Nonfiction November: Your Year in Nonfiction

Nonfiction November is finally here! I couldn’t be more excited to see more nonfiction in the spotlight for a whole month and to help with hosting alongside Kim @ Sophisticated Dorkiness, Katie @ Doing Dewey, Sarah @ Sarah’s Book Shelves, and Julie @ Julz Reads.

This week’s (Oct. 29 – Nov. 2) discussion is hosted by Kim @ Sophisticated Dorkiness:

Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

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Far and away my favorite read this year has been Susan Orlean’s The Library BookI can’t adequately express how much joy this book brought me. Orlean builds it around the story of the fire that devastated the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986 and lets the story branch into unexpected but delightful directions from there.

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A new-to-me but immediate favorite was The Unwomanly Face of WarThis is my year of finally reading Svetlana Alexievich and I wish I hadn’t waited.

A few other gems:

Blood & Ivy: The 1849 Murder That Scandalized Harvard, by Paul Collins – Brilliantly written, historically rich true crime with the hair-raising side story of how Harvard medical students got a reputation for grave robbing.

A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea, by Masaji Ishikawa – Haunting memoir from a Japanese-born North Korean who makes a harrowing escape after his family repatriates under a propaganda campaign.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, by Michelle McNamara – Posthumously published account of a true crime writer’s intense efforts to unmask a serial rapist and murderer who stalked California communities for years, and was finally identified in April. Deserves its hype.

God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State, by Lawrence Wright – I thought my Texas interest level was little to none (nothing against it at all, just couldn’t imagine reading a book about it.) How wrong I was – I loved this funny, thoughtful, informative look at the state – from history, surprisingly nuanced politics, culture, and landscape to larger-than-life personalities, everything marching to the beat of a different drum. Texas native Wright is consistently a winner for me, his nonfiction writing is in its own category of excellence.

A particular topic I’ve been attracted to is tales of cons and deceptions. A favorite in this little genre has been Bad Blood, a thorough investigative narrative of the false, dangerous promises of a home blood-testing device from now-disgraced biotech company Theranos. It reads like a thriller, the saga of CEO/founder Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos’s meteoric rise and fall is spellbinding.

The Woman Who Fooled the World was also greatly compelling, written by the journalists who exposed Australian Belle Gibson’s lucrative wellness empire built on claims she’d cured brain cancer (which she’d never had) through healthy eating (implying, ‘here’s how you can too!’). It includes thoughtful insights from medical professionals about how the online wellness industry and untrained, amateur bloggers and Instagrammers are detrimentally influencing medical and health decisions.

Con stories I read on a 3-star-ish level were The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deceptionabout a family man’s elaborate lifestyle deception culminating in multiple murders; A Deal with the Devil, where two CNN Money reporters get to the heart of an intricate global psychic scam; and the upcoming Duped: Double Lives, False Identities, and the Con Man I Almost MarriedAll still worth reading in case you also share my con-centric reading addiction.

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My most recommended nonfiction has been Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen. These essays about cooking and kitchen experiences (including disasters, one of my favorite topics in foodoirs), personal stories from novelist Colwin’s life and how food played a part in recollected scenes and life phases is warmly touching, happy, and hilarious. She’s passed away but what a light she must’ve been is clear, her personality just shines through the pages. I’ve got its sequel, More Home Cooking, sitting on my shelf, hopefully to get to this month.

If you’re participating in Nonfiction November, don’t forget to link up your Week 1: Year in Nonfiction posts here with Kim @ Sophisticated Dorkiness and see what everyone else’s year in nonfiction has been like. And starting November 1, join the Instagram challenge hosted by @kimthedork and @shelf_aware_ using #nonficnov. Sarah @ Sarah’s Book Shelves posted the Instagram prompts for each day throughout the month so you can start planning your posts.

I’m so looking forward to seeing everyone’s posts throughout the month!

64 thoughts on “Nonfiction November: Your Year in Nonfiction

  1. You have so many excellent recommendations! I’ve just started The Library Book, and it’s quickly becoming one of my favorites of the year as well, nonfiction or otherwise. Looking forward to checking out Orlean’s other work after finishing it.

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    1. I’m so glad to pass some good ones along to you! And thrilled that you’re enjoying The Library Book, I feel like I can’t talk about that one enough, I just loved it. I’m a longtime fan of The Orchid Thief and I want to read Orlean’s book of travel essays, I heard it was quite good. I’d read her essay collection The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup years ago and it didn’t make much impression but I think it might be worth a reread. I didn’t read as much nonfiction then and was much more judgey when I did. Will be looking forward to your thoughts on The Library Book when you finish it!

