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The best books to give and get: Nonfiction picks of 2017

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A selection of The Thread's favorite nonfiction of 2017
A selection of The Thread's favorite nonfiction of 2017.
Courtesy of publishers

This week, The Thread is sharing some of our favorite books of the year. Below are our nonfiction picks of 2017. Tell us your favorite books of the year @TheThreadMPR.

'Ranger Games' by Ben Blum

Ben Blum and his entire family were shocked when they got the news that Ben's cousin Alex had robbed a bank. Alex was an Army Ranger, just about to be deployed — but rather than spend his last few hours with his family, he walked into a bank with a gun. And he wasn't alone. "Ranger Games" is Blum's journey to understand his cousin's crime and the deeper motivations behind it. The book has the compelling drive of a true crime novel, complicated by family ties and brutal questions.

Ranger Games Ranger Games

'Ali: A Life' by Jonathan Eig

Muhammad Ali was not always a revered American icon. For those who aren't familiar with Ali's transformation from divisive political activist to beloved hero, "Ali: A Life" gives a nuanced and fascinating account of the complicated superstar. For those who do know Ali's story, Jonathan Eig's propulsive writing, character insights and ability to bring the action of the ring alive on the page make this the Ali biography to read. It's a book not unlike the Champ himself — so quick-witted and light on its feet, you might overlook its power and heft.

Ali: A Life Ali: A Life

'My Soul Looks Back' by Jessica B. Harris

As a young woman in the 1970s, Jessica B. Harris traveled in the circles of Manhattan's intellectual elite. She spent her days partying with James Baldwin, cooking with Maya Angelou and being ordered about by the imperial Nina Simone — all of which she recounts in her new memoir. In the tradition of Mary Cantwell's classic "Manhattan Memoir," Harris' book brings alive a lost time of the city, and the struggles of a young woman torn between her devotion to her career — she would go on to become a celebrated cookbook author — and her nascent love life. 

My Soul Looks Back My Soul Looks Back

'Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions' by Valeria Luiselli

Novelist Valeria Luiselli has made a name for herself in the fiction world, but her new book centers around her work as an interpreter for children from Central America navigating the U.S. immigration system. The children she works with are fighting to stay in United States, hoping to escape poverty and violence in their homelands. Their stories are artfully and sparingly captured in this slim book, in which Luiselli recounts the 40 questions she asks each child facing deportation. 

Tell Me How It Ends Tell Me How It Ends

'We Were Eight Years in Power' by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A compilation of some of Ta-Nehisi Coates' most iconic and widely-discussed essays, this book offers reflections on the presidency of Barack Obama, the election of Donald Trump and connections between the two. It also includes new work for each year of Obama's presidency, in which Coates reflects on his own thinking and development through a historic and shifting decade. Coates continues to be a vital and timely voice on race, politics and American history.

We Were Eight Years in Power We Were Eight Years in Power

 'Janesville' by Amy Goldstein

What happens when a factory town loses its factory? The General Motors plant in Janesville, Wis., closed just two days before Christmas in 2008, an early blow of the Great Recession. Washington Post reporter Amy Goldstein spent years tracking the aftermath, going beyond the familiar tale to find out what happens to the people who stay behind to try and pick up the pieces. 

Janesville Janesville

'The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II' by Svetlana Alexievich

When journalist Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2015, it triggered a global interest in her work, which has made more of her landmark reporting available in English. This recently translated oral history collection, "The Unwomanly Face of War," captures the voices of Soviet women who worked and fought alongside men on the front lines, as snipers and pilots and nurses. Alexievich visited more than a hundred towns scattered across the continent to collect these stories, creating an utterly original, complicated and devastating portrait of war. 

The Unwomanly Face of War The Unwomanly Face of War

'Sting-Ray Afternoons' by Steve Rushin

Steve Rushin has enjoyed a long career in sports journalism, writing for Sport Illustrated. It turns out that all those pages on football, basketball and the like were simply preparation for his memoir about growing up in Bloomington, Minn., in the 1970s. Rushin's portraits of family life, and also of a city regularly bathed in the limelight of national TV exposure through Vikings and Twins games at Met Stadium, zip off the page like a kid riding the much-sought-after Schwinn bike in the title. This memoir will delight people of a certain age with its descriptions of the toys, foods and events that seemed so important back then and now live on in nostalgia.   Sting-Ray Afternoons Sting-Ray Afternoons

'You Don't Have to Say You Love Me' by Sherman Alexie

The accomplished novelist turns his eye on his own complicated family relationships in his new memoir, "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me." It's a book born out of grief. When Sherman Alexie's mother, Lillian, died, he was confronted by the contradictions of their volatile relationship. She was a cruel and beautiful liar, a woman who scarred her children emotionally, and sometimes physically, with an icy dispassion. The book is a difficult but beautiful read.

