The titles below are the works of nonfiction and memoir that BuzzFeed staff members and contributors couldn’t put down this year (in no particular order). What are yours?
1. Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped is finely chronicled memoir of a grief that is unending and wide reaching. As Ward recounts the story of her family and her childhood in the rural South, she also remembers five young men in her life, including her brother, who died far too young and without cause. These young men, and those who survived them are shown, understandably, as victims of place, poverty, race, and circumstance. Men We Reaped is both heartbreaking and thought provoking and the power of the prose overwhelms in the best possible way.
Recommended for: Anyone who wants to understand the complexities of race and poverty in contemporary America as inextricably linked to matters of the heart.
—Roxane Gay, BuzzFeed contributor
2. Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe
Marvel Comics stable of superheroes — Spider-Man, The X-Men, The Avengers, and so on — have come to dominate pop culture through hugely successful film franchises, but there was a time when the publisher was just a scrappy underdog staffed by wildly imaginative oddballs, stoners, and obsessive craftsmen. This meticulously researched book reveals the office politics and economic pressures that shaped the history of Marvel’s fictional universe, and offers valuable insight into the minds of the writers and artists who have created some of the most iconic fictional characters of all time.
Recommended for: The superhero fan who wants to know the secret origin of everything.
—Matthew Perpetua, BuzzFeed Music editor
3. Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere by Poe Ballantine
One of the best road writers of his generation, Poe Ballantine lays stakes in a quiet Midwest town after years of restless wandering. With a new family, new neighbors, but the same talent and heart his fans have come to expect from his writing, Ballantine investigates a murder that rocks his new hometown of Chadron, Neb. Part true crime, part family drama, and part hilarious yet heartwarming send-up of small-town life, Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere is all Poe Ballantine, and Poe Ballantine at his best.
Recommended for: Anyone who has ever sworn they would never settle down, whether they have yet or not.
—Isaac Fitzgerald, BuzzFeed Books editor
4. The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking by Brendan Koerner
An airport thriller in the literal sense of the term. Koerner traces the peculiar rash of daredevil, virtually unpoliced commercial-airline hijackings in the ‘60s and ‘70s, with one particular caper in 1972, pulled by Roger Holder and his girlfriend Cathy Kerkow, at its mischievous heart. Loaded with detail, it’s effortlessly suspenseful, but never at the expense of painting an almost wistful picture of a pre-TSA time when air travel was exotic and decadent and any crackpot with a half a plan and a giant pair of balls could take over a jet for fun or profit.
Recommended for: Anyone who’s ever eyed the cockpit door and wondered what if.
—Steve Kandell, BuzzFeed features director
5. We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy by Yael Kohen
Yael Kohen’s oral history traces the gradual growth of women’s role in comedy from pioneers like Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers in the ’60s on through the emergence of powerful superstars like Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Chelsea Handler in the ’00s. The book offers a wide range of perspectives on the struggle of female comedians in a male-dominated industry, and highlights changes in the social roles of women over the course of the second half of the 20th century.
Recommended for: Anyone who wants to get serious about funny stuff.
6. The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit
The Faraway Nearby is all about storytelling, a collection of essays in which Rebecca Solnit explores the ways that we construct our selves and the world around us. She does this, fittingly, through her own parables — stories of the Arctic, Che Guevara, an unexpected gift of 100 pounds of apricots, and most significantly her mother’s Alzheimer’s — allowing the readers to interpret their own meaning from the connections between them.
Recommended for: Readers who like to wander.
—Arianna Rebolini, BuzzFeed staff writer
7. Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn
Jeff Guinn’s biography of Charles Manson is the most complete account of the infamous murderer’s life, and his gradual progression from nihilistic juvenile delinquent to charismatic leader of the Manson family. The book focuses on the social context for Manson’s obsession with inciting a race war and his love of rock music, and his skill for manipulating young women. In telling the story of Manson, Guinn shines a light on the darkest, creepiest corners of American life in the 1960s.
