Best nonfiction 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)

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

One of the enduring mysteries in literary history is how a bright but unsophisticated Stratford lad, within relatively few years, became the supreme writer in the English language. Greenblatt explains this extraordinary phenomenon with comprehensive evidence, skillful argument, and gracefully supple style. Each chapter pursues myriad paper trails - historical accounts by many hands; religious, legal, and literary documents; official pronouncements; known Shakespearean sources; scraps of letters, reminiscences, and recorded gossip - anything that could shed light on his subject. The result is a well-ordered analysis that is fascinating and largely convincing. National Book Award nominee. (Oct. 19)

ADA BLACKJACK: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic, by Jennifer Niven, Hyperion, $24.95

In 1921, four men and their Inuit guide, Ada Blackjack, ventured into the Arctic to claim a stretch of tundra for the British Empire. Only Ada survived this harrowing ordeal. (Jan. 6)

AGED BY CULTURE, by Margaret Gullette, University of Chicago, $18.50

Gullette, a cultural scholar who calls herself an "age critic," challenges the belief that decline is the truth of aging. "We are aged more by culture than by chromosomes," she observes. (Jan. 13)

AMERICAN JEZEBEL: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, by Eve LaPlante, HarperSanFrancisco, $24.95

A welcome new podium for the Puritan woman who wouldn't hold her tongue, even under the threat of banishment. Marvelous analysis of her two trials. (March 30)

AVENGERS OF THE NEW WORLD: The Haitian Revolution, by Laurent Dubois, Harvard University, $29.95

In this exhaustively researched and valuable account, Dubois looks back to the founding of Haiti. The revolution, he says, left "enduring scars" that included militarism, a tradition of dictatorship, and widespread economic hardship. (March 23)

THE BATTLE OF BLAIR MOUNTAIN, by Robert Shogan, Westview, $26

Unionized coal miners and their employers in West Virginia during 1920-21 left a legacy that still bedevils labor-management relations today. A tense, illuminating history of the largest armed uprising since the Civil War. (June 15)

BLOODSWORTH, by Tim Junkin, Algonquin, $24.95

Told mostly through the perspectives of Kirk Bloodsworth and his various lawyers, this book explains everything that went wrong to place an innocent man on death row for a crime he knew nothing about. (Aug. 24)

CHAIN OF COMMAND: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, by Seymour Hersh, HarperCollins, $25.95

This collection of Hersh's stories for The New Yorker, amplified and rearranged here, deals with questions that remain staples of news coverage today: Who's responsible for the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib? Did the US administration authorize torture? How did the intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction get so messed up? (Sept. 21)

CHIANG KAI-SHEK: China's Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost, by Jonathan Fenby, Carroll & Graf, $30

A welcome reassessment of one of the most important and controversial leaders of the 20th century. (Jan. 6)

CONFESSIONS OF A TAX COLLECTOR, by Richard Yancey, HarperCollins, $24.95

This insider's account of how IRS revenue officers deal with tardy and dishonest wage earners is reassuringly witty and humane. (March 2)

THE CULT OF PERSONALITY, by Annie Murphy Paul, Free Press, $26

A well-researched and scary portrait of the dominance of personality measures at almost every layer of American life. Paul traces the major tests back to their disturbingly unscientific origins. (Sept. 28)

DRESDEN, by Frederick Taylor, HarperCollins, $26.95

Why was this "virgin city" attacked and destroyed so brutally during World War II? As Taylor pursued this nagging question, he discovered plenty of evidence of Dresden's military importance. (Feb. 10)

EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss, Gotham, $17.50

Truss has done the English-speaking world a huge service with this tidy little volume that wittily and concisely presents the rules of English punctuation. (April 6)

THE FIRST CRUSADE: The Roots of Conflict between Christianity and Islam, by Thomas Asbridge, Oxford University, $35

