The year is drawing to a close, and I’ve left it to the very last minute to name my top picks from this year’s reading! These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2020. Click the title for a link to the full review. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year!
From the Ashes is the account of an unstable childhood, intergenerational trauma, and a young adulthood lost to the streets. After being abandoned by parents who struggled with their own demons, Jesse Thistle and his two brothers landed in the home of their paternal grandparents, where the boys were expected to work hard, were scolded for eating too much, or for any behaviour that reminded their grandfather of their wayward father. A lacklustre student, Thistle dropped out of high school, and was kicked out of his grandparents’ home when they caught him with drugs, beginning a decade-long downward spiral into homelessness and addiction. From the Ashes recounts his troubled childhood, his lost years on the streets, and his eventual recovery and journey into academia and Indigenous Studies. Thistle’s chapters are often short and somewhat fractured, an accurate reflection of a disjointed life punctuated by black outs. It is a chronicle of poor choices informed by pain, loneliness, and heartbreak. Occasional interludes are more like poems, including a disturbing section in which Thistle envisions turning into a wendigo who then cannibalizes himself.
Sometime around the year 1700, a spruce seed took root in the fertile soil of the Yakoun River valley on Haida Gwaii, off the west coast of what would become British Columbia, Canada. Despite a rare mutation that caused its needles to be yellow rather than green—a flaw that should have impeded its ability to photosynthesize—the tree that became known as K’iid K’iyaas or the golden spruce, grew to be a giant that stood on the banks of the river until 1997, when it was deliberately felled as a protest again the logging industry. In The Golden Spruce, John Vaillant documents the history of tree, the troubled life of the man who destroyed it, and the impact of this act on the community that was its home. The Golden Spruce is part history of the logging industry, and part post-mortem of the murder of a culturally significant icon of the Haida people. The early part of the book is dedicated to the history of the Haida, and the North American logging industry, as well as a brief foray into the fur trade that preceded it. Vaillant treats this all as necessary context before introducing Grant Hadwin, the man who destroyed the tree in the dark hours of January 20, 1997. The Golden Spruce is a sad and disturbing story of destruction, ignorance, and waste. According to Vaillant, “left in peace, the golden spruce could have lived until the twenty-sixth century.”
Alicia Elliot grew up largely on the Six Nations Reserve, home of her father’s people, with a gaggle of younger siblings. Her mother lived with them only intermittently; whenever her bipolar disorder became too pronounced, Elliott’s father would shuttle her mother across the New York border, and have her involuntarily committed. Her childhood was shaped by poverty, intergenerational trauma, and mental illness, all of which she reflects on in a series of essays. The collection opens with the award-winning titular essay, which is a rough English translation of the Mohawk word for depression or mental illness. This proves a central theme of the collection, as many of Elliot’s stories are about her mother’s bipolar disorder, and how it shaped and warped their family life for most of her childhood. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground blends the personal and the critical into incisive essays that cut to the heart of colonialism, and its effects on identity, community, and Canada’s conception of itself.
Zoonoses are diseases that originate in animals, usually harboured by a reservoir—a species that chronically carries the bacteria or virus but is not sickened by it—and are transmissible to humans. When the right set of circumstances occur, when the fragile ecological balance of the world is disrupted in a new way, a pathogen can spill over from animals to humans. Author David Quammen is a journalist with a long history of covering zoonosis, with the consequent experience in translating a highly technical subject for a lay audience. I read a variety of pandemic books this year, but if you’re only going to read one book about epidemics, this one combines multiple outbreaks into a single volume, highlights trends and commonalties, and provides a good basic understanding of the relationship between virology, ecology, and epidemiology. You’ll emerge from Spillover with a much better contextual understanding of our current situation, armed with many of the essential concepts for understanding the virology and epidemiology underpinning the ongoing public health conversations that have been dominating our discourse over the past year, and will no doubt continue into 2021.
Samra Habib’s family came to Canada from Pakistan in 1991, seeking freedom from the oppression they faced as members of the minority Ahmadi sect of Muslims. Along with her immediate family, they were accompanied by her first cousin, a young man about ten years her senior. When she was thirteen, she learned that her mother intended for her to marry her cousin when she turned eighteen. However, the marriage eventually took place when Habib was only sixteen years of age. For years, Habib lived a double life, secretly married to her cousin while still attending high school like an average Canadian teenager. We Have Always Been Here chronicles the complicated journey to reconciling her Muslim beliefs with her queer identity, and coming to terms with the choices her family made for her. In this memoir about the intersection of family, religion, and sexual identity, Habib shows an extremely touching thoughtfulness about her relationship with her parents. She stands firm in both her acknowledgment of the wrong they did her, and her ability to try to understand the circumstances that made them into the kind of people who would take such a step.
What were your top non-fiction reads this year? Did you read any pandemic books, or did you avoid the subject like the plague?