Not to sound like a cliched ancient person, but even given the surreal circumstances, this year is positively flying by, isn’t it? I can’t even fathom that we’ve already made it halfway. And yet we have!
These are my favorite new releases of the nonfiction published between January and June 2020. What’s been your favorite nonfiction so far this year?
The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness: A Memoir, by Sarah Ramey – My standout favorite isn’t surprising, because I’ve barely been able to stop talking about / begging people to read this one. Ramey details her descent into the years-long “mystery” illness (actually a multi-systemic combination of issues built up over years) and researches how a disturbingly high number of women are suffering similar illnesses and symptoms in combinations. It hit home because I’m one of them, but also because I think we’re long overdue for a reckoning in how medicine treats women. Ramey also writes lyrically and weaves together explorations of literature, data, and memoir beautifully and with delightfully dark humor.
So You’re a Little Sad, So What?: Nice Things to Say to Yourself on Bad Days and Other Essays, by Alicia Tobin – Comedian and podcaster Tobin’s essays are sensitive, thoughtful, bracingly honest, and utterly hilarious. She celebrates the place where melancholy and humor meet, and shares relatable experiences and the small but significant lessons she’s learned that have gotten her through some bad days, and longer periods of bad days. It felt like a reassuring hug in book form, and actually made me laugh out loud.
Dark Towers: Deutsche Bank, Donald Trump, and an Epic Trail of Destruction, by David Enrich – This entertaining if alarming follow-the-money looks at decades of bad behavior by Deutsche Bank, specifically in connection to the suicide of former senior executive Bill Broeksmit and the bank’s eyebrow-raising links to Donald Trump. Enrich makes this much more understandable than I expected, and the effects of Deutsche’s misdeeds on current events is stunningly awful but very worth knowing.
Russians Among Us: Sleeper Cells, Ghost Stories, and the Hunt for Putin’s Spies, by Gordon Corera – A fascinating read about spies even if you don’t particularly like spy stories (me). This looks at the new generation of illegal undercover agents who lived in the US for years before being expelled in a 2010 swap, the biggest since the Cold War. It also explains some of the changing — and surprisingly, sometimes not changing at all — methods of modern spycraft while placing all of it in the context of Putin’s Russia, including why the undercovers were particularly important to him. Speaking of that devil…
Surviving Autocracy, by Masha Gessen – It’s an election year, let’s not forget that in the midst of everything we’re navigating right now. Gessen lived through the Soviet Union and the beginnings of Putinism and draws stark comparisons between Trumpism and the typical behavior of other autocrats, while calling out trouble spots like the media’s complicity in accepting his administration’s insistence on their version of truth, facts, and the new normal. It’s acerbic but with good reason, and is urgently crucial.
Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, An Address Book, A Life, by Brigitte Benkemoun, translated by Jody Gladding – The address book of Surrealist artist Dora Maar fell into the author’s lap, leading her to investigate Maar’s life through its entries. Much of her life was lived in the shadows of both Pablo Picasso and mental illness, and Benkemoun’s story includes grappling with ideas about who Maar became, whether due to mental illness and paranoia, or, worse, prejudices that had been percolating in her mind regardless. It’s a fascinating biography in snapshots, and transports to postwar Paris and the avant-garde Surrealist set in their heyday.
Biography of Resistance: The Epic Battle Between People and Pathogens, by Muhammad H. Zaman – I wrote a lackluster review of this one because my digital ARC expired before I had time to copy my notes. I feel terrible about that because this was an exceptional book, and one that should be everywhere right now as we discuss the proliferation of misinformation in science and medicine and some of the public’s poor knowledge and unwillingness to listen to experts. It’s a well-written, compelling account of the many people and situations that have both contributed to and combatted deadly bacterial resistance. Its narratives span the globe and the implications are immense. It sometimes reads like a detective story, sometimes like a thriller, always like an eerie warning.
Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag, by Monika Zgustova, translated by Julie Jones – These Svetlana Alexievich-esque oral histories reveal an unusual and under-examined corner of history: women who survived the Soviet gulags. What you might think would be depressing and difficult to take in actually ends up being moving portraits of strength, resilience, compassion, and forgiveness. I was so humbled and moved by their stories, and Zgustova frames their prison experiences beautifully alongside what the women’s current lives look like.
How to Feed a Dictator: Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Enver Hoxha, Fidel Castro, and Pol Pot Through the Eyes of Their Cooks, by Witold Szablowski, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones – This work of Polish reportage interviews the personal cooks of dictators, allowing them to tell their personal stories and remembrances about their unusual, sometimes terrifying work and experiences so close to the centers of terrible power. It pulls back the curtain on infamously secretive regimes and conveys powerful messages about survival, memory, and the stories we tell ourselves.
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, by Robert Kolker – I liked this a lot but hesitated to label it a favorite, firstly because it has the Oprah seal of approval so doesn’t need any help from me, but also because it made me sad, and uneasy, and other uncomfortable feelings to feel. But I heard Kolker on a podcast talking about how hard he worked to speak to everyone still living who’s connected to this multi-generational saga about 12 children, six of whom were diagnosed schizophrenic. He also took care to show the healing processes of two sisters who survived terrible abuse, and to portray it all alongside who their parents were in an era of the American Dream coinciding with a poor understanding of what schizophrenia actually is. He incorporated all this and more while ensuring that it read smoothly, in a fiction-like way, as he put it himself. It made me realize how stunningly well done this book is, in terms of research, structure, writing, and sheer scope.
Did any of these make your favorites list too, or are you planning to read them? What new nonfiction have you loved so far this year?