It’s finally time to close the book on a year none of us will forget, much as we’d like to!
2020 may have sucked unendingly for so very many reasons, but it did have some redeeming qualities in the new nonfiction department. Here are my favorites, in no particular order, from the 2020 new nonfiction releases I got to this year.
I can’t pretend they’re the most socially important, or literarily meaningful, or truly best-of-the-best. They’re just the ones I loved the most.
The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained, by Colin Dickey – Conspiracy theories of the 2016 election inspired Dickey to further investigate American beliefs in the “unexplained,” which always has a social, cultural, and historical explanation. He peels back the layers on a number of infamous myths, cryptid stories, and bits of lore, including the Betty and Barney Hill alien abduction, the Jersey Devil, the Gloucester sea serpent, and the supernatural locale of Mount Shasta.
Dressed For a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices From the Gulag, by Monika Zgustova, translated by Julie Jones – This oral history shares stories from female Gulag survivors, an overlooked group. What could be dark and depressing ends up a celebration of life, survival, and the friendships that really did save them, as well as moving portraits of the women in the present as the author interviewed them. A surprisingly uplifting piece of history that emphasizes what’s important as the years fall away, and what you can take from tragedy and suffering.
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of An American Family, by Robert Kolker – This has the Oprah seal of approval in addition to being on basically every year-end best list so it doesn’t need any help from me. But it deserves the accolades, as Kolker’s granular look at a family with six schizophrenic children alongside the scientific and medical advances made in understanding and treating schizophrenia is masterful.
Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live, by Nicholas A. Christakis – The book I’ve found my thoughts returning to most often this year is, perhaps unsurprisingly, this one. Physician and public health educator Christakis examines past pandemics in light of our current one, and I found it strangely reassuring that humans have always been as pain-in-the-assy as we are right now. It’s good to know we’re not just in an exceedingly selfish, mistrustful of science and conspiracy theory-loving phase. He also deftly analyzes what happened this year and what it all means for the recovery we face in the next years. I found it incredibly helpful, also in terms of the health and medical information he provides.
Intimations: Six Essays, by Zadie Smith – As much as I didn’t want lockdown essays, Zadie Smith is the exception. The only drawback is that it’s so brief. I’ve found my thoughts circling points and ideas from these often as well. Thoughtful, insightful, gorgeously written, and even prescient, Smith’s voice is powerful and lovely and helps bring some order to the emotional and existential chaos of recent months.
The Lost Pianos of Siberia, by Sophy Roberts – A British journalist’s travels in Siberia tracking down historically significant pianos might not sound like a book you immediately want to read, but trust me, it is. The writing is lyrical, the history beautifully told, the photos delightful, the characters Roberts encounters in the present and past ones she brings to life are richly rendered and haunting. This book was so much rolled into one and I loved all of it.
No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram, by Sarah Frier – Perhaps the other book I found myself thinking about most is this one. Social media is inescapable, even if you don’t use it or only sparingly, and the story of Instagram’s founding and how drastically the app has since changed says so much about our current moment (it’s not good). Through looks at the founder and developers and how the app itself has influenced advertising, marketing, and led to the rise of influencer culture (barf), Frier breaks down the business and its indications about culture in the internet age in a highly readable, almost exposé-feeling narrative.
Dark Towers: Deutsche Bank, Donald Trump, and an Epic Trail of Destruction, by David Enrich – This account of all the dark, evil shit that’s been going on at Deutsche Bank, mostly recently but stretching back to its days bankrolling Auschwitz, is astounding. It’s page-turning — almost thriller-esque, information-packed but extremely accessible, and even darkly humorous. Enrich anchors it with the story of Bill Broeksmit, a Deutsche executive who died by suicide, and traces what led to his desperation while examining myriad crimes along the way.
We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence, by Becky Cooper – Cooper became obsessed with a legend-like story of a Harvard student murdered by the professor she was having an affair with, who still teaches at the Ivy institution. She delved into researching it and fleshing out the picture of victim Jane Britton, and of course there was much more to the story than its sound bite-legacy indicates. Astonishingly, after so many decades cold, the case was solved as Cooper was writing. It’s intelligently written and hard to put down but never lurid, and Cooper skillfully allows readers to follow every step of her process and investigation, making for an incredibly unique telling, as well as an important look at feminism on campuses and the treatment of women in academia.
