25 Favorites from 2018

What new nonfiction impressed the most upon you this year? I think I read more new release books that were consistently pretty good, but fewer that were completely stellar. Or so it feels, at least.

The majority of my favorites published earlier in the year, with the latter half a little lackluster among my new release choices. I had better luck with my pre-2018 reads in the year’s second half.

What new nonfiction released in 2018 counted among your favorites? Here’s my list of 25 that I enjoyed most.

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Last year my top spot was a tie, but this year, the choice couldn’t have been easier. By far the clear standout for me was Susan Orlean’s The Library Book – using the starting point of a mysterious file at the Los Angeles Public Library to explore what libraries mean to us, their role and importance in communities, and some quirky, inspiring figures adapting them to those changing needs and ensuring they remain priceless community-serving hubs.

Alongside this library love letter are Orlean’s heartfelt recollections of what the library has meant to her and how important books are to private and public memory, culture, identity – all considered as she witnesses her mother’s beginnings of memory loss. Orlean’s writing is lovely and the book is joyful, edifying, sprawling in scope and completely delightful. (Amazon / Book Depository)

2-24 aren’t in any particular preferential order:

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Dancing Bears: True Stories About Longing for the Old Days, by Witold Szabłowski -Parallels drawn between bears rehabilitated from Eastern European street entertainment and residents in formerly Communist countries as both try to adjust to newfound freedom and autonomy. Remarkably well done and fascinating stories and history across both segments. (Amazon / Book Depository)

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The Lady in the Cellar: Murder, Scandal and Insanity in Victorian Bloomsbury by Sinclair McKay – Still mostly unsolved mystery of a wealthy older woman (quite the character) found dead in a lodging house in Victorian London. The story, as it trickles out in various iterations, gets stranger and stranger. Beautifully, intelligently written, page-turning mystery and excellent social history of London’s changing social strata. (Amazon / Book Depository)

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Two Sisters: A Father, His Daughters, and Their Journey Into the Syrian Jihad by Asne Seierstad – Narrative nonfiction following the radicalization of two Somali sisters in Oslo, Norway, as they decide to join IS in Syria, and the story of their father desperately trying to find them. (Amazon / Book Depository)

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The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature by Viv Groskop – Part memoir, part literary analysis, Groskop takes a lively, hilarious look at canonical authors in Russian literature and extracts what lessons their writing and lives can lend us today. It’s interspersed with her experiences living in Russia and what she learned there. Happy, thoughtful, funny, and hopeful, despite what you might think considering Russian lit’s notorious gloom. (Amazon / Book Depository)

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Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy – Finishing this is why my list comes a bit late! Macy takes a personal, narrative angle to telling the story of the opioid epidemic and its horrifying human cost up close, following the lives of several mothers as they tell their children’s addiction stories and try to enact change and support programs for survivors. (Amazon / Book Depository)

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Kitchen Yarns: Notes on Life, Love and Food by Ann Hood – Meaningful and thoughtful while still funny and light, author Hood looks back on her life’s bittersweet connections to cooking and the kitchen. Happy and heartwarming storytelling even as serious life events are tackled. (Amazon / Book Depository)

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The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman – A look at the little-known kidnapping case and what evidence indicates that it inspired Vladimir Nabokov, at least in part, while writing Lolita. Alternating chapters provide fascinating insight into Nabokov’s process writing the infamous novel. (Amazon / Book Depository)

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Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith – Not every essay was a standout for me, but the ones that were are just exquisite. Smith’s eloquent thoughts on culture, race, art, immigration and much more. (Amazon / Book Depository)

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A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa – A powerful North Korean defector memoir, from a man whose family heartbreakingly repatriated to the hermit nation from Japan under the influence of propaganda. (Amazon / Book Depository)

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Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington – A medical examiner and a dentist ran a racket in Mississippi, contributing to countless wrongful convictions based on their bunk-science forensic interpretations. The sheer scope is mind-boggling. (Amazon / Book Depository)

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Pale Horse Rider: William Cooper, the Rise of Conspiracy, and the Fall of Trust in America by Mark Jacobson – If, like me, you’re obsessed with the stories behind conspiracy theories, this biography of Bill Cooper, the conspiracy theorist responsible for much of 9/11 trutherism and coiner of the phrase “sheeple” is a must-read. (Amazon / Book Depository)

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I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara – Intense account of California’s East Area Rapist and the late author’s passion for true crime reporting. Scariest book I can remember reading. (Amazon / Book Depository)

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Everything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid, by Sergey Grechishkin – Coming of age tale from the perspective of a quirky, observant boy in the Soviet Union, then Russia immediately after the fall. Sweet, funny, highly amusing glimpses at what passed for a normal childhood and changes as they appeared to a kid. (Amazon / Book Depository)

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A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong – Pulitzer-winning journalists investigate the case of a serial rapist and the aftermath among survivors, one of whom reported her attack but wasn’t believed because she didn’t behave as expected, leading to complicated legal problems. Excellent reporting on sex crimes investigation procedure, and how that’s changing/needs to change. (Amazon / Book Depository)

