The 16 Best Nonfiction Books of 2016 (So Far)

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6. Blood Brothers by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith



In the years that preceded Muhammad Ali's death in June, Ali became, in the words of biographers Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith, a "silent sphinx," the complexities of his life as a once-outspoken black separatist and convicted draft resister long since forgotten. But Roberts' and Smith's new book turns back the clock to Ali's tumultuous 1960s, focusing on his broken brotherhood with black nationalist icon Malcolm X. Blood Brothers captures the rise and fall of their friendship as it evolved in parallel to Ali's pursuit of the heavyweight championship and Malcolm X's expulsion from the Nation of Islam, which forced Ali to choose between Malcolm X and Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad. No previous biography of either man has so clearly revealed the depth of their brotherhood—or the ways that Ali's loyalty became a sort of bargaining chip between the two Muslim leaders as their relationship dissolved. —Steve Nathans-Kelly

5. Who Cooked Adam Smith's Dinner? by Katrine Marçal



Marketed as a kind of "feminist Freakonomics," Who Cooked Adam Smith's Dinner? unpacks the myth of the "economic man" and its influence on modern day capitalism. Philosopher and economist Adam Smith first coined the term, arguing that all actions are based in self-interest. But Swedish journalist Katrine Marçal challenges this assumption, exploring how it disregards unpaid work typically performed by women (i.e. cleaning, cooking, childrearing, etc.). What follows is an engaging read that encourages you to rethink both your understanding of economics and your role in the modern world. —Frannie Jackson

4. Bobby Kennedy by Larry Tye



Bobby Kennedy's life and career, cut tragically short by an assassination less than five years after the death of his brother, have long been discussed as mythic. As the smallest (though not youngest) of the sprawling Kennedy family, Bobby's rise to Attorney General under his brother and then his own presidential run was the stuff of legends, helped in part by his willingness to fight for civil rights, smarter solutions to systemic poverty and migrant worker protections. But in Larry Tye's new biography, the myth gives way to the complex reality, in which Bobby got his start working for Senator Joseph McCarthy of Red Scare fame, was regarded as "ruthless" by his enemies and used his privileged position to pull strings when it suited him. Without getting mired in the anecdotal details that often fluff out Kennedy biographies, Tye zeroes in on key phases in Bobby's career and interviews those closest to the subject, including Bobby's widow. But rather than tarnish Bobby's name, Tye ultimately makes the man a more nuanced individual. —Bridey Heing

3. I'm Just a Person by Tig Notaro



Whether or not you've listened to Tig Notaro's iconic live set from 2012 (in which she opened with, "Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you? Hi, how are you? Is everybody having a good time? I have cancer."), the comedian's memoir is an essential read. I'm Just a Person chronicles how, in the span of four months, Notaro was hospitalized for an intestinal disease, grieved her mother's death, went through a breakup and was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer. This personal narrative successfully walks the line of heartbreak and hilarity, delivering a raw account of Notaro's experiences. By the end of the book, you'll believe you've found a witty and refreshingly honest new friend. —Frannie Jackson

2. Evicted by Matthew Desmond



Matthew Desmond's Evicted focuses on conditions in a single city, but what it reveals about cyclical patterns of poverty and their impact on American families extends far beyond Milwaukee. The book documents two years in the private housing market in Milwaukee's poorest neighborhoods, where a family's need to keep a roof over its head clashes with a landlord's need to make a profit. Focusing on the always-one-crisis-from-eviction experiences of six tenant families and their I've-got-a-business-to-run-here landlords, Desmond intimately portrays both sides of the tenant-landlord divide a narrative delivered with admirable balance and dry-eyed ethnographic discipline. Though Evicted is almost too painful to read, it's also too important to ignore. —Steve Nathans-Kelly

1. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi



There's a specific gravity to reading a man's thoughts about why life is worth living after he's passed away. Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015 from stage IV lung cancer, mere months after completing a decade of training as a neurosurgeon and becoming a father. When Breath Becomes Air, drafted by Kalanithi and completed posthumously by his wife, chronicles his years in medicine and his transition from a doctor to a patient after the diagnosis. "I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality," he writes, "in a sense, had changed nothing and everything." Possessing the heart of a poet and the mind of a scientist, Kalanithi tackles impossible questions with wisdom and grace, crafting a moving portrait of love and loss. —Frannie Jackson