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      1. I’ll have to plan on reading The Orchid Thief next then! If I have enough time, I might even be able to check it out before the month ends. I remember reading “The American Man, Age 10” in a creative nonfiction college class, which I believe opens The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup. The essay was solid but not nearly as good as the writing in The Library Book.

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    1. I was reading something about that, how she was practically unknown to English-speakers for so long. I absolutely loved the two I read this year, and hoping to get to either Zinky Boys or Secondhand Time soon…I just needed a bit of an emotional break before another one, her books are incredible but gut wrenching.

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  2. I no longer track what I’ve read (it fed obsessive habits, best avoided) but have found myself drawn far more to non-fiction that fiction in recent years. Svetlana Alexievich is extraordinary. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend Chernobyl Prayer; it completely slayed me when I read it and I can still remember elements of it even now. It’s a hard read, of course, but extremely powerful as is The Unwomanly Face of War. She is a well deserved winner of the Nobel Prize.
    Probably the stand-out non-fiction reads for me this year have been Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard and Martha Gellhorn’s Travels With Myself and Another. Both books that have left a strong impression.
    It’s nice to see non-fiction being celebrated. There’s such richness and diversity in it, I can barely comprehend why it wasn’t always a big part of my reading. Maybe I’m just getting old!

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    1. I completely understand about feeding obsessive habits! I’m glad you found a way to avoid that. I like using something like goodreads to keep a record of what I’ve read because I have terrible memory and tend to forget I’ve read things.

      “Completely slayed” describes exactly how I felt after Voices from Chernobyl (that was what my copy’s titled, I didn’t know it was also Chernobyl Prayer!) Have you read anything else by her? I have Secondhand Time but haven’t tackled it yet. I agree that she was absolutely deserving of the Nobel, her work is stunning.

      The Snow Leopard sounds amazing. I’ve heard of and read ABOUT Peter Mathiessen but still never read anything by him. That sounds like a good place to start. Travels with Myself and Another sounds interesting too, I kind of love travel horror stories.

      I’ve also found my tastes changing, I read almost entirely fiction for many years with a nonfiction here and there and now it’s the opposite. I’m not sure exactly what’s behind the switch but as you say, there’s such richness and diversity in it and a shame that it’s often overlooked! Thanks for your thoughtful comments 🙂

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      1. Chernobyl Prayer must be the European name. I’ve also read The Unwomanly Face of War but that’s it so far. My library has Secondhand Time so I will probably read that one next.
        The Snow Leopard is a gorgeous book, I also haven’t read anything else by Mathiessen, but when my buying/borrowing ban is done I will look up some more. I’ll be watching out in case you read him first 🙂

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  3. You’ve read some really good ones this year! The one about North Korea sounds good – hard to find books about getting out of North Korea. Mostly because so few manage it. That book by Svetlana Alexievich sounds amazing.

    Guess I have some more books to add to my neverending TBR!

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    1. I’m so fascinated by memoirs of people who have managed to get out of North Korea. I read a few last year but this one was a favorite (a weird category to have a favorite in, I know.) The best book I’ve read about North Korea is Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, if you haven’t read it yet and are interested. It’s a narrative group biography of several people who have since defected, all from the same city and they’re somewhat loosely connected. It was gut wrenching but completely eye opening and well written, I learned so much from it.
      And Svetlana Alexievich is a must-read author, in my opinion. Her work is just phenomenal. Glad to give you some more for the neverending TBR 🙂

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    1. It’s such a delightful book, and yes, very light to balance some heavier reads. But it’s not at all fluffy or throwaway, if you know what I mean. Discovering that book was such a treasure for me. I hope you like it too, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!

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    1. Oh my gosh how did I forget about Born a Crime?! I even bought it because of seeing it in so many people’s Nonfiction November posts last year! I bet it was a delight on audio, he has such amazing delivery. Did you see he’s working on another one? https://deadline.com/2018/02/trevor-noah-follow-up-born-a-crime-memoir-bought-spiegel-grau-imprint-1202276582/
      I’m so excited because as much as I loved it, I was disappointed that it ended without showing any connection between his growing up and how he ended up doing what he’s doing now and I was dying to know!

      You of all people haven’t read I’ll Be Gone in the Dark yet, I can’t believe it!! You must!! I can’t wait to hear what you think of it.

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      1. O, you’ve made my day, I’m so happy to hear Noah has another book coming out! It was probably the plan all along, and makes sense because, as you said, Born a Crime doesn’t show the connection to his career now. I hope he narrates the new audiobook too!

        I know, I know, even non true crime lovers have read McNamara, I’m slacking, haha!

