Books of the year: Non-fiction

The titles selected by critics as the best of 2009

1. The Age of Wonder

by Richard Holmes

(Pantheon, $40)

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The “most fascinating book of the year” will compel you to rethink some old stereo­types about science and scientists, said Lev Grossman in Time. A mere two centuries ago, science was subversive and often furtive. Like the great Romantic poets of that era, scientists were engaged with “piercing the veil of everyday phenomena,” and even amateurs could repair to their basements and make discoveries that would turn conventional thinking on its head. Holmes, who previously specialized in “entrancing biographies­ of the Romantic poets,” deftly captures “the heady mood” of the era, said Laura Miller in Beginning with botanist Joseph Banks’ 1768 voyage to Tahiti and closing with Charles Darwin’s 1831 trip to the Galápagos, this is the story of the “intrepid (not to mention lusty) explorers, tripping chemists, and eccentric stargazers” who dazzled contemporary poets, remade our understanding of the universe, and filled the public with “both wonder and dread.”

A caveat: Holmes’ emphasis on a particular circle of seekers shortchanges a few significant outsiders, said Jonathan Bate in the London Daily Telegraph.

2. The Good Soldiers

by David Finkel

(Sarah Crichton, $26)

David Finkel’s grunt’s-eye view of the American surge in Iraq is “the most honest, most painful, and most brilliantly rendered account of modern warfare that I’ve ever read,” said Daniel Okrent in Fortune. The veteran Washington Post reporter embedded with a battalion of fresh-faced Army infantrymen for eight months in 2007 and came away with a series of deeply reported vignettes that “span the dramatic spectrum” from “grimly comic to inexpressibly tragic.” Without passing judgment on the surge’s purpose or effectiveness, Finkel “has made art out of a defining moment in history,” said Doug Stanton in The New York Times. “You will be able to take this book down from the shelf years from now and say: This is what happened. This is what it felt like.”

A caveat: Finkel’s “heavy-handed” use of repetition, said Christian Parenti in The Washington Post, can be needlessly distracting during the book’s many “raw and powerful moments.”

3. Lit

by Mary Karr

(Harper, $26)

Mary Karr could probably write a dozen memoirs and still keep readers riveted, said Margaret Quamme in the Columbus, Ohio, Dispatch. The third memoir by the author of 1995’s The Liars’ Club chronicles the Texas native’s abysmal years as an alcoholic young mother and provides “a surprisingly fresh take” on a tale that other substance abusers have made familiar. Even when Karr sheds her skepticism in a Boston recovery group and embraces the “hi-yah powah” touted by its members, her voice remains her own, “expressing equal parts earthy humor and spiritual longing.” Karr only gets funnier as her problems get bigger and her feelings of guilt increase, said Susan Cheever in The New York Times. Lit is a book about growing up, and it’s also “the best book about being a woman in America that I have read in years.”

A caveat: “At nearly 400 pages, it’s sprawly,” said Marion Wink in Newsday.

4. Lords of Finance

by Liaquat Ahamed

(Penguin, $18)

It’s easy to make figures from history “look stupid for not knowing what we know” now, said John Lanchester in The New Yorker. Liaquat Ahamed’s engaging account of how four esteemed central bankers caused the Great Depression is smarter than that: It reminds readers of how difficult it is, even for experts, to predict anything so complex as the global economy. The top bankers in England, Germany, France, and the U.S. “all had personalities that teetered on the verge of self-caricature,” and Ahamed has fun highlighting their idiosyncrasies. Yet their fatal flaw was a shared one, said Robert Kuttner in The American Prospect. They all believed that the national economies of the post–World War I era needed to return to the gold standard. In demonstrating why that policy was doomed, Ahamed has produced “one of the most compelling works of economic and political history” in recent memory.

A caveat: Ahamed fails to prove his case against the gold standard, said James Grant in The Wall Street Journal. His real quarrel is with a patchwork monetary policy that looks much like today’s.

5. Cheever: A Life

by Blake Bailey

(Knopf, $35)

This 700-page monument to the man known as the “Chekhov of the suburbs” is without doubt “the best example of literary biography I have ever read,” said Tina Jordan in Entertainment Weekly. The novelist and short-story writer John Cheever was “a man both tormented and tormenting,” and Blake Bailey’s meticulous chronicle brings the life and times of the alcoholic and closeted bisexual to vivid, “gin-reeking life.” Bailey generates on­going drama by juxtaposing grim details from Cheever’s private life with “the bold progression” of his art, said John Freeman in the Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger. Bailey’s astute readings help make an otherwise sad story “enormously enjoyable,” and remind us to be thankful that Cheever somehow found a way to produce so much “essential” fiction.

A caveat: In his zeal to share every detail of Cheever’s difficult life, Bailey has created a “heavy, dispiriting read,” said John Updike in The New Yorker.

How the books were chosen

Rankings are based on end-of-year recommendations published by The Atlantic Monthly,, the Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, The Economist, The Kansas City Star, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Publishers Weekly,,, Time, and The Washington Post.

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