To end Nonfiction November this year, Julie, Katie and I recorded an episode of Leann’s Shelf Aware podcast. We talked Nonfiction November history, reading preferences, and a bunch of other stuff. It was so much fun to get to chat about books with my fellow hosts and I hope it’s fun to listen to!
I thought I’d do something different, since we ended up with one wonky leftover day in Nonfiction November, so along with sharing our podcast episode I’ll do a wrap-up of what I actually read throughout the month.
I read eight books this month and DNFed three, which, even for me in this past year when I’ve been abandoning books left and right, is a lot. My patience grows ever shorter. Let’s start with the good:
Humankind: A Hopeful History, by Rutger Bregman – Immediately one of my favorites of the year. Dutch author Bregman debunks historical incidents, like the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment and Kitty Genovese’s death/bystander effect, and looks at case studies like the real-life Lord of the Flies to show that humans aren’t as awful to each other as the news and some long-held perceptions or assumptions would have you believe. His cherry-picking isn’t nearly as egregious as Malcolm Gladwell‘s, this was delightful to read and really did feel uplifting and hopeful.
Viral BS: Medical Myths and Why We Fall for Them, by Dr. Seema Yasmin – I’ve been trying to hold off on starting 2021 new releases, but I couldn’t wait to read this as soon as I got a review copy. The past few years I’ve had a sort-of personal project to better educate myself about myths in health, medicine, and food, so anything new on this front is very exciting. Former CDC disease detective (cool job alert) Dr. Yasmin picks out thirty-some myths and bits of pseudoscience that have either demonstrated considerable sticking power or recently grabbed headlines. It’s entertaining and informative, although there wasn’t a ton new here to me having read pretty widely on most of these by now. Still, very worthwhile and I hope someone who needs it will read it.
The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins – “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” I’m not sure I can adequately convey how helpful and meaningful I found this book. It’s clear, smart, sometimes exasperatedly hilarious, and elucidated so much. I read his newer book, Outgrowing God, this summer but I far preferred this one.
Superlative: The Biology of Extremes, by Matthew D. LaPlante – Fun, readable pop science about what biological outliers can teach us or how they’re contributing to scientific research and advancements. Full of interesting factoids, genetics, and just generally very amusing.
The Boys of My Youth, by Jo Ann Beard – I saw Beard’s new essay collection, Festival Days, is coming next year, her first since this was published in 1999. Nothing like preparing for a new book to motivate you to finally read an old one! These are excellent autobiographical essays in the young girl coming-of-age in a dysfunctional family genre. Think Glass Castle and The Liars’ Club but funnier and more irreverent. A few didn’t charm me as much, like the one I believe it’s most famous for, “The Fourth State of Matter,” but the good far outweighed the ones I was less enthusiastic about. She writes about childhood so realistically and hilariously, and weaves humor into dark moments both as a child and an adult, and the overall effect was extraordinary.
Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, by Jane Mayer – Just because American voters have consigned Donald Trump to the dump heap of history where he belongs doesn’t mean that far-right politics, which were on the rise well before his election, are also gone. Although I found this a bit dense in parts, it was also terrifying, fascinating, and incredibly important. I’m not sure if the average Republican actually realizes how many of the party’s issues and stances are determined by billionaires who use their wealth to influence elections through PACs, specially formed companies, and any number of nefarious means, but we all should understand this better.
The Black and the Blue: A Cop Reveals the Crimes, Racism, and Injustice in America’s Law Enforcement, by Matthew Horace and Just Us: An American Conversation, by Claudia Rankine – Both of these were excellent; my mini-reviews are here.
Now the abandoned:
Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, by Martin Amis – Russian history, especially contemporary, is my sweet spot, so it takes a lot for me not to see one through. I read an Amis novel years ago for a college class and hated it, turns out he’s insufferable in his nonfiction too. A shame, because the premise is compelling: why are we able to joke about Stalin, who’s responsible for 20 million deaths? But Amis is such a weird, verbose, complicated writer, sometimes I could barely understand it. He approaches it from his family’s perspective — I guess his author dad was a Communist? — but the tiniest bit of memoir from him was a hard no.
The Golden Flea: A Story of Obsession and Collecting, by Michael Rips – One of my most anticipated this year fell flat! My interest wasn’t sparking at all, and I read some criticism that the author primarily allows flea market vendors to tell their stories without research or verifying. It wasn’t motivating me to continue.
A Ghost in the Throat, by Doireann Ní Ghríofa – This was an early Nonfiction November recommendation from Claire at Word by Word, whose recommendations I take very seriously. A review copy of it appeared right after, and sounded so good I started it immediately. It was very much not for me. Motherhood is a topic I don’t enjoy, and I couldn’t read the word “milk” here one more time, especially alongside mentions of baby diaper smells and graphic glimpses into conceiving her next child, which she points out gives her four children under the age of six, I believe it was. Welp, that’s my cue to exit this book.
I was very interested in the story of her obsession with researching and translating a 200-year-old Irish poem, but flipping ahead, everything I read was more around children and bodily details, and I saw “milk” everywhere. It’s very literary-artsy, and probably requires a mindset more geared to that, and to the author’s specific experience of womanhood. I say all this because Claire truly finds excellent, unusual nonfiction and I couldn’t find a single review of this that wasn’t glowing (it’s already out in the UK; US early next year) so it seems like it’s just me. Here’s Claire’s thoughtful and lovely review for a different perspective.
How was your reading month this Nonfiction November?