Best of 2017 (Non-Fiction)

It’s that time of year again. Sweaters are thicker, flavored coffees are all the rage, holiday decorations adorn every available public space, and soon we’ll be screaming numbers backward as we ring in a New Year altogether. But first, we’ve got a little tradition to take care of. So review your reading journals and don’t be left out, people. Pull together your very own “Best Of” the year list. All the cool kids are doing it.

This year I’ll be breaking my book lists into several categories. For brevity’s sake. For sanity’s sake. For goodness sake, let’s just get on with this.

Best of 2017 (Non-Fiction)

Editor’s Note: Okay, so maybe some of these books were not necessarily written or published in 2017. While I’ve tried to follow the unofficial “Best Of” rules and etiquette here, I can’t help it if some of the best stuff I’ve come across this year was written a bit earlier than is technically acceptable. If the taking of this liberty offends you, might I recommend a jaunt over to the NPR book concierge instead. They follow all the rules and whatnot. Just keep hitting refresh until they finally update their incredible project for 2017. It’ll be time well spent. 

Caught in the Revolution
Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World On the Edge
by Helen Rappaport

The Official Blurb: Between the first revolution in February 1917 and Lenin’s Bolshevik coup in October, Petrograd (the former St. Petersburg) was in turmoil – felt nowhere more keenly than on the fashionable Nevsky Prospekt where the foreign visitors and diplomats who filled hotels, clubs, bars and embassies were acutely aware of the chaos breaking out on their doorsteps and beneath their windows. Helen Rappaport draws upon a rich trove of material, much of it previously unpublished, to carry us right up to the action – to see, feel and hear the Revolution as it happened to a diverse group of individuals who suddenly felt themselves trapped in a ‘red madhouse.’

Author Helen Rappaport has been researching and writing about the Russian Revolution for many years. What sets this book apart from other histories I have read on the subject is the source material from which it draws. These are first-hand accounts, meticulously documented and faithfully recounted. While similar books have drawn on personal accounts of the red uprising in Russia, most seem to focus on political documents (notoriously inaccurate and white-washed) or military records (sorry – just plain boring.) The richness of the personal accounts, mostly foreigners “trapped” in the heart of Russia during the revolution, add a personal element which has been lacking for too long in this area of historical research. By casting a foreign eye over the rapid and violent change in Russia, this book not only faithfully reports history, but does so with a focus on the clash of cultures that so often accompanies societal and political change. Learning about history in any meaningful way requires viewing the events within the context of the people who experienced them. This book accomplishes this difficult task with grace, providing a formerly omitted perspective on an important and fascinating era.

Quick side note: This book pairs beautifully with a novel which came out this year – one which will surely appear on my upcoming “Best of Fiction” list: A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles. Read them back-to-back. And thank me later.

A Rage for Order
The Middle East In Turmoil, From Tahrir Square to Isis
by Robert F. Worth

The Official Blurb: In 2011, a wave of revolution spread through the Middle East as protesters demanded an end to tyranny, corruption, and economic decay. From Egypt to Yemen, a generation of young Arabs insisted on a new ethos of common citizenship. Five years later, their utopian aspirations have taken on a darker cast as old divides reemerge and deepen. In one country after another, brutal terrorists and dictators have risen to the top. A Rage for Order is the first work of literary journalism to track the tormented legacy of what was once called the Arab Spring.

“Write a book about the current turmoil in the Middle East.” Look at that sentence. It’s daunting as hell, isn’t it? It’s sort of like “write a book about the complexity of human emotions” or “write a book about conflict and resolution.” The initial reaction, for me at least, is one of, “Um, could you narrow that down a little?” Fortunately, journalists like Robert F. Worth of the New York Times can look at a book proposal like that and offer a response, “Sure, I can do that.”

This is essential reading for anyone who takes an active interest in global affairs. It provides the basic knowledge necessary to understand the origins of the Arab Spring, the right and wrong turns that the original movement and its subsequent spin-offs have taken, and where the world needs to go from here. The level of personal detail will keep you engaged and turning pages at a mystery-thriller pace, while the overall shock and upset of the events detailed will leave you in awe of how change was earned (and often overturned) in the Middle East. You don’t need to be a Middle Eastern scholar to read this. You don’t even have to be a news junkie. You just have to give a damn about one of the most important moments of social change to occur in the current generation.

On a more flippant note, I’d like to point out that this book would make a wonderful holiday gift for that special someone in your life who commonly confuses ISIS with Al-Qaeda, Syria with Libya, and Fox News with actual journalism. “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest,” per Benjamin Franklin. “So invest wisely in books that have the potential to educate the willfully or inadvertently ignorant,” per me.

Voices From Chernobyl
The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
by Svetlana Alexievich & Keith Gessen

The Official Blurb: On April 26, 1986, the worst nuclear reactor accident in history occurred in Chernobyl and contaminated as much as three quarters of Europe. Voices from Chernobyl is the first book to present personal accounts of the tragedy. Journalist Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people effected by the meltdown—from innocent citizens to firefighters to those called in to clean up the disaster—and their stories reveal the fear, anger, and uncertainty with which they still live. Composed of interviews in monologue form, Voices from Chernobyl is a crucially important work, unforgettable in its emotional power and honesty.

