NONFICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR 1 Savage Beauty
NANCY MILFORD (Random House, $29.95) Best-selling biographer Nancy Milford has made a career out of rescuing damsels from the literary abyss. In 1970, she induced readers (more than 1.4 million of them) to acknowledge the weighty influence and unwieldy charisma of Zelda Fitzgerald. Three decades later, Milford excavates another lost voice, the lyrical wonder of Edna St. Vincent Millay. If her poems aren’t all familiar, this battle cry of a quatrain, which helped earn her the Pulitzer in 1923, should be: ”My candle burns at both ends;/It will not last the night;/But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends – / It gives a lovely light!” Armed with letters, snapshots, and early drafts of poems (entrusted to her by Millay’s sole living heir, her fiercely protective younger sister), Milford’s portrait of a lady is dense and layered, driven by a mix of plainspeak and erudition. Largely remembered for her rambunctious love life, Millay died in 1950 at 58, burned out from booze and morphine. Milford digs into the sex and the scandals, but rightly anchors her story in the woman’s work. Shoving aside the flimsy scrim of legend, she once again gives us a life.
2 WORD FREAK Stefan Fatsis (Houghton Mifflin, $25) You can rearrange the letters of the title to spell ”DORK W/FEAR,” and the people described herein – veterans of the competitive Scrabble circuit whose very beings are predicated on the rearrangement of letters – are indeed fearful dorks. Fatsis got sucked into their monomaniacal world and emerged with a report on obsessiveness guaranteed to turn many living-room players into obsessives themselves.
3 ANOTHER PLANET: A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF A SUBURBAN HIGH SCHOOL Elinor Burkett (HarperCollins, $26) When the ravenous pack of journalists covered Columbine, ”they left us hanging with shards of half-truths about music and style and adolescent angst.” Burkett spent a year in a Minnesota school, where she found that drugs, sex, and rock & roll have nothing on the combative faculty lounge or the English department that teaches the movie version of The Scarlet Letter.
4 FAST FOOD NATION Eric Schlosser (Houghton Mifflin, $25) Schlosser’s nation stretches from the flavor factories of the New Jersey Turnpike to the meatpacking plants of Colorado to the potato fields of Idaho. He simultaneously plays Upton Sinclair, doing investigative work on slaughterhouses and E. coli, and social historian. We are what we eat, and this swift polemic shows how the fast-food biz stands for America.
5 THE NOONDAY DEMON: AN ATLAS OF DEPRESSION Andrew Solomon (Scribner, $28) The chokehold of melancholy is ugly and frightening – as are many moments in this unflinching book about fighting against its grip. Solomon, who writes candidly about his own mental illness, plunges into the personal, cultural, and psychological shades of depression. Take comfort in his index, whose credits range from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up to the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry.