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Best nonfiction of 2010

Friday, December 10, 2010; 12:10 PM

THE ARTIST, THE PHILOSOPHER, AND THE WARRIOR: The Intersecting Lives of da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Borgia and the World They Shaped, by Paul Strathern (Bantam, $30). Using his novelist's eye, Strathern creates flesh-and-blood portraits and conveys the impact these extraordinary men had not only on each other but on the Renaissance. -Steven Levingston

AT HOME : A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, $28.95). Bryson strolls from kitchen to cellar, from garden to nursery, the better to show us how Western civilization created domesticity. -Louis Bayard

ATLANTIC: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories, by Simon Winchester (Harper, $27.99). A voyage of discovery ranging almost from the primeval ooze to the environmental concerns of the early 21st century. -Ken Ringle

BETSY ROSS AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA, by Marla R. Miller (Henry Holt, $30). Ross did not birth the first flag, but the artisan portrayed in this eloquent biography and the many plucky revolutionary American women workers like her should be stitched in our collective memory. -Marjoleine Kars

BLOODY CRIMES: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse ,by James L. Swanson (Morrow, $27.99). This marvelous book is centered on the separate journeys of two men - one dead, the other whose cause had died - to their destinies. -John C. Waugh

THE BRIDGE: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, by David Remnick (Knopf, $29.95). In his exhaustive biography, Remnick seeks to illuminate Obama's role as racial hero and lightning rod, and to discern the president's own mixed feelings about it. -Gwen Ifill

CHASING GOLDMAN SACHS: How the Masters of the Universe Melted Wall Street Down, and Why They'll Take Us to the Brink Again, by Suzanne McGee (Crown Business, $27). An exceptionally lucid, well-written account of how and why the financial system broke down. -James Ledbetter

THE CLASSICAL TRADITION, edited by Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most and Salvatore Settis. (Belknap/Harvard Univ., $49.95). Shows us how deeply the stories, iconic figures and ideas of antiquity succor our imaginations and still suffuse the world we live in. -Michael Dirda

CLEOPATRA: A Life, by Stacy Schiff (Little, Brown, $29.99). Schiff has dug through the earliest sources on Cleopatra, sorted through myth and misapprehension, tossed out the chaff of gossip, and delivered a spirited life. -Marie Arana

COLOSSUS: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century, by Michael Hiltzik (Free Press, $30). Detailed and vividly written, destined to be the standard history for decades to come. -Kevin Starr

DEEP BLUE HOME: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean, by Julia Whitty (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24). A dream of a book, vivid yet languorous, rich in detail, richer still in emotional impact. -Thomas Hayden

DELUSIONS OF GENDER: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, by Cordelia Fine (Norton, $25.95). The author's mission is to demolish the sloppy science being used today to justify gender stereotypes. -Wray Herbert

DENIAL: A Memoir of Terror, by Jessica Stern (Ecco, $24.99). Stern, a terrorism expert, turns her formidable powers of investigation on the night she was raped at gunpoint. -M.A.

THE DIARIES OF SOFIA TOLSTOY, translated from the Russian by Cathy Porter (Harper Perennial; paperback, $16.99). Provides a harrowing portrait of a marriage. Leo Tolstoy was clearly a fanatic as well as a genius, and Sofia was often half crazy from the strains of living with him. -M.D.

ECLIPSE OF THE SUNNIS: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East, by Deborah Amos (PublicAffairs, $25.95). If I were developing a reading list for newcomers to the Middle East, Amos's slim but powerful volume would be the last assigned book, the perfect sad coda to a century of tragedy. -Thomas W. Lippman

THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Scribner, $30). An enthralling, juicy, scholarly history of cancer. -Susan Okie

THE EYES OF WILLIE MCGEE: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South, by Alex Heard (Harper, $26.99). In arresting prose, Heard has produced a book that captures a significant slice of the past and a case whose verdict was all but preordained. -Michael Kazin

THE GRAND DESIGN, by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (Bantam, $28). I've waited a long time for this book. It gets into the deepest questions of modern cosmology without a single equation. -James Trefil

THE GUN, by C.J. Chivers (Simon & Schuster, $28). Chivers puts the AK-47 into its social, historical and technological context in an evocative narrative. -Mark A. Keefe, IV

HELLHOUND ON HIS TRAIL: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin, by Hampton Sides (Doubleday, $28.95). Sides draws a memorable and persuasive portrait of the amateur assassin whose motivation may be simpler to grasp than most previous investigators have realized. -David J. Garrow

HITCH-22: A Memoir, by Christopher Hitchens (Twelve, $26.99). A fat and juicy memoir of a fat and juicy life. -Diana McLellan

JUSTICE BRENNAN: Liberal Champion, by Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35). Scrupulously honest and consistently fair-minded, "Justice Brennan" is a supremely impressive work that will long be prized as perhaps the best judicial biography ever written. -D.J.G.

KINGDOM UNDER GLASS: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals, by Jay Kirk (Henry Holt, $27.50). Kirk makes taxidermy fascinating in his gonzo narration of the life and odd marriage of Carl Akeley, an eccentric explorer and inventor who developed exceptional artistry in the true-to-life stuffing of dead animals. -Dennis Drabelle

THE LAST HERO: A Life of Henry Aaron, by Howard Bryant (Pantheon, $29.95). In this beautifully written and culturally important biography, Bryant tells the Aaron story with gusto and a ferocious sweep. -Wil Haygood

THE LAST STAND: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking, $30). Philbrick evokes what surely must have been the feeling of that day among the cavalrymen, in which ignorance and overconfidence descended into reluctant confusion, then suddenly fell off a cliff into panic, disbelief and death. -Brian Hall

LET'S TAKE THE LONG WAY HOME: A Memoir of Friendship, by Gail Caldwell (Random House, $23). A beautifully written book about the best friend Caldwell lost to cancer in 2002. -Heller McAlpin

LIFE, by Keith Richards (Little, Brown, $29.99). The most scabrously honest and essential rock memoir in a long time. -L.B.

