Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
Finally read this one, and wow. A profoundly affecting "Indian" history of westward expansion. Yes, there are certain archaeological claims it makes that have since been called into question, but this book remains a painfully eye-opening account of the "Indian Wars' of 1860-1890. It inspired me to start looking into the history of western Canadian settlement, which I knew little about and had never thought to particularly question.
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
Although Hubbard's name gets tossed around a lot in SF studies I'd never read an account of his rise to cult-leader status, let alone the disturbing aftermath as scientology transitioned into a "religion." Structured around the conversion & rejection of a prominent Hollywood scientologist, this book is worth reading on multiple levels: as a fascinating cultural history, as a profile of indoctrination, and of abusive personalities. Also, Tom Cruise.
Nothing to Envy: Everyday Lives in North Korea
A sometimes charming, mostly terrifying account of the lives of ordinary North Koreans who later defected to South Korea. I found myself rooting, retroactively, for the young starcrossed lovers to escape and the elderly Party loyalist to see the light and escape before her family starved to death. A fascinating - and horrifying - insight into life in a truly Orwellian society.
The Black Count
Born on Haiti, Alex Dumas, the mixed-race former slave, rose to become a French aristocrat and military hero before running foul of Napoleon. His adventurous life was later used by his son, Alexandre Dumas, as the inspiration for characters and events in THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO and THE THREE MUSKETEERS. An adventurous look at Romantic era race relations in Europe - a story American cinema and history tends to ignore.
The Emperor of all Maladies
I put off reading this book for a long time because, quite frankly, I thought this history of cancer and its treatment would strike too close to home. But Bannerjee's history of the evolution of cancer treatment is highly readable and provides a grim insight into the failures as well as successes of medical research. It also is clearly written and helped me get a better grasp on the language of 'precancer,' 'clinical trial' and 'chemotherapy' actually means.
Capital in the Twenty First Century
Probably one of the most important books of the year, but - frankly - not the most readable, Pekkety's empiricist history of capitalism from the 18thC onward buries ''trickle down' economics and provides a grim, number-driven picture of our century's rising inequality. The first and last chapters are the most important, so if you want to know what people are talking about, go read those.