The best nonfiction books of 2019 pull you into other lives

From expansive biographies to incisive essays on American culture, these are the nonfiction books recommended by Monitor reviewers this year.

Courtesy of Hachette Book Group and Penguin Random House
“Music: A Subversive History” by Ted Gioia, Basic Books, 528 pp; and “A Good Provider Is One Who   Leaves” by Jason DeParle, Viking, 352 pp.

Our Man by George Packer

George Packer’s biography of diplomat Richard Holbrooke, best known for brokering the Dayton Accords that ended the Balkan wars, is also an elegy for the vision of American power he represented. 

Busted in New York and Other Essays by Darryl Pinckney

In his latest collection of essays, Darryl Pinckney examines American history as it pertains to the black experience. His thoughtful analysis of political movements and cultural moments ranges from the formation of the Black Panther Party to the social implications in the Barry Jenkins film “Moonlight.” Pinckney’s literary voice isn’t just strong – it’s more important than ever.

A Good Provider Is One Who   Leaves by Jason DeParle

Reporter Jason DeParle first met Tita Comodas in the slums of Manila three decades ago. His book is not just an affecting rendering of her family’s experiences but an intelligent, compassionate analysis of the economic, political, and cultural ramifications of global migration.

Last Boat Out of Shanghai by Helen Zia

Journalist-activist Helen Zia adds to the international refugee narrative with the only book in English about the late-1940s mass exodus of one-quarter of Shanghai’s 6 million people escaping the Communist Revolution. Zia highlights four survivors to share intimate stories of displacement, separation, adaptation, and reinvention.

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

Journalist Adam Higginbotham sifts through archives and dozens of firsthand accounts to produce the most complete and compelling history yet written in English of the worst nuclear power plant meltdown in history.

The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts by Karen Armstrong

Religion scholar Karen Armstrong argues persuasively that sacred writings are an art form, not words cast in stone. Text on a page cannot represent the experience of transcendence. Instead, the faithful are meant to wrestle with these living documents, and find their relevance for today.

Young Castro by Jonathan M. Hansen

Jonathan M. Hansen crafts a portrait of Fidel Castro before the beard, before the Cuban missile crisis, and long before the fall of the Soviet Union. The book succeeds wonderfully in making young Castro – idealist and a devourer of books – come alive.

The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power

Samantha Power was one of President Barack Obama’s ambassadors to the United Nations and won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for “A Problem From Hell.” In this memoir, she traces her life from her early years as an Irish immigrant all the way to the White House.

The Contender by William J. Mann

Marlon Brando is known not only for his roles in award-winning films such as “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “The Godfather,” but also for his social protests. William J. Mann’s biography probes Brando’s enigmatic persona in an illuminating manner. Seen as one of the pioneers of method acting, Brando rejected labels as quickly as he did compliments. Yet his social activism has become a model for many artists today.

The Queens of Animation by Nathalia Holt

Nathalia Holt tells in unprecedented detail the story of the women who’ve worked behind the scenes at the Walt Disney Studios over the decades. They fought against sexism and discrimination to make immortal animation classics such as “Fantasia.”

Music: A Subversive History by Ted Gioia

Historian Ted Gioia asserts that music history generally shares the whitewashed stories of the assimilators. The truth, he says, can be found with the disrupters, the musicians who innovated despite cultural upheaval or, sometimes, in response to it. Through exhaustive research, Gioia reaches back to the ancient Greeks and Johann Sebastian Bach, through to Elvis Presley and Jay-Z, to illustrate his points. 

The Ice at the End of the World by Jon Gertner

On Greenland’s dwindling ice sheet, explorers and scientists have battled inhospitable conditions and technological challenges in a quest to understand one of the most mysterious geological regions on earth. Jon Gertner’s gripping stories of their work give insight into the dramatic climatic changes taking place today.

Battling Bella by Leandra Ruth Zarnow

Leandra Ruth Zarnow’s book is every bit as vigorous and truth-telling as its subject, U.S. Congresswoman and invaluable public gadfly Bella Abzug, who argued loudly and persuasively for gender equality, environmental common sense, gay rights, and a generally more compassionate public sector. It’s a first-rate political biography.

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