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4th Qtr 13:51

Best nonfiction books of 2011

Daniel Haskett for The Boston Globe

Daniel Haskett for The Boston Globe

“Plastic: A Toxic Love Story’’

by Susan Freinkel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

“A century into mankind’s love affair with plastic,’’ writes Susan Freinkel, in “Plastic: A Toxic Love Story,’’ “we’re starting to recognize this is not a healthy relationship.’’ This eloquent, elegant book thoughtfully plumbs the cascading, unintended consequences of our dependence on plastics, from the way obesity followed ballooning cola bottles to a new and now permanent culture of disposable material goods. The author sketches the history of a series of plastic products, along the way inviting readers to think about consumerism, luxury, design, waste. People once saved and reused disposable Styrofoam coffee cups, for instance; they had to be taught to throw them away. It’s a lesson we learned too well, Freinkel argues in this highly readable, truly important book. She doesn’t merely condemn plastic but rather seeks to understand it, pondering the ambiguous inheritance of a material that “can rightly inspire both our deepest admiration and our strongest disgust.’’

Daniel Haskett for The Boston Globe

KATE TUTTLE

Continue reading below

“America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops’’ by Christine Sismondo

(Oxford University)

“The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding’’ by Sarah Burns (Knopf)

“Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West’’

by Dorothy Wickenden (Scribner)

“The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll’’

by Preston Lauterbach (Norton)

“Red Dust Road: An Autobiographical Journey’’

by Jackie Kay (Atlas)

“Three Famines: Starvation and Politics’’

by Thomas Keneally (Public Affairs)

“Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid

That Sparked the Civil War’’ by Tony Horwitz

(Henry Holt)

“A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown’’

by Julia Scheeres (Free Press)

“The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth

of an American Classic’’ by Michael Sims (Harper)

Kate Tuttle writes the “Short Takes’’ column for the Globe. She can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.

“Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption,

and Baseball’s Longest Game’’

by Dan Barry (Harper)

Baseball has its literary canon, and the only book to break into the lineup in the last decade just might be “Bottom of the 33rd’’ by Dan Barry, a crisp little volume about the longest professional game ever played, a 1981 endurance struggle between the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings that lit up a Rhode Island night even though only 19 spectators remained at the end. For 8 hours 25 minutes the men played on, and though the spectators ached for the match to end, the reader feels quite the opposite. This is a book that is in fact more memorable than the event it celebrates, for it sets out the beauty in the rhythms of the game and explains its hold on us - in this case a hold that lasted into the night and well into the next morning, which happened to be on Easter weekend, unless of course you believe that was not a coincidence at all.

DAVID M. SHRIBMAN

“The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness

Kingdom, 1879-1960’’ by Douglas Brinkley (Harper)

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World’’ by James Carroll (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

“The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End

of America’s Childhood’’ by Jane Leavy (Harper)

“Branch Rickey’’ by Jimmy Breslin (Viking)

“To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty

and Rebellion, 1914-1918’’ by Adam Hochschild (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

“An Accidental Sportswriter: A Memoir’’

by Robert Lipsyte (Ecco)

“The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’sGermany, 1944-1945’’ by Ian Kershaw (Penguin)

“Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman’’

by Robert K. Massie (Random House)

“Civilization: The West and the Rest’’

by Niall Ferguson (Penguin)

David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.

“Pulphead: Essays’’

by John Jeremiah Sullivan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Nearly a decade ago I read an essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan in Harper’s. “Horseman, Pass By’’ was a nearly perfect blend of reportage, memoir, and cultural criticism poured onto the page with an alarmingly original voice. Journalists - even extraordinary ones - are frequently doomed by the forgetfulness of their readers, and though that essay haunted me, I quickly forgot who wrote it. I won’t forget again. “Pulphead,’’ Sullivan’s new collection of essays, is devastatingly, sublimely good, even though it doesn’t include the horse piece. Sullivan revitalizes fringe events, mis-appreciated moments, and forgotten figures, from Christian rock festivals and Michael Jackson’s first performance of “Billie Jean’’ to spectral, nearly forgotten blues singers, in idiosyncratic, warm-hearted, ribald, and slantwise essays. Most pieces in “Pulphead’’ were previously published in magazines like GQ, which is shocking: Sullivan not only transcends what we think of as magazine writing, but comes close to replacing the Great American Novel with the Great American Essay.

MICHAEL WASHBURN

“The Missing of the Somme’’ by Geoff Dyer (Vintage)

“Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between’’ by Jeff Sharlet (Norton)

“Blue Nights’’ by Joan Didion (Knopf)

“Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography’’ by Errol Morris (Penguin)

“Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution’’ by Mary Gabriel (Little, Brown)

“Arguably: Essays’’ by Christopher Hitchens (Twelve)

“Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere’’ by André Aciman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

“Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America’’ by Christopher Turner (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

“Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President’’

by Candice Millard (Doubleday)

Michael Washburn is a research associate at the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics at the City University of New York. He can be reached at michael.a.washburn@gmail.com.
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