What new nonfiction did you love this year? I have to be honest, this wasn’t a completely stellar year in new nonfiction for me. There were lots of great ones but I didn’t have one that stood out above all the rest.
Instead of a clear favorite, there are three I can separate as being the ones I found most memorable and affecting:
Guest House For Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS, by Azadeh Moaveni – Reporter Moaveni tells the stories of women from Libya, Syria, Germany, and the UK who chose to join ISIS or collaborate under occupation. It’s a nuanced look at the social and economic reasons that contributed to their choices, and manages to inform without being overly sympathetic. We hear enough about men’s rage and righteousness so it was illuminating to understand more about why a life regimented strictly, under constant threat of death, widowhood, and rape was more appealing than the alternatives available, and what this signals for the future of extremist movements.
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed By Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold – This long overdue social history and biography of the women who became the canonical five (the victims fairly certain to have lost their lives to Jack the Ripper) was astounding in showing how much we get wrong in history. Rubenhold lays out the conditions that led to the women being down on their luck in Victorian London, sketches out what their lives had been like until then, and debunks the idea that they were all sex workers. It’s an unbelievably compelling look at Victorian social structures.
The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, Sun of the 21st Century, by Anna Fifield – This biography of the North Korean leader was so informative that I’ve thought of it every time the news warrants. It’s absolutely invaluable for understanding current events and something of the enigma that is North Korea, not to mention Kim Jong Un himself. Plus it’s way more entertaining than you’d expect, I promise.
Beyond those three, these were my favorites from the year’s new releases, in no particular order. A necessary caveat: I never read as widely as I set out to, and there are always some big important titles I don’t get to. These are really just the ones I enjoyed the most and not a best-of by any means.
Did any of these make your favorites list too?
Underland: A Deep Time Journey, by Robert MacFarlane – This one is hard to categorize, but it’s universally recommendable. MacFarlane filters our relationship to the underground through natural science, across deep time and into the future, what significance it holds for us in various locations around the world, and how climate change is affecting the world underground. It’s also lyrically written and some of the most exceptional nature writing I’ve ever read.
Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir, by Ruth Reichl – Reichl’s memoir about her time running Gourmet magazine was upbeat and surprisingly inspiring. She’s someone who’s been through it but remains consistently driven and able to extract meaning from tough experiences, something I appreciate in memoirs. It also had the best recipes in any of her books I’ve read.
The Seine: The River That Made Paris, by Elaine Sciolino – This microhistory of France’s most famous river blends culture, mythology, travel, art and architecture, and modern issues for a highly readable and enjoyably personal exploration.
The Perfect Predator: A Scientist’s Race to Save Her Husband from a Deadly Superbug, by Steffanie Strathdee and Thomas Patterson – When her husband (Patterson) fell ill with an antibiotic-resistant superbug, HIV researcher Strathdee sought help from scientists working with phages – viruses that prey on bacteria. It was a last-ditch attempt to save his life that worked, and the story of how they managed it is brilliantly told.
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, by Casey Cep – Cep tells a couple of stories here; first, the eyebrow-raiser of a Southern reverend who committed a number of murders for insurance fraud and second, that of Harper Lee, who worked on a nonfiction book about him and his crimes and his own murder but never finished it.
I’m Telling the Truth But I’m Lying: Essays, by Bassey Ikpi – In short interconnected essays, Ikpi uses an impressionistic, poetic style to give a window into life with bipolar, depression, and anxiety. She also touches on her childhood in Nigeria, family, and the complexity of living with mental illness. It’s stark, revealing, and bravely told.
Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, by Benjamin Dreyer – Random House’s chief copy editor lays down the law on grammar, punctuation, style, and everything you need to improve any kind of writing. I can promise it’s the most entertaining style guide you’ve ever read by far, and peppered with highly amusing memoir-esque anecdotes from his career. It’s a treasure even if you think you know what you need to here.
The Vagina Bible, by Dr. Jen Gunter – I’ve already talked about this one until I’m blue in the face. It’s a necessary, no-nonsense look at women’s health and debunking myths long entrenched by patriarchal values.
