Best Nonfiction of 2015

For this year's "best" list, I'm sharing the gems that may not be riding the New York Times' bestseller list, but which I read and loved this year and can't stop thinking about. — Rhianna W.
  1. All the Things We Never Knew by Sheila Hamilton http://powells.us/1YohtgZ
    All the Things We Never Knew is Hamilton's memoir of her first husband David's struggle with bipolar disorder and subsequent suicide. Both a gripping, cathartic portrait of loss and a well-reported exposé of our mental health care system, All the Things serves as an empathetic guidepost for families and individuals dealing with mental illness. All the Things We Never Knew is a brave attempt to start a public conversation about issues that most of us have only dealt with, achingly, in private.
  2. Underground in Berlin by Marie Jalowicz Simon http://powells.us/1YohqSl
    As a young woman, Ms. Simon broke with her family, which was determined to stay with the Jewish community during deportation, and disappeared into wartime Berlin. Underground in Berlin provides a fascinating portrait of Berlin as a liberal city generally disinterested in Nazi ideology but still willing to give up its Jews, and of a cunning young woman determined to live through the war.
  3. The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe by Michael Pye http://powells.us/1QvUCRf
    The Edge of the World is a dense and delightful exploration of the trading cultures that flourished in the marshy borderlands of the North Sea during the Middle Ages. If that sentence bored you, let me try again: Vikings! Money! Power! Vikings! The Edge of the World shines a light on fascinating peoples I had never heard of, like the Frisians and Jutes. Pye also does an excellent job of conjuring the physical environment of the North Sea through time.
  4. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein http://powells.us/1QvUAc7
    Okay, Carrie Brownstein's memoir isn't exactly a hidden gem. But it is a gem, courtesy of Brownstein's intelligent prose and careful description of her artistic genesis. After years of rock bios featuring tousled men in metallic pants snorting coke off of models, it's refreshing to read about the inner-life of an admittedly awkward rock star. And just in case you're wondering, you don't have to like the music to love the autobiography.
  5. Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim by Justin Gifford http://powells.us/1YohnFZ
    Gifford's engaging biography describes a handsome, clever man "poisoned" — Slim's word — by street life, and his eventual jailhouse transition from misogynistic criminal to popular novelist and family man. (How can any reader resist that trajectory?) Street Poison is a serious biography of a fascinating and problematic cultural figure and required reading for anyone with an interest in gangsta rap, black street fiction, film, or African American culture in the years before and after World War II
  6. The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck http://powells.us/1QvUxgz
    Rinker Buck's The Oregon Trail hits a sweet spot between trail history, travelogue, and memoir. A few years ago, trying to shake a midlife crisis and seeking closure over his father's premature death, Buck and his brother traveled the 2,000-mile length of the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon drawn by mules. Buck does an excellent job of bringing to life the daily experiences of the pioneers, as well as aspects of Oregon Trail history that have gone unacknowledged.
  7. Spinster by Kate Bolick http://powells.us/1Yohkdx
    There's definitely a consumer appetite for smart, relatable feminist essayists, and Kate Bolick's Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own is a welcome addition to the niche. Restoring the word "spinster" to its origin as a reference for a highly valued working woman, Bolick explores her own deep-rooted "spinster wish" and traces the histories of the five female writers she calls her "awakeners," fascinating women like Edna St. Vincent Millay and Neith Boyce.
  8. Dead Wake by Erik Larson http://powells.us/1Yohj9h
    Dead Wake received a ton of press when it came out earlier this year, but now that the media attention has faded, it's time to remind you to read this wonderful book. An exploration of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, Dead Wake reads like a nonfiction suspense story featuring a diverse cast of military, political, and civilian personalities.