I think I look forward more to putting together my list of backlist favorites each year than the new releases. What was better for you this year — new releases or older nonfiction?
Borrowed Finery, by Paula Fox – Children’s novelist Fox’s memoir is brilliant, especially for memoir that’s non-linear and kind of hazy in parts. It’s more impressionistic and vignette-structured, with attention on certain standout, meaningful moments. She reveals a lot about her troubled childhood, particularly her relationship with her mother, but she writes from such a mature, wise place that seems well on the other side of it all, so doesn’t feel as heavy as it could. I’m surprised it’s not better known because it’s exquisite.
Zealot: A Book About Cults, by Jo Thornely – Thornely hosts one of my favorite podcasts, Zealot, featuring a hilarious deep dive into a different cult each episode. A generous sense of humor is a necessity, so some familiarity with her style helps. Although there are some truly terrible incidents and people involved, like Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple (or Brylcreem Elvis, as she calls him) and the Children of God, Thornely explains that making fun of these frequently narcissistic cult leaders is the best way to show how much they sucked. These aren’t in-depth histories of the cults or their leaders, rather a chapter each giving the narrative outline with plenty of jokes.
The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins – Dawkins’ modern classic on atheism is informative and reassuring, and a good alternative if you’ve had enough of deluded religious maniacs being taken seriously (see above). He hits on all the major argumentative points — historical, scientific, philosophical, etc. to make a case for atheism. It’s super-smart but accessible and often funny, if exasperatedly so.
When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi – Kalanithi’s memoir after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer is wrenching but so meaningful that I wish I hadn’t waited so long to read it. He looks back at his work and ideas around medical practice, his young family, and shares his thoughts about what’s happening to him, laced with TS Eliot quotes, and it’s impossibly lovely even if I did sob, and I’m not someone who likes a tearjerker. But this feels like one everyone should read, because in revealing so much, so candidly, about himself in his most vulnerable moments, it’s impossible not to take away something about yourself too.
Superlative: The Biology of Extremes, by Matthew D. LaPlante – Interesting and well-written look at how biological outliers can shape our understanding of DNA as well as some surprising technological developments. Because a lot of subjects are covered, I didn’t retain as much from this as I’d have liked from a single reading, but it’s well worth a reread and stuffed with tons of factoids. Kind of amazing how much humans have borrowed for our technology from animals, plants, and nature.
The Boys of My Youth, by Jo Ann Beard – Autobiographical coming-of-age essays that jump back and forth between childhood with her sister and specific phases in adulthood — namely her mother’s death and the time around her divorce — are in turns hilarious, heartbreaking, and relatable, and a lesson in gorgeous, evocative writing.
An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard – Although I have yet to read something of Dillard’s that captures the lightning in a bottle of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, this memoir of the author’s beginnings in Pittsburgh had some very high points — beautiful writing, time-stopping one-liners, and dreamy reminiscences of childhood and adolescence that helped me reshape how I think about my own. I can’t think of higher praise for a book than the ability to do that.
When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, by Terry Tempest Williams – Williams’ unconventional memoir based on perusing her mother’s journals after her death shows this strange but captivating writer at her best — meditative, poetic, deeply connected to nature and natural history. It’s hard to categorize but a peaceful, self-reflective must-read.
American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst, by Jeffrey Toobin – If it wasn’t anyone’s year, it was doubly definitely not Jeffrey Toobin’s year. I’ve read three of his books and enjoyed them all quite a lot, but it’s impossible not to feel really squicky about him now. In any case, I read this, about Patty Hearst’s kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army, before his Zoom disgrace. Aside from the infamous photograph of Hearst with a gun and the connection to the theory of Stockholm Syndrome, I knew little about this incident, and there’s so much more to it. The narrative is structured so well that it’s a page-turner, and Toobin’s commentary on the social elements at the time and the legal proceedings was great. Why does he have to be disgusting! If you can evaluate his books on their own merits, this one is excellent.
