Thursday, December 13, 2007

Best Books of 2007: Non-Fiction

America, 1908: The Dawn of Flight, the Race to the Pole, the Invention of the Model T and the Making of a Modern Nation by Jim Rasenberger (Scribner) 320 pages
We think of our own times as being the fastest-paced, most astonishing in American history. But people living in 1908, the subject of ex-Vanity Fair editor Rasenberger’s delightful new book, must have felt the same. Packed into that single 12-month period were Henry Ford’s introduction of the Model T; a thrilling 20,000-mile car race from New York to Paris; the supposed deaths of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Bolivia; President Theodore Roosevelt’s dispatching of the Great White Fleet on a round-the-world display of U.S. military potency; the second insanity trial of wealthy Pittsburgh scion Harry K. Thaw for the slaying of renowned architect Stanford White; explorer Robert Peary’s final assault on the North Pole; the “Tunguska event,” a massive explosion -- likely caused by a descending comet -- that felled some 80 million trees; and the very first passenger death in an airplane, flown by Orville Wright. By comparison, today’s redundant White House scandals, continuing disaster in Iraq, and tawdry doings among the rich young starlet set hardly seem to measure up. Rasenberger’s many-layered narrative balances out the optimism of 1908 and the sense of a country taking center stage, against the adversities -- lynchings in the South, terrorist explosions in Manhattan -- that lurked just beneath America’s idealized vision of itself. -- J. Kingston Pierce

A Memoir of Friendship, The Letters between Carol Shields and Blanche Howard by Blanche & Allison Howard (Viking Canada)
This mother and daughter team have edited a mountain of correspondence between two literary women who became fast friends. Beginning in 1971, and ending with Shields’ death in 2003, the correspondence begins tentatively and superficially but soon becomes more intimate and heartfelt as the women get to know one another better. Evolving from hand-written letters sent by snail mail to word processing and on to e-mail, the writing chronicles far more than just the relationship between two writers. Because of the nature of the women, their communication is full of juicy details about publishing, professional associations, critics, writers, the latest hot books and authors, travel and even politics. Even readers who know nothing about the Canadian literary scene will enjoy the chronicling of a friendship, and the thoughts and concerns of brilliant and creative woman as they discuss family, children, mutual friends, grandchildren, husband, work, travel and the challenge of balancing them all. Looming over it all, of course, is the presence of Carol Shields herself. A great literary treasure, she died all too soon. -- Cherie Thiessen

… and His Lovely Wife by Connie Schultz (Random House) 304 pages
Connie Schultz and Sherrod Brown, middle-aged and divorced with two children each, married in 2004. A year later, Brown, the Democratic Congressman from Ohio, decided to give up his Congressional seat to run against Mike DeWine, a two-term Republican Senator, in a state where no Democrat had won office for 12 years. In … and his Lovely Wife, Schultz, a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer/Creators Syndicate and winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, writes candidly about the challenges facing her as an outspoken journalist, feminist and the wife of a political candidate: her newspaper’s decision not to endorse Brown; friendly co-workers who suddenly became adversaries and the growing consensus that a leave-of-absence from her job was in order; politicians’ wives who “saw themselves … through the lens of their husbands’ lives” instead of as the talented individuals she knew them to be (“Honey, my husband is my career,” a senator’s wife told her); and the unexpected death of her adored father who had become an important part of the campaign. -- Mary Ward Menke

