It’s the most wonderful time of the year: Christmas stresses are over and it’s time for year-end favorites lists!
I love dividing up my year’s favorite books by new releases and backlist selections because it means I can include more books.
Also, since my blogging has deteriorated into a truly awful state, I realized that I haven’t even actually reviewed most of these. I’d like to hope that I would, but I’m trying to be realistic too.
Here were my favorites that I read this year among books published pre-2021 (no particular order):
Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country, by Edward Parnell – This was such a difficult-to-categorize book. For as much as it affected me I’m struggling to even figure out how to tell you about it. It’s part memoir, part nature and birdwatching tale, photo album of family and wanderings, meditations on death and change, and poetic, wistful literary analysis of classic English ghost stories. I suffered a bit from not being familiar with the vast majority of the books and stories included, which I could only imagine enhances this, but I was nevertheless heavily affected by it. I’m afraid to even go too deeply into detail and give away too much, because its unfolding felt so powerful, even as it becomes ominous.
I love any exploration of the real stories behind hauntings and the reasons why we tell ghost stories or what they mean to us culturally, and as a study of that alone this would be outstanding, but with the pitch-perfect memoir, stirringly gorgeous lines, and haunting photography and descriptions of English countryside, it’s next-level.
Exteriors, by Annie Ernaux, translated from French by Tanya Leslie – A new edition was released by Seven Stories Press this year, but the English translation is originally from 1996 and the French original from 1993, so I’m counting it here. After falling in love with her writing in The Years, I’ve been working through Ernaux’s nonfiction. Exteriors was my favorite: a strange but lovely collection of Ernaux’s observances in diary-like entries spanning 1985 to 1992 of people she noticed and overheard conversations on the metro and RER train, in shopping centers and parking lots. It’s kind of incredible how much insight these manage to pack in and how revealing they are of everyday lives, emotions, and events, and her writing is lyrical and poignant and I thought more accessible than some of her other work.
The Fire and the Darkness: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945 by Sinclair McKay – From the first page I was stunned. I had to set the book down and immediately google the author, because who writes like this?! Witness: “By the castle wall, and in the shadow of the Catholic cathedral, winter twilight can occasionally bring an arresting effect. If you glance around, it is possible, just for a fleeting moment, that you will find yourself alone. And here in this triangle of cobbled paving and sculptured stone – the Schlossplatz, overlooked by the grand archway leading through to the castle courtyard, the church spire high and sharp against the amethyst sky – time can smoothly slip its moorings.”
Turns out I’d read another of his books, a historical true crime, which isn’t really my thing but was so well written that I still remember it for that.
This one is the same – the writing is totally captivating and he brings this history very much to life from multiple perspectives. Sinclair makes it feel like you’re there, whether you want to be or not (you don’t; however bad you thought this was, it’s worse). The perspectives include Victor Klemperer’s, the famous Jewish diarist who survived and meticulously chronicled the war years from Dresden, creating incredibly valuable records, and Kurt Vonnegut (whose baby face is pictured in one of the photo inserts in his military uniform — I never knew he was THAT young when he served and was a POW in Dresden!)
Among all the stories here we even get a little glimpse of Vladimir Putin during his stint in the KGB in the city in the 80s (only 15 years before he would become president, Sinclair points out, and egads, he worked fast).
I liked that he also briefly addressed the question of whether the bombing of Dresden constituted a war crime. This is a thorny ethical issue but I find perspectives on it interesting and thought he summed up the arguments and sides quite well, although I’d like to read something more in-depth about it. The look at Dresden’s rebuilding and impression of what it’s like today was incredibly moving.
Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs, by Greg King and Penny Wilson – Page-turning historical horror and the heady but fraught atmosphere of Vienna at the end of an empire makes for ultra-compelling narrative nonfiction that feels far stranger than fiction.
Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Azar Nafisi – I finally got around to what might be the book longest on my reading list. It had its slower parts, but I’m so glad I finally read it. It was worth it for some of the dreamy, gorgeous writing, haunting imagery, and the perspectives it gave of these women’s lives. “Memories have ways of becoming independent of the reality they evoke. They can soften us against those we were deeply hurt by or they can make us resent those we once accepted and loved unconditionally.”
