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

The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Wealth, Race and Power

Deirdre Mask (St. Martin’s)

Mask’s enthusiastic debut explores the stories and histories behind street names and how they often have the power to determine who matters, and who doesn’t. The research is impressive, covering thousands of years of history from the ancient Romans to the present day while also revealing remarkable truths about power, class, race, and history.

LIST

Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist

Judith Heumann (Beacon)

In this bold memoir, civil rights activist Judy Heumann, paralyzed from polio at 18 months, tells the harrowing tale of her lifelong fight for equality. Her activism helped lead to the creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This riveting account commemorates a landmark moment in the history of civil rights activism.

LIST

The Book of Eels

Patrik Svensson trans. from the Swedish by Agnes Broomé (Ecco)

Journalist Svensson dives into the mysteries of an unlikely creature born where “life teems in the dark, like a nocturnal forest” in this innovative mix of memoir and science writing. The chapters about eels turn scientific discovery into poetry, while the sections focused on personal narrative make for a lyrical account of father and son; the combination is striking.

LIST

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Isabel Wilkerson (Random House)

Wilkerson’s deeply researched, exquisitely written, and exceptionally timely investigation into America’s “shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based” caste system is as must-read as it gets. Drawing incisive parallels to the caste systems of India and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson debunks widespread myths about U.S. history and reveals the steep price American society pays for limiting the potential of Black Americans.

LIST

The Daughters of Yalta: The Churchills, Roosevelts, and Harrimans: A Story of Love and War

Catherine Grace Katz (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Katz goes behind the scenes of the Yalta Peace Conference to reveal how the daughters of Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union Averell Harriman managed their fathers’ egos, put out diplomatic fires, and helped to preserve the alliance that would win WWII. The result is one of the year’s most impressive and skillfully researched debut histories.

LIST

Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking

Bill Buford (Knopf)

Buford shines as a prose stylist and keen observer of humanity in this sprawling deep dive into French cuisine that sees the author move his family to Lyon. (Chaos and enlightenment ensue.) It’s a memoir, a cultural history, and a blast of a story that’s incredibly funny at times and incredibly sad at others.

LIST

The Dragons, the Giant, the Women: A Memoir

Wayétu Moore (Graywolf)

With the lyrical precision of a folktale, Moore’s memoir details her traumatic flight from her home in war-torn Liberia in 1990, her childhood in Texas, and the racially fraught romances of her postgraduate years in Brooklyn. In the book’s final chapters, Moore accomplishes one of the year’s most moving and eye-opening feats of imagination, shifting perspective to recount her mother’s nerve-jangling journey from New York to Africa to rescue her family.

LIST

The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking)

Katie Mack (Scribner)

We know how the world will end, theoretical astrophysicist Mack writes in her brilliant debut, but what matters to her is “a bigger question: how will the universe end.” Mack turns the end of the universe into a starting point and delivers an accessible, enthusiastic survey of scientific forces. Lively and original, this is science writing done right.

LIST

Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World

Lesley M. M. Blume (Simon & Schuster)

This entertaining and expertly researched chronicle reveals the astonishing lengths reporter John Hersey and New Yorker managing editor William Shawn went to in order to get the real story on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Interweaving Hersey’s on-the-ground reporting with Shawn’s editorial decision-making, Blume spins a rousing tale of American journalism at its finest.

LIST

God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World

Alan Mikhail (Liveright)

Yale University historian Mikhail restores Ottoman ruler Sultan Selim I to his rightful place in world history in this provocatively argued and vividly written account. Unearthing Ottoman influences on the Protestant Reformation, the European conquest of the New World, and the transatlantic slave trade, Mikhail proves that the histories of Islam and the West are more conjoined than opposed.

LIST

Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs

Jennifer Finney Boylan (Celadon)

Boylan captures her past with an empathetic touch in this unforgettable memoir, organized around the dogs Boylan has owned. Each pet marks a memory and the outcome is, yes, an ode to hounds and to love, but more so it’s a powerful celebration of self-discovery.

LIST

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family

Robert Kolker (Doubleday)

Kolker captures how “baldly emotional” schizophrenia can be in this page-turner that asks “what it means to be a family.” Both a portrait of a family deeply affected by schizophrenia and an empathetic look at the ways the mental illness is often shrouded in mystery, this singular account offers as much insight as heartbreak.

LIST

Is Rape a Crime? A Memoir, an Investigation, and a Manifesto

Michelle Bowdler (Flatiron)

Bowdler argues that rape is not taken seriously by the criminal justice system. While sharing her own experience as a rape survivor as well as detailed research into her devastating case, she sheds light on how police departments fail rape victims and why it is a national crisis. This standout memoir marks a crucial moment in the discussion of what constitutes a violent crime.

LIST

Just Us: An American Conversation

Claudia Rankine (Graywolf)

Rankine challenges herself and others to communicate across America’s racial divides in this eloquent and authentic account. Whether she’s relating her own thorny conversations about race and privilege with white strangers and Latinx friends or analyzing social media posts, Rankine brings a deep well of imagination and a firm commitment to questioning her own assumptions.

LIST

Katrina: A History, 1915–2015

Andy Horowitz (Harvard Univ.)

Tulane professor Horowitz covers a century of New Orleans history to deliver the definitive portrait of the “causes and consequences” of Hurricane Katrina. Horowitz brilliantly explores the disastrous links between warming temperatures, systemic racism, government mismanagement, and corporate greed. Few books better capture the monumental threat that climate change poses to America’s cities.

