Nonfiction November Week 1: Year in Nonfiction

Happy first (second? what is time?) day of Nonfiction November!

I’m even more excited than usual to celebrate nonfiction right now, mainly because 2020 hasn’t been a spectacular reading year for me (in addition to every other reason it’s been the worst, obviously). My attention has been spread unusually thin and my reading is basically half of what it’s been the last few years. So I’m extra delighted to have Nonfiction November happening to help motivate and make me feel more like myself again, at least in terms of reading.

Don’t forget we also have an Instagram challenge if you’re not up for blogging — see the daily prompts from @Shelf_Aware_ and @JulzReads. I want to try to take part in the Insta-side of things this year too but no promises, because life, 2020, etc. Feel free to connect with me though: @rennie.ssance as I’d love to see your #nonficnov posts (but also, mine’s not strictly a bookstagram, so fair warning).

So our prompt this week:

Week 1: (November 2-6) – Your Year in Nonfiction (Leann @ Shelf Aware): Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

As usual, I’ll use this prompt more to look at what trends and topics I gravitated towards. (Since I only read nonfiction and my year’s favorites wrap-ups will come next month, I try not to be redundant.)

My biggest trend was reading about (public) health-related topics. Quelle surprise! Information saturation was one thing I found helped to soothe the multitude of horrors this year threw at us.

David Quammen’s Spillover was a compellingly written, super-informative look at zoonoses, how they cross from animals into humans, what we know about combating them, and what it means for the future.

Biography of Resistance is an accessible, fascinating-if-chilling look at the dangers in misuse / overuse of antibiotics. Yes, I know we don’t need one more thing to worry about in terms of public health this year, but our collective misunderstanding of antibiotics disturbs me endlessly. No matter what we’re sick with, too many people seem to think an antibiotic cures it, and this has caused serious issues of resistance with no new antibiotics in the pipeline. It’s worth understanding, and Muhammad H. Zaman is an excellent writer and historian, drawing stories from around the globe and across decades to put this problem and potential solutions into clear context.

Nicholas A. Christakis’ Apollo’s Arrow was an up-to-the-minute analysis of what’s happened this year, how it compares to past pandemics and plagues, where we’re headed, and what’s important to know about epidemiology as we try to get there. I found it massively helpful in understanding how and why we’ve reacted as we have (conspiracy theories and wretched behavior in such circumstances is sadly nothing new).

I’ve also found myself reading more about health and the body in general, a topic that, given my extreme squeamishness most of my life, surprised even me. Bill Bryson’s The Body (I haven’t reviewed it yet and not sure how to, really!) was an immediate favorite — surprisingly, since I’m meh on his other books I’ve read.

James Hamblin’s Clean: The New Science of Skin, about how we fuss with our skin too much and overspend on useless products, was similarly informative, funny, and personally very helpful. Hamblin is an MD and writes on popular health topics for The Atlantic. I just finished his previous book If Our Bodies Could Talk, which was also interesting and debunked weird but long-held ideas and myths in health and medicine, although it’s not quite as revealing or surprising as The Body or Clean.

I’ve had a lot of luck with outstanding essay collections this year. My favorites:

Intimations: Six Essays, Zadie Smith,

Here For It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America; Essays, R. Eric Thomas

The Unreality of Memory, Elisa Gabbert

So You’re a Little Sad, So What? : Nice Things to Say to Yourself on Bad Days and Other Essays, Alicia Tobin

Not a Novel: A Memoir in Pieces, Jenny Erpenbeck

The Age of Skin, Dubravka Ugresic (review coming for the release on 11/17)

As a bonus, those last two are by women in translation.

I had an inexplicable draw towards ocean-related nonfiction this year, starting with two of Rachel Carson’s books about oceanic ecosystems and processes. Then two on whales — Philip Hoare’s excellent work of nature, history, and culture The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea and the so-so but still enjoyable Fathoms: The World in the Whale by Rebecca Giggs, plus the fantastic, world-expanding Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves, about the extreme sport and a look at underwater worlds at different depths and human interactions there.

