July 3 2014 12:00 AM

Best of the First Half - NONFICTION


Thursday, July 3 — One more week of looking back at the first half of the year. This week it's my favorite nonfiction books so far - next week, back to new books. Enjoy the holiday weekend, and remember to pack a good book (or two) if you're traveling. Here's what we're reading:

What do you do when you go in search of folks who believe passionately in scientifically unsupportable ideas, expecting to meet crackpots, and end up talking to intelligent and charismatic people? If you're Will Storr, you educate yourself in cutting edge ideas from psychology and neuroscience and you dig deeper into what makes up our beliefs. Reading this surprising and thoughtful book will leave you pondering our similarities, rather than our differences, and feeling that maybe we're all crackpots in our own way.

A superb history of one of the true golden eras - San Francisco, post gold rush and before the completion of the trans-continental railroad. The city's rapidly growing wealth and geographical isolation made it a hotbed for the rise of a new type of literature, one that veered sharply away from European influences and found a truly American voice. Mark Twain became the group's superstar, but Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard and Ina Coolbrith played vital roles in the story as well.

THE 34-TON BAT - Steve Rushin
It's not always easy to tell the world why we love a sport that's such an anachronism in these instant gratification times. Mr. Rushin does so brilliantly by focusing on the history of the clothing, implements and surroundings that make up a baseball game. The wonderful anecdotes about the first baseballs (in the early days there was a craze for dropping them from great heights), uniforms (originally long-sleeved and wool - in any weather), and forgotten but colorful characters read like one big love song to the game.

The accidental discovery of the x-ray in Germany set off a series of discoveries that changed the world. The story of how we came to understand the atom is told by Mr. Nelson as a compelling science thriller. From the early scientists who died before the danger of radiation was understood, through the weaponizing era and the medical and power generating breakthroughs, this was unexpected edge-of-my-seat reading. The eye-witness descriptions of the first Los Alamos bomb tests are worth the price of admission.

SUPREME CITY - Donald Miller
One of the most entertaining slices of American history I've read. The story of the rise of midtown Manhattan in the 1920s and 30s is told by stringing together fabulously compelling mini-biographies of the key figures in government, architecture, organized crime, entertainment, business and sports during the Jazz Age. So many improbable rags-to-riches stories as to defy credibility, and yet combined they tell the bigger story of how Manhattan from Central Park south became the financial and cultural capital of the world. Truly fascinating.

Honorable Mentions:
THE SIXTH EXTINCTION - Elizabeth Kolbert
SOUS CHEF: 24 HOURS ON THE LINE - Michael Gibney
FIVE CAME BACK - Mark Harris

Thank you all very much for sharing your favorite fiction of 2014! I think you know what's coming this time - what's your favorite nonfiction book from the first half of 2014?

Until next week,


NeilNeil Rajala is Currently Director of Community & Business Services for Schuler Books, Neil's decade with the company has included the wearing of many different hats - and lots and lots of reading.