, but Kershaw’s book serves as a winning tribute to the “Knights of the Air” who battled tyranny at a time when their home country would not. —O.L.G.
A marvelous menagerieWhat’s a narwhal? How do butterflies pick their mates? Do dogs feel emotions more strongly than humans? Author and former psychoanalyst Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson tackles these pressing questions and more in “Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras: A Menagerie of 100 Favorite Animals” (Ballantine Books, $28). But for those who can’t wait, the answers are: a whale, “sparkle,” and yes, respectively. At least according to Masson.
In fact, a lot of the information contained in Masson’s latest text is open to debate and subject to his anthropomorphizing tendencies. And, yet, that doesn’t detract from the fun — which should come as no surprise to anyone who enjoyed his past publications, including “Dogs Never Lie About Love” and “When Elephants Weep.” Needless to say, readers hoping for an encyclopedic reference guide to animals won’t find it here.
What’s offered, instead, is an affectionately informative, and sometimes irreverent, glimpse at the animal kingdom. For instance, the bilby, which looks like the result of a tryst between a kangaroo and rat, is described as “so lovely to look at.” And there’s even a chapter dedicated to the yeti. That’s right, with only 100 beasts to choose from, a mythic one makes it in. Even so, somehow its inclusion fits this fun collection.
With each critter covered in two to five pages, there’s just enough info to keep readers wanting more and little chance of growing bored with a single subject. And while the format lends itself well to being left for a while and picked back up effortlessly, most will find this quick read difficult to put down at all. —Ree Hines
Andy Dehnart is a writer in DeLand, Florida. Ree Hines is a writer in Tampa. Omar L. Gallaga is a writer in Austin, Tex. Helen A.S. Popkin is a writer in the Bronx.