Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Best Books of 2011: Non-Fiction

This is the non-fiction segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2011 feature. You can see other sections as follows: Best Fiction, Best Art & Culture, Best Biography, Best Books for Children and Young Adults, Best Cookbooks, Best Science Fiction/Fantasy, Best Crime Fiction (part I) and Best Crime Fiction (part II).

30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans by Karl Pillemer (Hudson Street Press)
There’s something soulful about 30 Lessons for Living. Something that strikes you instantly as true. Gerontologist, Karl Pillemer, asked 1000 Americans of a certain age to share their own truths about life and living. The resulting book is surprisingly hopeful and deeply instructive. The title owns up to 30 lessons but, really, there are many, many more: sub-lessons and related truisms, like: “Being old is much better than you think,” and “take a lifelong view of relationships with children” and “emotional intelligence trumps every other kind.” Pillemer has polled the voices of the wisest Americans and compiled a book that oozes the sort of wisdom that can’t be emulated. Pillemer is professor of human development at Cornell and is the founder of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging. “Our culture fears old age,” Pillemer writes at one point. “We segregate older persons physically, just as we repress the awareness of our own aging. We do so at our own peril because most of us will live twenty, thirty, even forty years after age sixty.” This is terrific, powerful stuff. An important read for anyone with plans to live beyond 60. -- India Wilson

The Amazing Foot Race of 1921 by Shirley Jean Roll Tucker (Heritage/Nimbus)
The Amazing Foot Race of 1921 is notable for several reasons. First: it’s a terrific story about a hiking race from Halifax to Vancouver -- read that more than 3600 miles -- and created Jenny Dill as the first non-aboriginal woman to walk across Canada. Author Shirley Jean Roll Tucker, a theatre director and playwright, uses newspaper clippings, period photos and her own imagination to bring the story to life. The resulting book is an interesting hybrid of hard fact and high drama, but Tucker pulls it off nicely, telling the little known story of what one newspaper called, the “Greatest Contest in History of Pedestrianism.” A side note: in an experiment in contemporary publishing, West Coast publisher Heritage House and East Coast publisher Nimbus coordinated efforts to produce two separate editions of this book under two distinct ISBNs with the idea of pooling their resources and mining the best parts of their own markets. No word yet on how well their plan panned out, but the book certainly was a good one to experiment on: the bi-coastal story making it a natural for heavy marketing in very different ways.

The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua (Penguin)
The book was published long enough ago that we barely remember. But after it came out in January of 2011, there was outrage and outcry over The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a Chinese-American mother’s view on the difference between Chinese and American parenting styles. Chua, a professor of law at Yale Law School and the author of 2003’s World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, clearly walks this walk. Her book is candid, self-deprecating, often funny and, as it turns out, pretty inflammatory to a whole lot of American parents. While those of us raised in the West will have a hard time with some of Chua’s theories and actions, her writing style is fresh and compelling. And if you feel yourself rise to what I can’t help but think of as some of Chua’s bait, remember this: though she gives this work a slightly homey spin, the author is in fact an international expert on aspects of what she’s writing about. That is, the differences -- subtle and not -- between eastern and western cultures and the impact of these differences on the larger picture. Is it not possible that Chua -- a talented writer and a demonstrably great thinker -- used the canvas of her slightly comic memoir to create a reflection of the world outside her home? In that scenario, her daughters and her parenting challenges almost become metaphors for things happening in the wider world. To be honest, I think Chua’s book is all of these things, and more: a comic memoir so subtle, some of the humor escapes us. A comment on American parenting styles. And an oblique look at a world shrinking so quickly, some days you want to nail your feet to the ground. If nothing else, Chua’s book made us stop and think. It made us feel. That alone would earn the book its place here, even if Chua didn’t write so very well. -- Linda L. Richards

