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Itís all true

Hereís a selection of non-fiction books that Phoenix reviewers liked this year, in alphabetical order by author.

1 JAMES AGEE | FILM WRITING AND SELECTED JOURNALISM AND LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN, A DEATH IN THE FAMILY, AND SHORTER FICTION | LIBRARY OF AMERICA | Granted, this two-volume set mixes fiction and non-fiction, but it tips the scales slightly toward non-fiction with Ageeís film criticism and the book-length study of Alabama tenant farmers at the height of the depression, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (a collaboration with photographer Walker Evans). And we had to put him someplace. Seeing Agee whole for the first time, the Library of America set could finally elevate this eclectic master to the status of great American writer.

2 JEFF CHANG | CANíT STOP WONíT STOP | ST. MARTINíS | Hip-hop has been waiting for a visionary historical narrative in the manner of rock and roots documentarians like Peter Guralnick, Greil Marcus, and Robert Palmer. In Chang, it finally gets one. Ambitious, thorough, and imaginative, Chang whisks us among the musicís isolated big-bang moments and the contextual events of the larger world, maintaining his double focus on the details and the big picture, from Bronx gangs and hip-hop basements to Yankee Stadium and N.W.A and the Soledad Brothers. This is a book about generations, not just records and sales.

3 NIK COHN | TRIKSTA: LIFE AND DEATH AND NEW ORLEANS RAP | KNOPF | Cohnís a 60ish "Anglo-Irish Russian German South African Jew" with a bad case of hepatitis C when he finds himself drawn to the latest sound of his favorite city, "bounce." The delight here isnít so much in the facts and the history as in the stylish dry remove of Cohnís voice as he eyes his subjects and himself with a jaundiced, loving eye and becomes, much to his own surprise, a hip-hop record producer. His novelistic feel for character, detail, and narrative pacing make this the yearís best non-fiction comedy.

4 JOHN CRAWFORD | THE LAST TRUE STORY IíLL EVER TELL: AN ACCIDENTAL SOLDIERíS ACCOUNT OF THE WAR IN IRAQ | RIVERHEAD | No novice to Army service, Crawford spent three years with the 101st Airborne Division (XII) before joining the National Guard to pay for college tuition. Two credits away from graduating and newly married, heís called up to active duty in Iraq. What happened there seems to have destroyed much of the life that came before. And in this intense volume, Crawford spits it all back, half-digested and as disgusting as that sounds, full of bile, blood, and chunks of experience too awkward to pass.

5 MALCOLM GLADWELL | BLINK: THE POWER OF THINKING WITHOUT THINKING | LITTLE, BROWN | We reviewed unlikely New Yorker egghead celebrity Gladwellís second book back in February as it was taking off on its 45-week run on the New York Times bestseller list. Like his previous The Tipping Point, Blink takes a simple idea ó the power of first impressions ó and turns it this way and that and travels an enormous distance in a short space, from "New Coke" to the murder of Amadou Diallo. Even if his bestselling audience has become corporate seminars, the value of Gladwellís work is still essentially, and delightfully, literary.

6 PETER GURALNICK | DREAM BOOGIE: THE TRIUMPH OF SAM COOKE | LITTLE, BROWN | The author of the magisterial two-volume biography of Elvis Presley returns with a portrait of another crossover great, the church-raised vocalist who committed the greatest sin of all, going from church music to pop, and then in the early í60s became a dynamo as performer, producer, pathbreaking independent African-American label owner, and one of our best singer-songwriters ever.

7 THE LETTERS OF ROBERT LOWELL | EDITED BY SASKIA HAMILTON | FSG | This may not represent Lowellís highest art, but itís his best book: his letter-writing style self-described as "slap-dash," his sentences darting here and there, quick and muscular, often with little thought given to sequence. Itís unrevised Lowell, spiky, provocative, with signature strings of adjectives that must have delighted his correspondents ó Elizabeth Bishop, Allen Ginsberg, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, and William Carlos Williams among them.

8 MELANIE REHAK | GIRL SLEUTH: NANCY DREW AND THE WOMEN WHO CREATED HER | HARCOURT | The young detective came to life as a marketing ploy by Edward Stratemeyer, the developer of several lines of childrenís stories, but she soon became the nexus of a proto-feminist battle between his daughter Harriet and writer Mildred Augustine, with the tomboyish protagonist edited into demure submission and back out again.

9 HILARY SPURLING | A LIFE OF HENRI MATISSE: THE CONQUEST OF COLOR, 1909Ė1954 | KNOPF | Matisse is an accepted modern master now, but this second and final volume of Spurlingís biography takes us to a time not so long ago when he was relatively obscure, his works scattered in various museums and private collections (including his own). It also shows a man isolated amid a busy domestic life, devoted ó at the expense of personal connections ó to his work.

10 JOHN W. WORK, LEWIS WADE JONES, AND SAMUEL C. ADAMS JR. | LOST DELTA FOUND: THE FISK UNIVERSITY ó LIBRARY OF CONGRESS COAHOMA COUNTY STUDY, 1941Ė1942 | VANDERBILT | This book made news by showing how the great Library of Congress ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax denied credit to African-American scholars like Work in the important research he did on the Delta and its musicians. But whatís even more important is the new view it gives us of Delta life, one Lomax either didnít see or didnít want to show: an African-American community vibrant, educated, and striving for upward mobility in a post-slavery sharecropperís world.

Issue Date: December 23 - 29, 2005
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