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.
I first stumbled upon Svetlana Alexievich’s work about ten years ago, when I visited the library and randomly picked up a copy of her brilliant Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of Nuclear Disaster. Of course, Alexievich has been around much longer than that; Voices from Chernobyl was published 20 years ago, and she’s been chronicling Soviet history for decades now. She garnered a lot of critical acclaim in 2013 with Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, and I finally made the connection between her and Voices from Chernobyl when she won the well-deserved 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature for her unique way of blending a chorus of voices into her oral history storytelling.
Luckily, that Nobel Prize has created a push for her works to be republished and translated for broader audiences. Her first book, The Unwomanly face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II, was first published in 1985. It was recently translated into English by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and published in hardcover in the United States about a month ago. The introduction includes journal excerpts from the years she spent collection the oral histories, but it also includes newer insights and a few clips that the censors had taken out of the original version.
I read a lot of really great nonfiction books in 2016! I actually think I had better luck with nonfiction than fiction. The first three listed are my top three favorites; everything is listed in alphabetical order.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016)
When Breath Becomes Air focuses on Kalinithi’s a career as a neurosurgeon, which was cut short by a rare and terminal form of lung cancer. The memoir — which he was still striving to complete at the time of his death — offers reflections on life and death. In doing so, he reflects on past interactions with patients who had been on the receiving end of bad news that came from him. It’s a gorgeous book.
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing (2016)
Mixing memoir, biography, and art history, Olivia Laing explores the different meanings of loneliness in New York City through the lives of different artists who lived there. The essays offer beautiful, elegant explorations of human interactions (or the lack thereof).
So Sad Today by Melissa Broder (2016)
Steeped in dark humor, So Sad Today is a collection of autobiographical essays by Melissa Broder. She writes about her struggles with extreme anxiety low, self-esteem, and addiction, but she also throws in some off-the-wall essays about sex and relationships. There’s one essay in there revolving around sexting that had me going, “This woman is completely nuts. I love her.”