Thursday, December 23, 2010

Best Books of 2010: Non-Fiction

Editor’s note: This is the sixth segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2010 feature. Thus far, we’ve run our choices for the best Books for Children and Young Adults, Cookbooks, Crime Fiction, Part I and Crime Fiction, Part II, and Art & Culture. The final installment, the best of fiction 2010, will be published tomorrow morning. -- LLR

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky (Broadway) 352 pages
This is not a biography of the late David Foster Wallace. Rather it is a heartbreaking and surprisingly intimate visit with a giant talent that has since been too cheaply spent. Like just about everyone else who knew his work, more than two years after his death, I still feel the loss of this writer acutely. And that word that so many people have used in connection with Foster Wallace -- loss -- is entirely inaccurate. Because, of course, Foster Wallace killed himself. And he left us behind to make of all that’s left what we will. I can’t quite bring myself to forgive him for that. The books he won’t write. The stories he won’t tell. “Suicide is such a powerful end," Lipsky writes in an afterword that runs near the beginning of the book. Appropriate somehow, “it reaches back and scrambles the beginning. It has an event gravity: Eventually, every memory and impression gets tugged in its direction.” In 1996, Rolling Stone assigned Lipsky to travel with Foster Wallace near the end of the tour for Infinite Jest, the work that would make him famous. Lipsky is a skilled interviewer and a terrific writer and so what we end up with is far, far beyond what might be expected. One of the great literary minds of his generation speaking frankly and at length with an award-winning journalist who, himself, has a great deal to say. I imagine that, as the years pass, we will see biographies about the troubled and talented Foster Wallace. I doubt, however, we’ll see another portrait that cuts quite this close to the bone. A remarkable book. You hear Foster Wallace’s amazing voice on every page. And your heart breaks all over again. -- Linda L. Richards

Animal Factory by David Kirby (St. Martin’s Press) 512 pages
Many Americans have no idea where their food comes from, and many have no desire to find out. As author David Kirby himself points out, this is beginning to change. Certainly anyone who manages to read even part of Animal Factory will find themselves unable to look at many things in the same way. Kirby uses all his skill as a crack investigative journalist to tell his story through the lens of three families -- and their communities -- whose lives have been horribly impacted by the factory farms in their neighborhoods. Considering the passionate feelings Kirby uncovers in his travels, Animal Factory is a surprisingly level book. Even if you’ve never given a thought to the welfare of the animals raised in factory farms, recent public health crises -- swine flu, bird flu, mad cow and others -- have been forcing us to pull our collective heads out of the sand. Animal Factory will give you a close look at many aspects you might not previously have considered. It is a book that is capable of changing you. The question is: are you ready to change? -- Aaron Blanton

Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse by James Swanson (Morrow)
480 pages

The assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, was tragic by itself. But the fact that he should have been gunned down in his seat at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., less than a week after Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee surrendered to his Union counterpart, General Ulysses S. Grant -- effectively concluding the U.S. Civil War -- raised Lincoln’s demise from calamity to legend. In the tumultuous aftermath, government officials put together a historic, 1,600-mile train trip that carried the martyred president’s corpse from the U.S. capital back to his former home in Springfield, Illinois. Repeatedly along the way, Lincoln’s casket was unloaded and put on view for the local citizenry, even though it became increasingly difficult to hide the deterioration of his cadaver. Approximately one million Americans showed up to view Lincoln in death, while some seven million more kept vigil along the route of his funeral train, their sadness illuminated by nighttime fires or the daytime waving of flags. Meanwhile, as this 27-day pageant of death unfolded, Jefferson Davis -- a former U.S. senator from Mississippi and Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, who had become president of the breakaway Confederate States of America in 1861 -- left Richmond, Virginia, his recently captured capital, and trained off to the south, hoping to re-establish his government farther from the war’s front lines. Hot on his heels were Union troops, charged with capturing Davis, who many in the North believed was complicit in Lincoln’s murder. Swanson, the Edgar Award-winning author of Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer (2006), does an outstanding job of juxtaposing these two political dramas. He highlights the often weird spectacle of Lincoln’s dying hours and the behind-the-scenes disputes resulting from the late president’s progress westward, at the same time as he lets readers in on the largely forgotten events surrounding the flight of Davis and his cabinet members farther and farther south, into areas where faith in the Confederate cause was rapidly waning. We all know that Davis -- who shared more with Lincoln than either man might have understood at the time -- was eventually captured, and Lincoln’s body (along with the companion casket containing his young son Willie) finally reached Illinois. However, Swanson draws tremendous life from the occurrences in between. He also reminds us that while Lincoln perished at the moment of his foremost success, Davis lived until 1889, long after his failures had been accepted and his unexpected political restoration begun. Together with Manhunt, Bloody Crimes fills out our understanding of a period when the dream of America was most at risk, but also most fervently on display. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Breakfast at the Exit Cafe: Travels Through America by Wayne Grady and Merilyn Simonds (Greystone Books) 308 pages
2010 was the year for Canadian authors to pull up stakes and travel through the U.S., then write about it. Derek Lundy did in the spring with his very good Borderlands: Riding the Edge of America (Knopf Canada), then husband-and-wife authors Wayne Grady (The Great Lakes, Tree: A Life Story) and Merilyn Simonds (The Lion in the Room Next Door, The Holding) did even better in the fall with Breakfast at the Exit Cafe. They begin by saying the didn’t intend to write a book. They were in Vancouver and decided to drive home to Ontario the long way, “down along the Pacific coast, across the southern states, then up the Atlantic seaboard. It was to be a holiday, an excursion.” But, they write in a preface, they should have known better. “Put two writers together in a car and keep them there for a couple of months, and it’s more than likely you’ll get a book.” By the time they got home, they’d driven over 15,000 kilometers and travelled through 22 states. They might have been looking for a taste of America, but they got a whole meal. One of the delightful things about Breakfast at the Exit Cafe are the alternating voices -- different yet certainly complementary. Simmonds is one of Canada’s most respected and lyrical voices. Grady is one of the country’s finest science writers and each of them has written about 14 books but, as far as I know, this is the first time they’ve written one together. And it works. It really, really works. What begins as an examination of the United States by Canadians on the road becomes a portrait of a marriage and, somewhere along the way, the two thoughts converge, with the idea of Canada and the United States, physically linked by the border between, linked also in their own marriage. What, for me, pushed the book from merely really good to sublime were those twinned voices. The things they discovered were secondary for me. I would follow them on any journey. I'd like to listen to the two of them talk all day. -- Linda L. Richards

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James S. Shapiro (Simon & Schuster) 352 pages

The debate goes like this: the man known to the world as William Shakespeare was the uneducated, possibly illiterate, son of a crude glover. He never strayed more than 100 kilometers from his birthplace of Stratford, England. He was a ruthless businessman, not above suing a neighbor over a missed loan payment. (Shylock, call your office!) He was ignorant about history, the machinations of the British monarchy, world travel, art, poetry and from the sounds of his will (in which he left his wife only his “second best bed”), a pretty indifferent spouse. How could this man possibly have written the finest drama and poetry of Western Civilization? The counter-argument has traditionally gone like this: Shakespeare wrote the works of Shakespeare because, well, he just did, and that’s all there is to it. Now run along. In Contested Will, James Shapiro follows up his granular study of 12 months in the playwright’s life (2005’s A Year in the Life of Shakespeare: 1599) with a sweeping view of the authorship questions that have tailed the plays like a tin can ever since the 18th century. While many authorial theories have been debated over the centuries, the two leading candidates to be the real author of Shakespeare’s work have been Francis Bacon and the 16th Earl of Oxford, Earl deVere. In the midst of all of this, Shapiro delights us with tales of ingenious literary forgeries, the backbiting between rival camps and the passionate beliefs of Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain and Helen Keller, among others. To this day, Earl of Oxford devotees include two of our era’s leading Shakespearean actors (Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance) as well as U.S. Supreme Court Justices (Antonin Scalia is rumored to be an Oxfordian). Then, in a twist worthy of the Bard himself, Shapiro coolly skewers the anti-Shakespeare crowd, showing the illogical fallacies, insufferable elitism and convenient amnesia required to maintain the illusion that anyone other than the man from Stratford penned the works of Shakespeare. This book is a magnificent tour de force. -- Stephen Miller

Here’s Looking at Euclid: A Surprising Excursion Through the Astonishing World of Math by Alex Bellos (Free Press) 336 pages
With that title Here’s Looking at Euclid promises to deliver the impossible: math that is fun. Who knew it could even be done? Well, actually, author Alex Bellos did. Bellos claims that, as a child, he was good at both writing and math (a combination many -- myself included -- would have thought was impossible). After graduating from Oxford with degrees in math and philosophy he became a journalist. And where do you go from there? Here’s Looking at Euclid.
This is one of those rare and wonderful books that manages to entertain, enlighten and engage on every level. There are aspects of geometry -- and PI and x-factor and so much else -- that you’ll never look at the same way again. -- Aaron Blanton