The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, by Garrett M. Graff – I finally tackled this oral history of 9/11. It was just as emotional (and thus challenging) as I’d imagined, but so worthwhile. It surprised me too, in what exactly I found most affecting. The stories of lost loved ones were of course tragic, but I was overcome by the survivors’ explanations of what helped them through: one woman describing hearing her dead relatives’ voices telling her to keep going when she was on the brink of exhaustion, and the tales of people who went knowingly to their deaths to save others, or risked their own lives to help others out of the towers. It felt reassuring to read this now, while watching how little we seemingly care about each other through two years of pandemic, and be reminded that sometimes humanity can show its best side.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande – I’ve discussed this one enough here and here, just know I think it should be required reading for absolutely everyone.
Overkill: When Modern Medicine Goes Too Far / Bad Advice: Or Why Celebrities, Politicians, and Activists Aren’t Your Best Source of Health Information / Do You Believe in Magic: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine / Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine, by Paul A. Offit – I’m cheating by lumping all of these together, but Dr. Paul Offit’s myth-busting books about the dangers of believing celebrities over scientists, trusting religion instead of medicine, and assuming the dietary supplement industry has your best interests at heart as opposed to pharmaceuticals feel like required reading now more than ever.
The Writing Life – Annie Dillard’s short but powerful book on writing is her at her best – personal stories, philosophy, weird imagery that somehow comes together perfectly.
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel van der Kolk – This modern classic about the effects of trauma on the body and brain processes is one that ends up feeling much more broadly relevant than you might initially assume. It can be a bit dense and obviously heavy, but I took so much from it that felt incredibly important and helpful.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott – Lamott’s classic on writing is a classic for a reason. Accessible, funny, reassuring, and very down to earth, it’s not only a great guide for encouraging your own writing for the right reasons, but a kind of friendly shove for doing anything that you need to get done.
Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, by Erika Fatland, translated from Norwegian by Kari Dickson – I so loved The Border that I wanted to keep traveling with Erika Fatland. This predated her most recent in translation, and clearly laid the foundations for Fatland’s later travels around Russia’s bordering countries. In Sovietistan, she travels alone through the Asiatic republics of the former Soviet Union. I hope to eventually do this one justice with a longer review because I absolutely loved it, but suffice to say it blends her signature of highly readable and entertaining history and geopolitical analysis with humor, lyrical writing and descriptions, and a travel narrative that doesn’t skimp on the awful, disappointing elements.
The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss (Why Intermittent Fasting Is the Key to Controlling Your Weight), by Jason Fung – Another I’ve harped about enough. Not a diet book, rather the best scientific explanation I’ve found of how weight gain and loss work from a biological perspective.
The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science, by Will Storr – Journalist Storr set himself the challenging task of understanding how people can deny facts and persist in beliefs despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary, spurred by his experience digging fossils with a “celebrity creationist”. He investigates a family devastates by “recovered” Satanic cult memories, Hitler “apologists” touring Europe, climate-change denier Lord Monckton, and my favorite investigational topic: psychics, with a surprisingly critical look at infamous public enemy number one of the clairvoyants, James Randi. This was published in 2013, and some of it was eerily prescient for how bad impossible beliefs would become when Trump entered the picture. Storr also digs heavily into the psychology behind belief systems, and weaves in his own experiences in a way that felt very relevant and useful.
Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, by Caroline Criado Perez – I’d hesitated on this one a bit because I wasn’t sure how interested I could get in a data-driven topic, but do not make the mistake I did; read this immediately. Perez shows how deep the data bias against women — or mere lack of data — actually goes, how it infiltrates every level of society from the size of smartphones to city planning, and at what detriment this comes. Eye-opening, enraging, phenomenal.
East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, by Philippe Sands – I’d have picked up this memoir blended with legal history (bear with me; not as dull as it sounds) much sooner if I’d realized how much of it centered on my former residence of Vienna, Austria. Sands, a British lawyer, investigates his grandfather’s life through letters, photos, and reminiscences and along the way it turns into a masterful detective story as he stumbles on more than one mystery around his grandparents’ lives and escapes from annexed Austria. In parallel he tells the stories of the Nuremberg trials through the lens of Hans Frank, former head of the General Government in Nazi-occupied Poland, and the genesis of the legal terms “genocide” and “crimes against humanity,” including the colorful characters who created and fought for their use. It was so moving and well done, especially when I consider how much it encompassed and how it incorporated every element just perfectly.
What was the best backlist nonfiction you read this year?