Monday, December 15, 2014

2014 Top Ten: Nonfiction

Subject to any last second surprise coming my way this year in the way of nonfiction titles, these are my favorite nonfiction books of 2014.  I enjoyed, learned from, and admire each and every one of them:

1.   Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman - Robert L. O'Connell -  The two key military figures on the Union side during the Civil War were Generals Grant and Sherman.  Arguably, these two men formed a  partnership that did as much to end the war in favor of the Union as anything else that happened during that four year run of American history.  Fierce Patriot, which explores all phases of the man's life, is the best Sherman biography I have ever read.

2.   Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee - Michael Korda - Coincidentally (I think), Korda's lengthy new R.E. Lee biography was also published in 2014.  It would have been a top pick of 2014 even without the publication of Fierce Patriot, but having the two books published so close together gives the reader a chance to look at the war through the eyes of two opposing generals. It is so instructive a book that I have come to regard it as the definitive Lee biography.

3.   The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee - Marja Mills - Despite Harper Lee's assertion that she had nothing to do with this book and is unhappy with it, the author still avows that, during their relationship as friends and next-door neighbors, Ms. Lee was aware of, and gave her consent to, the idea that Mills was going to write a book.  Regardless of which woman is correct, this one offers a rare insight into Harper Lee's everyday life and relationship with her elder sister. To Kill a Mockingbird fans should not miss it.

4.   The Search for Anne Perry - Joanne Drayton - Unlike the situation with the book just above, there is no doubt that Anne Perry approved of Drayton's book and fully cooperated with her efforts.  Readers have been fascinated for years about Anne Perry's Australian murder conviction (she and a friend bludgeoned the friend's mother to death with half-a-brick when the girls were teens).  That conviction, paired with Perry's career as a crime writer specializing in fictional murders, makes people naturally curious about what happened in Australia and how the author has coped with her past.  The Search for Anne Perry offers some answers, but I suspect that it is unlikely to change many minds about Perry or her occupational choice.

5.  The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend - Glenn Frankel - John Ford's masterpiece film, The Searchers, is very much a movie legend.  Here Glenn Frankel details the making of The Searchers, including inside stories about John Wayne, John Ford, and others essential to the movie's successful completion.  The book, however, is more than just another book about a famous movie.  Frankel thoroughly researched the true story upon which the movie is based, that of Cynthia Ann Parker who was kidnapped in Texas (1836) by Comanches when she was only nine years old. Cynthia Ann is a Texas legend whose story has been told many times in many ways, but the reality of her life has been clouded by the myth-making of Hollywood and novelists.  Frankel explains here where myth and reality collide, but he argues that the two are of equal importance.

6.   Johnny Cash: The Life - Robert Hilburn - This biography focuses almost entirely on Cash's life from the time he arrived in Memphis and began to make records - with roughly ten percent of the book occurring prior to that date.  It is frank about the personal lives of both John Cash and June Carter Cash, and some of what it has to say will likely surprise even the most ardent of Johnny Cash fans out there.

7.  13 Hours in Benghazi: The Inside Account of What Really Happened - Mitchell Zuckoff - 13 Hours is about what happened on the ground in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11-12, 2012, when four U.S. citizens (including Ambassador Christopher Stevens) were murdered there.  It is NOT about the politics of the situation or what might have been happening in the White House simultaneously to the attack in Libya.  Told through the eyes of some of the defenders who were there, 13 Hours reads more like a thriller than a first-person history of an actual event.  What this handful of men did is astounding, but whether or not the truth about how they were left in such a vulnerable position in the first place is ever revealed remains to be seen.

8.   Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption - Laura Hillenbrand - As one of the biggest books of 2014, this one has been hard for readers to miss.  And, because a movie version of Unbroken will be released near Christmas, the book's fame may not have peaked even now.  Unbroken tells what Olympic runner Louis Zamperini endured during World War II at the hands of his Japanese captors.  Perhaps the most memorable part of Zamperini's story is how he found forgiveness for the Japanese man who tortured him for so long - and what happened decades later when the two men finally met face-to-face one final time.

9.  Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever Growing Deity - Matthew Paul Turner - This is an ironic, often humorous, look at the history and evolution of organized religion in America.  Turner studies the good and the bad, and leaves it up to the reader to decide which is which.  One thing for certain is that most readers will likely come to realize that, in this country, "God was created in the image of man" and not vice versa.

10.  My Salinger Year - Joanna Rakoff - In 1996, when she was twenty-three years old, the author experienced life in one of the last "old school" literary agencies in New York.  Having J.D. Salinger taking a shine to her was just a bonus to the overall experience.  Here Rakoff tells us all about it - and shares her personal experiences with the famous author.  Readers who enjoy books about books need to find this one.


  1. Your list gave me several ideas. I wasn't sure about the Salinger book or the Harper Lee book, but you convinced me.

  2. I hope you enjoy them, Susan. Of the two, I was most intrigued with the Harper Lee book because, for the first time, she seemed like a real person to me and not some shadowy figure.

  3. I just put in an order for Our Great Big American God. Glad to hear it's worth it. The topic is interesting, no doubt. But those books can often stray off in too many directions to make for a decent read.

    1. Trav, I particularly like the way that the history of religion in this country is handled in the book with a good bit of humor and irony. That technique is helpful in making many of the points the author wants to make about the evolution of our image of God as we know it today. I was most surprised about how recently in the past it is that we've changed from the traditional image of God the Father to worshiping Jesus almost exclusively in most religions.