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I don’t know when in my reading life I fell in love with facts, but I fell hard. Though a good novel is a feast, there’s nothing more satisfying than a big, well-written book of biography, history or true-life adventure, paired with enough time to read it, absorb it, and, if necessary, talk back to the author about it.
In May, I recommended a list of paperback novels for summer reading. (Why paperbacks? 1. They’re cheaper! 2. You can consult, through conversation or reviews, people who have read the hardback.) Here’s a list of compelling nonfiction books about war and comedy, religion and terrorism, spies and deadly diseases. There’s even a swashbuckling French count.
These titles are available now, unless otherwise noted. Alphabetical by author:
“The Second World War: The Definitive History” by Anthony Beevor (Back Bay Books). The latest book by British historian Beevor has been hailed as “gripping” (New York Times), “World War II as Tolstoy would have described it” (Washington Post) and “simply the ultimate Second World War history” (Daily Telegraph). Well, OK! Seattle Times assistant metro editor John de Leon, a recent reader, says Beevor does a masterful job of tracing Stalin’s manipulation of Churchill and Roosevelt in the service of gobbling up Eastern Europe.
“The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden” by Mark Bowden (Grove Press). Bowden’s narrative is a nail-biter, as he chronicles the behind-the-scenes strategy and execution of a plan that led to a fateful (and fatal) night in an Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound.
“Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India” by William Dalrymple (Vintage Departures). Nine stories of India, each of a religious worshipper, many of modest lower-caste backgrounds in the furthest corners of the country. There’s a nun of the ancient Jain religion; a woman who practices a form of religion-tinged prostitution; and a maker of bronze statues of Hindu gods, the 23rd generation in his family to fulfill a 700-year-old tradition. Dalrymple’s deceptively simple prose style delivers a wealth of knowledge and understanding.
“Bossypants” by Tina Fey (Regan Arthur/Little, Brown). A memoir of sorts by actor/comedian/author Fey, one of the funniest people on the planet.
“Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies” by Ben Macintyre (Broadway Books). Macintyre won my heart with his 2007 book, “Agent Zigzag,” the hilarious and improbable story of a British con artist who became a double agent in World War II. He followed that with “Operation Mincemeat,” another amazing true story of deception mounted by the Brits against the Germans. “Double Cross” completes the trilogy, the history of a clutch of eccentric, gifted spies, men and women, who successfully convinced the Germans (including Hitler) that the D-Day invasion would take place in Calais and Norway instead of Normandy.
“The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo” by Tom Reiss (Broadway Paperbacks). How could this tale have gone untold for so long? Lucky for author Reiss that he discovered it — it’s this year’s Pulitzer winner for biography, the story of 18th century swordsman and general Alex Dumas, whose son Alexandre based literary classics like “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo” on scenes from his father’s life. A black man born in 1762 in the French colony of Haiti, Dumas rose to the top of Napoleon’s military empire, then had his legacy almost erased by his former boss.
“Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus” by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy (Penguin). A critically praised chronicle of one of the world’s most fearsome viruses. Seattle Times reporter/reviewer Ken Armstrong wrote that while “the authors’ adjective of choice for rabies is diabolical ... The best adjective for the authors’ book is delightful. That is an odd label for a book about an awful disease, but this is a book that combines microbiology, immunology and neurology with discourses on vampires, werewolves and zombies.” At booksellers June 25.
“Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day” by Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan (Norton). This book won multiple awards for its reporting and its perspective, as the two authors examine the culture, the community and the predicament of the native climbers who often fail to get the credit for their role in high-stakes climbing. Their story unfolds against the backdrop of an August 2008 climbing accident in which 11 people died.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW’s “Well Read,” discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.