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, Steven L. Hopp, and Camille Kingsolver (HarperCollins) 370 pages
Kingsolver’s chronicle of her family’s year spent off the petroleum grid come to us in a year of too many food books, books that were often trite, silly, or hopelessly alarmist. Kingsolver’s is none of these, managing instead to be informative, engaging and often highly amusing. Life on the Kingsolver-Hopp Appalachia farm -- youngest daughter Lily’s chickens, the complexities of raising turkeys who mate naturally, how to eat locally during the freezing months, the wondrous mushroom patch -- is never dull. Steven Hopp’s informative sidebars will frighten and anger you, as will descriptions of the appalling living conditions battery chickens and agribusiness cattle endure. But Camille’s family anecdotes and recipes soften the bad news while offering simple solutions. You gotta love a girl who, in an effort to eradicate the zucchini glut, sneaks the veggie into her little sister’s chocolate chip cookies. (All without being married to a famous comedian ... ahem.) As for Lily, who was too young to sign the book contract, well, look out. This enterprising young lady, after calling “Oh, look, Mama! The tranquils are blooming!” embarks on her chicken and egg business with amazing acumen. After all, if she can earn her half (approximately $500), well, Mama will put up the rest of the money for a horse. I’m certain by now an equine has joined the Kingsolver-Hopp household. -- Diane Leach

The Archimedes Codex: How A Medieval Prayer Book is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity’s Greatest Scientist by Reviel Netz and William Noel (DaCapo) 313 pages
Who would pay 2.2 million dollars for a book that not only was literally falling apart at the seams and mouldy but was also nearly illegible? Well, not so much illegible as actually erased and that written over by someone else: A prayer book written over 800 years ago using recycled vellum (sheepskin) which originally contained a major work by history’s most famous mathematical genius, Archimedes of Syracuse. In ancient times as cumbersome scrolls gave way to the new technology of neatly stacking pages between hard covers -- and before it was called a book -- it was known as a codex. A book or codex which has been written over is called a palimpsest. With The Archimedes Codex not only do we get an almost Indiana Jones type story detailing the amazing adventures the book has been through, we also get to see Archimedes’ work come to life.
The Archimedes Codex is a most fascinating tale about the history of a book. Taking the reader back 1800 years to the life and work of Archimedes and through the actual destruction of his work all the way through to the work's resurrection by a team of passionate and talented individuals who never gave up the hope that the brilliant mathematician’s work would be seen by modern eyes. -- David Middleton

Classics for Pleasure by Michael Dirda (Harcourt) 352 pages
In Classics for Pleasure Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic, Michael Dirda, gives us breezy and elegant introductions to some of the most important literature and authors from history. Publishers Weekly described the book as casually brilliant and the description fits perfectly. Classics for Pleasure is just what the title promises: pleasurable. It’s like sitting down with a good but incredibly erudite and well read friend and talking about work by Edward Gorey and Bram Stoker and Isak Dinesen and Willa Cather and Dashiell Hammett and Eudora Welty and... well, you get the idea: close to 90 of the most important and entertaining literary works of all time. “What, precisely,” Dirda asks in the introduction, “is gained by skipping right by so many of the world’s established masterpieces? A great deal, I think.” A rich and enjoyable read I’ve found myself coming back to again and again. -- Linda L. Richards

The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula by Eric Nuzum (St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books) 242 pages
From the very first line of the first chapter of The Dead Travel Fast, pop culture commentator Eric Nuzum tells us what kind of ride this is going to be: “Watching my own blood drip down the bathroom mirror, there’s only one thought running through my head: In a lifetime of questionable decision making, this is not one of my finer moments.” This is not your usual coffeetable-style peek at something offbeat. Nuzum immerses himself in this topic, walking the walk so completely, sometimes you just want to shut your eyes. Nuzum heads out on the trail of the vampire myth and comes up with some surprises. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a vampire hunting journey if at some point he didn’t head for Transylvania. He does this with a group of 25 “vampire enthusiasts on a Dracula-themed tour.” The tour even boasts a celebrity host: Butch Patrick from The Munsters. The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula is often funny, sometimes frightening and occasionally even sweet. Nuzum has the knack for finding both humor and humanity in the most unlikely places. Nuzum could develop into the Paul Theroux or the Bill Bryson of his era. Though he is an accomplished writer and a Murrow Award-winning reporter, The Dead Travel Fast is only Eric Nuzum’s second book (after 2001’s Parental Advisory: Music Censorship in America). But you get to understand very quickly that this is a writer of merit. -- Lincoln Cho

