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Globe Books editors select the best-reviewed non-fiction titles of the year

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BLUE NIGHTS By Joan Didion (Knopf) This book about the death of Didion’s daughter, Quintana, is heartbreaking in part because it is somewhat jumbled. The shards of memory, shimmering as they are, do not finally fit together, quite. Instead, in its elliptical, kinetic way, the book offers something braver than coherence: a raw and rare integrity that resists resolution. – Leah Hager Cohen

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BOOMERANG Travels in the New Third World By Michael Lewis (Norton) Lewis’s guided tour of the world’s economic ruins is a bit like hiking through remote gastronomic regions with Anthony Bourdain. Like Bourdain, he gets up close and personal with the economic meltdown, and applies a biting wit that infuses a rare pleasure into the unpleasant business of digesting grim economic tales. – Jacquie McNish

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BORN LIARS Why We Can’t Live Without Deceit By Ian Leslie (Anansi) In this persuasive and wide-ranging book about the useful role of deception, Leslie argues that lies are not just the refuge of the cowardly, the Machiavellian or the too-kind. Not coming entirely clean with others people is part of being a social animal. Leslie brings intelligence and a wealth of thought-provoking research to his topic. – Marni Jackson

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DARKMARKET Cyberthieves, Cybercops and You By Misha Glenny (Anansi) British writer Glenny’s history of how cyber-crime went from the domain of lone-wolf hackers to a highly organized criminal underworld is entertaining, well written and any number of insightful diagnoses, such as the competitions between hackers, or the reasons why law-enforcement agencies have such difficulty working together. – Jeffrey Hunker

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DAY OF HONEY A Memoir of Food, Love, and War By Annia Ciezadlo (Free Press) In her extraordinary debut, Ciezadlo turns food into a language, a set of signs and connections that helps tie together a complex, moving memoir. She interweaves her private story with portraits of memorable individuals and with shattering public events in Baghdad and Beirut. She does so with grace and skill, without sentimentality or simple generalizations. – Naomi Duguid

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EATING DIRT Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe By Charlotte Gill (GreyStone) It is hard to say why a book full of mould, sodden clothing, bad weather, grizzly bears, broken-down trucks, blisters and tiny seedlings should be engaging, rewarding and full of knowledge, but Eating Dirt is so winning because it bridges the dizzying gulf between the people who command that work be done and the people who do it. – William Bryant Logan

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EMPIRE OF THE BEETLE How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug are Killing North America's Great Forests By Andrew Nikiforuk (GreyStone) This important book is not just a primer on the recent rampages of the bark beetles that have killed more than 30 billion pine and spruce trees. It is not just a virtual gathering of the dozens of scientists and others who have grappled with the beetle onslaught. It is a principled reflection on “the pathology of resource management.” – William Bryant Logan

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ESTHER The Remarkable True Story of Esther Wheelwright – Puritan Child, Native Daughter, Mother Superior By Julie Wheelwright (HarperCollins) In this highly readable, meticulously researched history, Wheelwright explores the adventurous life of her distant relative, Esther Wheelwright. In doing so, she provides a fascinating portrait of New England and New France in the 18th century, and of the complex negotiations among the French, the English and the Abenaki as they battled over land, religion and hunting rights. – Margot Livesey

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HERE ON EARTH A Natural History of the Planet By Tim Flannery (HarperCollins) This is a hinge moment for civilization. Australian biologist Flannery responds by explaining the nature of that hinge and offering hope for the future. Just as his The Weather Makers appeared at the right time to explain climate change, Here on Earth arrives at the perfect moment, a bravura synthesis spanning scientific disciplines and billions of years. – Alanna Mitchell

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INCOGNITO The Secret Lives of the Brain By David Eagleman (Viking Canada) I love this book, though it is the sort experts on human nature hate, as Eagleman says things like “criminals should always be treated as incapable of having acted otherwise.” I love it precisely because it reveals so many of the strings and levers of human nature; science has revealed us as bio-robots. Not divine, but engineered by evolution. – Jeffrey Foss

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IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin By Erik Larson (Crown) This tale of U.S. ambassador William E. Dodd and family landing in 1933 Germany is very sad, because Hitler could have been stopped early on, and because so many Germans blithely followed him. But it is also superb; Larson’s core idea, to trace the moral corruption of an entire society through the swiftly altering perceptions of one family, is masterful. – Martin Levin

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LITTLE COMRADES By Laurie Lewis (Porcupine's Quill) In her first book, Lewis, now 80, tells of being raised in Calgary by parents who were members of the Communist Party, though her father was a drunk and abusive. Demonstrating a talent for ironic juxtapositions and uncanny observational skills, she brings the Great Depression and Second World War unforgettably to life. – Elisabeth Harvor

