[As each year comes to a close, we ask our contributors to give us their picks of the best books that came out in the previous 12 months--and we let a few older ones slip in as honorable mentions. You can follow the entries through the rest of the year here, and check out the picks from 2009 and 2010 while you're at it.]
Best Nonfiction of 2011
Townie, by Andre Dubus III
Because, holy shit, I wasn’t expecting this book to be what it was. Yeah, I knew it was going to be about a street-tough kid knocking heads around an old mill town, but I didn’t expect the introspection, the redemption. Townie is a disciplined, well-crafted memoir. And at it’s core, under many gut-wrenching, heavy layers, Townie is a heart-warming tale about a father and his son.
This is an unconventional biography about a Jewish woman from New York who decides to convert to Islam and move to Pakistan. Weirdly, I didn’t like it as much right after I read it as I do now, months later. This book got under my skin. The book’s central figure, Maryam Jameelah, is increasingly enigmatic. Her public life and writings have become a rallying point for radical Muslims, yet Maryam herself is a complex and troubled individual who shouldn’t be put on a pedestal. This book also highlights and questions the role of a biographer. Readers will be left with plenty to ponder.
This book’s subtitle—Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice—more than aptly describes its contents. The narratives are puzzling. How did these acts go unnoticed? How is it that we accept them? How does a first responder, a Muslim-American EMT who died in one of the collapsing towers, get labeled a terrorist? Why must his mother suffer through those heinous allegations. Why must we detain a 16-year-old because of her religious head scarf? Now that Congress has decided it’s legal to indefinitely detain US Citizens, Patriot Acts is increasingly important. We were forced to make a choice between our freedom and our security. We chose security, and Patriot Acts shows us what we have ahead of us.
Into the Forbidden Zone, by William T. Vollman
I don’t know much about William T. Vollman, but I know that he has many dedicated (cultish?) fans. After reading this, I think I could perhaps become one of them. Forbidden Zone falls somewhere between a long magazine article and a short book. For lack of a better term, it’s a nonfiction novella published by the good folks over at Byliner. The book is Vollman’s account of his trip to Japan shortly after the Earthquake. It opens with a search for a Geiger counter, a scene which is at first humorous, but throughout the course of the book it becomes eye opening, and then extremely important.
Late add from 2010
Hellhound on His Trail, by Hampton Sides
Hellhound on His Trail is an in-depth account of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the manhunt for the assassin, James Earl Ray. In the afterword, the book’s author, Hampton Sides, balks at those who have described his book as a thriller. Given the weight and historical significance of the crime detailed in the book’s pages, I can understand his hesitancy. But this book reads like a thriller; it’s a fast paced, well constructed mystery. More importantly, it is a round portrait of King during his final days, and an only slightly less round portrait of King’s assassin (Ray’s motives remain still somewhat fuzzy, but hey, so do Hitler’s—some things will always remain a mystery.) If Sides isn’t ok with “thriller,” perhaps he’s more comfortable with what I feel is a more apt description: Masterpiece.