Year’s Best Reading: Nonfiction

Empires of the Indus

Alice Albinia

Alice Albinia traces the multifarous and mythic life of one of the world’s mightiest waterways, the Indus. Her epic journey begins in Karachi, where the river pours into the Arabian sea, and winds up at its headwaters in Tibet.  Often on foot, and at times cloaked head to toe in a white hijab, Albinia makes her way through verdant valleys and rugged mountain paths, traversing some of the most contested territory in Asia. In the best tradition of travel writers like Bruce Chatwin and Patrick Leigh Fermor, Albinia’s focus is on the astonishing lives and stories of the people—living and dead—who occupy a region that has been at the heart of conflicts from the ancient world to the present.

Review by Robert Messenger

Forget Sorrow

Belle Yang

“We must understand the past so that we may understand how we became who we are today.” In those words author-illustrator Belle Yang’s great-grandfather sums up the aim of her graphic memoir of her Chinese family’s history. In her review, Melissa Holbrook Pierson writes “Slowly we are immersed in the foreign as in a watery pool, to become a fish unaware that a hook has got us by the mouth because it is at the end of such a gossamer line.” Yang’s boldly flowing illustrations add to the feeling of being swept along in an engrossing multi-generational saga.

Review by Melissa Holbrook Pierson

On the Outskirts of Normal

Debra Monroe

The white, single adoptive mother of an African-American daughter, fiction writer and professor Debra Monroe reflects with clear-eyed insight on the complexities of family in the 21st century, and on the power of narrative to help make sense of it: “The sprawling mess of life is why we need stories,” she writes, “a fleeting sense of order so we return to life with the unproven but irresistible conviction our mistakes and emergencies matter, so life might make sense too.” Her book transmutes this everyday struggle into something approaching inspiration.

Review by Amy Benfer

Bomber County

Daniel Swift

In his review of Daniel Swift’s hard-to-classify book, Anthony Grayling writes “Of all the books about war that I have read—all war, not just the bombing war—this is among the most moving and telling.” The story of Swift’s quest to know more about his grandfather, an RAF bomber pilot shot down over Germany during WWII, is also a journey into the scarred and haunting world of war poetry. Provocative and deeply affecting.

Review by A. C. Grayling

The Warmth of Other Suns

Isabel Wilkerson

In his review of this impassioned history of the Great Migration of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North and West between 1910 and 1970, Adam Bradley wrote, “Wilkerson has done an invaluable service to all those who would resist the slow creep of historical amnesia, particularly when it comes to the most painful details of our national life. This is a book that enacts the very thing it describes; like the brave lives of the people she writes about, it is a testimony, a challenge, and a timely reminder of our still unfulfilled promise of a more perfect union.”

Review by Adam Bradley

Washington: A Life

Ron Chernow

The inner world of one of the most revered Americans is also one of the greatest enigmas of our history.  Our reviewer, Max Byrd, hails Ron Chernow’s new biography of our first president as “far and away the best life of George Washington ever written,” writing: “Chernow has gone into Washington’s world, almost into his mind, and inhabited it. Under his gaze, from the very first page, that world begins to speak and stir, and great Washington steps before us, as if on an enormous stage, distant but clear, breathing.”

Review by Max Byrd

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

Sarah Bakewell

Why should we read the famous essays of a 16th-century French writer? Well, to learn how to live, as Sarah Bakewell reveals in this inviting book. Singing its praises, Patricia Hampl notes that Bakewell “has managed to bring ‘the first modern man’ (as Montaigne is sometimes labeled) to life for our age, tipping in vivid quotations from the Essais and giving the microphone to a writer who was, finally, all voice. Her book has the narrative pace and drive of a novel, perhaps because at its core a life is at stake. Whether it is Montaigne’s or Bakewell’s or the reader’s is impossible to say, but that is the magnificent achievement of this beguiling book.”

Review by Patricia Hampl

Travels in Siberia

Ian Frazier

A road trip across nine thousand miles of one of the most famously bleak landscapes in the world, in a broken down van? If that doesn’t sound like, well, fun, then imagine that Ian Frazier is your traveling companion. Whether he’s recounting the epic suffering of Russian history, fighting off swarms of mosquitoes, or categorizing the country by smell, Melissa Holbrook Pierson notes, “He is the tour guide who talks your ear off, but who fascinates anyway.”

Review by Melissa Holbrook Pierson

Unbroken

Laura Hillenbrand

The author of the bestselling and emotionally winning Seabiscuit triumphs again, this time with a tale of almost unimaginable human endurance. The life story of WWII airman Louis Zamperini—who was saved from a premature dead end as a juvenile deliquent by discovering a talent for running that led him to the 1936 Olympics—would have been an interesting one even if he’d never flown a fateful rescue mission over the Pacific in 1943. Surviving the crash of the aircraft at sea, Zamperini and a fellow flier faced a grueling monthlong survival on a raft—and that was only the beginning of their ordeal. Replete with telling detail and revelatory about the experiences of POWs in the Pacific, Hillenbrand’s account becomes, in Barbara Spindel’s words, “not an exhausting catalog of misery but a suspenseful and at times uplifting testament to human survival.”

Review by Barbara Spindel

The Emperor of All Maladies

Siddhartha Mukherjee

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “biography” of cancer incorporates medical and scientific history, the trials and triumphs of research, and imaginative rumination on the extraordinary biological qualities of the disease and the cells it both animates and destroys. Most tellingly, Mukherjee, a cancer physician and researcher, reveals the stories of those—patients, researchers, and others—who are in the malady’s thrall. An informative, surprising, and beautifully composed book.

Don’tmiss our lists of the Year’s BestReading: Fiction and the Year’sBest Reading: Beyond Category. Or see all of our combined Editor’s Picks for 2010.