African-American, History, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Top Picks, True Crime

10 Years of Required Reading: Best Non-Fiction

When I first started planning a round up of my favourite books from a decade of blogging, I’d intended to make a Top 10 list. However, it quickly became clear that 10 was not going to be enough! So instead we’re having a week of lists, broken down by genre or category. Because I had a hard enough time choosing just five, never mind trying to rank them, the titles are listed in alphabetical order.

Between the World and Me

Cover image for Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

ISBN 9780812993547

Between the World and Me uses the conceit of a letter to the author’s fifteen-year-old son to explore what it means to be Black in America. The scale is at once national and yet deeply personal; Ta-Nehisi Coates encompasses America in geography and history, but also speaks directly to his own child and his individual circumstances. Touching on everything from slavery, to segregation, to mass incarceration, Coates challenges orthodoxies and rejects easy answers in his pursuit of understanding. He writes with a unique combination of lyrical prose and pitiless clarity. By asking hard questions and rendering no easy answers Coates has penned an entreaty that has stayed with me for the past seven years.

Categories: African-American

Born a Crime

Cover image for Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

by Trevor Noah

ISBN 9780385689229

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. The crime carried a punishment of four to five years in prison, and mixed race children were often seized and placed in state-run orphanages. But Noah’s mother was determined and clever, and she managed to hold onto her son, refusing to flee her home country in order to raise him. But it made his childhood complicated, even after apartheid officially ended in 1994. Racial hierarchies and inequities persisted, and despite receiving a good education, his upbringing was anything but easy. In a series of essays, Born a Crime chronicles Noah’s experience growing up under apartheid and its aftermath. In addition to an interesting life, Noah also has a good sense of pacing and narrative style that make his recollections particularly illuminating. His funny but poignant memoir is excellent in either print or audio.

Categories: Memoir

The Five

Cover image for The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

by Hallie Rubenhold

ISBN 9781328664082

In 1888, in one of London’s poorest, most downtrodden neighbourhoods, five women were murdered between August 31 and November 9, setting off a panic amongst Whitechapel’s residents, and an obsession in the public mind that survives to this day. The five women, Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly were the victims of the killer called the Whitechapel Murderer in his time, but who would come to be known as Jack the Ripper. The killer was never caught, and while the five women were soon forgotten, their murderer became a legend, giving rise to “Ripperology,” or the study of the series of murders that took place in Whitechapel, and the ongoing quest to identify the person responsible. In The Five, historian Hallie Rubenhold places the five so-called “canonical victims” of Jack the Ripper at the centre of her narrative, focusing not on their deaths, but on the lives and social circumstances that would ultimately bring them to a common end. The Five felt neither voyeuristic or nor obsessive, two qualities that often leave me feeling slightly uncomfortable with some other true crime narratives. The substance of the work is given up to their lives, and their surrounding social circumstances, not their gruesome ends.

Categories: History, True Crime


Cover image for Quiet by Susan Cain

by Susan Cain

ISBN 9780307352149

Bookish folks, myself included, related powerfully to Susan Cain’s passionate message about the undervaluation of introversion in Western culture. The book cuts a broad swath, from outlining the rise of the extrovert ideal, to the psychological roots of introversion, to the perception of introversion in other cultures, to tips on how introverts and extroverts can work better together. Cain strips away the cultural stigma attached to introversion and examines the unique and underutilized skills of the quiet folks. I read Quiet all the way back in 2012, and never wrote a full-length review, though it appeared in my list of Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2012. It has stayed with me a for so long because it provided me with a way to talk about my experiences that I had previously lacked.

