Nonfiction Favorites of 2021

As I detailed in my 2021 Reading – By the Numbers post, my nonfiction reads last year were pretty evenly divided between memoir and what, for a better term, I’m calling general nonfiction. My first encounter with almost all of these books was auditory, and a surprising number of them were ones I just came upon while scrolling for audiobooks that were “available now” on my Libby app. Here are the eleven that garnered five stars from me on Goodreads!

Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe is probably the best general nonfiction I read in 2021. It is the multi-generational story of the Sacklers—the family behind Purdue Pharma, the makers of oxycontin. In this scrupulously researched book, Keefe traces the family through the decades, giving a nuanced picture of how their ambition, hubris, and lack of empathy created one of the worst public health crises America has ever experienced. I was, frankly, gobsmocked by many of the details.

One of my “scrolling on Libby” discoveries was The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova. It’s a combination of poker and social science that is fascinating and also really well-written and fun. Konnikova combines her knowledge as a psychology Ph.D. with her goal of mastering poker in one year in a surprisingly compelling narrative. It had me thinking about whether I should try a similar journey – could I win at international poker events, too?

At the center of Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey is the murder of the author’s mother by an abusive ex-husband. By examining photos, telephone transcripts, news accounts, and her own jagged memories, Trethewey tells a profound story of biracial identity, intimate partner violence, and psychic wounds that never heal. Trethewey is a poet, and the prose of this book is lyrical and haunting.

The Feather Thief by Kirk W. Johnson was another “available now” book on Libby. It’s an engrossing narrative nonfiction book titularly about the heist of a vast number of dead tropical birds. That’s a fascinating enough start for a book. However, The Feather Thief is about so much more. Natural history, 19th century hat fashion, fishing, tying flies, and—especially—obsession. I love books like this that wind me down a number of fascinating paths I would never travel otherwise.

Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford took me back to Chanel Miller’s Say My Name. To Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about Bret Kavanaugh. To all the stories told during #MeToo. The book is a gut-wrenching memoir about Lacy’s experience of sexual assault when she was a student in the early 1990s at a New England prep school. More important, it is about how forces of power and patriarchy wreaked havoc on her life for many years after. As she says in one of the closing chapters, “First they refused to believe me. Then they shamed me. Then they silenced me.” I found the writing lyrical and compelling, and with each turn, the story was both shocking and utterly unsurprising.

In I Am, I Am, I Am, Maggie O’Farrell tells her stories of 17 “brushes with death” that vary in terms of how close those brushes were and how they affected her life. The book (by the author of Hamnet) is beautifully written, and I’d recommend it just for the prose. But it also made me think about my own (less dramatic) “brushes with death” including cancer, an emergency C-section, car crashes when I could go back and look at the crushed metal inches from where I or a loved when was sitting. The best of books stick with you, and this one definitely has.

Smile by Sarah Ruhl is a memoir describing the experience of contracting Bell’s Palsy after childbirth and then living with it for many years. Bell’s Palsy is not life-threatening, but Ruhl recounts the profound ways the condition influenced her sense of self and how others saw her. It also describes her frustrating interactions with the health care system. Ruhl is a talented playwright and the writing in the memoir is masterful.

The third “available now” read that rose to five-star status was Why Fish Don’t Exist, an absolutely delightful and thought-provoking book. In it, Lulu Miller decides to explore the life of David Starr Jordan to deal with crises in her own. At first, Jordan (a taxonomist and the first president of Stanford University) presents as a gentle man, but we soon learn of the dark side of his life and passions. The book is filled with fascinating historical, scientific, and linguistic detours, but always comes back to big questions about how we can and should live our lives.

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner was probably my favorite memoir of the year. It tells of the author’s complicated relationship with her mother and her grief after her mother’s death from cancer. Theirs was a relationship shaped by expectation, by extended family, by being cultural outsiders in America, and—centrally—by the Korean culinary traditions they shared. The food descriptions made my mouth water, while the shifting relationship between mother daughter—sometimes tenuous and contentious, by the end nuanced and sustaining—made me (like the author) cry.

American Baby by Gabrielle Glaser considers the fraught and shadowy history of adoption in the United States. The narration centers on a mother and the son she gave birth to (and was essentially forced to give up) in the early 1960s. The story of this particular case is both singular and representative of many disturbing aspects of the adoption process, and the book takes us down side roads exploring history, law, medicine, and more. My interest was held by the central stories, by the context, and by the way Glaser artfully wove the strands together.

My final nonfiction read of 2021 was Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion. The book had been sitting for several months on a side table in my living room, ready to be picked up when I wanted to read an essay or two. After Didion’s death, I read them all. The essays were written between 1968 and 2000, and they capture moments of time and place that often struck me with their contemporary relevance. As always, Didion’s writing is incisive and knowing, a gift to all of us. She will be missed, but I’m grateful her words remain.

One reply to “Nonfiction Favorites of 2021

  1. I read very few non-fiction books, which is why I appreciate posts like yours, so that I can discover new books as recommended by a real person, and not some random site. Thanks for sharing this!

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