Annal: 2009 National Book Award for Nonfiction

Results of the National Book Award in the year 2009.

Book:The First Tycoon

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

T.J. Stiles

A gripping, groundbreaking biography of the combative man whose genius and force of will created modern capitalism.

Founder of a dynasty, builder of the original Grand Central, creator of an impossibly vast fortune, Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt is an American icon. Humbly born on Staten Island during George Washington’s presidency, he rose from boatman to builder of the nation’s largest fleet of steamships to lord of a railroad empire. Lincoln consulted him on steamship strategy during the Civil War; Jay Gould was first his uneasy ally and then sworn enemy; and Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president of the United States, was his spiritual counselor. We see Vanderbilt help to launch the transportation revolution, propel the Gold Rush, reshape Manhattan, and invent the modern corporation—in fact, as T. J. Stiles elegantly argues, Vanderbilt did more than perhaps any other individual to create the economic world we live in today. …[more]

Book:Following the Water

Following the Water: A Hydromancer's Notebook

David M. Carroll

The writer, naturalist, and artist David Carroll illuminates the ecology and life histories the tree frogs, hawks, foxes, and the increasingly rare wood and spotted turtles he has been tracking for decades with the precision and passion that won him a 2006 MacArthur “genius” award.

Following the Water is the intensely observed chronicle of Carroll’s annual March-to-November wetlands immersion—from the joy of the first turtle sighting in March to the gorgeously described, vibrant trilling of tree frogs (“lichen with eyes”) in late May to the ancient sense of love and loss Carroll experiences each autumn when it is time once again to part with open water.

Illustrated with the author’s fine pen-and-ink drawings, Following the Water is a gorgeous evocation of nature, an utterly unique “admission ticket to a secret corner of the world” (Bill McKibben).

Book:Fordlandia

Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City

Greg Grandin

The stunning, never before told story of the quixotic attempt to recreate small-town America in the heart of the Amazon.

In 1927, Henry Ford, the richest man in the world, bought a tract of land twice the size of Delaware in the Brazilian Amazon. His intention was to grow rubber, but the project rapidly evolved into a more ambitious bid to export America itself, along with its golf courses, ice-cream shops, bandstands, indoor plumbing, and Model Ts rolling down broad streets.

Fordlandia, as the settlement was called, quickly became the site of an epic clash. On one side was the car magnate, lean, austere, the man who reduced industrial production to its simplest motions; on the other, the Amazon, lush, extravagant, the most complex ecological system on the planet. Ford’s early success in imposing time clocks and square dances on the jungle soon collapsed, as indigenous workers, rejecting his midwestern Puritanism, turned the place into a ribald tropical boomtown. Fordlandia’s…[more]

Book:The Poison King

The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy

Adrienne Mayor

Machiavelli praised his military genius. European royalty sought out his secret elixir against poison. His life inspired Mozart’s first opera, while for centuries poets and playwrights recited bloody, romantic tales of his victories, defeats, intrigues, concubines, and mysterious death. But until now no modern historian has recounted the full story of Mithradates, the ruthless king and visionary rebel who challenged the power of Rome in the first century BC. In this richly illustrated book—the first biography of Mithradates in fifty years—Adrienne Mayor combines a storyteller’s gifts with the most recent archaeological and scientific discoveries to tell the tale of Mithradates as it has never been told before.

The Poison King describes a life brimming with spectacle and excitement. Claiming Alexander the Great and Darius of Persia as ancestors, Mithradates inherited a wealthy Black Sea kingdom at age fourteen after his mother poisoned his father.…[more]

Book:Remarkable Creatures

Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origin of Species

Sean B. Carroll

An award-winning biologist takes us on the dramatic expeditions that unearthed the history of life on our planet.

Just 150 years ago, most of our world was an unexplored wilderness. Our sense of how old it was? Vague and vastly off the mark. And our sense of our own species’ history? A set of fantastic myths and fairy tales. Fossils had been known for millennia, but they were seen as the bones of dragons and other imagined creatures.

In the tradition of The Microbe Hunters and Gods, Graves, and Scholars, Sean Carroll’s Remarkable Creatures celebrates the pioneers who replaced our fancies with the even more amazing true story of how our world evolved.

Carroll recounts the most important discoveries in two centuries of national history—from Darwin’s trip around the world to CharlesWalcott’s discovery of pre-Cambrian life in the Grand Canyon; from Louis and Mary Leakey’s investigation of our deepest past in East Africa to the trailblazers in modern laboratories who have located a time clock in our DNA. Join him in a rousing voyage of discovery, from the epic journeys of pioneering naturalists to the breakthroughs making headlines today.

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