Books to Get You Thinking

An annual end of the year tradition for the editors of major newspapers, journals and media organizations is to select the Top Ten Books in both the fiction and nonfiction genres that were published during the year. As the year 2016 quietly slips away into history, we look back on some of the nonfiction titles that have defined the year and have been deemed to be truly outstanding. These titles have appeared in the Best Books 2016 lists of the New York Times, Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Economist, Foreign Affairs, and Library Journal. The finest writing in 2016 deals with serious and difficult subjects that bring to the attention of the readers some of the most pressing problems of our times. All of these titles are available at the Mercer County Library System.

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich
Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich
Nominated as one of the Best Books of 2016 by The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, the book is authored by Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature for her outstanding writings that focus on Russia. Secondhand Time has been translated from Russian and is her third book, following earlier works about Chernobyl and Soviet soldiers deployed in Afghanistan. The book has a unique format—the author has interviewed hundreds of people from disparate walks of life over several years and then skillfully interwoven their different voices, transforming them into a poignant narrative. The book is a rare oral history, a compelling portrait of everyday life as it existed in the former Soviet Union and in the new Russia of today—two different time periods during which the author captures stories that reflect the hopes, dreams, sorrows and sufferings of a nation. Some voices talk about the oppression, hunger and famines, terror and massacres of the Soviet era but also speak about the hopes that had existed for a new and better tomorrow, inspiring people to work amidst the harshest of conditions. There are voices that capture the excitement of the newly found freedom after 1991 and then there are the voices of the poorest for whom freedom has done little to change the abject poverty surrounding their daily lives.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
Highlighting the acute housing crisis in the US, Evicted by Matthew Desmond has appeared on the list of Best Books 2016 published by The Washington PostThe New York Times and Library Journal. Desmond, a professor of Sociology at Harvard, examines the unique nature of poverty and inequality in the US through the lens of a practice that is now becoming commonplace in America’s urban areas—the eviction of many families who are trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty and are unable to pay rents from the meager money they earn. The book is the result of many years of intensive research and fieldwork on this subject and focuses on eight different families living in some of the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a town which in many ways serves as a microcosm of urban life in America. Rents have soared in the face of stagnating and falling incomes and often make up seventy to eighty percent of the income of poorer families living in inner cities. With not enough money left for groceries or utilities, it becomes easy to miss a month’s rent payment which leads to many lower income families' being turned out of their homes. African Americans and women with children are particularly vulnerable to the practice of eviction. It is a traumatic experience, especially for young children who get displaced from school after school. Ironically there are landlords who, at the same time, reap substantial profits from renting out decrepit places to people who can ill-afford to pay for them.

The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar
The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar
This poignant memoir of a life in exile and a son’s journey back to his homeland in search of his missing father has been selected as a Best Book 2016 byThe Washington PostThe New York Times and The Economist. Hisham Matar’s father served in the Libyan army and was also ambassador to the UN, but became a vocal dissident during the reign of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Fearing for their safety, the family fled to Cairo in 1979 when Hisham Matar was just eight years old. A decade later, when Hisham was nineteen and in London studying architecture, his father was abducted from their Cairo home and held captive in Abu Salem, Libya’s most notorious prison. His family never saw him again. For Hisham Matar the years that followed were ones filled with the anguish of living a life in exile, not knowing what happened to his father and constant lingering hopes of somehow still finding him alive. In 2012 after the fall of the Gaddafi regime, Hisham returned to Libya with his mother and his wife in search of answers to his father’s disappearance. The memoir captures beautifully the journey back to the home and country he had left behind more than thirty years ago, the sights and sounds both familiar and new that envelope him, conversations with friends and relatives who had been imprisoned along with his father, his coming to terms with the harsh reality of his father’s death and letting go of the last vestige of hope of ever being reunited with him.

—Nita Mathur

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