The best nonfiction books of 2009
''Zeitoun,'' ''Lit,'' and ''Cheever'' were some of the year's best books
1. Zeitoun, Dave Eggers
In 2000, Dave Eggers was anointed the wonder boy of Gen-X literature after he mixed high-wire, postmodern prose and heart-on-his-sleeve earnestness in the best-selling sensation A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The title, like the book, was a bit tongue-in-cheek and a bit truth-in-advertising boast. After all, the memoir really was a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.
Of course, wonder boys — especially ironic ones — tend to have a tricky time growing up. They either attempt to pull off the same parlor trick twice or buckle under the weight of expectations. Not Eggers. A decade after his dazzling debut, the 39-year-old is at the peak of his literary powers. In Zeitoun, the prankster has become a man with an awareness of and engagement with the wider world.
Set in August 2005, as Hurricane Katrina was headed for New Orleans, Eggers’ book chronicles the life of a middle-aged Syrian immigrant named Abdulrahman Zeitoun. As the storm nears, Zeitoun’s family evacuates, but he stubbornly stays behind. When the levees break and the streets become stygian canals dotted with floating corpses, Zeitoun’s concern for his own property grows into something larger. He paddles a canoe through the flooded city seeking out trapped neighbors.
There’s a sucker punch of a third act that’s too shocking to give away. But in this true story about a lone man who is given a sense of purpose, Zeitoun’s tale and its author’s become one. It’s a devastating story of maturity and remarkable compassion, one that’s truly heartbreaking and, yes, a staggering work of genius to boot. —Chris Nashawaty
2. Lit: A Memoir, Mary Karr
You’d think that after a couple of best-selling memoirs (The Liars’ Club, Cherry), Mary Karr wouldn’t have much more to say about herself. But Lit shows that a first-rate writer doesn’t need to repeat herself or trump up false epiphanies in order to craft a fascinating autobiography. The book glows with Karr’s descriptions — coming to terms with her alcoholism, her early lean years as a poet and teacher, her chaotic love life — but there’s nothing sentimental or self-congratulatory about her prose. Her ”years’-long binge” of drinking, illuminated here with both unadorned frankness and a mocking eye for the details of drunken stupidity and the deceptively simple revelations of recovery groups, is her chief subject. But the memoir is also about the many ways that becoming a parent, and owning up to responsibilities other than one’s own pleasure, are a great reward. —Ken Tucker
3. Cheever: A Life, Blake Bailey
He may have been one of the great American writers of the 20th century, but John Cheever wanted nothing more than to be one of the WASPy characters of his fiction. Though he acquired many of the trappings — an old stone farmhouse, a family, even an affected upper-class accent — he never fit comfortably into the role. As he grew older, tortured by his bisexuality and increasingly ravaged by alcoholism, he took out his frustrations on his wife and three children. In Bailey’s addictively readable book, Cheever comes, stumbling and swearing, back to gin-reeking life. —Tina Jordan
4. Columbine, Dave Cullen
As the mother of two teenagers, I did not look forward to dipping into this book, and yet from the very first searing page I found myself unable to put it down. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, both frequently portrayed in the media as black-clad goth loners, were, it turns out, pretty normal kids in many ways, kids with plenty of friends, certainly not the kinds of kids you’d imagine shooting up their school. How they plotted and carried out the killings, and why, reads like the grisliest of fiction. Would that it were. —TJ
5. The Mercy Papers: A Memoir of Three Weeks, Robin Romm
When she was 28, Romm was abruptly summoned from graduate school to help care for her mother, then in the final agonizing round of a nine-year fight with breast cancer: ”Robin, you have to come home. Your mother’s fingers are blue.” Anyone who has lost a beloved parent can find countless memoirs about death and overcoming grief, but Romm’s sheer firepower sets hers apart, capturing all the raw, red-eyed messiness behind her anguish. —TJ
6. A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors
A daring work of alternative scholarship disguised as a collection of essays. This thousand-plus-page history?with a roll call of contributors ranging from Ishmael Reed writing about Mark Twain to Mary Gaitskill on Norman Mailer — is, in a word, awesome. Its aim, Marcus and Sollors write, is to be inclusive and surprising. Thus the subject matter ranges ”from the first appearance of the word ‘America’ on a map to Jimi Hendrix’s rewrite of the national anthem.” You’ll learn more from this thick pleasure tome than any other single volume you’ll find all year. —KT
7. Open: An Autobiography, Andre Agassi
Even if you think you’ve heard all of the juiciest passages from Agassi’s surprisingly candid memoir (the crystal-meth habit, the rocky romance with Brooke Shields, the hideous mullet wig), you’ll still want to pick up Open. Why? Because the baseline bad boy serves up his harrowing anecdotes with the same force he put behind every on-court ace. Most affecting of all are the chapters about his tough-as-nails immigrant father and the born-to-win attitude that ultimately cost him not only his childhood but also his love of tennis. —CN
8. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, David Grann
Back in 1925, former British Army colonel Percy Fawcett — one of the last great amateur archaeologists and cartographers — disappeared somewhere beneath the snake-ridden jungle canopy of the Amazon while seeking an ancient civilization that 16th-century Spaniards called El Dorado and that he had dubbed, simply, ”Z.” New Yorker writer Grann meticulously retraces the path of the failed expedition, as well as the history and science of the seriously unforgiving locale, as he attempts to solve the mystery of Fawcett’s fate. —Thom Geier
9. The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America, Timothy Egan
Very few writers have the Pulitzer Prize-winning Egan’s gift for spinning dry history lessons into the stuff of page-turners, as he did for the Depression in The Worst Hard Time. In this riveting tale of a massive August 1910 forest fire that swept through three Western states, Egan recounts how ordinary citizens banded together to help the U.S. Forest Service fight the blaze. Historical journalism at its very best. —TJ
10. The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R. Brumb The most famous counter-culture-era cartoonist went mainstream this year in an unexpected way: with a faithful transcription of the first book of the Bible. Crumb’s gorgeous black-and-white detailing provides one striking tableau after another, from the cascade of paired animals streaming out of the ark to God appearing to Isaac as a bright sun. Avoiding his usual jaundiced outlook, and unable to resist making Adam and Eve sturdily attractive in the Crumb tradition, the artist both imposes his imprint on biblical history and proves to be an impressive scholar himself. —KT