National Geographic Staff’s Favorite Books of 2010 (Part Two)

A row of books translated into a variety of languages.

 

Earlier this week, we posted a list of the best novels we read in 2010. See the complete list here. The second installment of our Favorite Books list features our nonfiction recommendations. The decline of American agriculture, the eccentric life of James Boswell, and a racehorse who beat extraordinary odds were just a few of topics that National Geographic staffers enjoyed reading about this year. If you’re looking for more, we’ve included a list of sites where you can find suggestions from The Economist, National Geographic Traveler, The New York Times, and Library Journal. Happy reading!

Burdick, Alan. Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion. (2006) – “To be human is to change our habitat; this is one of the many insights in this thought-provoking account on the ecology of invasions, a hot new science in which new discoveries swiftly overturn old theories. Now that our habitat is global, creatures emigrate with us at an ever-accelerating pace, carried in ship ballast (a bivalve mollusk from England to Massachusetts), imported by nostalgic birders (once native birds returning from disappearance) or crawling into airplanes on their own (the brown tree snake from Australia to Hawaii). Even NASA’s space probes carry potential invaders. If these creatures make new homes for themselves, they may eat other species into extinction, infect them with new diseases, even reconfigure an entire ecosystem. Burdick’s fascination with the science is contagious, and he does a superior job of conveying the salient points of classic experiments.” (Publishers Weekly)

Crystal, Billy. I Already Know I Love You. (2004) – (Children’s book) A grandfather-to-be anticipates the birth of his grandchild. He expresses his excitement for all of the special moments and activities he can’t wait to share: bear hugs, the ocean, a Yankees game, a movie. The book ends with the much -birth of his granddaughter Ella and is accompanied by beautiful, pastel photos. This book is absolutely delightful! Dori Wooten

Eggers, Dave. Zeitoun. (2009) – A gripping narrative of a New Orleans resident’s struggle to save his multiple rental properties–and those of his friends and neighbors–during Hurricane Katrina and the grave misunderstanding that plunges his life into post-Katrina chaos. Suspenseful and shocking, this tightly written account by master storyteller Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, editor of McSweeny’s, etc.) reveals how quickly a U.S. city descended into a state of brutal lawlessness. Eggers traces the path of Zeitoun and his family and their good friends who pushed hard against bureaucratic apathy to try to save him. Unforgettable. Susan Straight

Hanson, Victor Davis. Fields Without Dreams. (1997) – This book is, without question, one of the finest works about the decline of the family farm, specifically the harsh realities of California agriculture during the 1980s (written from the perspective of the late 1990s). The profiles of the last holdout “yeoman” are compelling and full blooded. But what’s even more interesting is how, through the small details and the individual anecdotes, Hanson is able to diagnose the larger trends and social consequences of this decline. Garrett Brown

Hillenbrand, Laura. Seabiscuit: An American Legend. (2003) – Set in the 1940s, this book tells the story of Triple Crown-winner Seabiscuit and his triumph over adversity. This is Hillenbrand’s first book, and she shines as a story-teller of a great story. Non-fiction but it reads better than most novels. Susan Borke

Hillenbrand, Laura. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. (2010) – Unbroken unfurls the story of Louie Zamperini–a juvenile delinquent-turned-Olympic runner-turned-Army hero. This is her second and latest book. This story will have you exclaiming out loud. It is amazing! She tells it so well, with no agenda, just the story. If you saw this as a movie, you’d think it was over the top. It is all the more amazing, because she did all of the research — documentary and interviews — without leaving her house, because of a chronic illness. Susan Borke

Holmes, Richard. The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science. (2010) – “Critics described Age of Wonder, a synthesis of history, science, philosophy, and biography, as ‘intoxicating,’ ‘gripping,’ and ‘juicy.’ Rather than a dry account of scientific advances, the book offers lively, compelling portraits of the men and women who made discoveries whose legacies resound today. Holmes paints both the big picture of such discoveries and the smaller details that engaged reviewers, from the scientists’ intellectual backgrounds to their personal relationships. Despite Holmes’s unbridled enthusiasm for the beauty rather than the terror behind the science, he doesn’t neglect to discuss scientists’ challenges, confusions, and failures — as well as the questions they raised about religion, spirituality, mortality, and the future of the universe. Far more than a heavy scientific tome, Age of Wonder is a timely, fascinating guide to many of today’s lingering controversies.” (Bookmarks Magazine) I loved this book!! He is a fantastic writer, and it’s lovely to have a good time while learning so much. Renee Braden

Lee, Jennifer 8. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. (2009) – “Lee takes readers on a delightful journey through the origins and mysteries of the popular, yet often overlooked, world of the American Chinese food industry. Crossing dozens of states and multiple countries, the author sought answers to the mysteries surrounding the shocking origins of the fortune cookie, the inventor of popular dishes such as chop suey and General Tso’s chicken, and more. What she uncovers are the fascinating connections and historical details that give faces and names to the restaurants and products that have become part of a universal American experience.” (School Library Journal)

