Your Top Five (or more if you were lucky) Nonfiction Reads of 2017
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Posting these threads a bit early, but you know: holidays. I won't actually list mine until later in the month, probably after Christmas. Putting a little star here so it won't get lost in the shuffle.
Yeah a little early, lol. But I probably won't finish many more books before the end of the year and certainly not the giant NF I'm into right now, but I'll take a look at what I have read and see what I can come up with.
I send out a yearly email to friends and family of my favorite fiction and nonfiction reads each year at the end of December, and also post it on my reading thread on LT. It includes brief reviews and explanations of why each is on the list. I’ve started to work on it, but it’ll be another two weeks before it’s ready.
The Art of Beatrix Potter: Sketches, Paintings and Illustrations by Emily Zach - an ER selection, this is a lovely hardcover with big illustrations and wonderful biographical details of the author's life while she was producing said illustrations and stories. One of my treasures.
The Physiology of Taste by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin - I loved his humor, his insights into eating and all the rest of this.
The Story of Sushi by Trevor Corson - A fun and interesting read about becoming a sushi chef, and historical as well as practical insights into sushi.
Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides - A difficult read about American soldiers who were interred in Japanese prisoner of war camps. Difficult, but ultimately educational and multi-dimensional.
The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pepin - This felt like having long talks after dinner and hearing stories of the past, but in the very best of ways. Not pretentious, not self-aggrandizing or boring. Pour a glass of port and enjoy.
I don't expect to read any more non-fiction this year, so here are my top 5:
Shirley Jackson : a rather haunted life was a well-written biography of this fascinating writer.
The invention of Angela Carter studies the life of another great female 20th century writer.
When breath becomes air I finally got to read this medical memoir and found it as thoughtful and moving as I'd been led to expect.
This way madness lies was an attractive illustrated hardcover book that accompanied an exhibition at the Wellcome Institute in London. It is fascinating and disturbing, as was the exhibition.
Sightlines was a collection of nature essays, beautifully written and poetic but never descending into the purple prose which sometime infects this genre.
I might get to one more this year, but so far I have these:
Riddled With Life by Marlene Zuk
A fascinating look at microorganisms and parasites and their interaction with humans.
This is What you Just Put In Your Mouth by Patrick Di Justo
If you read his column in Wired magazine, you would like this book. He explains what the ingredients in various foods and other products actually do, in plain and witty language.
The Devil In The White City by Erik Larson
Junk Raft by Marcus Eriksen
This was an ER book that I am glad to have read. This researcher explores the journey that consumer waste products, especially plastics, take from our homes to our oceans.
So interesting to see all of these. I haven't read any that I've seen so far. Here are mine:
Between the World and Me: Coates's book is a letter to his son, describing how to live as a black man in 21st-century America and telling a good bit of his own story. Moving and inspiring, and Coates writes extremely well.
Being Mortal: a desperately needed call to respect patients' wishes and focus on the quality of their life at the end.
It's Not Dark Yet: memoir of Simon Fitzmaurice's life with ALS and his refusal to have it define him.
Words Are My Matter: not quite as fabulous as some of UKL's other essay collections, but still pretty wonderful.
Tears We Cannot Stop: Dyson's moving description of the lives of black Americans has some themes in common with Coates but some of its own as well.
I've made a point to read more nonfiction this year, and I've stumbled across many excellent books. So it's really hard to narrow it down, but here are my favorites at the moment:
Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper (about how dictionaries get written; the author is a lexicographer with Merriam-Webster)
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (memoir about plants, research science, and a long-term working friendship)
Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson (I'll second Jim53's rec. I listened to the audiobook, and it packed a lot of power in a short space.)
Quackery by Lydia Kang and Nate Pedersen (a quick and gruesome but very funny tour of bad medical treatments throughout history)
American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin (As an 80s baby, I had no idea just how F-ed up the 1970s were until I read this and Catch Me if You Can back to back for a book club. Now 2017 seems downright normal.)
Best might-have-made-my-list-but-I'm-only-partway-through-it: I Was Told to Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet
Best celebrity memoir: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Best nonfiction graphic novel: Safe Area Gorazde by Joe Sacco.
Ok, here we go!
Evolution by Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu
One of the most beautiful books about comparative evolutionary biology I’ve ever seen. The photography of the skeletons used to illustrate the scientific points delivered by the author are truly amazing. Get the coffee table version if you want a copy - it’s out of print, but still available.
Creatures of the Deep by Erich Hoyt
Sea creatures fascinate me in a way that land creatures don’t, even as much as I love nature. It’s their other-worldliness, but the animals in the shallows are nothing compared the those of the deep. It’s as close as we can get to meeting aliens while not leaving the planet. The second edition of this book is expanded and updated by a lot because the diving technology (as well as collecting and filming techniques) have improved so much.
1000 Years of Annoying the French by Stephen Clarke
Sets the record straight with regards to what the French claim they’ve done, invented or didn’t do and all with a very dry English humor that they surely don’t get or appreciate. It’s a very long book, but taken in bits it is absorbable and really, really funny.
