The 30 Best Nonfiction Books of 2015

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TheWrightBrothers.jpg 20. The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

You’ve heard about Wilbur and Orville Wright since you were young, but what do you honestly know about them? David McCullough dives behind the mystique of the “pioneers of aviation” to reveal the brothers’ astounding history. It’s the iconic American Dream story: two boys from a poor home (lacking indoor plumbing and electricity) possess just a public high school education yet risk death to fly. But McCullough steers clear of romanticizing their story, highlighting the brothers’ mechanical ingenuity without glossing over their failures. The Wright Brothers delivers an entertaining, well-researched slice of history, proving (yet again) that McCullough is a master of the historic narrative. —Frannie Jackson

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UnfaithfulMusic.jpg 19. Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello

Across the nearly 700 pages of Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Elvis Costello delivers an impeccably detailed autobiography. He’s often as brilliant at turning a phrase in prose as he is in his lyrics, richly describing his childhood and his relationship with his father. Stories and anecdotes flow freely, from Costello’s unknown early years with The Attractions to his later career collaborations with legends like Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach and Allen Toussaint. Much like his catalog of impressive albums, Costello’s book is dense, multifaceted, singular and slightly unwieldy, revealing the early epiphanies that built upon each other to forge the artist we know today. —Eric Swedlund

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OnTheMove.jpg 18. On the Move by Oliver Sacks

Fans of the late Dr. Oliver Sacks have waited decades to dive into a proper memoir of the life of the famous and charismatic neurologist. Throughout his 60 years in medicine, Sacks touched lives and expanded minds, filling several books with case studies from real patients. While he slipped a handful of case studies into this memoir, On the Move highlights more personal encounters, never shying away from disconcerting exchanges or heartbreaking interactions. Shedding light on his experience as a gay man in 1960s America, his supernatural attraction to motorcycles and his Herculean triumphs at weightlifting at Muscle Beach, this memoir celebrates the life of an inherently empathetic man. —Jeff Milo

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WeGottaGetOutOfThisPlace.jpg 17. We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War by Doug Bradley and Craig Werner

When Doug Bradley and Craig Werner took up the oral history project that became We Gotta Get Out of This Place, the authors envisioned a “Vietnam Vets’ Top 20”—a compact list of songs that proved inseparable from the war experience for the soldiers who fought it. But as they interviewed the veterans whose voices drive the book’s narrative, Bradley and Werner realized that no static set of songs would fully represent the stories the vets were telling. As one vet explains, “There is no such thing as one Vietnam. There were more than two and a half million of them.” No single book could capture that many Vietnams, or the multitude of voices needed to describe them. But the remarkable achievement of We Gotta Get Out of This Place is how close it comes to making that many voices of Vietnam veterans heard. —Steve Nathans-Kelly

DimeStories.jpg 16. Dime Stories by Tony Fitzpatrick

Chicago’s famous artist Tony Fitzpatrick (his work regularly appears on Lollapalooza posters, Steve Earle albums and books, the Neville Brothers albums, early Tia Chucha poetry books) unveils his double-threat perspective in this collection of art and writing from his column in the indie weekly Newcity. Holding tight to the street corner wisdom of the city, Fitzpatrick paints a romantic picture of the metropolis he wears on his sleeve. It’s a hard ear that can take in the city’s wanderings and then shape them into stories that pay respect to those city dwellers before him—and those to come after. —Mark Eleveld

CountrySoul.jpg 15. Country Soul by Charles L. Hughes

With Country Soul, a revisionist history of the Southern studio music scene that yielded many of the finest soul, R&B and country records of the 20th century, Charles L. Hughes ruins everything. Earlier Southern soul books presented the heartwarming tale of how post-racial America was born in a Memphis recording studio in 1965, as black and white musicians transcended the racism of their times while cutting the era-defining records we know and love. And in Hughes’ telling, the studio groups that backed up soul superstars Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Solomon Burke, as well as Nashville-identified artists like Willie Nelson and Jeannie C. Riley, were often interracial ensembles. But their members’ relationships with each other (and the burgeoning Southern music business they helped build) were more complicated than other historians have claimed. Hughes aims to set the record straight, adding an essential chapter to not only the history of Southern music, but to the history of the South itself. —Steve Nathans-Kelly

FuriouslyHappy.jpg 14. Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

“A funny book about horrible things,” Furiously Happy is Jenny Lawson’s second bestselling memoir exploring her life with mental illness. You might recognize Lawson as “The Bloggess,” the creator of the beloved blog of the same name who has garnered a devoted following over the past decade. Her raw honesty and truly hysterical anecdotes translate flawlessly from the web to print, cementing Furiously Happy as a mandatory text for anyone seeking to understand the day-to-day realities of living with mental illness. Inspiring and ridiculous, this book insists that we “[embrace] everything that makes us who we are…and [use] it to find joy in fantastic and outrageous ways.” —Frannie Jackson

OregonTrail.jpg 13. The Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck

Rinker Buck might be the consummate 21st-century American memoirist—chronically self-absorbed, retrospectively self-aware, comically self-effacing and one hell of a storyteller. His latest, The Oregon Trail, begins four years ago with Buck sorting the wreckage of divorce, dissolution and professional decline. So Buck and his brother Nick decided to spent four months in a covered wagon driving a mule team across the entire Oregon Trail: 2,100 miles of wagon ruts that opened the west to nearly half a million overland migrants in the mid-19th century. Before the Buck brothers, no team had accomplished this feat without support in 100 years. And while The Oregon Trail delivers no shortage of personal epiphanies and riotous, rancorous sibling humor, it’s the masterfully rendered spectacle of the overland journey that makes the book such an absorbing and unforgettable read. —Steve Nathans-Kelly

TheSevenGoodYears.jpg 12. The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret

If you’ve listened to 10 or more episodes of This American Life, you’ll know Etgar Keret for his hilarious, surreal and insightful stories. If he can hold the attention of host Ira Glass, it’s fair to say he can capture the attention of us all. The Seven Good Years, Keret’s first collection of nonfiction, proves as playfully profound as any of his fiction. Focusing on the years between the birth of his son and the death of his father, Keret critiques and celebrates family life, living in Israel and the art of writing—all while maintaining a coherency of tone and purpose most writers should envy. —Mack Hayden

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OneOfUs.jpg 11. One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway by Åsne Seierstad

The strife in reading One of Us is no fault of journalist Åsne Seierstad, whose engaging, well-researched book tackles Norway’s deadliest mass shooting. I could label One of Us as the most difficult book I’ve read this year for countless reasons—the horrific recounting of Anders Breivik’s crimes marks the most obvious choice—but the book’s most emotional punch to the gut occurs when observing two worlds merging. In One of Us, we witness bright kids’ lives deconstructed for years before their names are etched on newspaper front pages and memorial stones. With mass shootings becoming a devastatingly common topic on U.S. nightly news, it’s more important than ever to examine Seierstad’s respectable exploration of the warped young mind behind Norway’s deadliest massacre. —Tyler R. Kane

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