Tuesday, January 2, 2018

My Favorite Reads of 2017: Nonfiction

I don't read a lot of nonfiction. This year, I read 22, which made up roughly 20% of my total reading. Here are my five favorites. (As always, clicking the book covers will take you to Amazon.)

5. We're Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union
I first heard about this book at the Harper Collins fall book buzz panel the American Library Association conference last June, and after hearing it wasn't a typical celebrity memoir, I knew I wanted to read it. I opted for the audiobook, which is read by Union, and I'm so glad I did. This book is a memoir in the form of essays, and Union lays her life bare, from childhood to the present. It is both serious (she deals with racism, sexism, recounts her rape, her fertility struggles, and much more) and funny. It's loosely chronological, but it's also thematic, and the last essay provides a fitting end for this collection. Since I read it, I started binge-watching Union's current tv show, Being Mary Jane, which I have also thoroughly enjoyed. I enjoyed Union in teen movies when I was a teen, and this book made me realize I wished I would have followed her career and her life more. I'm paying attention now, and I keep recommending this book to people and sharing the message that although the cover makes it look like a chatty celebrity memoir, this book is so much more. This book is strong, raw, and fierce; Its writer is too. 4.5 out of 5

4. Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro
I read Devotion, Dani Shapiro's memoir about faith and religion in 2011 and really enjoyed it. As a writer, she defies convention. Both Devotion and Hourglass are memoirs, but they are profoundly different books. I am fascinated by the themes of time and memory, and as someone who is very invested in my own marriage and yet skeptical of marriage as an institution, I was eager to read Shapiro's thoughts on these themes. This memoir is slim (160 pages), and much of it is written in vignettes and sections that could easily stand alone, but by the end of this book I was wowed by how Shapiro weaved it all together into something greater than the sum of its parts. Her writing is lyrical and inviting. After reading it, I felt like I'd been a guest at her home for a dinner party whose conversation is so rich that everyone is surprised how late it is. Hourglass reminded me how much I enjoy Shapiro's perspective and her writing. I liked it even more than Devotion, perhaps because the themes of this memoir resonate so deeply with me. But it also made her one of the many writers whose new work I will always read. This book is lovely and poignant, and reading it was a blessing. 4.5 out of 5

3. The Incest Diary by Anonymous
The Incest Diary is one of the most disturbing books I've ever read. It wrecked me, but it also serves as a beautiful example of what I love most about books: their ability to share experiences. This anonymous diary outlines a daughter's sexual relationship with her father, which stretched from her early childhood into her twenties. I read it during one of this year's worst reading droughts. I started it as soon as I picked it up from the library, but after one paragraph, I had to put it down until after Hawthorne went to sleep. I could not read it in his presence, even though he (obviously) cannot read or understand what I was reading. When he went to bed that night, I read it in a single, harrowing sitting. The topic is disturbing, but the writing is exceptional. I want to know who wrote it, not to invade her privacy, but so I can read everything else she has written or will write. This book is a nuanced exploration of the complexities of life, family, love, sex, hate, and humans. 4.5 out of 5

2. I'll Tell You In Person by Chloe Caldwell
Chloe Caldwell is one of my favorite writers. She entered my Hall of Fame this year, as she now has two books I've rated five stars. She's the only member of my Hall of Fame to enter with one fiction and non-fiction title. This collection of essays is extraordinary. I love Caldwell's honesty, humor, and ability to admit her wrongs in ways that are both illuminating and entertaining. She grew up in the same small town Mr. Nomadreader did, and I always love the glimpses of that pocket of upstate New York that appear in her essays. I read this while I was in Thailand in January, and it was a wonderful antidote to the loneliness of being on the other side of the world. It was also the perfect accompaniment to read while living a big life. Unsurprisingly, this collection is stronger than Caldwell's first (the excellent Legs Get Led Astray), and Caldwell is still so young that I find her writing even more exciting. She's so good now, and I look forward to reading her fiction and essays for many decades to come. In almost any other year, this book would be my favorite nonfiction read. 5 out of 5

1. Hunger by Roxane Gay
A theme of this list is that I will read anything these writers write, and Roxane Gay is definitely on that list. Like Caldwell, I love her fiction and her non-fiction. A highlight of my year was getting to introduce her at the ACRL Conference keynote. Her debut novel, An Untamed State, was one of my favorite reads of 2015. Her me when I say: Hunger is far and away her best book. I am a person who rolls her eyes every time a book gets blurbed as "required reading." Never before has a book made me actually want to require every person to read it, but Hunger did. That desire doesn't stem from book's quality; it's excellent, but many books are excellent. There's a universality to Hunger that astonished me. It is both deeply personal, about Gay's own experience and existence as a large woman, and universal. I related to so much of this memoir, and often in ways that surprised me. This is a book filled with wisdom. It opened my eyes, made me think, made me feel connected to women of all sizes, and it made me laugh. Gay is a brilliant writer, and this is her best work yet. 5 out of 5

2017 was an extraordinary year for nonfiction. What was your favorite nonfiction read last year?

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