The five requirements of a Top Five book:
- Take me away, anywhere, but do it convincingly.
- Authenticity. Make me believe in you and your story.
- It’s nice if you can make me laugh, and, barring that, make me cry.
- What? I never knew that before! Teach me something I didn’t know.
- Linger. Stay with me. Make me think about this story months, years, after I read it.
Of the nearly thirty non-fiction reads I chose or was assigned this year, these are the books that passed the test:
5. Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice by Bill Browder (416 pages, published by Simon & Schuster, 2015)
Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up. The author’s grandfather was a labor organizer who became head of the U.S. communist party. The author’s father was head of the Math Department at University of Chicago. The author forged a different path, attending business school at Stanford and going all in on nascent Russian capitalism by starting the Hermitage Fund in 1996. Wildly successful, until things began unraveling and Vladimir Putin decided he wanted a share of the spoils. Among other casualties, Browder’s attorney, Sergey Magnitsky, was detained and ultimately died in prison.
4. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (322 pages, published by Grove Press, 2015)
NYT best-seller, on every imaginable list and short list, Samuel Johnson prize-winner, but what I really want to know is what my friend Katherine, the newly-annointed falconer (!!!) thinks of it.
The themes are varied. Grief plays the largest part. Then there are the thoughtfully presented travails of author T.H. White, who wrote The Once and Future King. And the sport of hawking makes the book soar. You will not soon forget Mabel, the goshawk, of whom Macdonald comments “There is something religious about the activity of looking up at a hawk in a tall tree.”
3. Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski (325 pages, published by Random House LLC,2001)
A post-colonial education that reads like poetry. An unromanaticized fever dream of the 1960’s and 70’s that takes you on a cover-your-eyes-because-it-is-so-hard-to-look tour of Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, Mauritania, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Sudan, Senegal, Liberia, Cameroon, Mali and Eritrea. Check your rainbow and unicorn fantasies of Africa at the door. Troubling, fascinating book. Highly recommended.
2. The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild by Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence (381 pages, published by Thomas Dunne books, 2009)
This book nailed every single requirement for a Top 5 book, and then some. I was transported to the bush of South Africa, where the author was asked to take on a “troublesome” herd of wild elephants. His relationship with them and with the land is conveyed with breathtaking authenticity. Daily life in the Zululand bush will make you laugh; the plight of elephants amidst progress and poachers will make you cry. “”In Africa today elephants are simply competitors in the race for the land. In the West, they are mere curiosities while the East values only their ivory.”
I learned about Africa, I learned about elephants, I learned about white rhinos and bark spiders, eagle owls and bush rats, night jars, bush babies, gwala gwala birds and more. I learned about Cornell University’s Elephant Listening Project. This is a book that lingers with you long after you have finished it. Anthony died in 2012. Inexplicably, within a few days of his death, the elephant herd traveled twelve hours from their grazing land to gather at his home, where they stood in mourning for two days and then dispersed. Stranger than fiction, indeed.
1. The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain (464 pages, published 1869)
Is it any surprise that my favorite non-fiction read of the year is by that rascal Mark Twain? Twain and I toured Italy together last fall (by the way, I will finish that travelogue, which begins here, soon) and he was the most roguish, irreverently entertaining travel companion you could hope for. Somehow, his recounting of epiphanies and annoyances of travel in the 19th century hold up reasonably well in the 21st. He traveled by ship and read by candlelight. I traveled by air and read by Kindle-light, but I resonated with his tales, nonetheless, because guides will still become tiresome, other tourists will still behave badly, and other cultures will still fascinate and repel. I will always remember Twain’s account of a moonlight visit to the Parthenon and his survey of the Holy Land. And yes, he can make you laugh out loud across the centuries. Describing the limited dimensions of his stateroom on the ship, he drily remarks “there was still room to turn around in, but not to swing a cat in, at least with entire security to the cat.”
Next week: a look at my fiction reads from 2015