Categories: Psychology


Cover image for Spillover by David Quammen

by David Quammen

ISBN 9780393239225

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, a pathogen can spill over from animals to humans. Sometimes, that spillover is a dead end; the circumstances are so unique that they may never occur again. Or the virus can be transmitted to humans, but not between people: game over. But the thing that keeps virologists up at night is the pathogen spillovers that are not only virulent—highly deadly to humans—but also highly transmissible between humans once the species boundary has been breached. With the possibility of the Next Big One always looming, David Quammen takes the reader through famous outbreaks of zoonotic illnesses, with sections on Hendra, Ebola, malaria, SARS, Lyme, Nipah and HIV. I read a number of books about pandemics in the spring and summer of 2020 in an effort to better understand the experience we were all going through. 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. 

Categories: Science

Canadian, Criticism, Essays, History, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Top Picks

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2015

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2015. Click the title for a link to the full review. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year.

Between the World and Me

ISBN 978-0-8129-9354-7

Cover image for Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi CoatesBorrowing the conceit that James Baldwin used in his 1963 best-seller The Fire Next Time, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ meditation on what it means to be black in America takes the form of a letter to his fifteen-year-old son. This technique allows the work to feel at once deeply personal and widely applicable. Coates shares how his own awareness of his place in society developed, and then contrasts that with how different his son’s upbringing has been. He rejoices in having been able to give his son a better life, and also shares the painful ways in which he has not been able to make his child’s life different, the ways in which he has felt powerless to save or protect his son from the assumptions that always shroud young black men. The best sections include Coates’ thoughts on the role education, formal and informal, has played in his life, and his reflections on what it is like to be a secular black man in a community that has traditionally leaned on religion.

Categories: Memoir

The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami 

ISBN 978-0-8166-9198-2

Cover image for The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami by Matthew Carl StrecherWinona State University professor of Japanese literature Matthew Carl Strecher undertakes an extensive examination of two of the most fascinating stylistic elements present in the works of Haruki Murakami: magic realism, and parallel narratives. The Other World is present from Murakami’s earliest works, right through to his most recent novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, and The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami traces its evolution. Strecher explains Japanese literary traditions and techniques the Western reader might be unaware of, while also examining Murakami’s works through the lens of European literary theory, including Baudrillard, Derrida, and Barthes. He also contextualizes Murakami’s place within the Japanese literary tradition, even as he characterizes him as a global writer. For those who have read a large portion of Murakami’s work, and want to gain a greater understanding of its significance, Strecher offers a readable scholarly overview.

Categories: Criticsm 

The Inconvenient Indian

ISBN 978-1-4529-4031-1

the-inconvenient-indianIn this sweeping and unconventional history–which was one of the 2015 Canada Reads selections–Thomas King draws examples from the United States and Canada to illustrate the fate of the native peoples of North America since the arrival of European colonizers. King’s work is an informal account rather than an academic history, and his approach involves a healthy dose of humour, which may be off-putting to some readers given the serious nature of the topics he is dealing with. For King, humour is part of how he copes with the darkness of the history he is addressing, and this may help make a difficult topic more accessible. During the Canada Reads event, Craig Kielburger compared it to the humourous approaches used by Rick Mercer and Jon Stewart for raising awareness of current events. The litany of abuses King covers provides a very clear idea of why First Nations and Native Americans might be distrustful of government efforts to improve their current situation. While King is primarily looking back at what has already happened, understanding these issues is also crucial to moving forward.

Categories: Canadian, History

The New Jim Crow

ISBN 978-1-59558-643-8

Cover image for The New Jim Crow by Michelle AlexanderLaw professor and civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander argues that mass incarceration is the most important racial justice issue in America today. Alexander’s rhetorical device is to make a metaphorical comparison between the impacts Jim Crow once had on the lives of black people, and the disproportionate effects of mass incarceration on the African American population today. However, Alexander is careful to acknowledge and point out important differences between Jim Crow and mass incarceration. Although she sees significant similarities, she is by no means saying that the two are the same, or should be approached in the same way. Rather, her bold assertion seems designed to illustrate how a system that is intended to be colorblind can, through the conscious or unconscious biased application of discretion, have an outcome that is similar to that of an overtly racist system of control like Jim Crow. The New Jim Crow is also important because it breaks down the differences between the racial hostility and open bigotry that most Americans recognize as racism, and the quieter, more insidious forms of racial bias that are now that primary form of discrimination faced by American minorities.

Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed

ISBN 978-1-250-05293-3

Cover image for Selfish, Shallow, and Self-AbsboredEdited and selected by novelist and essayist Megan Daum, Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed is a collection of essays by writers about the decision not to have children. Each writer has their own journey to making this choice; some knew this fact about themselves all along, and others came to it more gradually. The essays vary greatly in tone. Some are quiet and introspective, while others are angry or angst-ridden. As a whole, this collection neither disparages parenthood, nor advocates the child-free life, but simply seeks to ease some of the stigma that surrounds the decision by offering a window into the minds of those who have made it, and found it to be the right choice for them. Once inside, it shows that the variety within the group is at least as great as that between those who choose children, and those who chose not to procreate. Within its scope—predominantly female, American writers—the collection offers a varied look at a personal decision loaded down with a great deal of cultural baggage.

Categories: Essays

That’s it for me! What were your favourite non-fiction reads of 2015?


Q3 Challenge Report 2015

The year is flying by, and I am already a few weeks late posting this update on my 2015 challenges! Soon the year will be over and I’ll be pondering my reading goals for 2016. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

2015 Goodreads Challenge

2015 Goodreads Reading Challenge LogoBack in January, I thought it would be a great idea to slow down and focus on what I was reading this year, rather than how much. However, at this point in the year, I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the fact that my reading sets its own pace, and that barring some disaster, I am going to read more than 116 books this year. In fact, I hit the 100 books mark just as Q3 ended, which is 86% of my goal with only 75% of the year done. However, I don’t feel like this has prevented me from doing justice to my primary reading goal.

Diversify 2015

At the end of last year, there were lots of counts and statistics going around about diversity in publishing, from folks like We Need Diverse Books and Diversity in YA. Naturally, this made me want to crunch my own numbers, and I found that only about 10% of the books I read in 2014 were by authors who were also visible minorities. Knowing that I’m the kind of person who only manages what she measures, I decided to track my reading in 2015 with an eye to ensuring that at least 25% of the books would be by authors from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, since this is the area where I felt I was most lacking. I set aside other possible metrics, such as LGBT, disability, etc. in order to make the challenge more manageable, but I hope to revisit this another time.

Of the 29 books I read in Q3, 15 were by diverse authors, which comes out to about 52%. This number has been steadily increasing, from 35% in Q1, to 39% in Q2. Since I don’t tally my numbers until the end of the quarter, I’m always worried that I’m falling behind. I’ve also increased my collection of diverse books, so I now have a lot more options on hand when I reach for my next read. In Q2, I realized that since I don’t review every book I read or listen to, it would be important to ensure that I was writing about diverse books I was reading, and helping to boost their visibility out in the world. With this in mind, 14 of the 23 books I reviewed in Q3 were by diverse authors, totaling 61%, which is well above the 46% and 45% of the previous two quarters.

Cover image for Redefining Realness by Janet MockAs 2015 goes on, I’ve noticed that I’ve been skewing fairly strongly towards works of fiction, so I made sure to pick up a few non-fiction titles for the challenge, including Redefining Realness by Janet Mock, Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Usually I make an effort to ensure I’m reading equal amounts of fiction and non-fiction, but this year I’ve been paying more attention to the authors than the categories their works fall into. It’s hard to regret all the fiction when I’ve read stunners like Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, or Laline Paull’s fresh take on dystopia, The Bees. Still, if you have any non-fiction works to suggest, please let me know!

Year-to-date, 41 of the 100 books I’ve read qualified for the challenge, well above my targeted 25%. Of the 71 books I have reviewed, 36 were by diverse authors, which comes out to about 50% of my reviews for 2015! As long as I keep working at the challenge, I’m on track to finish strong. In that spirit, I’m going to set a stretch goal. Rather than 25%, which is the number I chose in January, I am hoping to finish the year with 40% of my books by diverse authors.