The Years, by Annie Ernaux, translated from French by Alison Strayer – Ernaux’s memoir of growing up in the postwar generation in France, from her childhood in Normandy through to her present, is so hard to summarize, categorize, or really capture. Trust that it’s weird and wonderful. It changes tenses, scenes, and bits of history, she steps back from her own life and looks inside as if an outsider, and navigates deftly through major events in contemporary French social history. It’s lyrical, educational, and utterly unique.
Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick, by Maya Dusenbery – A thorough, incisive look at the many, many (just too many) ways women suffer in medical treatment. It’s deeply researched and wide reaching in scope, and completely alarming but should be required reading, especially for healthcare professionals. It’s also extremely helpful, if only from a reassuring, you’re-not-alone in this nightmare standpoint if you’re struggling with treatment as a woman yourself.
The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea, by Philip Hoare – In a blend of nature, travel, history, memoir, and biology, Hoare traces his lifelong curiosity about whales by looking at humans’ relationship to the animals, which is unfortunately quite a dark history. But this is informative and always compelling, especially in looking at the cultural position of whales and how it’s changed through time.
Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany, by Marie Jalowicz Simon, translated from German by Anthea Bell, – Jalowicz-Simon’s memoir, written near the end of her life, about her incredible survival in plain sight in Berlin during the Second World War is a standout even in the crowded genre of reminiscences from this time. But it’s also a bit of a rarity, since so-called U-Boats, or Jewish people who hid in plain sight by removing their stars, weren’t numerous. Her emotional distance and occasional coldness in storytelling is haunting and gives a glimpse into traits she developed to survive, and her recall for details is incredible.
Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties, by Tom O’Neill with Dan Piepenbring – The product of decades of obsessive research, O’Neill uncovered endless oddities around official narratives of Charles Manson and the murders that made him infamous, and CIA links are less far-fetched than you might first assume. A little bit conspiracy theory, a lot of fascinating history, and a wholly compelling wild ride.
The Little Girl on the Ice Floe, by Adelaide Bon, translated from French by Tina Kover – Bon writes about the rape that changed her life, and although it’s harrowing subject matter, she’s such an expressive, emotional writer that it doesn’t feel as gutting as it could. Her attacker is ultimately held to account, and the solidarity she finds in meeting other victims is redemptive and powerful. This was a beautiful translation and a deeply affecting story.
The Tummy Trilogy, by Calvin Trillin – New Yorker writer Trillin’s three books on his cross-country travels sampling American cuisine and regional specialties is light, hilarious, and celebratory. He spotlights the culinary culture of some lesser-known areas, like Kansas City, and delightfully emphasizes that especially American characteristic of international cuisines tweaked to American palates. Definitely some of the best and most fun food writing I’ve read on the uniqueness of American cuisine.
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, by David Quammen – National Geographic science writer Quammen’s study of zoonoses — viruses originating in animals that manage a leap into humans — is the year’s must-read, especially if we want to be better informed for the future. He covers a number of such infections, and they’re all similar if all very different. It was very hard to listen to the proliferation of conspiracy and misinformation after reading this, because it shows so indisputably clearly how these infections mutate and spread — not nearly as rare as some seem to believe. This answered so many questions for me, and was so well written — like a travel writer, Quammen takes the reader along as he visits the Chinese wet markets, among many far-flung locales involved in zoonosis outbreaks. It’s a surprisingly entertaining and unbelievably helpful read.
Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves, by James Nestor – A journalist explores the dangerous extreme sport of freediving through visits to each level of the ocean’s depths. It ends up being about so much more than diving, mainly around humans’ relationship to oceanic life at its deepest points. One of those books that teaches you so much you didn’t realize you wanted to know.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants, by Bill Bryson – Even if you’re not a Bryson fan (me), this is a delight. I learned so much about health and biology, and I keep returning to interesting parts of it. One point that’s stuck continually in mind is how little we actually know about the body’s functioning — like why certain processes work as they do — and how much of medicine is just manging symptoms and buying time until the body somewhat mysteriously, and always incredibly, heals itself.
Do any of these sound good to you, or do you already love them? What was your favorite backlist nonfiction read this year?