They were savage and barbaric. Their spiritual leader assured them they were doing God's work and that if they died in battle, they'd go straight to heaven. These weren't modern-day terrorists, but 11th-century Christian crusaders. (Oct. 5)

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT, by Conrad Black, PublicAffairs, $39.95

Despite his conservative credentials, Black reveres Roosevelt, and he argues that his standing in American history is on a par with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. (Jan. 27)

GENERATION KILL, by Evan Wright, Putnam, $24.95

Wright spent a month in Iraq with the elite First Recon Marine - nicknamed the "First Suicide Battalion" - a group of soldiers who blitzkrieged their way north during the war. Wright fleshes out human beings who were raised to respect the sanctity of life, yet revel in the euphoria of combat. (July 27)


Genghis Khan was a sadistic hedonist hiding beneath a fur-rimmed hat. No, no, all wrong. That's what happens when you let your enemies define you. Jack Weatherford, who spent years in modern Mongolia, aims to set the record straight. (March 23)

HARRIET TUBMAN, by Catherine Clinton, Little, Brown, $25.95

The maternalized Tubman has been the subject of innumerable, appropriately nonviolent children's books. But the real Tubman was a masculine woman not opposed to violence in the cause of justice. (Jan. 20)

HELP, by Garret Keizer, HarperSanFrancisco, $24.95

The much-loved parable of the good Samaritan poses a universal moral dilemma: whether to pass by on the other side or to roll up one's sleeves and help. The question never goes away, as Keizer illustrates in this eloquent meditation on a small word with huge meaning. (Oct. 12)

HIS EXCELLENCY: George Washington, by Joseph Ellis, Knopf, $26.95

Ellis takes a selective approach to the Revolutionary era to illustrate the way major events of Washington's life shaped his character and personality. (Nov. 2)

IMPERIAL HUBRIS: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, by Mike Scheuer, Brassey's, $27.50

Published anonymously when Scheuer was a senior intelligence official at the CIA, this book criticizes the US government and the spy agency for failing to fight terrorism effectively. (July 13)

IN PRAISE OF SLOWNESS, by Carl Honoré, HarperSanFrancisco, $24.95

In America's 24/7 culture, the pace has become so intense that we have forgotten how to enjoy the moment. But everywhere, Honoré sees evidence of "a great hunger for slowness." The popularity of gardening, book clubs, and knitting reflects this longing. (July 6)

THE IRAQ WAR, by John Keegan, Knopf, $24.95

This compact history spans the ages from ancient Mesopotamia to the excavation of Saddam Hussein from his "spider hole." Highly readable, it contains both plenty of tactical detail for war buffs and ample historical insight for a general audience. (June 8)

JEROME ROBBINS: His Life, His Theater, His Dance, by Deborah Jowitt, Simon & Schuster, $40

A superb critical biography that vibrantly captures Robbins's conflicted personal life and his creative productivity. Jowitt had unrestricted access to Robbins's papers, diaries, letters, photographs, and tapes, and it shows in the richness and depth of detail. (Oct. 12)

LANDON CARTER'S UNEASY KINGDOM, by Rhys Isaac, Oxford University, $35

This exploration of the journals of Virginian Landon Carter provides a captivating view of a leading planter's futile efforts to control his family and his slaves amid the political transformation of the Revolutionary era. (Aug. 17)

LOVE IN THE DRIEST SEASON, by Neely Tucker, Crown, $23.95

Because of its epic weave - of African cultures and politics, AIDS and its destruction, and the author's interracial marriage - this story about the adoption of a tiny, critically ill Zimbabwean orphan appeals to the head as much as the heart. (April 6)

MIRACLE AT SING SING, by Ralph Blumenthal, St. Martin's Press, $25.95

A biography of Lewis Lawes, the liberal penal reformer who ran New York's most important prison from the end of one world war to the beginning of another. (June 22)

NIGHTINGALES, by Gillian Gill, Ballantine, $27.95

Gill's graceful biography captures the complex and contradictory life of Florence Nightingale, the heroine who revolutionized nursing. (Sept. 14)

OSAMA: The Making of a Terrorist, by Jonathan Randal, Knopf, $26.95

Although unable to meet with the Al Qaeda leader personally, Randal weaves together what's been reported about his early and middle years, creating a much fuller portrayal of a person deeply affected by familial relationships and the struggle for peace in the Middle East. (Aug. 31)

PERILOUS TIMES: Free Speech in Wartime, by Geoffrey Stone, Norton, $35

During wartime, Stone notes, the government can and does "conscript soldiers, commandeer property, control prices, ration food, raise taxes, and freeze wages." Given those circumstances, he asks, "May it also limit the freedom of speech?" A careful, cautionary history. (Oct. 26)

THE REFORMATION, by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Viking, $34.95

MacCulloch spares neither Protestants nor Roman Catholics when pointing out the horrors of Europe's epic religious upheaval of the 16th and 17th centuries. (May 25)

SHOSTAKOVICH AND STALIN, by Solomon Volkov, Knopf, $30

With access to much previously classified material, Volkov has written a gripping account of the treacherous times in which Shostakovich and his colleagues in music, film, theater, and literature created works that engaged and enraged the Soviet dictator. (April 27)

SOMERSET MAUGHAM, by Jeffrey Meyers, Knopf, $30

Meyers rightly emphasizes the magnitude of Maugham's contribution to 20th-century literature. He also investigates his subject's personal life in fascinating detail. (Feb. 17)

THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE: My Climb Out of Darkness, by Karen Armstrong, Knopf, $24

A tale of daunting struggle, this sequel to the author's 1981 memoir of her convent experience is buoyed by keen intelligence and unflinching honesty. The title metaphor of the spiral staircase suggests spiritual progress that seems to go in circles while, in fact, moving upward into the light. (March 30)

SPICE: The History of Temptation, by Jack Turner, Knopf, $26.95

Turner locates spices at the confluence of some major currents of human experience: life and death; God and religion; sex, love, and food. It was the desire for spices as much as for gold and silver that motivated the world's great voyages 500 years ago. (Aug. 3)

THE STATE BOYS REBELLION, by Michael D'Antonio, Simon & Schuster, $25

D'Antonio tells the extraordinary story of boys trapped by misdiagnosis in an abusive Massachusetts institution from the early 1900s into the 1960s. D'Antonio's analysis of the dark, unintended consequences of benevolent social programs makes this a fascinating read. (May 18)

THE TWILIGHT OF ATHEISM, by Alistar McGrath, Doubleday, $23.95

In this accessible intellectual history, McGrath explores how atheism came to capture a wide swath of the public imagination as the road to human liberation and progress, and why, in a postmodern world, its appeal has faded. (Aug. 3)

WESTERN MUSLIMS AND THE FUTURE OF ISLAM, by Tariq Ramadan, Oxford University, $29.95

Though barred from entering the US, Ramadan is one of Europe's most prominent Muslim reformers and a crucial voice of moderation. In this book, he argues for a reinterpretation of Islam that encourages Muslims' positive integration into Western society. (Sept. 21)

WILD GRASS: Three Stories of Change in Modern China, by Ian Johnson, Pantheon, $24

The protagonists of Johnson's book are ordinary Chinese facing extraordinary obstacles as they engage in bitter struggles against corruption and oppression. A peasant lawyer, an urban homeowner, and a victim's daughter together embody the increasingly universal desire for justice in China. (June 29)

THE WISDOM OF CROWDS, by James Surowiecki, Doubleday, $24.95

"Under the right circumstances," Surowiecki argues, "groups are remarkably intelligent." For evidence, he cites how groups have been used to find lost submarines and even predict the president of the United States. Surowiecki is a vivid writer with a knack for culling entertaining examples. (May 25)

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