Simply the best nonfiction
The death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy this summer represented a great loss to the nation as well as to the Commonwealth. The period surrounding his passing saw the publication of two books, a biography and the senator’s memoir, that stand as more than memorials, holding a prominent place in the historical record of one of America’s greatest political families.
Together, these titles lead our ranking of the best nonfiction of 2009. They are joined by a piercing account of the war in Iraq, the best of a rich trove of literary biographies brought out this year, three accounts of visionaries, and a lyrical journal of a year’s quest in New England’s river bottoms.
Kennedy’s memoir, “True Compass,’’ which appeared in bookstores in the days after his death in August, highlights the senior senator’s view of his political and personal legacy. The book is based on a diary Kennedy kept over the years. It undoubtedly will prove an invaluable resource for any political historian attempting to construct the narrative of the past half-century, offering an insider’s view of battles over various pieces of landmark legislation.
Beyond politics, Kennedy offers some insight into his private life, duly acknowledging personal failings and recalling joys with affection. Many readers will find themselves most strongly affected by anecdotes like the one in which the statesman offers encouragement to his grandson Teddy, who is upset by his failures in learning to sail. “We might not be the best,’’ he advised the child, but “we can work harder than anyone.’’
While certainly no one knows Kennedy better than the man himself, it was this newspaper’s reporters that served as ever-present witnesses throughout his long career.
In “Last Lion’’ a team of Globe writers directed by editor Peter S. Canellos have produced a biography upon which future accounts will be built. Based on the foundation of a half-century of reporting and bolstered by a fresh round of probing interviews, the book is filled with personal stories and political tales and casts a spotlight on some events that Kennedy chose to leave in the shadows.
As the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan surges and sputters on, the magisterial accounts of the conflicts by the future Halberstams, Karnows, and Sheehans, who supplied us with definitive studies of Korea and Vietnam, remain a few years in the future.
For now, the best writing is to be found in the gripping accounts of front-line combat. First among those that appeared this year is David Finkel’s unsparing narrative “The Good Soldiers.’’ Finkel, a Washington Post writer, chronicles 15 months in the life of an Army battalion assigned to put down the violence that raged through several Baghdad neighborhoods. This wrenching account brings alive not only the horror of roadside bombs and mortar blasts, but the oft ignored aftermath of grief and suffering.
While this was a strong year for books about the Mideast wars, it was also one that saw the arrival of a crop of fine literary biographies about important American writers. Alphabetically, there were books about Donald Barthelme by Tracy Daugherty, John Cheever by Blake Bailey, and Arthur Miller by Christopher Bigsby. But the one that stands out in this abundant field is “Flannery’’ by Brad Gooch.
That Flannery O’Connor cuts so important a figure in American letters is itself in many ways remarkable. O’Connor lived only to age 39, was confined by illness to her mother’s Georgia farm for the last dozen years of her life, and produced a relatively modest body of work. But those writings have endured and continue to impress and inspire.
Gooch unearths no major secrets in this long- awaited work. But he makes it clear that this master of the Southern Gothic was a first-rate observer of the world. And while Gooch takes a scholarly approach, his extensive use of her letters and numerous personal interviews allows him to create an account that is evocative as well as authoritative.
This next set of books demonstrates that a grand sense of vision is not limited to the province of the arts.
Cornelius Vanderbilt left school at 11 and by the time he was 20 was making his first fortune as a “shopkeeper of the sea,’’ trading up and down the Atlantic Coast. From there he built a near monopoly along the Boston-New York steamship route and ended up, in his 80s, as the head of the New York Central, the nation’s largest railroad system.
In “The First Tycoon,’’ winner of this year’s National Book Award in nonfiction, biographer T.J. Stiles presents the magnate as a man in full, noting that Vanderbilt “was never a phony. Hated, revered, resented, he always commanded respect, even from his enemies.’’
Douglas Brinkley turns our attention from a tale of a personal quest to one about a broader mission. In “The Wilderness Warrior,’’ Brinkley presents the compelling and dramatic account of Theodore Roosevelt’s crusade to preserve endangered animal species and vast expanses of American wilderness.
Brinkley tells how the magic of “big sky’’ nights stirred Roosevelt to urge Americans to rid themselves of “nature-deficiency disorder.’’ The conservationist leader’s accounts of his treks through Yellowstone and Yosemite brought public attention to their natural wonders and helped him rally popular support for his efforts.
Industrialist Henry Ford’s vision also embraced the wilderness but it did so in the name of commerce, not conservation. Greg Grandin’s “Fordlandia’’ recounts the auto pioneer’s odd and ill-fated attempt to create a Midwestern farm town in the Amazon.
Ford’s goal was to secure a better, cheaper source for rubber for cars. So he created a plantation settlement in the jungle, some 18 hours by riverboat from the nearest town. His downfall came about as a matter of hubris, as he tried to impose American culture, cuisine, and manufacturing methods where they did not belong. His multimillion-dollar experiment, while fascinating, was doomed to failure.
It is a story that Joseph Conrad could have conceived, but is, as the saying goes, stranger than fiction.
Insignificant in scale by comparison with Roosevelt’s West or Ford’s Amazon are the New Hampshire streams where David M. Carroll immerses himself in the hidden March-to-November life of spotted turtles.
Carroll, who lives in Warner, N.H., provides a luminous chronicle of his annual quests in “Following the Water,’’ a finalist for this year’s National Book Award.
Here is Carroll describing his “first heading out of the year’’ which occurs at ice melt:
“I set out to see if the water has come back, always with the hope, mingled with anticipation, of seeing the first turtle. In the renewal of the year I can find again that first turtle, take it in with my eyes, touch it with my fingertips. Could a year begin for me without this? My life has come to be measured in first turtles.’’
Michael Kenney, a Cambridge-based freelance writer, reviews regularly for the Globe.