Friday, December 29, 2017

Favorite non-fiction of 2017

It's time for the year-end reading favorites. Today I'll list my six favorite non-fiction books for 2017.

I read 36 books this year. For me, that is very good, certainly a record for recent years. As always, I never set out to read a certain number of books, nor do I participate in any reading challenges. I just read them as they come, often based on recommendations from Wife (I read almost all of her book club selections), and some based on recommendations from friends. And no, there is never enough time to read all of them, which is why my TBR list is very long.

Also this year I started listening to a podcast called "What Shall I Read Next?" (For details see It's a great little show narrated by an energetic reader in Louisville, Kentucky named Anne Bogel. She has many recommendations that are now on my TBR list. The problem with the podcast is that, almost always, I'm in my car when I'm listening to it and I can't always remember the titles she talks about. The website has show notes and a summary of each episode, including the titles, but I'm not always faithful to follow up.

I just got a Kindle for Christmas. I resisted this for a long time because I get most of my books from the library or used books sales, but now I can also check out ebooks from the library. I will not use it exclusively, but I think I'll enjoy it on occasion. I have already downloaded "To Kill a Mockingbird" from the library and I am more than 50 percent through it. I would estimate this is the fifth time I have read it and I'm loving every word -- which makes sense, since it's in my top five all-time favorites.

Without further adieu, here are my favorite non-fiction books for 2017, in no particular order:

1. "A Lowcountry Heart" by Pat Conroy. This is a collection of Conroy's communications with his readers, with commentary on some of his own favorite authors and books and a foreword by his widow, Cassandra King. I had the privilege of seeing Conroy in 2015, just a few months before he died, and will always consider myself the richer for it. Reading these essays was like having a conversation with him and if you are a fan of his books (e.g. "Prince of Tides," "Lords of Discipline," "Beach Music") as I am, you are sure to love this.

2.  "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking" by Susan Cain. As the title suggests, this is an exhaustive instruction manual for living as an introvert, with case studies and real-life examples of successful people (including the author) who have embraced their introvert characteristics.  Even though it's a little cerebral, it is not dull, and I suspect this is especially true if you are an introvert yourself, as I am. I highly recommend.

3.  "Hillbilly Elegy" by J. D. Vance. Although non-fiction, this reads a lot like a novel written in first person. The author writes in great detail about growing up in the Rust Belt, with descriptions of family members that at once amuse, shock and anger. Vance, in his early 30s, has become a minor celebrity on the talk-show circuit, and an unintended consequence of the book is how it has been used to explain Donald Trump's election to the presidency. Read it and you'll see why, and look up some of his interviews, especially the one with Terry Gross on NPR.

4. "Hidden Figures" by Margot Lee Shetterly. This is one of those rare books that I read AFTER seeing the movie (it's usually the other way around). Written about African American women who worked as mathematicians for NASA and had a hand in writing code for the Gemini Space Program, it is great reading. Although both the book and movie were excellent, the movie used composite characters to tell the story. The book is, as usual, more detailed, and, in my view, a bit better than the movie. But I liked both.

5. "Love Lives Here" by Maria Goff. Maria is the wife of Bob Goff, whose bestseller, "Love Does," was one of my favorites a few years back. In some ways, Maria fills in blanks of Bob's book, with details of his work in Africa and the human trafficking trade there. Like "Love Does," she advocates for loving one's neighbor in a radical, sometimes uncomfortable way. When I finished "Love Does," I wanted to go have dinner with Bob Goff. After reading "Love Lives Here," I wanted to add another seat at the table.

6.  "What Happened" by Hillary Clinton. I mentioned this in a previous post, and some of you have already advised you will give this a pass, thank you very much, and I get it. I am NOT a fan of the author, and I am the first one to tell you this book is completely self-serving and she blames everyone but herself for her loss to Donald Trump. But it's also an interesting retrospective and if you simply enjoy reading about politics in general, and can put aside your leanings if you don't like her, it's a great read. I really didn't want it to be on my favorites list, but if I'm being honest with myself, it makes the list.

I read a total of 11 non-fiction books this year and, after just looking over the list, I can say there was not one I did not enjoy. I do want to mention a couple of others:

"The Zookeeper's Wife" by Diane Ackerman is, technically, fiction, and I guess it would be considered historical fiction. It's the story of a couple in Warsaw, Poland during World War II who owned a zoo and how the zoo was transformed during the war into a hiding place for Jews and others opposing the Nazi movement. To me, because Ackerman bases the story on the diaries of one of the principal characters, interviews with others and/or their descendants, and exhaustive research, it is more non-fiction than fiction, which is why I mention it here.

"Jewels in the Junkyard" was written by my high school and college friend, Warren Ludwig, and it is the poignant and moving story of how he picked up the pieces and moved on after his wife took her own life. I had completely lost touch with Warren, but when I heard about the book, I ordered a copy and read it, then sent him an email at the address given at the end of the book. I later reviewed it in the weekly column I write. I did not want to list it as a favorite since I am biased, but I did want to tell you about it.

I hope some of you might find something of interest here, perhaps something you'll add to your own TBR list. I'll be back with my favorite fiction picks in a few days.


Kelly said...

I always enjoy your wrap-ups, so this was a treat to find in my reader.

At your recommendation, I did finally download a Conroy novel to my Kindle... I just can't remember which one! Quiet sounds fascinating and I think I'll have to take a closer look at it. I'm also intrigued by The Zookeeper's Wife. While I'm sure I would enjoy Hidden Figures, having seen the film and read a similar novel (Rise of the Rocket Girls), I doubt it will ever make it to my TBR pile.

I look forward to your fiction list!

Ed said...

I really loved Hillbilly Elegy though I admit I skimmed through some of his pontifications about the present. I also have the book Hidden Figures that I bought after the movie but have yet to read. Probably like you, I was fascinated to learn I knew nothing about this subject and figured the book would enlighten me even further.

sage said...

We read a similar number of books (if you take out poetry, I read 36 too). And I couldn't bring myself to read Clinton's book. I find her and Trump to be two peas in a pod. I don't think either of them have ever admitted a mistake and they both blame other people for their problems.

Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

I read very few non-fiction books because I can only really get through my book club books. I like your list though. I haven't read any of them, but I did see the movie Hidden Figures which was outstanding. I can only imagine the book was even usually is. I've added it and the Zookeeper's Wife to my TBR list. Thanks!