Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My top non-fiction titles of the past decade

There are all kinds of interesting ways to do this. One book published or read in each year of the decade. A thematic list. But I'm going to be pretty vanilla and just go with ten books that moved me, taught me, fascinated me or simply have stuck with me most. This is only listed in the order I read them. I have to say what a fun experience it is to look over such a period of time and remember various books for whatever reasons. If you keep any kind of reader's log or journal I advise looking back--even if you don't make any kind of list. But if you do, please post responses.

1.) "Down in My Heart" by William Stafford. He is mostly known as a poet and rightly so. But this little book(94 pages) is a treasure. From 1942-1945 Stafford was held in a conscientious objector's camp for his refusal to join the U.S. Army. This is no silver spoon youth whining. His stance is measured and his beliefs often do waver--but never fully break.

2.) "A Book of Reasons" by John Vernon. After the death of his brother the author is left to sort his things. What follows is the full discovery of his brother as a recluse. The items found become a part of who this man was and interspersed with the personal narrative is a brief history of certain items. There are lots of sad family books--and this one is sad--but it is also ultimately a story of one brother's love for another both in life and death.

3.) "Mystery and Manners" by Flannery O'Connor. This is her lone book of non-fiction and it is a collection of essays, speeches and articles. Her main topics and issues have been discussed critically ad nauseum. She is the queen of southern gothic. Yet she possessed humor and tenderness that are often overlooked. The essay on the peacocks she kept as pets is worth the price alone.

4.) John McPhee, is to me, the perfect non-fiction writer. His topics are widely varied. He does research that influences his work but does not overtake it. He's both funny and profound. He lets the subjects speak for themselves. I will not go on. I could pick almost any of his books but I've decided on "Levels of the Game" which is micro-story at its finest. This is, ostensibly, an account of one tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner in 1968. The two could not have been more different in background, style or temperment. So the book is about sports, yes. But it is also about competition and psychology and, like all fine journalism, much more.

5.) "Bury Me Standing" by Isabel Fonseca. I like books on outsider culture of all kinds and gypsy culture could be the most 'outsider' of all in that even its members don't fully conform to one set of ideas or ethnicity. Fonseca has written something that isn't so much a history as a partial glimpse. The very fact that she was given any access at all into these people is a testament to her tenacity and good faith. Gypsies have been mistreated and feared across the globe. Who they are is a genetic and cultural tangle. Fonseca's is the best of the many books on this topic I've read.

6.) "Newjack" by Ted Conover. He tried and tried to get a position as a CO(corrections officer) and it finally worked. This book is an in the life work portrait of a prison worker. A true behind the scenes look at life behind bars and the men who live on both sides.

7.) "Ghosty Men" by Franz Lidz. The infamous Collyer Bros. have gained new life in E.L. Doctorow's new novel "Homer and Langley". Hoarders of all stripes are getting attention on reality tv. Yet these two men, and their stories, are best told through this book.

8.) "Lone Wolf" by Maryanne Vollers. Eric Rudolph is both an obscene criminal and an anti-hero. He was the man behind the 1996 bombing in Atlanta during the Olympics and other, less known, attacks on gay bars and abortion clinics. Despite his identity being known by officials he was on the run for several years--living in seclusion in the Southeastern hills and mountains.

9.) "Danube" by Claudio Magris. I've lived near the mighty Mississippi for all of my life and am enchanted by waters. Magris takes the reader on a journey through, across and beyond this famed river. 

10.) "An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination" by Elizabeth McCracken.  This is a perfect bookend to the Stafford book. Another short personal essay about the loss of a child. That is dark, I know. But she puts things in perspective for both herself and the reader. In the course of her essay I found myself thinking about friendship and family and how I treat them.

11.) When I got to ten I realized I had forgotten one book. "Salt" by Mark Kurlansky is easily the one book I learned the most from. Without doubt.

1 comment:

  1. Ahhh, I loved both Salt and Newjack. And I agree, John MacPhee might be one of the best, maybe the best nonfiction writer around.
    Nice blog, by the way ! Feel free to drop by mine sometime, I mostly blog about nonfiction.