1 President Kennedy by Richard Reeves. We knew he was no saint. Now we have 800 carefully researched pages to tell us that J.F.K. was more Hollywood than Harvard, a gifted politician who relied on his charm rather than deep understanding and conviction. He was often ''careless and dangerously disorganized.'' The image of vigor was also an illusion: hormone shots compensated for failing adrenal glands and amphetamines perked him up. Reeves' dose of reality is a needed antidote to the cloying hagiographies that have marked the 30th anniversary of J.F.K.'s death.
2 Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire by David Remnick. What do good journalists do when they find themselves in the middle of the story of a lifetime? Dig till they drop and type like hell. Remnick covered thousands of miles for hundreds of interviews to explain who did what to whom when the Kremlin came tumbling down. The result is history still hot from the crucible.
3 W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race by David Levering Lewis. The first of a planned two parts, this volume tracks the controversial black intellectual from his middle-class roots in Massachusetts to Paris for the 1918 Pan-African Congress. Lewis reveals the crusading editor and author of The Souls of Black Folk to be an aloof thinker struggling with contradictory ideas about racial inclusion and separatism.
4 Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir by Leni Riefenstahl. At 91, the former actress and filmmaker has a lot to remember. Her Late Romantic style won raves from Hitler and invitations to his mountain lair. She glorified the New Order with striking films about the 1934 Nazi Party Congress and the 1936 Olympic Games. Whether one regards her as indomitable or abominable, Riefenstahl has written a vivid memoir of intimacies in an amoral time.
5 A History of Warfare by John Keegan. Casting a cold eye over 4,000 years of mortal combat convinces this British historian that making war is basically a bad habit. Unromantic about the profession of arms but nevertheless sympathetic to the warrior class, Keegan conveys the grim details of warmaking operations with a stoic clarity that blurs all flags and levels all battlefields.
...And the Worst
The Last Brother by Joe McGinniss. Craven in concept and as suspect as late homework, this so-called biography has done what Ted Kennedy's handlers could never manage: turned the Senator into a sympathetic victim of shoddy journalism and rendered his life so absurdly that Kennedy's excesses and bad judgments seem totally unbelievable.
1 Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg. Denmark's exploitation of Greenland's mineral resources seems an unlikely background for a detective thriller about the mysterious death of a six-year-old Inuit boy. Unlikely too is the investigator, Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen, a woman caught between the native Greenland culture of her hunter-tracker mother and the well-appointed world of her Danish father, a physician and scientist. Like Ross Macdonald in his Lew Archer novels of darkest California, Hoeg creates an unfamiliar but palpable world that steadily envelops the reader.