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Best books to give (and get): Top nonfiction picks of 2015

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2015 nonfiction picks
From the political to the personal, this year's crop of nonfiction captures stories of all sizes.
Courtesy of publishers

This week, The Thread is looking back at some of our favorite books of the year. If you're on the hunt for a great read — or a good gift — don't miss these must-reads.

Nonfiction picks

"Stalin's Daughter" by Rosemary Sullivan

Svetlana Alliluyevea was born in Moscow in 1926, the only daughter of Joseph Stalin. She died 85 years later in Spring Green, Wis., population 1,600.

Rosemary Sullivan's new book, "Stalin's Daughter," explores the unpredictable trajectory of her extraordinary life, from her privileged childhood as the dictator's daughter to her defection and quiet, solitary life in the United States. 

"The Folded Clock: A Diary" by Heidi Julavits

Most people's diaries don't land them on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, but Julavits isn't most people. When she came across her childhood diaries, deep into her 40s, she was inspired to once again record her daily thoughts.

That was the beginning of "The Folded Clock," in which she documents two years of her modern life — as a writer and as a mother — with stunning detail, humor and curiosity. 

"Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS" by Joby Warrick

How did ISIS grow from an unknown group to a dominant world threat in a matter of years? Warrick traces the group's roots back to a Jordanian prison and one particularly prisoner: the now-deceased Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

"He's the least likely person you can imagine as being the leader of an Islamic extremist organization," Warrick said of al-Zarqawi. "Black Flags" picks up the trail at the prison and follows through to the modern incarnation of the terrorist group.

"Oregon Trail: An American Journey" by Rinker Buck

You may know the basics from history class, and you may have even played the "Oregon Trail" computer game for hours at a time, but you don't know the story like Buck does.

Buck recreated the Oregon Trail trek for this book, traveling from St. Joseph, Mo., to Bakersfield, Ore., accompanied by a dog, three mules and his brother. It took them four months and more wagon wheels than you can count. (Do you know how hard it is to service a covered wagon in modern days?)

Buck weaves the real history of the trail, and its colorful characters, in with his own wild journey West. (Spoiler: No one dies of dysentery this time.)  

"Pacific" by Simon Winchester

Consider this a biography of an ocean. The subtitle promises a wide-ranging revue, and the book delivers, focusing on the 1950s to present: "Silicon chips and surfboards, coral reefs and atom bombs, brutal dictators, fading empires and the coming collision of the world's superpowers."

Winchester is a veteran on the New York Times bestseller list. His previous books include "The Professor and the Madman," "Krakatoa" and "The Map That Changed The World."

"Hold Still: A Memoir" by Sally Mann

Revered photographer Mann opens up her life to readers — and viewers — in this intimate memoir woven through with revealing photographs. Mann's deep interest in race and family come through in the text, as she describes sorting through family papers and photos, revealing hard truths and lost memories.

Mann's memoir was a finalist for the National Book Award.

"Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This is the book Toni Morrison declared "required reading." It's an open letter from Coates to his teenage son, in which Coates shares the experiences of his youth and the evolution of his thoughts on race.

Coates' previous writings on race for The Atlantic have been hailed as influential and revelatory. Coming on the heels of incidents in Ferguson, Baltimore and Charleston, "Between the World and Me" offers a critical and intimate look at the experience of being black in America.

To date, the book has won the National Book Award and numerous other nods from critics.

"Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs" by Lisa Randall

It's now widely believed that a comet colliding with Earth wiped out the dinosaurs more than 60 million years ago. But where did that comet come from?

Randall, a particle physicist and author, proposes that the comet was triggered by the solar system passing through dark matter. Dark matter remains one of the greatest mysteries of science, and here Randall provides an approachable and enthralling summary of dark matter research and its implications. Dinosaurs and dark matter, however, are only the half of it. Randall uses them as a launch pad to explain the interconnectedness of the universe, all the way back to the Big Bang.

"Humans of New York: Stories" by Brandon Stanton

Humans of New York, or HONY for short, is an undeniable hit. It began as a simple project on Facebook, where Stanton shared street portraits from New York City with quotes from his subjects. The brief life details his subjects shared were intimate, funny and often surprising. The HONY Facebook page now has more than 12 million followers, and Stanton has taken his project all over the world. 

