As 2016 come to a close, we need powerful nonfiction now more than ever. After all, the Oxford English Dictionary chooses “post-truth” as its word of the year. Without nonfiction, the very notion of an informed electorate (and an empathetic individual) falls apart. Here are our picks for the 18 best creative nonfiction books of 2016.
The Defender by Ethan Michaeli
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January
“Without the Chicago Defender, there would be no Chicago. At least not one we’d recognize,” I said back in February. “If those claims sound hyperbolic, read The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, Ethan Michaeli’s captivating account of the Chicago Defender’s history and its undeniable impact—physical, social, and political—on the United States. From its genesis at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition to its post-war heyday and eventual decline, Michaeli’s painstakingly researched narrative isn’t just the story of a newspaper, nor of a single African-American community, but the story of the entire city, country, and century. It’s also the most compelling, readable book about Chicago history since Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City.”
The Creative Tarot by Jessa Crispin
“Writers and artists have been using tarot cards as a storytelling tool for centuries, whether in need of inspiration, suffering from writer’s block, or faced with a difficult decision about the direction of a project or career. In The Creative Tarot, Jessa Crispin provides a card-by-card guide for writers, filmmakers, painters, dancers, sculptors, and anyone else making tough creative decisions,” I said back in February. “Instead of thinking of yourself as a godlike creator, Crispin advises, think of yourself as a conduit: channeling the inspiration of a muse, be it some higher power or the random collision of atoms, the art of divination or the unpredictable draw of a card.”
The South Side by Natalie Y. Moore
St. Martin’s Press, March
“Natalie Y. Moore’s new book, The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation—an absolutely essential read for all Chicagoans, new and old—is full of revelations about how Chicago became (and remains) one of the most segregated cities in the world,” I said back in March. “In a fascinating blend of reportage and memoir, Moore shows how the socio-economic realities on the South Side—where the unemployed often stay unemployed, the working class often stays working-class, and the middle and upper-middle class face challenges unknown to the North Side—are the direct results of racist housing and banking policies, retail redlining, food deserts, public school failures, and misrepresentations in the media.”
Evicted by Matthew Desmond
“Could public housing reform be the key to reducing poverty, crime, and other social issues in the United States? In Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Harvard professor of social science Matthew Desmond makes a fascinating, heartbreaking, and compelling case, combining on-the-ground reporting with big data to examine the issues that low-income renters face, the practices of landlords who exploit tenants, and the judicial processes that allow such exploitation to continue. Evicted succeeds thanks to Desmond’s devotion to his subject, as well as the complexity and balance of his arguments.” —Jessi Morton
The Face: Cartography of the Void by Chris Abani
Restless Books, March
Born in Nigeria, Chris Abani has lived in the United States since 2001 and now calls Chicago home, where he is Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University. The Face: Cartography of a Void is a short memoir commissioned by Restless Books, part of a series that asks writers to “take readers on a guided tour of that most intimate terrain: their own faces.” From his childhood in Nigeria steeped in Igbo culture to his adulthood in the UK and the US, Abani’s story is insightful, moving, and a strong case for exploring and publishing new forms of creative nonfiction.
The Other Slavery by Andrés Reséndez
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April
“Andrés Reséndez lifts the veil of time to dispel our historical myopia of the enslavement of Native Americans,” Daniel Casey said back in April. Beginning in the Caribbean before moving into Mexico and the U.S., Reséndez doesn’t just tell the history of Indian enslavement in North America: he also shows us how the national identities of the United States and Mexico were built upon the enslavement of indigenous people. The Other Slavery is a fascinating, insightful historical text that blends accessibility and academic rigor while complicating our perspective on labor practices. Reséndez’s narrative is vital to understanding how enslavement was a major factor in the development of American identity.”
Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
Nation Books, April
Kendi already won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, but I honestly wish every American would read this book, especially people who haven’t been exposed to the history of blatant, transparent racism in our public policy. Plus, the book could not have been more timely, as Donald Trump’s calls to “Make America Great Again” completely ignore the country’s ugly, racist past, and as the conservative love affair with the founding fathers and the Constitution fails to acknowledge the fact that their very existence was dependent upon the kidnapping, torture, and exploitation of black bodies and minds.
I Will Find You by Joanna Connors
Grove Atlantic, April
“Weaving together memoir and journalism, the book offers a deeply moving, personal story while examining issues of race, class, and violence against women,” Rachel León said back in April. “Other memoirs have been written about rape experiences, such as Alice Sebold’s Lucky, but I Will Find You is more than just Connors’s personal story. As a journalist, she manages to stay amazingly objective, even while tackling such a deeply emotional topic, resulting in a chilling, eye-opening combination of memoir and reportage. While the narrative structure can seem a bit jarring at first, Connors’s honesty and openness are stunning and inspiring. Her careful and thoughtful examination of her own suffering, as well as her willingness to look deeper at the man who hurt her, make this one of the most compelling, unique books of the year.”
The Miles Between Me by Toni Nealie
Curbside Splendor, May
Toni Nealie hails from New Zealand, but completed her MFA at Columbia College Chicago. Today, she teaches in Chicago and serves as Literary Editor of Newcity. Her essay collection The Miles Between Me is “so staggeringly intimate,” our reviewer Madeline Phillips said in May, “it feels a bit like viewing an autopsy through a Go-Pro. With a deft hand and a knack for piercing details, the Chicago author examines the death of her familiar New Zealand surroundings, her stillborn life in America, and the miles between as two continents and identities clash together in a surprising rebirth.”
The Telling by Zoe Zolbrod
Curbside Splendor, May
Born in Pennsylvania, Zoe Zolbrod moved to Chicago and completed her MA in writing at UIC. Today she lives in Evanston, where she serves as the Sunday co-editor of The Rumpus. In her powerful memoir The Telling, Zolbrod explains why she stayed silent about her early childhood molestation for years, and then, why she spoke out. Through her travels, marriage, and motherhood, Zolbrod charts her own coming-of-age. In an era where so many victims of sexual abuse feel pressured to stay quiet, Zolbrod’s memoir is a vital call to action.
Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching by Mychal Denzel Smith
Nation Books, June
This year was a tough year politically and socially, not only with a contentious election season, and the continued need for the Black Lives Matter movement. Several important books were published this year, but none with the scope of Mychal Denzel Smith’s Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education. The book focuses on Smith’s experiences growing up within a cultural framework of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and violence. The book opens with the murder of Trayvon Martin, begging the question of how one learns to be a black man. Smith’s story at times reads less like memoir and more as social commentary, but his words are like a desperately needed salve for our society. Smith’s slim book is poignant and razor sharp and hands down one of this year’s most essential reads. —Rachel León
Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?
Edited by Maya Schenwar, Joe Macaré, and Alana Yu-lan Price
Haymarket Books, June
Would some communities be safer without police?” Aaron Coates asked back in June. “That’s the question at the heart of Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?, a collection of essays and reportage penned by some of Truthout’s most compelling and enlightened thinkers—including #BlackLivesMatter co-founder Alicia Garza. With heartbreaking, glass-sharp prose, the book catalogs the abuse and destruction of black, native, and trans bodies. And then, most importantly, it offers real-world solutions. One of the great things about Who Do You Serve is that it doesn’t limit itself to white police officers and black victims, because the problem is obviously much more complex and far-reaching. Pregnant women, native peoples, and transgender individuals are often victims as well.”
Sex Object by Jessica Valenti
Dey Street Books, June
Jessica Valenti is no stranger to hate mail,” said Rachel León back in June. “Yet in a powerful act of bravery, the founder of Feministing and Guardian columnist has pushed the rancor aside to offer a deeply honest and intimate look at her life. It’s undoubtedly one of the most important books of the decade so far, and will likely end up on many year-end lists. I wish reading it was a requirement for opening an account on Twitter and Facebook. With humor, wisdom, and wit, Valenti explores the experiences that shaped her: harassment on the subway and in school, sexual encounters, relationships, abortions, and her journey into motherhood.
White Rage by Carol Anderson
Two summers ago, responding to the death of Michael Brown and the ensuing unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, Carol Anderson penned a controversial (for some) op-ed for the Washington Post. Instead of remembering Ferguson as a manifestation of black rage, she cautioned that “the real rage smolders in meetings where officials redraw precincts to dilute African American voting strength or seek to slash the government payrolls that have long served as sources of black employment.” Over 4,000 comments later (most of which aren’t worth reading), it was one of the newspaper’s most-read articles of the year. Now, Anderson has expanded on the same theme in White Rage, which chronicles the relentless abuse of African-Americans at the hands of whites from Reconstruction to the Obama administration.
The Making of Donald Trump by David Cay Johnston
Melville House, August
If every American had read this book prior to the election, no one would have voted for Donald Trump. David Cay Johnston, who won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism during his tenure at the “failing” New York Times, has written THE definitive biography of the president-elect, including Trump’s ties to organized crime. Warning: reading this book may give you a panic attack now that Trump has been elected.
Where Am I Now? by Mara Wilson
You probably see Mara Wilson at least twice a year—once in the summer when you watch Mrs. Doubtfire, and once at Christmas when you watch Miracle on 34th Street. The former child actress is now an equally talented writer, comedian, and live storyteller. This memoir—funny, heartbreaking, and inspiring—confronts the way Hollywood, the media, and society treat young women. Wilson’s honesty about her anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder is refreshing in the age of carefully postured public images, and her message to young women (and older women, and men of all ages) is powerful.
Algren: A Life by Mary Wisniewski
Chicago Review Press, October
Mary Wisniewski is a reporter and columnist at the Chicago Tribune who spent the last two decades interviewing friends and associates of Nelson Algren. To write the first biography of Algren in 20 years, Wisniewski spoke with photographer Art Shay and the late Studs Terkel, pored over hundreds of letters between Algren and lover Simone de Beauvoir, and read through reams of unpublished material. Her account is a master class in narrative nonfiction that will change the way you see one of Chicago’s most iconic literary giants while revealing aspects of his life, work, and thoughts that were previously lost or hidden.
Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond
William Morrow, November
“Diamond grew up in the Chicago suburbs, which is the setting for most of John Hughes’s classic films,” said Rachel León last month. “After surviving his childhood and getting out of suburbia, he set out to write a biography of John Hughes. Not quite knowing where his story was heading, he hit one road block after another. Yet he pressed on even when the book seemed like a lost cause. In Searching for John Hughes, Diamond tells the story of his failed attempt at writing a Hughes biography with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. The result is a compelling, readable tale of an aspiring writer.”
Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books and the Southern Review of Books. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.