BEST OF 2015: Our Favorite Nonfiction for Adults

Sometimes, choosing the “best” of anything can feel like comparing apples and oranges. This was the case for our 2015 Adult Nonfiction committee. This year, we read books on a variety of topics—from mathematics to social justice to historic disasters to celebrity memoirs. Some were entertaining or made us laugh while others impressed us with beautiful writing or startling insights that left us rethinking our perspective on the world around us. Others were just plain good reads. In the end, we believe the books to make our final list of favorites are all good reads—and some of them just might make you laugh or broaden your perspective on the world as well.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
In a letter to his fifteen-year-old son, the author, an award-winning journalist, examines American culture and the social construct of race. Through stories of his own life and other factual events, he explores what it means to be black in modern America, with due attention paid to both the past and the present. In a  small, slim volume of just over 150 pages, Coates’s meditation is poetic, candid, and powerful. Winner of the National Book ward for Nonfiction.

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
Part memoir and part writing guide, this laugh-out-loud book from a New Yorker copy veteran is a must-read for serious readers and self-proclaimed grammar geeks. From musings about Moby-Dick (why the hyphen?, she wonders), to anecdotes about famed writers like Philip Roth, to rants about common language and usage errors, Norris never fails to entertain. 

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder
Timothy Snyder’s history of the Holocaust implores the reader to see afresh the people, ideas, forces, and ideologies that led to the industrialized slaughter of millions of innocent human beings while much of the world found ways to avoid involvement. Snyder’s in-depth research includes records only recently made accessible to the public and his strong perspective—that the Holocaust is relevant to the world and events playing out in the 21st century—is one worth considering, however difficult the subject matter.

The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
Move over Joy of Cooking and Martha Stewart, and say hello to The Food Lab! Five years in the making, this new culinary classic from the Serious Eats “nerd-in-residence” provides recipes for a number of American staples and other fantastic meals. Even better, colorful sidebars explain the science behind the varying techniques in layman’s terms and the included test experiments help amateur cooks understand why certain techniques make a difference.

The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle by Lillian Faderman
An exhaustively researched history of the modern era of the LGBT Civil Rights Equality Movement, Lilian Faderman’s book will likely become a primer on the topic. One of our committee members suggests that Faderman’s history if a must-read for all who “care about the LGBT struggle for dignity and equality under the law.”

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Levoy
This absorbing story of social justice (or injustice) centers on the murder investigation of Bryant Tennelle, a young black man shot down on the streets of South Los Angeles in 2007. In a culture where “just another black man down” was a common refrain, solving  homicide cases wasn’t a priority for a police department focused on prevention over “reaction,” but Tennelle’s case was different. First, he was the son of a detective. Second, there were dedicated homicide detectives who thought the department policy of elevating patrol over investigation was “dumb-ass” and were tireless in their pursuit of truth despite a lack of support from the “brass” and the “ghettoside” communities. In simple yet startlingly effective prose, Levoy paints a vivid picture of the ghettoside culture and those who inhabit it. Yet, more than a one-case true crime story, this is an examination of the epidemic of black-on-black murders and (according to the author) the lack of proper police and legal response that helps to create such a vigilante culture. Informative and thought-provoking, Ghettoside brings to light a serious problem that deserves more attention than it gets. 

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
In this absorbing tale of nature and grief, a woman recounts her attempts to train a goshawk predator while struggling with the death of her father.

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann
The author tells her family’s history in photographs and words, after sorting through a box of old papers that revealed scandals, alcohol and domestic abuse, affairs, family land ownership, and racial complications.

A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power by Paul Fischer
Before becoming the world’s most notorious dictator, Kim Jong-Il ran North Korea’s Ministry for Propaganda and its film studios. Conceiving every movie made, he acted as producer and screenwriter. Despite this control, he was underwhelmed by the available talent and took drastic steps, ordering the kidnapping of Choi Eun-Hee (Madam Choi)—South Korea’s most famous actress—and her ex-husband Shin Sang-Ok, the country’s most famous filmmaker. Fascinating, illuminating about one of the world’s most secret places, and undeniably entertaining to boot.

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem
In a memoir capturing definitive moments in her career, the feminist activist reflects on events including her time on the campaign trail, interactions with key political leaders, visits to India, and her anecdotal encounters with “civilian” feminists.

The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport
Drawing on personal writings and private sources, this book disproves common misperceptions about the sisters, uncovering details of their daily lives and vibrant personalities and revealing their awareness of family turmoil and the approach of the Russian Revolution.

Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson
Based on correspondence, entries in Rose Kennedy’s diaries, and family interviews, describes the plight of a woman who was intellectually disabled and kept hidden by her family after she received a lobotomy at age twenty-three.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
We’ve all seen it happen — someone makes a bad decision in the public eye and people pile on in judgment. His interest piqued by a takeover of his own Twitter account, journalist Jon Ronson dove deep into an exploration of human nature, technology, and humiliation via social media. Interviewing both those famous for being shamed and those doing the shaming, Ronson discusses motivations, consequences, and recoveries. — Description by Shauna Griffin.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery
Octopuses have varied personalities and intelligence they show in myriad ways: endless trickery to escape enclosures and get food; jetting water playfully to bounce objects like balls; and evading caretakers by using a scoop net as a trampoline and running around the floor on eight arms. But with a beak like a parrot, venom like a snake, and a tongue covered with teeth, how can such a being know anything? And what sort of thoughts could it think? The intelligence of dogs, birds, and chimpanzees was only recently accepted by scientists, who now are establishing the intelligence of the octopus, watching them solve problems and deciphering the meaning of their color-changing camouflage techniques.

The Stranger She Loved: A Mormon Doctor, His Beautiful Wife, and an Almost Perfect Murder by Shanna Hogan
Recounts the murder of 50-year-old Michele MacNeill at the hands of her husband, a doctor, lawyer and Mormon bishop who, upon further investigation by his daughters, had multiple marital affairs, a past criminal record and conned his way into medical school.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
Chronicles the dramatic story-behind-the-story about the Wright brothers, sharing insights into the disadvantages that challenged their lives and their mechanical ingenuity.

Source: Book News and Reviews