On Thursday, Oct. 24, we will announce the 2019 winner of the Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction. As the editor of the nonfiction section, I have the pleasure of facilitating the process with the judges—Kirkus reviewer Richard Santos and Books Books bookseller Aaron Curtis, who chose the finalists, and Pulitzer and Kirkus Prize–winning author Jack E. Davis, who now joins them to select a winner. It’s a truly Herculean task, not just because of the massive amount of reading involved, but also because there are so many worthy books among the 300-odd starred titles eligible for the prize. I’m excited to spread the word about these six outstanding titles, all of which are deserving of the prize.
Moving alphabetically, first up is my favorite music book of the year, Hanif Abdurraqib’s Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest (University of Texas Press). A brilliant follow-up to his previous collection, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, this book is a master class in artist appreciation and cultural criticism, all woven together with elements of memoir and consistently astute observations about what makes Tribe such an iconic collective. Our reviewer sums it up well: “Even those who know little about the music will learn much of significance here, perhaps learning how to love it in the process.”
In what we call “a stirring, inventive masterpiece of heartbreak,” Danish poet Naja Marie Aidt requires just 150 pages to completely devastate readers with her heartbreaking and moving account of coping with the death of her son. When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back (Coffee House Press) is stylistically inventive and poignant on every page (the English translation is by Denise Newman). “The difficulty of articulating grief,” notes our reviewer, “is itself a cliché of the grief memoir, but Aidt’s shattering of genre forms both underscores the feeling of speechlessness and gives it a palpable shape.”
Saeed Jones, another gifted poet, turns to memoir, as well, in How We Fight for Our Lives (Simon Schuster), a sleek, powerful coming-of-age story focused on Jones’ struggle with his sexuality and sense of self and his complicated relationship with his mother. The prose is understated, never unnecessarily poetic, which allows the subject matter to come fully alive, creating an unforgettable book that is “written with masterful control of both style and material.”
New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe, acclaimed author of The Snakehead, turns to Irish history in Say Nothing: The True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (Doubleday), the riveting story of “a cold case in Northern Ireland [that] provides a frame for a deeply observed history of the Troubles.” The author follows the facts of a 1970s kidnapping and killing in Belfast, delivering a “reconstruction of events and the players involved [that] is careful and assured.” A consistently engaging stylist, Keefe offers “a harrowing story of politically motivated crime that could not have been better told.”
Tackling one of the most contentious issues of our day, Dina Nayeri’s The Ungrateful Refugee (Catapult) may be the best book I have ever read about refugees, immigration, and the many fraught elements of identity, cultural preservation, and assimilation involved. Nayeri expertly weaves together her personal story—she was born during the Iranian Revolution and came to America when she was 10—with unparalleled insight about the refugee experience. “With inventive, powerful prose,” writes our reviewer, “Nayeri demonstrates what should be obvious: that refugees give up everything in their native lands only when absolutely necessary—if they remain, they may face poverty, physical torture, or even death.” Not just “a unique, deeply thought-out refugee saga perfect for our moment,” this book packs multiple revelations on every page.
Another of this year’s timeliest and most relevant books is No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us (Bloomsbury), by reporter Rachel Louise Snyder. Few books have addressed domestic violence with such a remarkable combination of insight and empathy. It’s not an easy read but a necessary one, and our reviewer nails it in the final line: “Bracing and gut-wrenching, with slivers of hope throughout, this is exemplary, moving reportage on an important subject that often remains in the dark due to shame and/or fear.”
Eric Liebetrau is the nonfiction and managing editor.