Best of 2002













At Sea in the City: New York from the Water's Edge by William Kornblum (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)

When you think of a fun place to go sailing, does New York harbor immediately come to mind? I didn't think so. I don't know about you, but for me New York's waterways conjure up images of garbage barges and bodies weighted down with cement shoes courtesy of Tony Soprano. Not exactly the place for a refurbished 1910 Crosby catboat to ply the waters. But that is exactly what native New Yorker William Kornblum loves to do. In At Sea in the City, his eloquent paean to the pleasures of sailing in and around this urban archipelago, he shows us the five boroughs from a fresh perspective: the water's edge. If you've ever wondered about those weird names like Verrazano-Narrows, Hell Gate or Throgs Neck (what the heck is a throg, anyway?), here's your chance to learn a few things. Chock-full of historical lore and with wonderfully detailed illustrations (maps, really) by Oliver Williams, this book will satisfy salty dogs and landlubbers alike. -- Pamela C. Patterson

Battle for New York: City at the Heart of the American Revolution by Barnet Schecter (Walker & Company)

The role New York played in the Revolutionary War if often overlooked although in many ways the cost of holding it may have cost the British the war. The detail Schecter goes in to while constructing his narrative is at times astounding, particularly in describing the fuzzy political situation in New York during the war. Once the rebels were driven out, the city became a refuge for loyalists from New England who suppressed rebel sympathizers in a brutal fashion, even refusing to rebuild much of the west side after it was destroyed by one of the frequent suspicious fires, forcing hundreds to live out the war homeless and hungry. To his credit the book never falls into the soporific trap to which many historians are prone in excessively quoting documents or getting bogged down in irrelevant detail. What Schecter offers is not a textbook account of the war, but an intensely personal tale of the sacrifices made by common men and women who lost as much as they gained in fighting for what looked, on more than one occasion, to be a losing cause. The writing throughout is crisp, concise and evocative of historical context with an eye to the modern reader who has some knowledge of New York. -- Paul McLeary

Bug: The Sugtrange Mutations of the World's Most Famous Automobile by Phil Patton (Simon & Schuster)

The Volkswagon Bug -- so named for its outline, its droning engine and its "insectlike ubiquitousness" -- is no simple car, argues Patton in this entertaining history. After chronicling the minutia of American life in Made in USA: The Secret Histories of the Things That Made America, Patton turns his sharp gaze to the VW Beetle's improbable journey from Third Reich dream to Disney's cute Herbie the Love Bug to Silicon Valley status symbol. Pulling material from obscure books, films and songs, he shows how the story of the Bug is essentially the postmodern dream of the West in the 20th century. Today's Bug, Patton argues, is a synthesis of such unrelated events as Ford's assembly line, Hitler's attempted conquest of Russia, pre-war German union intrigue, the rebuilding of postwar Germany, U.S.-Japanese car wars, 1960's counterculture and the brilliant manipulations of the American marketing machine -- making the car an enduring cultural icon and an idea that refuses to die. -- Paul McLeary

Bush at War by Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster)

Looks like Bob Woodward has another bestseller on his hands. Quoting liberally from transcripts of National Security Council meetings and hundreds of interviews with those in the Presidential inner sanctum, including four hours of interviews with the President, the Washington Post columnist, bestselling author and Watergate muckraker manages to write a truly non-partisan account of the first 100 days of the post 9/11 war on terror. Woodward does an excellent job exposing the seat-of-their-pants planning sessions conducted at the highest levels of power and the hectic diplomacy practiced by Powell and Bush in trying to get the air war off the ground. On top of recounting the heated arguments concerning when and how to retaliate against Al Queda, Bush at War also follows Special Ops agents flown into Afghanistan with millions in payoff money weeks in advance of any other American presence. Living in harsh conditions with little to no support, these "110 CIA officers and 316 special forces personnel" ran the show and effectively won the war with their intelligence gathering operations. Woodward offers one of the first truly insightful and informative accounts of the decision making process behind the war on terror. -- Paul McLeary

dot.con: The Greatest Story Ever Sold by John Cassidy (HarperCollins)

Reading dot.con is a little like watching The Titanic. You know how it's going to end, but you keep your eyes glued anyway. A leading business journalist, author John Cassidy profiles the speculative bubble in high tech stocks that led to the Internet boom -- and bust -- at the turn of the millenium. But Cassidy is an ace journalist, and thus he brings us so much more. In his prologue, Cassidy tells us that his book "tracks the development of the Internet bubble, and the broader stock market boom of the late 1990s, from the period after the Second World War, when scientists had the first inklings of a decentralized communications network that would be beyond the control of any single authority." Cassidy sets his story up well -- all the history we need is there -- then lays it all out with gory details intact. How the speculative bubble was possible, the precedents in history that could have helped foretell it and the people with the ability and authority to prevent it that stood by and watched. -- Lincoln Cho

