I love knowing what books people hold dear, almost as much as I enjoy recommending books. Luckily for me, people like hearing me talk books. Which, yes, is its own special language. When it comes to writing a best of year-end list, I considered what books came up in conversation most often, as well as what resonated with me.
Non-fiction is a wide ranging category. My list includes Christian Living, memoir, food memoir, sociology, or various hybrids. Most of these books were not published this year- I aspire to read books in a more timely manner but you know how my To Read stack is. Still, this is the best of the best, according to me.
In no particular order:
There's a reason Brene Brown's name is mentioned with such reverence. Everyone should read this one, no matter what they believe about shame and vulnerability. Hint: we all struggle with shame and true vulnerability leads to freedom from it.
Beautifully written, lovely, engaging, insightful spiritual memoir. I guessed I'd love it because I've been looking forward to it for so long (I've read Micha's blog the past few years) but I had no idea it would resonate so deeply with me. Truly a breath of fresh air.
Johnson introduces us to his time in Iraq working for USAID, the PTSD which led to a horrific injury, and the birth of the nonprofit The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. The way the US treated the Iraqis who helped us during the war is shameful. Future generations will judge our government, the way we judge those who did not act during WWII and the Holocaust and those who left Vietnamese allies behind after the US pulled out of that war. I commend Kirk for his tireless efforts. An eye-opening, well-written, and insightful read.
This social history of single women is laudable. The way Israel depicts the stigma single women faced in each particular era and the ways this stigma plays out still to this day is equally fascinating and horrifying. It made me grateful to be single now instead of then, even though singleness today is not without its own challenges.
It's shameful I hadn't read anything by Mary Karr sooner. Her writing bowled me over time and again. I almost wanted to turn back to page 1 and read it all over again. Now I need to read her first two memoirs!
When I started reading, I kept stopping to figure out if this was actually a novel. It reads differently than the average non-fiction book. Not quite memoir, certainly not fiction, wholly investigative journalism. Katherine Boo found a way to bring us right to the Annawadi slum and in to the world of the people we meet. Annawadi exists behind the airport, hidden by a wall covered in Beautiful Forever ads. The contrast is striking.
We see Asha plot, Manju study, Abdul barter, and Zehrunisa fight for her family. They live in the same settlement but hierarchies still exist. Those more well off than others. The Hindus compared to the Muslims. Men holding more power than women. They do have this in common: they dream of success and they work hard for it. Some through bribery, others picking up and reselling trash, a few through the power of education.
While Behind the Beautiful Forevers engages its reader, it is not always an easy read. It is not a spoiler to say it includes self-immolation, murder, illness, and rampant corruption. On the other hand, there are also stories of friendship, justice, and hope. The citizens of Annawadi strive for a better tomorrow, in spite of what many of us would call abject circumstances. You will root for some of the people you meet in these pages and curse others. Boo humanizes them all.
Miles writes about communion, faith, and poverty unlike anyone else. This is not a Christian book per se but I experienced God time and again while reading it. Hers is an unconventional life and faith and we would do well to pay attention. Miles lives out her beliefs, she puts faith in action and in doing so, she changed the food pantry landscape in San Francisco.
I expected to be moved by Henderson's memoir and I was. I did not, however, expect any part of her experience, so different from my own, would resonate. Sentence after sentence wrapped around my heart and I've tucked those words away for further reflection. Henderson is a stunning writer and she deftly handles grief, loss, and forgiveness. I'm grateful she's lifted the curtain behind the military wives and families and given us a glimpse at the hard road they travel.
I wish this book had been around during my own dark night of the soul! Barbara Brown Taylor remains one of my favorite writers. I loved her insights about darkness and light. It deeply resonated from start to finish, especially considering lunar spirituality compared to solar spirituality. This makes for a deeper faith, if we will allow ourselves to go there.
Stellar follow up to A Homemade Life. I loved the behind-the-scenes look at how Wizenberg and her husband opened up their restaurant, especially since I was able to eat at Delancey this past fall. Well worth reading and visiting.
The level of vulnerability and high quality storytelling made this a book I couldn't put down. Nish has given us all a gift.
Jeff Chu may have been the perfect person to write this book. His story blends well with his journalistic approach as he traveled across the country hearing stories and perspectives about the intersection of faith and the LGBT community. Well written and filled with grace.
I want Nadia Bolz-Weber to be my spirit animal. Such a breath of fresh air!
I applaud Doughty's exploration of death and the funeral industry. Too few people recognize the value in these topics. When we ignore the reality of death, it hampers our ability to truly live and this plays out in myriad ways, from our healthcare system to Botox. Doughty has some unconventional thoughts about the post-mortem but I appreciated how she came to her conclusions and especially how she makes room for a difference of opinion over what should happen after we die. More than that, she makes room for honest conversation. Though I worked in hospice for several years and have attended funerals my whole life, I still learned a lot in these pages. If you're not familiar with the "death industry," you might not be prepared for the wacky sense of humor or what death looks like. And really, that makes the case for this book that much more. I wish everyone would read it.
This is a must-read, possibly my most favorite out of this entire list. Profoundly insightful, well written, and engaging. These are good things to think through NOW. Things we as a society need to wrestle with and address but really, it starts with us as individuals with ourselves, our families, and our doctors. If you haven't talked to your loved one about their end of life wishes or yours, this is the time to think through it and start the conversation. Gawande didn't start out in the place of understanding he came to and he had the same questions and resistance many of us do when it comes to the hard talks and that's part of why this book works so well. Trust me.
Wisdom and grace permeate the pages of this beautifully written book. We can find God and lose Him in many ways throughout our lives. We are worn down by life at times and this can make it that much harder to sense Godhead in the mundane. We may trust He is there, even if we no longer sense Him, but when the days turn into weeks turn into months, the longing turns into an ache. And then what?
Each time I've set out into the unknown, I have eventually landed where I was meant to be all along. It never looks like what I imagined and very rarely do I have anything to do with the result. I am changed by the process and more aware of my smallness and God's vast mystery. I suppose this then is why I recommend Preston's memoir. It serves as a guide through the unknown. Through Preston's story, we see ourselves. We remember our smallness and God's vast mystery. We remember what it is to be lost and then found. We remember what it is to be welcomed at the Table.
I couldn't stop laughing, relating, and nodding in solidarity. I want to widely distribute her thoughts on why not to online date. Although I think most people could relate to Heaney's romantic escapades, I especially recommend it to my fellow single ladies, no matter how much (or little) dating experience you have.
What are your favorite non-fiction reads of 2014?
Disclosure : Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.