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Best nonfiction books of the year

In a year dominated by war and politics -- a dominance reflected in publishers' lists -- it is particularly gratifying to single out, among the year's best nonfiction books, one whose subject explored the enduring beauty of America.

That book is Richard Rhodes's masterful biography ''John James Audubon."

On the ''very first page," wrote the Globe's reviewer, John Gregory Brown, Rhodes ''signals his intention to uncover what fueled" Audubon's ''quest to locate and draw every species of bird" in early 19th-century America.

Dispatched to America to tend to his father's business interests, he instead traveled throughout his adopted nation, through the still-uncut forests and down the great rivers, recording it all for posterity in words and drawings. ''Studying birds," Rhodes writes, ''was how he mastered the world, and himself."

In a presidential election year, two books dealing with two of the greatest US presidents stand out.

In ''Washington's Crossing," a National Book Award finalist, David Hackett Fischer, a professor at Brandeis University, writes that it was the spirit of revolutionary revival after a string of defeats that prompted General George Washington to take his battered army across the ice-choked Delaware River to surprise and defeat the British forces at the pivotal Battle of Trenton during the Christmastime of 1776-77.

The Globe's reviewer called the account ''history at its best, fascinating in its details, magisterial in its sweep."

And in ''American Brutus," political historian Michael W. Kauffman presents the conclusions from some 30 years of studying the assassination of Abraham Lincoln -- seeking answers to such questions as the motives of the charismatic actor John Wilkes Booth and his fellow plotters, and whether there was a wider conspiracy. There have been ''a score of books" about the assassination, wrote the Globe's reviewer, Harvard professor emeritus and Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald, but this is ''by all means the best" -- written ''with vigor and skill."

This year's National Book Award winner, ''Arc of Justice," by Kevin Boyle, is a gripping account of the 1925 trial of 10 black men in Detroit, charged with murder after firing into a white mob that was attacking the home of Ossian Sweet, a black doctor. A notable civil rights case, it was largely forgotten until, as the Globe's reviewer law professor Paul Butler wrote, it was ''restored to the urgency of news" by Boyle, a professor at Ohio State University.

Two fine biographies -- both by Massachusetts writers -- delved into the worlds of writers who charted new directions in literature.

William E. Cain called ''Will in the World," by Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt, ''vividly written, richly detailed, and insightful from first chapter to last." Greenblatt places Shakespeare in his worlds and against the background of medieval morality plays and mystery cycles.

It is for exploding the conventions of poetic language that E. E. Cummings commands our attention. And in Christopher Sawyer-Lauanno's biography, wrote Globe reviewer Thomas Filbin, ''the poet is more than merely studied, but uncorked, left to breathe, and tasted in the fullness of his genius."

Sawyer-Lauanno, a writer in residence at MIT, follows Cummings from his genteel upbringing (Cambridge Latin School and Harvard) to wartime France and on to Greenwich Village, and explores his tumultuous romances.

Among books of regional interest, the Globe's reviewer found Sarah Messer's ''Red House" and Jane Brox's ''Clearing Land" of particular note.

''Red House" is an evocative account of a house that has stood in Marshfield since 1647 and of the two families who have lived in it. Messer, a poet with an obvious flair for historical investigation, grew up in the house, which her father had bought from the original family.

Brox is also a poet, and our reviewer found ''Clearing Land" to be ''an elegiac farewell," to the family's farm in Dracut, but also to ''a vanishing way of life."

Finally, there is the matter of war.

A surprise finalist for the National Book Award was ''The 9/11 Commission Report." Beyond its recommendations on national security, the book was praised for being as compelling as the best fiction, though terrifying in its detailed account of that world-altering and war-triggering day.

Among the dozens of political polemics, Thomas Frank's ''What's the Matter With Kansas?" stands as required reading for elections yet to come. Globe reviewer Steve Greenlee found Frank's exploration of why lower- and middle-class working people ''have flocked . . . to the party of the privileged" both ''revealing and startling."

Michael Kenney regularly reviews for the Globe.

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