Best Books: 2023 | 2022 | 2021 | 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010
Summer Reads: 2024 | 2023 | 2022 | 2021 | 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India

Sujatha Gidla (FSG)

Gidla’s spectacular memoir opens a window onto a world unfamiliar to most Westerners: that of India’s untouchable caste. As her relatives make their way through 20th-century India, Gidla reveals how caste intersects with class, gender, religion, and more. It’s a rare feat when personal stories are so clearly able to elucidate hotly contested political battles. Gidla’s deep generosity of spirit is evident on every page.


Animals Strike Curious Poses

Elena Passarello (Sarabande)

Passarello dazzles in this wildly inventive essay collection that borrows its form from the medieval bestiary and its title from a Prince lyric. The 17 brief essays each examine a famous animal immortalized by humans, with appearances by Charles Darwin’s pet tortoise, Koko the signing gorilla, and Cecil the Lion, who met her fate at the hands of an American dentist and recreational hunter.


The Biggest Prison on Earth: A History of the Occupied Territories

Ilan Pappe (Oneworld)

The U.S. may incarcerate more people than any other nation, but its ally Israel runs the world’s largest prison: the Occupied Palestinian Territories, where the Palestinian people lack basic human rights and are subject to the indignities of illegal collective punishment. Israeli historian Pappe lays out how this dire situation came to be, beginning with the plans formulated prior to 1967’s Six-Day War.


Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook

Alice Waters (Clarkson Potter)

Chef and restaurateur Waters (In the Green Kitchen, etc.) wonderfully evokes the 1970s, when she first opened her innovative Chez Panisse Restaurant and Café in Berkeley, Calif. At a time when Americans were eating processed food, Waters was at the front of the organic movement. She is a charming and understated narrator in this intimate and vibrant book.


Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America

Nancy MacLean (Viking)

In an impressive feat of intellectual and political history, MacLean shows how Nobel Prize–winning economist James McGill Buchanan’s theories have shaped today’s political landscape. A product of the Jim Crow South, Buchanan was profoundly influenced in his libertarian views by his opposition to the Brown v. Board of Education decision. MacLean’s book acts as a chilling warning that his ideas, as preserved by right-wing billionaires and D.C. think-tanks, threaten American democracy.


The Exile: The Stunning Inside Story of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Flight

Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy (Bloomsbury)

The term “cinematic” doesn’t adequately describe this extraordinary work of investigative journalism. Scott-Clark and Levy exhaust every possible source as they follow al-Qaeda from its origins in the CIA-backed Afghan mujahideen, through 9/11 and the subsequent American wars, to its eclipse by the Islamic State. In the process, the authors illustrate the myriad injustices committed in the name of the War on Terror.


The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy

Justin Spring (FSG)

In this excellent history, Spring (Secret Historian) highlights the American artists, cooks, and writers who introduced French cuisine to the dining tables of American homes and restaurants: Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher, Alexis Lichine, A.J. Liebling, Richard Olney, and Alice B. Toklas. It’s a remarkable story, beautifully told.


Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919

Mike Wallace (Oxford Univ.)

Nobody knows New York history like Wallace, and his tightly organized tome is a masterwork on a crucial period in the city’s history. New York as we know it now was forged during this time, and Wallace translates Gotham’s grit and gusto to the page perfectly.


Henry David Thoreau: A Life

Laura Dassow Walls (Univ. of Chicago)

Combining academic rigor with lucid storytelling, Walls unites Thoreau’s many facets—as author of the canonical Walden, abolitionist, naturalist, inventor, family man, friend, and even suitor—into a single coherent portrait. Her richly detailed chronicle leaves one wanting to read Thoreau himself. This scholarly epic may well stand as the definitive biography of a pivotal figure in American letters.


Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

Roxane Gay (Harper)

Novelist and cultural critic Gay (Bad Feminist) writes with beauty and grace about her life as “a woman of size.” She is unflinching in describing even the most painful moments of her life, offering great insight into what it’s like to live in a society that looks down upon large people, especially women.


I Couldn’t Even Imagine That They Would Kill Us: An Oral History of the Attacks Against the Students of Ayotzinapa

John Gibler (City Lights)

Journalist Gibler's investigative prowess yields a book that uses a chorus of voices—eyewitness accounts of the students and others at the scene—to add depth and clarity to the Sept. 26, 2014, massacre of students in the city of Iguala, Mexico, that left six people dead, 40 wounded, and 43 students missing who have yet to be seen since. It's an unforgettable reconstruction of a national tragedy.


I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad

Souad Mekhennet (Holt)

Journalistic coups abound in Washington Post correspondent Mekhennet's behind-the-scenes account of her experiences attempting to untangle the roots of Islamic extremism while on assignment in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. While Mekhennet's job as a reporter opened doors to rulers, religious and political figures, and even an ex-rapper, her focus is sharply on ordinary people.


Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

David Grann (Doubleday)

Masterful storytelling about a baffling 1920s murder spree drives New Yorker writer Grann's true crime saga about the investigation of the killings of more than two dozen members of the Osage Indian Nation, who at the time were considered "the wealthiest people per capita in the world."


Leonardo da Vinci

Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster)

In what might be Isaacson's best book to date, he mines thousands of pages from the sketchbooks of Leonardo da Vinci for insights into the life and work of the elusive Renaissance artist, showing how da Vinci's inquisitiveness set him apart from his contemporaries but frequently distracted him from completing commissions.


Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America

James Forman Jr. (FSG)

Forman takes on an entangled, thorny issue—the part African-Americans have played in shaping criminal justice policy over the past four decades, whether as voters, law enforcement officers, politicians, or activists. The complex picture he draws is informed by his experience as a public defender, Supreme Court clerk, and Yale Law School professor. His multifaceted perspective brings fresh insights into how African-Americans have been treated in the U.S. legal system.