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God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State  by Lawrence Wright – Journalist Wright’s gorgeously written look at his complicated, complex home state, spanning culture, politics, history and travelogue. Surprisingly funny and extremely informative. (Amazon / Book Depository)

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American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment by Shane Bauer – Bauer’s expose on his stint undercover as a prison guard at a private institution in Louisiana alongside the disturbing history of for-profit prisons and forced labor in America. Disturbing but necessary. (Amazon / Book Depository)

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Miss Ex-Yugoslavia: A Memoir by Sofija Stefanovic – A sensitive girl’s coming-of-age as an immigrant in Australia, never shaking her connection to her war-torn home country of Serbia, is equal parts funny and touching. (Amazon / Book Depository)

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Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”, by Zora Neale Hurston – Hurston’s long-awaited oral history of Kossola, the last survivor of the Middle Passage is haunting. Though mostly told in Kossola’s words, Hurston’s writing shines beautifully. (Amazon / Book Depository)

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1947: Where Now Begins, by Elisabeth Asbrink – One postwar year examined month by month through the changes occurring worldwide – politically, culturally, and on a very personal level through the lens of the author’s Hungarian father. Lyrical prose even in translation from Swedish and fascinating, readable history with eerily resonant present connections. (Amazon / Book Depository)

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In the Name of the Children: An FBI Agent’s Relentless Pursuit of the Nation’s Worst Predators, by Jeffrey Rinek and Marilee Strong – Rinek’s deep kindness sets his apart from other braggadocious Bureau memoirs. His job was harrowing, mostly focused on crimes against children. He brings such sensitivity and care to the work, and despite upsetting stories, Rinek’s humanity is what impresses in this memoir of both the personal and the professional. So much admiration for him and his work. (Amazon / Book Depository)

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Calypso by David Sedaris – The beloved humorist’s latest essay collection sees him and his now-familiar family getting older, and his worldview getting a little darker, but still rife with his trademark wit and incomparable knack for stories spun from observation. (Amazon / Book Depository)

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Blood & Ivy: The 1849 Murder that Scandalized Harvard, by Paul Collins – When a well-known man goes missing and was last seen on Harvard’s medical school campus, questions arise around one faculty member as the mystery intensifies. Excellently written historical crime, including forensic innovations. (Amazon / Book Depository)

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Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine by Edward Lee – Chef Lee travels the US exploring how various immigration-background cultures, assimilated in very different regions, incorporate the cuisines of their homes in American cooking. Beautiful food writing and rich insights into America’s treasured melting-pot culture. (Amazon / Book Depository)

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Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000-Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier, by Mark Adams – A travel writer recounts his journey through one of the last “wild” American locales, following the footsteps of an 1899 expedition by naturalist John Muir. Illuminating, exciting glimpse into the region. (Amazon / Book Depository)

Did any of these make your favorites list as well? What new nonfiction have you enjoyed most this year?

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44 thoughts on “25 Favorites from 2018

    1. Thanks so much!! I’m glad you liked those two as well, they really were fantastic. I’d already read another book on the opioid crisis this year, American Overdose, and it was great but read a little dense in parts for me, so maybe Dopesick came across more readable in comparison. They were both very affecting but I liked the angle Beth Macy took, especially centering it around Roanoke.

      I was so curious about Sally Field’s memoir because I’m iffy on celebrity memoirs but hers seems like it’s so much more. I’ve seen it on a couple of the year-end lists from major publications too. The Accidental Truth sounds amazing!!! I feel like I’ve heard of it somewhere before but didn’t have it on my list. That’s right up my alley, thank you so much for that recommendation!!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. WOW! Where on earth to begin? The Library Book, The Real Lolita, 1947, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and American Prison are already on my TBR and I sooo want to read them. The rest of the books on your list look pretty fantastic as well. Nicely done and keep up the great work!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Buttermilk Graffiti sounds so interesting. I can’t say I have ever read a book focused almost entirely on food. But this one sounds right up my alley with the travel element. It looks like you had a great reading year. Happy holidays!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love books that explore the food/culture connection and that one takes a really interesting perspective on it. Plus it has some interesting insights into different parts of the country and how immigrants have established communities. There’s a lot of food writing in it but it’s not always entirely about food.
      Wish you happy holidays too! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The Library Book will for sure be on my Top Ten reads of the year! The only other one I read from your list is Barracoon, which was good but not one of my favorites. There are about five from the rest of your list that I’d like to read, including The Real Lolita and Everything is Normal. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad to hear it’ll make your list too, I just loved it!! The Real Lolita and Everything is Normal are both fantastic. Barracoon was a strange one, there was a lot more I still wanted from it and some things that disappointed, but I just felt like I learned so much from it that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t known. It had a profound effect on me, I was thinking about it often after reading. I also really liked reading more of Hurston’s own writing and I bought her memoir because I loved her style in nonfiction, I have high hopes for it!

