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The Best Books of 2000

The Best Nonfiction Of 2000

December 03, 2000

We all wear big chains every day, and we're all shackled together. You have to work your way down the line until you find the lock. Then you have to find out who is holding the key. It takes grand theory on the order of Plato or Marx to explain the human condition. It takes perspective. And you have to be able, unlike Marx, to write well, simply and clearly, so that everyone can understand and respond to what you have written. Never once does Walter Mosley make the reader feel that he is writing only about black people in this clear-sighted manifesto. He locates the sources of racism in the tyranny of the market that makes slaves of all of us. "Mass oppression," he writes, "for mass production is part of the Western psyche. Therefore the problems experienced by blacks in America have to be seen as part of that larger malady." Mosley offers chain-breaking ideas: using the black experience in America as a "torch in the darkness"; using the "truth as a commodity and barometer for our own commitment to growth." He suggests that we make a list of the things that we deserve for a lifetime of labor, that we carry it around, tinker with it, vote by it. Reach for what is missing from your life, he writes. "Define it." "Demand it."

THE WORLD SPLIT OPEN

How the Modern Women's Movement

Changed America

By Ruth Rosen

Viking: 446 pp., $34.95

Ruth Rosen's history of the post-World War II feminist movement links feminism's development and failures to the larger social and economic forces that determined the lives of all women. Written in clear, engaging prose and excellently researched, "The World Split Open" is destined to become a canonical work in college-level women's studies courses throughout the country. But it should also be widely read by high school students (and filed under "American History," not quarantined as "Women's Studies"), for it is a cogent guide to the often baffling world that adolescents have inherited, and which it will be their task to live in and change.

One of Rosen's greatest strengths is her recognition that feminism is a fluid, ongoing process rather than a sharply delineated thing. What does it mean to live life as a feminist? Will the daughters of feminists commit their own forms of matricide? Can feminism regain its radical vision? How will feminism respond to the "postmodern global economy"? What would a feminist family--not to mention a feminist culture--look like? These are open questions to which there are no certain answers, which is what makes them so exciting. "There is no end to this story," Rosen writes, which is one of the most hopeful things about it.

THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO

SURVIVAL HANDBOOK

By Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht

Chronicle Books: 176 pp., $14.95 paper

Quick. Life is passing. While you've been sitting around reading poetry and history, planes are crashing, folks are being eaten by alligators and innocent hikers are being sucked into quicksand. Here's a book, really a guide, that you can prey on for information. "The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook" tells you how to jump from a bridge into a river, how to cushion a blow to the head, how to maneuver on top of a moving train and get inside and, yes, how to land a plane. There's so much more. No language, no hidden clauses, just simple red and white type. A really entertaining little emergency book.

YUKON ALONE

The World's Toughest Adventure Race

By John Balzar

Henry Holt: 302 pp., $25

Dog-sled racing has always struck us as among the more completely moronic of sports, a kind of brain-dead athleticism engaged by social misfits and hermits--potential clock-tower snipers and mail bombers. The races are atavistic and aloof, conducted, as they are, mostly out of sight of potential spectators and, in any case, so sluggishly slow that interested spectators are likely to perish of boredom long before freezing to death. First-place prize money hardly compensates a winner for his or her expenses. Worse yet, sometimes dogs die, and there are those of fine sensibility, animal activists and others, who would ban the sport altogether. A long dog-sled race, or so we once thought, is an obscure exercise in masochism that allows dangerous people to risk their lives for a few bucks, much scorn and almost no notoriety. It is, in short, a terrific subject for a book.

"Yukon Alone" struck like a hammer blow to the ice of our preconceptions--it is the best book on the Far North since Barry Lopez's "Arctic Dreams"--and for that we are grateful to John Balzar, an author skilled enough to survive the race, warped enough to understand the participants and literary enough to paint the big picture.

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