In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
Even months later this book sticks in my mind. Whenever I hear about terrible storms at sea, shipwrecks or horrific hardships I measure them against what these whalers went through in this book. I did root for the whale though and I still have no desire to read Moby Dick.
The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
I fly a lot and almost every time I do I remember to wonder at the sheer audacity of the fact that we do. The Wright brothers are two of the most acclaimed people in American history and after reading this book it was clear that pretty much nowhere else and by no one else could this feat have been achieved. What single-minded purpose it took.
Two honorable mentions -
They Left Us Everything by Plum Johnson - a memoir about the death of beloved parents and a difficult decision to sell the ancestral house and divide or sell its contents. Surprisingly free of rancor and fights, it was just the book I needed while caring for my ageing parents this summer. Not that they're going to die this minute, but it really hit me this year that my time with them is probably short.
10% Human by Alanna Collen - a terrific book about the microbes that number many times our own cells and as a matter of fact might just be responsible for many of the traits and characteristics we think of as essentially human. Not without its flaws, such as confirmation bias, it is interesting and thought provoking.
I had so many good reads this year it's hard to narrow it down to five -- but here goes:
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah -- made me laugh and cry and think and feel. It's very high on my list of best reads of all time.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang -- read in anticipation of a trip to China in 2018. Because it follows the lives of the author and her mother and grandmother, it all hits home in a way a more impersonal history could never achieve.
One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson. So many threads in this book, some hilarious, some tragic. I haven't decided yet if Bryson's brilliance is in his choice of subject matter or if it's just that he is so interested in everything that I can't help being fascinated as I go along on his journeys. Whatever it is he rarely disappoints.
Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China by David Kidd -- another read about China. Short but incredibly poignant.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. What a man; what a life -- in the end, what a waste.
I recommend Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel. Fascinating but accessible discussion of medieval manuscripts. Undoubtedly the best non-fiction I read in 2018.
Practically nothing in nonfiction is going to get five stars from me, because I include literary quality as a factor, and that's not the top value in nonfiction. But I awarded 4½ to each of these:
• The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, by Frances FitzGerald (2017)
FitzGerald furnishes a dense, well-documented read that gave me insight into and a surprising amount of context for my own family history, as well as a better grasp of the forces at work in the current right-versus-left political and cultural wars in the U.S.• A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power, by Paul Fischer (2015)
Together with a history of the Kim dynasty in North Korea, Fischer traces and documents how the second leader used his passion for movies to construct society-transforming propaganda and secure his succession to Kim Il-Sung, grandfather of the present dictator.• Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, by Karen Dawisha (2014)
Whatever I may have thought I knew about the personal greed and boundless appetite for power that drives the current Russian state, and Putin's death-grip on his oligarchs, I found revelation after revelation in Dawisha's stunning and heavily documented narrative, which (though published in 2014) exposes many uncomfortable parallels with what is going on right now in the U.S.
And these were my four-stars:
• The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World, by Greg King (2013)
The author details how the run-up to World War I and the precipitating crisis turned on the personal sentiments and acts of a few individuals and their unforeseen consequences.• The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, by Joshua Hammer (2016)
A fascinating account of how some priceless ancient manuscripts were gathered and smuggled out of the destructive path of Islamic jihadists turns out to be more of a history of the extremists and how closely tied their movement is to the land itself--the vast desert spaces of Africa that many of us never think about at all.• 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed, by Eric H. Cline (2014)
A lot of stuff sure happened at right about the same time.• Philosophy of Language, by William P. Alston (1964) (reread)
I read this as a college student, and believe it or not, I reread it this year for sentimental reasons. I love stuff like this, even though I can't stand too much of it at one time. Given how much I live in my head, watching the subtleties and complexities of language as they form meaning and encompass ideas--my own and those of others--is a thousand times better than televised sports.
No matter how good a book is, I'm going to take off points for sloppy editing. It's like serving exquisite food on dirty plates. Nearly all of these deserved better of their editors than they got.
I have two that were several cuts above the rest:
Hogger - an excellent first person account of working for the railroads. The author spanned the period of the transition from steam to diesel power.
A Baggage Car with Lace Curtains- Kay Fisher's first person account of life in a signal maintainer's car.
When I read nonfiction, they tend to be memoirs. I have 3 from this year that stood out.
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. I listened to the audio book narrated by the author. Trevor Noah is a great story teller and it makes it feel like he's sitting with you, telling his story. His childhood growing up in South Africa at the end of apartheid is quite amazing.
This Time Together by Carol Burnett. The book is a series of anecdotes, some of them funny, some of them serious, about her life and how she got into show biz. She is amazingly humble and there is a feeling of gratitude that shines through.
Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account by Miklos Nyiszli. This was a difficult read due to the subject matter. It's important that these events be documented and the stories told so no one forgets.
Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, a memoir by an American slave. Very interesting man. I appreciated the foreword of my edition (University of Wisconsin press) which puts it into its context in the genre of slavery narratives; apparently Bibb's emphasis on family life is quite unusual.
