The kids are back in school—don't let them monopolize the smart dinner-table talk. Close the knowledge gap with these top nonfiction titles:

by Walter Isaacson

This immense, intriguing biography of the former Secretary of State shrewdly analyzes the forces that shaped the man and the man who forcefully shaped American foreign policy in the late '60s and early '70s. It follows Kissinger's impressive ascent, from his traumatic boyhood growing up Jewish in Nazi Germany through his teaching days at Harvard to his years in government and, finally, to his current career as a high-priced, top secret troubleshooter for big business.

Although written with Kissinger's cooperation—he gave the author more than two dozen interviews as well as access to private papers—the book is unauthorized. Isaacson, an assistant managing editor of TIME, paints a complex portrait of a brilliant, dedicated diplomat who, as a result of his difficult childhood, was secretive, manipulative and obsequious. "Kissinger's need to impress prominent people," Isaacson observes wryly, "was only surpassed by his ability to do so."

No stone is left unturned in Kissinger's intricate political life, from his infighting with Alexander Haig to his often tense relationship with President Nixon (Isaacson says Nixon suggested that Kissinger see a psychiatrist).

Kissinger's private life remains shadowy, however. Isaacson dutifully reels off the unlikely sex symbol's famous dates (including Jill St. John, Shirley MacLaine, Candice Bergen and Diane Sawyer) but reveals little about Kissinger's two marriages or his relationships with his two now adult children. No matter. Even without intimate details, the man who coined the phrase "Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac" comes through loud and clear. (Simon & Schuster. $30)

Edited by Wilbert Rideau and Ron Wikberg

These two dozen essays about living behind bars are prison writing at its best, honest and unsentimental with each evoking a different dimension of the inmate experience. Written by prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the articles all originally appeared in the Angolite, the prison's hard-hitting bimonthly newsmagazine.

Most of the essays were penned by either Rideau, now in his 32nd year of a life sentence on a murder rap, or Wikberg, who was recently paroled after serving 23 years, also for murder. Rideau's "Dying in Prison" explores the loneliness and fear that haunt prisoners who are doomed to perish among strangers. "There is no warmth, beauty, or meaning, no last pleasures, touches, joys, words," he writes. "You suffer alone and you die alone, feeding the fear and misery of those who must watch you die." Wikberg's "The Horror Show" forcefully counters the popular notion that those who die by electrocution experience little actual pain. The evidence of massive burning presented here—grisly pictures included—helped persuade Louisiana legislators to abandon the electric chair in 1991 in favor of lethal injection for death penalty cases. Most jolting is Rideau's "The Sexual Jungle," a graphic description of the homosexual culture spawned by prison life.

Rideau says the purpose of publishing the book is to "foster a better understanding among the public" about how the criminal justice system works. If this powerful book gets the readership it deserves, he and Wikberg will succeed. (Times Books, $15)

by Noel Mostert

No, this fascinating 1,300-page history is not the story of the American West. It is the blood-soaked saga of another frontier: South Africa. The author, a South African himself, carefully traces the white man's exploration and exploitation of the region, from the first voyage of Portuguese sailors around the Cape of Good Hope in 1497 to the area's final domination by British colonists in the 1880s. Against this backdrop, he follows the sad fate of the Xhosa (pronounced KOH-suh), one of South Africa's most important and sophisticated black nations. Known for their hospitality, preference for peace and strictly enforced judicial system, the Xhosa were nonetheless forced to fight to preserve their own way of life in a series of nine bloody wars. Then, in the late 1800s, the desperate Xhosa dealt themselves the final blow. They heeded prophecies that instructed them to destroy their cattle and food supply so that their ancestors would rise up from the sea and vanquish the white man. The result: Tens of thousands of Xhosa starved to death.

Mostert, a consummate historian and strong storyteller, does a masterful job of interpreting this multifaceted material. Skillfully blending maritime history and global politics with touching portraits of chiefs, politicians and missionaries, he creates an eminently readable book that helps explain the deepest origins of apartheid. At times, the sheer volume of information (and 32 pages of photos and five maps) is overwhelming but, for all its hardships, Frontiers is definitely a journey worth making. (Knopf, $35)

by Beverly Lowry

The front page of the March 28, 1986, Houston Chronicle carried a photograph of an attractive, softly smiling young woman with this headline: ON DEATH ROW, PICKAX MURDERER FINDS A NEW LIFE. The story told how three years after the crime, the murderer, Karla Faye Tucker, had become helpful and loving. Even prosecutors who had once called her evil were making a case for changing her sentence. (Tucker was awarded a 90-day stay of execution last June 30.)

Lowry, the author of five novels, became obsessed with Tucker and felt she had to meet her, in part because she felt that there was a connection between this woman and her own son, Peter, who had been killed, at age 18, two years before by a hit-and-run driver. Both Peter and Karla had begun life as normal happy kids but ended up troubled and often in trouble.

Tucker had always admitted that on June 13, 1983, she and her boyfriend, Danny Garret, snuck into the apartment of Jerry Lynn Dean, a biker she had had differences with before, to steal motorcycle parts (Tucker was building a bike). By the time they left, Dean's head was barely attached, and his bed partner had a pickax buried in her chest. "We were very wired [on drugs and tequila], and we was looking for something to do...," Tucker explained afterwards.

Lowry, who developed a warm friendship with Tucker, details her messy childhood: Tucker was a druggie at 8 and a call girl by her teens, a profession she learned from her similarly employed mother. Today she knits, speed-walks, reads the Bible and works for an antidrug program. In writing of Tucker's reformation, Lowry speculates about how Peter would have fared had he lived.

Lowry's relationship with Tucker is complex and confused: "Was she my mother, was she Peter, was I trying to save her life, rescue her from prison, become her? Or what?" she writes. She finds few real answers. Neither will the reader. Crossed Over is clearly a book Lowry needed to write and, while it is often chilling and thought provoking, it remains more a personal journey than a trip that will necessarily interest others. (Knopf, $22)

by Jonah Blank

Few of us will climb the emerald mountains of Kerala. Or chat with the Maharajah of Jaipur. Or even watch the setting sun ignite the Taj Mahal. That is, unless you join Blank, a young American freelance journalist and Asiaphile, on his very special passage through India.

In Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God, Blank follows the footsteps of Rama, hero of the beloved ancient Hindu epic The Ramayana. Starting at the man-god's birthplace in a dusty northern village, the trail winds clear across this nation cobbled together from dozens of diverse slates. It ends in the lush jungles of Lanka, where legend has it that Rama and his army of divine monkeys waged a terrible final battle against Ravana, the demon-king. Along the way, Blank rubs shoulders with every stratum of Indian society: "BMW Brahmins" and Calcutta lepers, teen guerrillas wielding AK-47s and Gandhi-like swamis, and the omnipresent, exasperating bureaucracy.

Blank uses Rama's tale, excerpts of which introduce each chapter, and its themes (fate, duty, family and faith) as a framework for perceptively examining contemporary India. Delving beneath the colorful exotica, he finds the newest incarnation of this enduring enigma, a country "starting to trade stagnation and peace of mind for opportunity and frustration." (Houghton Mifflin, $22.95)

  • Contributors:
  • Jill Rachlin,
  • Jill Smolowe,
  • Carol Peace,
  • Pam Lambert.