What’s the best nonfiction you’ve read so far this year? Any standouts yet? Looking back from the halfway point, I think it’s already been a pretty good year for nonfiction.
In no particular order, here are my favorites from the new nonfiction published in the first half of 2019.
Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, by Benjamin Dreyer – Random House’s chief copy editor draws on his years of hard-earned experience for a style guide that will not only help you write better no matter what you’re writing, but is massively readable and laugh-out-loud funny. If you never thought a book like this could be so compelling, allow yourself to be proven wrong. Amazon / Book Depository
The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers, by Bridgett M. Davis – Novelist Davis recounts her mother Fannie’s unusual work running the Numbers, the illegal gambling game that “made a way out of no way” for their family in 1950s-’60s Detroit. She also gives a vibrant picture of Numbers culture and its significance to the community. I’m surprised I haven’t been seeing this book everywhere because it’s superb. Amazon / Book Depository
The Perfect Predator: A Scientist’s Race to Save Her Husband From a Deadly Superbug, by Steffanie Strathdee & Thomas Patterson – HIV researcher Strathdee discovered phage therapy (using viruses that eat bacteria) after her husband, Patterson, fell ill with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. A little-known method with a long history, through her efforts and those of a dedicated team of doctors and researchers worldwide, it saved Patterson’s life. I thought this would be too alarming, but it’s informative, fast-paced, and hopeful. Amazon / Book Depository
The Book of Delights: Essays, by Ross Gay – “Essayettes” on a year of the little things, people, and scenes that delighted poet Gay. Equal parts weird, funny, heartwarming and bittersweet. And not relentlessly sunny; he addresses topics like being a black man in America and the racism it entails. He has a lovely, poetic storytelling style, and helps open your eyes to what instances of delight exist in your own day to day. Amazon / Book Depository
Savage Feast: Three Generations, Two Continents, and a Dinner Table (A Memoir with Recipes), by Boris Fishman – Fishman tells his family’s story, immigrating to New York from Belarus in the 1980s, through food. In novel-like detail he explores family bonds and how he had to differentiate himself, plus the role of food in memory, identity, and belonging. Bonus: even if you think you’re no fan of Eastern European cuisine, I promise some of the recipes will positively surprise you. Amazon / Book Depository
A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell – Biography of Virginia Hall, the American spy who aided the French Resistance, among countless other feats, contributing mightily to Allied victory. Hall was exceedingly humble and never sought accolades, perhaps one reason why her story isn’t more widely known, but Purnell does her (and her many impressive associates) justice in a gorgeously written history. Amazon / Book Depository
The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, Sun of the 21st Century, by Anna Fifield – Fifield achieved the near-impossible with a biography of enigmatic North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. Far more entertaining than it ought to be, she makes politics, history, and foreign relations effortlessly understandable, no easy feat in this area. This is probably the book that’s popped up in my thoughts most after reading it this year, I think it’s made me a much more informed news consumer. Amazon / Book Depository
The Last Pirate of New York: A Ghost Ship, A Killer, and the Birth of a Gangster Nation, by Rich Cohen – Cohen tells a dark, eerie story from a (thankfully) bygone era when pirates, one in particular with a menacing backstory, roamed a grittier New York. It’s an excellent little history–laser-focused on the crime story but perfectly weaving in the maritime city atmosphere, changing neighborhoods, and rich context of the period and culture. Amazon /Book Depository
Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life, by Amber Scorah – A former Jehovah’s Witness writes about her time as a secret missionary in China. In a restricted society doing underground work, she began questioning her beliefs and ultimately abandoned the faith. The prose is beautiful and affecting, and strikingly candid. Amazon / Book Depository
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, by Casey Cep – Harper Lee’s second book, The Reverend, a layered true crime narrative akin to the famous In Cold Blood she’d helped her friend Truman Capote write, was destined to go unfinished. Cep traces both the Deep South story that captivated her and why Lee abandoned it. She writes luminously and weaves together many cultural, historical, and literary threads that are all somehow fascinating, even insurance fraud. Amazon / Book Depository
Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power, by Anna Merlan – Journalist Merlan examines recent conspiracy theories and their place in the sociopolitical landscape. Most of these movements are recognizable from the news (sigh) but in addition to tracing their roots, she’s bravely attended conventions, marches, and cruises (shriek), providing an up-close, descriptive look at what’s going on and why. Amazon / Book Depository
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed By Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold – This book not only surpassed my expectations, it set the bar permanently higher. In biographies collecting what’s known about the “canonical five” victims of Jack the Ripper, Rubenhold deftly tells a social history that gives these women back so much that history has taken from them. Revealingly, the reduction of their complex lives into merely “prostitutes” wasn’t only insensitive, but incorrect. Amazon / Book Depository
Have you read any of these, or will you? What are your favorite nonfiction new releases so far this year?