These are my ten favorite nonfiction books of the 35 books read in that category during 2010:
1. George Washington: A Life - Ron Chernow - I would guess that most Americans do not even realize how little they know about George Washington. Oh, sure, we all know that silly cherry tree story (an event that never happened) proving that Washington "could not tell a lie." We know that he crossed the Delaware River on December 25, 1776, during the Revolutionary War because we are familiar with the historically inaccurate Emanuel Leutze painting from 1851 portraying that courageous decision. We know about Washington's wooden teeth, or we think we do since that is another slightly bent story about our first president (the real story of Washington's dental problems is even more fascinating than the myth about his wooden teeth).
2. My Reading Life - Pat Conroy - Pat Conroy fans, this one is for you. Longtime readers of Conroy’s fiction have often wondered why so many years pass between new books, how much truth is really contained in his novels, how his family reacts about seeing themselves in his novels, and whether Conroy’s abuse at the hands of his father has had a long term impact on his head. In My Reading Life, Conroy answers all of those questions – and many more.
3. Lies My Mother Never Told Me - Kaylie Jones - Her father is James Jones, the National Book Award winner most famous for From Here to Eternity, the first book of his World War II trilogy that also includes The Thin Red Lineand Whistle. Her mother is Gloria Jones, an outrageously full of life woman so beautiful that she was once a Marilyn Monroe stand-in. Like her father, Kaylie Jones is a talented writer and she has spent a lifetime immersed in the literary world. Unfortunately, Jones also shares the alcoholism suffered by both her parents, a problem she addresses frankly in Lies My Mother Never Told Me: A Memoir.
4. War - Sebastian Junger - For a long time, I have been fascinated by the breed of reporter/writer so willing to put everything on the line in order to experience warfare alongside American soldiers. It is only from these brave and talented men and women that the rest of us get a decent picture of what is really happening out there and what our young soldiers are enduring for months on end. Sebastian Junger is one of the best of the breed. I am already a fan of Junger’s The Perfect Storm and A Death in Belmont, both of which are excellently written, but I do believe that War is his best effort yet.
5. Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book - Sean Manning, ed. - All of us, I suspect, have one or two favorite books on our shelves, books that we are as much emotionally attached to as anything else we own. But, think about that for a second. One’s favorite books, the ones carried around during a lifetime of relocations, are not necessarily favorites because of what is between their covers. They are just as likely to be favorites because of all the memories attached to their acquisition, or where they were first read, or what family member owned them first, or because they were a gift from a favorite teacher, relative, or long lost friend. As the back cover of Bound to Last puts it, we love this kind of book “because of its significance as a one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable object.”
6. Mark Twain's Other Woman - Laura Skandera Trembley - During his lifetime, Mark Twain was arguably the most famous man in the world. As such, he was very conscious of the public image that guaranteed him a secure income stream on the lecture tour any time he needed to tap into it. And because Twain had a habit of losing money to unwise investment decisions, the money he earned from public appearances was crucial if he was to maintain the lifestyle to which he and his family had become so accustomed. Toward the end of his life, Mark Twain became increasingly concerned about how he would be remembered after his death, and he was determined that nothing would tarnish his image at that late date. He achieved that goal - until now.
7. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley, Eddie Dean - When it comes to country music history, Ralph Stanley has pretty much seen it all. Now, at age 82, he has partnered with author Eddie Dean to share some of that with the rest of us. The book they co-authored, Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times, will, of course be especially appreciated by bluegrass fans, Stanley Brothers fans, and fans of the work Ralph has done since Carter’s death on December 1, 1966. Others, even those that are not fans of Stanley or of bluegrass music, will find the book to be a remarkable snapshot of a pivotal period in American music history, a time during which musicians like the Stanley Brothers earned their livings through live radio shows, relatively primitive recordings, and driving countless miles from one paying gig to the next.
8. At Home: A Short History of Private Life - Bill Bryson - Readers who enjoyed Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (in which he covered the world of science), are likely to be equally taken by At Home: A Short History of Private Life in which the author turns his attention to social history. At first glance, I feared that Bryson was going to do little more than wander from room to room of his home, explaining along the way the development of the form and function of each of the old house’s rooms. This 19th century-built home, a former parsonage located in rural England, certainly lends itself to that type of discussion. Luckily, however, Bryson had much more in mind for At Home.
9. Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen - Jimmy McDonough - Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen is some kind of crazy cross between biography and author memoir. I call it crazy because, in theory, it should not work - but the craziest thing about it is how well it does work once the reader clicks to the book’s obvious slant. Author Jimmy McDonough idolizes Tammy Wynette and he is none too thrilled with those who so often made her life a living hell. While he recounts Wynette’s life in detail, McDonough is quick to offer his personal opinion about those details. He never hesitates to ridicule individual songs, hair styles, clothing, or album covers, for instance. McDonough wisely does not even attempt to portray himself as the impersonal biographer. Otherwise, the four or five personal “letters” to Wynette he places throughout the book would be even stranger than they already are.
10. Losing My Cool - Thomas Chatterton Williams - It is always easier for an outsider to be objective about an unfamiliar culture than it is for someone totally immersed in that same culture, especially when strict conformity to the accepted norm of the culture serves as a means of survival within it. I recognize, however, that an outsider brings his own baggage and bias into any discussion about a culture foreign to his eyes. And when it comes to the hip-hop culture that so completely dominates overall black culture today, especially the lives of its younger members, I am absolutely an outsider. But, as such, I have long wondered how, and why, American blacks have allowed their culture and their image as a people to be disgraced by something as shallow and destructive as hip-hop. In Losing My Cool, Thomas Chatterton Williams explores how the hip-hop culture came to dominate Black America and what needs to be done to counter its terrible influence on young people.
I am particularly pleased with the quality of the books on this year's Nonfiction Top 10 list. I had hoped to read more nonfiction in 2010 than I read in 2009 but finished with only 35 nonfiction titles for the year. Maybe I was just lucky; maybe I was more careful in my choices. Whatever the reason, I think this is my strongest nonfiction Top 10 list in the four years I've been sharing here on Book Chase. Check some of these out if you have the time - you won't be disappointed.