5 best nonfiction books of 2016
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.”