The Best Nonfiction (I Read) in 2006

Since everybody else is coming out with their year’s best lists right about now, I thought I’d put in my two cents. Since I review a lot of nonfiction for Publishers Weekly, and don’t get quite as much time to read fiction for fun as I’d like, for the moment I feel a bit more comfortable talking about nonfiction, but I’ll try to remember to tell you about my favorite novels from this year later on.

crossx-cover.jpgKeeping in mind that I certainly didn’t have time to read everything, in my experience the best nonfiction book published this year was Joe Miller’s Cross-X, an amazing piece of “embedded journalism” in which Miller observes an inner-city high school debate team as they fight their way into the ranks of the nation’s best. There may have been more powerful books about race, more powerful books about class, more powerful books about education published this year… but I’m willing to bet that no book takes on all three subjects with this kind of passion and intensity. I’m glad to see that some of the major book review sections are starting to realize how important this book is, and I hope more will catch on so Joe’s reportage can get the audience it deserves. (Yeah, tiny disclosure: I’ve met Joe since my first rounds of praise for his work.)

And, now, in alphabetical order by title, nine other significant nonfiction books published this year.

Brutal Journey, by Paul Schneider: The story of the first Spanish expedition to make its way across the North American continent…just barely. Despite having little in the way of primary documents, Schneider has crafted a gripping yarn that also sheds light on the early interactions between European explorers and the indigenous cultures they met.

FantasyLand, by Sam Walker: A sportswriter is convinced his insider expertise will help him clean up in a fantasy baseball league. Has he got a lot to learn, hilariously so. (By negative example, Walker’s techniques boosted me into third place in my own league this year!)

From Baghdad With Love, by Jay Kopelman: There’s a reason this became the biggest book in the history of Lyons Press. I know you’ve heard me go on about this one before, and how amazing Lt. Col. Kopelman’s rescue of a stray puppy from the Iraqi war zones is. (Yeah, the story nearly made me cry; wanna make something of it?)

House of War, by James Carroll: carroll combines the history of the Pentagon with his own family history in a searing indictment of American militarism from the Second World War to Iraq.

Imperial Life in the Emerald City, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Nominated for a National Book Award, this behind-the-scenes look at Baghdad’s “Green Zone,” where the U.S. occupational authority stumbled its war through Iraq’s reconstruction, is simply devastating.

Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn, by William J. Mann: This book takes the questions about Hepburn’s sexuality and blows them wide open, with lots of revelatory interviews…not all of them on the record, admittedly, but unlike some celebrity biographers who wallow in innuendo, Mann prefers to build his case slowly and let the story speak for itself. Here’s a teaser: She wasn’t exactly a lesbian…

No Shortcuts to the Top, by Ed Viesturs: Viesturs is the first American to reach the summit of the fourteen mountains in the world higher than 8,000 meters, an accomplishment that came with great personal sacrifice. This is an exciting and inspiring story, and a reminder that success doesn’t come easy.

Stealing the General, by Russell S. Bonds: So the Union Army sends the 19th-century equivalent of a Special Forces team deep into Confederate territory to steal a train, and they nearly got away with it. But that’s not the half of it: Bonds writes about their capture, the execution of many of the commandos and the daring prison break of the rest, and how it all led to the first Congressional Medals of Honor.

Uncommon Carriers, by John McPhee: Look, it’s John McPhee. What else do you really need to know? OK, fine: he rides shotgun on an eighteen-wheeler, hangs out with a locomotive crew, rides a barge up the Illinois River…heck, this guy could make a tour of the UPS sorting facility sound like the coolest adventure on the planet. Just read it, already, if you didn’t get to see these essays in the New Yorker first.

4 December 2006 | read this |