Best Nonfiction Books: 1999
Isaac's Storm, Secrets of the Flesh and Slackjaw were among the year's best
Book of the Year
1 Isaac’s Storm Erik Larson (Crown, $25)
In a year bustling with everything from Australian yachting tragedies to light-headed Into Thin Air knockoffs, this unassuming yet completely mesmerizing narrative was more breathtaking than any other. A terrifying, page-whipping account of a lethal turn-of-the-century hurricane, Isaac’s Storm is the story of Isaac Cline, the head of the Galveston, Tex., Weather Bureau in 1900. Failing to predict the deadliest hurricane in history, the scientist (and we) watch helplessly as more than 8,000 unwarned residents perish in a swirling, graphic maelstrom of collapsed houses, jagged debris, and displaced reptiles. A near-perfect combination of horrifying detail and exquisite reportage (painstakingly pieced together from weather-service telegrams, diary excerpts, interviews, and newspaper clippings), Isaac’s Storm is a stirring condemnation of man’s hubris in the face of unforgiving nature.
2 Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette Judith Thurman (Knopf, $30)
Throughout her extraordinary life (1873-1954), Colette joyously flouted the conventions of both womanhood and age: As an actress, she reveled in revealing her breasts on stage; as a journalist, she reported from the front in World War I; as a novelist, she plumbed her three marriages and countless affairs — with both men and women — for her sexually explicit fiction. Thurman’s skillful balance of honesty and homage gives us a marvelous portrait of a woman possessed of great wickedness and greater spirit.
3 Slackjaw Jim Knipfel (Tarcher/Putnam, $22.95)
He’s grouchy. He drinks too much. He screws up his relationships. And boy, do we love him by the end of this dazzling memoir. He’s Jim Knipfel, New York Press columnist, bearer of ”Blind Man paraphernalia,” and the resolutely unsentimental star of this seamless blend of tragedy (he has a brain lesion and retinitis pigmentosa) and comedy (he’d rather smack into poles than use a cane).
4 A Clearing in the Distance Witold Rybczynski (Scribner, $28)
Clearing works on two levels: as a sparkling portrait of Frederick Law Olmsted, the man who designed many of the country’s great parks, including New York City’s Central Park, and as a window into late 19th-century American life. In other hands, this might have been dry material, but here it comes vibrantly, thrillingly alive, thanks to Rybczynski’s passion for Olmsted—whom he clearly sees as a visionary determined to preserve and create beauty in an increasingly industrialized society.
5 Falling: The Story of One Marriage John Taylor (Random House, $22.95)
A quiet, clear-eyed chronicle of a failed marriage seems like an unlikely candidate to revitalize the whiny divorce-memoir genre, but Taylor’s sparsely written work does just that. Falling sidesteps tear-jerking melodrama and instead describes how mundane fissures in a relationship can develop into chasms, rendering an account of marriage that is devastating in its authenticity.