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METAMAUS A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus By Art Spiegelman (Pantheon) MetaMaus offers several more layers to Spiegelman’s graphic classic, Maus, one of the most textured of modern books. Imagine a great architect like Frank Gehry offering a guided tour to one of his classic buildings, opening up the original plans, explaining his solutions for each problem. Such an act of self-exegesis is immensely rewarding. – Jeet Heer

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MOONWALKING WITH EINSTEIN The Art and Science of Remembering Everything By Joshua Foer (Penguin Press) This erudite and charming first book finds Foer, dissatisfied with his own forgetful memory, training for the 2006 U.S. Memory Championship. The story follows Foer as he ramps up his training, interspersed with a survey course on the history of memory, from the Greeks to MRIs, and his encounters with modern masters of memory. – Siobhan Roberts

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NATION MAKER Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times, Volume Two: 1867 -1891 By Richard Gwyn (Random House Canada) The second of a two-volume, prize-winning biography covers 1867 to 1891, from just after Confederation to Macdonald's death. At its heart is the creation, against all odds, of a railway that would become the spine of the emerging country. The book is a towering achievement, a glittering career-capper, and may prove impossible to beat. – Ken McGoogan

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ONE HUNDRED NAMES FOR LOVE A Stroke, a Marriage, and the Language of Healing By Diane Ackerman (Norton) This is a book about life-altering illness and language as balm and bond. Ackerman writes vividly and movingly about the effects of her husband’s stroke on her and on her husband, writer Paul West. She writes well about married life, its intimacies and childish pleasures. Often, her writing is startling and evocative. – André Alexis

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PHOENIX The Life of Norman Bethune By Roderick and Sharon Stewart (McGill-Queen's) This revisionist work makes the case that the celebrated doctor led a life of failure, alcoholism and deceit, redeemed by a few glorious months of sacrifice in China. Thorough, objective, well written, exhaustive and highly readable, Phoenix should become the definitive basis for all serious discussion of Bethune. – Michael Bliss

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SAY HER NAME By Francisco Goldman (Grove) Goldman’s sublime and heart-rending story of his marriage to Mexican writer Aura Estrada, and of her tragic death is a book about loss and grief and the attendant “guilt, shame, and dread, on an endless loop.” Say Her Name is also an unforgettable love story, a testament to a great love and love’s greatness. – John Goldbach

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TAKING MY LIFE By Jane Rule (Talonbooks) In this absorbing posthumous memoir, Rule the realist has illuminated with insight, joyousness, tenderness and even pain the influences that were to shape her as a writer and as a sexual being. Her great openness about relationships, her insistence on the creation of community, her pursuit of truth, are very much in evidence. – M.A.C. Farrant

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THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED A Portrait of the New India By Siddhartha Deb (Bond Street) This work, focusing on five characters in the new India, reads like a sub-continental Great Gatsby. Deb has been compared to V.S. Naipaul, but his voice is unique, more honest, a gaze refreshingly different. The invisible aspects of globalization are starkly revealed, as is the plight of India’s dispossessed. – Jaspreet Singh

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THE CHIMPS OF FAUNA SANCTUARY A Canadian Story of Resilience and Recovery By Andrew Westoll (HarperCollins) Westoll’s account of Gloria Grow and her Quebec sanctuary for damaged creatures should make us rethink what it is to be human – and animal. It’s an opera of dramatic events, heart-rending tragedies and uplifting triumphs. For anyone interested in empathy and recovery, this book is required reading. – Linda Spalding

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THE END The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-1945 By Ian Kershaw (Penguin Press) In this remarkable book, Kershaw (author of a definitive biography of Hitler) tells the story of the mass murder and homicidal suicide of the Third Reich in its final days with a mastery of detail so compelling that I could not put it down. A magnificent account of the “twilight of the Nazi gods.” – Jonathan Steinberg

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THE IMMORTALIZATION COMMISSION Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death By John Gray (Doubleday Canada) Gray’s focus is the revolt against death after Darwin, “claiming that science could give humanity what religion and magic had promised – immortal life.” As always, Gray is about separating reality from delusion – brilliantly. The astuteness of his thinking, the connections he makes between a wide range of subjects and the clarity of his conclusions make this book extremely satisfying. – M.A.C. Farrant

