This was really a year of non-fiction reading for me: adult, YA, middle grade, all of the above. The list here is shorter than for fiction. However, for reference I will send you back to last year’s favorite books which featured all of one non-fiction (Amelia Lost). This year, I’ve got eleven–and those are just my favorites.
When it comes to non-fiction, I think I tend to be a subject reader, so if I’m not interested in the subject of the book, it’s not likely that I’ll pick it up. However, just about anything historical is right up my alley, especially British history. Or memoirs/biographies–I like stories about people. Whether they actually happened or not is somewhat irrelevant.
The Map of My Dead Pilots by Colleen Mondor: I started the year off right with this gripping, harrowing account of flying in Alaska. But that’s just a part of it–the book is also about the stories we tell ourselves, the myth of self-reliance. It’s a book about searching for answers and, when you can’t find them, making them up. I loved the stories Mondor tells, and the way she both implicitly and explicitly calls into question our trust that she is telling us the truth.
The Merry Hall Trilogy by Beverley Nichols: The Merry Hall books are arch, witty, and very much of their period. They’re also hilarious and full of fascinating details of gardening. If I had encountered Nichols in a different mood, I might very well have disliked his style. But as it is, I loved his archness, his willful whimsy, which is balanced by his very real knowledge of plants and gardens.
They Called Themselves the KKK by Susan Campbell Bartoletti: This is kind of the antithesis to We’ve Got a Job (see below) in that We’ve Got a Job by and large works to inspire the reader, to help teens see themselves in the young leaders of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. In They Called Themselves the KKK, Bartoletti is presenting a warning. Here is what went wrong; these were the consequences. While I think it’s less powerful in the end than We’ve Got a Job, it does help to flesh out the history and motivations of this shadowy and often mysterious movement.
Invisible Sisters by Jessica Handler: I’m putting this one on the list for personal reasons–I thought the book was interesting and well-written, but Jessica Handler also articulated exactly what I felt about the weird tension when a family member is seriously ill and you don’t live nearby. As I said in my original review, “It’s a rather haunted book, the memoir of a woman who lost her two sisters to medically opposite diseases. I thought it was beautifully written, thoughtful without being self-indulgent and honest about the way the family broke apart under the strain.”
We’ve Got a Job by Cynthia Levinson: In my opinion, the best younger non-fiction book this year. With the tight focus and amazing stories, Levinson weaves together the history of the Birmingham marches. She doesn’t shy away from showing the divisions within the African-American community, and the differing philosophies and backgrounds of the marchers. What emerges is an amazing story of courage and integrity. For people like myself, who learn about the Civil Rights Movement in isolated incidents, it also helps to tie together several different events.
Double-Cross by Ben MacIntyre: This book and the next are almost necessarily read together–they are about almost the same subject and came out in the same year. Double Cross is the overview, telling the story of the six main double agents in the British intelligence community (ie, double agents working secretly for the Allies). It’s a wild and almost unbelievable ride–as hackneyed as the stranger than fiction line is, it’s really true here–perhaps partly because of the kind of person required to be not only a spy but a double agent. The six were all entirely unlikely and yet their stories hold not only incredible coincidences, situations, and pressures, but a huge amount of courage under circumstances most of us can hardly imagine.
Agent Garbo by Stephen Talty: In Agent Garbo, Stephen Talty takes the same subject as Ben MacIntyre, above, and focuses it on the person of Juan Pujol, Spanish double agent who created an imaginary system of sub-agents spread throughout Britain and kept it up for almost five years. It’s very well written, though I wanted the ending to be a bit stronger. I don’t know if I would recommend reading this first and Double-Cross second, or the other way around. If anyone else has read both, I would love to hear your thoughts!
Queen Elizabeth in the Garden by Trea Martyn: The rivalry between Lord Cecil and Robert Dudley, as revealed in the gardens both made to delight Elizabeth I. That’s the boring summary. I’ve been fascinated by Elizabethan England for a long time and this was an amazing glimpse into a little corner of it. Rich in detail and extremely readable, though perhaps best suited for those who are interested in either Elizabeth or gardens, this book offers a little picture of a world that was gone within two generations.
Just Send Me Word by Orlando Figues: This is an astounding book. Years of letters sent secretly from a Soviet gulag prisoner to his long-time girlfriend. Alternating between hope and despair, joy at a possible meeting and sorrow at being parted, Lev and Sveta tell their own story, with Figues skillfully weaving in the context for the letters.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh: This is the year I discovered Anne Morrow Lindbergh, starting with Gift From the Sea, which I found utterly lovely and helpful. Then I went on to Listen! The Wind, which is an account of a flight in the Mediterranean. And finally, Against Wind and Tide, which is a collection of her later journals and letters. She’s a writer who I seem to resonate with–not everyone would, I expect. But for me, I think that Gift From the Sea may well become one of the key books that I keep coming back to and back to.
The Magic Maker by Susan Cooper: A biography by Cooper of John Langstaff, the founder of the Cambridge Revels. In real life, I’m very interested in festivals and things like the Revels. Cooper’s biography is fascinating and extremely inspiring if you’re interested in making myths and magic in everyday life.