This year proved to be a great year for reading non-fiction, with many wonderful books to choose from. These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2019. 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!
The Best We Could Do
Thi Bui’s haunting, beautifully illustrated graphic memoir opens on the birth of the author’s first child in an American hospital. Her arrival at the milestone of parenthood prompts her to reflect on her family history, and the difficult choices her parents had to make as refugees who came to America from South Vietnam in the 1970s after an unlikely courtship. The reality of creating her own family prompts new reflections on the one she was born into, and sympathy for choices she had previously struggled to understand. The result is a poignant reckoning with both her family history and her heritage, and the fraught relationship between the two countries at the root of her identity. The Best We Could Do captures the dreams that parents hold for their children, contrasted with the harsher realities those children are often born into, and yet pervaded by hope for the next generation. The result is a moving work that seeks to bridge the gap of silence between those generations.
Kenji Yoshino is a legal scholar of civil rights, known for his work on marriage equality. Covering addresses what he perceives to be the next frontier for civil rights. Today, the gay people who are most often penalized for their identity are those who act “too gay,” who refuse to cover behavioural aspects of their identity in order to make those around them more comfortable. In the legal sphere, Yoshino cites numerous cases in which “courts have often interpreted these [civil rights] laws to protect statuses but not behaviors, being but not doing,” thus creating a legal enforcement of this state of affairs. Yoshino is arguing not only for our rights to our identities, but our rights to say and express those identities, and reject demands to convert, pass, or cover our differences. Although Yoshino is a legal scholar, his style is literary. Because he integrates elements of his own story within the broader argument, it is possible to locate this stylistic choice in his earlier dreams of being a writer or poet. His command of language, both legal and literary, puts him in a unique position to articulate the gaps that remain, and the legal challenges that stand in the way of bridging them.
In 1888, in one of London’s poorest 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 who would come to be known as Jack the Ripper. 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 brought them to a common end. Although Jack the Ripper’s victims are remembered as prostitutes, Rubenhold contests this narrative, laying bare the cultural assumptions that gave rise to an equivalency between homeless women and sex work that is difficult to substantiate. The Five felt neither voyeuristic or nor obsessive, two qualities that often leave me feeling uncomfortable with true crime narratives. Rubenhold’s stylistic avoidance of the killer is clean; he is elided and deemphasized at every turn. The substance of the work is given up to their lives, and their surrounding social circumstances, not their gruesome ends.
Most people by now are familiar with the ten thousand hour rule. Journalist David Epstein examines an opposing approach to learning, putting aside the concept of early specialization, followed by many hours of deliberate practice, in order to explore the potential benefits of wide sampling for learning, creativity, and problem solving, before specialization takes place. His inquiry takes the reader through the unconventional career paths of famous innovators such as Vincent Van Gogh, tracks the surprising scientific breakthroughs made by outsiders in fields in which they have no formal training, and highlights how the ability to integrate broadly remains a uniquely human strength. It is important to note that Epstein is not dismissing this earlier research, or discounting specialization altogether. Rather, Range is interested in dissecting our mythologization of this one method of learning, and figuring out in which realms this strategy is applicable, and in what areas it puts us at a disadvantage. The resulting reporting reveals a fascinating range of situations where unusual training paths, and outside collaborators have had an outsize influence on innovation, creativity, and problem solving.
In the midst of Nazi-occupied France, an American woman with a prosthetic leg who appears to be working as a journalist seems an unlikely candidate for one of World War II’s most successful spies. However, it was precisely this uncanny set of circumstances combined with her language skills and unique personality that allowed Virginia Hall to become an instrumental force in arming and organizing the French resistance movement. In contrast to many of her peers, she was so good at recruiting and coordinating that she gained a dangerous level of infamy in Lyon and beyond as The Limping Woman, soon becoming one of the Nazi’s most-wanted, until she was forced to flee over the Pyrenees into Spain on foot. A Woman of No Importance brings to light the accomplishments of one of the war’s quietest heroes, a woman who avoided recognition, and even turned down a White House ceremony when it found her anyway. Sonia Purnell’s fascinating account takes the reader deep into the underground of the French Resistance, and behind the scenes of how the Allies worked to arm and coordinate with fighters inside the occupied country to end the war. Hall’s remarkable adventures make for a gripping, if bittersweet read.
What were your top non-fiction reads of 2019?