Martin, Peter. A Life of James Boswell. (2002) “Martin quotes his multi-flawed (but here, warmly limned) hero as confessing, smugly, at 23, ‘I am one of the most engaging men that ever lived.’ Despite such confidence, Boswell (1740-1798), author of the first modern biography, A Life of Dr. Samuel Johnson LL.D., was also tormented by bouts of black despair about his private and professional failings. He was never able to earn the respect of his rigid father, a Scot lawyer and laird, and never (despite marrying a paragon of a woman) able to satisfy his alcoholic or his sexual appetites, which left him almost always suffering from, or recovering from, drunkenness or gonorrhea. His two published journals on Corsica and the Hebrides, and his life of Johnson, have since been supplemented by 14 volumes of long-hidden journals and seven volumes of letters, and Martin, a professor of English at Principia College in Illinois, has had the good fortune of access to Yale’s as-yet unpublished resources. The result (which Martin first published in England last year) is also the reader’s good fortune — a racy, readable and authoritative biography that sympathetically but unapologetically dramatizes what drove Boswell, almost in spite of himself, to produce some of the best writing in English. Writing his Life of Johnson, Boswell told himself, ‘I draw him in the style of a Flemish painter. I am not satisfied with hitting the large features. I must be exact as to every hair….’ In Martin’s pages, the reader lives at Boswell’s elbow impatient at his failures, delighting in his successes (‘I just sat and hugged myself in my own mind,’ Boswell once wrote).” (Publishers Weekly) Wow! Boswell is a handful, but it’s a great read. Renee Braden

Martin, Peter. Samuel Johnson: A Biography. (2008) – Same as above, Martin is a great biographer and if you’re interested in the English Enlightenment period these are wonderful books. Renee Braden

Rodriguez, Deborah. Kabul Beauty School. (2007) – A funny, suspenseful, poignant, courageous memoir. “Starred Review. A terrific opening chapter—colorful, suspenseful, funny—ushers readers into the curious closed world of Afghan women…Rodriguez went to Afghanistan in 2002, just after the fall of the Taliban, volunteering as a nurse’s aide, but soon found that her skills as a trained hairdresser were far more in demand, both for the Western workers and, as word got out, Afghans. On a trip back to the U.S., she persuaded companies in the beauty industry to donate 10,000 boxes of products and supplies to ship to Kabul, and instantly she started a training school. Political problems ensued (‘too much laughing within the school’), financial problems, cultural misunderstandings and finally the government closed the school and salon—though the reader will suspect that the endlessly ingenious Rodriguez, using her book as a wedge against authority, will triumph in the end…” (Publishers Weekly) Susan Straight

Schiff, Stacy. Cleopatra: A Life. (2010) – “[An] excellent, myth-busting biography…Schiff enters so completely into the time and place, especially the beauty and luxury of the ‘great metropolis’ of Alexandria, Cleopatra’s capital, describing it in almost cinematic detail. And though we all know the outcome, Schiff’s account of Cleopatra’s and Antony’s desperate efforts to manipulate their triumphant enemy, Octavian, make for tragic, page-turning reading. No one will think of Cleopatra in quite the same way after reading this vivid, provocative book.” (Publishers Weekly – starred review)

Smith, Patti. Just Kids. (2010) – Smith’s memoir is a moving account of her early days in New York and her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe before their rise to fame. “Just Kids captures a moment when Ms. Smith and Mapplethorpe were young, inseparable, perfectly bohemian and completely unknown, to the point in which a touristy couple in Washington Square Park spied them in the early autumn of 1967 and argued about whether they were worth a snapshot. The woman thought they looked like artists. The man disagreed, saying dismissively, ‘They’re just kids.’” (Maslin, Janet. “Bohemian Soul Mates in Obscurity.” The New York Times. 17 Jan. 2010). Karen Buckley

van der Toorn, Karel. Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. (2009) – Robert Alter, quoted in the London Review of Books: “A scrupulous study by the Dutch scholar Karel van der Toorn of how the Hebrew Bible was written and then evolved over time . . . offer[ing] a strong corrective to misconceptions about the Bible. . . . Karel van der Toorn is the perfect — and bracing — antithesis to Harold Bloom. . . . Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible will compel readers to rethink their conceptions of literary production in ancient Israel, and it is a valuable reminder that in many respects those responsible for the biblical corpus were quite far from being early Iron Age equivalents of Flaubert or Henry James.” Garrett Brown

Ten Boom, Corinne. The Hiding Place. (1971) – “The account of a Dutch girl growing up in Nazi-occupied Holland and her family who helped hide Jewish people in their home during World War II. Here is a book aglow with the glory of God and the courage of a quiet Christian spinster whose life was transformed by it. A story of Christ’s message and the courageous woman who listened and lived to pass it along — with joy and triumph.” (Amazon) Dori Wooten

Verghese, Abraham. Own Country: A Doctor’s Story. (1995) – Indian physician Verghese recalls his experience practicing in the remote, conservative town of Johnson City, TN, when HIV first emerged there in 1985.

More Best Books Lists From 2010

  • Amazon.com Best Books of 2010: http://amzn.to/eBlVMw
  • The Economist Books of the Year: http://econ.st/huUgxK
  • King County Library (Seattle): http://www.kcls.org/booksandreading/bestbooksof2010/
  • Library Journal Top Ten: http://bit.ly/i8C5CJ
  • Man Booker 2010 Longlist: http://www.themanbookerprize.com/prize/thisyear/longlist
  • National Book Awards 2010: http://www.nationalbook.org/nba2010.html
  • New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2010: http://nyti.ms/eT9bVF
  • New York Times Notable Children’s Books of 2010: http://nyti.ms/gzU533
  • NPR Best Books: http://www.npr.org/series/131336530/best-books-of-2010
  • Publishers Weekly: http://bit.ly/doVAkr
  • Pulitzer Prize 2010: http://www.pulitzer.org/awards/2010
  • Slate Best Books 2010: http://www.slate.com/id/2277103/
  • National Geographic Traveler TripLit: http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/traveler-magazine/trip-lit/
  • Washington Post Best Books of 2010: http://wapo.st/gwL48m
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