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Season's readings: Nonfiction

By Kathryn Schulz
December 12, 2010

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The great French essayist Michel de Montaigne had little patience for conventional philosophy. Instead, he cared about practical matters: in the words of his latest biographer, Sarah Bakewell, “how to cope with a friend’s death, how to work up courage, how to act well in morally difficult situations, and how to make the most of life.’’

It would presumably please Montaigne that these same questions animate this year’s best works of nonfiction. Topping the list is Bakewell’s own book, “How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.’

A brilliant and unconventional biography, “How to Live’’ captures the essence of one of history’s most acute, expansive, and charming thinkers. But the book is not just about Montaigne the man. It is also about (in Bakewell’s wonderful phrase) “Montaigne, the long party.’’ For 400 years, readers have adored, identified with, and railed against Montaigne. Bakewell, then, is not just a biographer, but also a kind of high-minded, eagle-eyed gossip — someone who can pull you aside and explain why Pascal gets so huffy when Montaigne walks in the room. Her book is a sophisticated mini-history of philosophy, but it reads like a late-night talk with a friend — the one who sticks around to debrief when all the other guests have gone.

I like to think that Montaigne, an inveterate traveler, would have shared my enthusiasm for Peter Hessler’s Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory.’’ Title notwithstanding, it is the nation, not the writer, that is most in motion in this funny, understated, well-reported book. With millions of people abandoning villages for cities each year, China is experiencing the largest internal migration in history. Hessler, by contrast, mostly stays put. He sticks around long enough to speak the language, make friends, max out on Beijing, and acquire a country home. Eventually, the neighbor kid he drops off on the first day of school grows into an overfed, awkward-years preteen; and so, more or less, does the nation. As a journey, “Country Driving’’ is both business and pleasure — a stop-motion portrait of one of the most influential and chameleon places on earth.

Ian Frazier’s “Travels in Siberia’’ shares a border with “Country Driving.’’ Frazier’s book, however, is not likely to inspire much copycat tourism. To hear Frazier tell it, Siberia consists of one-third trash and two-thirds mosquitoes, all of it distributed across a landscape so vast and monotonous that, “[o]nly on the sea can you travel as far and still be in apparently the same place.’’ Luckily, the rest of us can skip the DEET and buy the book. Sentence by sentence, Frazier is as good as almost any writer working today; his magnetic words affix themselves briskly and precisely to an idea. Just as fun, he uses facts the way 7-year-olds use Legos; give him a dozen, and he’ll build the Taj Mahal. His history of the Mongols is, by itself, worth the cover price.

The one drawback to “Travels in Siberia’’ is that, like its subject, it’s somewhat too big for its own good. For a shorter take on Russia, there’s Elif Batuman’s “The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them.’’ Here, a PhD in literature waxes funny and philosophical — not to mention gloomy, incredulous, curmudgeonly, profound, and snide — about academic life, Uzbekistan, and pretty much everything in between (which is a lot). The miracle is, it mostly works. This book isn’t perfect, but Batuman is a writer’s writer, and my hat is off to her for pulling off an improbably delectable book.

My hat is off, too, to Isabel Wilkerson, for the staggering quantity of research — 15 years’ worth — that went into “The Warmth of Other Suns.’’ Like Hessler, Wilkerson chronicles a migration. Between 1915 and 1970, 6 million African-Americans fled the Jim Crow South; Wilkerson refracts that history through the lives of three transplants who settle in Harlem, Chicago, and San Francisco. The resulting book has the heft of Herodotus and the ventriloquism of Terkel. It challenges received wisdom about the Great Migration and documents the way our country was remade by the decentralized decisions of millions of African-Americans to seek a better life.

One of those 6 million migrants stars in another outstanding book. Henrietta Lacks was born in Virginia in 1920, moved to Baltimore in 1943, and died of cervical cancer in 1951. But her cancer cells, taken without her knowledge, live on. Her story, and theirs, is told by Rebecca Skloot in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.’’

