I read a lot of non-fiction this year, huzzah! Not very many five-stars, but a lot of of them were solid enough that I want to highlight them. Here’s to reading just as much non-fiction in 2021!
10. Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York by Sari Botton (Editor)
This is a collection of essays from various writers about their experience in New York; mainly, their experience on falling in love with New York and then making the decision to leave it. The title is based off the famous Joan Didion essay. While I thought that this collection could have used a lot more voices that weren’t white, and definitely needed more input from native New Yorkers (NOT Long Islanders or Jerseyians) and/or immigrants, the majority of the essays were solid and engaging. As a native New Yorker desperate to leave New York it was interesting to read about other people’s conceptions of New York. One of the essays that stuck with me most was in fact from a native New Yorker (well, Long Islander) who talked about how the problem with being from New York is that there’s no New York to run away to, which…for some reason hit me so hard. Anyway, she moved to Paris, which seemed like the next best thing. Gotta follow in her footsteps at some point.
9. I Like To Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution by Emily Nussbaum
Emily Nussbaum is a well-known TV critic, and this book is a collection of a bunch of her most well-known essays on various TV shows. I watch a lot less TV than I used to, but I’m still very passionate about the medium, so I very much enjoyed reading Nussbaum dissect various TV shows. Obviously I was more invested in the essays that discussed shows that I was familiar with, but that’s not the book’s fault. There’s also a really great, previously unpublished, essay about the #MeToo movement and reckoning with one’s favorite director/actor being a sexual predator.
8. Good Talk by Mira Jacob
This is a hard-hitting and poignant graphic memoir what it means to be brown in Trump’s America, though that is not the only narrative. Jacob covers so many topics though various conversations she’s had with the people in her lives – from her parents, to her son (who the book is structured around), to her white in-laws, to her husband, to her POC friends, etc. It’s a very honest and open look at her experience, but it’s also really, really funny. I don’t know if it’s just that I have a morbid sense of humor, but throughout the whole book there’s this undercurrent wry, tongue-in-cheek dark humor that had me laughing out loud. That said, there’s also a lot of moments that really, really hit home, and hit hard; the emotional resonance of this graphic novel is startling in its sincerity.
7. I Was Their American Dream by Malaka Gharib
This was a cute graphic memoir about a half-Filipino, half-Egyptian girl growing up. It’s very wholesome and adorable and hilarious, and as an Egyptian-American myself I really related to various aspects of this! At first I thought I would loathe the art, which is kind of childish and cartoonish, but I think it fits the tone of the story really well. Plus, it’s more complex than it seems at first glance; Gharib manages to convey little nuances of expression through tiny artistic details. It’s quite clever! I read this in one sitting.
6. A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by Karen Armstrong
This isn’t so much a history of the Abrahamic religions as it is history of the development of various understandings of God in the Abrahamic religions. I thought this book was absolutely fascinating and intellectually stimulating; as with any book on a subject this broad, some parts were more intriguing than others, but I feel like I’ve walked away from this book a better, more intelligent and informed person. This is definitely a dense tome: it’s very long and a bit dry and academic, and it took me months to finish. In hindsight, I really should have highlighted the crap out of this, because there’s so much I want to go back and re-read.
5. In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
This is Machado’s memoir of being in a queer abusive relationship. In addition to being harrowing and emotionally compelling, this book is just brilliant. Brilliant insights, brilliant writing, brilliant and unique framing. Essentially, she frames various aspects of her relationship as literary styles/techniques/genres, with her relationsihip itself functioning as the “dream house.” It sounds baffling, but it works incredibly well. There’s really not much else I can say that hasn’t already been said; I’ve seen so many people rave about this book!
4. A Concise Guide to the Quran: Answering 30 Critical Questions by Ayman S Ibrahim
This is, well, a concise guide to the Quran, in the form of 30 major questions. I absolutely loved this book. I was raised Muslim, but it was only until reading this book that I realized just how little I know about Islam and the Quran – or rather, how I’ve been raised to believe commonly believed myths about the Quran. I learned so much from this short little book about the Quran’s origins (written down years after the Prophet’s death!!), its translations (unlike what Muslims would have you believe, there is no one standard unchanged translation that has existed since the 7th century!!), and the field of literary intertextuality. I found that sometimes the author could be a little too snarky for my taste, but to be honest, given that he grew up a Coptic Christian in a Muslim-majority Egypt, I can’t really blame him.
3. A History of Magic and Witchcraft: Sabbats, Satan and Superstitions in the West by Frances Timbers
For so long I had been on the hunt for an accessible historical overview of the West’s understanding of witches and witchcraft and the infamous witch hunts of Western Europe, and this book was it! Timbers begins with Ancient Greece and Rome’s understanding of magic and witchcraft, then moves through the decades to paint a picture of the development of the popular notions of witchcraft and how they changed throughout the times. Along the way she debunks many popular beliefs about the witch trials. There was a ton of depth and detail but the writing is not dry or dense, and Timbers doesn’t belabor any points. This is my favorite kind of history writing: accessible and providing broad overviews.
2. Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion by Jia Tolentino
These essays are brilliant. Even when Tolentino is expressing an idea that has already been rehashed in the cultural consciousness, she manages to do it in a way that shines a new light on it, that finds new ways of drawing connections, and she does it with impeccably brilliant writing that lucidly articulates complex and difficult ideas. I loved this book so much I went out and bought a copy because I know that I’m going to want to re-read the majority of the essays in this collection. Her writing is just??? So good??? Some people just have this way with words, a way of stringing together phrases in such clever ways, and Tolentino definitely has that skill. Also it’s wonderful to read a book like this by a millennial who I can relate to!
1. Monster She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction by Lisa Kroger and Melanie R. Anderson
In all honesty this probably ties for first place with Trick Mirror, but considering it was the first book I read this year and it has still managed to stick with me, I thought I would give it the top spot. This is an illustrated collection of the various female writers who, as the title says, pioneered horror and speculative fiction. Each chapter focuses on a writer and her most well-known works, giving you a broad overview of her life and what she is known for. I…really hate the word empowering and what it’s become, but if anything could actually be described as empowering, it would be this book: I walked away from it feeling inspired and proud. As a writer of horror and speculative fiction myself, it’s so affirming to have all these women to aspire to. I particularly loved reading about the various women who supported themselves and their families through the writing of bizarre short stories. I’m very pleased that I own this book, not least because it’s gorgeous, because I will definitely be referring back to it again and again.