If new nonfiction this year was a little lackluster, I did feel more enthusiastic about the backlist titles I read throughout the year.
It was one of these that was my absolute favorite and the best book I read this year:
Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, by Kapka Kassabova – Kassabova returned to her native Bulgaria after decades abroad to look at fraught borders, now and historically, and travel parts of the former Iron Curtain lands trying to understand what transpired in these liminal spaces. It’s a poetically written genre-straddler that ends up feeling more experience than book and I loved everything about it.
Here are the other backlist titles I loved this year, in no particular order.
My Life in France, by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme – Julia’s memoir of learning to cook fairly late in life in France and how it affected the rest of her life — and the landscape of American home cooking since — is something wonderful. Her storytelling is transportive, and I loved her attitude towards dealing with difficult people, tough situations, and things not going the way you expected or wanted. I learned so much from her.
Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, by Annie Dillard – I loved this essay collection less than the flawless Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but Dillard’s writing on nature, meditations on herself and life and the world as she observes it are sublime nonetheless. Her writing is in a category all its own, and she effortlessly blends natural science with history, introspection, and humor.
Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks, by Ben Goldacre – I’ve been throwing this book at anyone who’ll listen. NHS doctor Goldacre explores wellness fads, media misinformation and misunderstandings about medical studies, potentially dangerous wellness practitioners, and much more, while making the science entertaining and readable.
The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, by Esther Perel – Relationship therapist Perel explores the complex, nuanced reasons behind infidelity, including ideas around taboo and the controversial idea that affairs can be beneficial in one way or another to certain relationships, illustrated with many case studies from her work. I think no book changed my own thinking more or helped me better understand something about human behavior this year than this one.
The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, by Michael W. Twitty – Chef and Southern historical interpreter Twitty traces his family’s lineage from Africa to the American South and explores the very different roles cooking has played in their lives and his own, alongside genealogical data and research. It also includes some of his fantastic recipes – I’ve made his black-eyed pea hummus at least four times since reading this.
Gross Anatomy: A Field Guide to Loving Your Body, Warts and All, by Mara Altman – Altman’s look, part by part, at various body myths and beliefs is peppered with memoir, as she relates her own experiences of head lice and fainting in the blood donation van. It’s uproariously funny and deeply informative in a fun, lively Mary Roach-kinda way.
Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table, by Ruth Reichl – Reichl’s first memoir tells tales from her childhood and early adulthood, navigating her mother’s bipolar and beginning to find her own way in the kitchen and learning the significance that cooking could have for her. Reichl captures so well what specific foods meant to her as she was growing up in detailed, evocative scenes from her life.
The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats & Ex-Countries, by Jessa Crispin – In a moment of crisis, Crispin moved to Berlin and traveled Europe in the footsteps of her favorite dead writers, considering concepts that were significant to them in light of the locations where they lived their lives. It had the potential to navel-gaze too hard but Crispin’s exquisite writing carries this off perfectly, musing intelligently and with just the right doses of humor and melancholy around notions of identity, place, wandering, and literary biographical highlights.
The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait, by Blake Bailey – Biographer Bailey tells his own family’s story, primarily around the relationship with his troubled older brother Scott. This was some of the best writing I read this year, was surprisingly funny even though it was also heartbreaking, and I think would be very helpful for those who deal with addiction in loved ones.
The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection, by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler – The 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa provides the frame for this criminal history of Belle Epoque Paris, including technological advancements and background on influential criminologists. It’s one of those books that ends up segueing into different directions that you hadn’t realized you were interested in but are totally fascinating.
Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, by Barbara Ehrenreich – Sociologist Ehrenreich’s breast cancer diagnosis introduced her to the world of positive thinking, a big business that puts the pressure for recovery on sick people themselves, among other weird claims and concepts. She investigates and explains the many facets of this, expertly debunking ideas like the Law of Attraction.
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey – Bailey’s account of a mysterious illness that laid her low for years covers how she was comforted by the snail living on her windowsill. It’s a gentle, thoughtful look at one of the worst things happening in one’s life and what helped her cope through it, complemented by the extensive research she’s since done into the fascinating lives and biology of snails.
But You Did Not Come Back, by Marceline Loridan-Ivens – A slim but jarringly affecting memoir written by a Holocaust survivor at the end of her life in the form of a letter to her father, who died at Auschwitz.
Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger, by Nigel Slater – Popular chef and author Slater’s foodoir covers his mother’s illness and death in his childhood and his love of junk food growing up, thanks in part to his mother’s unique style of cooking. It’s unbelievably funny and surprisingly dark in turns, an excellent coming-of-age story through food.
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan – Cahalan’s memoir covers her difficult-to-diagnose brain inflammation that was mistaken for schizophrenia, landing her in a hospital stay she barely remembers and had to piece together through video and fragments of memory. She emphasizes the importance of being an advocate for oneself in medicine and relays her experience so powerfully and compellingly.
Mrs. Sherlock Holmes:The True Story of New York City’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case That Captivated a Nation, by Brad Ricca – Historical true crime that reads like fiction about New York City lawyer Grace Humiston and the impact of her work, including a high-profile investigation into the disappearance of a young girl.
The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State, by Grahame Greene – Greene looks at how Islamic State members interpreted the Koran for their own beliefs and purposes, and interviews members about their ideology and reasonings. Wildly entertaining, way more so than I expected, and incredibly informative about both the group and their diversions while informing about the religion itself.
Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee – Researchers into compulsive hoarding shed light on the misunderstood condition, sensitively analyze cases they’ve worked with, and provide some insight into our relationship with things that’s helpful for anyone.
The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating, by Anthony Warner – Warner has had enough of fad diets, the myth of “superfoods,” and pseudosciencey wellness peddlers like Goop. He breaks down important concepts behind food and nutrition clearly and understandably, and explains how data and research have been been misinterpreted by journalists who don’t know better. I can’t stress enough how helpful and important this book is.
Within the Whirlwind, by Eugenia Ginzburg – The second part of Ginzburg’s memoir picks up where her last left off following her release from the Gulag, as she makes a life while still living in exile, waiting for the release of the camp doctor she fell in love with, and building a life with her family again. Ginzburg is such a brilliant writer and chronicler of human experience, and this was as thoughtful, memorable, and wonderful as Journey into the Whirlwind.
The Bread and the Knife: A Life in 26 Bites, by Dawn Drzal – A former cookbook editor tells her life stories connected to food using a letter of the alphabet for each. They end up being quite deep and meaningful, as she describes family, friendships, travels good and bad, and the end of her marriage.
The Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin on the Siberian Taiga, by Sylvain Tesson – French author Tesson holed up in a cabin on Lake Baikal in Siberia for six months. He describes what that was like, what he was running from, what he read, and makes cranky but often hilarious observations about his surroundings and himself. It is a gem.
More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen, by Laurie Colwin – Colwin’s second food writing collection is as much a treasure as her first. She’s a warm, funny, positively delightful companion as she describes her kitchen adventures, mishaps, and how she entertains, with ideas for recipes and ingredients you might overlook (beets, black beans, lime pickles). This contained her recipe for a double biscuit cheddar and tomato pie, which has become my go-to comfort food since its praises were sung in Kitchen Yarns.
Have you read any of these? What was your favorite new-to-you nonfiction this past year?