Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Book Chase's Ten Favorite Nonfiction Titles of 2019

Subject to any last second surprise coming my way this year in the way of nonfiction titles, these are my favorite nonfiction books of 2019.  I enjoyed, learned from, and admire each and every one of them:

1.   Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee - Casey Cep - an account of the life and bizarre murders committed by the "Reverend" Willie Maxwell. But it is also an in-depth look at what was going on in Harper Lee's life after the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, and how, just when she was most desperate to produce a new book, she hoped to turn Maxwell's story into exactly that. In a number of different ways, this is a very sad book - but it explains a lot that Harper Lee fans have been wondering about for years.

2.   Chasing Cosby: The Downfall of America's Dad - Nicole Weisensee Egan - Seldom has a book left me feeling more angry than this one did. It tells in disgusting detail exactly how one of the most despicable human beings in this country got away with rape and sexual abuse for decades because his victims were too afraid to go public and too many people in the know were making too much money off of him to expose Cosby's crimes. That the man still has defenders among his former enablers is astounding - and saddening.

3.   The Beatles from A to Zed - Peter Asher - is a wonderfully comprehensive reminder of what made the Beatles such a unique and influential band, a book to be appreciated by younger and older fans alike. But this is a very special book for those fans who were there to buy the singles and albums as they were being delivered in what we then believed would be a string of never-ending hits. As it turned out, “never-ending” would only last from 1964 to 1970. Read this one while listening to the music.

4.   The Man from the Train: Discovering America's Most Elusive Serial Killer - Bill James, Rachel McCarthy James -James had a hunch that an infamous family-slaughter that happened in Villisca, Iowa, in 1912 was not a one-time, random event. He felt that the murder was most likely “part of a series of similar events,” and he and his daughter set out to prove it. That they were actually able to name the killer and explain why he was so hard to catch, was as big a surprise to James as it was to anyone else.

5. The Case for Trump - Victor Davis Hanson - When it comes to politics, it all boils down to a question of whom to believe, much less to trust. It's a complicated subject, and it takes a certain kind of writer, one who can neatly slice through all the built-in baloney to reveal the truth in concise, understandable prose, to explain it.  Victor Davis Hanson is that kind of writer. He is a California professor and military historian who has written a two dozen books on everything from the military history of ancient Greece to World War II history, and his calm, level-headed approach to today's warped politics is refreshing.

6.   Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier's First Gunfighter - Tom Clavin - By the time he was thirty years old Wild Bill Hickok was already a bigger legend to the people of his day than Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, or Kit Carson.  And make no mistake about it, those three men were deservedly legendary to the American public. But barely two months past his thirty-ninth birthday, Wild Bill Hickok, whose eyesight was failing, was dead, proving just what a hazard poor eyesight could be for a gunfighter. Wild Bill was the first national celebrity to come along after the Civil War, and this is his remarkable story. 

7.  The Library Book - Susan Orlean - This one is especially for book and library lovers, a love letter to libraries if ever there was one. More importantly, however, it is a reminder of just how important libraries are to cities and communities all over the world. We would all be much poorer without them, and books like this one (about the fire that almost destroyed the massive Los Angeles library) remind us of how fragile they are and how easily they can be lost. Having lost my own local library to a hurricane just over two years ago, I found parts of this one difficult to read. You don't know what you have until you lose it. 

8.   On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey - Paul Theroux - Theroux has been in some tight spots before during his travels, but his almost foolhardy decision to travel alone into the heart of Mexico has to rank high somewhere among the most dangerous situations he has ever inserted himself into. And the best part about all of this? Theroux went where the roads took him, figuring all the while that it was best to keep moving no matter how bad or how deserted the next road he turned onto might prove to be. This is travel the way it is supposed to happen: no tour busses, no fellow travelers, and no fear.

9.  Pat Conroy: Our Lifelong Friendship - Bernie Schein - When it came to exposing his personal life in print, Pat Conroy had little fear. He was so frank about himself and his upbringing that longtime readers could easily see that the man was still carrying emotional baggage from his childhood. Few outsiders, though, could know just how heavy that burden was. Bernie Schein, Pat’s lifetime best friend despite a fifteen-year interruption to their friendship, knew Pat Conroy as well as anyone can possibly know another human being. Here, he takes up where Pat left off.  

10.  The Point of It All: A Lifetime of Great Loves and Endeavors - Charles Krauthammer - This essay collection includes work from each decade of Krauthammer's work and covers politics, popular culture, history, and for perhaps the first time ever, essays touching on the author's personal life, family, and feelings about those he loved most. The book was completed by the author's son, Daniel, upon Mr. Krauthammer's death, and Daniel's love and admiration for his father is evident.


  1. I need to do a similar post to this. Nice to find someone else who likes their non-fiction too... the one I'm drawn to is the Paul Theroux but they all sound interesting in their own way. The Cosby book would interest me too, I think I said as much on your original post.

    1. I don't read nearly as much nonfiction as I should and always begin a year with high intentions that don't pan out. Just once, I'd like to end up with a 50-50 split between fiction and nonfiction, but it always comes in 2-1 in favor of fiction. That will be the case again this year as the split is exactly 2-1 right now: 86 fiction, 43 nonfiction.

      The Theroux book is really good. I can't imagine going into Mexico these days more than to the one or two commercial streets along the border in each big Mexican city. Even going one block beyond the commercial district at the border drastically increases your chances of being robbed or worse.

  2. I'm going to have to read the Library Book.

    1. It's really good - very well-researched and written - Jeane. Very readable, with lots of period pictures that help put it all into perspective.

  3. Replies
    1. I'm reading another one that will probably end up on next year's list (published January 7, 2020) called "Hill Women." It's about several generations of women in Eastern Kentucky and how they held their families together through the worst of times there. I think it will do well.

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    1. Same here. I need blinders for the rest of the year because my resistance when it comes to buying new books is totally shot.