William Finnegan is a staff writer at The New Yorker. His most recent book, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, won the Pulitzer Prize for autobiography. (August 2018)

IN THE REVIEW

California Burning

A firefighter taking a break from battling the King Fire, Fresh Pond, California, September 2014

Wildfire: On the Front Lines with Station 8

by Heather Hansen

Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future

by Edward Struzik
On the northwestern edge of Los Angeles, where I grew up, the wildfires came in late summer. We lived in a new subdivision, and behind our house were the hills, golden and parched. We would hose down the wood-shingled roof as fire crews bivouacked in our street. Our neighborhood never burned, but others did. We were all living in the “wildland-urban interface,” as it is now called. More subdivisions were built, farther out, and for my family the wildfire threat receded. Tens of millions of Americans live in that fire-prone interface today—the number keeps growing—and the wildfire threat has become, for a number of political and environmental reasons, immensely more serious.

Mr. Nick Baker Teaches Today—Listen

Nicholson Baker, South Berwick, Maine, February 2008

Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids

by Nicholson Baker
Nicholson Baker’s Substitute reads like a lightly curated, benign surveillance tape, somehow capturing all the downtime, chaos, non sequiturs, and lost-in-the-infosphere weirdness of a modern American schoolroom.

Double-Cross in the Congo

The Mission Song

by John le Carré
It must be odd to have a whole category of inscrutable world events assigned exclusively to your authorship. When the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko died in London recently, poisoned by a rare radioactive substance that then turned up in planes, hotels, offices, and an apartment in Germany, as well …

The Liberator

Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela

He was born in 1918 in the Transkei, a beautiful, deeply impoverished, green-hilled region on the Indian Ocean coast which is the home of the Xhosaspeaking people. Mandela’s father, a local chief, was a member of the royal house of the Thembu tribe, whose kings he served as a counselor. Although illiterate, he was a celebrated public speaker: his son, Rolihlahla, who only got the name Nelson from a teacher on his first day at school (Rolihlahla is Xhosa, we are told, for “trouble-maker”), so admired his father, who had a tuft of white hair above his forehead, that he used to rub ashes into his own hair to get the same effect.

The Election Mandela Lost

Although the victory of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress in the historic South African elections in April was widely expected, the ANC actually lost badly to F. W. de Klerk’s National Party in the Western Cape—a major province that includes Cape Town, the country’s second-biggest city and the …