A look at the National Book Awards nominees

THE YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON: Master of the Senate

by Robert Caro

Alfred A. Knopf, $35

The third volume in Caro's award-winning biography chronicles more of Johnson's ruthlessness, which dominated the second volume. But it also marks a return to what Caro terms the "bright thread" of Johnson's life: the public-policy changes he helped bring about during his two terms in the US Senate, especially the civil rights improvements. Caro also calls attention to Johnson's genius as a political organizer. Nobody, he argues, has ever accumulated and wielded legislative power more skillfully. Though the previous two volumes are superb, a newcomer won't be lost by jumping into this painstakingly researched, beautifully written installment. (1,161 pp.) ( ReviewedMay2 ) By Steve Weinberg

WHEN SMOKE RAN LIKE WATER: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution

by Devra Davis

Basic Books, $26

On Oct. 26, 1948, the small steel town of Donora, Pa., was blanketed by a thick, toxic smog. Within a week, some 20 people had died. Nothing was done to clean up the zinc mill responsible, however, just as little was done in 1952, when a "killer smog" in London caused at least 2,800 deaths in one week. Noted epidemiologist Devra Davis, a Donora native, documents such environmental disasters in this eloquent plea to curb pollution, despite resistance from powerful industries. She argues convincingly that "daily exposure to low levels of pollution can ruin the health of millions." Though scientific and detailed, her writing rarely feels too technical, and often contains personal touches that give her subject urgency. (316 pp.) By Amanda Paulson

COMPLICATIONS: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science

by Atul Gawande

Metropolitan Books, $24

In "Complications," surgical resident and New Yorker staff writer Gawande describes the "abundant uncertainty" that remains in the practice of modern medicine. He details how doctors, including himself, make mistakes; examines medical mysteries such as pain and nausea; and explores the delicate balance physicians must strike between providing guidance and letting patients make their own decisions. His crisp, at times graphic, accounts of procedures are not for everyone, but readers of any background will find this humble self-examination of the medical profession engrossing. (269 pp.) By Seth Stern

THE LAST AMERICAN MAN

by Elizabeth Gilbert

Viking, $24.95

After graduating from high school in 1977, Eustace Conway spent the next 20 years of his life living off the land in North Carolina's mountains, hunting animals for food and dressing in their skins. In between such adventures as hiking the Appalachian Trail and riding his horse across the country in 103 days, Conway logged countless hours in a personal crusade to convince Americans that they, too, can return to the land. Here, Gilbert renders a masterly portrait of Conway, and uses his quirky biography as a lens for looking at America's cultural history. Writing in a smart, funny voice, Gilbert also deftly dispels the fog generated by our Daniel Boone fantasies to show the contradictory elements of Conway's persona. (271 pp.) ( ReviewedMay9 ) By Heather Hewett

MAPPING HUMAN HISTORY: Discovering the Past through Our Genes

by Steve Olson

Houghton Mifflin, $25

Steve Olson has proven his abilities as a geneticist at the Institute for Genomic Research and the National Academy of Sciences. "Mapping Human History" celebrates the similarities and differences of humankind that have developed over the past 150,000 years. If at times hypothetical, Olson's work draws from genetics, linguistics, religion, and anthropology to explain why humans cannot be subdivided into more than one race. Explaining the theories behind everything from a mitochondrial Eve, the survival of Samaritans in Nablus, and the intentions of Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, Olson dares to pull from many sources across several generations. His ideas are compelling, his research staggering, and his conclusion – that "we are members of a single human family, the products of genetic necessity and chance" – reinforces a belief in human equality and the possibility of world peace. (292 pp.) By Elizabeth Armstrong

Big If

by Mark Costello

W.W. Norton, $24.95

Costello's black comedy is a sprawling portrayal of the natural disasters, social unrest, criminal plots, and international threats that the Secret Service repels minute by minute without a blink. We think of these blank-faced guards as ready to catch a bullet when the rare need arises, but Costello shows them sacrificing their lives every day, throwing their hearts and minds into the paths of terrors that never make the evening news. A disastrous campaign stop during a flood in Illinois is worth the price of the book alone. It's a great rush of comedy and disaster swirling with fears as personal as losing a photo album and as monumental as losing a president. In the end, Costello's confidence in the ragged realism of his story pays off, and he delivers an edgy satire of the world just after tomorrow. (315 pp.) ( ReviewedJune27 ) By Ron Charles

THREE JUNES

by Julia Glass

Pantheon Books, $25

Despite appearances, the Scottish McLeods are not a simple family. Three different narrations, taking place several years apart, center around clarifying moments that come with death, birth, and a final willingness to love. "We hardly live in our parents' world," says Fenno, the eldest son, who is gay. That sentence sums up this odd but familiar tale of a family learning to appreciate and say goodbye to those dying or drifting away. Fenno, an expat in New York and the owner of a small birdwatching bookshop, is the only one to speak to readers in the first person. He details the lives of those around him as though watching through binoculars – closely intimate yet emotionally distant. Glass's story moves along nicely, though the complex details of the different relationships can be cumbersome. (353 pp.) By Kendra Nordin

YOU ARE NOT A STRANGER HERE

by Adam Haslett

Doubleday, $21.95

In this debut short-story collection, Haslett positions his characters on the edge of emotional disturbances and disillusioning sexual encounters. The subjects range from a manic father encouraging mania in his equally sick son to a teenage boy who finds himself an accessory to an elderly woman's schizophrenia. A few of these stories border on trite, but throughout, Haslett weaves wry humor with sharp emotional insight, scaling barriers of age and sanity and examining his characters with quiet, penetrating grace. (240 pp.) By Christina McCarroll

GORGEOUS LIES

by Martha McPhee

Harcourt, Inc., $25

"Gorgeous Lies" is the story of a family – 30 years in the life of a big, messy, blended family in a hilltop commune paradise. Told from the minds and memories of Anton Furey's nine children and stepchildren, his two wives, and his mother-in-law, the story ricochets back and forth from the patriarch's deathbed to his early life, from his many loves to the various incarnations of his family. Though its writing starts out claustrophobic, the book is saved by the kids' individuality and the way the patterns of their lives and their father's life dawn on each of them over time. In the end, their stories add up to an effect as noisy, cluttered, and lovely as the parties, fertility goddesses, and poolside baptisms that characterize their childhood home. (326 pp.) By Mary Wiltenburg

THE HEAVEN OF MERCURY

by Brad Watson

W.W. Norton, $23.95

In Mercury, Miss., old Finus Grimes, radio host and obit writer, has loved pretty Birdie Wells for 80 years, despite their marriages to other people. Using strong, lyrical prose with a distinct Southern drawl, Watson breathes life into his town and his characters: from the womanizing Earl Urquhart, whose foot stench can clear a room, to Parnell Grimes, the undertaker who loves the dead more than the living. Despite a few missteps, Watson delivers a sprawling, big-souled novel, part murder mystery, part love story, and infused with more than a hint of magic realism. (333 pp.) By Amanda Paulson

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