1. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau, $24)
Ta-Nehisi Coates' landmark book issued "an essential clarion call to our collective conscience," said Pamela Newkirk at the San Francisco Chronicle. Presented as an open letter to Coates' 15-year-old son, Between the World and Me is in part a survival guide for living as a black man in America. But it is above all a "blistering" critique of the injustices inflicted on the nation's marginalized by a majority culture too ready to believe in feel-good myths. Coates, a Baltimore native who now writes for The Atlantic, begins by describing the choking effects of coming of age in an impoverished community warped by a constant fear of violence at the hands of the police. But from start to finish, his extended essay makes the effects of racism visceral, said Thomas Chatterton Williams at The Washington Post. Rarely does a book come along that delivers all that this one does: "a mature writer entirely consumed by a momentous subject and working at the extreme of his considerable powers when national events most conform to his vision."
A dissent: Coates offers no hope for a solution to the institutional racism he describes, said Jesse McCarthy at The Nation.
2. H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Grove, $26)
Helen Macdonald's "utterly astonishing" memoir is "impossible to recommend highly enough," said Robert Wiersema at the Toronto Star. An account of how, in a state of mourning, the author chose to adopt and train a fierce young goshawk, it draws readers into an unexpected place: "a world in which beauty and brutality blur together to create something vital." Macdonald, a scholar living in Cambridge, England, had withdrawn from society after the death of her father, and she had enough experience in falconry to know that Mabel, her new charge, would be a challenge to teach. But Mabel becomes a muse to the author, and "as the bird grows tamer, she grows wilder," said Kathryn Schulz at The New Yorker. A third character is woven in: novelist T.H. White, who in 1951 published a similar memoir about training a goshawk, though with starkly different results. His vivid book is hard to read; Macdonald's "wondrously atypical" work is riveting — an ever-surprising meditation on the rewards and hazards of turning away from the world.
A dissent: The T.H. White story "sometimes distracts rather than piques deeper interest," said Alexis Burling at the Portland Oregonian.
3. Negroland by Margo Jefferson (Pantheon, $25)
This memoir, too, has the potential to become "something of a literary classic," said Jeff Simon at The Buffalo News. Author Margo Jefferson, a Pulitzer Prize–winning arts critic, grew up in 1950s Chicago and is an acute observer of the precarious island of privilege that her family occupied. She calls it "Negroland" — a place where children were sheltered from want but racked by anxieties about slipping out of the bubble or failing to be the role models and trailblazers that less fortunate black Americans needed them to be. In the book's "most deeply honest and troubling passages," Jefferson describes how suicide became a preoccupation when she first reached adulthood, said Tracy K. Smith at The New York Times. Her tendency to second-guess her own storytelling can be striking, but even that skittishness heightens the book's message — "namely, that living a life as an exemplar of black excellence can have a psychic effect as deadening as that of racial injustice itself."
A dissent: Jefferson "too often merely gestures at an interesting idea without engaging it in a sustained way," said Thomas Chatterton Williams at The American Scholar.
4. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (Graywolf, $23)
Maggie Nelson "cozies up to ideas like no other American writer," said Rachel Shteir at The Boston Globe. In her latest book, she has a fascinating story to tell — essentially about how she became pregnant with her first child at the same time that her spouse was undergoing female-to-male transgender surgery. But philosophy and literary theory are never far from her mind, and reading her is "like watching a high-wire act": She mixes lofty propositions with intimate personal drama, and in the end, her subject seems to be the resilience of family, or perhaps "how love changes the way we name things." The book is, in short, "about the difficulty — the silliness, the impossibility — of categorization," said Jacob Bacharach at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Nelson, a dazzling writer, proves to be charming company as well. "She gets angry and makes you angry" at times, but "more often you'll find yourself laughing with both delighted and rueful recognition of the messy lives she takes such evident pleasure in living."
A dissent: Nelson occasionally shows a weakness for "phrases that belong in graduate school's most irredeemable corridors," said Shteir.
5. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein (Riverhead, $28)
You don't have to be a fan of Carrie Brownstein's seminal 1990s rock band to love her "frank, funny, fantastically smart" memoir, said Leah Greenblatt at Entertainment Weekly. In fact, this account of her youth and career co-leading the punk trio Sleater-Kinney offers a template for "every modern girl (and yes, boys, too) looking for the courage to pursue a life less ordinary." The book says almost nothing about the author's recent experiences co-starring on the sketch-comedy series Portlandia. It "stirs to life," though, at the moment when Brownstein, as a teenager raised by an anorexic mother and a closeted gay father, finds salvation in the riot-grrrl movement, said Laura Compton at the San Francisco Chronicle. Later, she "lays bare" the challenges of being an independent musician — the hard work, the conflicts, the drain of touring. Though she shares little about her life outside the band, we don't need more. Hers is a memoir "about finding what brings you joy, pursuing it with your heart and soul, and letting the rest fade into the distance."
A dissent: Certain passages, if edited with a stronger hand, could have been "sharper and more affecting," said Michelle Dean in The Guardian (U.K.).
How the books were chosen
Our rankings were created by weighting the choices and rankings of other print sources in their year-end recommendations. Sources included AVClub.com, The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, The Denver Post, Entertainment Weekly, Los Angeles magazine, Minneapolis Star Tribune, National Review, Newsday, New York magazine, The New York Times, NPR.org, O magazine, Publishers Weekly, Slate, Time, Time Out New York, Vogue, and The Washington Post.