#1. The World Without Us
by Alan Weisman
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
A thought-experiment: What would become of the earth if humanity were to softly and silently and suddenly vanish away? What starts as a morbid parlor game becomes a mesmerizing and grandly entertaining meditation on how horrifically humanity has managed to perturb our little planet, and with what wonderful blithe resilience said planet will shrug off all our works once we’re gone. Weisman writes like Malcolm Gladwell and John McPhee mashed together and set on fast-forward in this spirit-enlarging, screech-free hymn to the environment.#2. Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932
by John Richardson
Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
This third installment of a majestic multi-volume biography finds Picasso in transition from his Bohemian youth to wealth, fame and marriage, and then to a romance with a very young mistress. As always Richardson is tart, judgmental, thoroughly knowledgeable and very readable.
#3. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
by Ishmael Beah
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Publishers
Beah was separated from his parents at age 12 when rebel soldiers attacked his village in Sierra Leone. By 13 he was a soldier, a killer many times over, armed to the teeth and wired on a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder. Beah’s memory of his season in hell, and his eventual rescue and rehabilitation, are painfully sharp, and his memoir takes readers behind the dead eyes of the child-soldier in a way no other writer has.
#4. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA
by Tim Weiner
Publisher: Doubleday Publishing
The infinitely fascinating, endlessly depressing history of the Central Intelligence Agency, much of which amounts, in Weiner’s assessment, to one mistake and misfire and missed opportunity after another, in China, Iran, the Soviet Union, India, the Middle East and just about everywhere else the U.S. desperately needed inside information and didn’t get it.
#5. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
by Alex Ross
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Publishers
A history of a violent, chaotic, transformative century told through its bizarre and challenging classical music. Ross is a supremely gifted writer who brings the political and technological richness of the world inside the magic circle of the concert hall, so that each illuminates the other. He has the critic’s gift of allowing you to hear music the way he does; he writes about the works of daunting titans like Strauss and Schoenberg, Messiaen and Reich and Cage, in a way that makes them accessible, but without sacrificing his intellectual ambition or the technical precision of his critical language.
#6. Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life
by Steve Martin
Martin was a standup comedian for 18 years. It’s a bizarre occupation for a temperamentally private person, just as memoir is an odd genre for such a person to attempt, but Martin turns out to be a genius at both. Born Standing Up is full of hard-won personal truths, lightly tossed-off comic touches and astute observations about the 1970’s, the decade when Martin made his bones — he played off 1970’s culture as cleverly as Warhol or any of the punk musicians. He’s also touchingly forthcoming about his difficult childhood, all the more so since his personal revelations come to us untainted by any hint of exhibitionism.
#7. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
by Barbara Kingsolver
When Kingsolver and her family moved from arid Tuscon, Ariz., to verdant Appalachia, they upped the ante by deciding to eat only food they grew themselves, or which grew locally, for a full calendar year. They’re not the first to try it, but they may be the funniest. Kingsolver and her family — who chip in on the writing — are never shrill or scoldy about their project, just quietly convincing, and they make the food in their agricultural epic practically vibrate with seductive organic intensity.
#8. The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court
by Jeffrey Toobin
Publisher: Doubleday Publishers
An organization as closed, powerful and secretive as the Supreme Court, and as driven by powerful personalities, seems almost un-American, even though it protects and maintains the core of what makes this country work. Maybe that’s why it’s so fascinating. Toobin does an excellent job of introducing us to those personalities, with surprising access, penetrating analysis and a brisk narrative style. At their best the Supremes appear as heroic scholars of justice; at their worst they display all-too-human failings, including “vanity, overconfidence, impatience, arrogance and simple political partisanship.”
#9. The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness
by Elyn R. Saks
Saks was valedictorian at Vanderbilt and a Marshall scholar at Oxford before she got her law degree from Yale. She also suffers from schizophrenia that has caused her to experience wild hallucinations, debilitating paranoia and violent psychotic breaks. As a clear-eyed portrait of a brilliant mind run off the rails, Saks’s memoir recalls novels like The Bell Jar and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. (Another great memoir of mental illness from 2007 that deserves a mention is Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s, by John Elder Robison, brother of the bestselling writer Augusten Burroughs.)
#10. Here If You Need Me
by Kate Braestrup
When Braestrup’s husband, Drew, a Maine state trooper, was killed in a traffic accident, leaving her alone with four small children, she did what any uncommonly brave, quirkily devout person would do: She became a Unitarian minister and a chaplain in the Maine Warden Service, the people responsible for rescuing (or recovering the bodies of) wayward hikers, drunken snowmobilers, straying children and other victims of Maine’s pitiless northern terrain. She tells her story, and the stories of those she has helped and worked with and grieved with, with simplicity and intelligence and grace.