Favorites of the Year So Far

2018 has seen so much great nonfiction and we’re only halfway there. It’s been quite the year for big nonfiction news stories too, kicking off in January with Fire and Fury frenzy, then the memoir debut of a daughter of Mormon survivalists taking the literary world by storm, James Comey’s much-anticipated tell-all, and a triumphant moment for criminal justice with a serial rapist and killer apprehended more than four decades since his crimes began. Michelle McNamara is unofficially but widely credited with helping get the case back in the spotlight with her posthumous bestseller.

As usual, I haven’t read as much, as widely or as varied as I hoped. That’s my disclaimer. That said, these are my ten picks for what I’ve loved most from the new releases of January to June.

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Two Sisters: Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad’s detailed account of two Somali-born sisters who grew up in the suburbs of Oslo, Norway, and in 2014 ran away to join IS is incredibly well told even in translation. Their father, an unreliable narrator himself, follows them to Syria on a harrowing rescue mission while their mother falls apart at home and their brother drifts from religion. Seierstad traces their path to jihad in unbelievable detail, incorporating their own words through emails and text messages in addition to interviews with friends and families. Completely haunting and captivating, answers some questions and raises even more.

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I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: What a year for the Golden State Killer/East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker’s surviving victims and the families of those whose lives he took. Multiple documentaries (for some background, two great ones from Investigation Discovery: It’s Not Over and the Golden State Killer episode of People Magazine Investigates) and this book, originally a Los Angeles Magazine article by crime journalist Michelle McNamara, helped get this long-cold case back into public consciousness. On April 25, ex-cop Joseph DeAngelo was arrested based on a DNA match, hopefully marking the beginning of justice and closure for those affected by at least 12 murders and 50 rapes in California in the 1970s-80s.

McNamara’s book is engrossing, explaining both the draw to true crime stories and how they can affect a life. I even called this case unsolvable when I wrote about it, thinking that the tantalizing possibility of running his DNA through popular ancestry databases would never be legally feasible. Yet here we are. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark no longer feels unsatisfying and unresolved, and her work is an incredible testament to persistence and dedication despite the frustration she admits to.

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A River in Darkness: I’ve read a number of North Korean defectors’ memoirs but this one especially struck me. Brimming with both anger and strength, a North Korean of Japanese extraction flees the country to take refuge in Japan, but the struggles and losses he endured under the totalitarian regime linger. It’s made especially painful by the fact that his family willingly repatriated from Japan under false promises by the North Korean government in an attempt to lure citizens back to the country. Incredible story of the human rights violations happening in this strange, paranoid land.

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Everything is Normal: Absolutely charming account of a boy growing up in the Soviet Union and suddenly, its broken, clunky transition into Russia. This before and after memoir, perfectly told from a child’s perspective but with an adult’s humor and wisdom, from the now-emigrated Sergey Grechischkin is a gem in the Soviet memoir genre. His happy sense of humor sets it apart from many of its bleaker, grimmer contemporaries (not that those are bad, but this was such a surprising, hilarious, different story.)

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Apocalypse Child: If Tara Westover’s deserving, but in my opinion at times problematic Educated is one of the buzziest books of the year so far, Flor Edwards’ Apocalypse Child should’ve gotten just as much attention. She didn’t go to Cambridge, but Edwards’ story is no less an astonishing and impressive account of how a woman can overcome a harrowing childhood off the grid and become college educated and a wise, eloquent writer. Raised with many siblings in the controlling Children of God doomsday cult, Edwards grew up across international locales, including Thailand, the location of the bulk of this beautifully written memoir of her childhood and adolescence. She eventually returned to the US and earned a degree, sweetly describing reading her first novel, TC Boyle’s Tortilla Curtain. Her story is one of quiet strength and autonomy after a lifetime of indoctrinated fear, paranoia and deprivation.

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God Save Texas: The incomparable journalist Lawrence Wright surprised me with this study of his contradictory and incredibly unique native state, a place with a history as big as its sky and a complex narrative of politics, personality, and its national role as a border. Sprawling but streamlined, with some incredibly insightful and fitting memoir elements, this turned out to be one of the most unusual books I think I’ve ever read in addition to being a little social and cultural education in and of itself. Funny, fascinating, so thoughtful and smart.

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A False ReportJournalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong examine the case of a serial rapist and his victims in the Seattle area. At the heart of this terrifying story is the victim Marie who was accused, and even convinced, of falsely reporting the crime against her. It’s a complicated, scary but highly necessary and topical social study, well told and readable. As I hear people whining that Me Too is ruining lives, it’s important to remember how these crimes have been traditionally handled and victims treated until we began forcing a light into some very dark corners.

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Dancing Bears: This may have been my most surprising read so far this year. I’m not sure why I had low expectations – maybe because I’ve read so much on Communism and the former Soviet states that it’s tough for one to stand out and blow me away, but Polish journalist Witold Szablowski’s meticulously organized storytelling did just that. He skillfully makes comparisons between the “freedom” of now-rehabilitated, once-captive and abused bears in Bulgaria with citizens from a range of formerly Communist countries. His travels and careful context creation add a clear, personal understanding to the odd experiences and behaviors of humans and animals alike when faced with unexpected, unfamiliar freedom after authoritarianism.