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard (Doubleday)
Most people who know anything about James A. Garfield (1831-1881) probably recognize him for the brevity of his tenure as president of the United States: less than six months, making his the second shortest administration in American history (after the single month served by William Henry Harrison). They’re less aware of his devotion to ending slavery, his great faith in the values of education and science (both of which would put him at odds with modern-day Republicans), and the fact that he never wanted to be president, but was a compromise candidate during the deadlocked GOP convention of 1880. Even before Garfield’s swearing-in, the onetime schoolteacher and ex-senator from Ohio faced his greatest challenge -- from a fellow Republican, New York’s powerful and corrupt senior U.S. senator, Roscoe Conkling. Conkling forced the choice of Chester A. Arthur, an undistinguished former collector of the Port of New York, as Garfield’s vice president. He later demanded a say in the new chief executive’s political appointments -- a right Garfield wasn’t prepared to allow him, and which ultimately brought the two men’s ambitious to a head, with Conkling resigning in protest. Meanwhile, Garfield’s move into the White House inspired Charles J. Guiteau, an unhinged lawyer with “a sense of divine mission,” to believe himself in line for an office with Garfield’s administration. After repeated efforts to win an audience with the president, Guiteau carried out what he thought was God’s will -- that he shoot Garfield at a Washington, D.C., railroad station. Millard, the author of River of Doubt (2005), focuses here not just on Garfield’s political ascendancy, or on Guiteau’s assassination attempt (and his subsequent confidence that he would been deemed a hero for his actions), but on the several trying months during which Garfield’s life hung in the balance. Physicians struggled to restore his health, but only worsened it with their unsanitary practices, while telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell developed a mechanism to find the bullet in the president’s body. It’s not telling too much to say that all of this came to naught, but that Garfield’s death brought unexpected political reforms from an unlikely quarter. Destiny of the Republic should put Millard’s name into the running for literary awards in 2012, but it rewards reader attention right now. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Great White Bear by Kieran Mulvaney (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Kieran Mulvaney (At the End of the Earth: A History of the Polar Bear Regions, The Whaling Season) delivers a hopeful, heartbreaking biography of polar bears now. He blends history, mythology, science and his own observations to give readers an incomparable portraits of these majestic -- and cosmically threatened -- beasts. But, ultimately, in a world threatened by global warming, there is little to celebrate in this beautifully written book. Because, as Mulvaney warns, “these land carnivores that are officially classified as marine mammals are, above all, creatures of the ice.” Arguably, Mulvaney is well on his way to being one of the ranking conservation writers of his generation. He writes alternately with joy and like his heart is bleeding and, in his passion, he carries us along. -- India Wilson

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster)
In our increasingly unenlightened age, when politicians of a narrow-minded stripe delight in trashing France for any reason whatsoever, it’s easy to forget that the land of Napoleon and Eva Green was once considered a must-visit destination for artists, architects, doctors, and other Americans striving to become leaders in their fields. From the 1830s until the turn of the last century, scores of ambitious Yankees set off across the Atlantic (a potentially perilous venture) in order to study at the Sorbonne, sit for hours in the Louvre and copy works by the great masters, or study in one of Paris’ 12 hospitals (six times as many as Boston boasted). People such as Oliver Wendell Holmes were thrilled to be “at the center of things” in Paris, learning medical techniques they could bring back home and share with others. It was in France that Samuel F.B. Morse was inspired to invent the telegraph. There, too, that Charles Sumner realized black students were no less capable than he -- a lesson that would inform his subsequent abolitionist efforts as a U.S. senator. “Their hopes were high,” McCullough writes of those young people desirous of soaking up all the knowledge the Old World had to offer. “They were ambitious to excel in work that mattered to them, and they saw time in Paris, the experience of Paris, as essential to achieving that dream -- though, to be sure, as James Fenimore Cooper observed when giving his reasons for needing time in Paris, there was always the possibility of ‘a little pleasure concealed in the bottom of the cup.’” McCullough, who in the past has penned extraordinary biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John Adams, focuses here on a slightly less familiar strata of Americans, including painter George P.A. Healy, Elizabeth Blackwell (who’d become the first female doctor in America), writer Henry James, and -- perhaps the most magnetic figure in The Greater Journey -- sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, all of whom cherished their time in France as one of particular enlightenment. McCullough exalts the City of Light at the height of its intellectual influence, and like the fine storyteller he is, makes us feel as if we are right there in the art galleries and operating rooms and unheated garrets where his many characters filled their hearts as much as their heads. -- J. Kingston Pierce