I’ve also been loving follow-the-money stories, especially the eerie, shocking, well-written and occasionally darkly funny Dark Towers: Deutsche Bank, Donald Trump, and an Epic Trail of Destruction, Flash Crash: A Trading Savant, a Global Manhunt, and the Most Mysterious Market Crash in History, and Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West.

My current read is Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, a book I don’t know why I waited so long to read and perhaps pre-election week wasn’t the best timing, but every American voter should read it. Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World is the next follow-the-money on my list.

On the other hand, this year I’ve read way less in two categories I usually read widely in: food industry/foodoir and true crime. I found it difficult to focus on foodie titles and abandoned more than I finished, and my interest in non-financial true crime was low.

How’s your year in nonfiction been?

65 thoughts on “Nonfiction November Week 1: Year in Nonfiction

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    1. I’m glad I could introduce you to that one! It wasn’t my favorite but I’m really glad I read it. When nature writing hits the right notes, it’s just the best! I haven’t read Why Fish Don’t Exist but I’ve read a bit about it and wasn’t sure if I wanted to add it to my list…your seal of approval definitely confirms it for me though, thank you!!

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  1. Agreed, everyone should read Dark Money! If only we could do something about it, but knowledge is the first step (however uncomfortable it might be).

    Also agreed that overuse of antibiotics is a major problem. I read I Contain Multitudes this year and it was also quite convincing on that point.

    It’s been a good year (in nonfiction reading I mean) … I was surprised how much I read when I looked back. I’ll be posting the list tomorrow.

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    1. It is such a fantastic (if upsetting) read and I’m disappointed in myself that I waited so long to read it. I feel like I could have been using it to underpin discussions with people who have some objectively incorrect notions of how things work in the last years.

      I’ve heard of I Contain Multitudes, I would be really interested in reading that one, especially after getting the introduction I did here. Thanks for that recommendation! Excited for the rest of your list and glad you had a good reading year, at least!

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  2. You’ve got some interesting titles on your list. And you made me curious about Bill Bryson’s The Body. Why did you find it difficult to review? I quite enjoyed the Bryson books I’ve read and have considered The Body. I will have to look into your recommendations of finance related books as well, I think Dark Towers was amongst my fav nonfiction books in 2020.

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    1. The Body is fantastic – universally recommendable! I’m struggling with reviewing it because it was just so good, and thorough, and enjoyable to read even for all the science/medicine. I think when I only have praise for a book and the subject area still feels new to me I struggle with finding a way to approach it, or find what I can add to any discourse about it. It surprised me because his other books I’ve read haven’t really appealed that much; I liked them all but didn’t love them and couldn’t find what in his style made him so popular. But I see it in The Body, because it’s so well written and accessible and weaves information in so readably. I can’t recommend it enough!

      And glad we could share our appreciation for Dark Towers, what a crazy and great read that was!

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      1. That is indeed a warm recommendation, I will have to look into it! I enjoyed his curious and informal writing in A Short History of Nearly Everything – it was very different from reading a book from a scientist and a lot more accessible. Of course, it tried to cover way too much ground, but it triggered me to read more about some of the topics. I could imagine The Body is similar in that sense.

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  3. I am definitely not looking to read books about pandemics or viruses or even bodies but I can see why they might have brought some version of comfort right now. Those essay collections look really good though! Essays work for me when focus is low because it’s so easy to dip in and out of them!

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    1. I think in the past when something has upset me I’ve avoided looking too deeply into it or spending more time on it, but the proliferation of misinformation and conspiracy theory around this just made me insane. I felt like being better informed would help my own fears and help me better understand what I needed to do and maybe to disabuse others of some of their insaner notions (ugh). It feels like it’s helped me massively, but I completely understand it’s not the right course for everyone.