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Calypso: It’s the next installment of David Sedaris’ diaries that I’m really looking forward to, but a new essay collection was a pleasant surprise and helps bridge the waiting gap. Several of these are previously published but they’re all delightful to read again, and in his typical style, Sedaris is able to make you feel such a diversity and depth of emotions as he explores topics of aging, illness, complicated family issues, and tumors + snapping turtles in his smooth, brilliant storytelling style. Reading his words always feels like a hug to my soul. I’m always surprised to hear there are people who haven’t fallen in love with him yet, so here’s a new chance to do so.

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Miss Ex-Yugoslavia: I laughed, I cried, I easily learned so much about the history, society and politics of the former Yugoslavia. Sofija Stefanovic writes an affecting, oddly relatable and completely hilarious memoir of her immigrant experience from Serbia to Australia, including a little back and forth. It stands out in the saturated genre of immigrant stories, a not unimpressive feat.

Have you read any of these? What have I missed? What are the year’s highlights for you so far?

22 thoughts on “Favorites of the Year So Far

  1. Good list! I jotted some down for my TBR.
    Here’s a couple that I’ve read from the first half of the year: The Last Cowboys by Branch. Red Card by Bensinger. An arc I read that comes out latter this year: The Kill Jar by Appelman.

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    1. Thanks, glad you found some ideas here! I hadn’t heard of the Last Cowboys or Red Card, I’ll check them out, thank you! I read an ARC of Kill Jar too and I felt very mixed about it. I loved the true crime storytelling and research but I hated the memoir elements and I found some things about the author very troubling. I’ll be interested to hear what others think about it.

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      1. I was more put off (disturbed, even) by his attitudes towards women than by the roughness of his journey, which of course was very tough and explained his motivation. I was so bothered and upset by the casual misogyny that I couldn’t be at all invested in his story.

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  2. I’ll have to check out Calypso, it sounds really interesting (but I guess I should read Theft by Finding first?)

    Great list! A River In Darkness has really stuck with me too. I think my favorite non-fic this year has been Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race.

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    1. Theft by Finding is material from his diaries spanning the 70s until the early 2000s, so it’s pretty different and doesn’t need to be read first 🙂 I loved it in part because it showed the beginnings of some of his better known pieces but it doesn’t have much in connection to Calypso, these are all very new and polished pieces. I think it helps to have read another of his essay collections first though, to get an idea of his family dynamics – Me Talk Pretty One Day is my all-time favorite and the best for getting an idea of his writing style and the topics he returns to repeatedly.

      I’m glad to hear A River in Darkness stuck with you too, I was so moved by it. I haven’t read Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race but I need to, it’s been on my radar, I think I need to bump it up on my to-read list!

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    1. I’m so happy you found some interesting ones here! I hadn’t heard of One Long Night and just looked it up, that sounds fascinating, I don’t know how I missed it…on my to-read list it goes. Have a great time in NY/East Coast, my favorite!

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  3. Well you should be proud of your reading life I mean no one I know reads as much as you and as widely as you can and since we are friends in goodreads I get glimpses of your current book to read and thanks to you I discovered many great books so thank you for sharing with us your reviews and guiding us to this books.
    I read two books Dancing Bears and two Sisters and I hope to review them soon but will not be eloquent as you always write.

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    1. Thank you so much, Ina, I’m so happy to hear I can point you to so many good books! I thought those two were excellent, I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on them, especially Two Sisters since I know you come to it with such a different perspective than I do, and unfortunately with some close personal experiences and stories.

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    1. Thank you! A River in Darkness was excellent (and not too long or dense so an easy one to get through.) I think the other two are really readable and compelling as well but they’re both on the longer side so take some time when you get to them. I really recommend them though, if you find yourself in the mood for one or the other 🙂

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    1. It was the same for me, over time I noticed I just gravitated more towards nonfiction. That makes me so happy to hear, thank you, and I’m very glad I could help you find some good stuff to read next 🙂

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  4. I really liked Miss Ex-Yugoslavia, and I’m definitely interested in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. I’m seeing Patton Oswalt live in a few weeks – such a sad story. Two of my nonfiction favorites this year were Just Mercy and Killers of the Flower Moon.

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  5. Have you picked up “Confessions of a Fox,” the debut novel by the transgender writer Jordy Rosenberg? It’s being marketed as historical fiction and a love story with gender-bending sex, but very scholarly. I read an excerpt that really was sexy. Rosenberg has a hot-shot agent and got a referral from Rachel Kushner, according to what I read. I haven’t read the whole novel yet, and it sounds a bit over-ambitious, but it’s getting some good reviews.

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  6. Oops. It”s “Confessions of THE Fox.” and I somehow forgot for a minute that you don’t review novels here. And I accidentally “liked” my own comment while trying to delete it, because I’m a total klutz online. But I really like your reviews.

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    1. No worries 😂 and thanks so much! Personally I find wordpress’s commenting function to be badly designed and formatted and way too prone to errors but that’s another story. Believe it or not I really don’t read fiction at all anymore, but I actually like reading people’s reviews of what’s new and getting attention.

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