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The Boston Phoenix 1997's Best Non-fiction

Memoirists, biographers, critics, and tale tellers.

By Charles Taylor

DECEMBER 29, 1997: 

  1. Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life, by Laurence Bergreen (Broadway Books). This straightforward biography doesn't have the perspective on Louis Armstrong's music that a jazz writer could offer (for that, read Gary Giddins's Satchmo), and Bergreen has been accused of a series of factual flubs. But Armstrong mattered to millions to people who never gave a thought to jazz as an art form, or as anything else for that matter. This long, continuously absorbing book reminds you of the pleasures to be had from a writer who knows how to lay out a story (the section on Armstrong's New Orleans upbringing is particularly vivid). And by putting his trust in an accumulation of detail to paint a picture of his subject, Bergreen gets a portrait of something else: the well-deep complexities that can lurk in artists whose appeal cuts across boundaries of race, class, and taste.

  2. Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964, edited by Michael R. Beschloss (Simon and Schuster). I don't mean to belittle the first volume of transcripts of LBJ's private White House conversations by saying that this is a very entertaining book. Johnson, the century's most underrated president, was his voice, and it's all here, insulting, flattering, cajoling, pressuring. My favorite moment is one of no historical import, a call to New York City mayor Robert Wagner 80 minutes before Wagner's wife died of cancer. "I'd walk up there nekkid if there was something I could do," Johnson tells Wagner, and you think, "Jesus! What would it mean to have a leader who says exactly what he feels?"

  3. Resident Alien: The New York Diaries, by Quentin Crisp (Alyson). Chatter of a very high order, and wit that's almost always generous. In the guise of a diary, Crisp has written a luxuriantly entertaining and keen piece of bemused and grateful social criticism. He sees life in his adopted home of New York City as a comedy of large-spirited and kind manners. "I have said no one is boring who will tell the truth about themselves," Crisp writes. Here is a supremely unboring man, and the only British queen worth saving.

  4. American Nomad, by Steve Erickson (Henry Holt). With the most unsettling first sentence of the year, "America wearies of democracy," Steve Erickson's chronicle of the 1996 election comes close to doing for that year what Norman Mailer did for '68 and what he and Hunter S. Thompson did in '72. The most lucid and penetrating analysis of our current political psyche that any journalist has come up with, American Nomad is a book that will give no comfort to either conservatives or liberals. And apart from the writers capable of eloquent righteous rage, that may be the most valuable sort of political writing.

  5. Casanova: The Man Who Really Loved Women, by Lydia Flem, translated by Catherine Temerson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Part literary criticism, part journey through the 12 volumes of Casanova's Histoire de ma vie, Lydia Flem's book makes the case that the name of Casanova should stand for pleasure pursued with reckless generosity, the determination to give as much as has been received, whether the giver can afford it or not. Writing in rich, atmospheric prose, Flem understands that anyone truly worthy of being called a Casanova has been willing to wreck his life for the love of women. A deeply civilized reimagining of an amazing life.

  6. Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer (Villard). We've probably all seen the sort of adventure movies where the hero, finding himself in a tight spot, says, "So, this is Hell." Jon Krakauer's book, one of the most authentically nightmarish experiences any book or movie or song has given me, introduces us to a Hell that keeps getting worse. Outside magazine sent Krakauer to go along on one of the guided expeditions to the top of Mount Everest. Minutes after the group had reached the summit, a blizzard hit the mountain and killed 11 people in the various expeditions ascending to the peak. Krakauer burrows into the brand of masochistic asceticism peculiar to mountain climbing: the way climbers equate physical pain with purity of spirit. And without breast beating or finger pointing, he captures the acts of bravery and selfishness from his fellow climbers, sometimes both types of behavior from the same person. I was up half the night finishing this book, and up the other half trying to put it out of my mind.

  7. Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, by Greil Marcus (Henry Holt). In which our finest cultural critic, Greil Marcus, travels the dirt roads and shanty towns of "the old weird America," a journey that takes him through Dylan and the Band's "Basement Tapes" and Harry Smith's seminal Anthology of American Folk Music. This is criticism presented as mystery story, with the exploration more important than the explanation. Marcus acknowledges the strangeness of American folk music, the way it allows voices to declare themselves as acts of reckless individuality and never give up the dream of community. It's a séance parlor of a book where the window blinds are letting in light and Houdini himself couldn't find any trick wires. The best criticism of the year.

  8. Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, by Deborah Solomon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The patron saint of Woolworth's, lunch counters, and junk shops, Joseph Cornell was the artist who transformed American kitsch into the shadow play of dreams. He was an odd bird and, as Deborah Solomon understands in this gentle and canny biography, a rare and wonderful one as well. The title comes from the address of his family home in Queens. Solomon shows that in Cornell's mind, it could belong to any New York street that held the promise of some treasure waiting to be discovered. A lovely biography.

  9. Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood, by Eileen Whitfield (University of Kentucky). Eileen Whitfield's invaluable biography makes an utterly persuasive case for Mary Pickford as an essential movie artist whose intuitive dramatic gifts signaled a break from the histrionic stage emoting that carried over into early movies, gifts that were especially suited to the poetic lyricism that became the signature of silent films. Combining a great command of narrative with an unerring perceptiveness, Whitfield tells a story that encompasses Pickford's early stage years (when she was supporting the family abandoned by her alcoholic father), her rise as star and one of the founders of United Artists, her fairytale marriage to Douglas Fairbanks, and her final years as an alcoholic recluse. Everything you could want in a biographer as well as a film historian, Whitfield has produced as good a history of the origins of the movies as I've ever read. The best book, fiction or nonfiction, I read all year.

  10. Patient: The True Story of a Rare Illness, by Ben Watt (Grove). The male half of the pop duo Everything But the Girl proves himself a wonderful writer in this tale of the two and a half months he spent hospitalized being treated for a rare disease that profoundly altered his life. A vivid rendering of the sensual experience of illness, Patient describes the heightened sense of self that sickness entails, yet it never becomes self-absorbed. With curiosity and becoming modesty, Watt writes of the touching awkwardness with which his loved ones try to fit themselves into his drastically altered reality and, as if showing respect for the disease that seized control of him, were a necessary part of his recovery.


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