Villains and monsters are so much more frightening in the world of non-fiction. While we can reassure ourselves that the horrors of fiction aren’t real and sleep with the lights on, the comfort in non-fiction lies in the books themselves. By shining a light on the darkest hearts we lessen their hold upon us. At the same time, heroes are burnished in the spotlight’s glow, reminding us that good can ultimately prevail.

This week we have five Smart Reads about the heroes, villains and monsters who have walked among us:

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem (Random House, October 27, 2015)

9780679456209a+“Rarely do women have the opportunity to travel as Steinem has done—living a life full of radical adventure. Everywhere she goes, she carries with her the vitality of democracy, of freedom for women and men, and her profound love of justice.” —Bell Hooks, author and social activist

“A personal, beautiful look at the deceptively radical act of travel and how it formed one of our most important voices for human rights . . . By delving deeper into her own thrilling story, Steinem shows us that we all have a fighter inside us.” —Lena Dunham, writer and actor

“Her inviting prose is easy and enjoyable to read, even when the subject matter veers towards the painful.” Kirkus, starred review

At age 81, Gloria Steinem is still traveling and she has a simple reason why: traveling takes us “out of our heads and into our hearts.” From an itinerant childhood this icon of the feminist movement has spent her life devoted to travel, activism and leadership. Her memoir is an intimate look at how travel helped her grow as an individual and as a leader of a movement. Her rich writing reveals what it means to connect deeply with people by living an open and observant life. Essential reading for anyone interested in what it takes to become the leader of a movement that has changed the world.

George Washington Carver: A Life by Christina Vella (Louisiana State University Press, September 14, 2016)

51kmb-aXZBL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_A-emblem”Vella presents a portrait of a sensitive man who rose above the racial restrictions of the time. . . . An extraordinary look at the life of a brilliant man.” Booklist, starred review

”The challenges of writing the life of this enigmatic genius—black, bisexual, protean—are perennial and well-known. In this timely book Christina Vella’s solutions are resourceful—and in crucial chapters—ingenious. She writes with brio and wit, never losing the thread of a narrative that is urgent, dramatic, and vital American history.” Daniel Mark Epstein, author of The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage

Most Americans think of peanut butter when they think of George Washington Carver, but this brilliant botanist was a Renaissance man gifted in art, music, farming, teaching, agriculture and scientific research. A tireless innovator who came up with dozens of products based on locally grown crops, he may have saved the South with his technique of alternating cotton crops with peanuts and sweet potatoes. Born into slavery and bisexual in a time and place with little tolerance, he went on to earn a master’s degree and became one of the most well-known and respected African-American leaders of his time. Vella’s insightful account is a fascinating look at a man who rose above Jim Crow to help sustain a nation.

Berlusconi: The Epic Story of the Billionaire Who Took Over Italy by Alan Friedman (Hachette Books, October 20, 2015)

51Wg90ylpiL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_B-emblem“An entertaining and insightful portrait of the billionaire playboy politician who dominated Italian politics for two decades. Alan Friedman has once again written a timely and controversial book.” —Lionel Barber, Financial Times

Wildly controversial and adored and hated in almost equal measure, Silvio Berlusconi has dominated the spotlight ever since becoming Italy’s prime minister. Author Alan Friedman interviewed Berlusconi to get his rags-to-riches story complete with anecdotes about some of the world’s most powerful people. It’s an insider’s biography that unapologetically explores Berlusconi’s demons, relationships, accomplishments and scandals. Juicy reading.


He Killed Them All
: Robert Durst and My Quest for Justice
by Jeanine Pirro (Gallery Books, November 3, 2016)

he-killed-them-all-9781501125003_lgc+“Ms. Pirro’s critics fear that her memoir could aid Mr. Durst’s defense and provide a major headache for prosecutors in Los Angeles, where Mr. Durst is accused of murdering a onetime confidante to prevent her from disclosing what she knew about how Mrs. Durst vanished in 1982.” —Charles V. Bagli, New York Times

Sometimes the story behind the story is as fascinating as the book itself. Former prosecutor Jeanine Pirro penned this account of her 15-year investigation of millionaire real estate heir Robert Durst after the disappearance of his wife, Kathleen. Durst was a suspect in the death of a close friend and had been tried and acquitted of the murder of a neighbor. Pirro, who is now starring in Justice with Judge Jeanine on FOX News, has been accused of compromising the Durst’s upcoming trial in Los Angeles, hogging the spotlight and using her book to hit back at those who have been critical of her. You owe it to yourself to read this tautly paced page turner and decide for yourself.


Hunting Season: James Foley, ISIS, and the Kidnapping Campaign That Started a War by James Harkin (Hachette Books, November 10, 2015)

41q-yVCNI5L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_B-emblem“Excellent and timely…deft, intriguing and entertaining.” —Time Out London

“[Harkin] displays keen intelligence, and wears lightly a wide range of expertise…a good read.” —Financial Times

“Elegant…Harkin makes a convincing case.” —The Independent (UK)

The world was seized by horror when American journalist James Foley’s execution by the jihadist rebel group known as ISIS showed up on YouTube. Award-winning journalist James Harkin uncovered the story behind Foley’s beheading, and the stories of his fellow hostages, in a series of harrowing reports in the pages of Vanity Fair. From his interviews with four freed hostages, the security team that negotiated their release and a young jihadist who shared a cell with Foley, Harkin has riveted our attention with an account of unspeakable terror and a world that didn’t see it coming until it was too late. Chilling insight into the perpetrators behind the attacks in Paris.