Summer Non-Fiction

A fly-on-the-wall history of oil, the dramatic Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor marriage, and other great nonfiction that you must read this summer. Selected by Janice Kaplan.

Maksim Shmeljov

From oil companies’ quests for riches to Richard Burton’s need for love, many of this summer’s nonfiction books bring new insight to familiar topics. The following books are thoroughly engaging—and will give you something other than hot dogs to discuss at the next weekend barbecue. (My picks for summer fiction are here.)

Recent events in the Gulf of Mexico give a sinister perspective to Tom Bower’s Oil: Money, Politics, and Power in the 21st Century. Big Oil executives are shown negotiating with Mideast potentates and Russian oligarchs as they try frantically to secure profits. In one story that now takes on new meaning, BP proves powerful at wheeling and dealing, but less successful with safety: an oil well explodes in 2002, a leaking Alaska pipeline causes damage to the North Slope, and a refinery fire that kills 15 and injures 170 in 2005 is described as “America’s worst industrial accident in a generation.” Repercussions were minimal because as oil companies took risks, politicians—both in Alaska and Washington—went along. At one point, BP execs had to make a decision on drilling four miles below the Gulf of Mexico, knowing that a $100 million gamble could pay back $50 billion. The fear was finding a dry well: “For oil explorers, the license to make mistakes was limited. The humiliation of failure was permanent.” As it turned out, hitting the gusher was even worse.

In Bonobo Handshake by Vanessa Woods, Congo’s tyrannical politics are a backdrop for the author’s own love story. After a brief fling with an American scientist at a chimp sanctuary in Uganda, she follows him to the jungles of war-torn Congo, where he is studying bonobos. Along with chimps, bonobos are our closest relatives, sharing 98.7 percent of our DNA. In the midst of the treacherous country, she falls in love with both the endangered apes and those trying to protect them—as well as the scientist whom she marries. Along the way, she describes chimps as violent and often vicious, while bonobos are peaceful and solve problems with sex. Whom would you rather have as a relative?

Reading about Liz and Dick makes you wonder how two people with so much could be so miserable. Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger focuses on the tumultuous, alcohol- and sex-fueled years the stars had together. Burton married twice after they split, yet the couple remained connected until he died at age 58. In revealing previously unpublished love letters from Burton (given to them by Taylor), the authors cast him as a tragic hero—a Welshman legendary for his “golden-throated voice, his bonhomie, his love of poetry and language and Shakespeare and liquor. His vibrant sexuality could heat up a room.” But riddled by guilt and insecurities, Burton never saw himself in such glowing terms. The authors insist Liz was always the bigger star, though here she also seems more pathetic—an old-fashioned courtesan who needed expensive gifts to shore her up. Even the famous 69-carat Cartier diamond, renamed the Taylor-Burton Diamond, couldn’t glitter brightly enough to make her happy.

When Henry Aaron swung a bat in 1974 and broke Babe Ruth’s home-run record, the game stopped as Vice President Gerald Ford congratulated him. But many, including the star himself, had mixed emotions. The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron by Howard Bryant describes how racism shadowed Aaron’s entire life and led to his “inability to enjoy his accomplishments.” The impoverished kid from Mobile grew up to become an American icon to some—and a target of hate to others. Only when steroid-tainted Barry Bonds grabbed the title of home-run king in 2007 did some fans begin to appreciate Aaron. This insightful, well-researched book presents Henry Aaron as a complicated man coping with difficult times. You don’t have to be a baseball fiend to find it fascinating.

You probably didn’t wake up this morning thinking, “Hmm... I wonder how the Hoover Dam got built?” But Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century by Michael Hiltzik pulls you into a story of federal power, political battles, and the need for both water and jobs that led to the great feat of engineering. The Hoover Dam, along with similar projects, forever changed the West. But the Pulitzer Prize-winning author points out that while we can “bend a river to our will” and try to dominate nature, perhaps a better idea is “to learn how to live in harmony with the river.”

View our Gallery of the 12 Best Summer Fiction Books

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Janice Kaplan is a television producer and former editor in chief of Parade magazine. She is the author and co-author of 10 novels, including the bestselling Mine Are Spectacular and The Botox Diaries; her most recent is the mystery A Job to Kill For.