5 HOT BOOKS: Planning for Nuclear War, Improv Comedy, and More


1. The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner by Daniel Ellsberg (Bloomsbury)

History may remember Ellsberg as the whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers and helped end the Vietnam War, but his alarmingly relevant new book should also assure his legacy as a prescient and authoritative anti-nuclear activist. Doomsday Machine, which takes its title from Dr. Strangelove, reads like a thriller as Ellsberg figures out that America’s pledge never to attack first was fiction and that the so called “fail-safe” systems are prone to disaster. “The hidden reality I aim to expose is that over fifty years, all-out thermonuclear war – an irreversible, unprecedented, and almost unimaginable calamity for civilization and most life on earth has been,” Ellsberg writes, “a catastrophe waiting to happen.”

2. Why Comics?: From Underground to Everywhere by Hillary L. Chute (Harper/HarperCollins)

Now that Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home have found both commercial and critical success, at last there is a brilliant investigation into the unique powers of the medium. With great elan, Chute frames Why Comics around questions like “Why Disaster?” or “Why Sex?” and thematically explores the work of wildly different famous cartoonists, ranging from Robert Crumb to Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware, and explains how comics -- a sequence of selected frames -- distills and condenses words, images and ideas. Comics don’t call for linear reading like prose but can happen in many directions, Chute explains, and in her enthusiastic and discerning book she explains the genre as “a participatory, even slowed down practice of consumption.”

3. Spy of the First Person by Sam Shepard (Alfred A. Knopf)

Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard died of ALS last July, and his elegiac novella is a perfectly scripted coda to his vast and varied body of work, which spoke so eloquently to the disappointments of the American Dream. Twilight is a recurring theme in Spy of the First Person, which is particularly poignant because Shepard worked on it until a week before his death, first writing by hand, then dictating into a tape recorder with his sisters and daughter transcribing, and finally editing it with his old friend, poet and songwriter Patti Smith. In the short book’s powerful and poignant closing pages, the narrator, after enjoying a meal with his troupe at a Mexican restaurant with “a lot of people talking at once, the whole table bustling with conversation,” goes home in a wheelchair pushed by his children. “The thing I remember most,” Shepard writes, “is being more or less helpless and the strength of my sons.”

4. Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical by Jacqueline Jones (Basic Books)

In disentangling the riddle of Lucy Parsons, one of America’s most famous Anarchists, Jones has written an important biography of a fiery woman who lived through the Civil War and Reconstruction, and worked as a social reformer through the New Deal. With themes that resonate today, Jones, a Bancroft Prize-winning historian at the University of Texas, explores the formidable barriers faced by women, the erosion of the middle class, the corrosive effect of money and influence on public policy, and even the question of free speech.   In an artful braid of narratives, the author penetrates Parsons’ false story of her identity as a “Spanish-Indian maiden,” and through her impressive research finds that Parsons married a former Confederate soldier, denied her African-American roots, and in lectures to vast crowds in 19th century America, calculatingly promoted herself to followers in carefully-honed soundbites like her famous exhortation: “Learn the use of explosives.”

5. Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art by Sam Wasson (An Eamon Dolan Book/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Improvisational theater, created in the early twentieth century by an idealistic young settlement worker trying to inspire immigrant children to express themselves, went on to become a quintessentially American art form, a history chronicled by Wasson with wit and insight. Wasson traces the evolution of Second City and Saturday Night Live, highlights past luminaries like Mike Nichols and Elaine May and recent ones like Chris Farley and Tina Fey, and recognizes overlooked pioneers in the invention, dissemination and development of improv as a comedic form. The author of Fosse, a biography of the choreographer, Wasson deftly contextualizes the development of comedy, arguing that improvisation isn’t merely an analog for democracy, it is democracy, demanding that players and audience members “uphold the democratic ideal of total collaboration.”