Don’t Sleep with a Bubba: Unless Your Eggs are in Wheelchairs by Susan Reinhardt (Kensington) 256 pages
Susan Reinhardt is the South’s answer to Erma Bombeck. Her first book, Not Tonight Honey: Wait Til I’m a Size Six, was a laugh-out-loud funny introduction to her off-kilter, wildly inappropriate take on life for those of us not fortunate enough to have access to her syndicated column. Don’t Sleep with a Bubba is just as funny, although Reinhardt’s experiences with alcoholism and depression are interspersed throughout, revealing vulnerabilities not uncommon among the world’s greatest humorists. -- Mary Ward Menke

The End of the World as We Know It by Robert Goolrick (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill) 224 pages
Disclosure: I once worked for Robert Goolrick. It was my first job in New York; I was an advertising copywriter, and Robbie was my creative director. As two Southern boys, we used to sit around together and tell stories. I was always amazed at the yarns he spun, and secretly wished he would sit down and put fingers to keys. Well, he finally did it and, while this book isn't quite the laugh riot I was hoping for, it’s one of the most affecting and riveting books of the year (and I’d say that even if I hadn’t worked with the author). Rather than a book of living room tales about his eccentric family, this memoir of Goolrick’s boyhood is searing in its honesty and tragic in its utter reality. A Southern childhood gone mad, written in clear, precise, just barely emotional language that allows the images Goolrick paints to pop off the page. The words perfectly depict the man’s horrifying truth. One wonders how the hell he got through it. -- Tony Buchsbaum

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens (Twelve Books) 307 pages
Even when he’s being contrarian (OK: that’s a lot of the time) this is a writer of great style and deep thought. If you disagreed with his positions, you might occasionally find him annoying. A lot of people do. Not to mention offensive. He probably even prides himself on that. But I love his style: alternately self-deprecating and arms akimbo. He shoots from the hip, but with uncanny wit and grace. In God Is Not Great, Hitchens seems intent on pissing off as many people as possible. And, despite having been shortlisted for the National Book Award, he does. Critics have alternately called the book a masterwork and absurd, not to mention a lot of stuff in between. The reason I’ve not offered up a full-length review is that I can’t decide who is right: not really. All the same, I could read God Is Not Great all day, partly because it’s delicious to see Hitch kicking up all this stink (but is it stink for stink’s sake?) and partly because -- as always with this author -- the writing is brilliant. Love it or hate it, it’s impossible not to include Hitchens’ 17th book as one of 2007’s most noteworthy works of non-fiction. -- Linda L. Richards

The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In by Hugh Kennedy (Da Capo) 421 pages
There was a time when most of us in the West didn’t care very much about Islam. Or rather, it wasn’t that we didn’t care, exactly. More like we were fine with them doing their stuff wherever, as long as they left us to likewise do ours. No longer. Now there are many reasons -- too many for me to go into here -- for Westerners to have a good, working picture of Islamic culture and an understanding of how it came to be. For this latter, there is perhaps no better -- or more lucid -- guide than Hugh Kennedy’s The Great Arab Conquests. Kennedy is that rare and special combination: an actual authority -- an expert in his field -- with the sensibilities of a storyteller. Kennedy here brings history to glowing life and, in the process, illuminates a part of our present in rich and meaningful ways. Unforgettable. -- Aaron Blanton