The Book of Atlantis Black: The Search for a Sister Gone Missing, by Betsy Bonner – I haven’t reviewed this yet but it’s great. It’s labeled true crime, but that doesn’t really fit. Bonner’s sister Atlantis was troubled, plagued by mental illness and substance abuse but passionate about music and her art. After her death in Mexico, Bonner is haunted by a lack of concrete answers, including whether the body found was even Atlantis’s. I found this less of a mystery and I’m not sure if that’s what the author intended, but it’s a nuanced portrait of her sister in all her conflict and turmoil, and a tribute to her life and their sisterhood.
Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin, by Megan Rosenbloom – What begins as a medical librarian’s fixation on the macabre spectacle of books bound in human skin turns into a detective story about whether many are even real, and ends up an exploration of the foundations of clinical medicine and the beginnings of dehumanization of patients. It’s grim but probably not in the ways you’re expecting, and Rosenbloom is a passionate guide through medical history and ethical issues.
Clean: The New Science of Skin, by James Hamblin – MD and Atlantic writer on health topics Hamblin breaks down, in highly entertaining prose, exactly how the marketing around skincare has manipulated us into believing the scientifically impossible. This was illuminating and eye-opening, often funny, and should be a must-read as we begin to understand the emerging science of the microbiome and its importance in health and treatment.
Biography of Resistance: The Epic Battle Between People and Pathogens, by Muhammad H. Zaman – Although it started last year, this year I got very into medical nonfiction, and this book was a standout. In each chapter Zaman looks at a different historical stage in humans’ increasing resistance to antibiotics. It’s compellingly written and alarming, but this is an issue that cannot wait. I’m continuously shocked by people’s general misunderstanding of antibiotics and what they treat (hint: it’s not “everything”) so this should be required reading. He makes it so interesting too, literally spanning the globe and highlighting so many different figures involved in both developing drugs and resistance, and working towards solutions.
The Lady’s Handbook For Her Mysterious Illness: A Memoir, by Sarah Ramey — Although it contains some weird ideas around gender (i.e., a very firm distinction between the masculine and feminine and attributions to this that are not necessarily based in science), I found so much of it helpful if you suffer from chronic illness while female. (And the illness isn’t one that could afflict a man.) You already know what your treatment has been like, and how frustrating years of a mystery illness can be. Just to witness someone else’s experience and healthcare process was helpful, and gave me some strength and direction in managing my own.
A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears), by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling – This darkly hilarious look at what happens when libertarians take over a tiny New Hampshire town is both a tale almost too entertaining to believe and a damning indictment of the American tendency towards personal “freedom” at whatever cost.
A Demon-Haunted Land: Witches, Wonder Doctors, and the Ghosts of the Past in Post–WWII Germany, by Monica Black – A smart look at a strange and underreported phenomenon: after the Second World War, a fixation on faith healers, witchcraft, curses, and superstition proliferated in West Germany. Historian Black looks at why and how lingering ghosts of the Nazi era haunted a country that was simultaneously undergoing a forward-looking economic miracle.
The Age of Skin: Essays, by Dubrakva Ugrešić – Croatian émigrée Ugrešić writes on the current state of Europe, especially around the politics of immigration and the troubling response to it in the last several years, notions of identity and exile, particularly among ex-Yugoslavians, and brilliantly weaves in pop culture references. The title essay about what skin signifies in various ways, including viscerally and linguistically, is a gem. It’s also lyrical and emotional, occasionally shot through with black humor, and I loved the uniqueness — we don’t often hear from the ex-Yugoslavian diaspora in English.
Not a Novel: A Memoir in Pieces, by Jenny Erpenbeck – Another brilliant set of essays in translation is popular German novelist Erpenbeck’s “memoir in pieces.” Erpenbeck also addresses the refugee topic, taking on the European response to Muslim refugees in 2014-2015. As a former East German she brings the perspective of someone who’s been through a difficult integration herself, writing with clarity and compassion. My favorite pieces were those that called up her childhood and life in East Berlin — they felt almost like scenes from fiction, evocative and atmospheric.
