Critic's choice: The year's best nonfiction
1. Caste by Isabel Wilkerson (Random House, $32)
This brilliant book "should be required reading for generations to come," said Joshunda Sanders at The Boston Globe. "A significant work of social science, journalism, and history," Isabel Wilkerson's rethinking of racism in America "removes the tenuous language of racial animus and replaces it with a sturdier lexicon." Our nation, she writes, perpetuates a caste system in which racial difference is a sorting feature. The award-winning author of The Warmth of Other Suns builds her case by offering comparisons of the laws and mores of the U.S., India, and Nazi Germany — the last of which adopted tactics from the Jim Crow South. Other thinkers have talked about America's racial caste system before, but Wilkerson brings to bear her "formidable interviewing and storytelling talents," said Laura Miller at Slate. "This important book wrenches our established way of thinking about race out of its rut and encourages us to see it anew," creating fresh potential for change.
2. Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey (Ecco, $28)
Natasha Trethewey's slim memoir is "truly a work of genius," said Hillary Kelly at the Los Angeles Times. In it, the former U.S. poet laureate addresses a life-altering trauma: When she was 19, her stepfather fatally shot her mother outside the couple's Atlanta apartment. Trethewey long repressed memories of the murder and the abusive behavior that preceded it, but she has now conjured a portrait of her mother and an account of her own childhood as a biracial Mississippi native that brings her closer to resigned acceptance. A series of mysteries animates Trethewey's account, said Ann Levin at USA Today. "Who exactly was her mother? What caused her first marriage to fail? And what drew her to her second husband, a clearly damaged man?" The book that answers those questions becomes "a gorgeous exploration of all the wounds that never heal."
3. Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker (Doubleday, $30)
The horrors visited on the family at the center of this powerful book are "almost unfathomable," said Glenn Altschuler at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Don and Mimi Galvin had 12 children and appeared to be living a model mid-20th-century Colorado life before their oldest began showing signs of psychic distress. Schizophrenia would eventually strike six of the 10 boys, resulting in murder, multiple suicide attempts, and serial sexual abuse of siblings. Author Robert Kolker chronicles it all in his latest "tour de force," revealing how the family's long-running nightmare eventually helped researchers understand and tame the devastating mental malady. At the time when the Galvins needed help, said Colette Bancroft at the Tampa Bay Times, experts often blamed the disorder on bad mothering. The Galvins provided evidence of a genetic component to schizophrenia, and watching their story unfold proves "by turns heartbreaking, enraging, and hopeful."
4. A Promised Land by Barack Obama (Crown, $45)
"Barack Obama is as fine a writer as they come," said Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at The New York Times. The former president ran past 700 pages with this memoir that takes the story of his political career only to 2011, yet the book is "nearly always pleasurable to read sentence to sentence, the prose gorgeous in places, the detail granular and vivid." He doesn't reveal himself in full; he is perennially "a man watching himself watch himself." But as he recounts his rise and the disappointments and partial victories of his first White House term, he also comes across as "an overwhelmingly decent man" who is heartbroken by politics' ugliness. Often, the book "reads like a conversation Obama is having with himself — toggling between pride in his administration's accomplishments and self-doubt over whether he did enough," said Jane Henderson at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Throughout, "his elegant prose is freighted with uncertainty about the state of our politics, about whether we can ever reach the titular promised land."
5. Just Us by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf, $30)
"How ought we to live together?" asked Kierstan Carter at New Republic. Six years after she described the psychic violence of being black in America in Citizen: An American Lyric, poet and playwright Claudia Rankine has written a follow-up that interrogates the attitudes of white people about their whiteness. Friends, strangers, and her husband were among her interlocutors, and though she raises doubts that white people will ever be willing to acknowledge their advantages, Just Us provides "guidance, explanation, tools, and language" that will help readers make sense of current race dynamics. The idea that deeper dialogue can end racial inequality "risks seeming regressive," said Ismail Muhammad at The Atlantic. "But Rankine's probing, persistent desire for intimacy is also daring at a time when antiracist discourse has hardened into an ideological surety." The courage and curiousness she brings to difficult conversations are traits "we would all do well to emulate."
How the books were chosen
Our top-5 lists were created by tallying and weighting end-of-year recommendations published by more than 20 other print and online sources, including the Chicago Tribune, CSMonitor.com, The Economist, Entertainment Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, New York magazine, The New York Times, O magazine, People, Publishers Weekly, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Slate.com, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Time, USA Today, Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.
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