Before I start on my 2020 favorites, I’d rather take a quick look ahead first. We’re all hoping for a better 2021 — eventually, at least — so let’s start there instead.
Here are some upcoming nonfiction titles scheduled for early 2021 that I’ve got my eye on. Any of these on your list too?
Café Europa Revisited: How to Survive Post-Communism, by Slavenka Drakulic (January 5, Penguin) — One of my favorites this year was The Age of Skin, an essay collection by a Croatian writer analyzing the state of Europe today, including aftereffects of Communism. Drakulic’s focus sounds similar, but homes in more on Eastern Europe, “looking closely at artefacts and day to day life, from the health insurance cards to national monuments, and popular films to cultural habits, alongside pieces of growing nationalism and Brexit, these pieces of political reportage dive into the reality of a Europe still deeply divided.” I should try to read her first collection, 1997’s Cafe Europa: Life After Communism first, but I’m thrilled for this one. According to Wikipedia Drakulic lives in Croatia and Sweden now, but she lived for many years in Vienna, a perspective which adds to the appeal. (Not sold yet: just see cover. I would hang that on my wall.)
Unsolaced: Along the Way to All That Is, by Gretel Ehrlich (January 5, Pantheon) — Ehrlich is forever a personal favorite thanks to The Solace of Open Spaces, one of those introspective, meditative, resonant books I found exactly when I needed it. This is her newest in quite awhile, described as a “collection of memories, observations, and narratives” that meditate “on how water, light, wind, mountain, bird, and horse have shaped her life and her understanding of a world besieged by a climate crisis.” Ehrlich’s prose is always lovely and evocative and she’s an exceptional nature writer, who makes everything feel so connected and personal and richly meaningful.
Nobody’s Normal: How Culture Created the Stigma of Mental Illness, by Roy Richard Grinker (January 19, W.W. Norton) — An anthropologist “chronicles the progress and setbacks in the struggle against mental-illness stigma—from the eighteenth century, through America’s major wars, and into today’s high-tech economy.” My impression is that it’s only recently that we’re starting to creepingly inch away from overwhelming stigma around mental illness, so I’m curious about the history here. Drawing “on cutting-edge science, historical archives, and cross-cultural research in Africa and Asia, Grinker takes readers on an international journey to discover the origins of, and variances in, our cultural response to neurodiversity.”
Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal, by Mark Bittman (February 2, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) — I’d love to get back into reading food writing next year, and since I struck out big time on foodoirs in 2020, a history seems a good place to start instead. Prolific food writer Bittman’s latest is a history of Homo Sapiens through food, which is a compelling lens to use on this topic. Interested in how the “suicidal” part of the subtitle plays out. I guess because we’re killing ourselves by eating garbagey stuff?
The Border: A Journey Around Russia Through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Norway, and the Northeast Passage, by Erika Fatland, translated by Kari Dickson (February 2) — Long subtitle aside, I love the idea of looking at something through what it’s not — through it borders and connections and influences instead of the thing itself. And my last read on borders in Eastern Europe was simply incredible. This is Fatland’s second book to be translated into English, after last year’s Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, another uncommon travel narrative of lands with Russian connection.
The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed, by Wendy Lower (February 16, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) — Holocaust scholar Lower embarks on “forensic and archival detective work” around a rare photograph depicting the murder of a family by German officials and Ukrainian collaborators alongside a ravine in Ukraine. She’s eventually unable to uncover “the identities of mother and children, of the killers—and, remarkably, of the Slovakian photographer who openly took the image, as a secret act of resistance,” along with illuminating more about this dark corner of an already dark part of history. Although such stories are grim and can be tough to read, Lower is a renowned Holocaust scholar (author of Hitler’s Furies) and I think if she took on this story there’s something very worthwhile to say.
Lolita in the Afterlife: On Beauty, Risk, and Reckoning with the Most Indelible and Shocking Novel of the Twentieth Century, edited by Jenny Minton Quigley (March 16) — “A vibrant collection of sharp and essential modern pieces on the perennially controversial Lolita, by a wide range of celebrated writers, edited by the daughter of Lolita’s original publisher.” Quigley commissioned original essays from Cheryl Strayed, Roxane Gay, Erika Sánchez, Sloane Crosley, Andre Dubus III, Ian Frazier, Lauren Groff, Stacy Schiff, Emily Mortimer, Victor LaValle and others around the novel that “exemplifies many of the issues at the forefront of our current national discourse: art and politics, race and whiteness, gender and power, sexual trauma.” Lolita is one of my all-time favorite novels (I once read those!) and I’m very interested in how we consider it in those named contexts and what these writers have to say about it. Especially looking forward to pieces by Roxane Gay and Sloane Crosley.
Festival Days, by Jo Ann Beard (March 16, Little, Brown) — I’ve already mentioned this one, having finally read and loved Beard’s Boys of My Youth, but it’s just so exciting that she’s finally releasing new nonfiction after more than two decades. These nine new autobiographical essays examine “life, love, death and all the complicated feelings that a person goes through during their most dire moments.” I found her abilities to swing between humor and nostalgia, pain and sheer joy so impressive in Boys, and she’s one of those writers who doesn’t waste a single sentence. One of my most anticipated for the year.
Hype: How Scammers, Grifters, and Con Artists Are Taking Over the Internet—and Why We’re Following, by Gabrielle Bluestone (April 6, Hanover Square Press) — A former Vice journalist and documentary filmmaker looks at the “con-artists, grifters, and snake-oils salesmen of the digital age – and why we can’t stop falling for them.” Like many I’m magnetically obsessed with scammy–conartist-y stories, and curious about the digital-age angle, although I guess that’s been inherent in many of these recent stories. This one also takes more of an angle towards consumers — examining the infamous Fyre festival and Juicero startup — instead of individual stories, which is an intriguing twist.
Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz: The Rebellion of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, by Gail Crowther (April 20, Gallery Books) — I’m not the biggest biography reader, I’ve realized — I prefer a broader history, but there’s a biography category on the 2021 Nonfiction Reader Challenge and I think this might be my choice. For such a short life, Plath’s is a much-examined one (three other books on her by Crowther alone!), and I find it really interesting that she and Sexton had a connection. Sexton is one of my favorite poets but a complicated figure, and I’m intrigued by the dynamic between them, which began as a rivalry and ended in friendship. Soaked in booze, apparently!
What nonfiction are you most anticipating next year?