Nonfiction November Wrap-Up

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?


37 thoughts on “Nonfiction November Wrap-Up

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  1. I couldn’t get into the Golden Flea either. Did you read Adam Minter’s Secondhand? It found it fascinating, especially since we were S Arizona when I read it.

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  2. Oh gosh, you put me to shame … all I’ve read this month is Wild by Cheryl Strayed which I absolutely loved and have been meaning to read for a while, and The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin (quite inspiring and like the ‘ One Minute Jobs’ which has pleased my husband no end as I’ve started emptying the dishwasher more often)…. oh and Mad Girl by Bryony Gordon. Bit of a theme going on I think.

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    1. Ooh Mad Girl sounds so interesting and I hadn’t heard of it before! Thanks for putting that one on my radar. I haven’t read The Happiness Project but it does sound intriguing and I’ve heard a lot of good things about it.

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  3. I love that line from Dawkins. I haven’t read the God Delusion but my husband did and shared many enjoyable passages with me. I’ve added The Boys of My Youth to my wishlist. Dark Money sounds a bit like The Family which I read a few years ago, heavy and scary but probably important to know. I managed to read one non-fiction book in November, The Story of French. It’s quite good but I’d say it’s more a book about France’s history than it is about the French language. The authors are a husband-wife team (one Canadian, the other French). They fill each chapter with excellent anecdotes that make the book easy to read.

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    1. The God Delusion has so many great lines like that, that put things I thought into such clear, succinct words. My copy is so marked-up and post-it noted. So glad I read it!

      Which one is The Family? I don’t think I know it. “Heavy and scary but probably important to know” is exactly what Dark Money is. I like reading things in this area but I always have the feeling that the people who need it most won’t be the ones interested in reading it.

      The Story of French sounds good! I think I’d be more interested in the country history than language in that case. Do you know the book The Seine? It came out last year and is a sort of microhistory through the river and various areas that it runs through and influences. It was such a great little history, you might like it if you haven’t already read it!

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      1. The subtitle to The Family is The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. There is a Netflix series that is based on it. I didn’t know about The Seine. That sounds fascinating. Thanks.

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  4. I started The God Delusion earlier this year but didn’t finish it. I can’t 100% decide why. I think a lot of it had to do with reading something that conveyed how I already felt about the subject matter, so that made it a wee bit boring. I think I also felt a little preached at, but about how important Atheism is and I’ve been preached at more than I can handle. Despite this, I agree completely with what I did read.

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    1. I’ve felt so preached at by Christians for so long that reading Dawkins just felt like a relief! But I guess I could see where people find him preachy or arrogant, which I’d heard about him before. I read it more as just impatience or frustration, maybe? Since this all is pretty clear science and logic, and yet. It was alarming too to read the statistics on how people are more fine with electing someone from any religion, but totally balked if they knew a candidate was atheist, things like that. So I also get why he thinks Atheism itself as a concept is so important, as it’s still very much maligned. I found it really helpful, but I’m sure if you’ve read a lot in this area it wouldn’t be as illuminating!


      1. That’s understandable! I fully support pushing Atheism, I think it’s my own issues with pushing anything that was the problem. He has a very worthy cause. I think that since I’m already here, it wasn’t what I was expecting and I just can’t bring myself to push anything on anyone. I do hope that more people become Atheists and I very much look forward to the day that we potentially have an atheist in the White House. I feel like it will be a very long time but I’m hopeful I get to see it.
        Maybe arrogant was the description I was looking for. I think that fits, although like you said, it could have been more frustration and I’m taking it a different way. I would still look into his other books.

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      2. Right?! Or imagine if we didn’t even ask candidate what their religion was or have to hear ‘god bless this that and the other’ every speech. How I wish! Perhaps someday.

        But yeah, if it feels like pushing something it’s not appealing. I guess I always feel like it’s the people who most need this kind of thing who will never read it. I already agreed with everything, I just liked how he explained it. Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World is next on my list.

