Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Best Books of 2008: Non-Fiction

American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century by Howard Blum (Crown) 352 pages
So many 20th-century misdeeds have been labeled “the crime of the century,” that it’s hard to keep track. Wasn’t the 1932 Lindbergh baby kidnapping supposed to be the crime of the century? Or was it Leopold and Loeb’s murder from 1924? Perhaps it was the Great Brink’s Robbery of 1950, or the shocking Jonestown Massacre of 1978? And what about the slaying of libidinous architect Stanford White in 1906? For his latest book, New York Times reporter-turned-Vanity Fair writer Howard Blum casts the 1910 Los Angeles Times bombing as the foremost crime of the 1900s. It certainly had drama, as the leaf copy of American Lightning makes clear: “On the morning of October 1, 1910, the walls of the Los Angeles Times building buckled as a thunderous detonation sent men, machinery, and mortar rocketing into the night air. When at last the wreckage had been sifted and the hospital triage units consulted, twenty-one people were declared dead and dozens more injured.” That devastation came in the midst of heightened animosities between labor organizers and industrialists in the United States. Much in contrast with pro-union San Francisco, the City of Angels had sought to curb (or kill) labor’s influence. One of the loudest voices in that campaign came from Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis, so it was not unexpected that his business should be among the dozens targeted for damage by aggravated unionists who believed employers could only be brought to the bargaining table under threats of violence. Apparently, though, the timing mechanism on the suitcase bomb deposited in an alley behind the Times headquarters was faulty, and its dynamite went off later than planned, when people were working inside the structure. In the aftermath, the man considered at the time to be “America’s greatest detective,” William J. Burns, was called to investigate. Blum carefully tracks the efforts by Burns and his subordinates to identify and apprehend the men responsible for that explosion, brothers John J. and James B. McNamara. However, he extends his focus further, telling the parallel stories of eminent attorney Clarence Darrow, who was persuaded by labor leaders to defend the McNamaras, and moviemaking pioneer D.W. Griffith, who helped Burns to resolve the case and was inspired by it to create his epic 1915 film, Birth of a Nation. Blum does a remarkable job here of blending the tales of his principals together, and peppering in such other peripheral players as movie star Mary Pickford, muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens, and union leader Samuel Gompers. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Full-Court Quest by Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith (University of Oklahoma Press) 479 pages
Full-Court Quest is a delightful surprise. The story of a woman’s basketball team that started in an Indian boarding school and rose to take their place as Montana’s first basketball champions, playing at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Full-Court Quest has everything. A story you’re not likely to have heard before, authors Peavy and Smith did heavy detective work uncovering layer upon layer to reveal an important piece of women’s history; of native American history and even of the type of spirit for which the West became known. Peavy and Smith tell their chosen tale well, sprinkling us lightly across a narrative that, nonetheless, never loses any of its real life grit. And this was just the duo of authors to bring us this unforgettable story. Peavy and Smith have been collaborating on works of women’s history for three decades. They are the authors of ten books together, including Women in Waiting in the Westward Movement, Pioneer Women and Frontier House. A wonderful story splendidly told. It deserves the widest following imaginable. -- Sienna Powers

He Is…I Say by David Wild (DaCapo) 203 pages
Rolling Stone contributing editor David Wild offers up an intimate look at Neil Diamond, “our own King of Kings, our Jewish American Elvis” in He Is…I Say, a skillful biography that manages to be both affectionate and informative. In his introduction, Wild sets the tone: “Neil Diamond, as I can personally attest, was big in Jersey well before Bruce Springsteen became The Boss. In our home in particular, his music was always near the very top of our pops.” Part personal memoir, part revealing peek at an enduring icon, and part fan letter from a life-long Diamond aficionado, one thing is clear throughout: David Wild is a stylist second to none and it’s a pleasure to take this journey with him. “In the wonderfully emotional and occasionally manic-depressive world of Neil Diamond, agony and ecstasy have long gone hand in hand, making no shortage of beautiful music together.” -- Aaron Blanton

The Legend of Colton H. Bryant
by Alexandra Fuller (Penguin) 224 p
This year one of the best books about the Iraq War was set entirely in Wyoming. Alexandra Fuller obliquely connects the dots between the United States’ motives in the Mideast with the questionable practices of big-oil companies in The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, an account of a Wyoming roughneck’s short, happy life. Just as she did in her own memoirs of growing up in Africa, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and Scribbling the Cat, Fuller tells young Colton’s story in a parade of impressionistic scenes that are as much about the landscape as they are the wide-eyed oil rigger who walks through it. Colton, the unlikely hero at the center of the book, is no John Wayne, no Gary Cooper. He loves hunting and fishing, idolizes his father (also an oil rigger), swigs Mountain Dew by the gallon, marries young, drives a Ford pickup, and works hard to provide for his family. His is an ordinary life headed for an extraordinary fate. More than anything, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant is a story about the crushing realities facing blue-collar Westerners, the once-proud pioneers who now find themselves the disposable commodities of industry and corporate greed. -- David Abrams

Lost: A Memoir by Cathy Ostlere (Key Porter Books) 256 pages
I had a bad feeling most of the time I spent reading Cathy Ostlere’s skillfully wrought memoir of a family’s grief, Lost. The award-winning writer has a wonderful way with language and, despite the personal nature of the material she covers here, she approaches it with a journalist’s eye and heart. Even so, almost from the very first moment, you get the feeling that this is a story that can’t have a happy ending. From the beginning, there’s something in Ostlere’s tone; something in the slow, stately march of the words she chooses to relate this deeply personal tale. Lost breaks the heart, again and again. Sometimes, it breaks the heart too much. -- Linda L. Richards