      The essay collections were all so good, and usually I rarely find ones that are consistent standouts, it’s much more that there are great essays and less-fab ones in each collection, but these were all just like, across the board excellent. And perfect for dipping in and out of right now, maybe that’s why they appealed so much!!

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  4. I’m enjoying my ‘Election Eve’ Dutch Heineken here in NL tonight….and reading about your favorite non-fiction for the challenge #NonficNov 2020. Once in a while I glance at CNN to catch John King in front of the ‘Magic Board”. No one does the board better than John! I was totally absorbed in politics and racial injustice in USA this year…..another blogger @Bronasbooks split her favorites in pre- and post Covid timeline. I love that you have touched on so many different books of interest. I love James Hamblin’s articles in The Atlantic and will have to read some of his books. So glad you FINALLY got around to read Dark Money!! Now I’m waiting for somebody to write an exposé about dark money the has taken over the Supreme Court!
    I will add many of you seletions to my TBR non-fiction 2021. Thanks so much for all you reviews….and he inspiration you have brought to my own reading!

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    1. I hope you’re enjoying another Heineken today too, Nancy!! I’ll definitely be having a drink myself later although at the moment I just feel like a ball of anxiety. I’m dipping in and out of the news but trying not to get too caught up in the polls, since last time they were so off, for the most part…

      Ooh I love the idea of a pre- and post-Covid timeline, I need to have a look at hers. What a great idea.

      I still haven’t read Hamblin in the Atlantic, I don’t even know how I’ve missed his articles there, aside from that before this year I really wasn’t drawn to health/medical topics so much. He’s such a great “translator” of science and medicine into something accessible for the lay reader. I love that.

      Dark Money is outstanding, I only wish I’d read it sooner. Although such a bummer to be reading this week…

      Thank YOU for all the wonderful recommendations you’ve given me! I’m so thrilled we share so many common reading interests!!

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    1. Apollo’s Arrow is definitely one to read as soon as possible, I think about something from it absolutely every day. It really helped me better understand so much around the scientific and health aspects of what’s happening. it was immensely helpful, but parts of it could become outdated quickly depending on the course things take. He has some interesting forecasts though.

      Clean was so fantastic, another totally eye-opening book! I learned so much from it and it was a really fun read too.

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  5. I just love when you put out a list like this and we get to walk through your reading year and learn what the themes were of 2020 and those that rose above the rest.

    I admit that much of it doesn’t align with my reading but I do value reading the reviews and of course when it comes to nature writing, I get all excited.

    As you know I love love loved Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind and this year I too read The Sea Around Us, which doesn’t reach the great imaginary depths of the previous book but was so refreshing to be reading such passion for the sea by a woman ahead of her time. I still have her third sea book to read.

    Kathleen Jamie’s ‘Surfacing’ I read and enjoyed this year, I love her work too and I absolutely fell for Sanmao in her excellent Stories of the Sahara, a book that is universally well liked, of an extraordinary and little known adventurous woman writer.

    And recently the inspiring, excellent poet turned to prose Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s ‘A Ghost in the Throat’, how a woman can write such a compelling work based on an obsession with a 200 year old Irish poem, I’m in awe and pressing this book in everyone too.

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    1. I really owe you for even making me aware that those books existed!! She really was a woman far ahead of her time. I’m glad that she’s so appreciated for Silent Spring but I think her ocean nonfiction deserves to be better known. It’s just so excellent. I still haven’t read the third one either but excited to!

      A Ghost in the Throat sounds completely fascinating! But it’s not fiction? Actually seems very genre-bending. I’m intrigued! I hadn’t come across it yet, so thank you! Surfacing sounds right up my alley as well. Thank you for those wonderful recommendations!

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      1. I think ‘A Ghost in the Throat’ might be what some refer to as autofiction, but the author definitely doesn’t try to rewrite the poet’s story, she just becomes obsessed with trying to find what exists in the research out there and sadly when it comes to the female line, there is almost nothing. It’s definitely not fiction, and to me it’s more like creative nonfiction. I do hope you get to read it!