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THE INFORMATION A History, a Theory, a Flood By James Gleick (Pantheon) Gleick has the ability to imagine and express the significance of important aspects of contemporary cultural knowledge. His sixth book recounts the history of the concept of information itself, ratifying his role as one of our most readable explicators of Big Ideas. This thick executive summary is accessible to a general audience, while remaining of interest to experts. – Darren Wershler

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THE INVENTION OF MURDER How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime By Judith Flanders (Harper) Flanders has produced a compelling study of how crime, and crime prevention, emerged as a popular obsession in 19th-century Britain, and came to dominate its literature. Murder did not begin in Victorian Britain (as TV series such as Rome and The Tudors bloodily demonstrate), but the paraphernalia of crime detection and the vehicles for sensationalism did. Mesmerizing. – Charlotte Gray

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THE LAST ACT Pierre Trudeau, the Gang of Eight, and the Fight for Canada By Ron Graham (Allen Lane Canada) This is a spirited and judicious account of Trudeau’s heroic struggle to repatriate the Constitution, “a pivotal moment in the evolution of the nation ... Canada's spiritual coming of age.” Graham is an able chronicler of this epic tale of nation-building. He brings clarity and balance to a drama that has been cynically distorted by separatists and revisionists. – Andrew Cohen

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THE PSYCHOPATH TEST A Journey Through the Madness Industry By Jon Ronson (Riverhead) Ronson’s effort to plumb the depths of psychopathology seems like a contemporary version of Alice in Wonderland. The journey, including encounters with conspiracy theorists and reality-TV producers, is sometimes hilarious, sometimes alarming and always entertaining. – Christopher Dewdney

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THE SWERVE How the World Became Modern By Stephen Greenblatt (Norton) Stephen Greenblatt tells us that the physical manifestations of modernism grow from a single seed, the manuscript of a lengthy poem by Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, lost in the early Christian era and unearthed and unleashed in 1417 by out-of-work papal scribe Poggio Bracciolini. What he unleashed forms this riveting, entirely clear and beautifully written narrative. – Jane Smiley

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THINKING, FAST AND SLOW By Daniel Kahneman (Doubleday Canada) Economic rationality, psychologist Kahneman argues in his brilliant work on how we make choices, is all about coherence and logical consistency. This is a magisterial work, stunning in its ambition, infused with knowledge, laced with wisdom, informed by modesty and deeply humane. If you can read only one book this year, read this one. – Janice Gross Stein

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TO END ALL WARS A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 By Adam Hochschild (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) To End All Wars is about the clash of world views that occurred as traditionalism and modernism jostled for primacy in wartime Britain. Hochschild is a consummate storyteller and the book is a captivating read, thanks in large part to his keen eye for the telling vignette. – Jonathan F. Vance

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TOMMY DOUGLAS By Vincent Lam (Penguin Canada) Placing Tommy Douglas’s 17 years as premier of Saskatchewan and his role as father of medicare at the centre of the narrative, Lam, a Giller Prize-winning author who’s also an emergency physician, gives Douglas’s incomparable career a thoughtful, balanced, lucid assessment. Lam clearly feels a strong affinity for Tommy – not only for his innovative achievements in health care, but for his compassion, decency and moral courage. – Roy MacSkimming

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WHEN THE GODS CHANGED The Death of Liberal Canada By Peter C. Newman (Random House Canada) The end of the Liberals and the rise and fall of Michael Ignatieff animate this important, timely and engaging book, the first to look at the 2011 election, probably a watershed in our history. Few do substantive, long-form journalism like this any more, and no one does it with octogenarian Newman’s eye, ear and ego. – Andrew Cohen

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WHO KILLED MOM? A Delinquent Son’s Meditation on Family, Mortality and Very Tacky Candles By Steve Burgess (GreyStone) Like a Garrison Keillor of the Canadian Prairies, Burgess writes funny, unfiltered observations, anecdotes and character descriptions that flow naturally and make for an engaging story of his life to date. This is a very funny book is worthy of a Leacock Medal for Humour. – D. Grant Black

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WHY NOT? Fifteen Reasons to Live By Ray Robertson (Biblioasis) These thoughtful meditations on the big questions of life (and death) emerge from mental pain and a writer’s need for whatever helps you make it through the night. I like Robertson's well-read mind, from which he draws on an array of thinkers from Seneca to Nietzsche in the tradition of Montaigne's investigation into what we know about ourselves. – Stan Persky

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WINTER Five Windows on the Season – the CBC Massey Lectures By Adam Gopnik (Anansi) Gopnik offers no jaw-dropping conclusions or theories about winter and our relationship to it. He brings to the page a stream of endlessly entertaining insights and ideas – a treasury of people and places and art. The book is ashiver with insights and good will. – Charles Wilkins

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