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The 30 Best Nonfiction Books of 2015

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DeadWake.jpg 10. Dead Wake by Erik Larson

It doesn’t matter how interested (or uninterested) you are in learning about such a pivotal moment in American history, you’ll want to savor Erik Larson’s latest read. He’s proven himself as one of the best nonfiction authors of the last 20 years, specifically for his talent to forge an infectious readability onto some of history’s overlooked episodes and unknown actors. Larson had his work cut out for him in Dead Wake with the sinking of the Lusitania, the act of hostility that brought the United States into World War I. The details of the suspected torpedoing of this British ocean liner have long been debated and disputed, but Larson profiles the crew of the Lusitania and highlights the German U-boat that pursued it, slipping between both sides of the event in his cinematic style of enticing narration. —Jeff Milo

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lightoftheworld.jpg 9. The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

With The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander delivers a book she never aspired to write: a memoir about coping with the immediate and surprising death of her husband of 16 years, Ficre. Alexander, a heavyweight academic at Yale and the inaugural poet at President Barack Obama’s first swearing-in, chooses to focus her lens not on her own life, but on Ficre’s gorgeous spirit. She paints a poetic masterpiece in prose that highlights meals (and absolutely tantalizing descriptions of food), art and friendship. When she was with Ficre, “There was suddenly enough time: to talk, to read, to think, to sleep, to make love, to drink coffee or tea, to practice yoga, to walk.” —Mark Eleveld

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ModernRomance.jpg 8. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

With Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari had a goal: “I started asking people I knew if there was a book that would help me understand the many challenges of looking for love in the digital age. I found some interesting pieces here and there, but not the kind of comprehensive, in-depth sociological investigation I was looking for. That book simply didn’t exist, so I decided to try to write it myself.” Judging by the pages that follow, Modern Romance is a success. It’s a snapshot—a non-judgmental one, at that—of a specific time and place. And though the book doesn’t provide concrete directions on how to thrive in the realm of modern dating, most millennials will finish reading Modern Romance with an increased appreciation for the beings that exist behind iPhone screens. —Tyler R. Kane

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Lafayette.jpg 7. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

You can’t truly blame yourself for not paying attention in history class; even the most interesting material is challenging to engage with on a regular basis. But Sarah Vowell has developed a career out of making American history fascinating. Her new book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, focuses on the young French aristocrat who assisted the revolutionaries in their war for independence. Through humor and a healthy injection of her own personality, Vowell makes the founding fathers and the French nobles alike read like the sort of people you’re getting to know, and adore, for the first time at a party. —Mack Hayden

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FirstCollection.jpg 6. The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper

If you’re a fan of music writing, you owe it to yourself to read Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. After closing the final page, you should then recommend it to your friends who don’t even gravitate toward music journalism. Like the best critics, Hopper’s thoughts shared here transcend the boundaries of their subject matter. You’ll question the implicit misogyny of emo Rock, the moral legitimacy of booking a person of dubious moral character and whether or not you should give Bruce Springsteen the same kudos your dad always offered. This is nonfiction chronicling how music has helped Hopper understand what it means to be a good human being, and it helps us understand as well. —Mack Hayden

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Missoula.jpg 5. Missoula by Jon Krakauer

Thanks to a certain magazine cover story earlier this year, rape on campus might have controversial connotations in the media, but Missoula by Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild, Under the Banner of Heaven) is that story’s antithesis. This meticulously researched book unveils rape in the American college system…and examines why so few people are willing to report it. Krakauer documents three separate accounts of campus rape in the city of Missoula, Montana—not merely through the horrifying experiences, but through the aftermath: police questioning, discussions with lawyers, family reactions. The pages that follow will stick with you for decades. —Tyler R. Kane

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RedNotice.jpg 4. Red Notice by Bill Browder

With a subheading like “a true story of high finance, murder and one man’s fight for justice,” you know this book is either a hyperbole on steroids or a sincerely gripping story. A mere five pages into Red Notice, you’ll realize it’s the latter. Bill Browder rose from a childhood in Chicago’s South Side to run the largest investment fund in Russia after the Soviet Union’s collapse. But Browder’s conscience clashed with the Russian oligarchy, leading Vladimir Putin to turn on him for exposing corruption. While Red Notice reads like a thriller, it’s made all the more chilling for its foundation in reality. Yet Browder never wallows; instead, he champions a future where the Wild East of Russia is held accountable for its citizens’ actions. —Frannie Jackson

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MTrain.jpg 3. M Train by Patti Smith

While Patti Smith’s 2010 National Book Award-winning Just Kids was a direct and focused account of the youthful years she shared with Robert Mapplethorpe, M Train is a hazy, dreamlike memoir that blends a lifetime of scattered memories with the small, comfortable routines of everyday experience. She writes in “stations” rather than chapters, disjointed times and places freely flowing together, with present trips to Berlin, Mexico City, Tokyo and Tangiers interspersed with memories of past travels. Smith writes odes to cafés, one of her greatest loves, but also displays a surprising affection for detective shows. An unorthodox yet gorgeously poetic book, M Train is centered on memory, love, sacred objects and artistic idols, an effort on Smith’s part to grant permanence to what’s departed. —Eric Swedlund

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HungerMakesMeAModernGirl.jpg 2. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

At the height of Sleater-Kinney’s popularity, one particularly difficult image to reconcile might be of its guitarist—the one who occupied stage right and high-kicked her way through kinetic sets—doing anything else. Like other notable ‘90s upstarts out of the Pacific Northwest, Sleater-Kinney was a band that thrived on the winning combination of the right time, the right place, the right community and, most importantly, the right talent. With the release of Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein guides audiences through a concise recollection of how this came to be, beginning with a childhood (and pre-Guitar Hero) Duran Duran cover band that simply mimed along to the music. The result is a completely addicting and entertaining memoir that should strike a chord beyond Sleater-Kinney fans. —Tyler R. Kane

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BetweentheWorldandMe.jpg 1. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me is the personalization of what, for many people, has been merely political for too long. Of course, racism in this country is political, is historical, is the very foundation on which the American Dream was built, and Ta-Nehisi Coates weaves these important historical narratives into this short text. But it’s his insistence on the small things that often get overlooked in public discourse that makes this book so terribly powerful. It’s not just in the form of the piece—a letter to his teenage son Samori—but in the more intimate content which requires that tragedies be contextualized. A victim of police brutality, like Freddie Gray, Rekia Boyd, Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland or Coates’ own Prince Jones, is not just a body or a representative of his/her race. No, a victim of police brutality is a person whose life was filled with minor, beautiful details that are also plundered in their killing. Every music lesson, every check written for family photos and every soccer practice weighs as much, under Coates’ text, as every mother that has to bury a child and every child that has to bury a mother or father.

In the same way that Claudia Rankine’s most powerful moments in Citizen were the personal narratives—those intimate reflections on being a black body and mind in America—and in the same way that a great Toni Morrison novel is not “about” race as much as it is about the small things that make up great characters of color, Between You and Me is, simply, a love letter to a son; or a eulogy for a friend; or an ode to Paris. Its brilliance lies in the fact that it is all of these things at once (and more) in one of the most necessary reads for any person interested in what it means to be awake and still hopeful in America today. —Shannon M. Houston

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