Here For It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America; Essays, by R. Eric Thomas – Humor columnist Thomas’s essays about growing up Black and gay in America are some of the sweetest and funniest I’ve read. He seamlessly blends the nostalgic and painful with the joyful and upbeat, just like life. I laughed, cried, commiserated, and learned from him. This was such an exuberant and resonant glimpse into his life, and slyly smart looks at major social issues.
The Unreality of Memory: And Other Essays, by Elisa Gabbert – These essays loosely grouped around topics of disaster — from the large-scale, like the Titanic and Chernobyl, to the very personal — and our obsession with them is stunning. Not only for the topics, but Gabbert’s writing is expressive and super-smart. She incorporates so many different topics, even touching on fear of potential pandemics and widespread contagion pre-Covid, and manages to make it entertaining and deeply thoughtful without being annoyingly philosophical or academic.
The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket, by Benjamin Lorr – A detailed exposé into the bizarre operations of US supermarkets, Lorr’s on-the-ground reporting from the fish counter of a Manhattan Whole Foods to the byzantine trail of a condiment entrepreneur is in turns fascinating and disturbing. My favorite section was learning the philosophy that shaped the foundation of Trader Joe’s, and how its founder upended the traditional functioning of US grocery stores. But all of it is fascinating, and interspersed with humor, which brings some levity to the somewhat disturbing economics of how our food supply chain functions.
Surviving Autocracy: A Status Report, by Masha Gessen – Gessen’s polemic on American autocracy couldn’t have come at a better time, as it’s not only relevant for living under the Trump administration, but provides a roadmap for reshaping our democracy after these years. Gessen cautions that what we had before Trump isn’t some ideal to return to, either. Gessen is sharp but clear in what’s gone wrong, and draws eerie parallels between the current political climate in the US and that of European autocracies, meticulously highlighting every point where Trump’s autocratic tendencies have flourished.
So You’re a Little Sad, So What?: Nice Things to Say to Yourself on Bad Days and Other Essays, by Alicia Tobin – Canadian comedian and podcaster Tobin’s essays are a balm for whatever ails you. These sweet, sensitive, vulnerable personal stories turn difficult experiences — chronic illness, loneliness, bad boyfriends, mental illness, difficult moms — into little celebrations of getting through and still being able to laugh about it. I loved everything about them and I think of little gems of wisdom or humor from them all the time.
Russians Among Us: Sleeper Cells, Ghost Stories, and the Hunt for Putin’s Spies, by Gordon Corera – Honestly, this might’ve been the most fun reading experience I had this year. BBC Security Correspondent Corera looks at the “Illegals Program” of the Russian deep-cover spies arrested in the FBI’s 2010 Operation Ghost Stories. It’s also a book about modern spycraft and how technology has changed the work, as well as the significance of espionage to Russia and especially to Vladimir Putin. I don’t think there was a page of this that wasn’t totally compelling, and it was illuminating in terms of our current troubled relationship with Russia.
Humankind: A Hopeful History, by Rutger Bregman – Ending on a hopeful note, which we all could use right now, Bregman uses infamous incidents and historical occurrences to argue that man isn’t as inhumane to fellow man as we might be inclined to think. Popular narratives around things like Kitty Genovese’s murder, the Stanford Prison Experiment, broken windows policing, and the disappearance of Easter Island’s population have long been misinterpreted, misremembered, and retold for all the wrong reasons. Bregman’s isn’t relentlessly sunny in his interpretations, but rather shows that on the whole, we’re geared more towards harmony than animosity.
Honorable mention to A Promised Land, which I’m still reading and with 500 pages to go I don’t think it’s fair to call it a favorite yet, but it deserves its hype and ubiquity. It’s exactly the wise, emotional, and introspective book I want to end this year on.
What’s been your favorite new nonfiction release in 2020? Did any of these make your list too?