Best nonfiction of 2015


▪ “America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System,” by Steven Brill (Random House). Brill’s fresh, outsider curiosity makes him a superb guide through the maze of issues involved here.

▪ “Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS,” by Joby Warrick (Doubleday). A thoroughly reported and smartly written narrative that traces the rogue and vicious Islamists who have rewritten the modern history of the Middle East. Essential reading.

▪ “Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America,” by T.J. Stiles (Knopf). Stiles, the same biographer who chronicled Jesse James in a 2003 book, now levels his gaze on George Custer; both were men who emerged from the Civil War as self-made romantic figures way out of sync with their own increasingly business-like times.

▪ “Dead Wake,” by Erik Larson (Crown). Nobody writes narrative nonfiction better than Larson. His account of the fated sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 told alternately from the perspectives of the captain of the British luxury liner and the German U-boat commander is gripping and deeply informative.

▪ “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush” by Jon Meacham (Random House): A judicious and balanced biography of the elder President Bush.

▪ “The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe,” by Michael Pye (Pegasus). Pye’s thesis that the North Sea was central to many of the things that made the West what it is today results in a collage of cultural history ranging from the Vikings to the Hanseatic League to the beginnings of the international stock exchange.

▪ “Equal Means Equal,” by Jessica Neuwirth (The New Press). A vital primer to what promises to be the next battlefield of the culture wars: ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, which passed in 1972 but fell three states short of the 38 states needed for enactment. Neuwirth’s easy-to-digest chapters lay out the reasons the amendment is needed and the current state of gender equality rulings in the courts.

▪ “First Over There: The Attack on Cantigny, America’s First Battle of World War I,” by Matthew Davenport (Thomas Dunne Books). Charles Avery, a Kansas City Star reporter, was among the doughboys who, in May 1918, took the hilltop French village of Cantigny from German forces in the first Western Front victory by American ground troops in World War I. He never told his children about his experiences. After reading this book, which describes the costs he and his colleagues paid, that’s easy to understand.

▪ “Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable, and What We Can Do About It,” by Marc Goodman (Doubleday). Goodman, a former beat cop who founded the Future Crimes Institute, wrote his book to shed light on the latest in criminal and terrorist tradecraft and to kick off a discussion.

▪ “The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter,” by Greg Toppo (Palgrave Macmillan). A USA Today education writer examines the role of video games in modern education. The book dispels old beliefs about, demystifies the mechanics of and decriminalizes the use of digital games in the classroom.

▪ “Gods of the Morning: A Bird’s-Eye View of a Changing World,” by John Lister Kaye (Pegasus). Travel to the Scottish Highlands with a birdwatcher as he reflects on climate change, history and nature’s seasons. Blackcaps, rooks, ravens, owls, robins and pine martens are your companions.

▪ “Guantanamo Diary,” by Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Little, Brown). This is a vital and surprising document of courage, survival and humanity in the face of often-brutal injustice. The author is a Mauritanian who remains imprisoned without charge and despite a federal judge’s order five years ago that he be released.

▪ “The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Vol. 3, 1926-1929,” edited by Sandra Spanier, Rena Sanderson and Robert Trogdon (Cambridge University Press). This gargantuan scholarly project has reached the years of Hemingway’s emerging fame and reflects the writer’s prodigious and unstoppable voice in the midst of literary gossip, family crises and unabashed ambition.

▪ “The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game,” by Mary Pilon (Bloomsbury). A quasi-biography of the woman who invented — but never received full credit or royalties for — an early version of Monopoly, this entertaining book is also a portrait of America as it entered the age of mass-marketed fun.

▪ “The Pine Tar Game: The Kansas City Royals, the New York Yankees, and Baseball’s Most Absurd and Entertaining Controversy,” by Filip Bondy (Scribner). Bondy’s book is long on period detail: When Kansas City Royals front office executives drew up their formal protest to George Brett’s home run against the Yankees being disallowed in the pre-tech summer of 1983, they sent it to the league president by telecopier.

▪ “The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey,” by Rinker Buck (Simon & Schuster). This is not only about the four-month 2011 trip that Rinker Buck and his brother made along the Oregon Trail in a wooden wagon pulled by mules, but the stories Buck tells along the way. Among them: how those wagons evolved, the very careful procedures of hitching draft animals to those wagons, and how those who made this 2,000-mile trip in the 19th century had to deal with the sheer unrelenting uncertainty of their journey.

▪ “Red: A History of the Redhead,” by Jacky Colliss Harvey (Black Dog & Leventhal). Say hello to the other 2 percent, the redhead. This lively celebration of gingers in art, history, science and geography is a fun addition to pop culture coiffure.

▪ “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” by Jon Ronson (Riverhead Books). The journalist dives deep into our flickering outrage culture, probing carefully at why we crave public shamings and how we might curb our dependency.

▪ “The Unknown Travels and Dubious Pursuits of William Clark,” by Jo Ann Trogdon (University of Missouri Press). Trogdon, a Columbia, Mo., lawyer and historian, details how only a few years before he became one of the two most celebrated explorers of early America, William Clark had been keeping company with men who imagined scenarios that would not expand but diminish the United States.

▪ “West of Harlem: African-American Writers and the Borderlands,” by Emily Lutenski (University Press of Kansas). St. Louis University assistant professor Lutenski describes how many of the writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance grew up far from New York — among them Langston Hughes, born in Joplin, Mo., and largely reared in Lawrence — and how their distant homes fired their imaginations.