A few of our selections for the Nonfiction of 2017, along with some thoughts about why we liked them. See all 20 picks, or browse all of our Best Books of the Year across 15 categories.
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
One of our favorite books of 2015 was Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, a book that tackled evolutionary concepts from a historian’s perspective, ultimately asking the question, Does all this progress make us happier, our lives easier? Homo Deus looks in the opposite direction: toward our future. In his review, Amazon editor Chris Schluep wrote: Homo Deus is the kind of provocative, food-for-thought read that drew so many of us to his work in the first place. According to Harari, our future could be very different from our present – dark, technocratic, and automated – but reading about our possible fates, presented in Harari’s illuminating style, sure is fascinating.
You Play the Girl by Carina Chocano
Chocano brings to bear her experience as a widely published journalist and critic (of books and film) in this collection of essays examining what it has meant to be the "girl" through decades of pop culture, from Playboy magazine to Thelma and Louise to Frozen. It’s not exactly news that women are most often relegated to secondary character status – reactors rather than actors – but Chocano’s mix of memoir, humor, and insight nevertheless strikes chords.
The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston
In 2012, author Douglas Preston joined a team of explorers searching for Ciudad Blanca (“The White City”), a legendary ruin hidden in the dense jungle of eastern Honduras. To this point the city – also known as “the Lost City of the Monkey God” – was literally a legend; while various hucksters and hoaxers had claimed to have discovered the abandoned metropolis, no credible evidence had ever been presented, and its very existence remained shrouded in doubt. In addition to the objective hazards of tropical disease, wild boars, and the deadly fer-de-lance viper, locals stoked the mystique, describing various curses awaiting would-be discoverers. Don’t pick the flowers, or you’ll die.
But this team had an advantage that previous searchers had lacked: LIDAR, an advanced laser-imaging technology able to penetrate the dense jungle canopy – just enough – and return detailed elevation profiles from which subtle, man-made anomalies could be identified. Almost immediately, two major sites emerged, their scale and architecture indicating a civilization to rival another local, more famous power, the Maya.
The announcement had consequences. The fledgling Honduran government, having gained power through a military coup, sought to use the discovery to bolster its status with the population, while the academic community ripped the expedition with accusations of Indiana Jones-style exploitation and shoddy scientific methods, cries which could be uncharitably interpreted as sour grapes. Encroaching deforestation and the prospect of looters created urgency to conduct a ground survey, and the team ventured into the wilderness and all the hazards that awaited, including an unexpected and insidious danger that cursed the team well beyond their return home.
The author of over 30 books, including number of bestselling thrillers co-written with Lincoln Child, Preston knows pace, and he packs several narratives into a taut 300 pages. Indiana Jones criticism aside, the story of the discovery and exploration of the ruin is solid adventure writing, and he walks a fine line in dealing with the archaeology community’s response, reporting on the bases for their criticism where they chose to provide it. And by invoking Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, Preston speculates on the mysterious, sudden demise of the White City and its inhabitants, drawing ominous parallels between their fate and possibly our own. Lost City of the Monkey God is a tale that manages to be both fun and harrowing, a vicarious thrill worthy of a place on the shelf next to David Grann’s The Lost City of Z.
American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse
A passionate love affair is often described as an “inferno,” but in 2012 and 2013, boyfriend and girlfriend Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick turned the metaphor into reality as they lit 70-plus fires in derelict buildings across Virginia’s Accomack County. Monica Hesse’s spare but memorable prose sketches the true story of a once-prosperous county now in sharp economic decline, its derelict buildings easy targets for Smith and Bundick. But Accomack County’s plunging fortunes is the simplistic explanation for the arson epidemic, and Hesse pushes that aside to plumb the complicated personal relationships, the tight-knit community, and the stories told in small towns that can shape a person’s destiny just as surely as one’s actions. When Smith and Bundick set fire after fire—sometimes several a night—the exhausted volunteer firefighters in Accomack County band together to stop the arsonists putting a match to their way of life. Hesse can do with a handful of words what other writers do with paragraphs, and as she traces the intersecting paths of the amateur arsonists and the authorities determined to capture them, she reveals that every crime has its own personal, sometimes inscrutable DNA. –Adrian Liang
Draft No. 4 by John McPhee
One of the great joys of being a book nerd is the rare offer from an accomplished writer to peer inside their head, to probe the process that makes their work, well, work. The best examples (Stephen King’s On Writing, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, etc.) go beyond the nuts and bolts of prose – how to tell a story in three acts, e.g. – to talk about how they view their craft, however idiosyncratic or replicable. Draft No. 4 falls squarely into this category. With this collection of eight essays, McPhee – the author of Coming into the Country, Encounters with the Archdruid, and countless other celebrated works of longform nonfiction – shares his experiences as a working writer, recalling the methods, tools (mental and otherwise), and relationships that helped him produce some of his most memorable books and articles. It’s less of a how-to than a this-is-how-I-did-it approach, offering plenty of astonishment and inspiration for aspiring writers (and just plain readers), if not easy solutions. An deft blend of art and memoir, Draft No. 4 might seem like the entertaining, amiable reminiscences of a favorite uncle, if it wasn’t also so informative and insightful