ABBC: Best Nonfiction of the Year
Posted by: Neil Hollands
I’m continuing coverage of the best books of 2012, not just as noted in one source, but as mentioned in many authoritative sources, then organized into a spreadsheet on Williamsburg Regional Library’s ABBC: the All-the-Best-Books Compilation. The link will take you to my other blogging home Blogging for a Good Book, where you can download the first edition of the 2012 ABBC now or come back later in the week for the second edition, which will add many more sources to the compilation. Summaries of some other categories also appear there. The whole project will conclude in late March.
Today, let’s look at the books most frequently mentioned as a best-of-the-year choice or award winner in the nonfiction category. These don’t include “how-to” books or other titles that don’t have much of a narrative, nor does it include the biographies and memoirs, which will be featured later in other categories.
The runaway winner is Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in the Mumbai Undercity, for which 37 mentions have been compiled to date as a best of the year (surpassed overall only by Gillian Flynn’s thriller Gone Girl, which has 39 mentions so far). Boo spent three years in the growing community of Annawadi near the Mumbai airport, a place where the newly well off mix with the poorest of the poor. Boo follows several of these residents through a variety of small triumphs and great tragedies, and shows vividly how the big world–economic decisions, terror campaigns, religious tension, social castes, and political power plays–make an impact on the lives of ordinary people. Poignant without becoming maudlin, startling but involving, this is a page turner that would make a great choice for book groups.
In second, with 14 mentions to date, is Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: the Crushing of Europe, 1944-1956. A historian who already showed her mettle with 2004′s Gulag: a History, Applebaum is back with this big study of life in East Germany, Hungary, and Poland in the years after the Iron Curtain fell. Applebaum’s scope is wide and detailed, following events not only the actions of governments, but social movements and the lives of everyday people. It’s witty and readable, although at over 600 pages, it might be a tough pick for most groups.
There’s a three-way tie for third at 13 mentions. Andrew Solomon’s entry is Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. He worked through forty thousand pages of interviews with 300 families of exceptional children and found the commonality in the experience of what seems a very diverse group: deafness, dwarfism, autism, schizophrenia, child prodigies, youthful criminals, and kids who become transgender to name just a few. Focusing on families where the children are not much like their parents, he explores a fascinating central question: how much should we accept kids as they are and how much should we try to mold them into the people we think they should become.
Susan Cain seems to have struck a nerve with Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. It’s a subject matter likely to resonate with many readers. Cain examines the problems of our disproportionate attention to extroverts and makes the case for their counterparts, the quiet people who get so much done without calling attention to themselves. She goes further, providing examples of the work methods of successful introverts and making suggestions for those who don’t feel they are being heard.
David Quammen completes the triumvirate with Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. It’s a frightening book about strange new diseases that evolve in animals then migrate to the human population. Quammen has experience in the field, working with zoologists and epidemiologists to track animals and discover how these epidemics develop, and he uses this background to add adventure to a topic that would seem less vivid if left in the laboratory. He underlines the cost of human encroachment into animal habitats, investigates what is being done to prevent such pandemics, and explores the question of what form the next big bug might take.
349 other books that have received best-of-the-year votes are compiled in the ABBC in this category alone, so don’t stop here: dig further into the results to find the best books for your group.