The Hilliker Curse by James Ellroy (Knopf) 204 pages
The North American reviews I’ve seen for The Hilliker Curse have mostly been astonishingly lukewarm, at best. This has been a head-scratcher because if you actually read the book you see that the writing here is sterling. Prose-wise, the Demon Dog of American Literature has never been in better shape. Mind you, it’s memoir and, as many people know through Ellroy’s earlier work of autobiographical non-fiction, My Dark Places, this author’s own story rivals that of any of his fictions. But the nail on the coffin for North American reviewers is probably the subtitle: My Pursuit of Women. Before you even get warmed up, a lot of reviewers are going to be compelled to either comment negatively on the book or ignore it. These are the soft and squishy times to which we’ve come. The thing is, The Hilliker Curse is not a story that is either happy or sappy. There are few rainbows here, and the author of L.A. Confidential and The Cold Six Thousand doesn’t ride into the sunset in the end. This is a man whose childhood relationship with his mother was dysfunctional at best. In one of their stormy intervals, then ten-year-old James wished her dead. Three months later, she was. Unsurprisingly, as he grew to adulthood, Ellroy brought his issues with him, among them, a bucketful of oedipal guilt and a front end loader full of issues about women. And this would surprise you because...? Don’t get me wrong: The Hilliker Curse is not a pretty read. And sometimes... well, you just wanna look away. But such is the power of this writer: when Ellroy implies something, you feel it all the way to your bones. And this time out, what you feel, sometimes, is the need to take a shower. But, like it or not, that’s power, as well. -- Linda L. Richards

How to Defeat Your Own Clone by Kyle Kurpinski and Terry D. Johnson (Bantam) 192 pages
Written by a couple of actual and for-real bioengineers, How to Defeat Your Own Clone is fascinating reading. Even when they play it for laughs, a message is being brought home. Here is what your future may look like, they seem to be saying at times and though the tone is often playful, they manage to pack a wallop of a message into this very slender paperback volume. As Kurpinski has said, “While many books have already been published on cloning and genetic manipulation, half seem to be textbooks and the other half are science fiction novels. The problem is that the former are generally unwieldy or boring for the average reader, while the latter have little or no scientific value or basis.” How to Defeat Your Own Clone fills that gap handily, adding just enough silly to make us stop and think. -- David Middleton

How the Scots Invented Canada by Ken McGoogan (HarperCollins) 384 pages
There is a certain delicious levity in Ken McGoogan’s newest book. A certain hands-on-hips insouciance that fans of his sterling quartet of books on arctic exploration might not be expecting. I imagine that will be OK, though. For one thing, How the Scots Invented Canada should win the award-winning author busloads of new fans. Informed, at least in the embryonic stage, by those very books on exploration as well as the slivers of Scottish blood in his own veins, McGoogan (Lady Franklin’s Revenge, Fatal Passage) takes a Bryson-like approach to his topic, jumping in with both feet and spinning out on a journey beyond any at which the staid cover might hint. McGoogan skillfully weaves his careful research through his personal journey through Scotland to look at his own tartan roots and those of his wife, as well as to find answers to a few key questions: “Why did so many Scots emigrate in the first place? And how was it that, once in Canada, they had proven so influential?” Despite the delicious levity in entirely appropriate places, and beneath the somewhat silly title, How the Scots Invented Canada is a serious -- sometimes even scholarly -- work and the author has done his research and shares it skillfully. -- Linda L. Richards

Life by Keith Richards (Little, Brown) 576 pages
I anticipated the worst and got the best. Who would have thought Keith Richards long-awaited biography would actually be worth reading. And yet it was. After two-point-five million years with the Rolling Stones, Richards just has so much to say. So many great stories and, as it turns out, so many scathing observations. (He refers to band-mate Mick Jagger as "Brenda.” One almost doesn't have to say more.) One of the things that makes Life standout is the richness of the life it covers. Compare Life to another rock biography that came out at the same time: First Step 2 Forever by Justin Beiber. Even if Beiber’s life to date had been packed with adventure, it could not have the depth and texture of Richards.’ Deal with it: Beiber was born in 1994. Richards probably has shoes older than that. The comparison isn’t fair, though, because Richards is an international icon and his autobiography reads like (sometimes mean-spirited) decrees from a rock king. -- Adrian Marks