This is the second HONY collection from Stanton, and it includes all new portraits and stories. 

"How to Be a Superhero," edited by Mark Edlitz

Anyone who loves comics and superhero movies will delight in this behind-the-scenes account of what it's like to be a hero — or at least play one on the screen. 

The collection includes 35 interviews with actors and actresses who have played the most iconic heroes, villains and sidekicks in pop culture. The classics are there, from Lou Ferrigno, who played the Incredible Hulk, to Adam West, best known as Batman on TV. But Edlitz also interviews people you've never heard of, or never seen without the mask.

"Leaving Orbit: Notes From the Last Days of American Spaceflight" by Margaret Lazarus Dean

In the 60s, it seemed like humans were set to conquer space. The sky was not the limit — the American public dreamed of moon colonies and reaching Mars. And though progress toward those lofty goals continues today through private companies, the American space program has dwindled.

Dean, who has had a lifelong fascination with space, traveled to Cape Canaveral in 2011 to watch the launch of NASA's last three space shuttle. She interviewed NASA staff and astronauts about the end of the space travel era as we know it.

"A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power" by Paul Fischer

The subtitle says it all. This sprawling tale comes out of the most restrictive and secretive country in the world. Kim Jong-Il, best known as the now-deceased dictator of North Korea, was also a huge film buff, and in the 1970s, he kidnapped two film stars to make his movie dreams come true. 

Choi Eun-Hee, then South Korea's biggest celebrity, and her ex-husband, Shin Sang-Ok, a famous director, were kidnapped and forced to reunite, remarry and make films in North Korea at Jong-Il's behest. Eventually, the two managed to escape while on a trip to Vienna, and share their unbelievable story with Fischer.

"Sisters-in-Law: How Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World" by Linda Hirshman

Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first two women to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, are at the center of Hirshman's dual biography. She explores their unique relationship, their historic status and their role in court decisions that have changed the lives of American women. 

The two women haven't always agreed with one another, but they've formed a friendship that makes for a compelling read in Hirshman's hands. 

"Modern Romance" by Aziz Ansari

Technology has crashed straight into romance and left us all with a lot of questions, like: "Why did this guy just text me an emoji of a pizza?" Comedian Ansari and co-writer Klinenberg take on this question, and many others, while exploring the pleasures and perils of modern romance.

Fans of Ansari from "Parks and Recreation," or his new hit "Master of None," will find plenty to smirk at when he unleashes his wit on issues of the heart.

"Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl" by Carrie Brownstein

Lately, Brownstein has been everywhere: Co-starring on "Portlandia," popping up on "Transparent" and touring with Sleater-Kinney's new record. Now, she's hitting bookshelves with a memoir about how music has shaped and defined her life.

From her childhood in the Seattle suburbs to life on tour, Brownstein offers an intimate glimpse at her upbringing and her rise to fame.

"Negroland: A Memoir" by Margo Jefferson

Jefferson has a Pulitzer Prize to her name for her work as a cultural critic, but in "Negroland" she turns the lens on her own life. Raised in Chicago in the 1950s, she lived in a world she calls "Negroland," a bubble of the black middle class.

Growing up black and elite came with a certain amount of isolation. She didn't feel included in the white world, or the world of working class African-Americans, yet she constantly measured her life  against both. Her memoir addresses race, class and their complicated intersection in America.

"Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future" by Lauren Redniss

Some say discussing the weather is small talk, but the scope of Redniss' book is huge: She looks at all kinds of weather, all over the globe, over thousands of years. She mixes visuals with first-person accounts and historical examinations to discuss how weather has shaped mankind and influenced history.

Redniss explores both the beauty and danger of different weather systems, and she delves into modern weather science, like how the National Weather Service works or what was behind the top-secret rain experiments from the Vietnam War. 

If discussing the weather makes perfect small talk, after reading "Thunder & Lightning," you'll be the hit of every cocktail party.

Books covered by The Thread are available for sale through the Public Radio Market. Your purchase supports our work.