For this reader, the year 2008 – already gone past! – was filled with great nonfiction reading.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale concerns the murder, in 1860, of three-year-old Saville Kent. This horrific crime was discovered on what seemed like an ordinary morning at Road Hill House, home of the Kent family. The constabulary of the village of Road, in Wiltshire, was ill equipped to deal with this baffling situation. In rides Mr. Jonathan “Jack” Whicher of Scotland Yard. He forms a theory almost at once about this prototypical English country house murder. There’s just one problem: no one believes him. It seems that everyone, from the local police to reporters to fascinated onlookers, has his or her own idea of the who the real perpetrator is. They have all, in the words of Wilkie Collins, contracted “detective-fever.”
The Beautiful Cigar Girl by Daniel Stashower. In 1838, eighteen-year-old Mary Rogers was hired by John Anderson to work behind the counter at his cigar store at 319 Broadway. With her widowed mother, Mary had come to New York from Connecticut several years earlier. By the time she was sixteen, her beauty had been noted by many. John Anderson’s bid to increase the custom at his store by hiring her was eminently successful. Perhaps, too much so. By the ago of 20, she was dead, the victim of a horrendous murder. In telling this story, Stashower brings 1840’s New York City to vivid, fascinating life. We encounter the notorious “Gangs of New York,” with scary names like the Plug Uglies, the Slaughter Houses, and the Dead Rabbits. We read about “The Great Moon Hoax,” subject of a new book:
Finally, there is the haunted -and haunting – presence of Edgar Allan Poe. During the time period covered in this book, Poe was living variously in New York and Philadelphia. He was close enough to the scene of the crime to develop his own theory concerning what really happened to Mary Rogers, and why. He set forth his ideas in “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” one of the three tales featuring his seminal sleuth C. Auguste Dupin. Although the setting was transposed to Paris and the victim’s name correspondingly changed, everyone knew what the story’s real subject was.
Daniel Stashower took part in my favorite panel at Bouchercon, “‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination’ – The Enduring Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe.” I knew after hearing him speak that I wanted to read this book. That said, for me at least, it was rather slow going. Still – it’s a vibrant, rich stew of a volume, and I really do recommend it. (Next Monday the 12th, Daniel Stashower will be taking part in a commemoration of Poe’s birthday, courtesy of the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program. And on the 19th, the mysterious Poe Toaster will lay his tribute on the poet’s grave in Westminster Burying Ground in Baltimore.)
This past year, I also had great reading in memoir and biography:
A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana, by Haven Kimmel. When she heard that I was co-presenting a program called “Blue Ribbon Biographies,” a friend of mine at the library recommended this alternately hilarious and poignant little book. I listened to it, as read by the author, but I also recommended getting the book; the snapshots of Zippy, her family, friends, and various animals should not be missed.
In Thrumpton Hall: A Memoir of Life in My Father’s House, by Miranda Seymour, the reader is taken behind the facade of a stately home to learn the true cost of maintaining that facade.
Rick Bass came close to complete exhaustion in his effort to protect his beloved Yaak Valley, Montana. In Why I Came West, he delivers an honest and eloquent account of this emotionally draining struggle.
Nothing To Be Frightened Of, by Julian Barnes is a combination memoir and meditation on death. A pull-no-punches tour de force that soars into the stratosphere of poetic longing. Also very funny – in some places.
Peter Ackroyd’s engaging biography of Newton is part of a series called Ackroyd’s Brief Lives. The prolific Ackroyd, author of both fiction (The Fall of Troy) and nonfiction, is one of my favorite writers.
The Pearl: A True Story of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great’s Russia, by Douglas Smith.For me, reading Russian history is akin to entering some kind of hallucinating state or alternate universe. The Pearl is a slow read, but worth the effort – you’ll be rewarded with an intensely moving love story.
Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon, by Andrea di Robilant. I learned lots of European history while reading this book, but the main attraction is Lucia herself. The author’s great-great-great-great grandmother, Lucia Mocenigo begins as a naive adolescent bride; in short order and out of necessity, she grows into a self-possessed, even formidable woman. This book is a sort of sequel to A Venetian Affair, which I also loved and which, like Lucia, grew out of the discovery of a large cache of letters written by the dramatis personae. May Andrea di Robilant – who looks the part of the Italian aristocracy from which he is descendant (though rather more approachable) – never run out of ancestors with an epistolary bent!
Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach, by Meryl Gordon. Well, of course, they were not beyond reproach, any more than most of us are. Still, their wealth and status set them apart, and ultimately set them on a disastrous collision course with one another.
Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer. My “blog stats” indicate an enormous continuing interest in the all-too-brief life of Chris McCandless. A reader recently wrote an exceptionally blunt, emotionally honest response to my post on this book. His words helped me to understand why the story of this young man’s unorthodox life and premature death means so much to so many readers (and viewers of the film).
American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work, by Susan Cheever. I never tire of reading about this extraordinary group of people. I’ve been to Concord, Massachusetts three times in order to exploring their various homes and haunts. And the place does have a kind of haunted quality.
Finally, there are some wild card, harder-to-categorize books that grabbed me this year, like:
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan. I knew I wanted to read this because I had been so impressed – and hugely entertained – by The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In Defense of Food is a much shorter, tighter, book with a more specific focus, summed up rather succinctly by the author: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Once again, I came away with a greater understanding of what has happened to change so drastically the way we perform the basic human function of eating.
I also want to mention The Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku. I didn’t read this all the way through, and I haven’t looked at it in a while, but I want to acknowledge this author’s wonderful ability to make the arcana of physics accessible to nonscientists. Like Michael Pollan, Kaku is a natural raconteur with a great sense of humor.
When I began listening to Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World (read by the author), I was expecting a lighthearted travelogue interspersed with observations on human nature drawn primarily from pop psychology. What I got was something rather more ambitious, thoughtful, and provocative than I had expected. The book also manages to be laugh-out-loud funny, and Weiner never takes himself too seriously. I’ll have more to say about The Geography of Bliss in a subsequent post. (This book has been reviewed by two of my favorite librarians on the library’s blog, Highly Recommended.)
The Discovery of France: A Historical Georgaphy from the Revolution to the First World War, by Graham Robb. This book, a sort of anthropology of post-Revolutionary France, had me flabbergasted. Farmers, men and women, walking around in their fields ON STILTS? This is too weird. And that’s just one of the singularities uncovered by this amazing dogged and resourceful reporter. Strange customs, odd landforms, archaic traditions…all there, all observed and described with grace and perspicacity. How I long to make the journey into “La France Profonde” – with Graham Robb as my guide!
There are two collections of short pieces that I’d like to recommend: The Best American Crime Reporting 2007 and The Best American Magazine Writing 2007. The latter volume in particular contained some amazingly powerful articles; far from detracting, their brevity actually enhanced their impact. (The 2008 editions of both these collections are already out, a fact which pleased and enticed me so greatly that I’ve already purchased both of them.)
Finally, there is Dark Water: Flood and Redemption in the City of Masterpieces, by Robert Clark. Perhaps because of my recollections of visiting Florence before and after the flood of 1966, or because of my newly awakened interest in the art of Italy, or because of an intense, if diffuse, spiritual yearning – this book hit me like a revelation. The writing in Dark Water is gorgeous, the stories it contains are haunting. It is probably the single best book I read in 2008, and one of the best in any year.