From con artists and musical greats to Vietnam battles, Silicon Valley sexism, and Ulysses S. Grant, these nonfiction books enlightened and entertained us in 2017:
Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Ellen Ullman
Writing about the tech world from the point of view of a woman instantly sets Ullman apart. But while she has some very funny things to say about the boys’ club tilt in tech’s backshop, where she has labored since the ’70s, this is only one of this essay collection’s many attractions. Her essays are sharp enough to earn the respect of her peers while plainspoken enough to intrigue the rest of us, as she dissects issues as intractable as sexism and portentous as AI. Best riff: her use of the computer screen’s interface as a virtual blackboard to diagram why programmers think you, the user, are dumb as they come. This is one of the smartest yet most humane books ever written about the tech world we all now have to navigate.
Henry David Thoreau: A Life (Chicago) by Laura Dassow Walls
Readers of this extraordinary biography will be torn between a desire to stay with Walls’ story or go off and read more Thoreau. That’s a compliment to Walls, who, without ever fawning, makes you admire her subject—and especially his writing—more and more with each page. Thoreau-bashing has been a favorite pastime of cynics for, well, since he was alive, but Walls is no cynic, and she makes a persuasive case that Thoreau doesn’t warrant such maligning. He was a naturalist and a moralist who practiced what he preached, and when it came to that, he didn’t preach all that much. In an age where heroes are hard to come by, we should treasure the man who almost singlehandedly invented the country’s environmental ethic. This book is an indispensable introduction to one of the very greatest Americans.
Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam (Atlantic) by Mark Bowden
It is trendy to say that strategists, generals, and military historians have long placed too much emphasis on big battles in trying to win—or understand—the wars of which they are a part. Mark Bowden’s thoroughly researched and compelling account of the most controversial battle of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam might be taken as a kind of rejoinder to that notion. The author of the much-acclaimed Black Hawk Down treats Hue as a microcosm of the Vietnam War. His account limns many of the ambitions, delusions, and misconceptions on both sides that made the war such a vicious and destructive tragedy. The story of Hue, like the story of Vietnam, is awash in paradox, irony, and senseless destruction. The Communists took the city knowing they could not hold it, and the Americans virtually destroyed the place wresting it back. Bowden concludes that the “battle and the offensive of which it was a part … altered the strategic equation in Vietnam. Debate concerning the war in the United States was never again about winning, only about how to leave.” Without a doubt, Hue 1968 is one of the very best books to be written about Vietnam in the last decade.
The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (Simon and Schuster) by Frances Fitzgerald
It’s been a long struggle, but, given that persecuted Christian minorities were among the first people to settle this country, not surprising—you could say that oppositional Christianity is part of our cultural heritage. At any rate, certainly since the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries, the evangelical movement has always mounted a conservative cultural counterforce, first against mainstream Christianity, and, lately, against the perceived liberality of American society generally. Fitzgerald, who won a Pulitzer for Fire in the Lake, her history of the Vietnam War, here again proves herself a fascinating storyteller: Her chapter on Billy Graham alone is worth the price of the book. By chronicling how evangelical movements have ebbed and flowed but inexorably edged closer toward the center of American life, she lays bare a fight for American identity that has been with us since the start and shows no signs of ever going away.
Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life (Crown) by Jonathan Gould
The music of few cities has been written about as extensively as has the music of Memphis, but the more you read, the more that city seems to deserve such attention. Jonathan Gould’s biography of Otis Redding—whose songs epitomized the Memphis sound—only confirms that judgment. With a musician’s expertise, and with full access to Redding’s family and with a keen eye for context—the times Redding lived in, the places he worked, and the people he worked with—Gould gives us the best look yet at the tragically short life of an artist who still seems to get bigger every time you hear his music.
Grant (Penguin Press) by Ron Chernow
Long held to be one of our worst presidents, Ulysses S. Grant is overdue for a makeover. He may not have been a great president, but he was not himself corrupt (the scandals that plagued his two terms demonstrate more than anything his poor judgment about those in whom he placed his trust), and his record on race relations during and after the Civil War merits a new look. Chernow’s portrait leaves no doubt that Grant was one of the most interesting, complex men to ever occupy the White House. Yes, his presidency was a mess, but a fascinating mess. His leadership during the Civil War was singular—there he was most modern, i.e., unlike so many on both sides of the conflict, Grant was no romantic about war or combat. And he had an amazing last act: while dying, the nearly bankrupt Grant wrote his memoirs in a desperate attempt to provide for his family, and in the process proved that, whatever else he may have been, he was a brilliant writer. No president before or since has written so well.
In 1957, Caliph Washington, a black teenager, was swiftly convicted by an all-white Alabama jury of a murder he did not commit. He spent 13 years in prison, and his death sentence was stayed a dozen times (by Gov. George Wallace no less). But to conclude that this story has a happy ending because Washington was ultimately set free is itself a cruel and unusual judgment. As Bass makes clear, there is nothing happy about an unjust judicial system or the racism that drives it. Particularly at a time when open-throated racism is no longer a problem in the rear-view mirror but once again front and center in public life, this book is a brilliant revelation about how people and their institutions of government and justice can so easily go off the rails.
Priestdaddy (Riverhead) by Patricia Lockwood
Oh, family. And in the case of Patricia Lockwood’s family, oh oh oh. When dire circumstances force the author and her husband to live with her family for eight months, things get interesting in a hurry. Her father, a married Catholic priest (it’s complicated), sits squarely in the center of this tale, in his boxer shorts and armed with an electric guitar that, as his daughter writes so memorably, sounds “like a whole band dying in a plane crash in 1972.” But strange as he is, he doesn’t take up all the space: Lockwood has plenty to say about her childhood and her marriage, and she does it with unflagging humor and keen eye for what it is about people that makes for the best stories. We may never know if happy families are all alike, since we so rarely hear from them in memoirs like this—oh, but wait, there are no memoirs like this.
The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea (Liveright) by Jack E. Davis
“America’s sea,” so like a big lukewarm bathtub when it is not being ripped to smithereens by hurricanes or befouled by oil spills, has never had its own history, but Davis has filled that vacuum with a lore-filled book that is as entertaining as it is informative. An environmental historian, the author is perfectly equipped to show how man and this multifaceted corner of the natural world have interracted over the centuries, sometimes beneficently, too often not. Doing that, he demonstrates unequivocally that you cannot understand the history of the Southeastern United States unless you understand the role played by this singular body of water, which has long lured painters, fishermen, scientists, sailors, oil drillers, developers, and ecologists.
Chasing Phil: The Adventures of Two Undercover Agents With the World’s Most Charming Con Man (Crown) by David Howard
This is hands down the year’s most entertaining yarn. Kicking off with the story of a con man who did not merely rob a bank but stole the whole thing, Chasing Phil narrates the efforts of two young FBI agents to nab that swindler, Phil Kitzer, beginning in the ’70s when the Bureau had not awakened to white-collar crime. Nor was there even much savvy about wearing wires. So the agents fought fusty traditionalists back at the office while they taught themselves how to get closer and closer to Kitzer. Infiltrating his organization, they came to like the man they aimed to one day arrest—maybe the least surprising thing about the story, since charm is the con man’s first weapon. But the reader comes to like Kitzer, too, and sneakily admire him. He was, after all, very good at his job. Anti-heroes are, of course, a dime a dozen these days, on film, TV. and in books, but the real-life Kitzer set a standard decades ago that no, fictional or factual, has ever quite improved upon.