I wasn’t planning to do a midyear best-of list, and July is already half gone, so…well past the halfway mark. But realizing how many truly excellent nonfiction titles have come out already this year, I thought a year-end recap would be way too long if I didn’t collect some standouts from the year’s beginning!
And I promise these are worth every minute of your precious reading time.
Ten favorite reads, from what’s been published January – June 2017:
Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia (Lisa Dickey, St. Martin’s Press, January 31) Lifelong Russophile Dickey made three trips across Russia, starting in the Siberian East and ending in the main cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg; each trip a decade apart. She chronicles those travels, their ups and downs, and most fascinatingly, the people she met and established quirky, sweet friendships with, lasting through those long stretches of time. She asks the right questions to draw out their opinions and ideas, political and cultural, and applies thoughtful, informed commentary of her own. Lighthearted and delightful but eye-openingly educational tour through modern Russian history and culture, with emphasis on US-Russian relations. Get it.
The Solace of Open Spaces: Essays (Gretel Ehrlich, Open Road Media, new ebook February 21, originally published 1984) Not new, but a newly released edition, and a collection that’s just as good now as upon its first publication more than 30 years ago. Poet and filmmaker Ehrlich traveled to Wyoming in 1975 intending to film a documentary, until the project was interrupted by her partner’s death. She found herself staying without knowing why, working through personal grief in the remote, unfamiliar landscape so different from her home in New York City. These essays are evocative, painting the imagery of the Wyoming landscape alongside its hardworking ranchers, cowboys, and townsfolk, as Ehrlich tries to keep moving, thinking, working, writing. Exquisitely written prose. Get it.
The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria (Alia Malek, Nation, February 28) Journalist and civil rights lawyer Malek traces, with meticulous research, her family’s roots in troubled but fondly remembered Syria, centered around life and loss in her grandmother’s apartment in Damascus. She tells her family’s generational story alongside the country’s national history, all told deftly and in rich detail. In addition to being a touching memoir of family, it’s an excellent foundation course in the storied history of a country that gets so much airtime for negative reasons. Get it.
Priestdaddy (Patricia Lockwood, Riverhead, May 2) I think I scream-laughed while reading poet Lockwood’s account of moving, married, back into her parents’ house as an adult. Their home is connected to a rectory because her outspoken, gun-toting dad is a Catholic priest, admitted through a loophole allowing conversions of married priests from other denominations. In turns musing and poetic and side-achingly hilarious, I could’ve immediately begun reading this observational story of life at the Lockwoods’, and what brought Patricia and her husband there, anew as soon as I finished. Get it.
The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir (Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Flatiron, May 16) Lawyer and journalist Marzano-Lesnevich writes a seamlessly genre-bending recollection of her work on a death penalty case in Louisiana, a grisly, heart-wrenching one of a child molester and murderer. In the process, she’s forced to confront demons from her own past, especially as they make her question how she feels ethically about punishment and responsibility. Issues of memory, truth and narrative are woven throughout, her writing is stunning and her stories are haunting, bravely told. Get it.
Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 (David Sedaris, Little Brown, May 30) Excerpts from the brilliantly hilarious and sensitively observational David Sedaris’ personal diaries, spanning two and a half decades. I laughed, I commiserated, I wanted to hug him even though I know he wouldn’t like that because he tells us so, along with so many more peeps into his personality and the progression of his career, from nomadic apple picking across the States to full-time writing and This American Life darling in Paris. Get it.
Al Franken, Giant of the Senate (Al Franken, Twelve, May 30) Comedian and political satire radio host turned Minnesota Democratic Senator Franken describes his careers, political and otherwise, and gives insider glimpses into the workings of the Senate in this candid memoir, his first book since his time as an elected official. Franken relates how he was forced to hide his funny light under a barrel in order to seriously pursue a political career and prove his dedication to the position, so here the barrel is kicked aside and his witty, frank sense of humor shines, but so do his myriad political accomplishments and his commitment to reaching across the political aisle. Come for the hopeful stories of someone working towards good, stay for the well-deserved hisses at the Senate’s own Dwight Schrute, Ted Cruz. Get it.
The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny (Michael Wallis, Liveright, June 6) This history of the ill-fated Donner Party’s journey from Illinois to California, and that particularly sticky spot in Utah, aims to put fact over sensationalism and bring the truth of the group’s mistakes and intentions to the forefront. It really surprised me – I hesitated to read it because cannibalism gets a big nope from me, but the backdrop of American history at that time, with its concepts of exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny, tell so much more about this incident than the gruesome bits we all know. It’s smoothly, engagingly written narrative American history at its finest. Get it.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (Roxane Gay, HarperCollins, June 13) Whipsmart cultural critic and author Roxane Gay writes a painfully honest, emotional but clearheaded memoir of the teenage gang-rape that led her to overeat in order to turn her body into a place she felt safe. She details her subsequent twists and turns in life, analyzes her decisions and emotions, and manages to speak unapologetically, and sometimes exquisitely humorously, about her pain, fear, and the different ways a person can hunger. Get it.
I Was Told To Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad (Souad Mekhennet, Henry Holt, June 13) Washington Post reporter Mekhennet is the investigative journalist who cracked the identity of terrorist Jihadi John, but that’s only one of the stories culled from her harrowing experiences going behind the scenes with men affiliated with various terrorist organizations and groups over many years. She writes intelligently about using her background, a mix of Western and Muslim, to help gain access despite danger and threats and to accurately tell stories with cultural analysis a general readership can understand. Get it.
And, bonus: two already-favorites that are upcoming releases. I’ll post reviews closer to publication but you should know early how seriously good these are:
The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage (Jared Yates Sexton, Counterpoint LLC, September 12) Of all the books we knew were coming about Donald Trump’s taking of the White House, and the national political temperature that allowed it to happen, this one is a gem. Journalist Sexton went viral when he live-tweeted a Trump rally early on, a play by play of the racism, aggression, and anger as they were given vent. He sends dispatches from the field in these accounts from the campaign trail, analyzing not only the Republican right but Democratic and Green Party rallies and campaigns as well. It’s scary, it’s enlightening, it’s beautifully written, it will make you sad and angry and disappointed but still hopeful, somehow.
After the Eclipse: A Mother’s Murder, A Daughter’s Search (Sarah Perry, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September 26) At age 12, Perry’s mother was murdered while she cowered in her room in their new prefab home in rural Maine. What follows are some very difficult years as she bounces between family members and misses the mother she shared an incredible connection with. She writes achingly beautifully about growing up under the shadow of this tragic event, and how she grew into herself and came to understand certain truths, personal and much larger, all while maintaining a link that transcends physical separation to her strong, loving mother.
Any favorites that I’ve missed? Titles you’re eagerly anticipating? I’d love to hear!
From what I’ve been reading, it’s already an excellent year for creative, impacting nonfiction titles. Here’s to the rest of the year bringing many more well-written, thoughtful reads of all too true stories.
I’ve included affiliate links from Book Depository. It means I get a small commission if you buy via these links. I’m never paid to promote or review any title.