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.

2014 Top Ten: Fiction

2014 was such a good year for readers that my compilation of the annual Book Chase top ten lists has been a bigger than usual challenge this year.  But after several days of tweaking the list, I’m finally happy with it.  Readers will not go wrong with any of these:

1.   The Homesman – Glendon Swarthout – this 2014 reprint was also issued as part of a movie tie-in and tells the story of a woman driving a wagon load of mad women back East to their families after the women were driven crazy by their experiences as homesteaders in the 1850s American West.  The movie will star Meryl Streep, Hilary Swank, John Lithgow, and Tommy Lee Jones.

2.   The Lobster Kings – Alexi Zentner – this family saga tells the story of the Kings family which for the last 300 years has lost its first born son of every generation to the waters in which the family gathers its living.  The family is at a crossroads: a daughter is about to inherit the family reins…if there is anything left to inherit.

3.   Monday Monday – Elizabeth Crook – In 1966, Charles Whitman went to the top of the tower on the University of Texas campus and began shooting shooting at students on the ground.  He killed 16 people and wounded 32 others.  This novel helps explain why it happened and how it impacted the lives of survivors.   

4.   Etta and Otto and Russell and James – Emma Hooper – Eighty-two-year-old Etta has never seen the ocean.  One morning she wakes up and decides it is time to fix that, so she begins walking from central Canada to the nearest ocean she can find.  This is her story.

5.  The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – Hilary Mantel – Mantel has, of course, had spectacular success with her novels, and even though she is not known as a short story writer, this is a very fine collection.  The name of the story she chose as the title for the collection caused a controversy in the U.K. that guaranteed that the rest of the world would hear about this book.  Thank goodness for all that free publicity.

6.   Wayfaring Stranger – James Lee Burke – I have heard this one described as a “classic American success story,” and it certainly is that.  Burke, best known for his Dave Robicheaux series, introduces a new character here, Weldon Avery Holland, and tells his spectacular life story, one that starts with the sixteen-year-old’s run-in with Bonnie & Clyde and morphs into the history of the U.S. oil industry.

7.   I Shall Be Near to You – Erin Lindsay McCabe – Rosetta never wanted her new husband to join the Union Army.  But when he did, she disguised herself as a man and joined him on the battlefield.  This is her story, but it is a story based on real-life women who did exactly this during the American Civil War.  (This is a 2014 reprint.)

8.   World of Trouble – Ben H. Winters – This is the third book of The Last Policeman trilogy, and the end is near.  Only days before the Earth collides with an asteroid that will almost wipe out the human race, an ex-policeman still searches for his missing sister.   Solving this final mystery, is how he decides to spend his last days.

9.    The Girl Next Door – Ruth Rendell – What happens when a group of children that played together in World War II London is reunited to help solve a crime that happened in 1944?  Not what you would expect, that’s for sure.  As Ruth Rendell ages, she focuses more and more on aged characters and shows just how intriguing an approach to writing that can be.

10,  Prison Noir – Various Authors (edited by Joyce Carol Oates) – This is one of a long line of short story collections published by Akashic Books.  Each of the stories was written by a current or former prisoner, or someone associated with the prison system.  Oates provides the collection’s introduction.

There you have it: my 2014 favorites.  Enjoy.