The Man Who Left Too Soon: The Biography of Stieg Larsson (John Blake Publishing UK) 294 pages
The first Stieg Larsson biography to reach bookstores comes from one of Britain’s most knowledgeable literary critics, Barry Forshaw. And it’s clear from the outset that Forshaw is a fan of Larsson’s work, though he does not shy away from pointing out faults in the late author’s Millennium Trilogy, which are often forgotten amidst all of the hyperbole. Forshaw’s book is spilt into three sections. The first, and probably most interesting, offers insight into Larsson’s life and death. Interviews with many of Larsson’s friends and business colleagues, as well as family members, help portray a very driven and fearless journalist. Larsson’s left-wing politics can be traced back to his grandfather’s influence and the period of the Vietnam War, during which Larsson met his longtime partner, Eva Gabrielsson (who is now herself writing a Larsson bio), at an antiwar rally. This section also details the origins of Larsson’s series protagonist, superhacker Lisbeth Salander, being a combination of his niece, Therese, and what Pippi Longstocking might be like as an adult. Forshaw lays to rest some surreal conspiracy theories that have sprouted up like poison ivy since Larsson’s early demise in 2004, recounting the novelist’s obsessive, workaholic nature, his lack of exercise and the punishment his body underwent as he smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, while gobbling mouthfuls of Billy’s Pan Pizza. There’s also significant information provided in these pages regarding the legal battle that has sprung up around Larsson’s estate, because he left no will behind. While the second section of The Man Who Left Too Soon helpfully links Larsson’s life and philosophies to his bestselling fiction, it is perhaps the weakest, focusing on the three Salander books themselves, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008), The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009) and this year’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Finally, Part III of Forshaw’s book provides commentary from his contemporaries, both Scandinavian and British, on the Millennium series. The Man Who Left Too Soon is cast as a warts-and-all look back one of the early 21st century’s most phenomenal crime series and authors. It’s a must-buy for Larsson fans. -- Ali Karim

A Peculiar Tribe of People: Murder and Madness in the Heart of Georgia by Richard Jay Hutto (Lyons Press) 239 pages
For me A Peculiar Tribe of People is the sort of true crime that has wings. Author Richard Jay Hutto’s bio announces him as “one of the foremost historians of the Gilded Age.” As well as being an author, a respected historian, and a former White House Appointments Secretary to the Carter family (President Jimmy Carter blurbed the book) he is also a member of the City Council of Macon, Georgia. Quite frankly, the whole package would seem to indicate someone just born to write this book. Hutto has, in any case, done a very good job. I could not put down this account of murder and madness Southern grotesque style. The murder of the wife of a well-known Macon, Georgia man is murdered and attention is first focused on the local Klan. Later, the man is arrested for murdering his wife and, as the trial gets underway, real Southern mayhem begins. This is one of those stories that, in many ways, truly is stranger than fiction. I simply could not put it down. -- Adrian Marks

The Zero-Mile Diet by Carolyn Herriot (Harbour Publishing)
256 pages

From the very first, The Zero Mile Diet makes the 100 Mile Diet seem like last week’s news. That’s no accident. Bestselling author and accomplished seed grower and vendor Carolyn Herriot has pushed the idea of sustainability right to the very edge. Never mind being able to find everything you eat within a 100 mile radius. What about finding everything you need right in your own backyard? For obvious reasons, actually living off your backyard garden plot -- or apartment balcony -- won’t be viable for everyone, but there is thoughtful, well-documented material here that is widely useful and deeply interesting. Herriot describes the problems that exist as she sees them: urban crawl driving prices up, an aging agrarian class due, in part, to rising land costs, and the fact -- most disturbing of all -- that we’ve mostly lost the ability to even see that there is a problem. The Zero Mile Diet takes us through a year in Herriot’s garden. And it’s a gorgeous, eventful year, filled with great photos -- some illustrative, some instructive -- recipes, hints, tips and plans. It’s an astonishing, eye-opening book, destined to be a modern classic. Anyone who has given even half an hour’s thought to these important issues would do well to add a copy to their library. -- Monica Stark

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Anonymous book stores hyderabad said...

your selection is superb please guide us where can find these books.of all the list i liked the synopsis of the book the man who left too soon. with your synopsis it made easy for us to buy books

Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 7:32:00 AM PST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

personally liked "none of us were like this before" as a great nonfiction book kindov a sleeper book, but a really solid read

Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 9:40:00 AM PST  

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