The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón (Hill and Wang)
Depending on who you talk to, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the events preceding and following it are either simple or complex. As with many significant events, both of these views are true. The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation captures this perfectly. It takes the content of the wordy 568-page 9/11 Commission's report and distills it to 144 pages of pictures and text. A simplification? Certainly; in the same way that a graph simplifies a complicated mathematical formula, presenting the meaning in an instantly graspable way. (Particularly effective is the presentation of the four simultaneous hijackings, which in pure text would be far more convoluted.) Regardless of your politics and your preconceptions about comics, The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation is at once terrifying, heartbreaking and infuriating. -- Emru Townsend

Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras: A Menagerie of 100 Favorite Animals by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (Ballantine)
Like so much of his writing, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson's latest book is exactly what it should be; exactly the book you wanted but didn't know to look for. In Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras, Masson writes about animals in a way that is neither too scientific nor too esoteric. Grouped alphabetically, these are the 100 animals the author likes best and each creature is given a short essay with little beyond facts the author has gleaned and the impressions that he has of them. Each creature's section begins with a black and white photo of the animal and both the common and Latin name of the beast under discussion. ("Great Horned Owl/Bubo Virginianus" and so on.) Each creature is given a few pages -- at most four -- and quite often begins with a description of the animal as though you've never seen one before. ("Meerkats are a species of mongoose. They are small, agile animals with slender bodies and short limbs.") This is followed by whatever Masson thinks is important at this juncture. In the case of the meerkat, he mentions their earliest archaeological sighting, follows that with a literary reference (in this case, a Kashmiri Sanskrit text) then adds an academic reference or two, one from an Oxford animal behaviorist, then rounds it all up with knowledge that seems to be Masson's own: tidbits he's collected and here chooses to share. -- Aaron Blanton
American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville by Bernard Henri-Levi (Random House)
Tocqueville in America in 2006. The thought seems noble and promising. In American Vertigo French philosopher, Bernard Henri-Levi retraces Alexis de Tocqueville's footsteps, if not his desire to understand America from the viewpoint of a foreigner. Tocqueville is best known for his book, Democracy in America. Traveling by automobile, Henri-Levy manages to compile some very interesting and enlightening reflections on America in the first decade of the 21st century. Henri-Levy refers to America as a friend. A major motivation for his year-long residency in the United States, the author tells us, comes about as an attempt to discredit the rabid and rampant European anti-Americanism. Another reason he offers has to do with taking the pulse of the state of American democracy. Henri-Levy dazzles the reader with some very poignant and unique perspectives on culture, baseball, the American road, and, of course, politics. Henri-Levy, like Tocqueville before him, calls America the best model of democracy in the world today. Like a well-meaning guest in our own home, he converts his lucid observations into articulate and lyrical anecdotes that augment our familiar perceptions. His treatment of American cities is much kinder than Jean-Paul Sartre's visit to America in the 1950s and equally insightful as Spanish philosopher, Julian Marias' examination of American culture in his book, America in the Fifties and Sixties. American Vertigo is the refreshing result of the objectivity and good will that intellectuals can achieve when ideology takes a backseat to sincerity. -- Pedro Blas Gonzales

The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems 1937-1952 by Allen Ginsberg, edited by Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton and Bill Morgan (da Capo)
“When the young Allen Ginsberg received a small pocket diary for his eleventh birthday in 1937, no one had any way of knowing that it would only be the first of hundreds of journals he would fill over the course of the next sixty years of his life.” The first sentence of the first section of The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice sets the book up completely. The candid words collected in this book are Ginsberg being Ginsberg: personal thoughts -- and poems -- written during his formative years. So personal, in fact, he insisted they not be published until after his death. We have never seen the birth of the beat generation as clearly nor heard it as rivetingly told as it is here in Ginsberg's very personal thoughts. An important book. -- Aaron Blanton

