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Best nonfiction books of 2010

Best nonfiction books of 2010

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"Washington" by Ron Chernow

Published by Penguin Press, 904 pages, $40

An examination of the engaging life of George Washington and why this controlled, rugged general was, perhaps, the only person with the character to guide the country to independence and serve as its first, great leader.

"The Gun" by C.J. Chivers

Simon & Schuster, 496 pages, $28

As a weapon of mass destruction, it's hard to top the AK-47, the ubiquitous Soviet assault rifle. This history notes that the AK-47 has killed far more people than other WMDs.

"Travels in Siberia" by Ian Frazier

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 529 pages, $30

Writer confesses to a midlife fascination with Siberia, and his vast account of the even vaster "greatest most horrible country in the world" will fascinate many readers, too.

"Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us, and How to Know When Not to Trust Them" by David H. Freedman

Little, Brown, 304 pages, $25.99

A persuasive explanation of why conventional wisdom should often be ignored. If you read it with "The Invisible Gorilla" by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, you may never know what to believe.

"Winston's War" by Max Hastings

Knopf, 544 pages, $35

Despite his many flaws, Britain's Winston Churchill and his leadership in World War II still glow with glory in this long-view look at how one man inspired an entire nation to fight on.

"Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival" by Laura Hillenbrand

Random House, 496 pages, $27

The author of "Seabiscuit" studies the dramatic life of another determined survivor, an Olympic runner who, while serving in World War II, crashed into the ocean and survived sharks, then a Japanese POW camp and then post-traumatic stress disorder to become an inspirational speaker.

"The Last Boy" by Jane Leavy

Harper, 456 pages, $27.99

This new biography depicts Mickey Mantle as a marvelously talented baseball player — and a deeply flawed human, but a likable one even so. This book goes way beyond baseball.

"The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History" by Jill Lepore

Princeton, 207 pages, $19.95

The renowned Harvard historian offers a trenchant, lively and devastating meditation on the uses and abuses of American history, most recently by the tea partiers. This timely book will resonate well beyond this year's elections.

"The Facebook Effect" by David Kirkpatrick

Simon & Schuster, 384 pages, $26

In 2004, a sophomore at Harvard cobbled together a computer site that soon exploded in popularity as Facebook. This book tells how it happened — and why it matters so much.

"Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years" by Diarmaid MacCulloch

Viking, 1,188 pages, $45

MacCulloch's massive undertaking is a great overview of the Christian faith, particularly when it takes us past the familiarities of Latin Christendom. MacCulloch goes too far in including groups like the polytheistic, Bible-rewriting Mormons, but most of what he offers is informative and entertaining.

"A Ticket to the Circus" by Norris Church Mailer

Random House, 416 pages, $26

Norman Mailer's fifth wife died Nov. 21, leaving behind this juicy memoir of her 33-year romance with the writer, which started when she was 26 and he was 52. Sam Walton, Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, Ali MacGraw, Allen Ginsberg, Jackie Onassis, Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter Thompson, Bill Clinton and more celebrities make cameos.

"Pulitzer" by James McGrath Morris

Harper, 576 pages, $29.99

Joseph Pulitzer, a young Hungarian immigrant, had to struggle to crack the St. Louis power structure. But he went from reporting for a German-language newspaper to buying it, then others. Morris' book isn't the first Pulitzer bio, but it's the best at explaining the newspaper tycoon's St. Louis years.

"Lethal Warriors: When the New Band of Brothers Came Home" by David Philipps

Palgrave Macmillan, 288 pages, $25

An exposé of how U.S. military commanders ignore deadly post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers returning from the invasion of Iraq.

"American Grace" by Robert Putnam and David Campbell

Simon & Schuster, 569 pages, $30

The authors review the place of religion in American society today, looking at it from a social and cultural perspective. Their optimistic conclusion is that the multitude of strongly held beliefs in our country does not produce a climate of antagonism. Americans accept, they say, a broad range of beliefs, extending even to atheism.

"Life" by Keith Richards

Little, Brown, 576 pages, $29.99

The memoir by the Rolling Stones guitarist has charmed just about every critic with its candid, funny, detailed stories about Mick Jagger, drugs, family and, of course, music. The raves exceeded expectations.

"Listen to This" by Alex Ross

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 384 pages, $27

Following up on the success of "The Rest Is Noise," Ross of The New Yorker offers 18 wide-ranging essays on music, through time and space. His first proposal — and it's a good one: Lose the name "classical music," which limits and embalms. Just call it "the music." A must-read for anyone with an interest in music of any kind.

"Wicked River" by Lee Sandlin

Pantheon, 270 pages, $26.95

The Mississippi River was a much wilder place in the 19th century (partly because almost everyone working on it was drunk). Readers will take a fascinating ride with this feisty look at the history, culture and geography of America's great river.

"Hellhound on His Trail" by Hampton Sides

Doubleday, 459 pages, $28.95

In clear, simple prose, this piece of popular history tracks James Earl Ray as he murders Martin Luther King Jr. and tries to elude a massive manhunt by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI.

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot

Crown, 384 pages, $26

How did a poor black woman who died of cancer become immortal? A sample of her body's tissue was used (even exploited) without her family's consent for stunning scientific breakthroughs, including a vaccine for polio. An incredible true story that reads like a novel.

"Just Kids" by Patti Smith

Ecco, 320 pages, $16 (paperback)

In a moving chronicle of youth, the famed rocker reminisces about her early years in New York and a romance with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction.

"Autobiography of Mark Twain," edited by Harriet Elinor Smith, et. al.

University of California Press, 736 pages, $34.95

The Missouri writer dictated hundreds of pages of his life story before he died in 1910. But Samuel L. Clemens didn't want the whole thing released until a century after his death. After painstaking work by Twain experts, the mighty first volume is a hit, making headlines around the world.

"Justice Brennan" by Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 551 pages, $35

A sympathetic but carefully fair biography of a Supreme Court justice who remains, 13 years after his death, a controversial judge. William Brennan's tenure on the high court was marked by a growing liberalism even as the Supreme Court tended to become more conservative.

"Long for This World" by Jonathan Weiner

Ecco, 310 pages, $27.99

Weiner, a popular science writer, has written a surprisingly optimistic book about that basic human desire to live forever, incorporating the current research into longevity with philosophy and literature on the topic.

"The Fall of the House of Zeus" by Curtis Wilkie

Crown, 374 pages, $25.99

Wilkie provides a nuanced inside account of the fall of Mississippi trial lawyer Richard "Dickie" Scruggs, now in federal prison.

"The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration" by Isabel Wilkerson

Random House, 640 pages, $30

When the 20th century started, most African Americans lived in the rural South. But by the 1970s, 6 million had moved to urban areas, a rarely studied change that had enormous effect on U.S. politics and culture. Wilkerson makes it a fascinating, personal drama by focusing on three people's stories.

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