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Best nonfiction 2004

November 23, 2004

ALEXANDER HAMILTON, by Ron Chernow, Penguin, $35

Alexander Hamilton is remembered today mostly for his death in a duel with Aaron Burr in 1804. But Hamilton's impact was equal to, if not greater than, that of any of the other Founding Fathers. As Ron Chernow notes in his powerful new biography, "If Washington was the father of the country and Madison was the father of the Constitution, then Alexander Hamilton was surely the father of the American government." Exhaustively researched and beautifully written, this 800-page volume tells us a great deal about the Founding Fathers and helps restore one of them to his rightful place in the pantheon. (June 15)

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ARC OF JUSTICE: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age, by Kevin Boyle, Henry Holt, $26

Most white Americans know little about the black American experience between the imposition of Jim Crow laws after the Civil War and the Brown v. Board of Education decision that began to unravel these laws in 1954. Boyle uses a single 1925 court case in Detroit to help fill in that huge blank. When a black physician, Ossian Sweet, moved his wife and child into a white neighborhood of Detroit, he knew there could be trouble. Sweet had prepared by rounding up 10 black men and several guns inside his home. When a crowd gathered and began to pelt the house with rocks, shots were fired from a second-floor window. On the street below, one man lay dead and another wounded. The subsequent trial marked an important shift in white attitudes toward blacks. National Book Award winner. (Sept. 21)

SPIRIT AND FLESH, by James Ault, Knopf, $27.95

It wasn't very likely the two men would hit it off: James Ault, who had been a 1960s antiwar radical, was an Ivy League intellectual and atheist. Frank Valenti was a mechanic and later a fundamentalist Baptist preacher. Yet the sociologist and the pastor established a candid, open-minded rapport in the mid-1980s that has paved the way for this absorbing and intimate tale of life in a New England Christian congregation. In portraying the stories of several couples and families that make up the Shawmut River Baptist Church - and the shifting fortunes of the all-encompassing church community - Ault explores the roots of the Christian Right and its impact on American life. (Nov. 9)

WHAT'S RIGHT WITH ISLAM, by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, HarperSanFrancisco, $23.95

America's future is bound up with the Muslim world. Is that as grim a prospect as it appears today? The imam of a New York City mosque (located 12 blocks from the World Trade Center) insists that it doesn't have to be so. With a foot - and an extensive history - in both worlds, Rauf offers an encouraging vision and an ambitious blueprint for getting past the stereotypes and paralyzing myths. This is an invigorating glimpse into the heart and mind of a wise Muslim seeking the higher ground, and a moving example of the impact of the American experience. (July 6)

WILL IN THE WORLD: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, by Stephen Greenblatt, Norton, $26.95