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By David Pevear
For nearly 40 years Dave Pevear covered sports for The Sun.

  • Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles, by Bernard Cornwell — I recommend this book for anyone normally turned off by battle accounts. Yes, it often gets confusing trying to picture who marched where, who turned whose flank, and whether so-and-so commanded the 5th Division or VIII Corps. Well, Bernard Cornwell, a renowned British historical novelist, writes for you. (The book also includes good maps.) This was Cornwell's first work of nonfiction, released in the United States last year to help celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Duke of Wellington having once and for all ridded Europe of Napoleon, a military genius and imperialistic menace who just wouldn't stay exiled.
    Cornwell cites one source which estimates that when night fell on Belgium on June 18, 1815, 12,000 corpses and between 30,000 and 40,000 wounded covered the field of this great battle fought in an otherwise quiet valley just south of Brussels, along a mere 2.5-mile front. If only Marshal Ney, Bravest of the Brave, had two days earlier attacked at Quatre-Bras more forcefully and trapped Wellington's forces before the British commander could establish positions of his choosing. If only Marshal Grouchy, whom Napoleon expected to prevent Blucher's Prussians from uniting with Wellington's forces, had marched to the sound of the guns on June 18.

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    If only it had not rained heavily the morning of the battle, miring Napoleon's fearsome artillery and delaying the French attack on Wellington's positions — lost time that would allow the Prussians to later show up in the nick of time. Reading about it two centuries later, Waterloo remains a horrific nailbiter. Cornwell makes sure of that.
  • Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story, by David Maraniss — It is hard to imagine now — two years after the Motor City emerged from 16 months in bankruptcy brought on by debts estimated at $18-20 billion — but for a time Detroit was the crown jewel of American cities. Maraniss is probably the finest nonfiction wordsmith typing today, and his story here concentrates on Detroit from October 1962 to May 1964, when Berry Gordy Jr.
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    's Motown cranked out hits, Ford unleashed the Mustang (Lee Iacocca's greatest hit) and city leaders proudly showed off Detroit to the world in hopes of landing the 1968 Summer Olympics. (The Games went to Mexico City.) It is the story of a city seemingly at the height of its greatness, yet also a city racially and politically divided, soon to be swept up by greater forces at work in the nation. Martin Luther King Jr. marched in Detroit in 1963 and said “I have a dream,” two months before he did so in Washington, D.C. Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy on Labor Day 1960 in Detroit delivered a variation on what four months later became his “ask not what your country can do for you” inauguration speech.
    National storms swirled around local political intrigue. Maraniss paints an especially heroic picture of Walter Reuther, president of the United Automobile Workers and a staunch civil rights lobbyist. I came away from reading this book also realizing that Smokey Robinson is indeed a genius.
  • The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones, by Rich Cohen — Much ground covered in this book is familiar to Stones fans. But it is covered within the context of a thoughtful and funny memoir by Cohen, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone magazines. Amid all the sex, drugs and rockin' self-destruction, Cohen provides intellectual gravitas for anyone who has ever answered Rolling Stones over Beatles in rock music's ultimate litmus tests.
     Cohen's is an entertaining recap of why the Stones mattered so much, especially during their creative peak from 1968-72. (I enjoyed the book enough to overlook one oh-my-god error. Cohen while writing about the Stones' varied American roots influences refers to “trumpeter” Charlie Parker.) The book is mostly a celebration of America's greatest musicologist, that indestructible guitarist from Dartford, England, the one with an unrivaled ear for brilliantly simple riffs and whom no drugs can kill. The indelible Keith Richards moment in the book has Richards backstage before a show with his guitars, his pills and his booze, scowling toward Mick Jagger, who brought on tour a physical trainer, a voice coach and a choreographer. “What can he do in there that we can't do out here?” asks Richards, who then drops to the floor and does five perfect pushups, “the tip of his cigarette burning a hole in the carpet; a rock'n'roll signature,” writes Cohen.

