The Best Nonfiction of 2015
From a 19th-century convent sex scandal to a forgotten key player in the Civil War, here is The Daily Beast’s list of can’t-miss nonfiction from 2015.
Charlie Mike—Joe Klein
This moving and necessary book chronicles the stories of two soldiers, Eric Greitens and Jake Wood, who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan and changed not only their own lives but the lives of hundreds, possibly thousands, of their fellow vets. Greitens started a program called The Mission Continues, to help injured vets find ways to help their country once their military service was over. One of those men was Wood, who founded Team Rubicon, which organized 9/11 veterans to provide disaster relief in Haiti and in the New York area after Hurricane Sandy. The essence of both projects is community building, and the result is hope—for the people being helped and those doing the helping.
ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror—Michael Weiss & Hassan Hassan
Nearly all the political oxygen in the U.S. today is used up on fear of one group—ISIS. In order to understand this extremist group, it is vital to examine their origins, which Weiss (an editor at The Daily Beast) and Hassan explore in-depth in one of the first studies of the group. The book includes interviews with ISIS fighters, as well as explanations of how the machinations of powers like the U.S., Iran, Iraq, and Syria gave rise to this current scourge.
Were India and Pakistan doomed at birth? In about as evenhanded an account as humanly possible, the journalist Hajari elucidates the tangled blood-soaked knot at the heart of much of India and Pakistan’s animosity—the 1947 partition. Its uncomfortable lessons about “the dangers of rejecting compromise, demonizing your opponents, and stirring up toxic emotions” are always relevant, but perhaps especially so in today’s climate.
At just 18 years of age, Bryant Tennelle was gunned down in Los Angeles by a 17-year-old gang member “out to prove his mettle.” Leovy’s tale follows a particularly dogged detective, John Skaggs, a white cop working in L.A.’s “ghettoside,” whose “whole working life was devoted to one end: making black lives expensive. Expensive, and worth answering for, with all the force and persistence the state could muster.” It is a how-to in today’s American tragedy wherein black lives cut short all too often are shrugged off.
Our Man in Charleston—Christopher Dickey
Espionage, intrigue, false identities, and warfare—all the elements of thriller fiction crop up in this scrupulously researched history. Heretofore woefully ignored as a key player in the American Civil War, British consul Robert Bunch emerges in these pages as a wily spy and key figure in the drama swirling around the question of whether or not England would involve itself directly on one side or another in the conflict that tore apart its former colonies (if Daily Beast foreign editor Dickey had done nothing else, his success in giving Bunch his belated due would be enough). Ingratiating himself with his Charleston neighbors, Bunch sent secret cable after secret cable home to his bosses in England, and his clear-eyed appraisal of the South and its dependence on slavery was crucial in affecting his country’s decision to stay out of the war, a decision that certainly influenced the outcome of that conflict.
Sicily—John Julius Norwich
Imagine you’re sitting in Sicily, having a drink, and sidling up next to you is a fabulously dressed, slightly inebriated British connoisseur of Sicilian history. That is essentially how John Julius Norwich’s history of this oft-conquered island reads—full of élan, juicy asides, and heaps of British wit. His tale is notable mostly for its deep dive into an oft-forgotten period of history, when the fecund and ferocious men of Normandy conquered large swaths of Northern Europe. In Sicily, the Normans built a kingdom that was the envy of Europe—and perhaps more importantly, one that seamlessly integrated its Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Muslim, and Jewish inhabitants.
Soul of an Octopus—Sy Montgomery
Does an octopus have a soul? It’s not the question you probably ask yourself when you dig into its meat at your favorite seafood joint, but it will be something you ponder after reading Sy Montgomery’s illuminating new book. A finalist for the National Book Award, it explores the world of these incredibly evolved and complex creatures. Funny, sad, and endlessly fascinating—and clocking in at a manageable 272 pages—it will “remind [you] of just how much we not only have to learn from fellow creatures, but that they can have a positive impact on our lives.”
The Nuns of Sant'Ambrogio—Hubert Wolf
Lecherous nuns and priests turning a convent into a hotbed of coerced sex and blasphemy, poisoned obese German princesses, and a scandal that made its way to the Pope’s desk? Check, check, check. In Hubert Wolf’s exacting work unraveling one of the 19th century’s most hushed up religious sex scandals, riveting salacious details (he does not go all prude on us) is seamlessly mixed with a thorough examination of the Church’s inquisition process.
Face Paint—Lisa Eldridge
Art history all too often focuses on the “big” moments in history—the famous buildings, sculptures, paintings, and so on. In Face Paint, Eldridge, makeup artist to the stars and makeup creative director for Lancôme, focuses instead on the art that was placed on the human form daily—for thousands of years. Through makeup, Eldridge examines everything from Egyptian court life to the strict codes that governed Victorian life.
The book’s title is taken from the Latin acronym for Senatus Populusque Romanus, “the Senate and People of Rome,” found on decrees and monuments of the old Roman Republic (and still seen today on Roman manhole covers). It is these bodies, rather than the Caesars who usurped their powers starting in the late-1st century B.C., that closely concern Beard, one of the premier classicists of our time, and certainly the most engaging and original. Only one emperor in a long list—Augustus, the founder of the line—gets serious treatment in the book. The stories that matter to Beard—how people lived, their sexual mores, their tombstones—are not those found in the works of great historians—Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, all of whom were preoccupied by court politics and palace intrigue—but in more obscure corners where researchers seldom probe.
The Witches: Salem, 1692—Stacy Schiff
In this novelistic but scrupulously factual account of the hysteria that gripped New England during the Salem witch trials, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Schiff pieces together a vivid account of the 300-year-old Salem saga from both scholarly and primary sources, including 17th-century diaries, letters, sermons, and court records. Prior to 1692, marauding Indians and a hostile climate had wreaked considerably more havoc on New England than witchcraft. But sorcery was as well-suited to the region—“a howling wilderness haunted by devilish Frenchmen and satanic Indians,” Schiff writes—as it was well-suited to Puritanism, “an immersive, insecure-making creed that anticipated conflict if not downright cataclysm, having nearly been persecuted into existence.” As a result, over the course of a year, 20 people and two dogs were executed for witchcraft in the Salem witch trials. Fourteen women and five men were hanged. One suspect was tortured and crushed to death beneath heavy stones when he refused to confess to collusion with the devil. The brilliant but disquieting portrait of mass hysteria will haunt you, but good luck putting it down.