Friday, December 31, 2010

Books of 2010: Best Non-Fiction

On the final day of the year, my final installment of book recommendations. This non-fiction list is so much more difficult than my fiction list. In any other year, an older book like Geoffrey Canada's Fist Stick Knife Gun or a new book like Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus would have topped this list. The nonfiction books I read in 2010 were, however, quite extraordinary, making those titles runners up. Because I have no editor, though, I don't have to limit myself to one or even two recommendations. I've got three non-fiction books to recommend, each of them very different. In no particular order:

James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere; The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape, 1993
A good friend with generally different reading tastes than mine recommended this book, and I'm glad he did. Kunstler may be a little crazy (he declared the end of the automobile age in this book seventeen years ago), but he's smart crazy. The book outlines how land development evolved in this country and how we ended up with the crappy suburbs we have today. Kunstler grew up in Manhattan and now lives in small-town Saratoga Springs, NY. Because I also now listen to his podcast (the Kunstlercast), I can't remember what I've heard there, and what's in the book, but the book lays out what makes traditional urban fabric work and what makes the suburbs so dysfunctional. It's a seminal book by a unique thinker that will make some people muse "oh yeah" and others fling the book across the room. Here at the end of the year, I realize that Kunstler has given me a structure for evaluating a built landscape as I pass through it, which is a little tedious for my friends and family.

Hampton Sides, Ghost Soldiers, 2001

An incredibly gripping book with some passages that are very difficult to read. I p
icked up this book because Hampton Sides (a Yale graduate) was coming to town for a Yale Club of Pittsburgh event with his brand new book Hellhound on his Trail; The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for his Assassin. Hellhound was not yet available, but reading about his other work made me curious. Ghost Soldiers tells the story of American POWs in the Philippines in World War II from the Bataan Death March to the deplorable and deadly conditions in prison camps for three long years until the Americans came back to retake the peninsula they lost to the Japanese in late 1941 and early 1942. Sides alternates chapters, one unfolding the story of how the prisoners came to be in one of the worst camps in the Philippines and the next describing the newly-formed Army Rangers and the bold plan to attempt to free a group of the last, most desperate POWs. Sides did an incredible amount of research but writes history on a McCullough-esque level (yes, I said it) that draws in the reader and does not let go until the story is told. Hellhound is very good as well, but I'd recommend Ghost Soldiers over Hellhound if you had only one book left to live.

Michael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs, 2009

A collection of personal essays about growing up and becoming a father. A really delightful book. The essays are enjoyable and engaging and demonstrate Chabon's writing ability by featuring the occasional sentence that just takes your breath away. Since being a fathe
r dominates a lot of my time and identity right now, I really identified with those essays but enjoyed the entire collection. I liked this book so much that I a) own it (a rare occurrence for a Carnegie Library devotee) and b) have lent it to two friends already. The book feels a bit like fine chocolate. You might want to take a break and cleanse your palate in the middle so you can really appreciate the experience without being overloaded by it.


Lauren Jackson said...

How does one read all these great recommendations when one has to read Lord of the Flies, Night, Of Mice and Men, Heart of Darkness, All Quiet on the Western Front, Jane Eyre, 1984, Brave New World, Hamlet, Things Fall Apart, and A Doll's House in 10 months? Nonfiction? Forgettaboutit. Someday, I'll get to come back to your lists! Let me tell ya, though, as I read Of Mice and Men for the first time--that Steinbeck is a genius!

JFo said...

Steinbeck is a genius. As for how you can read nonfiction: