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Continued: The year's best nonfiction

  • Article by: CHUCK LEDDY , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Last update: November 27, 2010 - 2:29 PM

"The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn," by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking, $30)

Bestselling historian Nathaniel Philbrick ("Mayflower") grippingly describes two larger-than-life opponents: Sitting Bull, whose charisma and political skills made him leader of the Plains Indians, and George Armstrong Custer, one of the Union's greatest cavalry officers and a fearless (if sometimes reckless) soldier. Philbrick reminds readers that despite Sitting Bull's victory, the Battle of the Little Bighorn would be the last stand for the Sioux and Cheyenne Indian nations. A dramatic story told by a brilliant historian.

"The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood," by Jane Leavy (HarperColllins, $27.99)

Leavy's exhaustively researched and accessibly written biography illuminates the tragedies and triumphs of Mickey Mantle's life. From the start, Mantle had huge potential bundled with debilitating psychological and physical problems. Leavy wrestles with both the maddening contradictions of Mantle himself and the carefully constructed myths about Mantle: that the Yankee slugger, by pure willpower, transcended humble beginnings and a lifetime of pain to become an American icon. Leavy presents Mantle in all his self-destructive, splendid complexity.

"Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings, 1968-2010," by Greil Marcus (PublicAffairs, $29.95)

A wondrous pairing of one of the greatest musicians in American history and one of our greatest music journalists. Marcus' collected writings revisit his 40 years of intense artistic engagement with Minnesota native Bob Dylan. These pieces create a vivid, fascinating portrait of how, through his long and trailblazing career, Dylan has drawn from and utterly reinvented the landscape of traditional American song. Marcus' collected celebrations (and occasional disappointed criticisms) of Dylan are must-reading for Dylan devotees everywhere.

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," by Rebecca Skloot (Crown, $26)

Skloot's gripping narrative has all the page-turning drama of a great mystery novel, as she skillfully investigates a mammoth social wrong committed by medical researchers, and the medical miracles to which it led. Skloot's heroine is Henrietta Lacks, a poor African-American tobacco farmer. Her cells were taken without her knowledge and would become one of the most important tools in medicine. "HeLa" cells would help develop the polio vaccine, uncover the secrets of cancer and more.

"Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1," edited by Harriet Elinor Smith (Univ. of California Press, $34.95)

Made up mostly of unpublished material left by the great author, this autobiography offers readers Twain's candid, typically no-holds-barred opinions about people and events, the true stories behind his fiction, insights into Twain's own character and his relationships with his family and friends. Like Twain himself, the book is funny, smart, unpretentious and bold. On his 70th birthday, for example, Twain writes: "I have never taken any exercise, except sleeping and resting, and I never intend to take any. Exercise is loathsome."

"Venice: Pure City," by Peter Ackroyd (Nan A. Talese, $40)

Venice has long been a center of artistic splendor, global business, romance and cross-cultural energy. Peter Ackroyd ("London: A Biography") fully explores the past and present of this undeniably glorious canal city. As Ackroyd describes it, Venice has always balanced between land and sea, a city-state that once sent its ships to trade with the world but now largely thrives on its past. Ackroyd's marvelous book certainly adds to the allure of this magical metropolis.

"Washington: A Life," by Ron Chernow (Penguin, $40)

Washington's name has always inspired a kind of otherwordly reverence, rendering him more lifeless statue than human. Renowned biographer Ron Chernow ("Alexander Hamilton") changes all that, offering a richly detailed and exhaustively researched portrait of the father of our nation. Both wide and deep, Chernow's fast-paced narrative brings his readers Washington's troubled boyhood, his heroic career with the Continental Army, his presiding over the Constitutional Convention, and his exemplary performance as America's first president. In short, Chernow humanizes Washington.

"American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900," by H.W. Brands (Doubleday, $35)

A renowned historian examines the rise of capitalism in the United States from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the 20th century. This turbulent period witnessed westward expansion, "robber baron" monopolists like John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, widespread political corruption, business scandals and burgeoning problems such as pollution and unsafe factories. Brands explores these massive trends both with a wide focus and through a close examination of individuals caught up in them.

"Saul Bellow: Letters," edited by Benjamin Taylor (Viking, $35)

The Nobel Prize-winning Bellow (1915-2005) was both a celebrated novelist and a prolific, entertaining letter-writer. These collected letters, spanning seven decades and sent to fellow authors such as William Faulkner, Phillip Roth and Anne Sexton, show the great literary man in full, experiencing disappointments, exhilaration, friendship and loss. When colleague John Cheever asks Bellow to nominate a book critic for an award, for example, Bellow bluntly responds: "There are no critics I could nominate for anything but a crucifixion."

"Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery and the Genius of the Royal Society," edited by Bill Bryson (Morrow, $35)

The hilarious and scientifically savvy Bryson kicks off a lighthearted and illuminating historical journey through the past 350 years of scientific discovery. Edited and introduced by Bryson, and with 21 contributions from brilliant science writers/historians such as Richard Dawkins, Martin Rees and James Gleick, these pages brim with revolutionary discoveries -- Darwin's theory of evolution, epic rivalries among competing scientists and colorful scientific geniuses working on (and answering) many of the world's big questions. A treasure trove for lovers of science and history.

 

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