Recommended for: A sane person who wants to understand the mind of a maniac.
8. Dirty Rocker Boys: Love and Lust on the Sunset Strip by Bobbie Brown with Caroline Ryder
Bobbi Brown is an extremely important person: She was the girl in Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” video. Her memoir details her marriage to the singer of Warrant and her engagement to Tommy Lee, who married Pamela Anderson four days after dumping her. There have been plenty of memoirs of the ’80s hair metal scene (the best is The Dirt about Motley Crue), but by Brown’s tenure in the ’90s, the hair metal Sunset Strip scene was past its prime and there was more despair than decadence in her life. However, it was all worth it for the description of the time she kicked Leonard DiCaprio out of bed.
Recommend for: People who love The Real Housewives but feel it doesn’t have enough descriptions of threesomes and meth addiction.
—Katie Notopoulos, BuzzFeed senior editor
9. Ready for a Brand New Beat by Mark Kurlansky
Mark Kurlansky has a rare gift for writing about seemingly mundane things — salt, cod, nonviolent activism — and showing us how they are, in fact, utterly crucial to the course of human history. In this book, Kurlansky uses the Motown classic “Dancing in the Street” as a focal point for a wide-ranging story about the civil rights movement in the summer of 1964. It might seem like an innocuous song about dancing, but Kurlansky reveals it to be one of the most culturally important songs of its era.
Recommended for: The person who wants to believe that music really can change the world.
10. Cloudbreak, California by Kelly Daniels
Restlessness, rootlessness, a father who casts an ominous shadow over his son’s life — Cloudbreak, California expertly captures the rough texture of that less-lovely California we love to read about.
Recommended for: Anyone running away or looking for home, anyone who reads John Fante or Frederick Exley, and all those who like it crisp.
—Jonathan Crimmins, BuzzFeed contributor
11. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright
The most normal thing about Scientology is Zenu, the least crazy thing Tom Cruise has ever done is jump on Oprah’s couch, and L. Ron Hubbard’s exploits on his boats make The Master look mild. Laurence Wright’s exhaustive and careful — Scientology is famously litigious — chronicle of Hubbard’s life and the church constantly one-ups itself in presenting shocking fact after shocking fact (exile, beatings, and intimidation of journalists are just the start). That Wright goes out of his way to present Scientology’s point of view only makes the picture he paints that much more reliable and ultimately damning.
Recommended for: Anyone who’s been taken in by someone’s charisma, especially if that someone is Tom Cruise.
—Matthew Zeitlin, BuzzFeed Business reporter
12. Stung!: On Jellyfish Bloom and the Future of the Ocean by Lisa Gershwin
Imagine an ocean teeming with jellyfish, the water as thick as snot. All-jellyfish sushi. Going out on a boat and jellyfish watching. Don’t like it? Tough: It’s the future. Stung! is an excellently entertaining and wholly terrifying read about how badly we’ve screwed over our planet and its oceans, creating the perfect environment for jellyfish to thrive — great for jellyfish, terrible for almost all other ocean life. Depressing but undeniably fascinating, Stung! is written with verve and scientific rigor. When you finish the book, you might conclude that the world will end not with a bang, but a vague and near-imperceptible drifty sort of noise.
Recommended for: Humans who want to get in good with our new jellyfish overlords.
—Alice Sola Kim, BuzzFeed contributor
13. Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. 2009 A.D.) in a Large City by Choire Sicha
Choire Sicha’s debut book is a well-researched piece of narrative journalism presented with the conceit that you’re reading about the recent past from the perspective of someone in the future. This device allows Sicha to be fully incredulous in his account of the rampant wealth and moral hypocrisies of modern Manhattan without tipping over into full-on outrage and vitriol, and to present the lives of several gay men without treating them like anything other than ordinary people looking for love and connection.
Recommended for: Anyone who needs proof that we live in absurd times.