Thursday, December 23, 2010

Best Nonfiction, 2010!

Of course you all know where I stand: I have a very large, very roomy space in my heart reserved for nonfiction, so I've left Best Nonfiction of 2010 for last. This, too, was a crowded field - I read 97 works of military history alone this year, for instance. Books on every time period came to me, books on a host of historical figures major and very minor, books on trends, ideas, technology, science, nature, computers, business, gardening, and a dozen other things. And in all cases my criteria were unchanging - and stricter here than anywhere.

Nowhere is the insufficiency of mere Wiki-writing more evident and more merciless than in the writing of fact-based nonfiction, and these writers all seemed to know that; they went well beyond the staked borders of their topics and delivered of themselves as well, or delivered their subjects with much-needed clarity. I recommend all the wonderful books here in the 'Best of' section of our year-end roundup, but I recommend these particular books with just a sliver more enthusiasm than the rest.

10. Denys Wortman's New York - The great artists who did their work quickly, under deadline, to supply the exploding periodical market of the early 20th century have never been given their due. Retrospectives on big advertising names like J. C. Leyendecker have made moves in the right direction, but of the men working in quick pencil-strokes to capture the zeitgeist, the book-buying public has seen comparatively little. This magnificent volume honoring the enormously talented Denys Wortman would thus be a cause for joy even if Wortman's work weren't so great. Luckily, it is - in scene after scene, he perfectly captures a now entirely vanished world of stoops and water-towers and fire escapes and an endless array of people, and he limns it all with a gentle, knowing humor. The reproduction quality here allows every minute decision of Wortman's to be scrutinized and enjoyed, and that's all the more amazing since he seems never to have made a bad one.

9. Dickinson by Helen Vendler - It's a match made on Olympus: one of America's greatest 19th century poets, a crafter of dreamily jagged verse badly in need of explication, gets a whole book's worth of explication from one of the world's greatest poetry critics. It's signature Vendler work: she pours over the poems line by line, word by word, lavishing as much care and attention as the poet did herself (perhaps more? I've long had the impression that she found significances in Keats that he himself didn't see) and yielding a multi-faceted reading richer and more rewarding than any Dickinson has ever had. If I had my way, Vendler would live forever and do a volume like this on every major poet in the world's canon.

8. Ratification by Pauline Maier - In a book-market sludged to the eyeballs with sticky Founding Fathers pap, how refreshing it is to read this long, satisfying book about the state-by-state ratification of the Constitution, written (the book, not the Constitution! Our author isn't quite that old!) by our greatest authority on the American Revolution. Bracing complexity is everywhere on display in this invigorating book, Meier's best, and when you're done reading it, you're struck by how marvellously unlikely it is that the process worked at all. Many books have dealt with this subject, but none nearly so well as this one.

7. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid Macullough - As far as opuses go, they don't get much more magnum than this (included on a technicality because I read it this year!). Macullough tackles the whole incredible breadth of his subject with the gusto of a twenty-something graduate on his first book-contract trip to the Widener, and the result is a work of massive scholarship that's nonetheless immediately approachable an even occasionally lighthearted (not an easy feat when dealing with a religion as soul-crushing and bloody as this one). I've had the stomach to read only four comprehensive histories of Christianity in my life, and this one is the only one of its caliber in English and may well be the best one ever written in any language. Certainly the wit, the perspective, and the erudition expended here are worlds better than their subject deserves.

6. The Book in the Renaissance by Andrew Pettegee - The modern reading world, caught in the revolution of the digital marketplace, is closer to the world Pettegee so spiritedly excavates than any previous era. Then, as now, established formats of books were under assault from a variety of new technologies and viewpoints, and then, as now, the universe of the written word seemed to be expanding in all directions faster than readers could adapt. Pettegee shows that they of course ultimately did adapt (he fills his pages with lively descriptions of all the geniuses, hucksters, and misfits who did the adapting); in addition to this book being first-rate history, it's also quite accidentally (or is it an accident?) encouraging.

5. Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff - How much more clearly can the paramount importance of execution be demonstrated than in Schiff's fantastic biography of Cleopatra, a subject who's received, by a conservative estimate, one million previous biographies? The facts of the last Egyptian queen's life are well-trod - and yet Schiff makes it all feel new and fresh, almost solely through the sparkle and vigor of her prose. There's a thought-provoking re-evaluation on virtually every page of this book, and the whole of it is about as entertaining as ancient history gets.

4. Americans in Paris by Charles Glass - This book matches a great subject - the thousands of Americans who for one reason or another were trapped in Nazi-occupied Paris for the duration of the Second World War - with a really talented writer of nonfiction, and the result is an absorbing examination of what incredible daily pressure does to people, how it forces them to be sometimes completely different from their usual selves, or sometimes heavily concentrated versions of themselves. Again, many previous books have covered this subject - but none so thoroughly, or with such a good ear for yarns.

3. American Caesars by Nigel Hamilton - The simplest temptation with this book would have been to treat it only as a high-spirited hoot: a modern version of Suetionius' "Twelve Caesars," substituting postwar American presidents for Roman emperors but keeping most of Suetonius' angles and obsessions. And that level of entertainment is here in abundance (this is the most enjoyable book on American presidents you're ever likely to read), but Hamilton delivers more than that, a surprisingly more passionate, heartfelt book, very much including his mandarin assessment of George W. Bush.

2. Lost Dogs by Jim Gorant - Really, this is probably the only worthy book anybody could write about the whole story of unrepentant coward and asshole Michael Vick's dog-torturing ring - it's the story of the dogs who survived and thrived with loving families, and it's the story of those families, heroically patient and giving, who opened their homes and hearts in an effort to heal these dogs Vick had ordered tortured and fought. Reading this book isn't quite as satisfying as would be reading a morning news report of Vick's sudden and violent death, but it's the next best thing.

1. The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee - In the celebrated tradition of Zinzner's Rats, Lice, and History, but at once grander in scope and more empathetic in tone, Mukherjee's 'biography' of cancer utilizes dozens of patient profiles and interviews to shape a full-scale portrait of this most personal and devastating of all families of illness. The author's dogged research and fieldwork is matched by the earnest grace of his prose. The combination creates a book of remarkable power and pathos, the single best work of nonfiction I read in 2010.


Brian said...

Hey, Vick is in contention for the MVP this year! And all is forgiven.

Opinioness of the World said...

When I first heard about a new Cleopatra biography, I was intrigued yet skeptical that it would be any good or yield anything new. And I wondered, "What will Steve think of this book??" Then I read a great article by Stacy Schiff in 'The Huffington Post' and saw her on 'The Daily Show' where she was articulate and effortlessly funny. I knew I had to put her biography on my reading list. So glad to see you give it such high praise...can't wait to read it!

Oh and Michael Vick doesn't deserve to be in contention for anything this year other than cruel asshole.

Susan Creeley said...

Vendler "pores," surely, not "pours."

Chuck Darwin said...

Mary Beard has an interesting appraisal of Schiff's biography in the new NYRB. It's admiring, but with several caveats. With all your book reading Steve I have to say I miss the Penny Press reviews that appeared more regularly in the past. Any plans to return to the periodical world anytime soon?