For the past dozen years or so, I have spent January and February reading until my eyes water and my brain cries uncle.
I’m on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, and every year the board gives out six literary prizes in six different categories. We pick the finalists in each category in January, and then our task is to read all of them — at five finalists times six categories, that is 30 books to develop an opinion about in a short period of time.
I’d already read some of my favorites, notably “Our Man,” George Packer’s groundbreaking biography of diplomat Richard Holbrooke, and “A Woman of No Importance” by Sonia Purnell, the story of an American woman who became one of World War II’s most accomplished and bravest spies. Here are four more favorites — the winners will be announced March 12. If narrative nonfiction is your thing, you couldn’t do better than these recent books:
“Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland” by Patrick Radden Keefe (Doubleday) is the best book I have read in the past year. Keefe, a New Yorker writer of bottomless talent, begins his story with the 1972 murder/execution of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10 children in Belfast, at the hands of the Irish Republican Army. From that brutal act, he moves into the story of Dolours Price, a notorious IRA soldier who almost died fasting in a British prison and whose involvement in McConville’s death is one of the unfolding mysteries of the book. These women’s stories provide a framework for the story of Northern Ireland’s agonies during “The Troubles.”
Keefe has almost perfect control of his material, his research and reporting, character development and story arc. His empathy for and understanding of his subjects helped me to think of the conflict in Northern Ireland in a different way. Part history, part murder mystery and part moral reckoning, “Say Nothing” is a masterpiece. It’s just out in paperback and is an NBCC nonfiction finalist.
Ronan Farrow has a celebrity pedigree, is easy on the eyes and plays well on television — all alarm bells for me when it comes to trusting an author. But by the end of his book on the Harvey Weinstein scandal, “Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators” (Little, Brown), I was in the palm of his hand.
“Catch and Kill,” an NBCC autobiography finalist, is the pulse-pounding story of Farrow’s quest to uncover the story of sexual predator and media magnate Weinstein, who last month was convicted of two felony sex crimes in New York. It’s a primer in investigative journalism, a memoir and a riveting thriller, as Farrow and the brave women with the courage to tell their stories are stalked by Weinstein’s hired investigators. It exposes NBC’s failure to air Farrow’s story after pressure from Weinstein — Farrow finally published his work in The New Yorker, after network executives ordered Farrow and his producer to cease and desist (Farrow and The New Yorker won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in public service for his reporting, sharing the award with New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey).
Farrow’s narrative voice is perfect for this story, by turns grave, humorous and self-deprecating. His superb “Catch and Kill” podcast captures those qualities beautifully and is a great audio complement to the book.
In the biography category, “L.E.L: The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated ‘Female Byron’” by Lucasta Miller tells the sad and scandalous story of a poet who briefly achieved fame in the knives-out world of 19th-century literary London.
Seduced and exploited as a young author by an early publisher of her works, Landon, who would eventually have three children by this cad, kept her motherhood secret (mostly) from the scandal-mongering literary press of the day. Landon was able to produce poetry practically on demand, but her romantic prose, wildly popular in its day, hid a message of bitterness and cynicism at the lot of women in her age. Once her literary flame dimmed, Landon set out on a mad scramble to maintain her standing and celebrity, but her marriage to a British military officer didn’t save her from a dismal end. Miller combines expert scholarship with engaging writing and makes Landon’s life readable and compelling.
Finally, another nonfiction finalist, Peter Hessler’s “The Buried: An Archeology of the Egyptian Revolution” took me to an ancient land in modern turmoil. Hessler, an acclaimed nonfiction writer (he’s a MacArthur genius grant winner), moved his family to Egypt in 2011 to document life there and got more than he bargained for — he landed right in the middle of the Arab Spring. His story moves back and forth from 21st-century political upheaval to ancient history; “The Buried” refers to a piece of desert in upper Egypt that was used as a cemetery of kings for 5,000 years, and was extensively looted when security was scarce during the period of revolution.
Hessler’s gift is stitching the stories of everyday lives into a larger narrative. He creates indelible portraits of his encounters with ordinary Egyptians, from his neighborhood’s garbage collector to his translator, who grapples with being gay in a homophobic society. This book helped me understand a place I hardly knew, one that plays a key role in the ongoing political ferment of the Middle East.