Week 4: (Nov. 18 to 22) –Nonfiction Favorites (Leann @ ThereThereReadThis): We’ve talked about how you pick nonfiction books in previous years, but this week I’m excited to talk about what makes a book you’ve read one of your favorites. Is the topic pretty much all that matters? Are there particular ways a story can be told or particular writing styles that you love? Do you look for a light, humorous approach or do you prefer a more serious tone? Let us know what qualities make you add a nonfiction book to your list of favorites.
While considering this week’s topic, I revisited my last nonfiction favorites post from 2017. My all-time favorites haven’t changed much since then — The Tiger, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, all things David Sedaris and Primo Levi. As for reasoning, it’s not deep: a favorite becomes one just through feeling. I know it when I read it.
So I put together a list of recent favorites that have come along since that last post, or that I didn’t talk about last time. Have you read any of them?
Priestdaddy, by Patricia Lockwood – Poet Lockwood and her husband move back in with her parents, including her Catholic priest father, during a rough spell, and it’s sweetly hilarious. This book is really hard to describe, but Lockwood crafted it brilliantly, and I’ve never read anything else quite like it. It’s one of those rare books I could’ve started from the beginning immediately after finishing.
God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State, by Lawrence Wright – Wright’s nuanced look at his larger-than-life home state was way more entertaining, informative, and readable than I’d imagined. Weaves together politics, culture, personality, memoir, and history masterfully.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick – A revealing, gorgeously told narrative look into North Korea, through the lens of the port city of Chongjin and a group of refugees with roots there.
Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen and More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen, by Laurie Colwin – I talk about these two way too much, but they became so deeply ingrained in my thinking (and my heart) I can’t help it. Unsurpassable food + life writing.
The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich – A rare case of the recent trend of blending true crime with memoir that works, brilliantly, alongside an ethical examination of capital punishment.
Bettyville, by George Hodgman – Hodgman’s memoir of returning to his midwestern hometown to care for his aging mother is in turns hilarious, touching, and illuminates family issues as they’re brought to the surface with time, like his homosexuality, how they both remember certain events, and a peacefulness in having company through twilight years.
A Mountain of Crumbs, by Elena Gorokhova – Gorokhova’s novelistic account of growing up in Soviet Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and her decision to emigrate is not only a moving coming-of-age story, but one of the clearest depictions I’ve read of what everyday Soviet life was like.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard – The Pulitzer winner is a master of nature writing for a reason. This book was everything – philosophy, biology, meditations, metaphysics, and poetically written.
Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny, by Witold Szablowski – Renowned journalist Szablowski draws parallels between the rehabilitated “dancing” bears from Roma culture, now living out their lives peacefully at a special park in Bulgaria, with stories of people struggling to adjust to life post-Communism. Incredibly illuminating work of reportage, travel writing, and cultural examination.
The Solace of Open Spaces: Essays, by Gretel Ehrlich – Ehrlich’s account of drowning her grief by working on a Wyoming farm helped me through a fog of grief of my own, and put words to feelings I struggled to pin down. It’s not oppressive or bleak, rather peaceful and inspiring, blending exquisite nature and life writing.
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert Massie – Probably my favorite biography. An absorbing, sweeping story of Catherine’s life that definitively sets the record straight. Truth may not be stranger than fiction in her case, but it’s infinitely more compelling.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson – Stevenson’s incredible work as a lawyer for death row cases underpins the most affecting book I’ve read about capital punishment, mass incarceration, and our broken justice system.
The Library Book, by Susan Orlean – What libraries mean to us through the lens of the mysterious Los Angeles library fire. I thought this work of reportage, history, biography, and memoir was near-flawless.
Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening, by Manal al-Sharif – The best account I know of what it’s like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia, with all its contradictions and frustrations. Beautifully written, often infuriating but ultimately triumphant.
Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches, by John Hodgman – Funny, poignant, surprisingly relatable stories about life, the meaning of location, and getting older.
Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, by Sarah Lohman – Explores the eight seasonings and spices that food historian Lohman identifies as having most shaped American cuisine. Totally fascinating and illuminating look at American foodways.
The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, by Maggie Nelson – Nelson writes (breathtakingly) about her aunt’s murder and the trial of her killer, and weaves in her family’s experiences, her own life and demons, and much more.
Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002, by David Sedaris – I fell in love with his writing all over again with these hilarious, weirdly compelling candid diaries, revealing the roughness of his turbulent young adulthood as he struggles with addiction and aimlessness before finding his strength in writing.
The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature, by Viv Groskop – Surprisingly upbeat lessons that can be drawn from Russian classics, interspersed with memoir of the author’s time in Russia and the Ukraine. A celebration of being alive amazingly drawn from the infamous gloom of Russian literature.
The Language of Baklava, by Diana Abu-Jaber – Abu-Jaber’s foodoir tells stories of her character of a father, a Jordanian who loved cooking, and her experiences of feeling caught between countries and cultures.
Are any of these among your nonfiction favorites too, or piqued your interest? What are your favorite nonfiction reads?