Most of us don't have the time or the funds to visit the world's most beautiful libraries, those erudite repositories of wisdom both ancient and modern. Yet, we all have access to phenomenal nonfiction titles - books that can inform us, change our view of the world, shape us into the individuals we were meant to be, or just entertain us with facts so surprising that we assume they're fiction.
Nonfiction includes memoir and autobiography but many argue that no memoir can possibly be entirely factual. On that I beg to differ - a great memoir writer checks facts by finding multiple sources to confirm the details found in memory. Earlier this year I spoke with Mark Richard, author of one of my favorite memoirs The House of Prayer No. 2, and asked him about his quest for the veracity of some of the memories of his childhood spent in a state hospital. He told me that he searched for patients and workers in the hospital as well as the memories of his own family to make absolutely certain that what he was writing was factual. That attention to detail and belief in always telling the truth is one of the hallmarks of great memoir.
This year Katherine Boo's magnificent story of the slums outside the Mumbai airport set a new standard in the narrative non-fiction genre. For many the idea that a true story can be presented with plot structure, character development, and themes to make the tale compelling is an oxymoron. How, they ask, can anyone be creative with nonfiction and still present facts. Reading Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers will put an end to such questions. That's why it's my nonfiction book of the year. Here's the complete list:
Best Nonfiction Book of 2012:
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
by Katherine Boo
The night the National Book Awards were announced, I sat glued to my computer screen with fingers crossed and when the announcement came that Boo had won, I leaped up and cheered. Believe me, I'm nuts about books but I don't do that every year. This is different; this is a milestone book. The fact that Boo embedded herself and her translators into the under city to listen, listen, listen will have those who teach narrative nonfiction classes revising their syllabuses. And for the rest of us average readers, we can just say thanks to Boo for reminding us that we can't possibly learn anything if we don't listen.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a heart wrenching yet compelling view of the lives of the real people living in extraordinary poverty in Mumbai. If you only read one book this year, read this and take time to let it seep into your soul. Read my complete review and the words of praise from so many others here.
Best Memoir of 2012:
The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
In a year of phenomenal memoirs, it was almost impossible to choose one title but for book lovers how could anyone resist a book that offers so many thoughts about why we read and so, so many great titles. When Schwalbe's mother was dying of pancreatic cancer, he sat with her during her chemo treatments and they talked about the books they were reading. They became a two-person book club and Schwalbe allows readers to join their optimistic, hopeful and enticing world. The book is a tribute to Mary Ann Schwalbe and to carpe diem. It's an ebullient homage to the power of both the written word and to the joy of sharing anything we love with those we love. Don't be unsettled by the title - this is a happy, hope-filled, wonder of a book. Read it and share it with someone. Read my complete review and the reviews of others here.
The other "best" nonfiction titles that will fill your hunger for a great read are:
Flunking Sainthood: a Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray and Still Loving My Neighbor by Jana Riess is a thorough introduction and a delightful explanation of twelve ancient and modern spiritual practices. It's exceptional because it shares what practicing faith really means - that the practices will make you more open to love. Riess's use of humor coupled with scholarly research makes the practices accessible to those on any journey of faith. Riess, a former Religion Editor at Publishers Weekly, has the credentials to back her research and the heart and self-deprecating light touch to make this a book for everyone.
House of Prayer No. 2 by Mark Richard is a gothic, southern stunner filled with staccato word pictures and Richard's compelling second person narrative of his childhood spent in acute physical pain while suffering the indignities of being treated like someone less than human. If you love words and exceptional writing, read this. Read the complete review here.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain explains why people talk, what shyness means, and why introverts are essential. Cain's examples are compelling and if you haven't yet taken the Myers-Briggs Personality Assessment, you'll immediately want to learn your type. If you already know your preferences and functions, this book will help you understand how people in your world at home and at work function. If I ruled the world, this would be required reading.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeannette Winterston is raw, honest, heart-wrenching, funny and flat-out mesmerizing. It was chosen as the best book of the year by almost every British publication and is on many best book lists in the U.S. It's a hard-hitting story of Winterston's life as the adopted daughter of a mentally ill, strangely religious woman who couldn't fathom that her child could be a lesbian. It's easy to see why Winterston is one of Britain's favorite authors. Her razor-sharp images will capture even those who think her story might not fit them. Read the complete review here.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed is exasperating and makes you want to shake Strayed because of her lack of preparation but ultimately you'll cheer for the young woman who found herself by testing her mettle on an 1100-mile hike. Strayed's emotional turmoil after her mother's death that results in her addiction to heroin and a decision to have an abortion might make some readers shy away from this title but this is a tale of redemption and healing that warrants attention. Strayed's exceptional writing elevates this above the usual travel adventure or coming-of-age story. This book will appeal to adults of all ages especially to those in their twenties and thirties.