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Getting the goods - nonfiction

A guide to the most memorable titles of 2008, from entertaining to inspiring

By Michael Kenney
Globe Correspondent / December 7, 2008
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The measured tread of Lincoln books can already be heard, two months in advance of next year's bicentennial of his birth, with Civil War accounts marching along in step.

A deeply moving account of that war's deadly toll, "This Republic of Suffering," by Drew Gilpin Faust, leads the roster of this year's best nonfiction books.

Faust, a Civil War historian and president of Harvard University, takes us on a grim tour of the killing battlefields, hospitals, and prison camps. She contrasts the violence and agony of the more than 600,000 deaths of Union and Confederate soldiers with the 19th-century notion of a "good death" in one's own bed, surrounded by family.

The Civil War "matters to us today," writes Faust, "because it ended slavery and helped to define the meanings of freedom, citizenship, and equality." But for those "who lived in and through the Civil War, the texture of the experience, its warp and woof, was the presence of death." And that experience would establish "the ground on which North and South would ultimately reunite."

Anticipating next year's Lincoln bicentennial, it is useful to recall that unlike other wartime presidents, Abraham Lincoln's entire tenure was bounded by war.

In "Tried by War," James M. McPherson establishes how Lincoln was forced by the immediacy of the war's onset - and by the ineptitude and even disloyalty of some of his leading generals - to truly become a commander-in-chief.

But curiously, McPherson notes, many Lincoln biographies, and even academic symposiums, have ignored that role. "Tried by War" redresses that oversight with intelligence and authority.

Modern wars, defined by house-to-house and street-by-street fighting rather than broad tactical maneuvers, call for a different kind of military history than McPherson's.

Among those boots-on-the-ground accounts, "The Forever War,'' by Dexter Filkins of The New York Times, achieves a gripping, raw immediacy.

The book opens with a tension-filled exchange of dueling loudspeakers - cries of "The Holy War! The Holy War!" from one set and a blaring rendition of AC/DC's "Hells Bells" from another.

On another day, Filkins witnesses the aftermath of a car bombing, schoolgirls running with mouths open and eyes wide; shattered bodies sprawled across the street and tossed into brick walls. And then, he offers this telling observation: "The Americans arrived, children in the horror world."

Months ago, before Barack Obama's election victory, some reviewers suggested that his historic campaign, which renewed the national conversaiton about race, might bolster the candidacy of Annette Gordon-Reed's "The Hemingses of Monticello" for the National Book Award in nonfiction. It did eventually win the prize, but "The Hemingses" would be a notable book in any year. It builds on Gordon-Reed's groundbreaking 1997 "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings" and makes impressive use of recent research and DNA analyses.

Perhaps most significantly, Gordon-Reed, a New York law professor, gives the Hemings family a history of their own while using their story to explore the complexity of America's "peculiar institution" for masters and slaves, whose lives were often intimately intertwined.

In any age, examining human relationships tends to be nearly endlessly fascinating, particularly in times of personal or societal upheaval. In "The Suicide Index," Joan Wickersham, a Cambridge novelist, struggles to understand and come to terms with her father's decision to commit suicide. Much had gone wrong in his life, including the failure of his importing business in which family members had heavily invested.

Wickersham writes that she had sensed her father's problems only bit by bit, until much of it spilled out over lunch at a Cambridge café. But in the end, her father's suicide meant that she would never know the whole story.

"Knowing that I'll never feel his death as fully and as directly as I might want to," she writes, "perhaps as a result I'll never be done feeling it."

In the late fall of 1882, Mabel Loomis Todd, a young artist, sent Emily Dickinson a small painting she had done of Indian pipes, a waxy-white plant that grows in dark woodlands. "I cannot make an Indian Pipe," Dickinson replied in a note accompanying her gift of a poem, "but please accept a Humming Bird."

It was an exchange of enigmas, Christopher Benfey notes in "A Summer of Hummingbirds," his thoroughly delightful exploration of the artistic and literary lives and loves that enlivened Amherst in the 19th century.

Benfey's narrative traces the spread of a fascination among a group of artists and writers in the area with the hummingbird, which became an American icon.

Why the hummingbird? Benfey, a professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, says that after the upheaval of the Civil War, Americans "came to see a new dynamism and movement in their lives, a brave new world of instability and evanescence" which "found perfect expression in the hummingbird."

From the American Renaissance, we turn to a fresh look at the Puritans and John Winthrop's "city upon a hill."

Sarah Vowell, a contributing editor for Public Radio International's "This American Life," has penned "The Wordy Shipmates," an account of New England's Puritans brimming with enthusiasm and insight.

She decided to write about the colonists because "the country I live in is haunted by the Puritans' vision of themselves as God's chosen people, as a beacon of righteousness that all others are to admire."

Vowell makes use of the insights of the likes of legendary Harvard historian Perry Miller and Samuel Eliot Morison, but also inserts references to pop culture, including the Brady Bunch and Bob Dylan, to clarify points.

As for Winthrop, Vowell reminds us that his famous phrase, along with the worldview it embraces, can be viewed as arrogant and dangerous and has been used to help justify US foreign policy decisions that proved wrongheaded and destructive.

John Hanson Mitchell's "The Paradise of All These Parts" sees the "city upon a hill," Boston, as a place of constant discovery, even today.

As he rambles around the city, Mitchell finds people as well as places to remark upon. And there are places like the Charlesgate, where he finds the Citgo sign, which casts "an otherworldly glow above the town," serving as a reminder of the many poor urban-planning decisions made in the city in the 1950s.

Mitchell, the editor of Sanctuary, the Massachusetts Audubon Society magazine, is a worthy guide to the city's natural spaces, but he is at his best in making his readers think anew about a place they think they already know.

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