The Big Boys — My Favorite Non-Fiction 2010-2011

You know from my blog, or my reviews, or my Facebook postings, or my e-mails, that I have, shall we say, an eclectic taste in reading.    My fiction list, posted December 30, included stories about a murderous Filipino doctor, a 14th century English courtesan, and a 20th century Spanish ghost.  So, if there is anything predictable about the non-fiction list, it is the maze of topics.   These books are absolutely great and, in every instance, so well-written that they could be fiction.   To begin, a quote from one of my favorites, Alain de Botton:

 “A teenage girl was sitting next to it [a motel swimming pool in the Mojave desert] on a sun lounger and cutting her toenails, which ricocheted remarkable distances across a turquoise-colored concrete floor.  Unfortunately, most of the budget for the pool had apparently been squandered on proclaiming – in an enormous illuminated display by the roadside – that it existed, leaving few resources for it actually to do so.” 

This passage comes from….

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain de Botton.  To evaluate the satisfaction, or lack thereof, of careers in the  global economy, de Botton inveigles himself into a variety of unheard-of jobs, such as Indian Ocean tuna freezer, focus group supervisor for a company that makes hideous chocolate mints for unsuspecting housewives, and ‘entrepeneurship,’ viz, inventors of things that no one buys, such as shoes that walk on water.  The above passage comes from an unlikely assignment in which he has been hired by a Slovenian newspaper to attend airplane equipment manufacturer shows to report on the development of in-flight showers and the like.    Don’t ask how he wound up in the Mojave desert – the read is too good to give it away.   You’ll never look at your career decisions again, not in the same way….

Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand.    Hillenbrand reprises Seabisquit in this story of an American Olympic athlete who joined the Army Air Corps in World War II, only to crash into the Pacific, then drift westward for 46 days, landing in Japanese-held Kwajalein and brutal captivity.   Hillenbrand is a gifted narrator, segueing effortlessly from research to story in this riveting book.

New Dawn:  The Battles for Fallujah, by Richard Lowry, painstakingly details the 2004 battles that ravaged Fallujah, Iraq.  He is a writer of great talent in a difficult genre, the chronicle of non-fiction current military history.  Behind the text, this book is about the call to honor to undertake deadly and uncertain work for no reason other than acceptance of the role of being an American in an uncertain world.

The American Future, Simon Schama.   There is no greater narrative historian writing in English today. Schama deftly surveys the history of religious freedom, immigration, the American war machine, and religion, peeling off layer after layer of the veneer in which we have cloaked our core institutions, to reveal that in our quest for wealth the American people risk a return to the intolerance and bigotry that enabled a religious free colony to burn witches and approved the restless pursuit of land that blithely destroyed native Americans and their homelands in the name of Christian economy.  

Bodyguard of Lies, Anthony Cave Brown.   A detailed recount of the intelligence services and their missions in World War II.  Brown works from just-released government files to lay out the history of the captured Enigma coding machine, the frequently-tragic support of resistance in France, the failed courtship of a German intelligence officer and his cohorts to assassinate Hitler and to surrender Germany to the Allies, and the complex deception of creating an inflatable army, complete with rubber tanks and artillery and radio traffic, to deceive the Germans into believing that the invasion of Fortress Europe would be anywhere except Normandy.

The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, by, well, Benvenuto Cellini .    When you stand in the Piazza della Signora in Florence, taking in the giant sculpture of Neptune near the copy of the sculpture of David, and ask yourself  ‘Who is the genius who cast that huge sculpture of Neptune?’, the answer is  ‘One of the most conceited, delusional, and entertaining artists of the Renaissance.’  Cellini sucked up to de Medicis, popes, and King Henry of France for commissions for coins, statues, and the like, picked fights with those passing his window, and landed in a series of papal prisons where he composed disengenuous mea culpa books of prayer, fawned over his illegitimate son while ignoring his similar daughter, and killed more than a few stable keepers, rivals, and unfortunate bystanders.  I’ve never read anything quite like it.

Truman and MacArthur, Don Farinacci.   This elegant book captures the personalities of two of America’s greatest leaders, one an accidental president, the other an iconic general who forgot that the Constitution empowers the civilian as the commander in chief, clashing over the control of America during the Korean War.

Travels with Myself and Another, Martha Gellhorn.    Gellhorn was a feisty journalist who covered World War II in China and Europe (marrying Ernest Hemingway, then dumping him when he stole her press pass to get on a D-Day landing boat).   Her accounts include a fascinating west-to-east crossing of Africa as a single woman in the 1950s, using carts, cabs, and a hapless old Land Rover in Rwanda.   A must read for women who value independence, for anyone who is or wants to be a journalist, or anyone who travels.

An Army at Dawn, Rick Atkinson.   The first of his World War II trilogy, this volume covers America’s entry into the war through northern Africa, from Casablanca to Tunisia.   He is an exceptional writer, mastering the art of storytelling in the most complex of fields without bogging down in mind-numbing  lists of unit numbers, commanders’ names, and the like.    Atkinson’s honest appraisal of the fledging United States Army in Africa, the conflicts between and among British commanders and Eisenhower, and the myth-piercing history of Patton’s rather limited role in this theatre are Pulitzer-worthy.

The Lady Queen, Nancy Goldstone.    Joanna, fourteenth century queen of Naples, Sicily and Jerusalem, inherited her throne from her grandfather in that most risqué of snake dens, the Italian peninsula during the Avignon papacy.   Surviving in a world of assassins, military invasions,  and shifting alliances, Joanna begins the defense of her throne by defending herself against charges of murdering her husband, an accusation that if proved would have cost her crown as well as the head beneath it.  A fascinating read of a world in which popes and bishops were as greedy and power mad as princes and dukes.   Think ‘Goldman Sachs meets L.Ron Hubbard in the Middle Ages.’  

Fortress Rabaul, Bruce Gamble.  This is  a riveting history of two years of unrelenting conflict in the South Pacific triangle of New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and New Britain Island, on which the port, village, and Japanese military base of Rabaul was established at the expense of a luckless Australian unit known as Lark Force.

And, to wrap it up, 

 War, Sebastian Junger.   This painful look at our over-extended troops in Afghanistan is the product of Mr. Junger’s having been embedded with an Army infantry platoon in a remote front line unit in the Korengal Valley, a wretched outpost on the Pech River in eastern Afghanistan, on the Pakistan border.   The documentary film won the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize.

 Enjoy the books and, if you have one you want me to read, let me know.  That’s how this works. 

Now, got to go —  I’m starting in on Porcelain and Steel, by my friend Donna McAleer…. 

Jack