July is already half over and I’m only now getting around to my mid-year favorites list. I’m a mess! But better late than never, right? Especially when it’s a favorites list, I feel.
But I have to get really real with you: It has not been the best reading year for me so far. I’ve had way more abandoned books than usual and more than a dozen that I read around halfway, then skimmed to finish. This is practically unheard of for me and I don’t know what the reason is. Am I not a good decider anymore? Is my attention span permanently shot? I have no idea what’s going on and it makes me sad when it feels like my best friend, reading, isn’t getting along with me.
Anyway, amidst this bad spell, I nevertheless found some favorites from among the year’s newly released nonfiction.
In no particular order besides the top slot, here’s my best:
Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955 by Harald Jähner, translated from German by Shaun Whiteside – First published in English translation in the UK last year, this was released in the US this year so I’m counting it! As much as I’ve read about this place and era, this book still had so much that was new to me and it reads so smoothly, even in translation. I don’t think there was a page of this that wasn’t fascinating or illuminating in some way. Jähner focsues on the topics of clearing up the rubble and ruins, the great migration of “forced labourers and wandering prisoners,” the population’s massive draw to dancing and nightlife, relationships of men returning from war to their partners and families as well as women with occupying soldiers and a look at the changes in public attitudes towards sexuality, the black market economy, reeducation by the Allies, and a look at the beginning of the Cold War. It has a heavy Berlin-focus but not only. Used or new @ SecondSale.com
Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History, by Lea Ypi – Albania is a place I feel like I know so little about, and this smart and impressionistic, child’s-eye view memoir of a young girl growing up in the country made the perfect companion read to last year’s Mud Sweeter Than Honey. Used or new @ SecondSale.com
Happy-Go-Lucky, by David Sedaris – Mere months after his second volume of diaries was finally published, we get a new David Sedaris essay collection! Happy-Go-Lucky is a bit of a misnomer, as David & Sedarises are dealing with some quite heavy issues here, namely the impending end of their elderly father’s life. Still, as he always does, Sedaris finds humor even in darker, grimmer realities. And I love that the older he gets, the more he embraces who he is, in all his eccentricities and oddities. He’s a master of observation — truly, unparalleled from any other writer I’ve read, and that makes his storytelling so incomparably entertaining while hitting on some universally felt points, no matter how uncomfortable they may be. Used or new @ SecondSale.com
The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness, by Meghan O’Rourke – I will read any memoir of a woman with a mysterious illness, and I get something new from all of them. This one is much more scientific than some others I’d read, but with a nice blend of memoir as well. I like that it isn’t relentlessly sunny and the author, though reliant on data, research, and privileged enough to seek endless medical care, is also realistic about what her future with chronic illness looks like. That is: it’s just going to suck sometimes. This incorporates a lot of cutting-edge research around medical techniques and treatments that are coming more to the fore as possibilities for some of the mysterious, (often) autoimmune illnesses that many women (and some men!) have been increasingly suffering in recent years. Used or new @ SecondSale.com
Muse: Uncovering the Hidden Figures Behind Art History’s Masterpieces, by Ruth Millington – This beautifully written group biography explores a range of muses as well as the concept, in its various iterations, of what a muse actually is and what the relationship between muse and artist means now and has historically meant. I learned so much and it was such a sensitive, intelligent, and unique cultural history. And it couldn’t be more well deserved, as muses still tend to be footnotes in art history. Used or new @ SecondSale.com
The Lonely Stories: 26 Celebrated Writers On the Joys & Struggles of Being Alone, edited by Natalie Eve Barrett — I knew I’d love this after loving Barrett’s last edited essay collection, and it didn’t let me down. The Lonely Stories collects various writers’ ideas around loneliness in sometimes surprising forms, ranging from an exploration of the “third man factor,” where someone alone in a dire situation sees or hears someone with them and supporting them, to the loneliness that accompanies losing a language, and familiar topics like grief, breakups, and loss. The majority of these were stellar. I didn’t really do justice to how good this is in my review, but I can’t recommend it highly enough. Used or new @ SecondSale.com
Trapped in the Present Tense: Meditations on American Memory, by Colette Brooks – This is such a hard-to-categorize book: Brooks takes several key events and trends in contemporary American history (including mass shootings) and in a dreamy, lyrical way places them into cultural context within our modern landscape. Along the way she weaves in some of her family history, and it becomes a fascinating study of history as a microcosm. Used or new @ SecondSale.com
The Believer: Encounters with the Beginning, the End, and our Place in the Middle, by Sarah Krasnostein — Hard-to-categorize might be a theme this year. A journalist investigates questions of belief and what makes some people adhere to it faithfully even despite all evidence to the contrary — a fascinating and very relevant question. Krasnostein’s style is quite dreamy and meditative, so you have to be into that, but if so, this was captivating and enlightening. She’s also extremely compassionate, and compassion emerges as the most important idea here. Used or new @ SecondSale.com
Off the Edge: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything, by Kelly Weill — Speaking of odd beliefs: Flat Earthers. I read this entire book and I still couldn’t tell you why they believe this. I can, however, now tell you where this belief originated, and how it proliferated very recently, thanks to YouTube’s diabolical algorithm. This is a highly readable deep-dive into the strange, surreal world of Flat Earthers with broader implications about the dangers of conspiracy culture. Used or new @ SecondSale.com
What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma, by Stephanie Foo – My favorite by a million miles. Radio journalist Foo writes the first memoir of a complex PTSD sufferer, and chronicles her journey through this sometimes misunderstood, misdiagnosed illness. It is heartbreaking, hilarious, educational, and incredibly powerful. I laughed, I cried, I was awed by and thrilled for her. Just truly outstanding, gorgeously crafted memoir writing on a massively important topic. Used or new @ SecondSale.com
What’s been your favorite nonfiction read of the year so far?