By Jim Campanini
jcampanini@lowellsun.com
  • James Madison: A Life Reconsidered; by Lynne Cheney -- If Hamilton the Broadway musical (adapted from Ron Chernow's best-selling book Alexander Hamilton) was all the rage in 2016, Cheney's book could create a similar buzz in 2017. Why? I believe the U.S. Constitution is going to be challenged over the next four years like it's never been previously, and it will be Madison, the architect of it all, who'll emerge once again as the guiding light. Originally published in 2014, Cheney's meticulously researched book is a relevant source on one of the nation's greatest all-time listeners, thinkers and defenders of liberty. Prior historians paint our nation's fourth president as brilliant yet shy and weak, but Cheney's Madison is strong and decisive when it counts. He held the young nation together when regional rivalries and a second war with Britain threatened to tear everything apart in 1812. Madison's trust in the Constitution, like his love for wife Dolly, never wavered. Unfortunately, Madison, an anti-slavery proponent, saw little hope for a unifying solution on America's greatest abomination, a failing that pained him until his June 28, 1836 death at the age of 85.
  • The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War; by H.W. Brands -- When you read a Brands book, you know history's chips will fall where they may based on the author's painstaking fact gathering. Will this book break new ground on the monumental showdown between an unpopular, accidental president and the popular, fearless military leader? Harry Truman's decision to fire Gen. Douglas MacArthur preserved the authority of America's civilian commander-in-chief and likely saved America from a devastating war with China and Soviet Russia. Brands' insight into Truman's deepest thoughts is worth a week of nights sitting by the fire, sipping bourbon and reading.
  • The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars; by Dava Sobel -- It's worth immersing yourself into anything Sobel writes about science. The author of best-sellers Longitude, Galileo's Daughter and The Planets, brings her masterful prose to the women who gathered nightly around Harvard College Observatory telescopes to interpret what their astonomer husbands had captured on photographic plates during the day. The pages fill up with stunning 19th-century discoveries as these "human computers" and true pioneers -- Dr. Cecilia Helena Payne, Annie Jump Cannon, etc. -- reveal the universe.
  • "Bad News": The Turbulent Life of Marvin Barnes, Pro Basketball's Original Renegade; by Mike Carey -- A Boston Herald sports writer for 19 years, Carey was Barnes' landord during the final years of the former star's tragic life. He knows his subject well. I am familiar with Barnes too. Barnes and I grew up in Providence and were the same age. He starred at Central High School; I played sports at Mt. Pleasant High School. He died in 2014 at 62 years old, the victim of years of drug addiction. Barnes married the beautiful Debbie Santos, a Mt. Pleasant High cheerleader during my time there. I saw the 6-foot-8 Barnes play basketball a number of times, when he was still emerging into a special talent. I also heard the street "gangster" stories about Barnes. Later, Barnes would attend Providence College, where he, Ernie DiGregorio and Kevin Stacom would lead the Friars to three consecutive NCAA tournament berths. The team reached the 1973 Final Four. In 1975, Barnes snubbed the NBA and signed a $2.2 million contract with the ABA's St. Louis Spirits. He went on to be named the league's Rookie of the Year after outscoring the New Jersey Nets star Julius Erving in the playoffs. So what happened? Carey's book captures Barnes' spectacular exploits, both on and off the court in college and as a pro (He showed up to a game wearing a full-length mink coat over his uniform). It will make you laugh and cry as Barnes' struggle to control his demons -- mainly drugs -- simply devoured him over time.
  • Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill; by Candice Millard -- War was Winston Churchill's ticket to greatness. If he could prove he was fearless and a leader of men, he believed he could lead Great Britain one day. The thought leads the youthful war correspondent to the front lines, and propels his name and exploits to the front pages. Churchill's enthusiasm is matched by the British Army's overconfidence. Both are often in error, but never in doubt of their success. The Boers, Africa's ragtag fighters of the highest order, foil them repeatedly. Author Millard retells Churchill's capture and eventual escape in vivid detail. Her writing is evocative; you can feel the breeze of bullets whizzing by, smell the aftermath of battle, sense the despair of a man who so suddenly isn't so sure of himself. -- Reviewed by Tom Zuppa

Nonfiction book shelf

  • The Girl in the Spider's Web: A Lisbeth Salander novel, continuing Stieg Larsson's Millennium Series; by David Lagercranz -- When author Stieg Larsson died suddently in 2004, I thought it was the end of punk-Goth-cybersleuth Lisbeth Salander (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). But Lagercranz has revived Larsson's thrilling Millennium Series (this is the fourth book) and its classic fictional characters, including crusading journalist Michael Blomkvist. Salander, though, is the star. Brooding, anti-social and unconforming in every way, the genius female hacker lives in a deep, dark world of cyberspace, where evildoers choose to hide dangerous and foreboding secrets. Unlike true life show-and-tell email exposer Edward Snowden, Salander rarely intervenes until the bad guys cross paths with her own agenda. No one has ever hacked the impregnable NSA electronic surveillance system until ... well, you know Salander isn't going to stand down when a brilliant scientist developing "intelligent" robots is murdered and his autistic son, a witness to the crime, becomes the next target. Think of Salander teaming up with Rain Man, then brace yourself for an explosive, page-turning read.
  • Home; by Harlan Coben -- It's been 10 years since two young friends, both 6-year-old boys, were kidnapped by masked intruders from a suburban New Jersey home and simply vanished without a trace. Then a clue arrives in an email. Myron Bolitar and his resourceful friend Win investigate, leading them to London's seamy underbelly. They find a teen-ager, now 16, who solves half the mystery. Or does he? Coben delivers a riveting, fast-paced read of family tension and destructive secrets.
  • Conclave; by Robert Harris -- Holy men of the Catholic church meet in Rome to elect a new pope, but evil intentions are at work in the closed off, secretive Sistine Chapel. Only one cardinal can save the Vatican. But will he? And how? Harris, the author of Fatherland, Pompei and The Ghost Writer best-sellers, blows a lot of smoke -- and it isn't white -- in this gripping novel of religious intrigue.
  • Razor Girl; by Carl Hiaasen -- The novel opens with a true-story crime escapade ripped right from South Florida newspapers: a sexy women shaving her lower extremities while driving on the highway rear-ends another motorist, who pulls over to the side of the road. The woman's accomplice shows up and kidnaps the accident victim for ransom. It launches another whacky, classic Hiaasen romp of unique characters, incredible schemes and, eventually, feel-good justice for a decent guy who could use a good break.