Is there anything I love more than a best-of list? Maybe, but when a year’s half-over and it’s time to recap favorites, I can’t think of anything better.
Here are my favorites of the year’s new nonfiction so far.
The Soul of a Woman, by Isabel Allende – Allende’s short but mighty powerful memoir (in translation!) of her lifetime experiences with feminism and thoughts on everything from aging to gender conceptions feels both like a reassuring hug and a powerful jolt. I got so much more from this book than I even expected to. It’s a gem.
Gory Details: Adventures From the Dark Side of Science, by Erika Engelhaupt – I think of things I learned from this pop science about the ickier, creepier, nastier, weirder parts of life (and death, and everything in between) all the time. I mean that in the best of ways! It’s a little education unto itself.
The Border: A Journey Around Russia, by Erika Fatland, from Norwegian by Kari Dickson – Norwegian journalist Erika Fatland’s travels along Russia’s entire borderland is a portrait of the country through the eyes of its neighbors. This was such a fascinating way to approach the topic, and Fatland is the kind of travel writer you wish you could go everywhere with — funny, realistic about travel, often lyrical, well versed in culture and history, and a remarkable storyteller who can pick out what’s significant and tie many elements together into a moving cultural and geopolitical study.
Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz: The Rebellion of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, by Gail Crowther – This dual biography of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton shows how the two women rebelled against the social constraints of their era, as well as how their work and personal relationship built on their time together in a Boston poetry workshop influenced one other. It’s an excellent sociological study with insightful biographical details and analysis.
The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story, by Kate Summerscale – A poltergeist-type of haunting that occurred around a housewife in late 1930s England is broken down into the components of what actually happened and why, including looks at the era and women’s societal status, and sketches of the colorful characters working in the then popular field of supernatural research. It’s a compelling debunking story for skeptics and hopefully illuminating for those expecting a “true ghost story”.
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 – I haven’t gotten around to reviewing it yet, but this collection of essays by a diverse range of writers on Lolita gives you so much to think about. Some of the writers love it, some hate it, some examine their changed opinions over time, others interrogate its continued value and what it means in a post-#MeToo world. I think I learned more about Lolita by reading this than I did in a college class that covered it.
Uncaring: How Physician Culture Kills Doctors & Patients, by Robert Pearl, M.D. – A surgeon and CEO of Kaiser Permanente analyzes the toxicity of physician culture and how it’s harmful to doctors and patients alike. This was so illuminating and although it can be disturbing (doctors, always wash your hands! Why is not doing so even a thing!), it’s ultimately informative and helpful. Pearl is an eloquent and compassionate writer who makes understanding healthcare accessible for those outside the field, also offers helpful, actionable suggestions for how clinicians and patients can do better to advocate for themselves and break the dangerous cycle of physician culture.
My Place at the Table: A Recipe for a Delicious Life in Paris, by Alexander Lobrano – Lobrano’s memoir of relocating on a whim to Paris and stumbling into what would become his lifelong passion – writing about food and the Parisian restaurant scene – is funny, bittersweet, and richly detailed without becoming overly saccharine. He covers the difficulties he encountered in finding work that he loved and allowing himself to do it, as well as feeling “other” in his childhood as he came to terms with his sexuality and trauma, making for a moving emotional story as well as an exciting look at various aspects of French cuisine.
The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free, by Paulina Bren – I still haven’t reviewed this one either, but this biography of a building was such an unusual read and a wonderful work of New York microhistory. The Barbizon was a women’s only, long-stay hotel in Manhattan that for decades allowed a kind of freedom previously unavailable to young, single women in the city pursuing careers. It covers the significance of the Mademoiselle magazine guest editor program as well, which Sylvia Plath famously took part in and formed the basis of the experiences she fictionalized in The Bell Jar.
White Magic: Essays, by Elissa Washuta – If another book surpasses this as my favorite for the entire year, it will be something so magnificent that my brain currently can’t conceive of such a thing. This genre-bending memoir is structured around Washuta’s process of healing trauma, living as a survivor and with the legacy of generational trauma from her lineage in the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, all shot through with pop culture references from the Oregon Trail computer game to Twin Peaks, and grouped around her use of magic (just trust me, it all works and it’s all amazing). It’s one of the most beautifully written memoirs I’ve ever read — I page through and reread what I highlighted often, although it’s one that you can open to any page and pick out some incredible line.
What’s your favorite new nonfiction so far this year?