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Books We Love: Recommended reading for nonfiction

DAVID GURA, HOST:

What would you like to read? A mystery, a graphic novel, short stories? NPR's Books We Love has suggestions aplenty for books that came out during the first half of the year. You want nonfiction? Well, three of our staff have ideas for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Hi. It's Debbie Elliott. I cover the American South for NPR, and I'm recommending Alabama journalist Ben Raines' book "The Last Slave Ship." It's the story of the Clotilda, the ship that a wealthy plantation owner used to smuggle the last enslaved Africans to America. Now, this was 50 years after the Atlantic slave trade was abolished. So he burned the ship and sunk it in the Mobile River to hide evidence of the crime.

This is a personal story for Raines. He found the sunken ship three years ago, a discovery that has set off a whole new quest for racial reconciliation for the descendants of Clotilda survivors. After emancipation, they founded their own community near Mobile called Africatown. We learn both about the Clotilda families and Africatown and the slave trafficker's family.

I love how the book shines a light on a dark legacy, but it also celebrates the resiliency and resolve of the Clotilda survivors and their descendants.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: Hey, everyone. I'm Darian Woods. I'm an economics reporter at NPR's podcast The Indicator from Planet Money. And my book recommendation is "The Power Law" by Sebastian Mallaby.

So in this book, the venture capitalists are the main characters here. So whether it's these venture capitalists scrambling to court Mark Zuckerberg when he's just wearing pajamas or going through one venture capitalist's efforts to oust out the Uber founder, these stories are almost Shakespearean in how they depict ambition and jealousy and ego. So that's why it's my recommendation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Bob Mondello here. I usually review movies for All Things Considered. But deep down inside, I'm a musical theater nut.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OL' MAN RIVER")

PAUL ROBESON: (Singing) Ol' man river, that ol' man river.

MONDELLO: When I got wind of a book called "The Letters Of Oscar Hammerstein," I couldn't resist. It's crammed with insider details on "Oklahoma!," "South Pacific," "Show Boat," "The Sound Of Music." And it showcases not just the creative Hammerstein but Hammerstein the businessman, the mentor and occasionally the corrector - as when a magazine asked permission to quote the lyrics of "Ol' Man River." Hammerstein's response, read to an audience at the Library of Congress by actor Harry Winter...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRY WINTER: (Reading) You may tell the Nash Airflyte magazine that it is OK to use the words fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly in the context they submitted. You may also inform them that these words are not from "Ol' Man River."

(LAUGHTER)

WINTER: (Reading) They are from a song called "Can't Help Lovin' That Man." In "Ol' Man River," there is nothing about either swimming or flying.

(LAUGHTER)

WINTER: (Reading) It is mostly rolling.

(LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: Always witty, sometimes politically pointed, wonderfully humane - Hammerstein's letters are a window on the mind of a guy who altered the course of musical theater not once but twice, and mentored Stephen Sondheim into the bargain. "A Few Of My Favorite Things" - this is a whole book's worth.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "MY FAVORITE THINGS")

GURA: You heard about three new books - "The Letters Of Oscar Hammerstein," "The Power Law" and "The Last Slave Ship." And for more reading suggestions, you can check out our Books We Love List at npr.org/bestbooks.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "MY FAVORITE THINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
Darian Woods is a reporter and producer for The Indicator from Planet Money. He blends economics, journalism, and an ear for audio to tell stories that explain the global economy. He's reported on the time the world got together and solved a climate crisis, vaccine intellectual property explained through cake baking, and how Kit Kat bars reveal hidden economic forces.
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.