FROM BEIRUT TO JERUSALEM by Thomas L. Friedman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) Friedman spent 10 years living in the Middle East as a New York Times correspondent and twice received the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage. "From Beirut to Jerusalem" goes beyond the facts of tribal conflict to reveal with fresh horror how daily chaos and terror make possible a question like "Would you like to eat now or wait for the cease-fire?"
GREAT PLAINS by Ian Frazier (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) Frazier crisscrossed 25,000 miles worth of Great Plains territory gathering this affectionate collection of odd bits: tumbleweeds, tepees, Bonnie & Clyde, and places like Nicodemus, Kan., population 50, the only surviving town founded by black homesteaders fleeing the South 110 years ago. "I fear for the Great Plains," he writes, "because many people think they are boring . . . the beauty of the Plains is not just in themselves but in the sky, in what you think when you look at them and in what they are not."
THE ENIGMA OF JAPANESE POWER by Karel van Wolferen (Alfred A. Knopf) In a searing analysis of Japanese politics and society, a Dutch journalist who has lived in Japan for the last 25 years states that the real government of that country is not the impotent democratic Diet and prime minister but is instead an informal and personal system composed of bureaucrats, politicians, financiers, and businessmen. The amazing point is that no one is in charge of this system and as a result no form of clear responsibility or accountability--or change--is possible.
PARTING THE WATERS America in the King Years, 1954-1963 by Taylor Branch (Simon & Schuster) A generation now entering adulthood grew up after the Civil Rights movement but lives, still, by the illuminations and in the shadows that it cast. In this epochal interpretation of the greatest domestic upheaval since the Civil War, Taylor Branch provides a perspective, enriched by the passage of time and recent access to previously unavailable records, that has not been possible until now. The leaders of the movement regarded political questions as moral questions, he observes, leaving an important legacy for the current generation, to which this book may appeal as current interest rather than as history.
THE RAINY SEASON Haiti Since Duvalier by Amy Wilentz (Simon & Schuster) In this chronicle of Haitian life, overwhelming despair, inhumanity and terror are as pervasive and commonplace as voodoo and torrential rain. Journalist Wilentz first visited Haiti early in 1986 to "study tyranny and bloody violence," and what she eventually learned is conveyed in the form of a report from an exotic war zone in which smells, sounds, humidity mingle with moment-to-moment fear.
A BRIGHT SHINING LIE John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam by Neil Sheehan (Random House) Sheehan writes a history of the Vietnam War centered on the courageous, charismatic Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, who in 1962 dared to criticize the way his superiors were conducting the war. As much a biography of Vann as a history of Vietnam, its sixteen years of research provide insight into the process that led to our involvement in Vietnam and, in the downfall of Vann, a metaphor for our conduct.
HIGHBROW/LOWBROW The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America by Lawrence W. Levine (Harvard University Press) Levine brings back to light the widely shared public culture of early 19th-Century America. In 1835, he notes, 65 Shakespearean plays were produced in Philadelphia alone. Levine's central questions are why and how an earlier non-hierarchical culture was transformed into the "highbrow/lowbrow" structure that has prevailed until recently and "what was lost to our culture in the demise."
THE QUESTION OF HU by Jonathan D. Spence (Alfred A. Knopf) Honing history into a personal narrative of the true adventures of John Hu, the first Chinese to travel West in 1722, Yale historian Spence has drawn on published accounts in French, British and Vatican archives for his present-tense tale of Hu's mysterious life, a life compelling both for its clear simplicity and for its essential oddness.
AN EMPIRE OF THEIR OWN How the Jews Invented Hollywood by Neal Gabler (Crown Publishers) Film critic Gabler has written a definitive and fascinating social history of the film industry. In what now seems like destiny, the seething ambition of the founding moguls combined with the emerging technology of film-making, and the result was a media empire. The astounding paradox, pointed out by Gabler, is that through their movies the Jewish immigrant sons created an idealized image of an American society to which they themselves had been denied access.
PARTING THE WATERS America in the King Years, 1954-1963 by Taylor Branch (Simon & Schuster) See above, under Current Interest.