The Monitor's Guide to Bestsellers: Hardcover Nonfiction

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Monitor's Pick

PILLAR OF FIRE: AMERICA IN THE KING YEARS

By Taylor Branch

Recommended: Bestselling books the week of 5/19/14, according to IndieBound*

Simon and Schuster

613pp., $30

Civil rights history has meaning as a collective biography for Americans today (one sadly neglected and distorted). But it is also humanity's story - an inspiration for movements like the dissent that toppled the Berlin Wall or the Tiananmen Square protest for democracy in China.

As "Pillar of Fire," the second volume of Taylor Branch's epic history makes clear, the main actors in civil rights were not politicians or generals. Rather they were itinerant black clergy, idealistic students, nameless housewives, community organizers - "little people" - who brought governors and presidents to the table to end segregation and the reign of terror that enforced it.

Branch's first volume, "Parting the Waters," covers the years 1954-1963 and won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1989 for its breathtaking scope and for revealing black Christianity as the real wellspring of civil rights. "Pillar of Fire" is a relentless and majesterial tour through the interconnected dramas of 1963 to 1965, when history accelerates rapidly. A planned third volume, "At Canaan's Edge," will tell the story through 1968. At the center of it all is Martin Luther King, Jr. whose life, Branch argues convincingly, is "the most important metaphor" for America in those watershed years. At bottom, however, the story is the struggle to crack an entrenched "way of life," as supporters of segregation called it. Resistance was deep and broad. The civil rights question is still on the table.

1. SIMPLE ABUNDANCE, by Sarah Ban Breathnach, Warner, $18.95

A spiritual self-help book for the "modern woman," that offers to overcome stress and assist in self-discovery with topical readings on gratitude, simplicity, order, harmony, beauty, and joy. There is a reading for each day of the calendar year. Like modern gold-mining - 30 tons of shoveled dirt to find one ounce of gold - there are pages of platitudes before one hits an original insight. "The Oprah Winfrey Show" spotlighted this book. By Jim Bencivenga

2. TALKING TO HEAVEN: A MEDIUM'S MESSAGE...., by James Van Praagh, Dutton/Signet, $22.95

In "Talking to Heaven: A Medium's Message of Life After Death," James Van Praagh defines many aspects of psychic phenomena and gives examples from his own experience. He rejects organized religion and offers a conveniently eclectic mix of spiritualism, pop psychology, and Christianity, as well as New Age, Eastern, and Gnostic thought. The author discusses at length contacting departed loved ones by developing one's psychic abilities. By Debra Jones

3. ANGELA'S ASHES: A MEMOIR, by Frank McCourt, Scribner, $23

"Angela's Ashes," Frank McCourt's brilliant and tender memoir of his miserable Irish Catholic childhood in Limerick, Ireland, is a deeply moving story and a very funny book. Angela was McCourt's mother. The story begins in Brooklyn during the Depression as she tries to hold the family together; later, because of his father's alcoholism the family is forced to return to Ireland, where McCourt discovers Shakespeare and language. It is a book of splendid humanity. By Devon McNamara

4. THE MILLIONAIRE NEXT DOOR, by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko, Longstreet, $22

After two decades of analyzing wealth, Professors Stanley and Danko provide extensive demographic profiles of Americans with assets of $1 million or more. They conclude that lavish spending habits are the stuff of Hollywood myth. Most millionaires, they say, have succeeded through business efficiency as well as frugality, not inheritance. In summary: To amass wealth, one must invest well and spend less. By Leigh Montgomery

5. MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL, by John Berendt, Random House, $23

This zany portrait of Savannah, Ga., sings with original characters. It tells the universal tale of small-town life in which neighborly rivalries and gossip are pastimes. But Savannah's characters are even more outrageous - sometimes more sensuous - than those of most small towns: from a good-natured conman who invites the town to raucous parties in other people's houses to "The Lady Chablis" - a drag queen who crashes debutante balls. By Abraham T. McLaughlin

6. TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE, by Mitch Albom, Doubleday, $19.95

A beloved college professor who is dying agrees to meet each Tuesday with a former student and discuss life and death. The 14 "classes" are recorded by Mitch Albom, a well-known sportswriter, with his former teacher, Morrie Schwartz. Religion, family, friends, and work are carefully considered. Schwartz (now deceased) was interviewed at home by Ted Koppel and appeared on "Nightline." What keeps this uplifting book from being maudlin is Albom's crisp writing - and the generous heart of Schwartz. By Jim Bencivenga