Marie-Anne: The Extraordinary Life of Louis Riel’s Grandmother by Maggie Siggins (McLelland & Stewart) 307 pages
I love the genesis of Marie-Anne: The Extraordinary Life of Louis Riel’s Grandmother. Author Siggins reports that, more than a decade ago, while she was doing research on Riel: A Life of Revolution, Siggins’ superlative biography of Canadian hero of history, Louis Riel. “As my research progressed,” writes Siggins, “I came to regard her as the most exceptional Canadian woman of the nineteenth century. The achievements of Laura Secord, Susanna Moodie, and Frances Ann Hopkins pale in comparison.” While in certain historical circles, those would be fighting words, they also convey the spirit of the biography of Marie-Anne that Siggins would come to write. If Siggins was ever an impartial historical observer, her impartiality got lost in the research someplace. Siggins tells her educated idea of Marie-Anne’s life with spirit, passion and conviction. The result is a significant work of non-fiction that breathes with the life of a well-told thriller. The book is just everything is ever could or even should be. -- Monica Stark

Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea (Perigee Trade) 240 pages
Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED is the book for word lovers. Thanks to Ammon Shea, though I do not know the word for word lovers, I know what my trouble is: onomonomatia: vexation at having difficulty in finding the right word. If you or somebody you know suffers from onomonomatia, consider Reading the OED as a remedy, for Shea read the entirety Oxford English Dictionary, and lived to tell the tale. Reading the OED is a blast. Divided into 26 wordacious chapters -- that’s A-Z -- the book is both an examination of words and a meta-examination of reading dictionaries. It’s hysterically funny: David Sedaris, laugh-out-loud-on-the bus funny. I myself finished the book at home, where Shea’s definition of Xenium reduced me to hysteria. For the record: “Xenium: (n.) A gift given to a guest. ‘It is a very delicate balance to strike, this business of giving a gift to someone you do not want to offend and yet whom you also do not want to stick around too long. Unless you are one of those unbalanced individuals who actually enjoys having company, I would recommend giving a xenium (italics the author’s) such as a pair of used socks, something that says ‘Here is a gift -- please go away.’” Perhaps you feel this way yourself. This, along with several words for vomit (Keck is a good one) makes Reading the OED the perfect gift. Where else will you learn that gound is: (n.) the gunk that collects in the corners of the eyes? I bought three copies of Reading the OED as Christmas gifts. And I hardly expect to be accused of giving a Toe Cover: (n.) A present that is both useless and inexpensive. -- Diane Leach

The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York
by Matthew Goodman (Basic Books) 384 pages

It’s tempting to think that people of the 21st century are too worldly, too skeptical to be taken in by the sort of hoaxes that were perpetrated on our forebears 100 or 200 years ago. But then you remember stories about voters being convinced (against all the evidence) that President-elect Barack Obama is Muslim or that the Apollo 11 astronauts didn’t really walk on Earth’s moon, but simply kicked up dust on a Hollywood stage set. And suddenly the capacity for men and women to be buffaloed doesn’t look so related to an earlier day. Still, the rich deception pulled off by editor Richard Adams Locke and his New York Sun “penny paper” in 1835 depended on their era’s being less knowledgeable about science and more easily wowed by pseudo-scientific discoveries. To drum up attention, the Sun published a series of articles supposedly proving the existence of life on the moon. And not just any life, but such exotica as walking beavers, unicorns, peculiar bearlike creatures, and 4-foot-tall “man-bats” (perhaps the predecessors of those bizarre “bat boys” the Weekly World News always used to feature on its cover). For several weeks, the “Great Moon Hoax” -- supposedly employing information supplied by an associate of noted astronomer Sir John Herschel -- captured international attention and brought acclaim (and income) to the young, struggling Sun. Renowned showman P.T. Barnum later claimed that the paper peddled $25,000 worth of moon-hoax paraphernalia to gullible readers. Marshaling ample (and then some) trivia and stories related to this fraud, New York in the 1830s, and people who were affected in some way by Locke’s bunkum (including Edgar Allan Poe, who claimed that the Sun had plagiarized his fiction), author Goodman delivers a remarkable story of a more innocent America and the sort of journalism that turned its residents into newspaper followers. -- J. Kingston Pierce

True Crime: An American Anthology edited by Harold Schechter (Library of America) 788 pages
The serial-killer porn and Mafiosi tell-alls that swamp today’s non-fiction crime shelves rarely light my fire, but I’m a sucker for more ambitious fare such as True Crime, edited by Harold Schechter. And for once the generic title is appropriate. The tell, though, is in the subtitle. Because in this ambitious collection, Schechter presents a very convincing argument that crime is about as American as apple pie, with a boffo selection of red, white and blue mayhem from a star-studded list of contributors, both contemporary and historical -- everyone from Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin to Dominick Dunne and Ann Rule. The book also contains narratives of murder and violence that stretch from homicidal pilgrims at Plymouth to the Menendez brothers of Southern California. There’s an excerpt from Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York, Mark Twain takes a few swipes at the myths of the “Wild West” and James Ellroy, in his unsettling “My Mother’s Killer,” lets slip his well-worn Mad Dog of Crime persona just enough to reveal a surprising glimpse of Sick Puppy. Cotton Mather, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Damon Runyon, Jim Thompson and Ambrose Bierce also chip in, and the newspaper and magazine articles, journal excerpts and public documents they and others are responsible for make this almost 800-page tome an unforgettable reading experience. It’s one hell of a reference source and a bruising and bloody social history of the United States. Hell, there’s even a collection of lyrics here from several murder ballads, so you can hum along. Nervously, perhaps, while you wonder if you remembered to lock the side door. -- Kevin Burton Smith

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