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson (Crown)
If In the Garden of Beasts had been by any other author, I would have given it a pass. In this second decade of the 21st century, I find I’ve finally had enough true accounts from Nazi Germany. We know it’s true: horrible things happened and it’s important that we don’t forget. However, it turns out that doesn’t mean I want to be reminded every second and my thirst for knowledge about the era was quenched years ago. I didn’t think there was a lot out there still to surprise me. So when I saw the swastika on the cover of In the Garden of Beasts I prepared myself to move on by. And then I saw the name on the cover: Erik Larson. And all bets were off. Larson is a phenomenal writer and his ability with creative and narrative non-fiction is near-legendary. A former Wall Street Journal and Time contributor, Larson is best known as the author of Devil in the White City, his riveting 2003 look at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The thing that set that book apart was Larson’s approach. He weaves a real life murder mystery through the text of his tale and he does it so skillfully, sometimes you really don’t know if you’re reading fact or fiction. He takes the same approach in In the Garden of Beasts. This time, however, we see early Nazi Germany through the lens of an American family -- the Dodds -- living in Berlin. We watch -- and almost participate -- as Berlin is transformed from a vibrant, glittering international center to a menacing and xenophobic city, where the populace at large is justifying and even supporting behavior that would been unthinkable just a few years before. If you thought you’d read deeply of Nazi Germany, think again. Larson has here painted a portrait unlike any you’ve ever read. -- Aaron Blanton

Mnemonic: A Book of Trees by Theresa Kishkan (Goose Lane)
Theresa Kishkan’s Mnemonic is neither a book of environmental essays or a personal memoir. And yet it is somehow both. Kishkan (Sisters of Grass, Phantom Limb) has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, the Relit Award, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Price and others. In Mnemonic, Kishkan skillfully uses the mysteries of trees as a metaphor for her life… and stories from her life as an introduction to various trees. “I grew up with cedars,” Kishkan tells us at one point. “To some degree they defined the way I apprehended space and time.” And later, “How in age a tree remembers, how the feet of tiny birds felt on the bark; how on a summer day, drowsing in sunlight, a tree might have been startled awake by a bear climbing to its first strong branch; how an osprey might have settled on the broken crown to survey the lake, the glittering run of river.” Between -- and around and through -- these observations, we see the veins of Kishkan’s own life: old lovers, loves, family, passions and always -- always the view of the trees. Mnemonic is both tiny and astounding. Loss, life and love between two covers. I can’t imagine I’ll ever completely let it go. -- Linda L. Richards

Molotov’s Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History by Rachel Polonsky (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
“In my reading and my traveling,” English writer Rachel Polonsky states in her prologue to the extraordinary Molotov’s Magic Lantern, “images of distant times and places have flashed into view… Russian history and the Russian present have revealed themselves to me in glimpses… summoned as if by magic out of the surrounding dark.” This most intense and imaginative journey into the continuing Russian past began during a 10-year Moscow-based stay, at the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st, when Polonsky was given access to the former apartment and surviving library of Vyacheslav Molotov, Premier Josef Stalin’s former right-hand man. “I was some kind of fugitive academic,” the author describes herself then, “not really a journalist, working on a novel…” But the man who gave her the key to Molotov’s sanctum, hence to this project, assured her: “You’ll know what to make of it all.” She would indeed. Through books Molotov collected -- some by authors he later had jailed or killed -- Polonsky traced the workings, as it were, of the dead apparatchik’s “terrible mind.” Then she visited sites lived in or written about by such writers, finding lingering traces of long-gone deeds. “Each place… beckoned me towards the next, towards some further arrangement of landscape, politics and myth…” Faulkner would likely have appreciated how Polonsky found old passions and crimes beneath today’s veneer, and Borges would surely admire her navigation of a never-ending intellectual labyrinth. What is this extraordinary work: Creative history? Brilliant reportage? Inspired travel writing? A prose-poem worthy of the novelists and poets it invokes? Why not a one-of-a-kind masterpiece? -- Tom Nolan