Crime Beat: A Decade of Covering Cops and Killers by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown and Company)
The unique power of Michael Connelly's fictional voice can be traced back to his collection of news reporting from the Florida Sun-Sentinel and the Los Angeles Times, as found in Crime Beat. This remarkable journalistic overview of selected articles by one of the premier crime-fictionists in America today is not to be missed -- and not to be quickly read, either. This book is to be savored. The stories contained here were written when Connelly was covering the crime beat during the 1980s and 90s, first in his native Florida, and then later in Southern California. But make no mistake here: Connelly was not biding his time until he could publish novels. The man was an outstanding reporter. Connelly writes in the foreword that moments defined his life, his career choices. It is moments and details that Connelly is a master at capturing and exploiting to significant emotional impact. The pieces in Crime Beat are straightforward accounts of murder, with hard details that suggest a touch of artistic crafting. You will read how these cases take a toll on the lives of the investigating detectives, the sheer number of exhausting hours required and the sometimes frustrating result of a case gone cold. (In a nice touch, the reader is supplied an informational footnote giving an update on specific cases.) Connelly faithfully gives his reading public the necessary facts and the insinuations between the lines, but he also manages to fit in an empathetic sensibility -- for instance, when he writes about the detective who chews down on his eyeglasses, leaving an indent reflective of his compassion for the victims. In a piece entitled “The Call,” Connelly relates his experiences following homicide detectives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on a 24/7 basis. He is given exclusive access and a pager. When the detectives are called to a job, Connelly is likewise alerted. It is Harry Bosch in the making. In “Nameless Grave,” perhaps one of the more heartbreaking pieces in this collection, Connelly reports on the strange account of a killer caught and convicted, though the identity of his male victim is never discovered. The lead detective states that this had never before happened in his department. The victim is ultimately buried in an unmarked grave in Florida. It is the kind of case that would haunt and stay with detective Bosch, and this is the kind of intoxicating book that will resonate with Connelly's readers for quite some time. I'm seeing Edgar nomination written all over this book. -- Anthony Rainone

King, Kaiser, Tsar: Three Royal Cousins Who Led the World to War by Catrine Clay (John Murray)
It surprises me that we've not heard more about Catrine Clay's King, Kaiser, Tsar, encompassing as the work does all of the elements that make a truly great biography. With a fictionist's eye for detail, Clay sets the stage: Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. Three powerful cousins control over half the world: George V of England, Wilhelm II of Germany and Nicholas II of Russia. The strong familial ties that connect Europe's traditional monarchies have never been so well illustrated, as well as the series of events that saw this trio lead the world to war for the first time. Clay spent two decades with the BBC and is the author of two other books: Princess to Queen and Master Race. King, Kaiser, Tsar was developed from a documentary "commissioned to accompany Stephen Poliakoff's The Lost Prince." With enviable royal access, miles of related research under her belt for the first two books and the storyteller's ability to weave an engaging tale, Clay’s book deserves all of the attention we can direct its way. -- Aaron Blanton

One Good Horse
by Tom Groneberg (Scribner)
Tom Groneberg knows how horses can help heal a broken human soul. Over the years, he worked with horses on dude ranches, wrangling outfits and, briefly, a rodeo. In the years since he moved to Montana from Chicago, Groneberg ate, slept and breathed horses, but had never owned one himself. In his first book, The Secret Life of Cowboys, he described how he awkwardly assimilated into the world of men and their mounts. Now, in One Good Horse, he gives us a moving account of his love affair with one particular horse, a scrawny, chocolate-brown two-year-old he names Blue after a legendary horseman, Teddy “Blue” Abbott. As he and his wife Jennifer raise their son Carter in Montana’s Flathead Valley, Groneberg starts to feel his life is incomplete. Jennifer is expecting twins and he’s living out his boyhood dream of working with horses, but still he thinks there’s something missing. Getting a horse, he thinks, could either be a really good idea or a really bad idea -- a conflict he wrestles with for most of the book. Taken on the surface, One Good Horse might seem a bit ordinary and uneventful. Why, you ask yourself, would you want to spend hundreds of pages reading about a man buying a horse -- a book where one of the big action scenes comes when a skittish horse finally learns to walk forward with a rider on its back? But One Good Horse is much more than a cowboy-horse love story; it’s a tale that dives deep under the surface of its simple, straightforward prose. As he works with Blue and as he learns more about his neighbors in the pristine northwest Montana valley, Groneberg begins to see how things happen for a reason. He buys a horse, his wife gives birth to twins, he works hard to get his horse comfortable with a saddle, one of his newborn sons is diagnosed with Down Syndrome, his entire life threatens to unravel at the seams. This is a simple but achingly beautiful story about a man, his horse, his family and the land where all three live in uneasy harmony. -- David Abrams