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      2. That sounds so interesting. I want to page through a copy. I’m going to see if I can get it at the library. Creative nonfiction would be perfect. I’m very intrigued. Thank you so much for putting that on my radar!! I trust your recommendations so much 🙂

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      3. I just saw that it’s available as a digital ARC on Edelweiss and I’m SO excited to read it now. It looks like it was released already in the UK and coming out in the US in June. I’ve been trying to hold off on reading next year’s releases that I have ARCs for but I might have to break my rule for that one early! Thanks so much for putting it on my radar!!

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      4. I bought the physical copy so it’s definitely released in the UK, I’m so glad it’s going to be released in the US as well and I understand both the holding back and the excited anticipation. I look forward to reading your thoughts on it and I hope it brings you the welcome distraction of a completely unique story.

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    1. They’re disgusting. And so insidiously influential, yet I would venture a guess that a majority of right-wing voters don’t actually know who they are. I’m not sure if either has written anything! Although I’m also not sure how far I’d believe anything they say? They just seem so unabashedly self-serving. The book is excellent though, absolutely a must-read.

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  6. One last note…How do I know I’m feeling nervous? I start cleaning the floors, kitchen and bathrooms! Keep busy, keep CNN ON…BUT TURN THE SOUND OFF. Polls? I never listen to the pundits after 2016. Do you notice heightened anxiety in your town? Shocked to see the images in Vienna with people being shot in the streets. I love that city…so quaint. I spent lovely week in hotel just behind St Stephen Church, near Mozart’s house. Europe is jumpy….will this terrorism spread? Looking forward to result in Florida…is Biden wins it….than game over for Trump!

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    1. I know exactly what you mean about getting nervous and having to stay busy! I end up with an unusually slow working day (as a freelancer) maybe once every 3-4 weeks lately, and can you believe it’s today, of all the days?? After working 6-7 days a week for a month and barely time to be distracted by anything. my luck ran out. A friend and I are texting out all our anxieties, which is strangely helping.

      Yes, it’ll come down to Florida again in a lot of scenarios…so hoping Biden can swing it there!! But also annoyed with our electoral college system. Just enough with it already. It’s so outdated and only serves the Republicans.

      I’m not sure if it would be possible to notice heightened anxiety here since I’m in NYC…everyone just seems anxious and stressed here all the time!

      This was a devastating moment for Vienna. My husband is there and works near the square when it seems like it began, it’s a popular afterwork drink spot. Some of his colleagues were there so was quite stressful while he tried to reach them. You can see his building in some of the photos. Just devastating. Vienna is such a safe and secure city and I think it’s shaken them deeply in that sense. And hard to see my home for so long going through this, and so much horror on familiar streets…

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  7. I love that you fell down an oceanography rabbit hole, I am considering making it a category for next years Nonfiction Reader Challenge. I always enjoy your reviews and the variety of topics you cover.
    I’m looking forward to the rest of your NonFicNov posts

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    1. It was such an unexpected rabbit hole to encounter this year and one I totally loved 😂 I also love that idea for the Nonfiction Reader Challenge!! I’m committed to taking part in it next year, by the way. I wanted to this year and then the general world situation/personal circumstances had my reading and blogging falling by the wayside. But next year I’m in.

      Looking forward to your posts too! Thanks for joining in!!

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  8. What a great selection! Interesting that you went to the ocean books for a while – I’ve done a lot of nature as well as Black Lives Matter stuff, but have avoided other contemporary things like public health and politics.

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    1. I really only knew her from Silent Spring, that’s all I had read before these. But she did so much more, and her writing about oceanography is just incredible. She was really ahead of her time.

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  9. Clean has finally come in for me at my library! I just need to go pick it up.

