These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2016. Click the title for a link to the full review. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year.
In Being Mortal, Dr. Atul Gawande examines how society and the medical system can improve the treatment and care of elderly and terminally ill patients. He balances the personal and the professional, using stories from his own family–his wife’s grandmother, and then his own father–as well as case studies from his practice. The book provides an overview of different end of life care options, showcasing their benefits and short-comings. Particularly key to Gawande’s criticism is our failure to provide the sick and the elderly with as much control as possible over their own lives, even when the final outcome is beyond their control. Gawande demonstrates the price patients pay in quality of life when we over-emphasize safety. I truly want to make everyone read this book. Younger readers will be better prepared to navigate conversations about aging with their parents. And of course, anyone of any age can find themselves faced with an unexpected illness that catapults them into facing their own mortality sooner than they might have wished or planned.
Following the death of Trayvon Martin, Jesmyn Ward turned to Twitter to raise her voice against the injustice. But while she found the medium powerful in the heat of the moment, its ephemerality left her wanting more. So she turned to the work of James Baldwin, and from there reached out to gather the voices of a new generation of writers on race in America today. The result is a collection of seventeen diverse pieces, largely essays, but with a poem or other more stylized piece opening each of the three sections. Many of the essays resurrect events that have long since slipped out of the news cycle, memorializing the victims, and decrying the injustice that cost them their lives. The tone ranges from humourous to angry to hopeful as the writers probe their experiences, and draw connections to America’s broader history and legacy. Each reader will undoubtedly have their own favourite pieces in this collection that speaks powerfully about continued racial tension in America today.
As a young law student at Harvard, Bryan Stevenson was unsure about his calling, but a summer internship at the Southern Prisoner’s Defence Committee led him to found the Equal Justice Initiative in 1994, defending indigent prisoners on Death Row in the South. The main thread of Just Mercy is Stevenson’s investigation into the conviction of Walter McMillian in the 1986 murder of Ronda Morrison, which is like something out of a television crime drama. The tenuousness of the evidence on which McMillian was convicted is scarcely believable, the racism poorly concealed, and the unwillingness to admit an error simply stunning. In the chapters between, Stevenson highlights other types of abuses that lead him to do this work, such as life without parole sentences for children, the incarceration of the mentally ill, and the prosecution of women who have suffered still births. While this results in a book that is less focused on a particular case, it ultimately proves to be a strength. These chapters serve to show that Walter McMillian is not isolated or even a particularly extreme case, and give a better idea of the breadth of the problem.Thus Stevenson paints a broad portrait of a problem that goes beyond any one wrongfully convicted prisoner, and serves to highlight a broken system in desperate need of reform.
This simple and stunning collection is the first book of poems by Canadian writer Rupi Kaur. The book is divided into four sections, entitled “the hurting,” “the loving,” “the breaking,” and “the healing.” Kaur describes it as “the blood sweat tears/ of twenty-one years,” and it does indeed feel like she has put her heart in your hands in paper form. Kaur’s style is short and to the point, but she can punch you in the gut with only a few words, as she explores first love and heart break, family dynamics, and sexual abuse. Her writing has a stripped-down feel, denuded of capital letters and most punctuation, relying on rhythm and visual formatting to do some of that work. The pieces are accompanied by simple black and white line drawings, many of which are really quite elegant, all clean lines and positive and negative space working together. I read this collection at least three times this year, and also listened to the audiobook performed by the author.
In the early hours of July 19, 2009, a man entered the home of Teresa Butz, and her partner Jennifer Hopper in Seattle’s South Park neighbourhood. He raped both women, and slashed and stabbed them with a knife. Eventually they were able to escape screaming into the street, where neighbours came to their aid, and the police were called. Eli Sanders—who received the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for his coverage of the South Park attacks in Seattle’s weekly newspaper, The Stranger—begins at this crucial moment, and then circles back to Jennifer and Teresa’s childhoods, and chronicles how they eventually met and fell in love. Sanders then turns to Isaiah Kalebu, the man accused of raping them and murdering Teresa. His story is an education in the results of deinstitutionalization, the conditions for involuntary commitment, and mental competency to stand trial. It is the story of one missed opportunity after another, of a young man who slipped repeatedly through the cracks in the system, despite his family’s best efforts to get him the help he so desperately needed. While the City Slept is a love story, a tragedy, and a gruesome murder mystery. But it is harrowing not merely because of the violence it recounts, but because of the way it methodically exposes the flaws and failures of both the mental health and criminal justice systems in Washington State.
2016 was honestly a pretty great non-fiction year, thanks in part to my resolution to read more of it. There were a lot of great runners up that are worth checking out, too, including The Boys in the Boat, Hidden Figures, Lab Girl, Not Just Jane, and Where Am I Now.
What were your favourite non-fiction reads of 2016?