I noticed this year that several of my pre-2018 picks were published in 2017, so they’re not actually that far from being new releases. I’m a little disappointed that it turned out that way, but I guess 2017 was just a great year for nonfiction!
Here are the books that were my favorites among what I read published before 2018:
My top backlist favorite this year is one I’ve already mentioned enough, Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (1988). This memoir-in-essays is centered around the kitchen and novelist Colwin’s connections to food throughout times in her life. It’s punctuated with recipes whose development and significance is looped into her storytelling (some are quite loosely structured, so this isn’t a strict cookbook in any sense). And they’re actually great recipes, especially some excellent vegetarian ideas, certainly among the best I’ve pulled from cooking memoirs. Colwin’s blend of humor, sensitivity to life issues, willingness to poke fun at herself and her culinary mistakes are so amusing, heartfelt and relatable. I loved everything about this book. (Amazon / Book Depository)
A close second is Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II (2017). Her carefully cultivated oral histories of some of the monumental tragedies littering the landscape of contemporary Russia are gut wrenching and gorgeous in equal measure (Voices from Chernobyl is her only other I’ve read so far and it’s similarly exquisite). The first-person accounts from women who served in the Red Army related in this book are simply extraordinary. (Amazon / Book Depository)
This has been my year of discovering Jon Ronson (as with the above two authors, I’m late to the party, I know). I especially loved Lost at Sea, his collected long-form journalism covering a number of curious topics ripe for investigation or journalistic perspective, like the title piece about people gone missing from cruise ships. His journalism includes book-length explorations of intriguing, often mysterious or obscure subjects where he allows his research to take him where it may in rooting out answers.
The Psychopath Test, about the eponymous questionnaire and the socially-terrifying people it identifies was a gem, as was Them, his prescient reporting on his up-close and personal “adventures with extremists,” including sneaking into mysterious gatherings at Bohemian Grove with Alex Jones (then beginning on his path to utter madness) and a conference of the shadowy (or is it?) Bilderberg Group. Ronson has such an easily readable style and a knack for showing the vulnerability of his interview subjects (and himself) and illuminating unique corners of society, while always making his storytelling smart and completely hilarious.
Cold a Long Time: An Alpine Mystery, by John Leake (2012) – Duncan MacPherson, a Canadian professional hockey player, disappeared in Europe in 1989. His parents, frantic to learn what happened to him, eventually trace his disappearance to the Stubai Glacier, a ski resort near Innsbruck, Austria. Knowing his final location only brings more questions and a bizarre mystery that lasted for the next twenty years. Author Leake was enlisted by the MacPhersons to help determine what happened to Duncan, and the cover-up he unravels defies belief but is thoroughly documented and explained. Completely fascinating/maddening, heartbreaking, and page-turning. (Amazon / Book Depository)
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson (2014) – Attorney Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit providing legal help to those who may have been wrongfully convicted. His memoir describing how he came to do this and some of the cases he’s worked, highlighting racial and economic inequality in trials and the conditions his clients endured in prison, is one of the most intense and affecting books I’ve ever read and will cause you to deeply consider your feelings about capital punishment. Stevenson is as eloquent a writer as he is a ferocious fighter against injustice. (Amazon / Book Depository)
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard (1972) – My most marked-up book this year was this one, comprising Dillard’s contemplative musings on life from her viewpoint in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Moutains. Exquisitely written, mixing the natural and scientific with the literary, philosophical, and thoughtful inner reflections. (Amazon / Book Depository)
Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber and the Invention of Criminal Profiling, by Michael Cannell (2017) – An atmospheric narrative nonfiction account of a bomber who targeted New York City landmarks for 16 years around the 1950s, and a psychiatrist at the forefront of criminal behavioral profiling who helped police determine the type of culprit to seek. The writing is engrossing and the crime story fascinating and new to me. (Amazon / Book Depository)
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (2016) – The charming and charismatic host of The Daily Show recounts his childhood growing up mixed race in apartheid South Africa, his very existence underscoring the “crime” of this memoir’s title. Hilarious and touching in equal measure, it’s also a testament to Noah’s fierce and loving mother. (Amazon / Book Depository)
The Only Girl in the World: A Memoir by Maude Julien (2017) – Deeply personal memoir of Julien’s childhood in France with her mentally ill Freemason father, who enacted a twisted life goal of turning her into an optimally-conditioned superhuman. It’s sad and scary as she recounts an unbelievable childhood of extremities, which she endured and survived and tells from an adult perspective of having triumphed over the hand that was dealt her. (Amazon / Book Depository)
Journey into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg (1967)- Ginzburg’s account of her arrest and the beginnings of her years-long imprisonment in Stalin’s Gulag system is such a powerful standout among Soviet memoirs, a pretty powerful genre to begin with. It’s gorgeously written even in translation, and Ginzburg had a remarkable ability to capture evocative detail in her memories, as she describes the beginning of her harrowing experience and imparts the hopefulness and strength that tinged every day. (Amazon / Book Depository)
Bettyville: A Memoir, by George Hodgman (2015) – Editor Hodgman leaves a Manhattan life to care for his nonagenarian mother Betty in his hometown of Paris, Missouri. The return, already fraught with stress as he faces the final stretch of his mother’s life, also brings up long-dormant family issues and nostalgic recollections, interspersed with his mental turning-over of the experiences he’s lived in between and stories about the colorful characters of small-town Missouri. It’s emotionally affecting but lightened throughout with Hodgman’s humor, not to mention his impressive writing. (Amazon / Book Depository)
Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening, by Manal al-Sharif (2017) – In vivid detail, al-Sharif describes what it’s like to live female in Saudi Arabia, particularly highlighting the time before women earned the right to drive this past June (thanks in large part to her own activism). She tells of the never-ending bureaucracy that stymies a woman’s efforts to be independent and self-sufficient, while maintaining her own confidence and becoming an activist despite the public and private backlash she endured. In addition to being an extraordinary memoir, it serves as a highly readable primer on Saudi political and cultural history. (Amazon / Book Depository)
Black Earth City: A Year in the Heart of Russia by Charlotte Hobson (2002) – Hobson details her collegiate year abroad in Voronezh, a provincial city in Russia, precisely coinciding with the fall of the Soviet Union. This turning point is seen through her young adult’s eyes, as she juxtaposes the monumental historical moment with the melodramatic comings and goings of life in her student dorm, Russian-style. (Amazon / Book Depository)
Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, by Paul French (2012) – In 1937, an expat teenager was found murdered in the “Badlands” of Beijing (then Peking) in the charged days before China is invaded, triggering war with Japan. A rabbit hole of a mystery that officially went unsolved, her father dedicated ample efforts to finding her killer, and French picks up on his research while reporting on and contextualizing the heady atmosphere of Peking in the waning days of “Old China”. An excellently written, page-turning mystery. (Amazon / Book Depository)
Have you read any of these, or do any sound appealing? What was your favorite pre-2018 nonfiction read this year?