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This week kicks off another Nonfiction November, when book bloggers celebrate everything nonfiction.
This is my third year participating in Nonfiction November, and the past two years I’ve tried to dedicate November to almost exclusive nonfiction reading.
I’m not planning on doing that this year (here’s my reading list for the month–it does include some nonfiction!), but I’ve also read more nonfiction this year than I usually do–mostly thanks to audiobooks.
I’ve found in past years that I get a little burnt out on nonfiction by the end of the month, so it really works best for me to mix it in with my regular fiction reading.
Anyway, kicking off Nonfiction November this year is the topic Your Year in Nonfiction So Far (Hosted by Julie at Julz Reads). I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do all of the topics this year, but I love looking back on what I’ve read and checking out what others have loved this year.
Below are the reviews of all the nonfiction books I’ve read so far this year.
Nonfiction Reading in 2019
Twenty-six years ago, during the infancy of heart transplant surgery, Amy Silverstein received a new heart. Now in her fifties, that heart is failing, and she again waits for a new heart. Her wait requires a move to California with her husband, and with them, nine of Amy's closest friends sign onto a schedule to keep constant vigil at her bedside. Each bring different histories and qualities to the hospital room and support Amy by turns with empathy, no-nonsense attitudes, shared memories, and persistence. They pass the baton to one another, flying in from across the country for their times with their friend.
This is a brutally raw memoir of suffering and friendship. Amy is unflinching her examination of herself and what it means to be a sick person, dependent on others, and what it means in such a situation to find the balance between caring for yourself and caring for those who surround you. It's precarious, and the scales tip easily when emotions run high, requiring extraordinary feats of forgiveness and understanding from all. Highly recommended.More info →
I had never heard of "Frugalwoods," the blog of personal finance and frugality blogger Elizabeth Willard Thames, before checking out this audiobook on a whim. In their twenties, Thames and her husband decided to enact "extreme frugality" in order to achieve their dream of living on a Vermont homestead and being financially independent. They saved over 70% of their joint income--no small thing in expensive Boston--and reached their goal in three years.
I found this book--while fascinating and inspiring, especially regarding ideas of consumption, spending, and need--to be uneven. Thames devotes more time than I would have liked to the details of events like job interviews and giving birth and less than I hoped to the specific strategies she used to reduce their spending by so much. On the whole, it was good food for thought, and it did prompt me to visit her blog and dig into the archives.More info →
I loved this memoir-in-essays by Mary Laura Philpott, who also works as the "book enthusiast at large" for Parnassus Books, the bookstore co-owned by Ann Patchett (can you say dream job?). Philpott is funny, self-effacing, and reflective as she considers her successes, failings, identify, anxieties, and intentional reinventions, even when things seemed to be perfect on the surface. Perfect if you've enjoyed similar memoirs by women like Anna Quindlen.More info →
On a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Margaret McMullan learns of a relative who was killed during the Holocaust. Little record of him exists, and the archivist presses her: "You are responsible now. You must remember him to honor him." And thus begins McMullan's mission to unearth Richard's story, to complete his record at the museum.
She and her family travel to Hungary on a Fulbright, and there she researches the Engel de Janosi family, her relatives who were prosperous prior to World War II. She also uncovers Hungary's shameful role in the Holocaust, and in the deaths of Richard and so many others.
As with any family history, I found it a little difficult to track the many names and relations of the people McMullan found in her research. My interest returned each time she refocused on Richard.
The question she was asked and that will be one for many readers--why Richard? why was he special?--was one of the reasons I admired her tenacity in pursuing him. He seemed quiet, unassuming, unremarkable, but he lived. And he was killed. In her research, she learned more about the man he may have been and that he wasn't as unremarkable as he may have seemed.