The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story

Douglas Preston (Grand Central)

This hair-raising true adventure tale about thriller writer Preston's 2015 expedition to locate an ancient city in the Honduran mountains reads like a fairy tale. Preston details the emotionally draining experience of exploring snake-infested wilderness on foot and the remarkable archeological finds along the way.


Night Thoughts

Wallace Shawn (Haymarket)

Shawn, the award-winning playwright and acclaimed actor, airs his thoughts on an array of topics—civilization, social mobility, Beethoven, and 11th-century Japanese court poetry—in a discursive meditation on inequality and privilege. Acerbic yet compassionate, Shawn’s writing epitomizes qualities he admires—curiosity, thoughtfulness, sharp logic, deep emotion—and sees society turning away from.


No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump's Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need

Naomi Klein (Haymarket)

Trumpism is not an aberration, but the logical consequence of decades of corporatist governance, writes Klein in arguably this year's most immediately useful political book. Drawing on her previous work, she lays out how we got to now and what to do about it, pointing to Canada's Leap Manifesto and A Vision for Black Lives in the U.S. as the early growths of anti-racist, ecologically minded anticapitalist movements.


October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

China Miéville (Verso)

A century on, the nature of the Russian Revolution remains hotly contested, both within and outside of leftist circles. Miéville, a master storyteller, makes a powerful case in his first nonfiction work that the Bolsheviks’ October success should not be disavowed as the onset of disaster but looked to as an inspirational moment in a grand narrative of human liberation.


The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South

John T. Edge (Penguin Press)

James Beard Award–winning writer and Southern food historian Edge thoroughly explores the foodways and evolution of cooking in the American South. It’s superb history that celebrates the cooks, waiters, and activists—both well-known and unsung—who shaped the region’s cooking.



Patricia Lockwood (Riverhead)

Poet Lockwood is irreverent and hilarious in this memoir of when she and her husband moved back in with her parents. Her father is a practicing, married Catholic priest (yes, really) who loves cars, guns, and Baileys Irish Cream and conducts family meetings in his underwear. Try not to squirm.


Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan

Elaine M. Hayes (Ecco)

Jazz singer Sarah Vaughan gets her due in this fantastic history of her life. Jazz historian Hayes movingly evokes 1920s Newark, N.J., where Vaughan first sang in her church choir; from there, Hayes follows Vaughan’s career until her death in 1990, showing that, no matter how challenging Vaughan’s life became, she remained in control of her musical career during a time when few female performers could.


The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age

Andrew O’Hagan (FSG)

In this splendid collection, O’Hagan explores identity in the internet era. His profile of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (O’Hagan was hired to be his ghostwriter) is a lacerating and hilarious study in narcissism, while his account of purported Bitcoin inventor Craig Steven Wright is unsparing yet sympathetic. But it is Ronnie Pinn, O’Hagan’s own invented online identity, whose semi-existence says the most about who we are now.


The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale

James Atlas (Pantheon)

The author of Bellow: A Biography and Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet illuminates the art of biography. While pondering what makes a good biographer, Atlas honors mentors like Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann, traces his profession’s history back to ancient Greece, and describes the contrasting challenges posed by deceased, obscure subjects (Schwartz) and famous, living ones (the irascible Saul Bellow). His graceful, witty memoir doubles as a biography of the form itself.


The Vaccine Race: Science, Politics, and the Human Costs of Defeating Disease

Meredith Wadman (Viking)

Vaccine development has long been a fraught process prone to controversy, but the issues at stake today are different than those of a half-century ago. Wadman digs into the politics, economics, and—most importantly—the science involved in creating vaccines. Viruses are fascinating entities in their own right, but Wadman brings to bear the ethical quandaries and vicious competition their existence engenders.


Word by Word: The Secret Lives of Dictionaries

Kory Stamper (Pantheon)

This debut is a sly, spirited behind-the-scenes tour of the offices of Merriam-Webster, where Stamper works as a lexicographer and produces the “Ask the Editor” video series. Taking aim at prescriptivist pieties concerning “real and proper English,” Stamp approaches her subject with irreverence but also a genuine appreciation for the glory of finding just the right word.


The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln's Ghost

Peter Manseau (HMH)

A rare work of historical nonfiction that is both studious and just plain entertaining, Manseau's book focuses on the 1869 trial for fraud of William H. Mumler, a spirit photographer whose portraits of ghostly loved ones hovering near mortal sitters captivated a nation still recovering from the Civil War and obsessed with intimations of the afterlife.


The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Richard Rothstein (Liveright)

Making the case that the de facto segregation found throughout the U.S. is in fact de jure, Rothstein maps out, in encyclopedic detail, government actions at the federal, state, and local levels throughout the 20th century that denied housing opportunities to African-Americans. His authoritative history puts forth a transformative picture of racial inequality in modern-day America and offers a compassionate remedy for these persistent divisions.


Extreme Cities: The Perils and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change

Ashley Dawson (Verso)

Books on climate change are a dime a dozen now, but few, if any, truly reckon with the potential scale of the disasters that await. Dawson reveals the inadequacies of current plans to deal with the problems that cities around the world will face. Forget such buzzwords as "green cities," "resilience," and "sustainable development"—the age of "disaster communism" is here.


Fear City: New York's Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics

Kim Phillips-Fein (Metropolitan)

The neoliberal transformation of the U.S. began, in Phillips-Fein's view, with the piecemeal dismantling of New York City's vibrant experiment in social democracy during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. Municipal bonds aren't a sexy subject, and neither is the gutting of public services that sustain a city and protect its most vulnerable, but Phillips-Fein turns what could be a dry history into a riveting exposé of power.


© PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.