Holocaust by Angela Gluck Wood (DK Children) 192 pages
One could fill libraries only with books about the Holocaust, but one should have a special place. Created in the easily accessible style of so many of DK’s books, this one contains text disguised as captions, and the little bits and bites add up to an extraordinary story of racism, bigotry, murder and loss. As clear-headed and fact-filled as the words are, though, the real treasure of this book is the illustrations. There are portraits, maps, charts, archival photos, images of Nazi-era propaganda and on and on. One could almost flip through without reading a single word and glean the whole story. The book is divided up into sections on Europe’s Jews, Nazi Rule, the Ghettos, the murders, resistance, the war’s end and the aftermath. Throughout, thankfully, in high contrast to the dark tales, are survivor’s stories taken from the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, the brainchild of Steven Spielberg that was founded after he directed Schindler’s List. The Institute has recorded nearly 52,000 testimonies, and while this book can only hint at their emotional thunder, a DVD (included) provides even more insight. To say this book is unique is quite an understatement. It is a document unlike any other I have seen, both encyclopedic in scope and somehow both devastating and hopeful in its message. While DK publishes this book for children, I felt the book was more adult than that. Holocaust is actually very grown up and graphic in places. I rather think younger children would be freaked by some of it. Hence: I’ve included it in my picks for best of non-fiction. It’s a wonderful book, but really not appropriate for some children. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Jekka’s Complete Herb Book by Jekka McVicar (Raincoast Books) 304 pages
For some time, there has been a need for a lucid, intelligent, clearly illustrated book on herbs that is neither too new-age nor too high brow. An easy-to-use reference that put all the information at your fingertips, in a simple, lovely volume. And not an old time herbal, but one that incorporates the way we live and use herbs now. Jekka’s Complete Herb Book is that single, well-planned volume. A newly revised and expanded edition of her classic herbal work of the same title, each herb gets one, two or four pages, depending on importance. For instance, lavender is an important herb with many species and uses. It gets four page. Sea Fennel is not widely known or used and is given a single page. For each herb we’re given photographic examples, information on varietals, cultivation as well as details on medicinal and culinary uses of the herb under discussion. My single quibble is with the reproduction of some of the photos. Though most are good, some are badly rasterized, as though taken at low resolution by a digital camera. Fortunately, these not-so-great photos are far outnumbered by really superior ones. In all other regards Jekka’s Complete Herb Book is a stunning production. A welcome addition to the amateur herbalist’s bookshelf. -- India Wilson

The Knowledge Book (National Geographic) 512 pages
Every few years, someone publishes a compendium of the latest knowledge required to exist in our world. This year, the friendly people at National Geographic drew the short straw. And that’s lucky for us, because The Knowledge Book is one hell of a compendium. It clocks in at about a zillion pages (okay, 512 ... but still) and contains more stuff than you can count on about a million people’s hands. Honestly, every single page is a treasure trove, laid out in concise text that’s supplemented by expertly drawn charts, photos, sketches and every other manner of illustration, as well as by Key Facts boxes, Insider Knowledge boxes and hundreds of sidebars. Each and every spread contains one general theme, and scores of themes are contained in each section, which cover things like the stars and planets, life on Earth, social issues, the arts and modern life, oceans and seas, the world of plants, materials of tomorrow, automotive engineering, old and new math, the business of business, the religions of China and Japan, knowledge and faith, psychoanalysis, baroque, classical architecture, realism and naturalism, modern music, film and health. And by the way, I’ve barely scratched the surface. If last century’s encyclopedias were text-heavy affairs that left you exhausted for all the reading you had to do, this book is just the opposite, created for our visual-oriented kids (and our visual-oriented selves) and it will leave every reader invigorated and hungry for more. Thankfully, more is what this amazing book is all about. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America by Andrew Ferguson (Atlantic Monthly Press) 288 pages
Abraham Lincoln has been dead and buried for more than 140 years, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of folks from thinking about him -- a lot. That’s the central theme of Ferguson’s new book, an exploration of Lincoln’s presence in modern American culture. It’s a marvelous addition to anyone’s reading list. Ferguson, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, was awakened to the ongoing passion about Lincoln when he read in The Washington Post of an intense protest surrounding the dedication of a Lincoln statue in Richmond, Virginia, near the Tredegar Iron Works, where Confederate cannonballs were manufactured during the “war of Northern aggression.” The statue depicted Lincoln and his young son Tad at the conclusion of their tour of Richmond, shortly after the city’s fall to Union troops in 1865. The Sons of Confederate Veterans set up a Web site and peppered local officials to try and derail the statue’s installation. There was no middle ground to be sought, no compromise to be reached. Ferguson enjoys taking potshots at turn-back-the-clock Confederates, but there are plenty of other things to catch his eye. There’s the annual convention of Abraham Lincoln impersonators, called the Association of Lincoln Presenters. They gather at Santa Claus, Indiana, to discuss such weighty subjects as how much to charge for a presentation and how to generate publicity with local newspapers. As Lincoln enthusiasts go, they’re a fairly madcap bunch. Unlike many cultural commentators who sacrifice reporting in pursuit of a good one-liner, Ferguson treats his subject with just the right ratio of humor and sobriety. That’s not to say the book isn't often laugh-out-loud funny: it is. Land of Lincoln is ultimately a slightly nutty road trip through the hearts and minds of those who still have a tendency to think about and discuss Lincoln in the barely past tense. -- Stephen Miller