Millions of individuals were killed during the Holocaust, and many of their stories were lost. But one man's story was not.More info →
I started listening to this audiobook on a whim, thinking it might be similar to other nonfiction books I've enjoyed by Kelly Corrigan or Anna Quindlen. It was a pleasant-enough listen, peppered with a few general insights that resonated with me (self acceptance, joy in ordinary moments, being fully present).I can't deny her hard-won peace with herself, her past, food, her body, and her place in the world, but for the most part I don't think I was the right audience for Roth's work. I might recommend this for people who have similar struggles with past abuses and body image, but it was probably one that I could have DNFed without regret.More info →
You've probably heard the raves already, and my view is no different: this book deserves all the accolades it's been getting. I listened to Michelle Obama narrate the audio version of Becoming, and it is worth the hefty commitment (at 19+ hours--though you can comfortably speed up the pace a bit). Obama is an excellent writer who tells small but compelling stories of her youth on the south side of Chicago, her years elite universities and as a fledgling lawyer, and her life with Barack Obama--before, during, and immediately after the White House.
She is highly relatable--focused on her kids, muddling through the ups and downs of motherhood, and indulging in HGTV over political roundtables. Knowing her rarefied educational and professional background, I found her distaste for political life surprising and--again--relatable. Certain memories prompted tears, for different reasons: inauguration night, Newtown, and the 2016 election results, especially. The pressure they were under as the first black presidential family was enormous, and she conducted herself with a grace and dignity that I believe few can match.More info →
This memoir by Eva Hagberg Fisher reflects on her lonely upbringing with a disconnected mother, several stepfathers, and years in boarding schools, and how it affected her difficulties connecting with others as an adult. When a mass in her brain ruptured at age 30, she was forced to allow others into her life. Of particular importance was a friendship with an older woman named Allison, who was battling cancer herself. Allison's friendship taught Eva how to let others love her, without needing to pay them back with anything but acceptance and love. She further learned this when she began suffering from symptoms of something that no one could seem to diagnose.
I found this memoir a bit uneven; there were parts in the first half when the writing put me off and I considered putting it down. But Fisher found her groove when writing about her illnesses and I ultimately became invested in her story--particularly when she dealt with her invisible illness, which I find to be a fascinating and terrible thing that so many people contend with daily. Their suffering is often intangible--difficult to define, sometimes undiagnosable, and hard for people to relate to--which can leave them suffering in silence and wondering if it's all in their head. Fisher covered a lot of ground here, and it's understandable that she wanted to write about her friendships and brain mass, but her struggle with her invisible illness could have made for a satisfying memoir on its own.More info →
David Sedaris's offbeat personal essays and narration have long been a favorite. He's aware of his own quirks, and he shares them in such a delightful, self-effacing way. Most of his essay collections have been pure entertainment with a hint of sharp observation that always makes them feel smart. Calypso follows this path, but it's darker and more poignant.
The familiar Sedaris family is aging, and with age comes all the attendant self reflection and life changes. This plays out differently for each family member and affects their relationships with one another. In this collection, most of the family feel closer to one another than they ever have before, with the exception of Tiffany, whose suicide shadows most of the essays here.
Sedaris' writings on Tiffany's suicide, as well as aging, politics, addiction, and regret, make this essay collection darker and more reflective than many of his previous. He is still dryly funny, and the ability to prompt regular laughter while writing about such serious topics is a particular talent.
Sedaris has been writing about his family for so long that they may start to seem like characters, frozen in time on the pages, rather than real people for whom the years are passing. As Sedaris faces aging--both his own and that of his family--so too do his long-time fans, who know them only through the bits and pieces he chooses to share. I anticipate an ongoing change in tone in the coming years, but I will continue to read and listen for as long as Sedaris is writing.More info →
As the Russians advanced on Hungary during World War II, Olga Wagner and Tibor Zoltai and their families flee the country. Tibor is pressed into service for the Germans and eventually taken prisoner by the Americans. He nearly starves. Olga and her family make their way to Austria and pursue options for emigrating. It's there that Olga and Tibor's lives intersect. The two families eventually go to Canada under the country's friendly system of indentured servitude for refugees. After years on the move, Olga and Tibor finally marry and settle in the United States, building their family and successful lives in academia and immigration aid. This was a fascinating look at how World War II affected the people of Hungary (a perspective I was unfamiliar with) and one couple's struggle to survive. The author was a colleague of my dad, and I attended the University of Minnesota (where Tibor spent most of his career) and once lived close to where the Zoltais settled in the Twin Cities, so this felt close to home.More info →
What were your favorite nonfiction reads this year?