nonfiction books of the year

As usual, the number ten is completely arbitrary. Honourable mentions go to Logicomix, Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around, The Indian Clerk, A Final Arc of Sky, The Marketplace of Ideas and Imperial Life in the Emerald City. But the following are all GREAT BOOKS.

Somewhere Towards the End

If you don’t have an old lady friend who is willing to be completely honest with you, that is a great misfortune, but this no-bullshit memoir by Diana Athill should fill some of the void. She is excellent on sex, race, writing and the indignity of growing old. She also wrote this unsparing article on her decision to move to a nursing home. It is all essential reading for aspiring crones.

River Town

I raced through everything else Peter Hessler has written this year as well, and consider him my most reliable informant on China – Country Driving is especially awesome on the manufacturing towns – but River Town is the place to start. Hessler’s two years as a Peace Corps English teacher in Fuling, on the Yangtze, sets the context and introduces some of the characters who will reappear in his other books. Peace Corps sounds like murder, by the way. In a good way. Sort of. My friend Fred and his wife Susan are in Armenia right now. Something to think about for my post-sprog, pre-crone years?

Mountains Beyond Mountains

Do you like yourself? Do you feel good about your place in the world? Mountains Beyond Mountains will fix that! I have an occasional series on my professional Twitterstream (yes, I have a professional Twitterstream, I told you my life was absurd) called Inspirational Badass of the Day. Farmer’s schtick is the preferential option for the poor – ie, that we should treat all human beings as if they are human, not just rich people. REVOLUTIONARY STUFF. Between the earthquake and cholera, Farmer – whose Partners In Health was the first medical organization on the ground in Port au Prince – has amply earned his title of Inspirational Badass of the Year. He’s kind of an asshole, and a wiseass, too: one of his books on institutional poverty and the collusion of Western powers is called The Uses of Haiti. I love him. Go give some money to PIH. God knows they could use it.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

OH HOLY FUCK this book made me sob like a little kid. Gender, race, cancer, grief, Big Science, poverty, families, the reporter’s responsibility to the truth, our responsibility to each other. My America, in all its fucked-up glory, from Wired to The Wire.

The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters

My America’s dark mirror. Progressives who suggest that there is nothing to choose between America and North Korea (yes, such people exist) find themselves on my shit list in short order. The USA is unquestionably fucked up, but there is no possible excuse for ignorance of conditions in North Korea. If you think you’re a hero of the resistance because you launched a DDoS attack on Mastercard? You really need to swallow your fucking ego and study some survivor testimony. Just sayin.

Nuclear Rites

What a surprise and pleasure this book was! Exemplary, imaginative anthropology field-work in the early nineties in Livermore. The nuclear test as a rite of passage for nuclear scientists. An anti-nuke activist turns himself INSIDE OUT trying to understand his own dark mirror. In my opinion this is what our great big monkey brains are FOR.

Songs of the Gorilla Nation

The much better neuro-atypical memoir about animal behaviour; also magnificently insightful on sex work, orientation, gender identity and parenthood.

The Language of Blood

The book that had me sitting at my favourite table in Atlas Cafe, waiting for my mechanics to finish an oil change, with tears running unchecked down my face, crying my guts out for a South Korean housewife I never met.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

I really am a death-obsessed little crypto-Goth, no? I can’t believe it took me this long when everyone I know adores Mary Roach. With good reason, as it transpires! Her little asides crack my shit up. Funniest book about human remains since The American Way of Death and The Loved One.

Winter Season

Department of Redundancy Department! See also Joan Ryan’s Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, for the gymnastics and figure skating side of the All Beauty Is A Tool Of The Patriarchy story. Oh, young girls and your aspirations! Like Chum in shark-infested water! Christ.

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