Local Bounty: Seasonal Vegan Recipes was a surprising find. It has recipes using all sorts of peculiar vegetables, so vegan or not (I'm not) it's a treasure for someone who grows every peculiar vegetable possible Because They Were There. Even purslane.
Five Days at Memorial -- subtitled Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, but touchstone wouldn't link the whole thing for me -- about Hurricane Katrina, had an atmosphere of creeping horror that somehow reminded me of a second 5-star non-fiction read, set in a completely different milieu. Destiny of the Republic, a biography of President James Garfield, ends with a lengthy account of his utterly unnecessary death. Like the patients of Memorial Hospital's seventh floor, he would have likely survived without the assiduous attentions of his physician.
How can I choose a fifth? I had such a lot of 5-star books this year. I'm going to throw in a bunch of how-to and very, very niche books. For any of these books, any given reader is unlikely to be interested in the least bit, but if you're interested, you're bound to love them (it). The Weekend Homesteader (simple, doable steps towards self-sufficiency); Origami in Action (all the foldable action toys anyone could ever want); Scottish Bothy Bible (wish I was there); Microgreen Garden (grow your own windowsill salads); 19th Century Petroleum Technology in North America (title says it all); 55 Christmas Balls to Knit (unanimously rated 5 stars by people who obsessively knit tiny colourwork spheres)!
I've posted a collection of my favorite fiction and nonfiction reads of 2017 on my reading thread. Its a little long to post here because of (possibly) excessive editorial comments:
A Circle of Sisters -- four sisters (Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne Jones, Agnes Poynter, and Louisa Baldwin) whose lives and husbands were an integral part of late 19th-century Britain. Flanders interweaves their stories with commentary on the era, with special attention to Burne Jones's history.
And, as a complement to that book, Pre-Raphaelites at Home, offering biographies of the artists and people in their lives -- and filled with reproductions of paintings depicting many of the figures discussed.
I can only come up with one more, Looking for Betty MacDonald. The author's approach -- describing her search for information and making evident her interest in and appreciation for MacDonald -- was probably what made the book so enjoyable, though it was also illuminating to view MacDonald's life from a perspective other than her autobiographical tales.
A good year, with seven groups; three of them covering multiple titles (yes I know, cheating madly)
Fireworks and Red Hot, both by "Jan Braai" -- all you need to know about cooking over an open fire (barbecue), with a delicious sense of humour ("The fire you make after you've braaied is called an atmosfire"). I think MrsLee would like these; as they are published by Macmillan she shouldn't have an impossible task finding them.
Bletchley Girls, The Code Book and Station X -- three winners about WW2 codemaking and breaking. (Maybe Churchill's Wizards belongs here, too.
Extra Virgin and its three sequels.
And on that Bombshell
The Trains now Departed
Slice of Life
I'm pleased to see several mentions of 1000 Years of Annoying the French. It was one of my favorites for 2016, and I'm pretty sure I came to it by way of a book bullet in the GD.
>30 Meredy: I think I can claim to have fired that BB.
Total agreement with your pleasure.
I was shocked, in retrospect, at how little good non-fiction I had read in 2017.
1) Faith and Freedom by Teresa Forcades.
An inspiring mix of feminism, social activism and Catholicism. I was expecting devotional literature and got something a lot more challenging.
The Rise of the Mafia: The Definitive Story of Organized Crime by Martin Short
Somewhat dated, but unusual in that it spends as much time considering the actions of the police as of the Mafiosi. Its focus is the economic and political ramifications, rather than purely a record of gangsterism.
Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight by "M.E. Thomas"
The epitome of the unreliable narrator - she says that she enjoys manipulating people, and it is patently obvious that this includes the reader. It is also a debated point whether she is actually a sociopath, or rather a narcissist. But it is a salutary reminder that the most dangerous people are not the knife-wielding maniacs, but the more controlled people, who calmly destroy lives - because they find it fun, and because they can.
A Slip of the Keyboard: Collected Non-Fiction by Sir Terry Pratchett
A mixed bag. Some essays were very good, some very moving. But some had me nearly throwing the book at a wall, with his arrogant certainty - from a wealthy, beloved and generally privileged position - that his viewpoint was the only possible one, and that decisions that he could make, in his position, were shared by others in very different social circumstances (and that anyone who said that this might not, in fact, be so was simply ignorant). He comes across as a passionate man, committed to making his own mind up about things - and to denying the right of others to do the same, and come to different conclusions to his.
This Boy by Alan Johnson
The first volume in the autobiography of a Conservative former cabinet minister. The poverty of his childhood as the son of a single parent in London in the fifties did not surprise me - but the fact that he went on to become a Conservative minister did. it was well written, but what came across most strongly was his sense of entitlement; he accepted the educational advantages his mother and sister gave him, whilst feeling no obligation whatsoever to likewise contribute to the family finances, and was just petulant that they were disappointed that he threw away their hard work by idling at school and messing around as a wannabe musician afterwards. He just did what HE wanted to do; he praises their love for him, but sees no reason to reciprocate. What was most amazing about this book was that he chose to write it; its not an apology for past behaviour, he sees nothing wrong with it.
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