The Witches Are Coming, by Lindy West – Speaking of the patriarchy, Lindy West’s essays on it, along with cultural criticism, politics, feminism, pop culture and much more are timely, smart, and hilarious.
American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century, by Maureen Callahan – The most terrifying book I read this year is this excellently reported but chilling account of serial killer Israel Keyes, who flew under the radar for years before being apprehended, and whose crimes are still being uncovered.
On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How it Drives America Insane, by Emily Guendelsberger – The author went to work in low-wage jobs including an Amazon warehouse, call center conglomerate, and McDonald’s to report on conditions and how employees get by. (Strike what I wrote about the previous book, this one might be scariest.) Guendelsberger uses humor and solid economic foundations to illuminate what’s going on in these sectors and how it needs to change.
Pleased to Meet Me: Genes, Germs, and the Curious Forces that Make Us Who We Are, by Bill Sullivan – Readable and often hilarious popular science on epigenetics and how traits and behaviors are influenced by genes more than we perhaps thought. Everything from taste preferences to political leanings can be linked to gene expression.
The Yellow House, by Sarah M. Broom – The National Book Award winner for nonfiction deserves every bit of the hype, it’s far and away one of the year’s best memoirs. Broom’s writing is simply brilliant, and she structured this generational saga of her family’s life in New Orleans East masterfully.
Eat Joy: Stories of Comfort Food from 31 Celebrated Writers, edited by Natalie Eve Garrett – This collection of essays from a number of current popular and acclaimed writers on their comfort foods and the associated stories will make you laugh, cry, empathize — feel all the feelings. Each essay is accompanied by their recipe. The topics can be heavy — comfort food is there to soothe pain, after all, but these were so meaningful and wonderful.
Berezina: From Moscow to Paris Following Napoleon’s Epic Fail, by Sylvain Tesson – French author Tesson is my favorite new-to-me author this year, and this is his latest to be translated into English. It follows his journey on a Soviet motorcycle and sidecar tracing Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow to Paris, with cultural observations and comparisons of Russia and France, including their very different perceptions of the term “Berezina”.
The Book of Delights: Essays, by Ross Gay – The poet’s thoughtful “essayettes”: observational anecdotes highlighting the little moments that brought him delight throughout one year. It’s sweet but not saccharine, and addresses tough topics like being a black man in America, but also uplifts through its celebration of little triumphs and happy moments.
Midwestern Strange: Hunting Monsters, Martians, and the Weird in Flyover Country, by B.J. Hollars – A college professor researches regional myths and monsters from his native Midwest, putting them in historical, social, and economic contexts. It’s a smart, skeptical, but fun look at where the legends came from and why they persist.
Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult, by Susan Ashline – A Pentecostal church turned into a cult under the manipulative leadership of one family, and a young man ended up murdered. Ashline draws on the members’ extensive recordings to tell this alarming story in an extremely detailed narrative.
A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped World War II, by Sonia Purnell – This biography of Virginia Hall, an American spy who worked with the French Resistance, is a page-turner that not only brings to life a lesser-known historical figure who deserves wider recognition, but illuminates many of the other brave people who worked with her under harrowing circumstances.
Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History and the Outbreaks to Come, by Richard Preston – Science writer Preston the West African Ebola epidemic that began in 2014 and is the deadliest outbreak of the virus to date. Told in the engrossing narrative style that made The Hot Zone read like a thriller, it follows doctors and healthcare workers as they work against misinformation and any number of other challenges to stem the epidemic.
The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers, by Bridgett M. Davis – Novelist Davis structures her memoir through the lens of her mother’s work as a number runner in Detroit. It depicts the relationship between the African-American community and the numbers business, especially what it meant to their family, and emphasizes the impact when the state took over the lottery.
Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life, by Amber Scorah – A former Jehovah’s Witness tells her story of working as a missionary in China, which eventually expanded her thinking and led her to abandon the religion and everything about her former life. It’s a brave and gorgeously told memoir.
What was your favorite new nonfiction this year? Was it a good year for you in new releases?