5 HOT BOOKS: New Biographies of Helen Gurley Brown and Robert Kennedy and More

Five books people are talking about this week -- or should be:

1. Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown by Gerri Hirshey (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar Straus & Giroux)

Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl set off a social revolution with its declaration that careers were as important for women as marriage, and that sex outside of marriage was just dandy. Brown went on to make glossy Cosmopolitan magazine —and herself — a household name. Hirshey, the first female contributing editor of Rolling Stone and author of several books on popular music, digs deeply into Brown’s world, capturing the full span of her colorful life, from her hardscrabble Arkansas origins to marriage and partnership with movie producer David Brown to her triumph in the magazine world. Hirshey tracks down not only figures from Brown’s youth (her high school prom date), but also bold-face-name friends like Gloria Vanderbilt and Liz Smith, in what amounts to a fascinating oral history of the era.

2.  A Thousand Miles from Nowhere by John Gregory Brown (Lee Boudreaux Books/ Little, Brown)

Henry Garrett left New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approached and watched the destruction on CNN from a shabby roadside Virginia motel a thousand miles away. He had made a wreck of his own life (he lost his job as a high school teacher, ruined his marriage, and squandered his inheritance in a spectacularly charming way that only happens in great Southern novels). The only guest in the motel, he gets entangled with the widowed proprietor and assorted town oddballs. Brown’s big heart and light touch magically mix into a deeply moving work of fiction – a testament to the idea that even the most troubled souls can remake themselves and go home again.

 3. Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon by Larry Tye (Random House)

In this deeply reported biography of an American icon, former Boston Globe journalist Tye, tracks Robert F. Kennedy’s evolution as a public figure, from JFK’s younger brother to a presidential candidate who inspired millions. Tye is an admiring guide, but a fair one, as he shows how Kennedy progressed from a ruthless politician to a determined idealist. He unflinchingly recounts unflattering episodes, from Kennedy’s advice on the Bay of Pigs to his support for the Vietnam War.  He also heralds how Kennedy gradually grew into an advocate for the underdog – opposing the War, championing equal rights for African-Americans, and ardently campaigning to eradicate poverty.

4.  Listen to Me by Hannah Pittard (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

A married couple’s road trip might not sound like the most promising idea for a novel, but in the hands of the marvelously talented Pittard, it is a telescopic backseat view into their relationship and marriage as an institution. He’s a college professor and his wife, a veterinarian. Her life recently capsized after she was mugged at gun point, and a gulf widens between them — made worse by another chilling event that occurs along the trip.  Pittard has written a suspenseful novel that is both clever and resonant.

5. On Trails by Robert Moor (Simon and Schuster)

“In bewildering times – when the old ways seem to be dissolving into mire,” writes Moor, “it serves us well to turn our eyes earthward and study the oft-overlooked wisdom beneath our feet.”  For Moor, that wisdom rests in trails. He brilliantly synthesizes his own hiking experiences so that distinctions between history, science, and philosophy meld into a beautiful book. Traveling along the paths of those who proceeded him, Moor’s inquisitive mind moves from ants to the internet, and his perspective is informed by his boundless curiosity and his recognition of how the trail evolves to meet the needs of its travelers. In a world that honors trailblazers, Moor argues for those who follow, shaving off “unnecessary bends and brush[ing] away obstructions, improving the trail with each trip.”