Results for “best non-fiction”
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My favorite things Virginia

It feels like an eon since I have traveled, plus I have been at home with the sniffles and a nasty cough.  So here goes:

1. Music: Right off the bat we are in trouble.  Ella Fitzgerald was born in Newport News but she is overrated (overly mannered and too self-consciously pandering to the crowd).  We do have Patsy Cline and Maybelle Carter, the latter was an awesome guitar player and a precursor of John Fahey, not to mention the mother of June Carter.

2. Writer: There is Willa Cather, William Styron, and the new Thomas Wolfe.  Cather moved at age ten to Nebraska.  Some of you might sneak Poe into the Virginia category, but in my mind he is too closely linked to Baltimore.  If you count non-fiction, add Booker T. Washington to the list.

3. Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Person: I have to go with Helen Keller.  If you choose her for "20 Questions," no one will hit upon her category.

4. Movie, set in.  The first part of Silence of the Lambs is set in Quantico, Virginia.  No Way Out, starring Gene Hackman and Kevin Costner, is set in DC and around the Pentagon.

5. Artist: Help!  Can you do better than Sam Snead?  George Caleb Bingham was born here, but I identify him with Missouri.

6. The Presidents.  I’ll pick Washington as the best, simply because he had a successor, and Madison as the best political theorist.  Jefferson’s writings bore me and Woodrow Wilson was one of the worst Presidents we have had.

The bottom line: Maybe you are impressed by the Presidents, but for a state so old, it makes a pretty thin showing.  It has lacked a strong blues tradition, a major city, and has remained caught up in ideals of nobility and Confederacy. 

The Great American Novel — my runners-up

1. Faulkner.  He came close to winning.  But which novel?  Absalom, Absalom is the deepest and richest.  But you need to read it at least twice in a row, and that makes it less of a story.  Here is the first pageAs I Lay Dying is the most enjoyable.  Read it through once, without trying to understand it.  Then read it through voice-by-voice.  Then read it through again.  Sound and the Fury and Light in August (Faulkner’s easiest major work) cannot be dismissed either.

2. Henry James – The Golden Bowl.  Are you interested in Girardian doubles, the triangulation of desire, self-deception, the use of gifts to imprison, the mediation of desire through objects, and the dynamics of marriages?  This was James’s last and best novel.  For my taste Portrait of a Lady is static and stands too close to the Merchant Ivory tradition.  Interestingly, I believe not one of you mentioned James in the comments thread.

3. Huckleberry Finn.  It seems more Shakespearian each time I read it.  Right now Yana is reading it and loving it.

A few comments: Fitzgerald is not quite there.  I am tempted to count Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as a novel, not a poem.  Willa Cather’s My Antonia and Nabokov’s Pale Fire are close, although my wife will not let me treat the latter as an American novel.  Philip Roth has many excellent novels but no one for me stands out.  Only the first third of Gravity’s Rainbow is wonderful.  I prefer Hemingway’s short fiction and most of all his sociological non-fiction on bullfighting.  Bellow is excellent but I wonder how much his books will mean to people one hundred years from now.  The dark horses you already have heard about.

Books of the year

The Economist and The New York Times (password required) have put out their "best books of the year" lists.  Each list is at the respective link, the common elements are:

Philip Roth – The Plot Against America

Anne Tyler – The Amateur Marriage

Colm Toibin – The Master

Alan Hollinghurst – Line of Beauty

David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas

Orhan Pamuk – Snow

Moving on to non-fiction, we have:

Ron Chernow – Alexander Hamilton

Seymour Hersh – Chain of Command

The 9-11 Commission Report, and

Stephen Greenblatt – Will in the World

As for my favorites in fiction, Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is my clear pick, with nods to Garcia Marquez and Alice Munro.  For non-fiction, my memory summons up Craig Seligman’s Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me, Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, and Bart Schulz’s Henry Sidgwick: An Intellectual Biography.  For science I’ll nominate Brian Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos.  I’m leaving off everything that has made our "Books we Recommend" list over the months.

My apologies if I forget your book.  No, I haven’t forgotten its content (yet), I simply have no idea whether it came out this last year.  Age has compressed my sense of time into two rather gross categories: "my plans for the future" and "the distant past."

Christmas gifts

OK, the end of the year is approaching, here are my “best of” lists:

1. Classical music CD: Bach, St. Matthew’s Passion, conducted by Paul McCreesh. As good a recording as you will find, and this is arguably the best piece of music ever. One voice to a part, as they did it in Bach’s day, but never stale or musty.

2. Popular music CD: Outkast, Speakerboxx/The Love Below. Starts at hip-hop but spans the entire musical map, from an immensely talented duo.

3. Book, fiction: J.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello. The finest novel yet by this year’s Nobel Laureate in literature, deep and philosophical, but also a great read.

4. Book, non-fiction: Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Games. Baseball puts me to sleep, this book is actually about human irrationality and performance. Everyone should read it.

5. DVD: Jean-Luc Godard, Band of Outsiders. OK, so he was (is?) a commie. Still, he understands the power of cinema in a way that few other directors do. The screen sparkles in every frame, the release is of course by Criterion.

And if you really want to go on a shopping spree, here is an article about notable art masterpieces still in private hands. I would recommend the Pollock at $50 million, except that the owner is not selling at that price.