2016 was a pretty rotten year (except for the Cubs, I guess). All the same, I managed to read a lot of good books. Here are the five best nonfiction books I read this year. Next week, I’ll announce my top five books in fiction.
Note: this is a list of the best books that I read this year, not the best books published this year.
5. The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, Carlo Ginzburg, 1976
The Cheese and the Worms is a surprising little book, one of the first microhistories ever written. Ginzburg investigates the heresy trials of a miller and former mayor in 16th century Italy, who had startlingly modern concepts of religion and thought–and in the process exposes a papacy desperate to weed out divergent thought as Protestantism emerges as a threat. Like a crime thriller, Ginzburg uses the medieval court proceedings to weave a mystery about how people thought about the world in early modern Italy. Worth a read, even for nonspecialists, as it radically changed how people write histories.
4. Dinner with Persephone: Travels in Greece, Patricia Storace, 1996
Greece too often gets conflated with mythological and classical grandeur. What is Greece like today? Patricia Storace paints a surprisingly precise characterization of Modern Greek culture in her travelogue of her year in Greece. I read this book while I was conducting research in Greece, and I was suprised at how Storace would land on a cultural observation just as I was discovering it for myself. Of course, all that she says must be qualified by the fact that her perspective is that of an American poet and cannot represent all of what a country is–making this book polarizing, for some. But her perspective lends insight, and she incorporates Greek folk myths cached in her memoirs through sharp, exquisite prose. If you aim to travel to Greece, this book is, at minimum, a good cultural primer, and at best, a dreamlike journey.
3. The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe, 1979
Men who get drunk at night and fly spaceships the next day. Men who risk their lives every day on the test track and wives hopelessly worried about them–often rightly so. Tom Wolfe’s an American prose stylist who thinks highly of himself, and it shows. But this book depicts a fascinating and dramatic look at the early days of the space program, the inspiration for the famous film. A book full of dazzling characters, life, and action.
2. Son of the Morning Star: General Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn, Evan S. Connell, 1984
The Battle of Little Bighorn gets perhaps its finest treatment here, in this tome by Evan S. Connell. The author’s elaborate research goes into the lead-up to the battle, the aftermath, a careful consideration of the Native American perspective, and gives deft portraits to legendary figures such as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and General Custer. In the process Connell tells us the history of the West. Narrative history at its finest.
1. Inside Hitler’s Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-1944, Mark Mazower, 1993
In 1941,after the Italian invasion failed, German tanks rolled into Athens. Using a complement of government documents, interviews, newspaper articles and some unconventional sources, Mazower tells a panoramic and devastating story of the little-told German occupation of Greece. A cinematic writer, Mazower carefully charts the development of the resistance to initially give the untrained reader hope in the chance for the Communist EAM/ELAS to provide needed leadership and reform, only to reveal the group’s authoritarian tendencies and its war crimes. Mazower spares no side, going into British failings, the evils of the collaboration government, and of course the devastating policies of the Nazi and Italian occupiers. It was under the Occupation that Greece was plunged into famine and starvation. Moreover, the Holocaust eliminated a historic Jewish population in Thessaloniki. This book is a moving memorial to the conflict as experienced in Greece. Mazower is one of the best historians working today, and this book is proof of it.