LIST

Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck

William Souder (Norton)

Historian Souder creates a brilliant portrait of John Steinbeck, an American classic who “blended fact and fiction in what he wrote and in what he said about himself.” By setting Steinbeck’s life and work against the country’s struggles during the Great Depression, Souder masterfully renders the life of an American original as much as the larger forces that shaped him.

LIST

The Man Who Ate Too Much

James Birdsall (Norton)

Birdsall’s novelistic look at 20th-century food world icon James Beard is carefully researched and brings a critical eye to the entirety of Beard’s life, including his work in the kitchen, his life as a closeted gay man, and, naturally, his prodigious appetites. It’s a rich, rewarding, and punchy affair that more than measures up to its towering subject.

LIST

Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains

Kerri Arsenault (St. Martin’s)

Arsenault launches an investigation into the local mill that both employs her hometown’s inhabitants and led to the area being nicknamed “Cancer Valley.” Using scientific reports, archival material, and interviews, she provides insight into rural America’s working class and an excavation of her own past. This exceptional work brings fresh meaning to the concepts of home and community.

LIST

The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move

Sonia Shah (Bloomsbury)

“From the earliest years of childhood, we are taught that plants, animals, and people belong in certain places,” writes journalist Shah in this remarkable study of climate change and migration. As she makes a case for migration as the planet’s “best shot” for the future, her prose brims with curiosity, empathy, and stunning lyricism. Shah’s insightful study couldn’t be timelier.

LIST

The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes

Zachary D. Carter (Random House)

Journalist Carter untangles the personal and professional contradictions of economic theorist John Maynard Keynes in this magisterial biography. From Keynes’s late-in-life love affair with a Russian ballerina to his abandonment of the Paris Peace Conference over German war reparations and influence on FDR’s New Deal, Carter renders his subject’s brilliant mind and “spirit of radical optimism” accessible to lay readers.

LIST

Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976–1980

Rick Perlstein (Simon & Schuster)

Perlstein concludes his four-volume study of the American conservative movement with this epic chronicle of Ronald Reagan’s rise from the ashes of defeat in the 1976 Republican primary to claim the presidency in 1980. Stuffed with colorful character sketches, dramatic set pieces, and keen insights into the cultural and social forces at play, this is political history at its finest.

LIST

Surviving Autocracy

Masha Gessen (Riverhead)

This unerring takedown of the Trump administration and its enablers in Congress, the media, and the judiciary rises above a crowded field thanks to Gessen’s rigorous thinking and extensive knowledge of post-Soviet Russia and the Eastern Bloc. There is no “magic bullet” to stop Trumpism, Gessen writes—only a renewed commitment to envisioning “America as it could be.”

LIST

Tomboy: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different

Lisa Selin Davis (Hachette)

Davis entertainingly explores the history of tomboyism from the Victorian era up until today with painstaking attention to detail and healthy doses of humor. She sheds new light on a fascinating subject and brings fresh insight to the discussion of gender nonconformity. This one-of-a-kind narrative is both innovative in subject and breathtaking in scope.

LIST

Warhol

Blake Gopnik (Ecco)

This meticulously researched biography about one of the most enigmatic artists in recent history is an exemplar of the form. Though widely known and recognized as the inimitable inventor of pop art, Warhol notoriously evaded biographers, to their chagrin, which makes this work even more remarkable in its depth and breadth.

LIST

We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence

Becky Cooper (Grand Central)

In this mesmerizing debut, former New Yorker staffer Cooper recounts her pursuit of justice for Jane Britton, a 23-year-old Harvard anthropology grad student who was murdered in 1969. In addition to presenting a tense narrative, Cooper delves into the phenomenon and morality of true crime fandom. The author’s passion to uncover the truth marks this as a standout.

LIST

White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color

Ruby Hamad (Catapult)

Intertwining her experiences as an Arab woman working in the “suffocatingly white Australian media space” with astute historical and cultural analysis, Hamad delivers a bracing exposé of the role white women have played in keeping people of color down. Hamad’s razor-sharp observational skills and wide-ranging approach make this an essential addition to the modern feminist canon.

LIST

Wild Thing: The Short, Spellbinding Life of Jimi Hendrix

Philip Norman (Norton)

This phenomenal biography of one of history’s greatest rock stars follows Jimi Hendrix from his troubled childhood through to his blazing career and untimely death. Naturally, there’s plenty of excess and flamboyance to this story, but Norman captivates most with his take on offstage Hendrix. Any future Hendrix biographer has their work cut out for them.

LIST

Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy

David Zucchino (Atlantic Monthly)

In gripping prose and meticulous detail, Zucchino unearths the little-known story of the 1898 white supremacist uprising that overthrew the municipal government of Wilmington, N.C. The victors buried their crimes by recasting the coup as a “race riot” sparked by African Americans. Zucchino’s harrowing account restores a vital chapter to the history of racial violence in America.

LIST

Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country

Sierra Crane Murdoch (Random House)

Lissa Yellow Bird, a tribal court advocate with a history of substance abuse, contributed to the arrest and conviction of a man in the case of a missing trucker who worked for a company based on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. Murdoch does a masterly job portraying a complex woman and the social problems on Native American lands.

LIST

Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory

Claudio Saunt (Norton)

Historian Saunt argues that the Trail of Tears was not an inescapable American tragedy but a deliberate political choice in this meticulous account. Detailing the links between Indian removal and slavery, and the brutal oppression of Native American resisters by law enforcement, Saunt’s gut-wrenching history speaks powerfully to today’s moment of reckoning over racial injustice.

LIST

© PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

X
X

Loading...