Choosing my non-fiction favorites of 2017 was hard, y’all. I had a difficult time narrowing it down to ten, and then picking my favorite top three was damn near impossible. It was just a really fantastic nonfiction year! My top three (I think?) are listed first, and everything else is listed in alphabetical order.
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie (2017)
Alexie’s mother, Lillian, died in 2015 at the age of 78; he wrote 78 essays and 78 poems to work through his complicated grief. It’s beautiful and devastating (Alexie actually stopped mid-book tour for his own mental health and will not be doing readings from this book anymore). I read it in one long sitting.
The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore (2017)
Young women in New Jersey and Illinois went to work in watch factories, painting a radium on watch faces to help with the war effort. To get a fine enough point on their paintbrush, they were instructed to put the brush tips between their lips. They were informed that the radium was safe; in fact, it was one of the healthiest things to handle. Then they began dying in horrifying, disfiguring ways.
Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat (2007)
At the age of four, Danticat was left in the care of her aunt and uncle in Haiti while her parents immigrated to New York City. They sent for her when she was twelve, so she came of age in a foreign land. Back in Haiti there was dangerous political unrest, and her father kept urging his brother to join them in the States. What happened when he finally did left the family shattered.
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly (2016)
Black female mathematicians played a crucial role in the space race. While the movie focuses on three of these women, the book includes many more. They fought for respect in the face of segregation and racism, and Shetterly does a wonderful job of capturing their stories as well as the atmosphere of their era.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay (2017)
Roxane Gay’s memoir focuses on the personal aftermath of being gang raped at age 12. She explores how that trauma affected her sense of self and body image; she began eating to protect herself, and she’s painfully honest about what it’s like to move through life as a fat woman in a world that is often cruel and unforgiving towards fat people.
Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice by Dr. Willie Parker (2017)
Dr. Parker is an outspoken advocate for abortion access. He writes about how he came to be a black abortion provider in the deep South, and how his work is fueled by his strong faith as a Christian. In discussing the current state of anti-abortion legislation and the poor people that legislation most affects, Parker makes the a case for why being pro-choice is a moral imperative.
March by John Lewis & Andrew Aydin; illustrated by Nate Powell (2013-2016)
I read books one and two of this trilogy in 2017. It’s a graphic memoir about John Lewis’s involvement in the civil rights movement. He initially had a calling to become a preacher; that desire soon shifted towards fighting the injustices of Jim Crow, and he became a prominent figure in the movement (Lewis was one of the Big Six).
My Soul Looks Back by Jessica B. Harris (2017)
In this book, Harris recounts her life in the early 70s. Through her boyfriend at the time, she gained access to the small circle of Black intelligentsia that included the likes of James Baldwin and Maya Angelou. The book beautifully captures the fleeting cultural moment to which she had a front-row seat.
A Really Good Day by Ayelet Waldman (2017)
After a lifetime of mysterious, severe mood swings that no one could ever properly diagnose, Waldman decided to try microdosing LSD. It worked. Part memoir, part exploration of LSD’s history and uses in cutting-edge research into PTSD and mood disorders, the book is positively fascinating. It made me want to drop [tiny, tiny doses of] acid. For real.
The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II by Svetlana Alexievich (1985, but translated to English in 2017)
Using the Greek chorus method of oral history storytelling that she won a Nobel for, Alexievich conveys the experiences of Soviet women during World War II. Some were soldiers and some were civilians, but nearly everyone who lived through that time experienced loss and trauma. Since war is traditionally told through the eyes of men, Alexievich set out to record the war through the eyes of women.