These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2017. Click the title for a link to the full review where applicable. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year.
When Trevor Noah was born in South Africa in 1984, his existence was literally illegal, proof that his black, Xhosa mother and his white, Swiss-German father had violated the Immorality Act of 1927, one of the many laws defining the system known as apartheid. Noah is observant, and able to clearly convey the absurdity of the system he was born under while also explaining its function for a North American audience that is probably not terribly familiar with the ins and outs of apartheid. In addition to an interesting life, Noah also has a good sense of pacing and narrative style that make his recollections particularly illuminating. Noah is known as a comedian, successor to Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show, but while there is an understated humour present in Born a Crime, for the most part it is memoir, not comedy. The humour comes mostly in the form of sly comments, though some of the stories are indeed laugh out loud funny. I actually read this book twice this year, once in print, and again as an audiobook, and would highly recommend it in either form.
This is a shout out to the entire March Trilogy, written by Congressman John Lewis with former congressional aid Andrew Aydin, and art by Nate Powell. The trilogy captures Lewis’ experiences as a civil rights leader and organizer, before going on to represent Georgia’s fifth congressional district for more than thirty years. In March: Book Two, Lewis and Aydin really master the structure of the frame narrative, which was a little stilted in the first volume. Lewis’ recollections of his time as an activist are framed by memories of Inauguration Day 2009, an especially striking juxtaposition with the violence that met peaceful civil rights protests. Book Two powerfully covers key events in the movement’s history, such as the lunch counter protests, the Freedom Rides, and the March on Washington.
Feminism is a concept that has been loaded down with a lot of cultural baggage. In this collection of essays, poems, comics, and lists, editor Kelly Jensen has pulled together a selection of pieces for a teen audience that aim to clarify misconceptions, share experiences, and reinforce empathy for a variety of journeys and perspectives. Here We Are contains enough broad variety that no doubt different pieces will speak to different readers. It is reaffirming to read about people who share your experiences, and enlightening to read about different ones. Interspersed with the longer essays are short, fun pieces, such as feminist music playlists, poems, and comics. There were only a few things I thought were notably absent, such as a piece about affirmative consent to complement the discussion of rape culture. The chapter on romance and sexuality could also have used an essay about asexuality and aromanticism. Overall, however, I was pleased with the diversity of this introduction to feminism, and would heartily recommend it.
A Mother’s Reckoning
It is with caution that I include on this list a book that has stuck with me, perhaps even haunted me, since I read it this fall. Sue Klebold’s memoir is an intimate and gut-wrenching look inside the home of an ordinary little boy who grew up to be a high school mass murderer. When her son committed suicide in the school library following the rampage, she was left with more questions than answers, and a difficult public reckoning that continues to flare up to this day. Klebold does her best to recount the events in a way that is compatible with existing guidelines for responsible reporting on such tragedies in order to prevent imitation, something which she sharply calls out the media for failing to do in their treatment of the events at Columbine High School. It is a harrowing read because it shows people who commit terrible acts of evil as human, leaving aside the question of whether those who do monstrous things need to be humanized. I can’t imagine how upsetting this account might be for anyone who lost loved ones at Columbine, and it is for this reason that place a caveat on my recommendation of this title. Nevertheless, I can’t stop thinking about this book.
How to Survive a Plague
This history is an insider’s look at the activists who advocated for AIDS treatments and victim’s rights in the early days of the epidemic. France’s account centers on New York, and the founding of such organizations as ACT UP and the Treatment Action Group, as well as the safe sex movement. France truly makes the reader feel the uncertainty and fear of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when even the cause of the disease was a mystery. How to Survive a Plague also delves into the bureaucracy and homophobia that delayed the development of effective AIDS treatments by researchers and public health officials. Desperation led to thriving experimental drug undergrounds without proper oversight or data collection. Especially if you were born after AIDS went from being a death sentence to a manageable health condition, this is an essential and illuminating read about a key aspect of LGBTQ+ history.
And that’s it for 2017. See you all on the other side.