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The Best Books of 2000

The Best Nonfiction Of 2000

December 03, 2000

Why is it that kitsch is even funnier in print than in person? Perhaps it's the solemnity of the black and white pages, the elegance of print underscoring the brassy, colorful absurdity of kitsch. Sarah Vowell is a madonna of Americana, applying the same ironic evil eye to Disney World as, say, Joan Didion applied to El Salvador or Miami. " 'Disney World . . .' " she quotes her traveling companion, David, " ' . . . is like the liver of the country where the blood of America gets filtered . . . .' " Vowell grew up "white trash" in Oklahoma. Hers is the voice of a 9-year-old American citizen (chock-full of Cherokee blood), inventing her quirky opinions as she unravels them, veering away from the pat, the P.C. and troping to the complicated--for example, the much-abused American Indians who dragged their slaves along the Trail of Tears, a stop on Vowell's tour of American hot spots (from the Michigan Avenue Bridge in Chicago to Disney World). "I am," she writes by way of explaining why she prefers "The Great Gatsby" to "On the Road," "just as interested in what America costs as what it has to offer." In many ways, "Take the Cannoli" reads like an escape from radio (Vowell's day job)--that most sincere of all media. "When I think about my relationship with America," she admits, in a phrase that would be bleeped into unrecognizability on most radio stations, "I feel like a battered wife: Yeah, he knocks me around a lot, but boy, he sure can dance."

TALES OF FISHING VIRGIN SEAS

by Zane Grey

The Derrydale Press:

216 pp., $19.95

This is a lovely new edition of Zane Grey's 1925 classic, written after he had made enough money in Hollywood to purchase a three-masted schooner, which he named the Fisherman. Grey took his brother, his son and several friends on a dream of a fishing trip, from Cocos Island to the Galapagos and up the coast of Mexico. They caught tuna and dolphin and rock bass and sailfish and rays and broke several world's fishing records. Grey's writing is unremarkable and even awkward, but his persistent, daily log-like accounting of tussles with big fish and sightings of new islands lull the reader into the rhythm of an expedition--whether it's the rocking of the ship or the making and breaking of camp. It is a fine example of simple writing that allows a reader to turn the next corner with the author, catching the unexpected at eye level, among the finest and most difficult of literary achievements.

A TASTE FOR FREEDOM

The Life of Astolphe de Custine

By Anka Muhlstein

Translated from the French

by Teresa Waugh

Helen Marx Books / Turtle Point Press: 392 pp., $16.95 paper

In 1839, the Marquis de Custine, a sensitive and intelligent French aristocrat, set off on a three-month journey to Russia. Four years later, he published a book. "Letters From Russia" was an instant bestseller translated into several languages and, before long, banned in Russia. A century later, Custine's grim portrait of a nation enslaved took on new significance as a prophetic vision of Stalinism. The perspicacity of its insights deeply impressed George F. Kennan, architect of America's Cold War containment policy.

Unlike his contemporary Alexis de Tocqueville, who traveled west to examine American democracy, Astolphe de Custine journeyed east looking for evidence that an enlightened autocracy might be the answer to the horrors of mob rule. Custine's own family had suffered greatly under the Reign of Terror, even though they had actively supported the French Revolution: His mother had been imprisoned, his father and his grandfather, a Revolutionary general, had been guillotined. Who was Astolphe de Custine and what enabled him to write so penetratingly and passionately of a country in which he had spent only three months?

Rather than plod through events year by year, overwhelming the reader with heaps of data, Anka Muhlstein focuses on some of the central themes of her subject's life: his politics, his sexual identity, his travels, his literary tastes and aspirations. She also supplies enough social and historical background to put him in context. Her biography, which won the Goncourt Prize in France, is perceptive, sympathetic and sprightly. There's not a dull moment in it.

TERROR IN THE MIND OF GOD

The Global Rise

of Religious Violence

By Mark Juergensmeyer

University of California Press:

318 pp., $27.50

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