I can’t say that this book was well-written, because the true beauty I found in reading this was that very little traditional writing exists in these pages. It is a true oral history, printed in a pure and straight-forward manner that very few journalists, or even editors, would dare to present. The result isn’t lazy, or something that lacks resolution or context. Instead, it is the most sincere and heart-breaking account of the disastrous events and aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster that I could ever image reading. If there are any brave journalists and editors out there, I beseech you: take a cue from Svetlana Alexievich and truly trust the history of major disasters to the first-hand accounts of its witnesses. Be brave, be patient, and hopefully your results will be as stunning.

This book was originally published in 2006, so I am clearly taking quite the liberty in presenting it on this list over a decade later. But I’ll defend its presence here ardently, not only for the sake of its simplicity and style, but also for what I consider to be its extreme relevance in 2017. We’ve become deafened in our echo-chambers. We are able to identify an individual person as a “type” based on his or her accent or race or gender or political position. And from the identification of that “type” we are free to ignore, extrapolate, or even bastardize anything that individual may say that runs counter to our own principles or intuitions. This book not only addresses an important historical moment, it does so in such a way that reminds us that putting voices with stories and circumstances is essential to maintaining our human abilities to experience compassion and understanding. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that listening to, and understanding each, may prove to be the only means of regaining a modicum of dignity as a society. And books like this remind us how essential and enjoyable the narratives of others are to the increasing of our own perceptions and personalities.

The $12 Million Dollar Stuffed Shark
The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art
by Don Thompson

The Official Blurb: Why would a smart New York investment banker pay $12 million for the decaying, stuffed carcass of a shark? By what alchemy does Jackson Pollock’s drip painting No. 5, 1948 sell for $140 million? Intriguing and entertaining, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark is a Freakonomics approach to the economics and psychology of the contemporary art world. Why were record prices achieved at auction for works by 131 contemporary artists in 2006 alone, with astonishing new heights reached in 2007? Don Thompson explores the money, lust, and self-aggrandizement of the art world in an attempt to determine what makes a particular work valuable while others are ignored.

This book addresses two of the most pressing questions of our time: “What is art?” and “Where has all the money gone?” Being a self-proclaimed ignoramus of all things relating to taste and trends in the contemporary art world, I approached this book with the delightful exuberance of an outsider, hungry to be educated. My reaction upon being immersed in the confusing and fickle world of the mega-rich contemporary art scene was something like horror, mixed with morbid amusement. The names and inter-connectivity of famous peoples mentioned is fascinating and curious. Apparently a mere handful of collectors and curators out there are dictating what gets sold, and for just how much of an obscene amount.

Just last week, a Leonardo DaVinci painting sold for a record $450 million. And while even I, in my artistic ignorance know that there is a distinct difference between a DaVinci and say… Damien Hirst’s rotting shark, the sale price brought up some interesting conversations regarding the concentration of wealth. Art has been the means of securely storing and transferring vast wealth for generations, but never before has the price of new works been as varied and subjective. So while the ultra-rich is out there dealing in taxidermy disguised as art and drop cloths disguised as masterpieces, the rest of us are left to sit things out and merely marvel at the ostentation and exclusivity of it all. Fortunately, this book exists to decode their secretive language and allow us all an incredibly entertaining peek inside.

Days of Rage
America’s Radical Underground, The FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence
by Bryan Burrough

The Official Blurb: From the bestselling author of  Public Enemies & The Big Rich , an account of the battle between the FBI & revolutionary movements of the ’70s: Weathermen, The Symbionese Liberation Army, The FALN, The Black Liberation Army. The names seem quaint now, but then bombings by domestic underground groups were daily occurrences. The FBI combated these & other groups as nodes of a single revolutionary underground dedicated to the violent overthrow of the USA. Burrough’s Days of Rage recreates an atmosphere almost unbelievable decades later, conjuring a time of native-born radicals, often nice middle-class kids, smuggling bombs into skyscrapers & detonating them inside the Pentagon & the Capitol, at a Boston courthouse & a Wall Street restaurant. The FBI’s response included the formation of a secret task force, Squad 47, dedicated to hunting the groups down. But Squad 47 itself broke laws in its attempts to bring the revolutionaries to justice. Its efforts ended in fiasco. Drawing on interviews about their experiences with members of the underground & the FBI, Days of Rage is a look into the hearts & minds of homegrown terrorists & federal agents alike, weaving their stories into a secret history of the ’70s.

Please note that this is the second book in this list with the word “rage” featured prominently in the title. Maybe it’s a coincidence, or maybe it’s a reflection of the kind of year I’ve had while watching the news and feeling a craving to connect with historical times of social change and uprising. And maybe, just maybe, this repeated “rage” word is just more fuel for the fire of individuals who insist that I’m an “angry liberal,” when in reality, I’m just a “woman who reads and thinks and speaks her mind.” In all fairness, I guess those two things can look a little similar to some.

And now that I’ve had my soapbox moment, let me loudly and strongly recommend this book to anyone and everyone. It’s not an apologist tome for illegal actions in the name of political change, nor is it an overt ode to the law enforcement agencies that prosecute such crimes. Rather, it is a balanced look at a shocking era of history I honestly hadn’t even known existed, to such an extent. From the Weather Underground to the Black Panther Party, Bryan Burroughs pulls on what is clearly an incredible network of insider perspectives to provide intimate details of secretive groups. It’s frightening to look back on the level of frustration within certain swathes of the American populace at the time and the extents to which people were willing to go to effect change, but it’s also important to understand how mistakes and oversteps were made, so we dare not repeat them.

So, you’re still here, huh? Well thanks for that.

I’ll be back soon with my Best of 2017: Fiction list.

‘Til then… read something, will you?