As the year closes, I want to sincerely thank everyone who reads and follows What’s Nonfiction. I’ve loved sharing my thoughts on books and stories, new and old, hearing your opinions, and following your own writings and art. I hope the next year continues to bring connections with bloggers and readers. One of the best parts of reading something great is telling someone else about it (or on the other hand, helping someone avoid a waste of time) and I hope you keep finding ideas here to keep your bookshelves full!
And I’m already looking forward to next year’s new books! But first, I picked my top reads of 2016 (who doesn’t need another end of year list?) These were all released this year – I planned to include others I read this year that weren’t new releases, then I got hit with end-of-year lethargy and laziness and surely this is enough anyway.
I went on a big true crime kick this year. Probably too big. In addition to watching too many TV true crime shows, I read a lot in the genre too. I try to read a broad mix of subjects, but you know how sometimes once you start down one path, you find more and more connected to it and then it’s just too late? That was me with true crime this year, on TV and on the page. We’ll see what happens next year, but I’ll have to tone it down at some point.
If anyone else is a true crime addict like me, a book of the same title that’s actually a high-quality read, unlike much of the genre that’s throwaway or trashy, will surely appeal: James Renner’s True Crime Addict, about the disappearance of college student Maura Murray.
Another great read was Adnan’s Story by Rabia Chaudry, following up on another case that captivated and led to lots of online sleuthing, this one thanks to the podcast megahit Serial.
A book that’s difficult to categorize, and isn’t necessarily more true crime than anything else, but which was definitely one of my absolute favorite reads this year was The Red Parts. Writer Maggie Nelson writes about her aunt Jane, who she never knew but couldn’t forget thanks to Jane’s untimely death at the hands of a notorious serial killer who picked victims from amongst Michigan university students in the late 60s. Except that new DNA evidence reveals that Jane wasn’t a victim of the same killer, and an emotionally taxing trial gets underway to prosecute her actual killer. Nelson interweaves so much into this surprisingly short book, about life and death and everything in between. Her writing is beautiful and affecting, and as varied as the book’s content is, it’s difficult to even put into words how good it is. I promise it’s excellent, read it.
In Biography/Memoir, I went light on the bios and heavy on the memoirs this year. The most unforgettable of these was far and away The Sound of Gravel, Ruth Wariner’s jaw-dropping account of her childhood in a polygamist cult and how she managed to rebuild her family. Completely haunting, I laid awake after finishing it.
Hillbilly Elegy was an especially prescient read this year, detailing J.D. Vance’s Appalachian upbringing and providing an illuminating glimpse into the mentality and motivations of those Americans that so many on the outside misunderstand.
In I Will Find You, journalist Joanna Connors confronts the demons of her past by hunting down the man who raped her in an empty theater while she was on the job decades before. The first thing she finds out is that he’s dead, but neither her nor his story ends there.
A lighter memoir that still stems from something serious is One of These Things First, Steven Gaines’ darkly humorous tales of growing up different (read: gay) in Brooklyn, leading to a check-in at the famed Payne Whitney Clinic.
And on the very light side, aside from the mountains of French bureaucracy and red tape, is Pancakes in Paris, Craig Carlson’s adorable memoir of moving to Paris and solving a mountain of logistical problems to open an American-style diner and serve mountains of pancakes to Parisians.
History and General Nonfiction
I learned the most from Bellevue, a thorough and beautifully written history of New York City’s Bellevue Hospital, one of the most important public hospitals to ever exist. It continues to be at the forefront of medical and healthcare innovations, handling every crisis the city, and sometimes the country, is hit with.
Historical gastronomist Sarah Lohman’s Eight Flavors is a fun, fascinating history of common American spices and flavorings and how they made their way to our fair shores (hint: lots of immigration and integration).
On a search for the story that no one else but him can tell, journalist Luke Dittrich writes about textbook-famous neurology and psychology Patient H.M., a man who gave so much to scientific and psychological development without even realizing it. Dittrich’s grandfather was the surgeon who performed Henry Molaison’s life-changing lobotomy when such operations were in favor, and Dittrich finds out much more about memory, his grandparents, Henry, and their generation with some interesting science thrown in along the way.
Playing Dead is the debt-burdened Elizabeth Greenwood’s surprisingly light-hearted dive into the bizarre underworld of death fraud, those who perpetrate it, and why they do it.
Les Parisiennes tells the stories of many of the women who lived through the German occupation of Paris during World War II.
Forty Autumns is a family history of several generations of German women, including a German-American who returns to lead intelligence operations in East Berlin.
Two 2017 titles I’m particularly excited to share reviews of are The Inkblots, Damion Searls’ biography of Hermann Rorschach, inventor of the eponymous psychological test; and historian Helen Rappaport’s Caught in the Revolution, accounts from foreigners in Russia leading up to and during the Russian Revolution.
What were your favorite reads of 2016? What genres did you read the most? Did you finally get around to something that’s been languishing on your to-read list this year? What’s on your horizon for next year?
Wishing everyone a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year, with plenty of time for reading and writing!