NONFICTION BOOKS OF THE YEAR
1. Fun Home Alison Bechdel
Has more rich, strange material ever been packed into such a slender volume? In Bechdel's remarkable graphic memoir, her dense, fluid, allusive prose recounts a haunting family saga shaped by her closeted gay father's sexuality. Her mordant drawings convey the situation's humor in her father's frilly decorating schemes, and its pathos in the weary, heavy-lidded eyes of her mother. Powering both her words and pictures are Bechdel's tremendous intelligence and the unfakable urgency of a story its author desperately needed to tell.
2. The Lost Daniel Mendelsohn
As long-winded and earnest as Fun Home is slight and wry, The Lost is another volume you feel the author had to write. Mendelsohn, a classics professor at Bard College, had always puzzled over the fate of his great-uncle Shmiel's family, the one branch of his Jewish clan that failed to leave Europe before World War II. Methodically, across years and continents, he pieces together their story, interviewing the shrinking handful of people still alive to flesh it out. The resulting portrait is partial and faded, but its painstaking assembly adds up to both a riveting detective story and a testament to the complex narratives that are lost forever with every human death.
3. There Is No Me Without You Melissa Fay Greene
Greene tells the unmanageable story of AIDS in Africa through her compassionate, clear-eyed portrait of a single ordinary woman: Haregewoin Teferra, a ''nice neighborhood lady'' in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, who, in the late 1990s, took in a couple of needy kids and soon found herself running an orphanage. African orphans have become a trendy and questionable celebrity accessory, but Greene's book makes it hard not to at least consider adoption.
4. The Places in Between Rory Stewart
Just how crazy is Stewart? Certifiably. In 2002, just after the American-led invasion of Afghanistan, the multilingual young Scot set off on a midwinter walk across the country. ''You will die I guarantee it,'' an official told him. He nearly did, but survived to write this instant travel classic, full of Taliban thugs, frostbite, dysentery, and games of buzkashi (''polo played with a dead goat instead of a ball'').
5. James Tiptree, Jr. Julie Phillips
You don't need to have read any of James Tiptree's science fiction to appreciate Phillips' biography of the legendary writer. The life of Alice Sheldon the brilliant, troubled woman who, in middle age, began publishing stories under the Tiptree pseudonym is every bit as odd and engrossing as intergalactic travel.