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  5. I loved the podcast! It was great listening to you all talking about your blogging and reading experiences and preferences. (For the record, I am a hoarder, read mostly paper copies and don’t feel any guilt at all about the few books that I DNF.) I’ve been thinking about starting a podcast myself and you’ve given me some inspiration to get cracking on it.

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  6. I’ve been meaning to read The Boys of My Youth for ages, and didn’t see the author had a new essay collection coming up too! I had to read The Fourth State of Matter twice in college (at the University of Iowa, which probably explains the assignment as well as my appreciation for the story) and loved it both times. I’m excited to see you liked the book, despite some ups and downs. Perhaps with a new set coming out I’ll finally get around to reading the rest!

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    1. I’d had a copy of it for soooo long and was just never motivated for it. Thankfully I saw she had a new one and seems kind of a big deal since it’s been so long! I really enjoyed it as a whole, I’m not sure why I didn’t like the Fourth State essay as much. I guess it was just so unsettling and disturbing and all-around sad? Normally I like these darker subjects but I don’t know, something tougher with that one! I can see why you’d have such a different connection to it, that’s so interesting. I think you’d like the collection as a whole though – it feels a lot like fiction, actually.

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    1. I had to laugh at some of it as well, but all the combinations of bodily things also gave me a bit of a stomachache too! It was really not for me! I’m not sure why that’s such an interesting topic for some authors to dwell on, apparently.

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  7. Well I enjoyed this post even though/because you had to abandon certain books. It’s the ones that get away.. I also liked Humankind but am a bit concerned as I cannot actually remember much about it. I think I was left with the feeling he went too much the other way in terms of saying humans are actually nice, I suspect it depends on the circumstances and the personalities involved.. kind of like sharing a villa holiday. I must read The God Delusion, I tried to read Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great but it defeated me, I found it hard to follow. It’s a big no for me to the book about babies and nappies and numerous kids under 4, yikes. Obviously it’s fascinating when one has just reproduced, but a big old bore for everyone else (I know I was insufferable at the time, I blame sleep deprivation and hormones).

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    1. Yes, I worried the same, that he was finding examples to prove his points and not looking at what would disprove them (exactly why Gladwell annoys me). But I ended up appreciating more that he debunked some stories and narratives that are so firmly embedded in our cultural mindset, it was really helpful and educational! Actually I have you to thank for letting me know about that book as well, I hadn’t heard of it until you posted about it so thank you!!

      The God Delusion was amazing, I can’t recommend it enough (I probably won’t review it and hesitated even to mention it because anytime I say something about religion, there’s a band of Christian blogging crusaders who must do keyword searches and come and leave tons of comments about how Jesus is the way and they hope I’ll choose to be saved. The audacity.) I’d found the other one I named a bit tough to follow (and allegedly it was for young adults; how embarrassing) but the sciencey parts here were more accessible and the rest of it was just outstanding. A tough part of coming back to the US has been being constantly slapped in the face with religion and this was very helpful and even comforting to read.

      I agree, anything around motherhood is a tricky topic, like writing about sex – it might be fascinating to you, but doesn’t always resonate with anyone else. And this was just uncomfortable, it was so graphic and I was exhausted just reading it. I felt like a jerk saying that about someone else’s experience but that’s how it was…

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  8. Quite an interesting and varied list of non-fiction to read making the reading year eventful. I am a fiction reader but read A history of India by Romila Thapar and The Complete Idiot Book by Laurie Rozakis on Creative Writing. I love Hawkin’s quote you mentioned and how true.

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    1. A History of India sounds so interesting! India is a bit of a blind spot in my reading but I heard of a new narrative nonfiction coming next year, called Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India that sounds really good. And I agree about the Dawkins quote — I only shared that one but I marked up SO much in that book. It’s fantastic, if you haven’t read it yet.

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