The finalists for our ninth annual Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction are characteristically diverse in terms of author and subject matter, and I’m extremely proud of the monumental efforts of our judges, Kirkus critic Sarah Norris and librarian Lillian Dabney. In the coming weeks, Sarah, Lillian, and I will join our writer judge, Hanif Abdurraqib, to determine the winner.
In By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners (Norton), Margaret A. Burnham, an expert on civil and constitutional rights, resurrects the dark ghosts of the Jim Crow era, deconstructing the legal apparatus that enabled hundreds of shameful crimes against Black Americans. Our review called it a “persuasive case for long-overdue reparations” as well as “an indispensable addition to the literature of social justice and civil rights.” It’s also, unfortunately, relevant to so many of the racial problems we still face today.
The Facemaker: A Visionary Surgeon’s Battle To Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is Lindsey Fitzharris’ riveting follow-up to her acclaimed debut, The Butchering Art. It sounds gruesome, and it is; but it’s also an exemplary work of historical biography, an “inspiring [and] engaging portrait of Harold Gillies (1882-1960), a successful British ear, nose, and throat surgeon whose pioneering work in repairing faces places him among the war’s few true heroes.” The Facemaker is a “consistently vivid account” of a “true miracle worker.”
The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story (One World/Random House)—edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Caitlin Roper, Ilena Silverman, and Jake Silverstein—is an expansion of the 2019 New York Times Magazine feature that “explores the history of slavery in America and its countless toxic consequences.” The editors masterfully curate a collection—with contributions by Rita Dove, Ibram X. Kendi, Jason Reynolds, Bryan Stevenson, Jesmyn Ward, and others—that shows “a nation still wrestling with the outcomes of slavery, an incomplete Reconstruction, and a subsequent history of Jim Crow laws and current legal efforts to disenfranchise Black voters.”
These Precious Days: Essays (Harper/HarperCollins) is the latest work of nonfiction from acclaimed novelist Ann Patchett, a beautiful follow-up to her previous collection, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Here, the author “opens the door and invites you into her world,” bringing us along as she examines friendship, literature, the writing life, and her decision not to have children. With essays that will appeal to almost any kind of reader, the collection puts on full display “an enviable life” rendered with the author’s characteristic “candor, emotion, and knockout storytelling power.”
In Sensorium: Notes for My People (Harper/HarperCollins) is a strikingly unique memoir by novelist and perfume maker Tanaïs, a Brooklyn-based writer of Bangladeshi descent. Our critic noted that “Tanaïs…brings a millennial sensibility—and a rejection of outmoded mores—to their work as a sharp observer of the world.” Elegantly written and threaded throughout with fascinating information about scents and their histories, it offers “a heady pleasure of language in love with the author’s many subjects, and perfectly suited to them.”
Finally, the world of animals comes kaleidoscopically alive in Pulitzer Prize–winning Atlantic writer Ed Yong’s An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us (Random House), “an ingenious account of how living organisms perceive the world.” From butterflies and birds to catfish and the peacock mantis shrimp, Yong shows us a multitude of colorful delights. Our critic called Yong’s book “one of the year’s best popular natural histories.” In my eyes, it’s the best popular natural history of the year.
Eric Liebetrau is the nonfiction and managing editor.