LIVES LIKE LOADED GUNS: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds, by Lyndall Gordon (Viking, $32.95). A fabulous detective story, replete with hidden treasure, diabolical adversaries and a curse from one generation to the next. -Jerome Charyn

MAGIC AND MAYHEM: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy From Korea to Afghanistan, by Derek Leebaert (Simon & Schuster, $26). How refreshing to read a smart, polemical book that is deliciously rude to many grand poohbahs of our time while making good sense about the mess the United States now finds itself in across the globe. -Robert G. Kaiser

MAKING HASTE FROM BABYLON: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World: A New History, by Nick Bunker (Knopf, $30). A picture so full and vivid as to constitute a virtual ground-level tour of an otherwise lost world. -John Demos

MENTOR: A Memoir, by Tom Grimes (Tin House; paperback, $16.95). From now on, anyone who dreams of becoming a novelist will need to read Tom Grimes's brutally honest and wonderful memoir. -M.D.

MY NINE LIVES : A Memoir of Many Careers in Music, by Leon Fleisher and Anne Midgette (Doubleday, $26). Fleisher, a classical pianist who lost the use of his right hand, describes his nonmusical pursuits and his dream - ultimately fulfilled - of playing two-handed again in this insightful, psychologically sensitive narrative. -Mindy Aloff

NOTHING TO ENVY: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, $26). Conveys the emotional riptides and overall disintegration of stopped factories, unpaid salaries and piled-up corpses. -Stephen Kotkin

OBAMA'S WARS, by Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster, $30). A superbly reported account of how a new president may well have embroiled himself in a war that could poison his presidency. -Neil Sheehan

OPERATION MINCEMEAT: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory, by Ben Macintyre (Harmony, $25.99). Could World War II really have been like this? Full of self-effacing heroism and romantic conquests? -Joseph Kanon

THE PARTY: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers, by Richard McGregor (Harper, $27.99). McGregor has written a lively and penetrating account of a party that, since its founding in Shanghai as a clandestine organization in 1921, has clung to secrecy as an inviolable principle. -Andrew Higgins

PEARL BUCK IN CHINA: Journey to "The Good Earth," by Hilary Spurling (Simon & Schuster, $27). This elegant, richly researched work is a portrait of a remarkable woman ahead of her time, an evocation of China between the wars, and a meditation on how the secrets and griefs of childhood can shape a writer. -Leslie T. Chang

POISONING THE PRESS: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture, by Mark Feldstein (Farrar Straus Giroux, $30). An entertaining and well-researched account of Nixon's obsession with investigative reporter Anderson and Anderson's sometimes dubious tactics in digging up dirt on the president. -Evan Thomas

A ROPE AND A PRAYER: A Kidnapping From Two Sid, by David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill (Viking, $26.95). Rohde and his wife, Mulvihill, alternate chapters in this harrowing account of his kidnapping by the Taliban, delivering an important and valuable story of love, faith and courage. - Philip Caputo

SHOWTIME: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater, by Larry Stempel (Norton, $39.95). Stempel ingeniously separates the threads that were woven into the modern musical theater. -Lloyd Rose

STORYTELLER: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl, by Donald Sturrock (Simon & Schuster, $30). Enriches the now familiar outline of an eventful life with much new information, peels away the layers of myth that Dahl promulgated about himself, and makes clear the man's immense charm as well as his cold self-possession and emotional callousness. -M.D.

TOCQUEVILLE'S DISCOVERY OF AMERICA, by Leo Damrosch (Farrar Straus Giroux, $27). Damrosch deftly depicts that fateful encounter between young Tocqueville and adolescent America. The best book on this subject in 70 years. -H.W. Brands

TRAVELS IN SIBERIA, by Ian Frazier (Farrar Straus Giroux, $30). Frazier uses his oversized powers of observation and description to produce a travelogue that is charmingly off the deep end in its infatuation with everything about Russia, good and bad. -Alan Cooperman

THE TWILIGHT OF THE BOMBS: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons, by Richard Rhodes (Knopf, $27.95). No one writes better about nuclear history than Rhodes does, ably combining a scholar's attention to detail with a novelist's devotion to character and pacing. -George Perkovich

UNBROKEN: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand (Random House, $27). Rarely has a single man had to endure such an extraordinary array of woes, from long weeks of battling sharks and hunger on a flimsy life raft to the mind-boggling brutalities of incarceration in a Japanese POW camp. -Gary Krist

VOYAGER: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery, by Stephen J. Pyne (Viking, $29.95). This unique combination of history and philosophy reflects on the role of exploration in society. -Marcia Bartusiak

WAR, by Sebastian Junger (Twelve, $26.99). What elevates "War" out of its particular time and place is the author's meditations on the minds and emotions of the soldiers with whom he has shared hardships in Afghanistan. -Philip Caputo

THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson (Random House, $30). As becomes clear in this extraordinary and evocative work, the refusal of African American migrants to remain in the South may have saved their lives. - Paula J. Giddings

WHEN THEY COME FOR US, WE'LL BE GONE: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, by Gal Beckerman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30). This fresh, surprising and exceedingly well-researched book tells the stories of the Soviet Jews who made their religion and their desire to immigrate to Israel into a protest movement, and of the American Jews who championed their cause. -Anne Applebaum

WILLIAM GOLDING, by John Carey (Free Press, $32.50). This intelligent, elegantly written and deeply empathetic biography of the author of "Lord of the Flies" reminds us that the factual basis of a writer's neuroses is less important than the imaginative use he makes of them. -Wendy Smith

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