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me You Don't Have to Say You Love Me

'Kadian Journal' by Thomas Harding

"I know he is gone. I know he is dead. I know that I have lost my son." Thomas Harding's memoir about the death of his 14-year-old son in a bicycling accident manages to be deeply moving, yet spare on the sentimentality that characterizes too many memoirs of grief. He captures the sense memories of his son — the unique scent of his boy as a toddler, the feel of his son's growing frame in a quick hug — and worries the book he's written can never do Kadian justice. But it does.

Kadian Journal Kadian Journal

'I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad' by Souad Mekhennet

Washington Post reporter Souad Mekhennet has gone places and spoken to people and told stories very few could. As a Muslim woman who grew up in Germany, she has navigated cultural and religious lines to find the stories behind some of the most horrific headlines of the last two decades. Her new book explores how she has traced the radicalization of young men, whether it be in the Middle East or in her own home country.   I Was Told to Come Alone I Was Told to Come Alone

'From Here to Eternity' by Caitlin Doughty

"Well-known mortician" is definitely a rare title, but Caitlin Doughty has earned it. For her second book on — you guessed it — death, Doughty traveled the world to understand burial traditions across different cultures. In "From Here to Eternity," she chronicles what she found, from the Tibetan "sky burial" to the Japanese ceremony of sifting through a loved ones' ashes to remove the bones. It's a smart, moving and often funny look into how we say our final goodbyes.

From Here to Eternity From Here to Eternity

'The Death and Life of the Great Lakes' by Dan Egan

The Great Lakes are a marvel — an unrivaled natural resource and a stunning landscape that defines the surrounding states. But they're also imperiled due to pollution, invasive species and other human-induced threats. Dan Egan's examination of the lakes' rich history runs all the way from the glaciers to the Flint water crisis. Egan also offers an instructive view of possible ways forward, to preserve what remains.

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

'Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI' by David Grann

In "Killers of the Flower Moon," David Grann explores a monstrous crime that has become a footnote in United States history. It's the story of the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma, whose sudden oil wealth in the 1920s triggered a string of murders. When the body count topped 24, the Bureau of Investigation, later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation, stepped in. Grann's nonfiction account of the crimes reveals the conspiracies and prejudices that complicated the investigation.

Killers of the Flower Moon Killers of the Flower Moon

'Shark Drunk' by Morten Stroksnes

Stop me if you've heard this one before: Two men set out in a boat, hunting for a shark. Instead of the horror tropes of "Jaws," "Shark Drunk" delivers a true story of friendship on the ocean, with a dash of Norwegian history and a side of adventure. Author Morten Stroksnes and his friend set sail from an archipelago north of the Arctic Circle, on a hunt for a Greenland shark. (It's a shark so toxic, even its meat can induce hallucinations — hence the title.)

According to bookseller Molly Coogan, the men's "friendship blossoms in this dinghy. [Stroksnes'] mind rambles and wanders the way one would when you're out in the middle of the ocean. ... It's almost like you have this Wikipedia rabbit hole through the whole book, just more beautifully written."

Shark Drunk Shark Drunk

'Tales of Wonder: Retelling Fairy Tales through Picture Postcards' by Jack Zipes

The University of Minnesota's Jack Zipes is one of the world's leading experts on fairy tales. For years he has collected antique picture postcard depictions of various versions of stories we all think we know — "Little Red Riding Hood," "Cinderella," "Snow White" and a host of others. In this new collection, Zipes has created a luscious coffee table book which not only displays his best cards, but also explains the often dark histories behind the tales. He also explores the history of the postcard itself, and what has made the postcard industry hugely popular for so long.

Tales of Wonder Tales of Wonder

'Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game' by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Fredrik Ekeland

If you are looking for a way to prepare for the 2018 soccer World Cup in Russia, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Fredrik Ekeland can help out. During the last Cup in Brazil in 2014, Ekeland, a Swedish novelist, wrote almost daily letters to Knausgaard. And most days Knausgaard, the Norwegian author of the epic six-volume novel "My Struggle," replied. Their epistolary exchange begins with soccer, but then ranges all over the map: family life, politics, writing, aging and the simple challenges of trying to get everything done. Come for the soccer, stay for the writing.   Home and Away Home and Away

'Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage' by Dani Shapiro

Dani Shapiro's memoir investigates what it means to begin a marriage with the kind of reckless optimism many long partnerships begin with, to ford the disappointments and triumphs and to arrive a bit battered but deeply bonded. "We are delicate," she writes.  "We are beautiful.  We are not new.  We must be handled with care."  

Hourglass Hourglass