OK, so my annual list of The Best Non-fiction Books I Read This Year is a little skimpy this time around, but what it lacks in sheer numbers it more than makes up for in total awesomeness. I was awful busy in 2009 putting my own book to bed (see if you can guess which one is mine), so I read less for pleasure than I normally do.
Having said that (apologies to Larry David), here’s the list:
The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965. Author Sam Stephenson is an old friend, so I’ve watched this one develop for years and I knew I would love it. I’m hardly an impartial observer. But as Sam himself would say, “Holy f**king dogshit is this awesome.” Dwight Garner, the New York Times’ reviewer, considers it the most significant coffee table book of the year. While I wouldn’t necessarily classify it that way, I can’t disagree. “The book is an elegiac stew of sight and sound,” Garner writes, “and a singularly weird, vital and thrumming American document.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. You can learn more about the project through a multi-part WNYC radio documentary series here. Honestly: I cannot possibly recommend this book highly enough.
Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, by Robin D.G. Kelley. I’m a big fan of RDGK’s work as a historian and Monk is one of my favorite musicians. I’m the target demographic. I don’t think I was quite prepared, though, for how great this biography would be. It’s clearly a labor of love for Kelley; he’s the only person in the world who could have written this book. This is an idiosyncratic and meticulously detailed chronicle of one of the most unique artist-geniuses the US has ever produced. (Monk arranged and rehearsed the Town Hall concert that put him on the map in Eugene Smith’s loft; see above.) The way Kelley deals with Monk’s mental illness is thoughtful, generous, and heartbreaking.
Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt, by Hasan Kwame Jeffries. All this one does is pull back the curtain on a too-long ignored corner of the civil rights struggle, introduce the world to some unforgettable freedom fighters, and rewrite the early history of Black Power. Not bad for a first book.
Hopefully 2009 was the year when I read the last of the accounts of the Bush administration’s goings-on that made me as ashamed of my country as I’ve ever been in my life while I was reading them. This year’s entries:
The Forever War by Dexter Filkins. Filkins is dogged journalist, an incredible writer, and a good soul; he has since moved on to the Afghanistan beat and earlier this year stepped out of his journalist shoes to raise money for Afghan schoolgirls. (I can’t find the Times Magazine article about this behind the firewall, but it’s back there somewhere.) But this book about bumbling through the war in Iraq didn’t quite move me the way Imperial Life in the Emerald City did.
Angler : The Cheney Vice Presidency. Ugh. Why do I even bother? This book is an impressive display of investigatory journalism by Barton Gellman. It’s just that Gellman has a total creep for a subject. How in the world are we going to explain this asshole to our grandkids?
Zeitoun has been covered elsewhere on this site. I concur with all of the plaudits. Rather than seconding them, however, I want to use this space to give Dave Eggers another shout-out for What is the What? I assigned it to my graduate Oral History Theory and Methods class this semester and it led to one of the best classroom discussions I’ve ever been a part of. Dave Eggers, you rock.
There are three books about the Amazon I meant to read this year but didn’t. I’m pretty sure they would have made my list if I had:
Fordlandia and The Lost City of Z are the obvious choices. What nearly slipped past my notice was Conquest of the Useless, which may be the granddaddy of them all. I haven’t exactly followed director Werner Herzog’s career, and I’ve never seen his movie “Fitzcarraldo.” That one was set in the Amazon, and according to all accounts Herzog made some… let’s just say questionable decisions while filming it, and this is his behind-the-scenes recount of that episode.
I’m curious about this book because Herzog’s film “Grizzly Man” is one of my favorite documentaries, easily the most unintentionally hilarious movie I’ve ever seen. I can’t begin to explain it in a paragraph, but it revisits the life of Timothy Treadwell, whom we can charitably call a unique fellow who went off to Alaska to live with wild-ass grizzly bears. Treadwell believed that he had come to understand and commune with the grizzlies totally. The grizzly bears, being grizzly bears and all, finally got sick of his shit and – no one could have possibly predicted this – ate him (and Treadwell recorded it). Herzog tells the story straight, which is funny in its own right, but he also drives the story along with his own narration: dime-store philosophy that he voices in Schwarzeneggerian English. Imagine the Terminator saying, “I believe Timothy tried to escape the bonds of humanity to become a bay-ah.” I can’t possibly do it justice.
Surely Conquest of the Useless offers more of the same, in equal doses of self-importance and utter lack of self-awareness. (You know how they say Tragedy + Time = Funny? No. The formula should be Funny Accent + Self-Importance – Self-Awareness = Really Funny.) I think this one could be the laugh riot of the year.
Special bonus: Herzog has a new film that features Nicolas Cage trying on a New Orleans accent that will surely drive Tim crazy. The man is a comedy genius!