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      2. I’m so glad I could bring you the good news! Yeah, you’re right, it totally makes sense with how Born a Crime was structured that it didn’t cover more, but I just didn’t want that book to end! I’m sure he’ll do the audiobook, I think the more famous celeb-types usually do, right?

        I’m so excited for you to read I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and hear your thoughts! It’s the scariest thing I read this year for sure.

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      3. Oh interesting! I thought for sure they’d use a professional for fiction and it just kind of made sense for authors to read their own memoirs. I believe you that some should have just coughed up for it 😂

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    1. I loved Blood & Ivy, it was such a fascinating and well-told story. One of those that makes you want to look up the author’s whole back catalog. And The Library Book is all kinds of wonderful, hope you enjoy it too!

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  4. Wonderful list! I admire how widely you read in nonfiction. I am so very much drawn to the same types of non-fiction books – mostly memoirs by women, obviously. But your recommendations make me very excited to broaden my horizon!

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    1. Thank you so much! I’m glad to hear that, because sometimes I feel like I stick closely to the same categories. I love memoirs by women too, but I’ve made a little bit of a conscious effort to rein in the memoir reading in general, just because at one point I found myself reading them almost entirely. I’m really happy to help broaden your horizons with some suggestions too, a little variety never hurts 🙂

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  5. You’ve always got such brilliant recommendations for non fiction!! I’m really looking forward to taking part and hope to put up my posts tomorrow which includes the TBR I hope to read this month. Will try and take part in some of the Instagram posts too! 😁🤗

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    1. Thank YOU for having me, and for creating it in the first place!
      Happy to hear you also love con stories, they’re so strangely compelling, aren’t they? And thrilled that you loved The Library Book, it was such a highlight this year.

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    1. I’d heard Do No Harm mentioned before and thought it sounded really interesting, but I get a little squeamish about medical/surgical topics so I wasn’t sure about it. Good to hear it comes so highly recommended!

      And I agree, Ishikawa’s is just totally fascinating, especially because he has a different perspective than other North Korean memoirs I’d read, since he’d lived his life abroad and had this horrible shock when his family returned to North Korea. It’s a quick but very powerful read!

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      1. I can’t begin to imagine what a shock that must have been to return. Going back home after a few years absence is always disorientating because things have changed or if they haven’t, then you have. But the regime in NK is so severe that if you lived anywhere less so I’m not sure how you’d cope

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  6. I have seen a few recommendations of The Library Book now and can’t wait to pick it up. I also want to read The Unwomanly Face of War – my mum heard about it on a radio programme and sent me texts about it for several weeks, so I suspect I might be getting it for Christmas! Glad to hear you liked it, as I’ve heard mixed reviews of it.

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    1. The Library Book is just stellar, I can’t recommend it enough!

      That’s so funny and sweet, you know when it’s the subject of multiple mom texts it’s probably being acquired for you! 🙂 I hope you enjoy Unwomanly Face of War. It’s definitely not an easy or light read, that’s for sure, so maybe that’s why you heard some mixed reviews? I had an ugly cry or two while reading it, it can be very emotionally affecting. But I found it so meaningful and such a different perspective on war experience/history.

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    1. I’m happy to see the market growing too, it does seem that way! And glad to hear that you’ve been finding more good nonfiction reads lately. I hope you get to lots of good ones for Nonfiction November! 🙂

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  7. Pingback: October Miscellany
  8. So many great books here! I loved Home Cooking and have A River in Darkness waiting on my kindle. I’m on the library hold list for The Library Book (my daughter was lucky enough to hear Orleans speak in NYC last week) and am also curious about God Save Texas. Thank you for all of the suggestions.

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    1. I’m so happy you loved Home Cooking too, that book is simply wonderful. Have you read the second part yet? I hope you like the Library Book, it was such a highlight for me. And I really recommend God Save Texas, it completely surprised me. Glad to be able to give you some good suggestions!

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  9. One I keep seeing pop up is Bad Blood. It must be pretty good if everyone is reading it. I was thinking of picking it for my True Crime category next year. (I’m trying to diversify by reading one from each of a list of chosen Dewey Decimal categories.)

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    1. It’s absolutely a great read, I think not least because it’s so thoroughly researched and well written. I hardly even think of it as true crime though, although of course it is! I love that idea of diversifying reading, for me at least reading about business crime was a big departure from my usual choices but really worth it.

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  10. The Library Book does sound fascinating! I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and A River in Darkness are on my TBR list as well. It looks like you’ve had an excellent year in nonfiction!!

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  11. I am completely on board with all of your favorites that I’ve read, so I should probably pick up the others too! I did just get The Library Book in at my library and I’ll be picking it up as soon as the air quality gets a little better in the bay area 🙂

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