Life: The Most Notorious Crimes in American History (Time Inc.) 144 pages
Featuring material culled from the pages of Life magazine and other sources, this is one coffee table book that’s hard to resist -- even for those who claim they’re not interested in true crime. Ambitious in its scope, even if it eventually settles for only “Fifty Fascinating Cases from the Files,” this is an utterly engaging romp through the history of American crime, covering everything from Abraham Lincoln’s assassination to school shootings, with forays into Lizzie Borden, Patty Hearst, the Boston Strangler, the Lindbergh kidnapping and even the recent rash of school shootings -- proof, I guess, if any were needed, that violence and our culture continue to be somehow intrinsically linked. Well-presented, generously illustrated and sporting concise but engaging overviews of each crime, this volume is almost impossible to put down once you start browsing through it; the literary equivalent of a bag of chips. Alternative theories concerning individual crimes are included, and weighed fairly, leaving the sensationalism for others to explore. The brief but informative essays in this book are plenty sensational enough. The editors are to be commended for playing it straight -- letting the facts, and the often disturbing but compelling photos, tell the story. The only real disappointment to be found is in the aftermath, when you read the final pages and close the book at last, and realize that the editors missed several interesting -- and equally notorious -- crimes. The assassination of Jesse James? University of Texas gunman Charles Whitman? Bonnie and Clyde? I can hardly wait for Volume Two. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Penguins of the World by Wayne Lynch (Firefly Books) 175 pages
In the late 1970s, Wayne Lynch left a successful career in emergency medicine to become a full-time wildlife photographer and science writer. The passion Lynch brought to his new career shows up in every corner of Penguins of the World. As the author writes in his introduction, “For the past 28 years, I have devoted my life to the study and photography of wildlife behaviour, and no group of creatures has interested me more than penguins.” If you loved any of the penguin-related films that have done so well in the last few years, not only will you enjoy Penguins of the World, but you’ll find that, in terms of stunning photography, clear presentation and a wealth of information, Lynch’s book doesn’t suffer by comparison. Lynch delves into every aspect of penguin lives and loves and shares the result with us beautifully. Penguins of the World is stunning. -- David Middleton

Random Illuminations: Conversations with Carol Shields by Eleanor Wachtel
(Goose Lane) 181 pages
One of the reasons so many of us continue to be hungry for pieces of the writer Carol Shields -- beyond, of course, the fact that, at 68, she died too soon -- was that her body of work, while impressive, was not as large as we’d like. And what exists of Shields’ writing is so wonderful that even though she died in 2003 after battling breast cancer, we still can’t bring ourselves to believe that this is all there will be: that there will no more. Ten novels. Four short story collections. Three books of poetry. Six plays. A biography and a book of criticism. Two anthologies edited. OK: it sounds like a lot, does it not? But it’s not enough. But there are bits of here out there and, as they’re published, we want to know. For instance, earlier this year, we saw the publication of A Memoir of Friendship: The Letters Between Carol Shields and Blanche Howard. And now, a similar yet somehow completely different book, Random Illuminations by the master interviewer Eleanor Wachtel, who understands our hunger for Shields and who, in her preface, says that she wants the book “to honour Carol’s memory and to celebrate how alive her voice is in today’s world.” Wachtel’s book offers up a series of conversations, interviews as well as snatches of correspondence. The resulting book gives us a portrait of a wonderful writer whose voice we would not see stilled. -- Monica Stark