Pollen: The Hidden Sexuality of Flowers
by Rob Kesseler and Madeline Harley (Firefly Books)
While this review is about Pollen: The Hidden Sexuality of Flowers it could just as easily by about Seeds: Time Capsules of Life, also by author and design professor Rob Kesseler. Seeds is co-authored by seed morphologist Wolfgang Stuppy, while Pollen is co-authored by Kew botanist Madeline Harley. Both books are astonishing, possibly even groundbreaking. First of all we have scale. Both books are huge. Beyond that, however, they are beautiful almost beyond description. You’ve never seen botanical photography quite like this. At times it seems likely that the subjects under discussion were photographed on some distant planet. This visual disconnect is most likely the point: taking what we know and illustrating it in an unfamiliar way, a way that begs that we forget what information we thought we had in order to replace it with what we’re given. A kind of debriefing of the senses, if you will. And it works. Whatever words I give you here can not prepare you. I venture that a more beautiful and informative brace of botanically dedicated books have yet to be created. -- Linda L. Richards

Though the Heavens May Fall: The Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery
by Steven M. Wise (Da Capo)
The very best of non-fiction can be a simultaneously joyous and troublesome journey. Such, at any rate, is certainly the case with Though the Heavens May Fall, one of those books that makes you realize that there is too much in the world that should be known that is not. Author Wise is a rare creature: a respected lawyer -- and professor of law -- who writes on non-legal matters in a clear and passionate way. More: he writes on topics that matter; that make a difference. The topics Wise has chosen are deeply interesting, but he has the touch when it comes to doing heavy research on a topic, then gifting it to us as a lucid, complete whole. Wise has a knack for breaking down to its simplest elements topics from which other writers would create quagmires. For instance, the first line in Wise's book -- from the preface -- explains Though the Heavens May Fall most concisely: “This book tells how an invisible man became visible and how that changed the world.” Though the Heavens May Fall brings to light the trial whose outcome became known alternately as the Somerset Decision and the Mansfield Judgment. This was the British trial that, in 1772, had the end result of liberating 15,000 slaves in England by legal precedent. Viewed in certain lights, the decision set the stage for further emancipations over the century that would follow. 1772 is so long ago: long enough, in any case, that many details are difficult to verify. In fact, there are no fewer than eight different versions of the Mansfield Judgment floating around out there. "The legend of the Mansfield Judgment has a Rashomon-like quality," writes Wise. And, without Court TV, the Internet or photocopiers and fax machines, there seems no way we'll ever be sure precisely what the Mansfield Judgment decreed, but the bottom line was not debatable. Slavery, "is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law." Another Mansfield quote gives the book its title and beautifully, I think, caps this review: "Let Justice be done, though the Heavens may fall." -- Monica Stark
Thunderstruck by Erik Larson (Crown)
Coming off the tremendous (and deserved) success of his 2003 popular history, The Devil in the White City, Seattle writer Larson pairs two more real-life narratives in Thunderstruck. This time, the murderer is Hawley H. Crippen, a U.S.-born homeopathic physician living in London, who apparently killed his overbearing singer wife in 1910, and then tried to escape to Canada on board an ocean liner with his young lover, who was disguised as a boy. Combined with that lurid escapade is the story of Guglielmo Marconi, a compulsively driven Italian electrical engineer whose progressive refinements in wireless telegraphy sparked a cross-Atlantic police chase after Crippen that made headlines worldwide. Larson excels at this formulation of story, exploring the characters -- and character faults -- of his protagonists, and paralleling incidents in their lives with virtuosic dexterity. It's hard at times to remember that he's giving us non-fiction here, rather than expertly conceived crime fiction, so well does he strain fact through fictive techniques. If there's anything to disappoint in Thunderstruck, it's only that neither the obsessive scientist, Marconi, nor the henpecked and seemingly hapless Crippen is comparable to architect Daniel Burnham, the big-dreaming and thoroughly enjoyable mainstay of Devil. Yet there's so much to like here -- Larson's rich evocations of Edwardian London, his portrayals of Marconi and the Italian's British competitors, and his re-creation of the oceanic ship-chase that netted Crippen -- that the lack of a charismatic figure on the same order as Burnham is hardly cause to hesitate in buying or reading Thunderstruck. This is history with punch. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Best Books of 2006