The Historical Atlas of Canada by Derek Hayes (Douglas & McIntyre)

The name of this book does it no justice at all. Though it is historical, an atlas and it does focus on Canada, the book is so much more than that. The wonderful and incredibly varied maps -- all beautifully reproduced -- become the foundation for an engaging and well told history of a beautiful country whose history is not that well known, even by too many of its inhabitants. -- Monica Stark

Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press edited by Kristina Borjesson, foreword by Gore Vidal (Prometheus Books)

With almost one voice the essays contained here contend that the modern news business -- where the emphasis on the bottom line has almost trumped the traditional sanctity of the byline -- has become just that: a business. Given the current climate of deregulation, consolidation and rampant mergers which has resulted in corporations folding news departments into their entertainment divisions, news outlets have in effect become just another form of entertainment. This trend is most evident in local television news programs, which have begun to look more and more like slightly less splashy versions of Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood than traditional news programming. The title of the book might make one think that it's written by what we've come to know as "conspiracy nuts" -- but nothing could be further from the truth. The essayists are producers, television anchors, editors at major dailies and award-winning columnists who have had stories killed, their contracts canceled and have resigned in protest at their superiors' refusal to run factual stories critical of big business and government. There's no denying that they're an angry group, but to their credit they each manage to retain an air of professionalism and even-handedness when describing the injustices they and their colleagues have suffered. -- Paul McLeary

Love Is the Killer App by Tim Sanders (Crown)

In a world that has been beaten up and left to hang out to dry by high tech, it's just plain old nice to hear the chief solutions officer of Yahoo! preaching love, giving and... books. Tim Sanders' Love Is the Killer App was not one of the literary greats of the year, but his enthusiastic message and his passionate approach to life and business make this one for the list. Sanders believes that people need to be "more judicious about their networking or to be more reckless about their compassion." And, on the way there, give away and read as many books as possible. You've gotta love that. -- Linda Richards

More Mirth of a Nation edited by Michael J. Rosen (Harperperennial Library)

Looking for book that will make you laugh and laugh and laugh -- on just about every page? Then kick off your shoes and settle back for a good guffaw with More Mirth of a Nation, the second installment in "the loose canon of American humor." (The first volume, Mirth of a Nation, was published in 2000.) Editor Michael J. Rosen, former literary director of Thurber House and himself the "perpetrator" of several dozen books, has again gathered a stellar collection of humor by a cross-section of American authors, famous and otherwise. Here's a tidbit from a send-up of a local National Public Radio station's schedule: "3 P.M. Science Friday. Live from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute: if a killer whale and a great white shark fought, who would win? How about two giant clams? Plus, the author of Seahorse: Weirdo of the Deep." Then later, on Jazz Set with Ed Bradley: "If Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk fought, who would win? How about them versus two giant clams?" Interspersed throughout the book are facsimiles of fortune cookie slips with sayings like "You will throw up on a train" or "O.J. knows you did it." Even some of the Notes on Contributors are amusing, to wit: "STEVE MARTIN (as if you need to learn about him here!)" or "IAN FRAZIER is the author of 'The Bear' by William Faulkner." I already can't wait for the third installment of Mirth in 2004. In these trying times, we need all the laughs we can get. -- Pamela C. Patterson

Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky (Walker & Company)

There is writing about food, and there is food journalism, but Mark Kurlansky, with his popular non-fiction books about food, culture and history, has combined and surpassed both genres. His best-known books, The Basque History of the World and Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, spiral outwards from a single subject (the Basque people, the codfish) into a discussion of how that subject influenced human culture in myriad unusual ways. His newest, Salt: A World History, follows the same pattern, but on a much larger scale. Too large a scale, some readers have complained; the book, which hops from Asia to Europe to America and back again, is (at 484 pages) nearly twice as long as its predecessors. And it's true that Kurlansky never seems to seize his topic with quite the passion he had for the Basques or for cod. But then, it's not so easy to get emotional about a chemical compound, and the unifying theme of the two earlier books -- the endangered culture of the Basques, and the near-extinction of the codfish -- is lacking in the case of salt. Salt is everywhere; as Kurlansky writes, "Almost no place on earth is without salt." Great empires have been founded on the wealth from salt taxes, and great environmental destruction has been wreaked by humans extracting and refining the substance. But there is no tragic story to salt itself. Nevertheless, like all of Kurlansky's books, Salt: A World History is an engaging, entertaining, educated read, speckled with illustrations and recipes and anecdotes, such as the tale of the ancient salt miner found perfectly preserved in, yes, salt. Salt may indeed be ubiquitous, but the human struggle over getting it, distributing it and inventing new uses for it makes for a rare epic, fascinating in its universality. -- Caroline Cummins

Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael by Richard M. Sudhalter (Oxford University Press)

The most lasting achievement of singer-songwriter-actor Hoagy Carmichael was his composing of the most-recorded song in American popular music: Carmichael's (and lyricist Mitchell Parrish's) "Stardust" is a perennial classic, and a hit for everyone from Louis Armstrong to Frank Sinatra to Natalie Cole. Carmichael wrote hundreds of other songs (among them "Georgia," "Skylark" and "Heart and Soul"), was himself a popular recording artist and also had a career performing in movies (To Have and Have Not, Young Man with a Horn). His compelling songs, his "flatsy-through-the-nose" singing (his description) and his droll character-acting all evoked an earlier, simpler, more rural time that Americans have yearned for since before it disappeared. Hoagy was a product of Indiana and of his love for the 1920s jazz of (among others) Bix Beiderbecke, whose musical and personal influence shaped Carmichael's choice of career and the notes of his tunes. Sudhalter, the author-musician whose previous books include the classic Lost Chords, does a marvelous job exploring Hoagy Carmichael's life and celebrating his art. -- Tom Nolan

Starting Out in the Afternoon: A Mid-Life Journey Into Wild Land by Jill Frayne (Random House Canada)

It's hard to believe that it took over 50 years for Jill Frayne to produce her first book, for this is a lavish full-blown talent, a rare and sensuous bloom waiting to be plucked. The habit of keeping a record of her life probably runs in her blood, for Frayne is the daughter of esteemed writers Trent Frayne and June Callwood. Her perpetual journal provides the framework for a fresh and compelling memoir of a solitary mid-life trek into the Yukon and other parts north. In the spring of 1990 her long-term relationship with her partner Leon is breaking apart, and at the same time her teenaged daughter Bree is ready for takeoff into independence. This is something of a crunch point for Frayne, simultaneously in the throes of the emotional and physical upheavals of early menopause. Leaving the relative safety of her job as a family therapist in northern Ontario, she gets in her car and heads west, her eventual goal a three-month stay in the Yukon: "After long suspense, long inertia, everything rushes together at once in a notion that has great force. ... I went away to be with myself, but instead I'm in a protracted, uninterruptible encounter with the out-of-doors ... I expected serenity, but I am labile and mood-struck. I change as the scene changes, as the sky clouds or clears. I conclude that nature is alive -- if I hadn't known it before -- and she calls the shots." This book is less travelogue than soul-revealing confession, a cri du coeur riddled with the complex, pulsing veins of relationship -- not just with other people, but with that great and glorious enigma, the land. Kayaking in British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands, trekking around Whitehorse where she has a brief affair with a rough outdoorsman, and finding a kind of spiritual mecca in the remote northern community of Atlin, B. C., Frayne is transformed, opened to life as never before. She does a lot with a little, as in these incandescent phrases: "the apricot light of August," "some birthing sap, wild and sweet," "the sky washed sharp" -- small, deft, brilliant brushstrokes from an artist with crackling vision. -- Margaret Gunning

Step Across This Line by Salman Rushdie (Random House)

Step Across This Line is an engaging overview of where this celebrated and often controversial author is now. Step Across This Line is an anthology of Salman Rushdie's essays published between 1992 and 2002. (An earlier work, Imaginary Homelands, anthologized Rushdie's essays between 1981 and 1991.) Those that have been avoiding Rushdie due to the political baggage he's carried would do well to read Step Across This Line. Here he is, as always and by turns, funny, charming, thoughtful and prescient. As many reviewers have noted, his comments on terrorism are well worth listening to -- Rushdie has had more intimate experience with the results than most -- but his commentary on rock music, art, literature, The Wizard of Oz and just about anything else you can think of are wonderful, as well. If you've ever wondered why Rushdie is often thought of as one of the leading authors of his generation, Step Across This Line gives great clues as to why. -- Linda Richards

Them: Adventures With Extremists by Jon Ronson (Simon & Schuster)

Jon Ronson, award-winning documentarian and columnist for The Guardian, plunges deep into the underworld of conspiracy theorists, racial supremacists and religious fundamentalists while investigating Them -- a shadowy and supposedly all-powerful group of industrialists, rising politicians and policy-makers who purportedly control the world. In tracking the group down, Ronson encounters a wide range of characters, all of whom wholeheartedly believe that this group meets once a year in secret locations throughout the world (a prerequisite of their meeting places is supposedly an 18-hole golf course), ostensibly to plan wars, decide the fate of the world economy and choose the world's next leaders. A hilarious take on the conspiracy industry. -- Paul McLeary

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