7. JACKIE AFTER JACK, by Christopher Andersen, William Morrow, $25

With his dubious comparisons to Diana, Princess of Wales, a queasy 80-page description of President Kennedy's murder and funeral, and enough scandal to fill 20 National Enquirers, Christopher Andersen paints a portrait of Jackie Kennedy Onassis's life where no one looks good, least of all the writer. Onassis and her friends, he alleges in this follow-up to "Jackie and Jack," engaged in everything from drug abuse and adultery to whaling. Exhaustively researched, this book contains enough dirt to bury an unwary reader. By Yvonne Zipp

8. DON'T WORRY, MAKE MONEY, by Richard Carlson, Hyperion, $15.95

Carlson has twice hit the bestseller list by telling people what most of them already know. But he succeeds by taking big, broad strategies for living and breaking them down into bite-size, easily remembered and understood pieces. He also offers a pleasing switch from most money books. He doesn't tell you how to get rich. He suggests ways to find peace of mind, a zone that opens the door to opportunities to make and save money. He suggests that you start from a position of strength, then move on to the details. By Lynde McCormick

9. MEN ARE FROM MARS, WOMEN ARE FROM VENUS, by John Gray, HarperCollins, $23

Written more for women, this easy-to-read guide helps men and women better understand how the other sex communicates. Although redundant and sometimes stereotypical, it goes beyond psychobabble. Gray, who has written an assortment of books on this topic, explores such issues as the difference between a man's silence and a woman's, why men and women resist the other sex's solutions, and how a man reacts when a woman needs to talk. By Shelley Donald Coolidge

10. INTO THIN AIR, by Jon Krakauer, Villard, $24.95

Krakauer writes compellingly that he wanted his personal account of a guided tour up Mt. Everest to have a raw, ruthless sort of honesty, and it does. On May 10, 1996, nine of his fellow climbers, including three guides, were killed in a storm that swept the mountain. Krakauer hoped "that writing the book might purge Everest from my life. It hasn't, of course." Readers of this book will never think of the world's highest peak in quite the same way again. By Suzanne MacLachlan

11. CONVERSATIONS WITH GOD, BOOK I, by Neale Donald Walsch, Putnam, $19.95

Written in a simple, accessible style, this book is based on what the author, the founder of an Oregon-based organization called ReCreation, describes as a three-year conversation with God that he transcribed. It contains some substantial insights and flashes of humor. God is described as an all-good, omnipotent Being, who is constantly communicating with all people. Prayer is described as a process, not a petition. First of three books. By Abraham T. McLaughlin

12. THE PERFECT STORM, by Sebastian Junger, W.W. Norton, $23.95

"The Perfect Storm" serves as both title and metaphor, recounting the once-in-a-century phenomenon in which major weather systems converge into one awesome storm. A meditation on and an adrenaline-pumping account of weather gone awry, the book integrates meteorological observations into accounts of the lives and deaths of the six-man crew of the Andrea Gail. What ultimately makes this unique and admirable is its overriding humanity. By Judith Bolton-Fasman

13. THE RAPE OF NANKING, by Iris Chang, Basic Books, $25

Iris Chang's well-researched account of this "forgotten holocaust" covers a six-week period in 1937 in which genocide was committed against Chinese citizens by the Japanese Imperial Army in the city of Nanking, China. It brings attention to a period in World War II that few recall or are aware of. It tells the story from the perspective of three groups: the Japanese soldiers, the Chinese citizens, and the Americans and Europeans who helped save many lives. It contains graphic depictions of brutality. By Leigh Montgomery

14. THE LONG HARD ROAD OUT OF HELL, by Marilyn Manson with Neil Strauss, Regan Books, $24

If the Marquis de Sade had a son in a hard-rock band who wrote a book, this would be the book. The author is deliberately shocking and offensive - in word, photo, and illustration. He portrays his life as a quest to be the anti-Christ. Sadly, it's more like the cartoon character Sid in the movie "Toy Story," who tortures and mutilates any toys that fall into his possession. Manson sees himself as "the boy that you loved is the man that you feared." Boy he was, and still is. By Jim Bencivenga

15. THE MAN WHO LISTENS TO HORSES, by Monty Roberts, Random House, $23

Roberts talks the language of horses, and they listen. Equus is the name he gives this silent language, developed over a lifetime of tireless reading of the body movements of "flight" animals such as the horse, mule, and even deer. This autobiography reveals the love, patience, and endurance of one man able to coax horses to voluntarily step out of their wild natures into a working relationship with people. Roberts' troubled childhood mirrored the cruel techniques of his father's approach to horse breaking. By Jim Bencivenga

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