Pre-2018 Favorites

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 Seahis 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 Testabout the eponymous questionnaire and the socially-terrifying people it identifies was a gem, as was Themhis 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 Memoirby 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?

28 thoughts on “Pre-2018 Favorites

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  1. I hardly read any new releases, but I had Daring to Drive and Born a Crime on my list of books to read in 2018 (which I failed to read). I definitely still want to read those. Everything else you mention sounds fascinating as usual. I think Home Cooking sounds the most fun and reassuring at the moment; I need a break from tough topics. I think there’s even a copy floating around here somewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Daring to Drive and Born a Crime are both so good, I hope you get to them this year! They cover some very tough topics but ultimately I found them both much more uplifting and inspiring than heavy.

      Home Cooking was very reassuring and joyful. I’ve been rereading bits of it here and there throughout the year. It does seem to be one of those books lots of people already have a copy of, I realized when I read it that I recognized nearly every cover version of it, I think I must’ve seen it on friends’ shelves often over the years but still missed out on it until now! It’s really a treasure, hope you like it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I just got Born a Crime and I’m super excited to start it as soon as I finish reading what I am right now. The Only Girl in the World sounds terrific, surely a different narrative than what I’m used to. Incendiary sounds like a book my mom would love — I should probably track down a copy and give it to her for her birthday! And then read it myself! 🤗

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’ll like it, he’s a wonderful storyteller! The Only Girl in the World is fantastic, it’s the kind of story you never forget and can’t beliebe someone lived it and turned out as wonderfully as she did. And Incendiary would make a great gift, it’s really absorbing.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t recommend Just Mercy enough, especially since you liked The Sun Does Shine. It’s gut-wrenching but truly such an incredible book – enlightening, enraging, but inspiring.
      I can imagine Born a Crime would be wonderful on audio, I love his storytelling style! He’s writing another memoir, had you heard? It should cover more of how he developed his career, which I was left very curious about at the end of Born a Crime!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. You say pre-2018 favourites, I say my wishlist!! I know I keep going on about how you have resparked my love for nonfiction, but it’s true! I may not have read as many as I wanted to this year but I’ve bough LOADS, I was telling my mum about your blog today and how I’m discovering nonfiction is so much bigger than just True Crime, haha!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am just so honored!!! I told you before but that’s exactly why I started blogging about what I read, to try and emphasize more of what’s out there in nonfiction. To hear
      that it’s resparked your interest just makes me so very happy and I’m glad I could have any part in that! You know how I feel about true crime, haha, but so much good stuff to discover in other corners of nonfiction too, and I’m thrilled it’s helped you to branch out. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on what you read, I love your taste in nonfiction! and omg telling your mom too, you’re just the sweetest!! Thank you 🤗

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I was curious about Manderley Forever, I love Daphne du Maurier’s books but don’t know much about her personally. Going to have to read your full review of that.

      Born a Crime was such a fun but enlightening read, I thought. Glad you liked it too!


      1. Manderley Forever was very readable and gave interesting background on Du Maurier’s life, but is definitely on the fictionalized side rather than a straight biography. If that’s ok with you, I read it last year on Emma’s recommendation and really enjoyed it after reading several of DDM’s novels.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hmm…good to know. Is it fictionalized in terms of the writing style, so maybe some creative liberties taken in storytelling, or is it overly speculative, like in filling in narrative gaps? If it’s a fictionalized writing style that’s ok with me, but if it’s a case of too much being unknown or not concrete enough so the author fills in the gaps with speculations and “might’ve”, “could’ve”, etc., then I’m less enthusiastic…

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Definitely the writing style, it’s written in a flowing narrative without any presence of an objective biographer. And there are parts that have to be speculation unless they are supported by diaries etc. — Daphne’s inner thoughts and so forth. My sense is that it was based on research and on true insights into the author’s life and personality, though going somewhat beyond that into the imaginative realm.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I like when even biography is written using a good narrative if possible, but not being objective sounds problematic…and that drives me absolutely crazy–when an author speculates about feelings and inner thoughts without having documentation to back it up. It always makes me wonder why they didn’t opt to write a biographical novel instead. That’s a great description, that it goes into the imaginative realm…I think I’d still try it at some point but sounds like one to get from the library. Thanks for the insights!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, I’m so happy to hear that!! and glad I could send some good recommendations your way. Those three were all fantastic, I would especially recommend Cold a Long Time, which just blew my mind. I haven’t gotten around to giving it a full review yet but will be coming soon 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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