Julia Turner, senior editor As a bookish young girl, I attended a progressive elementary school that—disappointingly—took no truck with grades, spelling bees, and other traditional trappings of education in America. Instead, we had "inventive spelling." As a result, I took special delight in Kitty Burns Florey's Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog, which introduced me to a practice I feel sure I would have relished, had I been given the chance to learn it: diagramming sentences. Florey writes with verve about the nuns who taught her to render the English language as a mess of slanted lines, explains how diagrams work, and traces the bizarre history of the men who invented this odd pedagogical tool. And unlike so many of today's microhistorians, who seek to demonstrate how zippers, azaleas, or hopscotch explain the world, Florey is refreshingly content to recount her tale without any suggestion that the diagramming of sentences somehow illuminates the American character. It's a great read.
Jacob Weisberg, editor Other than The Best of Slate: A 10th Anniversary Anthology and Backstabbers, Crazed Geniuses, and Animals We Hate, my favorite books this year were both nonfiction titles: The Prince of the Marshes by Rory Stewart and The Blind Side by Michael Lewis. Of all the books I've read about the tragedy in Iraq, I think Stewart's, which Slate excerpted here, is the most likely to last. In part, this is because it does not try to draw broad conclusions about what went wrong, but simply offers up an account of one man's good intentions going awry. Stewart, a naive, intrepid Scotsman, found himself governing the Southern tribal province that is home to the Marsh Arabs. Horribly persecuted by Saddam, and without any Sunni population, his region was a strong candidate to turn peaceful and democratic. Instead, it degenerates into tribal and factional conflict and becomes a paradigm of the entire failed enterprise of the occupation.
My friend Michael Lewis' latest book looks deceptively like Moneyball applied to football but ends up being more about race than sports. At its heart is the irresistible tale of how a wealthy white family in the Memphis suburbs adopted an enormous black man-child from a ghetto background so chaotic and deprived that he could barely speak, let alone read. In a new, supportive environment, Michael Oher defies everyone's expectations, including his own. The heroes of The Blind Side are white Southerners who reject their culture's assumptions about young black men. Like my other choice, it's a book about idiosyncratic idealism—but with a hopeful ending.
Blake Wilson, editorial assistant Jane Gardam's Old Filth was the best novel I read this year. It's the story of Sir Edward Feathers, one of those impeccably dressed and imperturbable icons of Englishness. Following a career as a lawyer and a judge in Hong Kong, he has retired to Dorset, where, after his wife dies, his senility takes him on tours of his unhappy past. Feathers was a "Raj orphan," the unwanted son of a colonial governor in Malaya, abandoned to schools back in Britain. The novel is an indictment of a culture so indifferent to children that it institutionalized their abuse. It also shows how someone betrayed by everyone he loved nonetheless grows into a good, even great, man. But what I found most moving about this very sad book is that Feathers achieves his personal resolution only by means of the dementia unraveling his idea of himself—as it frees his repressed childhood memories by muddling past and present. Gardam is justly famous in Britain, having published 20 books and won heaps of awards. I hope that the critical acclaim Old Filth has already received over here will make her better known in the United States.
And keep in mind books published this year by Slate staffers and writers: The Best of Slate: A 10th Anniversary Anthologyand Backstabbers, Crazed Geniuses, and Animals We Hate: The Writers of Slate's Assessment Column Tell It Like It Is; Perennial Fall, by Maggie Dietz; On Her Trail: My Mother, Nancy Dickerson, TV News' First Woman Star, by John Dickerson; Calvin Coolidgeand Presidential Doodles: Two Centuries of Scribbles, Scratches, Squiggles & Scrawls from the Oval Office, both by David Greenberg; and The Best of Technology Writing 2006, edited by Brendan I. Koerner.