Skloot spent 10 years earning the trust of the surviving members of the Lacks family and following the trail of the “HeLa’’ cells. Having multiplied by the trillions, those cells helped create a multibillion-dollar industry in human biological materials; scientists use them to study everything from polio to steroids. Henrietta’s relatives, meanwhile — who were not told about her “donation’’ until long after the fact — live in poverty, with patchy or nonexistent health care. Skloot navigates this story’s medical, ethical, and racial complexities with grace and force. And she offers Lacks a new legacy: not an anonymous victim, but a rallying figure in another struggle for civil rights.

For an ethical catastrophe of an entirely different order, it’s tough to beat Michael Lewis’s “The Big Short.’’ Lewis explores the 2008 financial crisis from the perspective of the few financiers who understood what was going on, bet against the global economy, and made a killing. The financial material here is complex enough to make a particle physicist blanch, but Lewis has a knack for making hard things look easy: sabermetrics, collateralized debt obligations, writing bestsellers. In his hands, the fate of the subprime mortgage market becomes a bedtime story for grownups, complete with underdogs, cliffhangers, villains, and good guys. Caveat emptor: There’s no happy ending. But that’s hardly Lewis’s fault.

There’s no happy ending to Patti Smith’s “Just Kids,’’ either, even though it won the National Book Award — an impressive achievement for someone already celebrated as the “Godmother of Punk.’’ Still, the book has a fairy-tale aura to it. At 21, Smith, newly arrived in New York, befriended and then bedded a passionate, penniless, brazenly ambitious young man named Robert Mapplethorpe. The story of their relationship is also the story of an era: the downtown scene in the ’70s, when Smith could get picked up by Allen Ginsberg in the morning (he mistook her for a boy) and dine with Jimi Hendrix at night. And, as the title suggests, it is also the story of youth, as viewed from a melancholy distance. “Why can’t I write something,’’ Smith laments after Mapplethorpe succumbs to AIDS, “that would awake the dead?’’

Happiness, it seems, is too banal a fate for a prodigiously talented young woman who joins forces with an equally exceptional man. Just ask Cleopatra. Accounts of the life of the last Egyptian pharaoh typically suffer from an excess of misogyny, romanticism, or misinformation. To all that, Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra’’ is a welcome corrective.

Schiff gives us a bold, canny, pragmatic ruler, fluent in seven languages, brilliant at political stagecraft, and not above murdering her sister to maintain her throne. Schiff also reminds us that Cleopatra, the richest woman on earth, lived in one of history’s most opulent and civilized cities. To read about Alexandria’s “automatic doors and hydraulic lifts, hidden treadmills and coin-operated machines,’’ or about the queen’s royal barge, which included “a gym, a library . . . a garden, a grotto, lecture halls, a spiral staircase, a copper bath, stables, an aquarium’’ is to experience geographic and chronological vertigo. Contemporary Rome looks like a backwater by comparison; even modernity seems less shiny and spectacular. By the end, it’s easy to see why Antony was willing to die for Cleopatra — and why she was willing to die for her country.

Laura Hillenbrand’s long-awaited second book (after “Seabiscuit’’) tells the story of another person who was willing to die for his country, and almost did. Louis Zamperini, the subject of “Unbroken,’’ was an extraordinary runner favored to win the gold at the 1942 Olympics — except those Games never took place. Instead, Zamperini became a gunner in the Air Force; in 1943, his plane went down in the Pacific. Zamperini survived, spent 45 days in a life raft, and eventually drifted ashore — only to be taken prisoner by the Japanese and subjected to two years of physical and psychological torture.

Around the time Zamperini washes up on land, a lesser book would have washed up, too — trading down from the thrill of adventure to the leer of voyeurism. This one trades up. Its sober account of enemies and allies, torturer and tortured is, disturbingly, a tale for our time. If, in the end, the book veers toward hagiography, Hillenbrand can be forgiven. Of all these terrific works of nonfiction, “Unbroken’’ offers the most literal and dramatic answer to the question: how to live?

Kathryn Schulz is the author of “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.’’ She can be reached at kathryn@being wrongbook.com.