Books To Get You Thinking

Many thousands of captivating titles in different genres have been published over the last twelve months, enthralling readers all over the world. There have been outstanding works from both bestselling authors, as well as authors making their debut.  It has been a particularly exciting year for nonfiction books; there are a few titles from authors that have truly defined the year 2017.  Each December, many of the major newspapers and journals publish their list of selections for the best books of the year.  Here are some of the winning works in the nonfiction genre for 2017. All books are available for your reading pleasure at the Mercer County Library System!

Grant by Ron Chernow was nominated by the New York Times as one of the Best Books of 2017.  Following his previous highly acclaimed works on Washington and Hamilton,  Chernow pens this brilliant new biography of Ulysses Grant, two-time President of the United States 1869-1877. Through painstaking research, he dispels the conventional portrayal of Ulysses Grant as corrupt, incompetent and an alcoholic. Chernow, over the course of this detailed narrative, shows Grant to be “a sensitive, complex, and misunderstood man with a shrewd mind, a wry wit, a rich fund of anecdotes, wide knowledge and penetrating insight.”  He details Grant’s extraordinary war time record and his prowess as a battlefield strategist that ultimately led to the victory of the Union over Robert Lee and the Confederate Army. One of Grant’s lasting legacies is his role in helping liberate four million slaves whom he arranged to be fed, housed, employed and armed during the War. He ran a successful campaign to crush the Ku Klux Klan, oversaw the formation of the Justice Department and presided over the 15th Amendment giving African American men the right to vote.  Grant was gullible and na├»ve in politics as well as in business and was defrauded by a partner who left him penniless towards the end of his life. To offset the stigma of failure and salvage his reputation, Grant commenced writing his memoirs. Suffering from cancer and agonizing pain, it took all his strength and will power to write. He completed the book just a week before his death - a literary masterpiece that Mark Twain helped publish. Walt Whitman groups him with Washington, Lincoln, and Ralph Waldo Emerson as one of the greatest Americans - “In all Homer and Shakespeare there is no fortune or personality really more picturesque or rapidly changing, more full of heroism, pathos, contrast.”

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky has been named a Best Book of 2017 by the Washington Post as well as the Wall Street Journal. Robert Sapolsky, acclaimed neurobiologist and primatologist from Stanford University, uses a sophisticated synthesis of neurobiology and psychology to analyze and explore the complex working of human behavior in all its varied facets – the impulses that lie behind acts of violence, aggression and competition as well as that of cooperation, affiliation, empathy and altruism. In the 1920s, scientists like John Watson believed in behaviorism that treated behavior as a completely malleable quality - given the right environment, individual behavior could be shaped a certain way.  However, Sapolsky studies the biology of a specific human action or behavior by going back in time and analysing the factors influencing the mind at different stages in time. As an example Sapolsky demonstrates how, seconds before a specific action, neuroscience can be used to examine the workings of the brain. To fully understand the behavior governing this particular action, endocrinology could be used to help analyze hormonal fluctuations minutes and days earlier, while factors spanning culture, evolutionary psychology, game theory and comparative zoology would influence the evolution of the brain and behavior from the time prior to birth through childhood and adolescence. Further, the author shows how these are not isolated disciplinary influences - each one is the end product of all the biological influences that came before it. Rooted in scientific biology, intertwined with psychological and cultural factors, the study provides valuable scientific insights and perspectives into understanding human behavior.

Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein
Amy Goldstein, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter from the Washington Post, pens this riveting, poignant story of economic upheaval in one American town. The book won the McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award and was also selected as Best Book 2017 by the Financial Times and the Economist.  Janesville, a small middle class factory town of about 63,000 people in Wisconsin, had been home to the General Motors Assembly Plant for over eight decades, turning out vehicles since 1923.  With GM employing over 4,800 people, many of whom were second and third generation employees of the company, the closure of the factory in 2008 signaled the end of an era. In the unprecedented turmoil that ensued, Goldstein follows the stories of four autoworkers and their families who struggled to survive and find new skills and new jobs. Many of the unemployed turned to the local community college to obtain the training and expertise that would ready them for alternative occupations but this met with very limited success. Others ended up commuting to GM Assembly Plants hundreds of miles away so they could support their families. The author interweaves their story with a full cast of characters that includes business and community leaders, politicians and educators.  Today, Janesville has just four percent unemployment but wage levels, along with the standard of living, have declined substantially. In the end, the story of Janesville is one where a town confronts the harsh reality of lost jobs and, in the ensuing journey to find a new life, much is lost along the way.

- Nita Mathur, West Windsor Branch

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