Periscope Depth

50 books 2014: Best Non-Fiction

I read 50 books in 2014. This week, I’m going through each genre and highlighting my favorites.

Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile, Nate Jackson: An entertaining, clear, and informative look inside the NFL from the locker room, the medical table, and the off-season.

Raymond Chandler Speaking, Dorothy Gardiner and Katherine Sorley Walker, Editors: Whatever his other issues, Chandler’s gift with a wry phrase made him an icon of American literature. Reading an entire book written in his voice – a collection of his letters – is a treat. My only complaint is that the collection was edited to remove certain slurs and slanders in some of the letters. I wanted the raw, uncut, unlikable alcoholic without censorship. If you read other biographies of him, you can pick up some of the missing pieces.

Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, Radley Balko: That rare hat trick: a clearly written book on an important subject with plenty of rigorous documentation. (Most nonfiction books manage, at best, two of those)

Balko asserts at the beginning that this isn’t an anti-cop book, and he’s right. He does a magnificent job of documenting not the excesses of individual officers but the institutional changes that led to today’s militarized state: an increasing use of and fascination with technology; concern with the counterculture; the War on Drugs; the growing prominence of the LAPD and the popularity of its methods, including SWAT; and, of course, the War on Terror.

Documenting all of this would be enough in itself. Balko’s great virtue is in writing in direct, journalistic English, with only the occasional twenty-five cent word as an ironic eyebrow. It’s not an angry book, though it’s almost certain to make you angry while reading it.

Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, Paul Fussell: “For the past fifty years, the Allied war has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant and the bloodthirsty,” Fussell, himself a WWII veteran, writes. “I have tried to balance the scales.” He does this by writing about the inability of war planners to envision WWII going much like WWI, about the useful lies employed by the Allied side as well as the Axis, and about the general cynicism, disdain, and disregard that all enlisted men held for interaction with Command. He certainly preferred a world without Hitler, as all sane people do. But what Fussell loathed was the assumption that the noble cause of removing Hitler from power transferred a nobility to the actions of the men in Allied combat and command – or that such a cause was even the reason why most of those men, especially the Americans, were in Europe.

The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker: A remarkably useful book on how and when to listen to the fear responses your body is already producing. Useful for people concerned about self-defense, their own mental anxiety, or the safety of their friends and loved ones. A little dated – de Becker has a lot to say about threatening answering machine messages, the OJ Simpson case, and heavy metal – but still worthwhile.

Hamlet’s Hit Points, Robin D. Laws: A fascinating look at story design – written with an eye toward tabletop RPGs, but suitable for anyone interested in story structure. Laws’ contention is that good stories are built on beats that alternate between hope (getting the protagonist closer to an emotional / tangible revelation) and fear (taking the protagonist further from the same). He documents this by diagramming HAMLET, DR. NO, and CASABLANCA using his invented iconography.

It’s not a perfect system: I quibble with a few of his classifications of scenes in Hamlet, for instance. And there are notable errors in editing that render some of the diagrams and discussions hard to follow. But those aside, it’s an eye-opening exercise.

Honorable Mention: Bad Feminist, Orange is the New Black, ConCom, Getting Things Done

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