2014 Phinney Books Gift Guide: True Stories

Debt dealers, true Victorians, modernist Turks, crusading lawyers, wonder women, trapped miners, and Arctic adventurers are among our favorite true stores of 2014.

Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II by Vicki Constantine Croke

The subtitle may be misleading—the war is the subject only of the last section in the life story of "Elephant Bill" Williams—but the reviews were glowing: "Croke paints a rich and intimate portrait of a fascinating man living in extraordinary circumstances, and the even more extraordinary people—and elephants—surrounding him." —Sara Gruen, New York Times

Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies by Lawrence Goldstone

The Wright brothers might have one war battle for immortality, but their rival Glenn Curtiss won the war for the skies. "The decades-long rivalry between Curtiss and the Wrights is the centerpiece of Lawrence Goldstone's captivating and wonderfully presented 'Birdmen.' —Patrick Cooke, Wall Street Journal

How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman

British writer Ruth Goodman—well-known to British audience for her TV specials—researched the Victorians by attempting to live like them herself. "This delightful book … makes even the backbreaking labor of doing laundry and the evolution of rugby rules all quite compelling." —Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett, Seattle Times

Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld by Jake Halpern

Halpern unearths the shady economy that trades in our consumer-debt-ridden lives and profiles the roguish operators who buy and sell "paper," looking to make millions by buying debt at pennies on the dollar. "The book teems with eccentric characters and scenes that made my skin crawl. Where there could have been bland data and financial reports, Halpern's managed to make a buddy comedy and a horror story joined at the hip." —Colin Dwyer, NPR

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs

Hobbs reports on the remarkable, divided life of his college roommate, a brilliant student who earned his way into Yale from the Newark ghetto but never left the life of the streets behind. "As a page turner alone, the story wins. It doesn't need further selling, and I won't spoil it. What is worth adding is that the book will be highly provocative, even irritating, to those who answer the problems of the American underclass with prefab ideological theories and solutions." —Anand Giridharadas, New York Times

Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul by Charles King

King tells the story of Istanbul's startling transformations in the early 20th century through the lens of a sometimes luxurious, sometimes seedy hotel that embodied the city's role as a crossroads between east and west. "In this vivid narrative's many tangled threads—war and occupation, displacement, espionage, radical social reform, the nationalists' persecution of the city's minorities, the women's movement, the remarkable blossoming of the city's jazz age—it's the human detail that always impresses." —Jeremy Seal, The Telegraph

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

A fascinating history, both sensational and substantial, of the equally incredible private and public lives of William Marston, the creator of the first female superhero superstar. "It took a super-sleuth to uncover the mysteries of this intricate history, hidden from view for more than half a century. With acrobatic research prowess, muscular narrative chops and disarming flashes of humor, Lepore rises to the challenge." —Audrey Bilger, SFGate.com

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre

The talented historian of World War II espionage (in Operation Mincemeat, Double Cross, and Agent Zigzag) moves to the Cold War to tell the story of slippery Soviet spy Kim Philby as a revealing episode of British class consciousness. "An unputdownable postwar thriller whose every incredible detail is fact not fiction." —Robert McCrum, The Guardian

The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein

In volume three in his four-book history of the rise of modern conservatism, "which marvels at how Reagan captured the heart, if not the nomination, of the GOP in 1973-76, Perlstein dives into the archives like a Hunter S. Thompson who prefers microfiche to mescaline to give us the manic, anxious mood of the era." —Tom

Indonesia Etc. by Elizabeth Pisani

A travelogue that doubles as a modern history of the least-known of the world's most populous nations. "An exuberant and wise travel book…. Pisani is an exceptionally resourceful observer of the ongoing battle to define Indonesia." —Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides

The author of Ghost Soldiers and Blood and Thunder uncovers the story of a little-known, naively disastrous attempt to reach the North Pole by ship in 1879. "A pulse-racing epic of endurance set against an exceedingly bizarre Arctic backdrop." —Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Legal advocate Bryan Stevenson's memoir of his tireless battles against the injustices of a legal system stacked against the poor, and of one particular case of a man sentenced to death for a preposterous murder conviction in Harper Lee's own home town. "A powerful story of hard-fought success against ongoing injustice that earns the comparisons to To Kill a Mockingbird and Tracy Kidder's biography of Paul Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains." —Tom

Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free by Héctor Tobar

Four years after the miraculous survival of 33 trapped miners turned the world's eyes to Chile, Tobar recounts their story using their own testimony. "Tobar splits his story into three sections, each claustrophobic and psychologically piercing in its own way: adventure, prison, post-crisis. That he has so vividly reconstructed a life-threatening event remembered differently by 33 minds is a mountainous feat of reportage." —Noah Gallagher Shannon, Washington Post

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David by Lawrence Wright

Wright, chronicler of al-Qaeda and Scientology, brings his calmly intrepid reporting to the historic Middle East breakthrough at Camp David. "With his plain-spoken, almost naive style and his incisive sketches of the men and women who met for two tense weeks in the Maryland woods in 1979, Wright makes clear how unlikely that diplomatic success was and how much it depended on the battle-scarred, idiosyncratic personalities who came to a flawed but durable agreement." —Tom