Saturday, January 23, 2010

Books of the Aughts: Best 7 non-fiction books I've read this decade, written this decade.

OK, patient readers: my final list of books of the decade. There are some really terrific ones on this list. It was so hard to narrow it down that I named six runners-up along with seven winners. Get cracking. You've got a lot of reading to do.


Dress your Family in Corduroy and Denim,
Sedaris, David, 2004
The Sex Lives of Cannibals; Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific, Troost, J. Maarten, 2004
The Best American Essays 2003, Fadiman, Anne, Robert Atwan, Editors, 2003
The Outlaw Sea; A World of Freedom, Chaos and Crime, Langewiesche, William, 2004
Presentation Zen, Reynolds, Garr, 2008
Nurtureshock; New Thinking about Children, Bronson, Po and Ashley Merriman, 2009

The Top 7 Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, Brooks, David, 2000
After hearing about this book on National Public Radio, I was primed to read it. I started reading a library copy and then liked it so much, I bought my own copy. Buying any book is a rare occasion for me with access to a well-stocked public library system, but this book was worth it. Brooks writes about the educated elite in the late '90s, early 21st century, whom he terms "Bobos" for Bourgeois Bohemians. He argues that the lines between the bourgeoisie and the bohemian set have blurred. In the 60s and 80s, the bourgeois business people ruled with their conformity and prosperity. From the 50s through the 70s, there were also bohemians, opposing the squares and open to intellectual inquiry and removing limits. Today's educated class, argues Brooks, are an amalgam of both of these cultures to such a degree that he says "you can't tell the artists from the stockbrokers." He calls his technique "comic sociology." His observations are spot on about the Bobo class, of whom he considers himself one. At times, his characterizations are laugh-out-loud funny. A must read for those who wish to understand today's rich young rulers.

Population 485: meeting your neighbors one siren at a time, Perry, Michael, 2002

I heard about this book on Whaddya Know, but I didn't hear the whole story, so I was surprised to learn that it's not just essays about small-town Wisconsin life; it centers around the author's experiences as an EMT and volunteer firefighter. Perry has a very easy, accessible, down-to-earth way about his writing. Organized loosely around themes - the history of firefighting, death, bloopers - the chapters meander from character sketch to anecdote to social observation. Feeling at once an insider (he was born and raised on a farm near town) and an outsider (he writes for a living instead of farming or logging), membership on the towns VFD brings him some credibility and reduces his neighbors' suspicions about him. A mixture of humor, honest sociology and poignant story-telling, this is a wonderful book about small-town life at the turn of the 21st century.

Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs; a Low Culture Manifesto, Klosterman, Chuck, 2003

I heard a tiny snippet from this book on NPR's This American Life. It was about a party game in which the players equate 70s-90s TV shows with 70s-90s bands. That and the subtitle made it sound like my kind of book. Reviews of this book were very mixed; having read it, I now think the divide must have been a straight line on age. Gen Xers will, for the most part, adore this book, and anyone else, will for the most part, discount it or not understand it. Klosterman grew up in my exact low cultural milieu and, although we remain devoted to different features of that milieu, I can totally understand where he's coming from. Probably the best essay in the book argues that the fact that the dark side is winning at the end of the Empire Strikes Back explains the much-maligned lack of initiative and general malaise of many Gen Xers. If you were born between 1967 and 1977, read this book. Otherwise, pass it by and leave us to enjoy it.

Meet you in Hell; Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and the Bitter Partnership that Transformed America, Standiford, Les, 2005
This book was recommended to me by a work colleague who is a self-proclaimed history geek. She spoke about it in ecstatic terms, and the book did not disappoint. A close history of the relationships between Carnegie and Frick as both rose to baron-dom and became two of the richest men in the world through Pittsburgh's steel industry, the book had all the drama of a novel. The title comes from Frick's retort to Carnegie's death-bed plea that Frick visit him and that they bury the hatched before Carnegie dies. Frick tells Carnegie's courier something to the effect of "Tell Andrew I'll meet him; tell him I'll see him in hell where we're both going." The decision to focus in on the two men and their close circle is a smart one. So many histories that cover a period as long as the 50 years this book covers get too sprawling to be able to follow. I never found myself trying to remember who the players were while reading this book. Reading it and learning more about the early history of steel-making has made walking around Pittsburgh a richer experience.

Strange Piece of Paradise, Jentz, Terri, 2006

This is the incredible story of two women who set out to bike across the country in the summer of 1977. Yale sophomore Terri Jentz and a friend were camping in a state park in Oregon just 8 days into their trip when they were attacked by a well-dressed cowboy who drove over their tent and then attacked them with a hatchet. Their attacker was not caught, and Jentz went back in 1992 to start investigating the attack, on which the statute of limitations had expired. It's a gripping tale of shifting suspects and the author's quest to understand how the attack affected her.

Getting Things Done; the Art of Stress-Free Productivity, Allen, David, 2001

This is a terrific, life-changing book about how to organize projects and tasks in order to, um, get things done. A core concept is to focus on the next action, which requires breaking projects down into the next possible step for the project and executing that step. This can produce a freedom from the dread that opaque or unwritten to do lists can bring. Allen talks about our brains being like computer memory, and that it's important to free up the RAM to handle whatever we're currently working on by not trying to constantly remember all the things we have to do. The irony about this book is that I started reading it on vacation in the summer of 2005 and just finished it now. I've implemented some of Allen's tenets and wish daily that I did more of them. I think it would require dedicating a weekend to defining my current list of work projects and cleaning up my office. Sigh. I have become an evangelist for this book and everyone who has taken my recommendation to seek out a copy has been very excited by it.

There is No Me Without You, Greene, Melissa Fay, 2006

An incredible and important book that I now think everyone I know needs to read. Greene chronicles the manifestation of the AIDS epidemic in Ethiopia in general and tells the specific story of Haregewoin Teferra, an ordinary woman who happened into playing a crucial role in the lives of AIDS orphans. Taking in a few to begin with, she eventually found herself running an orphanage with dozens of children, both HIV-positive and HIV-negative. The crisis has ravaged the country, wiping out ghastly proportions of a generation and leaving millions of children parentless and homeless. Giving them a humble home that protects them from the ravages of the street is a sometimes-messy task. There is no doubt, however, that she saved life after life. Haregewoin's story and the children's stories are wrenching and gripping. Some of the times when I read the book, I'd just read with tears streaming down my face. An absolute must read

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