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Bookish Delights 2009: The Nonfiction Edition

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In this Part Two of Two Parts, (Part One pertaining to fiction), my nonfiction choices for 2009 may promise to be largely some reads less traveled, most mere blips on the GPS and the New York Times Bestseller list…

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
by Richard Holmes

In an impressive synthesis of history, art, science, philosophy, and biography, Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science helps elucidate the low-profile fact that, while Romanticism in Great Britain is known chiefly as an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement, swift and innovative scientific discoveries were also a major impulse of the era. It was a period when prominent British scientists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries made major contributions to knowledge, as Holmes chronicles such wonders, choosing to focus on a few of the pertinent lives inspired and careers encouraged. Holmes uses as illustrations such figures as botanist Joseph Banks, with his romantic notion to find Paradise, and his life-changing experiences in Tahiti in 1769, and astronomer William Herschel, who discovered the planet Uranus in 1781 after having started his career as a musician. With two contradictory forces coexisting and flourishing within, Humphry Davy determined, among other discoveries, that chlorine and iodine were elements, but while possessing a brilliant scientific brain, he had the heart and soul of a poet, too. Early on he wrote poetry, one of his poems celebrating "science, whose delicious water flows / From Nature's bosom." Davy's enthusiasm led to some self-destructive behavior when he often inhaled strange chemical gases as experiments, a custom that nearly killed him. While partaking of nitrous oxide with acquaintances, he praised the splendors of science in florid verse. If that isn’t Romance applied to Science, together in an Age of Wonder, I don’t know what is.

Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness
by Alva Noe

“As a neurologist, confronted every day by questions of mind, self, consciousness, and their basis, I find Alva Noë’s concepts — that consciousness is an organismic and not just a cerebral quality, that it is embodied in actions and not just isolated bits of brain — both astounding and convincing. Out of Our Heads is a book that should be read by everyone who thinks about thinking.” — Oliver Sacks, Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry, Columbia University Medical Center

Alva Noë — part philosopher, part cognitive scientist, part neuroscientist — seemingly puts Descartes before the horse sense when he turns the famous adage around to something that more befits: I am, therefore I think. Arguing that awareness is not something that happens inside us, that it is something we do or make, Noë challenges the assumptions underlying neuroscientific studies of consciousness, rejecting popular mechanistic theories that our experience of the world stems from the firing of the neurons in our brains. We are not our brains, therefore — rather, consciousness arises from interactions with our surroundings.

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

by Alain de Botton
You haul 16 Tons, and whadaya get? In essayist/novelist Alain de Botton’s newest non-fiction work, the author explores the subject of work not as an economic or sociological answer to a musical question, but as an existential predicament. And — because it is treated as an existential dilemma — in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, the former is rarely discussed around the water cooler. But that’s not where the author of such idiosyncratic books as The Architecture of Happiness, Essays in Love, How Proust Can Change Your Life, and The Consolations of Philosophy is focusing his research. De Botton’s ambitions and approach take him far and wide with depth and breadth, while his humanism and poetic perspective constitute an elegance and well-meaning substance. Holding the Protestant mindset that "humility, wisdom, respect, and kindness could be practiced in a shop no less sincerely than in a monastery," the author goes beyond the executive suites and office drone cubicles to travel the business loops less traveled to warehouses, container ports, rocket launch pads, and power stations, visiting a landscape painter, rocket scientists, fishermen, accountants, fishermen, a biscuit manufacturer, an electricity-transmission engineer, accountants, and a career counselor. The forthright de Botton singles out the energy of entrepreneurs, who require "a painfully uncommon synthesis of imagination and realism." If there is inconclusiveness lurking about the conclusion, the way is still witty and some marvelous questions are posed, while photographer Richard Baker contributes striking images of workers and workplaces.

The Food of a Younger Land: A Portrait of American Food Before the National Highway System, Before Chain Restaurants, and Before Frozen Food, When the Nation's Food Was Seasonal – from the lost WPA file
by Mark Kurlansky
Before the days of the 24-hour drive-thru lane and the Grand-Slam-Thank-You-Ma’am, American regional cuisine was at once diverse and distinctive. During the 1930s, the WPA-funded Federal Writers’ Project under the New Deal — a make-work program that included such artists and authors as Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, and Nelson Algren, documented local foods, preparation, and eating habits — before research was abandoned due to the commencement of World War II. Best-selling author Mark Kurlansky (Cod; Salt) draws on the WPA files to present local recipes, essays, poetry, and lists of slang. With American regional cuisine now homogenized by franchising, globalization, and frozen foods, the modern reader of today’s fast-food nation will be startled and fascinated by what Kurlansky chronicles in The Food of a Younger Land, from New York automats to Georgia Coca-Cola parties, from Choctaw funerals to South Carolina barbecues, from Arkansas possum-eating clubs to Puget Sound salmon feasts, among other regional curiosities and commonalities. Through it all this promising thumb-through or delve-into compendium is simultaneously history, anthropology, cookbook, almanac, and family album, providing a restorative sense of the American rural and regional qualities and distinctions that we've lost but can yet find once again here.

Cheever: A Life
by Blake Bailey
“I was born into no true class,” John Cheever mused in his journal, “and it was my decision, early in life, to insinuate myself into the middle class, like a spy, so that I would have an advantageous position of attack, but I seem now and then to have forgotten my mission and to have taken my disguises too seriously.”

As portrayed by Blake Bailey in this definitive biography, Cheever, one of literature’s modern masters (1912-1982) was an ever-changing personality, a walking contradiction, a man who concealed his anxieties behind the mask of an amiable Westchester squire. He was a high school dropout who published his first story at 18 and earned some of the country's most prestigious literary awards; a pioneer of suburban realist fiction who persistently pushed the boundaries of realism; an alcoholic who recovered to write the celebrated novel Falconer; a bisexual who could never accept the fact. Cheever could be depressed, discourteous, pretentious, self-centered, jealous, and embarrassing. And if this "Ovid in Ossining" could not quite hold back his demons enough to fully enjoy his work, the quality and luminosity of his writing still shined through. Bailey, who had access to letters, journals, and other writings by the author — as well as cooperation from Cheever's wife, children, and close friends and colleagues — pauses throughout Cheever: A Life to examine a story or a novel, but in a seamless fashion that allows the reader to get back on track to a compelling biography.

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