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.
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:
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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?