How are your 2015 Challenges going? Are you already starting to think about what you want to do next year?

African-American, Challenges, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Social Justice

Between the World and Me

Cover image for Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coatesby Ta-Nehisi Coates

ISBN 978-0-8129-9354-7

“The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.”

Titled after a poem by African American poet Richard Wright about a black man who is tarred and feathered, Between the World and Me uses conceit of a letter to the author’s fifteen-year-old son to explore what it means to be black in America. The scale is at once national and yet deeply personal; Ta-Nehisi Coates encompasses America in geography and history, but also speaks directly to his own child and his individual circumstances. Touching on everything from slavery, to segregation, to mass incarceration, Coates challenges orthodoxies and rejects easy answers in his pursuit of understanding. Between the World and Me challenges America to look darkness in the face, be discomfited by it, and learn to live with that discomfort, rather than remain swaddled in the soothing layers of the Dream.

In the opening chapters, Coates shares how his own awareness of his place in society developed, and then contrasts that with how different his son’s upbringing has been. He rejoices in having been able to give his son a better life, and yet cautions against being caught up in “the Dream” that has perpetuated racism in the United States. He also shares the painful ways in which he has not been able to make his child’s life different, the ways in which he has felt powerless to save or protect his son from the assumptions that always shroud young black men. “You must be responsible for your body in ways that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which somehow, will always be assigned to you,” he cautions his child.

Education, often thought to be to solution to uplifting the oppressed, comes under intense scrutiny from Coates, who grew up poor in Baltimore. Of his early education he writes, “I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance.” Later, he attended the prestigious, historically black Howard University but left without taking a degree. Though Howard was an important site for the formation of his identity, so significant that he dubs it “the Mecca,” he found the classroom to be “a jail of other people’s interests,” and preferred instead to pursue his interests by reading widely. All that reading gives weight and depth to this thin volume, providing the grounding in black history and scholarship that is necessary to write about these issues so concisely without reducing them to absurdities. In many ways I feel inadequate to assess this book because I know I do not have that grounding myself.

If Coates is brutal in his dissection of the American Dream, he is no more merciful to black dreams of Mother Africa, or even to France. He credits the history department of Howard University for disabusing him of his youthful notions about a mythical ancient Africa whose lost grandeur somehow ennobled the subsequent suffering of black people. As a child, he never even imagined the world beyond Baltimore, let alone America, but as an adult he travels abroad for the first time to France, and subsequently returns there with his son. But even as he sees the allure of a place where black people were not enslaved and are not part of that country’s “particular problem” or “national guilt,” he warns against indulging too deeply in whatever comfort that may offer. “Remember the Roma you saw begging with their children in the street, and the venom with which they were addressed,” he entreats his son.

Throughout the book, Coates addresses what all of this means to him as a secular black man in the context of a highly religious community. If Coates’ views do not seem especially hopeful, perhaps it is because they have been irrevocably shaped by the conviction that the destruction of a black body is also the final end of the person who resided there, not just inside the flesh as believers in the soul might have it, but one with the flesh, and destroyed with it. He emphasizes seeking and struggling over hope and firm answers, and by refusing to put hope on a pedestal, Coates forces readers to look long into the face of the question he lives with every day.

If there is a difficulty in Between the World and Me, it is with the slipperiness of the thing Coates calls “the Dream,” and his lifelong pursuit of the question of how to live in a country that has been defined by it. “The question is unanswerable, which is not to say futile,” he tells his son. “You cannot arrange your life around the hope that that they [the Dreamers] will change, because there is a good chance they will not.” But just as Coates hunted for his own conclusions in the library of Howard University rather than demanding that they be served up to him in the classroom, he seems to demand that the reader engage with these questions for herself rather than expecting him to answer them.


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