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The best nonfiction of 2007

Email|Print| Text size + By Michael Kenney
December 2, 2007

Journals: 1952-2000
By Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
Edited by Andrew Schlesinger and Stephen Schlesinger

The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War
By David Halberstam

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944
By Rick Atkinson

Legacy of Ashes
By Tim Weiner

Brother, I’m Dying
By Edwidge Danticat

Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography
By David Michaelis

Ralph Ellison: A Biography
By Arnold Rampersad

Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution
By Woody Holton

Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America
By Eric Jay Dolin

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., historian, political insider, and man about town, began his journal entry for March 13, 1968, with a bang: "Here we go again!"

It was the day on which Robert F. Kennedy decided he would enter the Democratic primaries for president, and Schlesinger had been involved in the high-tension huddles leading up to it. "Are you happy about this?" Kennedy asked him. Schlesinger said he was. Kennedy was not convinced. "You have some reservations, don't you?" he demanded.

Kennedy was right. Schlesinger later would explain that his reluctance had "to do with the effect [Kennedy's] decision will have on my plans to get started on volume iv of FDR."

That final volume of the Roosevelt biography never did get written, but in "Journals: 1952-2000," Schlesinger, who died in February, eight months short of his 90th birthday, has left a work of nonfiction that is unlike any other published this year, in its offbeat ruminations on the profound and the gossipy.

Reviewing "Journals," Martin F. Nolan, who covered national politics for the Globe, wrote that Schlesinger provides historic insights and anecdotes that will reverberate through the academy. Schlesinger's "sometimes stirring, occasionally sad, and often sardonic jottings," wrote Nolan, "form a labor-intensive public works project for his fellow historians and biographers. They must now revise and extend the biographies of 10 presidents, plus sundry other pols, literary lights, and the dramatis personae of People magazine." And Schlesinger's "high-octane, off-the-record revelations will likely prompt readers to "murmur 'wow!' at every page."

Books dealing with the war in Iraq, particularly with the decision-making that led to the conflict, have been regular entries on the Globe's best nonfiction lists in the past few years. This year, however, such books are fewer in number. Perhaps writers have exhausted for now all that can be known about machinations at the highest levels, or possibly it is just fatigue.

Still, books on wars hold prominent places on the list - in this case two powerful volumes dealing with conflicts now fading into near-distant memory: Korea and World War II.

Like Schlesinger's "Journals," David Halberstam's "The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War" is the posthumous legacy of a great narrative historian. In his review, historian H. W. Brands said Halberstam "approaches the story of the Korean War like a journalist, but he tells it like a historian," meaning that Halberstam, who died in April at 73 in a car accident, took as his starting point conversations with war veterans, as a reporter would, before working his way to documents and official sources.

Brands wrote that Halberstam's efforts resulted in a work that is compelling and insightful and "may be the best of Halberstam's 20-plus books" - although many readers will reserve that distinction for "The Best and the Brightest."

The other war history to make the list is journalist Rick Atkinson's "The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944," which continues Atkinson's planned "Liberation" trilogy. Critic Matthew Price noted in his review that, like the preceding volume, "An Army at Dawn," this book "is a work of devastating artistry and narrative wonder." Atkinson, he said, shows a "profound grasp of tactics and strategy," while "his use of quotes brings the conflict alive with a terrible vividness." While Atkinson argues for the necessity of the horrific 608-day campaign to take the fortified hill town of Monte Cassino, he "never lets you forget what war did to the men who fought it."

Tim Weiner's "Legacy of Ashes" points to the flaws in intelligence leading up to the current Iraq conflict as merely the latest major misstep by the Central Intelligence Agency, a bureaucracy that "has rarely accomplished its central mission" since its birth.

In her review, author Ann Blackman described the work, which just won a National Book Award, as "a scathing history," carefully researched and smartly written. Weiner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times, "paints a frightening portrait of a hapless bureaucracy whose drastic miscalculations - from the Korean War through the Cold War to Vietnam and now Iraq - have cost the United States dearly in blood, treasure, and prestige," Blackman said.

While histories figure prominently on this year's list, a number of books of a more personal nature also deserve note.

Edwidge Danticat's memoir, "Brother, I'm Dying," tells the story of two brothers, the writer's father and an uncle. For 30 years they were separated, one having immigrated to America, the other remaining in Haiti. They were finally united only in death, buried in a cemetery in Queens, N.Y.

It is a "devastating memoir," said Globe reviewer Renée Graham. Danticat, she wrote, "finds poetic truth in the relentless hardships of her native Haiti and its people." And when her uncle finally decides to join his brother in America, he dies in a detention center in Miami, waiting to see whether he'll be granted asylum.

Among the year's notable biographies were those about Charles M. Schulz, creator of "Peanuts," and Ralph Ellison, author of the award-winning novel "The Invisible Man."

Reviewer Carlo Wolff praised "Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography" as exceptional. He marveled that author David Michaelis was able to produce a work that "feels written from the inside," despite never having had the opportunity to interview Charles Schulz, who died in 2000. Michaelis had to depend, instead, on conversations with family members and research into materials at Schulz's California studio. The triumph of Michaelis's book, Wolff concluded, is that it "takes us inside the mind of a fundamentally solitary man whose simple-looking comic strip became a visual reflection, interpretation of, and guide to the times."

While the central question of Schulz's biography deals with how the cartoonist managed to tap into the zeitgeist, the story of Ellison asks: What happened to this promising writer's long-awaited second novel, and to the man himself?

To those frustrating questions, reviewer James A. Miller wrote, Arnold Rampersad's masterful biography, "Ralph Ellison," provides answers. The acclaim that greeted Ellison's 1952 debut novel "consolidated [Ellison's] status as a cosmopolitan, certified 'New York intellectual.' " But the achievement, and the honors that followed, were not without a cost.

The success of Rampersad's biography, Miller noted, "rests in its ability to capture the complexity of Ellison's artistry," as it "lifts the veil and reveals the personality behind the persona."

Rounding out this year's best nonfiction list are books about New England's 18th-century politics and its 19th-century economy.

Woody Holton's argument in "Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution" is that "the rebellions, threats, and warnings" of the post-Revolution years played a key role in the framing of the Constitution.

I wrote in my review that Holton's populist vision placed "Unruly Americans" among recent revisionist studies that have given prominence to grassroots agitation in the origins of both the Revolution and the Constitution. New England was a center of that popular discontent. "One reason the Founding Fathers favored the Constitution," Holton writes, "was that it would give the federal government the funds it needed to field an army capable of suppressing farmers' rebellions."

The final book on the list takes a look at the history of whaling. Well into the 19th century, New England was the center of the industry. As chronicled by Eric Jay Dolin in "Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America," it was a business whose profits were matched by its legends.

The reviewer, historian David Waldstreicher, found "Leviathan" to be lively and thorough, with Dolin "well suited to sorting out the fish tales and the sometimes ugly truth of a violent, pressure-filled venture." Dolin describes how the growing push for profit in the business tended to favor investors and captains over ordinary whalemen, whose lot grew increasingly dismal. This inequity led to unrest aboard ships and a string of mutinies.

These seething tensions, described in muckraking exposes of the time, would serve as an inspiration to whaling veteran Herman Melville, who would explore them in his masterwork, "Moby-Dick." As Dolin put it, "The epic story of whaling is one of the mightiest themes in American history."

In nonfiction generally, it was a year of mighty themes, artfully rendered.

David Halberstam's "The Coldest Winter" displays the author's journalistic and narrative virtuosity.

RECALLING

KOREA

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