I read a lot of really great nonfiction books in 2016! I actually think I had better luck with nonfiction than fiction. The first three listed are my top three favorites; everything is listed in alphabetical order.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016)
When Breath Becomes Air focuses on Kalinithi’s a career as a neurosurgeon, which was cut short by a rare and terminal form of lung cancer. The memoir — which he was still striving to complete at the time of his death — offers reflections on life and death. In doing so, he reflects on past interactions with patients who had been on the receiving end of bad news that came from him. It’s a gorgeous book.
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing (2016)
Mixing memoir, biography, and art history, Olivia Laing explores the different meanings of loneliness in New York City through the lives of different artists who lived there. The essays offer beautiful, elegant explorations of human interactions (or the lack thereof).
So Sad Today by Melissa Broder (2016)
Steeped in dark humor, So Sad Today is a collection of autobiographical essays by Melissa Broder. She writes about her struggles with extreme anxiety low, self-esteem, and addiction, but she also throws in some off-the-wall essays about sex and relationships. There’s one essay in there revolving around sexting that had me going, “This woman is completely nuts. I love her.”
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo (2012)
This book was on my radar ever since it was published, and I finally read it this year for my trip to India; I actually read it while I was in Mumbai. Boo’s reporting and her ability to get that close to the family and community featured in the book just blew my mind. Its Pulitzer was well-deserved.
The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race ed. by Jesmyn Ward (2016)
A riff off James Baldwin’s 1963 book The Fire Next Time, the essays in Ward’s anthology focus on race in America today. The topics range from things like walking while black to unmarked slave burial grounds. They offer an interesting variety of perspectives, and the book’s publication is very timely.
In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri (2016)
Never quite fully fitting in as an Indian in America or an American in India, Jhumpa Lahiri seems to have found her place in Italy, where she spent a year living in Rome to become fluent in Italian. This memoir was written in Italian and translated to English, and though it’s sparer than her other works because of her language limitations, it’s still a distinctly Lahiri book. It’s a really fascinating language project.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (1997)
Hired to do a story on the rise of commercial outfitters taking people up Mount Everest, Krakauer instead got caught in the deadliest storm on Everest to date. Krakauer’s book recounts that fatal journey in terrifying detail and explores some of the ethical quandaries that have come up with the rise of commercial expeditions.
Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson (2015)
This is a biography of Rosemary Kennedy. It starts with some horrifying circumstances surrounding her birth that likely resulted in her mental disabilities, which the Kennedy family desperately tried to keep secret. Rosemary’s behavior ultimately led to her father consenting — behind his family’s back — to have her lobotomized; she suffered from severe physical and mental disabilities for the rest of her life. It’s an incredibly sad, infuriating story.
Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West (2016)
Part memoir, part feminist manifesto, Lindy West talks about fat shaming, rape culture in comedy, abortion stigma, and gross Internet trolls. It’s a funny, honest, and unapologetically loud book featuring chapter titles such as “Why Fat Lady So Mean to Baby Men?” It’s great.
Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich (2016)
Written in her distinct, unique style, Svetlana Alexievich present oral histories from dozens of people to capture what life was like in the USSR and its subsequent collapse. Each chapter weaves multiple histories around a different theme, resulting in a vibrant snapshot of Soviet life that isn’t found in history books.