The alleged death of print became less of a prognostication and closer to a reality during 2009 in the daily newspaper and magazine realms. But in the book world, authors, their agents and publishers apparently have not heard the message of doom clearly. Week after week, deeply reported, well-written and daring new nonfiction books line warehouses and shelves of e-tailers and brick-and-mortar shops.
The sea of nonfiction is so vast that discussing "trends" is nonsensical. Even a couple of dozen new books about American incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan constitute mere droplets when the waters are so vast. The five books selected here do, however, stand for something larger than themselves. One represents a rich vein of biographies stripping the masks off powerful individuals. The others signal, in turn, war as a seemingly ceaseless international phenomenon; globalism of a different kind, offering hope amid poverty; health care practices that cover all citizens in an affordable manner; and gender equality in a misogynist society.
American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, by Joan Biskupic, hardcover, 434 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, list price: $28
It is unusual for a biographer to write the life of a sitting U.S. Supreme Court justice. Similarly, it is unusual for a journalist whose daily beat it is to report on an institution to write candidly about it at book length, because she might lose access. But Joan Biskupic, of USA Today, is obviously an unusual reporter. In her sharp-eyed chronicle, Biskupic details how Antonin Scalia's formative family, schooling and workplace experiences translate into his strict constructionist reading of the U.S. Constitution — and how his self-proclaimed unwavering interpretations waver indeed, if he can help award the presidency to George W. Bush instead of Al Gore, or restrict access to abortions. The Scalia portrayed by Biskupic appears immune to what the other justices think about his jurisprudence, as he intentionally provokes those who disagree with his opinions. Yet off the bench, Scalia comes across as the charming life of the party. (Learn more about Scalia's playful provocation on and off the bench.)
The Good Soldiers
The Good Soldiers, by David Finkel, hardcover, 287 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, list price: $26
As long as there are journalists willing to risk it all in war zones, there will be books that provide the kind of reportorial insights unavailable from soldiers, the Pentagon and the White House. When those journalists are capable of weaving what they saw, heard, smelled and felt into compelling narratives, their books often achieve a rare momentum and power. David Finkel has written one of those books. A reporter for the Washington Post, Finkel was embedded with a battalion of about 800 troops in Iraq. The Good Soldiers focuses on the triumphs and traumas of that battalion and, particularly, on its commander, Army Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich. Kauzlarich is an optimist who greets every day in gritty eastern Baghdad with the phrase "all is good," even as the deaths and crippling injuries suffered by his troops cast shadows on the mantra. When Finkel's narrative eventually moves to the home front, anxious families — including Kauzlarich's wife and children — define "all is good" as the day a soldier walks in the front door, physically and psychologically unharmed.
Strength In What Remains
Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder, hardcover, 277 pages, Random House, list price: $26
It might initially seem strange that a book set in the central African nations of Burundi and Rwanda — a book about genocide and other forms of human cruelty — would take its title from a soothing Wordsworth poem. But in Tracy Kidder's skillful hands, there is something unexpectedly soothing about the odyssey of Deogratias Niyizonkiza. In book after book, Kidder has immersed himself in low-profile lives that provide a window on previously misunderstood realms. This time, the realm is that of the seemingly hopeless immigrant to the United States. Niyizonkiza, aka "Dr. Deo," is now an American-trained physician, but he endured obstacles unimaginable to most of us. His personal tale is one of triumph, but like Kidder's spirit-lifting book, it is leavened by the misery Dr. Deo now confronts as he tries to bring modern medical care and his own heroic effort to the lives of the many still struggling in Africa.
The Healing Of America
The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper and Fairer Health Care, by T.R. Reid, hardcover, 277 pages, Penguin Press, list price: $25.95
As American voters try to sort out the highly politicized health care debate, many find it difficult to determine the truth about how well the health care system functions in other nations. Reid, a peripatetic Washington Post reporter, has done the research for American voters. The result: He exposes numerous opponents of American health care reform as liars, or at best, ill informed. Almost without exception, government-run health care overseas functions more efficiently and cost-effectively than the current American private-public hodgepodge. Reid is especially enlightening on health care in France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan. He posits that a "nation's health care system reflects its moral values." If he's correct, the United States of America is morally challenged.
When Everything Changed
When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, by Gail Collins, hardcover, 471 pages, Little, Brown and Co., list price: $27.99
Sexism isn't dead. New York Times columnist Gail Collins knows that. But it has diminished greatly in just 50 years. The shift within airlines from pretty young stewardesses to flight attendants who cross age ranges, body types and gender is an example of progress used lucidly by Collins. Women now sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, run multinational corporations and feel comfortable working outside the house in less visible occupations — or feel comfortable staying at home with the children. Collins' penetrating social history charts the progress of women by combining the "public drama of the era" — from bra burnings to class-action lawsuits — "with the memories of regular women who lived through it all." Those regular women include a three-generation Wyoming trio — grandmother, mother, daughter — whose individual stories capture the rise of female independence across the United States as vividly as any longitudinal, scientific study.