2017 in Reading: Nonfiction

Part 2 of my 2017 reading recap is a list of the nonfiction books I read, roughly in order from most liked to least liked.

White Rage by Carol Anderson

This short, powerful book helped me better frame American history, particularly how the economic progress of African Americans has been deliberately sabotaged over and over again.

Sweet’s relatives in Ocoee, Florida, lived in the part of town that whites incinerated “in the single bloodiest day in American political history.” Whites went hunting for a black man who had dared approach the ballot box in the 1920 presidential election, and, in the process, killed scores of African Americans and ethnically cleansed the town until it became all-white for nearly sixty years.

The New Odyssey: The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis by Patrick Kingsley [review]

‘Why do we keep going by sea?’ Abu Jana asks Kingsley. ‘Because we trust god’s mercy more than the mercy of people here.’

Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and his Girl by Stacey O’Brien

As a young lab assistant at Caltech in 1985, O’Brien is asked if she will adopt an owlet that has a damaged wing. She does and Wesley lived with her for the rest of his life, which was nineteen years. I loved the descriptions of his particular owl behavior and also how it affected Stacey’s life to have this permanent owl companion. I cried at the end.

Here’s a video of the author talking about Wesley, that includes footage of Wesley: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vufEqpZZql0

I Was Told To Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad by Souad Mekhennet

German journalist Souad Mekhennet’s memoir about her reporting on jihadists is fascinating. The daughter of Turkish and Moroccan guest workers, she pursues a career in journalism with tenacity and commitment to integrity in her reporting. While she never courts danger, some of her tales involve a fair amount of risk, so there are some suspenseful moments in this book, particularly her trips to Egypt and Libya. Excellent book.

Five minute video of an interview with the author: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dhe4XyG1OSE

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David by Lawrence Wright [review]

In addition to being highly informative and well-researched, Thirteen Days in September is written in a very engaging style, capturing the high-stakes drama of diplomacy.

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

1962 travel memoir by the famous novelist, who took a road trip around the United States with his dog Charley. Funny and insightful.

Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life by Gretchen Rubin

This is the third book I’ve read by Gretchen Rubin and I find her books always get me in the mood to reflect on how I spend my time, which is always a good thing. I often have taken specific actions or changes after reading her books.

Survival in Auschwitz (If This is a Man) by Primo Levi [review]

After the war, Primo Levi saw revisionist history at work trying to diminish or deny the horror of the Holocaust, and his book serves as a testimony refuting those efforts. Though a chemist by trade, If This is a Man also shows that Primo Levi was just as much a writer, able to capture Auschwitz in all its brutal aspects.

Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M. Blow

This is the memoir of New York Times columnist and writer Charles M. Blow, who grew up in small-town Louisiana. I read this book in a day, while recovering from mono last summer.

[Brandon] insisted on knowing why we had been stopped. The officer gave a reason: not signaling before a turn. It wasn’t true. We hadn’t made a turn before his flashing lights came on. Brandon protested, to a point. Then the officer said something I will never forget: that if he wanted to, he could make us lie down in the middle of the road and shoot us in the back of the head and no one would say anything about it. With that, he walked back to his car and drove away.

Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

I not only wanted to read this book because it was highly praised, but also because I enjoyed Peter Fleming’s travel memoir Brazilian Adventure, which was also a quest to find out what happened to the obsessed explorer Percy Fawcett, his son and his son’s friend. The three had disappeared in 1925. Fleming’s book was funny and self-deprecating, not so much focused on Fawcett as on Fleming’s own journey. Grann’s book delves more into Fawcett’s life and into the history of Amazon exploration and exploitation. I liked the revelation at the end about past Amazonian civilizations, and look forward to reading Grann’s more recent book Killers of the Flower Moon.

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans

I started reading Rachel Held Evans’ writing at some point in 2008-2009 when she was very active on her blog. Now, nearly ten years later, she has written four books, and of these I have read two, including this one. A couple of years ago, I saw a video of her giving a talk called “Keep the Church Weird,” which was based on the themes of this book Searching for Sunday. While I think other readers have found this book much more personally resonant than I did, what I really appreciate about Evans’ is her emphasis on Christianity as something done as part of a community. “Like it or not,” she writes, “following Jesus is a group activity, something we’re supposed to do together.”

While Evans’ style is on the edge of being too poetic/overwritten for my tastes at times, the payoff is some really poignant thoughts:

Most days I don’t know which is harder for me to believe: that God reanimated the brain functions of a man three days dead, or that God can bring back to life all the beautiful things we have killed.

In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine by Tim Judah [review]

Overall, I found the book slow going due to the structure, but I’m glad I read it, as I feel more informed about Ukraine and the challenges it faces as a country.

Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker

This book about the Long Island serial killings focuses primarily on the young female victims and their lives before their murders. The twists and turns of the investigation are covered but seen through the lens of the families and friends of the victims. All of the women were involved in the escort business at some level, which meant that their disappearances weren’t taken seriously until their bodies were uncovered together on a Long Island beach. Unsurprisingly, the women came from very broken home lives and limited financial means. They came to the NYC area from North Carolina, Maine, Connecticut and upstate New York.

I was most engaged when the book focused on the women’s lives before their murders. When the book shifted to the rollercoaster investigation afterward and the families’ efforts to see some answers, I got easily confused about which family member was which, and while the families’ drama with the media and with each other is part of the story, it got a bit tiresome at times. Still – and this is what I love about nonfiction – I came away from this book with greater insight into the lives of others.

Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age Story by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh [review]

I admire Al-Khatahtbeh’s passion and love the mission of Muslim Girl, but there should have been more fact-checking for this book. Her account of the 2015 “Draw Mohammad Day” in Garland, TX was particularly problematic for me as a reader (see my review for more on that).

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard [review]

While I came away from this tome about Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition with numerous interesting passages highlighted, any enjoyment of the book had been leached from me by the end.

French Milk by Lucy Knisley

I have enjoyed stories about everyday “nothing” sort of things before, but sheesh. I was in Paris for a mere three days in 2003 and I have more interesting things to tell about my trip than the author manages to tell in her month-long stay there with her mother. All I remember now about this graphic memoir is that she was rather mopey and she bought things and ate a lot of foie gras. Don’t get me wrong, it’s okay to not be happy all the time while you’re on vacation! It happens – especially when traveling with others. I distinctly remember burning with anger at my friend while standing in a tower of the Chateau de Chambord (and I was fully cognizant that it was ridiculous to be mad while in such an amazing building, and that awareness just made me more upset). Anyway, French Milk was about nothing and it wasn’t even good at being about nothing. Don’t waste your time.









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2 responses to “2017 in Reading: Nonfiction

  1. piningforthewest

    Quite a selection. I’ve only read Travels with Charley and I loved it. I plan to read the Primo Levi book soon, I hope it isn’t depressing.

  2. You read some great non-fiction last year! I love your thoughts on French Milk … lol. I haven’t read it and I do like some books about nothing, but even a book about nothing has to have something happening, rather than meander aimlessly.

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