Page One: Inside The New York Times and the Future of Journalism edited by David Folkinflik (PublicAffairs)
One doesn’t need a press card to know that, in the 21st century, classic journalism is in trouble, having suffered numerous hits from the twinned threats of new media and new apathy. Page One, edited by NPR correspondent David Folkinflik, is intended to be a companion to the documentary of the same name, though -- like a good journalist -- Folkinflik takes his mandate and really runs with it: the book is not just an appendage to the very worthwhile film produced and directed by Kate Novack and Andrew Rossi (who tell “The Back Story to Page One” in the opening chapter). In fact the book is distinct and complete in itself. The chapter headings give strong clues to content: “Print is Dead: Long Live the New York Times,” Who Should Pay for Journalism?,” “Literacy After the Front Page,” and several others. Contributors include Hillary Clinton, David Carr, Jennifer 8. Lee and Alan Rusbridger. We see the state of contemporary journalism through the prism of The New York Times … and some of what we see there is frightening. -- Linda L. Richards

Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology by Alexis Madrigal (Da Capo)
We feel a certain arrogance, perched here as we are on the edge of the brave new world. We know that new things are close by: a whole revolution of things. And us? We’re going to be part of the change. All of us. It’s a new day. According to Alexis Madrigal, though, we can safely lose the smug: Americans have been having green dreams for a very long time. In Powering the Dream (Da Capo) Madrigal tells us that in “1900 people could use the sun to heat the water for a howler. They could drive across New York City in an electric taxicab …. In 1945 a person could have purchased a solar house or gone to see the one-megawatt wind turbine ... Green technology has been a viable set of technologies for more than one hundred years but, regardless, supplies little of America’s energy. What happened? What might have been?” Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic and former Wired staff writer, skillfully uses stories from the past to illustrate both the follies and successes of the present. In doing so, he places some of the environmental madness we’re experiencing now into perspective. It is, at present, too easy to feel as though we’re out there all alone, fighting environmental battles that few have thought of and that fewer still have seen. And, somehow, the struggles of the past give us hope for the future and, in the end, they make us realize, there’s really nothing new under the sun. -- Aaron Blanton

Radio Shangri-La by Lisa Napoli (Crown)
In a lot of ways, Lisa Napoli’s Radio Shangri-La reminded me of Deborah Rodriguez’s 2007 bestselling Kabul Beauty School. Only better, if for no other reason than the writing here is just so sharp and terrific. Like that book, an unlikely set of circumstances take a more or less average American woman and transport her somewhere unexpected. In Rodriguez’s book, a memoirist brought beauty to someplace where beauty had been largely forgotten. In Radio Shangri-La, the memoirist is herself transformed as she helps to create Bhutan’s first youth-oriented radio station. Napoli finds herself in “the happiest kingdom on Earth,” as part of a force that is changing the culture and wondering about her part in all of that. A radio station may seem quaint and retro, an old-fashioned medium in this age of all things digital and pod. But in the last Shangri-la, it proved to be an invention as modern as a spaceship. More than anything, Radio Shangri-La is about transformation. The awakening of a sleepy kingdom to the inevitably cold dreams of the modern world and, of course, Napoli’s personal transformation as she trades her self-dubbed midlife crisis for peace -- an even joy -- in the magical kingdom. -- Sienna Powers

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