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2005'S BEST BOOKS

Best nonfiction of the year

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Mark 2005 as the year in which we saw major books of nonfiction from four of America's leading writers -- Joan Didion, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, and Garry Wills -- as well as solid and important works from lesser-known but equally distinguished authors.

Goodwin and McCullough explore events that fascinate readers and are important for understanding the American experience: the Revolution and the Civil War.

For McCullough, in ''1776" (Simon & Schuster, $32), it is the first full year of our revolution, one that saw the threat of defeat, but ended with a spirit-reviving victory.

Addressing the success of McCullough's approach to American history, the Globe's reviewer, Brandeis University historian David Hackett Fischer -- whose account of that year-end victory, ''Washington's Crossing," was last year's Pulitzer Prize winner -- asked, ''How does he do it?"

Simply put, Fischer wrote, there is a McCullough ''touch" -- ''fluent and engaging," a ''different texture" from the work of academic historians. The academics' research seeks ''to solve a conceptual problem," Fischer wrote, while McCullough's is ''a hunt for visual materials and dramatic possibilities." And while that sometimes finds McCullough bypassing the ''complexity of large events," Fischer wrote, his ''vivid but carefully controlled descriptions of scenes, characters, and events become a way of explaining what happened."

Goodwin enters the field of Lincoln studies with ''Team of Rivals" (Simon & Schuster, $35), an account of how our 16th president brought his rivals for the 1860 presidential nomination together in his administration. It was ''an unprecedented decision," Goodwin wrote, ''a first indication of what would prove to others a most unexpected greatness."

The Globe's reviewer, Tulane University historian Douglas Brinkley, judged ''Team of Rivals" to be ''a brilliantly conceived and well-written tour de force of a historical narrative." And, in that ''crowded publishing field" of Lincolniana, ''refreshingly unique." Beyond the portrait of Lincoln as ''a cunning pragmatist" that emerges in Goodwin's account, Brinkley found an intriguing '' 'coming-of-age' saga," noting that the members of the team were part of what Goodwin called a restless generation, born when the Founding Fathers were in the White House and a continent was waiting to be explored.

Henry Adams, an important literary figure from several generations ago, chronicled the administrations of Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Somewhat neglected in recent years, Adams's histories have been refurbished by Wills in ''Henry Adams and the Making of America" (Houghton Mifflin, $30) as ''prose masterpieces with brio."

Wills takes Adams's histories, originally published in the 1890s, and in effect provides annotated editions with his own extended commentary. ''It can be slow going," wrote the Globe's reviewer, Cornell University historian Glenn C. Altschuler, and Wills can be ''combative, even prosecutorial," but he ''demonstrates that these works are innovative and important," with Adams being ''particularly adept . . . in setting a national tale in an international context."

Starting from the same point as Adams, ''The Rise of American Democracy" (Norton, $35), by Sean Wilentz, director of the Program in American Studies at Princeton and a frequent writer on contemporary culture, brings fresh interpretations to the broad sweep of American political history.

The Globe's reviewer, Columbia University author and historian Anders Stephanson, found it ''an astonishingly rich and dramatic account of political hustle and bustle," in which ''the general movement of principle" is revealed ''by a panoramic history of local politics."

A personal memoir, Didion's ''The Year of Magical Thinking" (Knopf, $23.95), winner of this year's nonfiction National Book Award, explores the most universal of themes: memory and loss.

Didion writes about the year when her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died while the couple were dealing with their daughter's hospitalization for what had seemed to be a winter flu, but which turns for the worse.

Globe reviewer Drew Limsky, who is completing a book on Didion's nonfiction, noted that Didion ''has long grappled with what is out of our control and what is within our control."

''She doesn't do the feeling for you," Limsky wrote, ''but her unfussy prose elicits a rush of emotion in the reader" -- as in this passage, which Limsky cites, about Didion arriving at the hospital after Dunne's collapse: ''The gurney was already disappearing into the building. A man was waiting in the driveway. Everyone else . . . was wearing scrubs. He was not. 'Is this the wife,' he said to the driver, then turned to me. 'I'm your social worker,' he said, and I guess that is when I must have known."

The war in Iraq is the source of a growing number of smart and informative books -- frontline accounts, political analyses, and historical backgrounders.

Among them, ''The Assassin's Gate," by George Packer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26), weaves those three elements into a searching and rewarding account. His revealing tale of the ideological run-up to the war leads into vivid on-the-ground reports of life and death.

H. W. Brands, a University of Texas author and historian with interests ranging from the early republic to America's role in the world, found particularly ''compelling" Packer's ''reportage of the effects of the war on the individuals involved." As for the politics, Brands says that Packer ''provides ample cause for doubt" as to whether the insiders ''who formulate those [war policies] are as worthy as the troops themselves."

In his 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning ''Guns, Germs, and Steel," geographer Jared Diamond described how environmental factors determined such events as the conquest of indigenous people by Eurasians.

In ''Collapse" (Viking, $29.95) Diamond tells the even grimmer tale of how apparently technologically well-equipped societies such as the Mayans, Easter Islanders, and Greenlanders destroyed themselves -- again, because of environmental factors.

Noting that Diamond also describes a number of modern environmental problems, the Globe's reviewer, Nobel-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz, warned that ''a reader cannot help but leave the book wondering whether we are following the track of these other civilizations that failed, ignoring the signals that there is an impending problem, somehow hoping that in the end technology will save the day."

In 1990, a long-lost painting by Caravaggio was discovered, on an art restorer's hunch, in the parlor of a Jesuit residence in Dublin. At the same time, two young Italian researchers were pursuing the painting's shadowy path from Rome to Dublin.

While the search for the painting and for its history is the engine for ''The Lost Painting" (Random House, $24.95), writes critic Richard Eder, the Globe's reviewer, Northampton author Jonathan Harr has ''set it with a . . . mounting complexity into more elegant motion." As was the case with ''A Civil Action," he writes, Harr's gripping account of chemical pollution in Woburn, even better than the story of the quest is that of the questers.

Eder found particularly irresistible Harr's portrait of Francesca Cappelletti, one of the young researchers. ''Her ventures and misadventures," Eder writes, ''provide a rich texture that grounds her quest in . . . a spacious and utterly human portrait of contemporary Italian life and culture."

Finally, for local and regional interest, the year's best New England book was ''The Encyclopedia of New England," edited by Burt Feintuch and David H. Watters (Yale University, $65).

With some 1,300 entries -- and despite some regrettable omissions and early-edition faults -- I wrote that it is ''a volume that can be dipped into, again and again, just for the pleasure of discovery." Its real strength is in ''making sense of the region" as ''somehow unique."

Whatcan such images and ideas as Andre the Seal and the Maine Coon cat, or the ''death's-head iconography of [Colonial] burying grounds," mean to anyone west of the Housatonic?" Just this: ''Such things define New England for New Englanders, and what the rest of the world thinks, or knows, doesn't matter that much."

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