Best of 2011, Part the Third: Nonfiction

Some might say it’s too late to revisit favorite nonfiction books read in 2011, but I disagree, partly because I am intent on cleaning out my drafts folder, and partly because plenty of good nonfiction stands the test of time. Especially when that test is only three years. (Those who are interested in my other “best of 2011” reading posts can catch up with the “prequel,” favorite young adult books, humor and baking books – separate categories, same post – and fiction).

As I’m now writing about books I read about three years ago and my memories of them are not comprehensive, my notes will be correspondingly brief, but I still remember and recommend the following biographies, histories, and memoirs:

Under the Banner of Heaven: a story of violent faith by Jon Krakauer (2003): Booklist calls this a “true-crime/religious expose, which delves deep into the heart of Mormon fundamentalism,” which sums it up neatly. Krakauer alternates between a history of Mormonism and contemporary Mormon fundamentalism. As always, he chooses a gripping topic and writes in a clear, compelling way.

unbrokenUnbroken: a World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (2010): Incredibly, for a book that came out four years ago, there are still holds on the library copies. This is an enduring work: an incredible piece of scholarship and research, written in an accessible and gripping way, with some truly stomach-churning scenes. Technically it’s a biography of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner in the 1930s and an airman in WWII who was shot down, spent over a month at sea, only to be held as a Japanese POW for the remainder of the war, but the story seems too big to belong to just one person.

The Devil in the White City: murder, magic, and madness at the fair that changed America by Erik Larson (2003): Larson’s book, too, remains popular more than a decade after its initial publication. He tells twin narratives: that of the Chicago World’s Fair architects, and that of the serial killer Henry Holmes. The year 1893 comes alive, both the “white city” and the “black city.” I had thought that the two narratives would eventually weave together and converge, and that doesn’t happen, but it’s still an excellent read – sometimes terrifying, filled with interesting details (did you know the Ferris Wheel premiered at the Chicago World’s Fair?), and never boring.

professorandmadmanThe Professor and the Madman: a tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (1998): The subtitle really sums it all up. The eponymous professor, James Murray, was the editor of the first edition of the OED, and the eponymous madman was one Dr. William Minor, an American doctor incarcerated in an asylum in England, and a significant contributor to the OED. Fascinating on a number of levels, and refreshingly brief at under 300 pages.

Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl (1998) and My Life In France by Julia Child (2006): Those who like memoirs and who are interested in food couldn’t choose a better book than Tender at the Bone. Reichl is a funnier writer than I expected, and I still intend to read her other books (Garlic and Sapphires, Comfort Me With Apples). Having said that, for those who like history and travel as well as memoirs and cooking, My Life in France is the book for you. Child is funny, observant, brave, and unselfconscious; I adored this book.

Life by Keith Richards (2010) and John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman (2008): If you are planning to read both of these books, read Lennon first; Norman’s book is packed with detail, thanks to his thorough research, but it is less lively and immediate than Richards’ Life. Partly the difference stems from the voice; Lennon is a biography, while Life is an autobiography, and Richards’ account has the benefit of being in his own words. He remembers far more than anyone could expect him to, and in addition to plenty of anecdotes, Life contains memorable lines like “I imagined everything. I never thought it would happen.” (The audiobook is great too.) The Norman is a bit drier, but it does contain plenty of early Beatles history, who-wrote-what-and-why bits, and perspective on the later years; while one can’t help thinking John was a bit of a jerk, Yoko Ono is presented in a way that even I can’t hate her (as I was brought up to do). On balance, though, Keith’s book is just more fun.

charlesandemmaCharles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman (2008): Biographies written for adults – especially biographies of such major historical figures as Charles Darwin – tend to be doorstops, which can deter those of us who want to learn about someone without, perhaps, learning every single thing about them that a biographer can unearth. Charles and Emma is written for a young adult audience, but it’s a wonderful book for older readers too. Heiligman chooses to view Darwin’s life through the lens of his marriage to his cousin Emma Wedgwood; she is a faithful Christian, and he is a scientist whose theory still sends modern Christians into fits (see: evolution vs. “intelligent design” in science textbooks). Their marriage is a microcosm of this debate that is still ongoing, but it is a thoughtful and respectful one.

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