Philip Hoare's The Sea Inside: Hoare's book is ostensibly about the sea, the creatures found there, and our relationship to them. But it's as much about Hoare's mind, and the places its questing takes him, as it is about those subjects. So we learn about St. Mark the Wrestler, who "cured a hyena whelp by spitting on his fingers and signing on its eyes." And about the bad rap that ravens get. And about Hoare's ice-cold ocean swims, and his quiet home, and his memories of family. And of course about whales. It's a meandering, byways and backroads book, and it's mesmerizing.
Lucy Lethbridge's Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times: A richly anecdotal history of servants in twentieth-century Britain. What more do you need to know? Seriously: it's hard to imagine any fan of twentieth-century British literature who wouldn't enjoy this, if for no other reason than to help them understand the mostly unspoken background to the fiction of the period.
Lee Sandlin's The Distancers: An American Memoir: Lee Sandlin's memoir of a number of his ancestors (great-aunts and uncles, mostly) achieves something admirable: it brings ordinary people from generations before ours to life, locates them in their place and time, and, without setting ourselves or our own times up as better, or more advanced, shows us just how different they were, how truly far away from the familiar you get as you walk back through the decades. At the same time, he tells a moving story of ordinary people (if strange, and even in some cases damaged--driven, as Anthony Powell put it, by their own furies) living quiet lives, destined to disappear from memory were it not that they had a descendant who became a writer, one who cares about what we lose when memories fade.
Terry Teachout's Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington: In a lean year for me for biographies, Duke was a treat. I already knew that Ellington was famously elusive and hard to get to know; what I didn't know is that not that much happened in his life: he formed the band, and while there were ups and downs afterwards, that was basically it. In a certain sense the band was his life. Despite that Teachout manages to keep the narrative compelling, primarily by reliably bringing it back to the music and the players. Maybe no one really knew Ellington, but by the end of Duke we understand his genius, and admire his contribution to our culture all the more.
Carl Watkins's The Undiscovered Country: Journeys among the Dead: A perfect accompaniment to autumn's annual serving of ghost stories, Watkins's book is packed with details of how the English related to their dead--restful and walkabout alike--in past centuries. From it I learned more about the ghost-story-hunting monk of Byland Abbey, discovered that the dead buried beneath the flagstones of churches did indeed sometimes disrupt services with an olfactory reminder of the whole dust to dust bit, and of a nineteenth-century druid who was an early advocate of cremation. I've learned to trust the Bodley Head's sense of a good history--they're always rich in quotation, anecdote, surprises, and analysis--and this is the best of the year of the type.