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  4. I also loved I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Buttermilk Graffiti, Real Lolita, and especially Kitchen Yarns. Other nonfiction titles I liked were Todd Fisher’s homage to his mom and sister, My Girls, Tina Turner’s memoir My Love Story, and Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am. I liked Sally Field’s memoir as it was very revealing but also very sad. Amazing how these celebrities seem to have it all but most never really do.

    Added note: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark was in the top 10 of the recent #libfaves18 Twitter event where library staff counted down their favorite books of the year, but it was beat by Tara Westover’s Educated, another book that appeared in my top 10. For the entire spreadsheet, check out Earlyword – http://www.earlyword.com/2018/12/21/librarian-favorites-2018/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for sharing the spreadsheet with me, I’m so excited to browse that!!

      I’m really glad to hear we shared some favorites in common this year. Buttermilk Graffiti went a little overlooked, or so it felt to me..and wasn’t Kitchen Yarns so wonderful? I read an ARC but I need to buy a copy of it, it made me so happy! I Am, I Am, I Am has been recommended to me glowingly, and if it’s coming from you too I think I really need to check it out. I think I was hesitating because stories about dangerous medical problems upset me, but it seems like that’s overshadowed by her story as a whole. I’m interested in Sally Field’s memoir as well, I’m not crazy about celebrity memoirs in general so I ignored it at first but it seems like it’s much deeper than the average one. Thanks for your thoughts on these!

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      1. Even though you aren’t crazy about celebrity memoirs, I would also recommend Tina Turner’s book although she did undergo some pretty bad health problems, including a kidney transplant. But her resiliency over the years is amazing. And the O’Farrell book is also disturbing at times with the worst being the reason she wrote the book was for her daughter who has some awful skin disease. The O’Farrell book is one that is sure to generate lots of discussions.

        Right now I’m reading Dryer’s English and if you aren’t familiar with it, it’s a “grammar” book by Random House’s chief copy editor and it’s not only informative but also quite humorous. Comes out in January.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s great to know about Tina Turner’s memoir! She does seem like such a resilient person. I think my problem with celeb memoirs is that if I’m not a huge fan of their work, I find it so hard to get through the sections about their career, how they developed it, etc. and they’re in general not always particularly well-written so it feels like an investment in their personal story is necessary. But I do love a story about how someone has overcome difficulties and I’m sure Tina has done that!

        That grammar book sounds fascinating, actually! I do copy editing too so I’d be fascinated, especially if it’s humorous. Thanks for the tip about that one, I definitely will need to check it out!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent round up! Glad that you’ve had such a great year in reading. I somehow never got to I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, but I might give it a try next year – I feel like I’m one of the few who still haven’t finished it. Feel Free and The Library Book were some of my favorites as well!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! I’m glad you loved those two, they both were wonderful. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark lives up to its hype, in my opinion. I don’t know why but when some books get praise heaped on them from every direction I tend to hesitate but it’s very well done, even if she didn’t get to complete it herself. Would be very interested to hear your thoughts on it!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. What a wonderful list! I already got so many of these recommendations off your blog and they’re sitting on my TBR list, hopefully 2019 is the year I’ll start incorporating more nonfiction into my life. The Library Book sounds so insanely good. And A River in Darkness and The Real Lolita are both toward the top of my list as well. The only two I’ve read so far are Dopesick and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, but (obviously) I loved them both!

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    1. I so love reading your reviews, they’re always so thoughtful and you pick up on such interesting details so I do hope you’ll be incorporating more nonfiction into your reading in 2019! The Library Book was just a treasure, I can’t say enough good things about it, and A River in Darkness and The Real Lolita were both fascinating. I think the former was my favorite of North Korean memoirs I’ve read. And I’m glad we had those two favorites in common, I’ve been talking about Dopesick so much since finishing it..those stories just hit so hard and then stay with you!

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      1. I also really love reading your reviews! I feel like our taste in books kind of circles around each other but hopefully 2019 will bring more overlap! I’ve loved discussing the books we’ve had in common this year.

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    1. No worries, that’s why I have a job 😂 Thanks for the recommendation, I looked this one up and it sounds fantastic (and like something I could really use for work!) I requested a review copy but even if I don’t get it I’ll be buying it, it sounds really helpful and even better if it’s humorous. Thank you!

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  7. I can’t believe i’m saying this, cuz i haven’t read non-fiction in aaages, but the real Lolita story sounds really interesting.
    Gonna have to check out a few more from here, i may find other stuff too! 😀

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    1. It’s so interesting that you had such a personal link with it, I can’t imagine how intriguing it would be to read that kind of story about a scandal happening in the industry you’re working in! 😊 It was up there for me, just edged out slightly. I’ve seen it on quite a few year end lists though, so you’re not alone!

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    1. I loved The Anna Karenina Fix, it was unexpectedly delightful. You had so much interesting nonfiction on your list! I was curious about Conan Doyle for the Defense since I’d read another semi-autobiographical book about him last year, as I think I’d told you. I’m also curious about The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, that sounds lovely.

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