Critics’ choice: Nonfiction

The best of 2013

1. Going Clear

by Lawrence Wright (Knopf, $29)

“Truth can be stranger than even science fiction,” said Lisa Miller in The Washington Post. Expanding on his widely read 2011 New Yorker feature about a Scientology apostate, Lawrence Wright brought “a clear-eyed, investigative fearlessness” to the task of taking a full measure of the secretive global church founded in 1954 by pulp novelist L. Ron Hubbard. In Wright’s deeply researched account, current leader David Miscavige comes across as a violent authoritarian, and its prominent adherent Tom Cruise as “a monstrous narcissist.” But Going Clear captures Scientology’s “seductive glamour” as well, said Nathan Rabin in the A.V. Club. Wright acknowledges the appeal of the faith’s sci-fi tenets and shows how the organization offers recruits—Hollywood stars and impoverished trailer-dwellers alike—a sense of community and purpose. Mostly though, Wright abhors what he sees, turning his findings into “a ripping yarn about ego, money, abuse, faith—and the corrupting nature of power.”

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A dissent: Wright plunges in so deep, “he sometimes doesn’t realize when he’s left the reader behind,” said Michael Kinsley in The New York Times.

2. Five Days at Memorial

by Sheri Fink (Crown, $27)

Another “triumph of journalism,” Sheri Fink’s book immerses readers in a post–Hurricane Katrina nightmare, said Jennifer Latson in the Houston Chronicle. In the days after the 2005 storm struck and the city’s levees broke, New Orleans’s Memorial Medical Center had to do without outside aid as staff coped with a power outage, the crippling of life-sustaining medical equipment, creeping floodwaters, and a growing pileup of rotting corpses. Fink, a physician turned journalist, re-creates the chaos “with mastery and sensitivity,” showing how desperate doctors and nurses were pushed toward decisions that probably increased the death toll. When one doctor and two nurses begin giving lethal injections to patients who seemed destined for more agonizing deaths, the author’s “unique perspective” proves invaluable, said Aamer Madhani in USA Today. She appreciates that the ethics of that horrifying episode fall in a gray area, and she “admirably resists” the urge most journalists would have to “wrap up what happened at Memorial in a neat bow.”

A dissent: Fink’s reluctance to pass judgment proves “as frustrating as it is admirable,” said Susan Jane Gilman in

3. Book of Ages

by Jill Lepore (Knopf, $28)

Ben Franklin’s favorite sister turns out to be “well worth remembering,” said Madeleine Schwartz in the Pitts-burgh Post-Gazette. Jane Franklin Mecom left behind only a few letters, plus a book in which she recorded her children’s births and deaths, but historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore “teases out a full picture of Jane’s life” from the available sources. Crucially, the book frames its subject as an 18th-century everywoman—powerless and marginalized. To make Jane’s life experience more palpable, Lepore “elegantly reads between the lines,” said Joanna Scutts in The Washington Post. We’re led to deduce, for instance, that Jane’s often-indebted husband was a lout, because the couple’s children each named a grandchild after Jane but none after him. Not until Jane reaches age 45 do we hear her in a surviving letter. But once this impoverished Bostonian “bursts into speech,” she “emerges as witty, curious, and resilient in the face of unimaginable grief.”

A dissent: Lepore too often resorts to guesswork and “overblown rhetoric,” said Amy Gentry in the Chicago Tribune.

4. Thank You for Your Service

by David Finkel (Sarah Crichton, $26)

David Finkel’s latest highlights a crisis among U.S. military families that “no bumper sticker or platitude can solve,” said Colette Bancroft in the Tampa Bay Times. Between 20 and 30 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans return with psychological damage, and help is scarce for both the troubled veterans and the households that welcome them back. Finkel followed up with several members of the Iraq battalion he profiled in 2009’s The Good Soldiers, and his “astonishingly intimate yet utterly respectful” reporting details their struggles. Thank You would be unbearable to read “if Finkel weren’t such a compelling, heartrending writer,” said Jeff Stein in Bookforum. One sergeant who’d been heroic in the field attempts suicide several times. One soldier’s wife becomes so desperate to get her husband help from the government that she unwisely manufactures a child-molestation charge against him. “Some endings are happy, more or less, but most not.” Sadly, most of America seems not to care.

A dissent: Finkel includes only “passing acknowledgement” that most soldiers return in good mental health, said Matt Gallagher in

5. The Unwinding

by George Packer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27)

To me, this fifth-place finisher is “something close to a nonfiction masterpiece,” said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. A sweeping portrait of contemporary American life, it “begins like a horror novel, which in some regards it is.” To George Packer, another New Yorker writer, the story of our time has been the erosion of middle-class institutions and the rise of a winner-take-all society created by organized money. The book proves to be “more intimate and textured than most contemporary works of fiction,” said Héctor Tobar in the Los Angeles Times. The reader comes to know, among others, a venture capitalist, an Ohio factory worker, and a disillusioned former aide to Vice President Joe Biden. None are saints, none pure victims. “What distinguishes The Unwinding is the fullness of Packer’s portraits, his willingness to show his subjects’ human desires and foibles, and to give each of his subjects a fully throated voice.” They’ve been buffeted by storms, but they haven’t abandoned hope.

A dissent: Packer prefers moping to thinking deeply about how to actually revitalize the U.S. job market, said The Economist.

How the books were chosen

Our rankings were created by weighting end-of-year recommendations published by A.V. Club,,, Entertainment Weekly, The Kansas City Star, theMinneapolis Star Tribune, Newsday, New York magazine, The New York Times, O magazine,, Time, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal,and The Washington Post.

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