10 Nonfiction Books That Will Define the Conversation in 2015


With the advent of a new year, there’s a whole new fleet of books on deck that we’ll have the chance to read and argue about throughout 2015. Whether it’s history, biography, the endless parade of celebrity brand-extension books (we’ll learn what Aziz Ansari has found out about “modern romance” in the age of Tinder, and chuckle at Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me? ), “diary” books by writers like Sarah Manguso and Heidi Julavits, Stacy Schiff’s long-in-the-works book about the Salem witch trials (October 2015), or memoir, there’s a book for every possible interest this year. Here’s are ten that people are sure to be talking about, on topics ranging from rock ‘n’ roll to American tragedies of the past and present.

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, by Jill Leovy (January 27)

Award-winning Los Angeles Times reporter Leovy started with one insane but true statistic: in 2007, for every white woman murdered in Los Angeles, one hundred black men were murdered — in a city where black people make up less than ten percent of the the population. From there, the murder of a young black man in Los Angeles becomes the impetus for a full-bodied portrait of the homicide epidemic among young black men in America today — and the larger factors, from the cops to the city to the gangs, that play a part in this tragedy.

Girl in a Band, by Kim Gordon (February 24)

You may know Kim Gordon as a titan of cool, from her 30 years in Sonic Youth to her cachet as a restless artist and tastemaker. In this surprisingly personal memoir, spanning her years growing up in California and her early days in ramshackle New York through the present, we see what made Gordon into a painter and a musician. The book is both fascinating and feminist, and Gordon is candid throughout — although she’s gone on record previously about her split from longtime musical and marital partner Thurston Moore, she’s never gotten this raw before. Even the first chapter of the book is juicy: it starts with Sonic Youth’s last show, and the tumult of anger and hurt driving the music.

Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story, by Mac McClelland (February 24)

Human rights journalist McClelland has always been on my mental shortlist of “brave and badass writers,” from her work for Mother Jones to the fact that she’s often writing about struggles and strife at home (undercover at an Amazon factory, the BP oil spill) and abroad (Haiti, Burma, Urganda). In this memoir, we see the price she’s paid to tell us these stories — McClelland has been wrestling with PTSD from the horrors she’s seen. Her journey back from the brink is compelling, emotional, and shows the toll that PTSD takes on the human body and brain.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson (March 10)

Larson, the author of bookstore staple The Devil in the White City (still on display everywhere even though it was released in 2003), takes on one of history’s worst disasters: the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania. The luxury liner set out from New York to Liverpool, confident that it wouldn’t be collateral in Germany’s declaration of the seas around Britain as a war zone. Of course, this belief was proven wrong, and the tragedy played a role in the US declaring war in 1917. In Larson’s hands, this tragedy is sure to be a gripping and emotional page-turner about a world on the precipice of war.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson (March 31)

When Gawker’s Sam Biddle wrote an apologia in December of Justine Sacco — the IAC PR executive who became infamous and was subsequently fired for an offensive tweet about Africa and AIDS — arguing that she was actually a really nice person, it seemed like a preemptive strike against this book (where Biddle displays a lack of contrition). And when the comments sniffed, “Well, she should’ve known better/no sympathy/we don’t believe you, Biddle”… well, there was no better example of the thesis of Ronson’s book in action: that the Internet is turning us all into callous, heartless jerks.

Ronson, the endlessly curious author of such books as The Psychopath Test and the co-screenwriter of last year’s film Frank, dives deep into “public shaming,” particularly the modern version of stoning we perform on Twitter and via other social media platforms, through the stories of “notorious” people like Sacco, Jonah Lehrer, and Linsdey Stone (who gave the finger at the Arlington National Cemetery in a photo that briefly dominated a slow news cycle). I sped through this book when I got it, and even felt sympathy for a variety of people I may have casually mocked before — even Lehrer!

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited and with an introduction by Meghan Daum (March 31)

While Daum touched upon it in last year’s essay collection The Unspeakable, this book goes full-throttle, with 16 writers, from Geoff Dyer to Kate Christensen to Lionel Shriver, discussing the overwhelming cultural pressure to have children, to define your life with a family — and what it’s like when you don’t participate. It’s a particularly poignant question for women, and I can see the book dominating women’s media upon its release.

The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy, by Masha Gessen (April 7)

It will be interesting to see the reaction to this book. Boston is still raw from the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, an awful tragedy that froze a city in fear spearheaded by a pair of Chechen immigrant brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnev. Dzhokhar, who survived, is just about to go on trial for 30 charges, including using a weapon of mass destruction. Gessen, a Russian-American journalist who covered wars, Vladimir Putin, and Pussy Riot — and who also came to Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a teenager — may just be the best writer to bring the brothers’ complicated story to life. She traveled throughout Kyrgyzstan, Dagestan, and Chechnya to research their history, where they came from, and how their American dream became a living nightmare for a great American city.

Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, by Kate Bolick (April 21)

Stemming from Bolick’s fantastic Atlantic cover story, “All the Single Ladies,” Spinster expands on that initial work, in a beautiful piece of cultural history that should prove inspiring and thought-provoking for women of all ages. Bolick takes us deep into her own story as a single woman, and explores the lives of her “awakeners” — women like Maeve Brennan and Edna St. Vincent Millay, who served as models and warnings of the rich life that could be made, free from the constraints of a traditional marriage.

After the Tall Timber: Collected Nonfiction, by Renata Adler (April 7)

New York Review Books has been invested in bringing Adler, a writer’s writer, the intellectual you read after you’ve exhausted Didion and Sontag, back into the public conversation. Their re-releases of her fiction — Speedboat and Pitch Dark — fueled a new generation’s appreciation for her peerless work, an appreciation that will continue with the 20 essays and pieces of reportage collected here, with Adler’s word on subjects like the march on Selma, the Starr Report, and the cinema.

M Train, by Patti Smith (September)

The official follow-up to Smith’s beautiful, National Book Award-winning memoir of her life with Robert Mapplethorpe in 1970s New York City, Just Kids, is due in September. Early word has it that this book will focus on Smith’s life as a musician, perhaps touching on her relationship with her late husband, the MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith.