Best-of season is a magical time of year when we separate the good from the great, the decent from the transcendent—when my reviewers and I put our collective heads together to determine the best books of the year. Even with a set as broad as 100 titles, the task is never easy or straightforward.
Obviously, all six of the finalists for the inaugural Kirkus Prize are on the list, including the winner, Roz Chast, and her hilarious and heartbreaking graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? All told, there are 50 different imprints represented, as well as a typically diverse set of subjects: history, memoir, biography, current affairs, popular science, economics, environmental studies, investigative reporting, nature writing, travel writing, etc….
As usual, there are plenty of heavy hitters on the list—Lawrence Wright, Jill Lepore, Michael Lewis, Walter Isaacson, to name a few—but I’d like to point out a few newcomers who delivered outstanding first books this year:
- Meline Toumani’s There Was and There Was Not, her memoir of conflicted identity as it relates to the Armenian genocide, is nothing short of revelatory; Kirkus called it a “moving examination of the complex forces of ethnicity, nationality and history that shape one’s sense of self and foster, threaten or fray the fragile tapestry of community.”
- In Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Amanda Gefter gives us an “adventurous fact-finding romp takes readers across the landscape of ideas about the universe, calling on the expertise of the biggest names in science—and also the author's lifelong partner in her pursuit of the meaning of everything: her father.”
- Knopf art director Peter Mendelsund successfully experiments with form in What We See When We Read, a “brilliant amalgam of philosophy, psychology, literary theory and visual art.”
- In his exploration of Ulysses and James Joyce, The Most Dangerous Book, Kevin Birmingham spins out “superb cultural history, pulling together many strands of literary, judicial and societal developments into a smoothly woven narrative fabric.”
Congrats to all the writers who made the list, and thank you for your consistently engaging and significant works.
Eric Liebetrau is the nonfiction and managing editor at Kirkus Reviews.