A look at the National Book Awards nominees/ Nonfiction
Horror writer Stephen King will join the literary likes of Eudora Welty and John Updike when he accepts a medal for his "distinguished contribution to American letters" from the National Book Foundation at the awards ceremony on Nov. 19. There have been grumbles of opposition, notably from Harold Bloom, but the foundation cites Mr. King's enormous popularity and the "profound moral truths" of his work.
This fast-paced book by a Washington Post columnist fills a gap in 20th-century history by chronicling an atrocity that compares to the Holocaust: the Soviet network of prison labor camps that led to the deaths of millions for simply political reasons. While Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago" gave an insider's view of the camps, Applebaum taps the post-Soviet opening of archives to compile an entire history of a system that was a tool of state terror, especially under Stalin, as well as a source for slave labor. She sees similarities between the gulag and Nazi concentration camps, and she graphically tells how communism (as in North Korea today) used labor camps for perverse social engineering and suppression. (720 pp.) By Clayton Jones
This touching - but sometimes tedious - memoir about a summer house and a five-generation family documents life in one region of American culture: Boston Brahmins in decline but somehow reinventing themselves for the 21st century. The big house is a four-story, 11-bedroom "cottage" on Cape Cod, where numerous Forbes, Atkinsons, and Colts have vacationed for 100 years. A much-loved white elephant, it is the focus of a complex human saga. (A family tree would have been helpful in keeping track of the relationships.) Colt creates a vivid picture of both the people and their place. His account of the struggle to save the house and the family's struggle to survive is loving, frank, detailed, and often poetic. (327 pp.) By Ruth Wales
Bayard Rustin was probably the most important figure in the American civil-rights movement, but you've likely never heard his name. The organizer of the historic 1963 March on Washington, this lifelong pacifist did more than anyone - including his protégé Martin Luther King, Jr., who usually gets the credit - to bring Mohandas Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolent resistance to American streets. The sit-ins, the lunch counters, speeches that moved masses to action by sheer brilliance of oratory? Rustin, at least as much as King. Why then isn't Rustin a household name? Because, D'Emilio argues, he was gay, a political weakness critics exploited and "friends" fled. Perhaps, thanks to this far-reaching biography, Rustin's sexuality will not also cost him his place in history. (568 pp.) By Mary Wiltenburg
Eire's childhood in 1950s Havana is one of privilege and all the ordinary hurdles of a boy negotiating the world: Car surfing along the Malécon, rock fights, torturing lizards, and the constant fear of going to hell. But as the revolution takes hold, his world starts to unravel. What first seems like a boy's dream - a real war just up the street - quickly sours. "Everyone I knew and cared about slowly vanished," he says. The wealthy flee or are shot, and he and his brother are sent to the US with nothing but two changes of clothes, never to see their father again. Poignantly written with wry humor, the book never dips down into self-pity or the temptation to rant against Castro. It's the Cuban exile story with a fresh twist. (387 pp.) By Susan Llewelyn Leach
Larson has a genius for turning all-but-forgotten bits of history into narratives as engrossing as any novel. (He published "Isaac's Storm" in 1999.) Here, the former Wall Street Journal reporter twins the construction of Chicago's 1893 World's Fair with the tale of a serial killer, Dr. H.H. Holmes, who constructed a torture castle near the festivities and lured women to their deaths. Meanwhile, Dan Burnham, architect of the world's fair, had to overcome everything from his partner's untimely demise to a flood in order to create the White City, an idealistic vision of the 20th century. Among the millions who descended on the fair, many stars from the Gilded Age make an appearance, including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, and Archduke Francis Ferdinand. In Crown's hands, the tale of the city's construction is even more suspenseful than the murder mystery. (416 pp.) By Yvonne Zipp