5 best non­fic­tion books of 2016

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE -

Ed­i­tor’s note: Th­ese five books are the non­fic­tion se­lec­tions for the Wash­ing­ton Post’s Best 10 Books of 2016.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the Amer­i­can City By Matthew Desmond (Crown)

“Evicted” im­merses read­ers in the lives of fam­i­lies and in­di­vid­u­als trapped in — or thriv­ing off — the pri­vate-rental mar­ket for the poor, a bru­tal world in which land­lords have all the power and ten­ants feel all the pain. In spare and beau­ti­ful prose, Desmond chron­i­cles the eco­nomic and psy­cho­log­i­cal dev­as­ta­tion of sub­stan­dard hous­ing in Amer­ica and the cas­cad­ing mis­for­tunes that come with los­ing one’s home. “If in­car­cer­a­tion had come to de­fine the lives of men from im­pov­er­ished black neigh­bor­hoods, evic­tion was shap­ing the lives of women,” he writes. “Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.” In this ex­tra­or­di­nary feat of re­port­ing and ethnog­ra­phy, Desmond has made it im­pos­si­ble ever

again to con­sider poverty in the United States with­out tack­ling the cen­tral role of hous­ing.

The Gene: An In­ti­mate His­tory By Sid­dhartha Mukher­jee (Si­mon & Schus­ter)

Ge­net­ics has two his­to­ries: the his­tory of what we have found out, and the his­tory of the uses and abuses of those dis­cov­er­ies. In “The Gene,” Mukher­jee ex­plores the na­ture of this dou­ble nar­ra­tive. He never loses sight of the ten­sion be­tween those who wish to un­der­stand ge­net­ics and those who wish to ap­ply such emerg­ing knowl­edge, but nei­ther does he fall into the ob­vi­ous trap of see­ing the first cat­e­gory as good and the sec­ond as bad. Mukher­jee con­tends that while ge­netic the­o­ries have pro­vided cru­cial med­i­cal in­sights, they also have fueled the de­praved think­ing that reached its nadir in eu­gen­ics.

The Re­turn: Fa­thers, Sons and the Land in Be­tween By Hisham Matar (Ran­dom House)

Hisham Matar was 19 in 1990 when his fa­ther, a prom­i­nent Libyan dis­si­dent, was seized in Cairo by Egyp­tian secret po­lice and de­liv­ered to Libyan author­i­ties. Ja­balla Matar was held for about six years in a no­to­ri­ous Tripoli prison, and then no more was heard of him. Much of the younger Matar’s adult life has been ruled by un­knowns, and they form the foun­da­tion for his breath­tak­ing mem­oir, “The Re­turn.” The book is con­structed as two in­ter­wo­ven nar­ra­tives. One is the story of a clos­ing: the kid­nap­ping, in­car­cer­a­tion and dis­ap­pear­ance of Matar’s fa­ther. The par­al­lel story is of an open­ing, as the son spends two decades peel­ing away lay­ers of ob­scure, un­re­li­able de­tails from ex-pris­on­ers and craven Libyan of­fi­cials to try to un­cover what hap­pened to his fa­ther. Matar, a Barnard Col­lege pro­fes­sor of English and New Yorker con­trib­u­tor, has pro­duced two ac­claimed nov­els about fa­thers who go miss­ing un­der Mid­dle Eastern dic­ta­tor­ships. “The Re­turn” is an el­egy by a son who, through his elo­quence, de­fies the men who wanted to erase his fa­ther and gifts him with a kind of im­mor­tal­ity.

Rogue He­roes: The His­tory of the SAS, Bri­tain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sab­o­taged the Nazis and Changed the Na­ture of War By Ben Macin­tyre (Crown)

In ear­lier days, gen­er­als un­der­stood war as two armies fac­ing each other across a de­fined bat­tle­field. A star­tling change oc­curred when an un­likely war hero, David Stir­ling, came up with an ex­per­i­ment that called for sneak­ing sol­diers into the ad­ver­sary’s camp, sab­o­tag­ing equip­ment, then sneak­ing off again into the night. At first the tac­tic seemed un­sport­ing, if not scan­dalous, but the com­mando op­er­a­tion be­came the pro­to­type for special forces around the world. In “Rogue He­roes,” Macin­tyre pro­vides a riv­et­ing his­tory of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary fight­ing force. Us­ing un­prece­dented ac­cess to Bri­tish Special Air Ser­vice reg­i­men­tal ar­chives, Macin­tyre has gleaned fas­ci­nat­ing ma­te­rial. Among the char­ac­ters is an SAS of­fi­cer in­vested with “an enor­mous mous­tache, an up­per-class ac­cent so fruity that the men barely un­der­stood his com­mands, and a habit of say­ing ‘what, what’ af­ter ev­ery sen­tence, earn­ing him­self the nick­name ‘Cap­tain What What.’” As Cap­tain What What might have put it, this is a rip­ping good read.

Sec­ond­hand Time: The Last of the Sovi­ets By Svet­lana Alex­ievich (Ran­dom House)

In “Sec­ond­hand Time,” Alex­ievich turns on a tape recorder and lis­tens to av­er­age Rus­sians de­scrib­ing their lives amid the dis­in­te­gra­tion of the Soviet Union. Alex­ievich, who was awarded the 2015 No­bel Prize in lit­er­a­ture, has pro­duced one of the most vivid and in­can­des­cent ac­counts yet at­tempted of this so­ci­ety caught in the throes of change. It is the story of what one char­ac­ter aptly de­scribes as “our lost gen­er­a­tion — a com­mu­nist up­bring­ing and cap­i­tal­ist life.” No one should pick up this book ex­pect­ing to find a well-ex­plained chrono­log­i­cal his­tory of what hap­pened in the Krem­lin. Rather, the ma­te­rial is a trove of emo­tions and mem­o­ries, raw and pow­er­ful. Alex­ievich makes it feel in­ti­mate, as if you are sit­ting in the kitchen with the char­ac­ters, shar­ing in their hap­pi­ness and agony, en­veloped in their nos­tal­gia and riven with their anx­i­ety. As one party mem­ber ob­served, “The times have led me into con­fu­sion.”

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