Huge variety and delight in this category as well as on the fiction side. I love doing this dropping the ball blog because it helps me consolidate and focus on memories and lessons that might otherwise sail away on a vagrant breeze.
Ann Applebaum has to be the reigning expert on Soviet atrocities. It seems a strange way to spend one’s professional life, but it’s rewarded her with a Pulitzer for Gulag and a deserved reputation for fine writing and terrific research in a just-opening field. The records are scattered, and just coming to light, and any author who chooses to tackle them must be possessed of skills, languages, and a willingness to cover miles and years to delve into them. There must be few so qualified, and we’re lucky that someone with the writing prowess of Applebaum is one of them.
I had what I suppose was an average level of knowledge of Dickens. He wasn’t in great favor in University English departments of my time. Too much a favorite of the masses, I suppose. I read a few of the biggie’s but didn’t really study The Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and the like. I knew most of his works were serialized, that he wrote under pressure, and that he was paid by the word, often resulting in bloated products. I knew that he was famous for his readings. I knew his father was a debtor and that the family’s economic problems during his boyhood, greatly influenced his writing and his politics. Didn’t think I needed to know a great deal more, but the subtitle of this one intrigued me–The Great Theatre of the World. So I picked it up. Good choice.
Two terrific contributions to this year’s winners circle by Bill Bryson, one of the most eclectic authors on the planet or in its history. In At Home Bryson starts with a short description of a rectory he and his family have just moved into in rural England. He climbs into the attic to investigate a leak, finds a strange door, wonders why it’s there, starts looking into the history of the house, then into the history of all houses everywhere, and we’re off. And on Bryson goes with the details, economy, politics, invasions, global influences, familial and linguistic developments in an extraordinarily far-ranging account of, as the subtitle puts it, private life. Every page has one to a dozen new discoveries, and they’re none of them anything but welcome. The structure is compelling, the writing, as lovely as only he can make it.
The Mother Tongue is another winner. It’s over 20 years old, so many of the stats and expressions are no longer current, but the heart of the story remains true. Like At Home it’s so full of facts you wonder how he found them and organized them, let alone turned them into a readable story. But wonder of wonders, he did. Did he ever. One revelation after another, and none of them disconnected from the whole.
Day and night, often going with little or no sleep, Charlie Parker worked his horn and his mind. Natural talent? You bet. But ultimately what he accomplished came as much from intense study and practice as talent. And all that made it impossible for him to fit into in everyday world. But on the bandstand? Different story, Crouch never lets his feeling for his material get bogged down in technical jargon, though he doesn’t shy away from that either when necessary. Instead, he helps us feel the pulse. And thus, in passage after passage, does this superb writer paint for all of us an intense portrait of the triumph and tragedy of the gift to the world that is Charlie Parker.
The essence of Lamott is not just that she’s funny and insightful and full of sound bytes. It’s not that, like most craft books Bird By Bird is full of practical tips (the title comes from some advice her father gave her younger brother when he was overwhelmed about a school report on avian life–Just take it bird by bird by bird.) for tale-tellers. It’s not even that she finds ways to relating her own experiences as an author to her fledgling students (Publication will not change you, but writing will.) What makes Anne work is that she knows how to immerse us in the protoplasm of the creative process. If anyone can show you how to get there, Anne can.
Gessen evokes enormous sympathy for herself and her countryfolk in this extremely well- written and closely researched account of her despicable subject. My question is whether the Russians, when he finally goes, will have the patience to weather the next period of turmoil long enough to let some democratic chaos take hold, or whether they will yearn once again for a Peter or Katherine or Josef or Vlady and once again settle for the iron fist that keeps everything orderly and unfree.
You’ll recall Slumdog Millionaire, the 2008 multi-oscar-winning feelgood film about a poverty-stricken Indian kid who gets rich on a quiz show. And you may also recall the subsequent semi-scandal about how the real slumkids in the film were all returned to their slum squalor after being paraded around the Oscar show like little flesh-and-blood trophies. The last I remember, the kids still hadn’t escaped despite Hollywood’s purported best efforts. After reading Katherine Boo‘s wonderful and excruciating behind the beautiful forevers, I’ve a little more insight into why the film’s producers’ efforts to improve the lives of their youthful actors might have been doomed from the beginning.
I’m Your Man is not only the story of an amazing life, but a beautifully written book more than worthy of its illustrious subject. Sylvie Simmons can write like this:
He… dissolved all boundaries between word and song, and between song and the truth, and the truth and himself, and his heart and its aching.
All the heavy labor, … the highs, the depths to which he had plummeted and all the women and deities, loving and wrathful, he had examined and worshipped, loved and abandoned, but never really lost, had been in the service of this. And here he was, seventy-six years old, still shipshape, still sharp at the edges, a workingman, ladies’ man, wise old monk, showman and trouper once again offering up himself and his songs: “Here I stand, I’m your man.”
We saw him in concert after we read the book. 3 hours of just him–at 78–unparalleled. How sad to have missed so much. How wonderful to have at last discovered him.