    The follow-the-money stories you mention all sound worth reading. I feel like a lot of problems in the US can be traced back to money in politics and it would good to understand that better.

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    1. Oh yay!! I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on it! I read and liked If Our Bodies Could Talk but I thought Clean was better.

      I agree, so many problems can be traced to where there’s the biggest influx of money. Some of the stuff in Dark Money is mind-boggling.

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  10. I haven’t read nearly as much nonfiction this year as I meant to, but I have rated all of the nonfic titles I have read very highly, and what little I have read seems pretty different from my past reading habits. The Only Plane in the Sky has been my fave nonfic so far this year, even though I don’t think I’ve ever read an oral history book before and generally don’t read much nonfic history at all. I’ve not read enough nonfic this year to note other trends, but it’s very interesting to see how the events of 2020 have shaped your reading- I think my nonfiction TBR would show that as well, though I’ve been terrible about getting around to the titles on my list!

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    1. I think you’re not alone in reading less nonfiction this year. I read less in general, but I think nonfiction wasn’t the go-to for lots of people! I’m glad to hear what you did read was so good though, at least there’s that! I was surprised at how much this year’s events shaped my reading too, or took it over, basically. I tend to be more avoidant than that but I guess I’d just had it with misinformation this year!

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  11. That’s a great collection of books here. Love the health-related titles. I hadn’t heard of Apollo’s Arrow. I usually wait several years after a “current affair” to read about it, but I may make an exception for that one. It sounds good. Bookmarking several other titles as well.

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    1. It’s the same for me — I need a little distance from these subjects. But Apollo’s Arrow is fantastic to read right now — it gives you so much to keep in mind when reading the news, I’ve found it very helpful. And unfortunately the predictive aspects of it will be outdated somewhat quickly, so it’s worth reading now for that as well! Glad I could give you some recommendations!!

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  12. Out of accidental contrariness I actually read a novel this month, first non-fiction in ages. It confirmed my view that non-fiction is better! I like follow the money stories too, I just scooped up Michael Lewis’s Flashboys and The Big Short from the library.

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  13. I thought we’d be seeing a lot more food-focused books and true crime on your list, but I can see that you’ve been busy with some other amazing books! More than anything, this just reminded me how far behind I am when it comes to nonfiction. Thank goodness for Thanksgiving—I’m reading away that entire weekend.

    Big yes to all the money books you’ve read! Dark money is excellent and I hope you ended up loving it. Have you read God’s Bankers? It’s in the same vein, but focuses on the financial background of the Catholic church. Just a wild story from beginning to end.

    Biography of Resistance sounds fascinating. I’m slowly opening myself up to health books … very slowly. That Richard Preston book might have scared me off course for a bit, but this one might get me back into them.

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    1. I was surprised to realize how far I’d drifted from my usual topics this year too! I’m hoping for lots of reading time this weekend too. I’ve actually read much less this year than usual, which bums me out. Life was just such a mess.

      I absolutely loved Dark Money, although reading it in the run-up to the election was, in hindsight, not the best decision (still, sigh of relief). I feel much more aware now, and it helped lots of the pieces around why certain issues have been pushed to the fore click into place.

      I hadn’t heard of God’s Bankers, thank you for that recommendation!! That’s right up my alley. I started reading All the Devils Are Here, which I know you really liked, but some of the financial information was going over my head. I still want to read it but maybe in a time when I can be a bit more focused, which I guess this summer was not the moment :/

      Actually, I owe you for helping me open up to health books! It was your review of The Perfect Predator (and reassurance it wouldn’t freak me out!) that even piqued my interest in this topic, and reading that book made me realize that the information and possibilities I learned about far outweighed my fear at knowing what the world can throw at us and how our bodies can fail. So the biggest thank you to you for that!! Richard Preston’s are indeed scary but again, I feel like I get more concrete answers out of them than I end up afraid. And I just feel better knowing, I guess. My imagination can go to worst places than the reality, it seems!

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