Sad, Mad and Bad: Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 by Lisa Appignanesi (McArthur & Company) 531 pages
Polish-born novelist and award-winning biographer Lisa Appignanesi brings us the fascinating history of women and madness with the eye -- and heart -- of a fictionist. “The simplest way to begin,” Appignanesi writes in her introduction, “is to say that this is the story of madness, badness and sadness and the ways in which we have understood them over the last two hundred years.” And this thought, also from the introduction, really sets up both the tone and the direction of Sad, Mad and Bad: “I have long been aware of the shallowness of sanity. Most of us are, in one way or another. Madness, certainly a leap of the irrational, is ever close.” And more. At times her descriptions read like some weird and touching poetry. But it isn’t just the poetic end of madness Appignanesi approaches, but how we have understood -- or more to the point misunderstood -- sanity and what it is made of and what our culture has done both with it and about it. At times, Appignanesi looks at the various mental diseases through the lens of some of the best known sufferers. This device brings the author’s points home neatly when, for instance, we see Virginia Woolfe struggling with what we now know was manic depression while Zelda Fitzgerald battled schizophrenia. Just to keep you on your toes, while the book was published in Canada by McArthur & Company late in 2007 as Sad, Mad and Bad, the UK and the US won’t see the book until April 2008 when it will be published as Mad, Bad, Sad. I have no explanation, but I will say that it’s a tremendous book that will probably make a lot of other publication’s best of lists in 2008. -- Linda L. Richards

Satan’s Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York’s Trial of the Century by Mike Dash (Crown Books) 464 pages
Crooked lawmen, political strivers, grafters and gamblers, low dives and criminal hijinks -- Satan’s Circus has those attractions and more, all centered around the tale of the only police officer in U.S. history to be executed for murder. British writer Mike Dash’s record of the rise and fall of Charley Becker, a handsome, German-descended New York City cop, is a colorful, captivating lesson in dishonor among thieves. Despite being trusted by his superiors and given responsibility for taming vice in early 1900s Manhattan, Becker was living a double life as the head of a widespread extortion racket. He thought himself invulnerable. But the murder of a casino owner who’d threatened to expose Becker made this decorated cop a target of ambitious journalists and prosecutors. Turned on by his fellow brigands, and despite his wife’s efforts to clear him of wrongdoing, Becker wound up paying with his life for Gotham’s rank corruption. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Selected Letters of Aldous Huxley edited with an introduction by James Sexton (Ivan R. Dee) 500 pages
“In a letter of May 9 1929,” James Sexton writes in his introduction to Selected Letters of Aldous Huxley, “Aldous Huxley advised that he was ‘not one of nature’s letter-writers. Self-contained and placid misanthropists are bad correspondents.’” Nonetheless, this collection of Huxley’s correspondence -- the first to be published since the late 1960s -- makes for fascinating reading. Even if Huxley were not, as Sexton informs us, “a born epistolarian,” the times in which he lived and the people he both surrounded himself with and with whom he corresponded together create a fascinating portrait of a deeply talented man. Add to this the transition readers who choose to move chronologically through the book will see: from serious artist with a touch of philosopher in his formative years to someone with strong views on the way things ought to be later on. Masterfully edited, this collection of Huxley’s letters in the end provide an almost living, breathing biography in the author’s own hand. -- Aaron Blanton

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A.J. Jacobs (Simon & Schuster) 400 pages
In 2004, A.J. Jacobs, editor of Esquire, wrote about his experience reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in a year in The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World. He has now undertaken a feat of similar magnitude by following the Bible literally (okay, as literally as possible without getting arrested or murdered) in the logically titled, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. Both books are more entertaining than educational, and both are well worth reading. A word of warning regarding The Year of Living Biblically, though: if you don’t have a sense of humor, you may be disappointed. Everyone else, read on! -- Mary Ward Menke

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