Erik Larson is the author of Isaacs Storm and The Devil in the White City, two best-selling works of historical nonfiction. His work has also appeared in The New Yorker, Time, and The Atlantic Monthly.
The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman (Vintage, $15). I consider Tuchmans account of the origins of World War I to be one of the finest nonfiction books ever written, the model for how to tell history as story. I love the way she creates suspense in describing those awful moments before the war when a simple act of courage or humility might have prevented the whole grim affair.
Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (Vintage, $12). Roseanna, about the murder of a young American woman in Sweden, is the best of an excellent series of detective novels written by these Swedish authors in the 1960s and 70s. Most striking is the power of the authors prose, as spare and full of melancholy as the Swedish landscape in winter.
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammet (Vintage, $11). I adore this book, on all levels, and often pick it from my shelf just to snack on Sam Spades monologue when he explains to Hammets engagingly corrupt heroine why he must turn her over to the police. Its the Casablanca of detective stories, and Hammet tells it in a clean, cool style devoid of adverbs, compound adjectives, and other scaly matter.
Dark Star by Alan Furst (Random House, $13). If Tolstoy had written about the life and travels in 1937 of a Polish agent in the Soviet secret police, Dark Star might have been the result.
Independence Day by Richard Ford (Vintage, $14). Every July 4th I read all or part of this book for the way Ford captures the hot, sad stillness of a suburban summer. Its magical how, without a single weepy note, Ford creates an appealing mixture of sorrow and resignation in his divorced, ex-sportswriter hero.