1. The Medici Giraffe
By Marina Belozerskaya, Little, Brown, $24.99
An odd one, this. Belozerskaya’s book comprises seven vignettes, each a portrait of a historical figure who built a menagerie of exotic animals. Alexander the Great kept elephants, which he used as living tanks; Lorenzo de Medici had a giraffe; Nixon and Mao brokered détente with pandas. The individual histories aren’t bad snapshots of their time and place. (Belozerskaya is an academic but, mercifully, doesn’t write like one.) Yet her larger point doesn’t develop much momentum. Yes, these power brokers all dabbled in zookeeping: What of it? The result is a book that was probably more fun to research than it is to read.
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2. The Beautiful Fall: Lagerfeld, Saint Laurent, and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris
By Alicia Drake, Little, Brown, $24.99
In fashion, to misquote Heidi Klum, one day you’re in and the next day you’re out of your mind—attending your 1976 ready-to-wear show with a doctor in tow waiting to take you back to the hospital. Of course, no one could sketch more beautifully from bed than Yves Saint Laurent, as Drake shows in her gossipy book about Yves, Karl Lagerfeld, their rivalry (particularly over one royalist “It” boy), and a time when couture was being eclipsed by branding. True, neither Yves nor Karl sat for an interview, but there’s always dark YSL mastermind Pierre Bergé, who would, it seems, still like nothing more than to kick Karl off the runway.
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3. Murder in Amsterdam
By Ian Buruma, Penguin, $24.95
This is a masterful ensemble piece, a tragedy of tolerance, in which characters drawn with quick, precise brushstrokes (the gay conservative politician Pim Fortuyn, the Muslim apostate Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Conradian Islamist anti-hero Mohammed Bouyeri, among others) get caught in the same lethal gravity, leading to the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. In the U.S., the culture wars are often played as low comedy, a Fox News farce. In the Netherlands, where free speech is a fetish, Van Gogh played it even lower— calling Muslims “goat fuckers.” But in the post-9/11 world, speech that free can seem a dangerous luxury.
4. The God Delusion
By Richard Dawkins, Houghton Mifflin, $27
When will atheists have their Bill O’Reilly? In his latest jeremiad, evolutionary pioneer Dawkins nominates himself for the role. Knowing his audience, he spends much of his time attacking agnostics (and his personal critics). But while calling religious parents “child abusers” may grab headlines, it will do little to advance the debate. Fortunately, Dawkins salvages his polemic with a surprisingly elegant and gracious conclusion, depicting science as exactly the kind of glorious expansion of our perceptions that we once thought only God could provide.
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5. The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
By Lawrence Wright, Knopf, $27.95
Osama bin Laden remains elusive—in reality and in this book. Wright’s vivid account of Al Qaeda’s rise paints him as a deeply contradictory figure: equal parts murderous visionary who methodically laid the groundwork for 9/11 and bumbling fanatic who hit a madman’s jackpot. Brilliant set pieces, like the one about the radical Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, form the backbone of the book. Trouble is, the best ones were already published in The New Yorker. If you read them, the reason to buy this book is out of gratitude to the writer, which he has duly earned.
6. Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born
By Tina Cassidy, Atlantic Monthly Press, $24
A fantastic book that would make a lousy baby-shower present, Birth is gorily fascinating. As anyone familiar with the term “ring of fire” may be aware, the history of baby production is defiantly uncuddly: We’re talking experiments with rudimentary forceps, witch burnings, and do-it-yourself Cesareans. Cassidy has written a darkly witty guide through the birthing hut (or barn or hospital ward, depending on the time period), and she lucidly sorts the facts and the fads, from the eternal battle between male doctors and female midwives to the politics of pain relief.