So far I’ve read 121 total books in 2021…
Of those, 43 have been nonfiction books (36% of my total reading). Most of my nonfictional reading falls into the memoir category…with most topics seeming to deal with race/social justice issues. I also find myself gravitating to the grief/cancer/illness categories quite often.
Without further ado…
2021 Nonfiction Reads of 2021
My Favorite Nonfiction Book of 2021
- The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio – I think this was the first nonfiction book I read in 2021, so for it to still have as strong of an impact on me at the end of the year is really saying something! It gave me an emotional gut punch that I still have recovered from. I really appreciated how Villavicencio was able to seamlessly weave her personal experience with those of other undocumented Americans. It was incredibly powerful and I will return to it again and again in the future.
- No Cure for Being Human: And Other Truths I Need To Hear by Kate Bowler – Another book I can see myself continually returning to, I felt like Bowler was able to tell my heart exactly what it needed to hear. There were so many gentle life lessons and advice tidbits that I needed to be reminded of. After facing a Stage IV cancer diagnosis, Bowler just has a different perspective that we can all learn from!
- Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted by Suleika Jaouad – I hope to never have to try to navigate my thoughts and feelings of a cancer diagnosis, so I really appreciated the insight this book gave into what that process may look and feel like. It did bring back a lot of painful memories I have from being a caregiver to my mama during her cancer journey, but I also greatly appreciated everything this book had to offer. I especially loved the second half!
- Flesh & Blood: Reflections on Infertility, Family, and Creating a Bountiful Life by N. West Moss – So many of the experiences Moss wrote about in this book felt straight from my own life. She articulated my early motherhood journey, and while it was hard and painful to read at times, it was also so incredibly reaffirming to me at the same time. I also loved the mother and grandmother connections throughout; it gave me so much comfort.
- Seeing Ghosts by Kat Chow – I’ll read any book that talks about grief, especially one that handles the loss of one’s mother. There were two big books that tackled mother grief this year – this one and Crying in H Mart (see below) – and sadly, neither one really hit the mark for me. For a topic that should feel very deep and emotional, this one felt like it was very surface level for me. I needed – and wanted – so much more than it delivered.
- Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner – This book has gotten a lot of hype, and given the topic, I assumed I would really enjoy it. Unfortunately, it didn’t hold up to the hype for me. I was distracted by all the food talk (this is a “me” problem; food memoirs don’t work well for me), and I just didn’t feel the whole connection between Zauner and her mom. Honestly, be sure to check out other reviews before taking my advice on this one.
- Widowish by Melissa Gould – I know nothing about husband-loss, but I do know about the gut-wrenching, soul crushing ache of losing a loved one, and I absolutely devoured this story in less than twenty-four hours. The way Gould talked about the loss of her husband and her subsequent grief was very affirming to my own experience with losing my mama. I had red eyes for days, but it was absolutely worth it!
- How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith – This was also a top contender for my favorite nonfiction book of the year! Not only did Smith open my eyes to a lot of revisionist history, his writing was so compelling that I could not put this one down. This book should be required reading for all Americans and be added to high school curriculum everywhere.
- Punch Me Up To the Gods by Brian Broome – As Broome rides across town on a bus, subtleties he overhears between a man and his son spur memories of his own childhood growing up poor, Black, and gay in Ohio. It was quite fascinating how he would relate these observable moments into essays that reflected on his life, but I totally enjoyed it and found this to be a memoir that has stuck with me (though it is quite heavy). The audiobook version is great!
- Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of Africa America, 1619-2019 by Ibram X. Kendi & Keisha N. Blain – Unlike anything I’ve read before, this community history documents 400 years of Black history in America. Not only did I learn SO MUCH, I also flagged so many things that I want to dive deeper into and learn more about. The topics also prompted so many questions with my teenagers about the history they’re being taught in school (better than I expected, but still falling short). It’s an incredible compilation and I will definitely refer to it again and again!
- Black Futures by Kimberly Drew – Along the same lines as Four Hundred Souls (see above), this is also an amazing compilation of Black history that introduces the reader to incidences and experiences that are not in our mainstream historical consciousnesses. What’s so different and unique and wonderful about this book is its presentation: it’s a collection of essays, poems, images, recipes, memes, social media posts, and more!
- How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon – Laymon’s eloquent words capture his readers from the first page. This book is small (just 176 pages) but it left an emotional hangover that lasted for months. This is my first book by Laymon, and I’m a fan!
- Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City by Wes Moore – Long before the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, there was five days when social justice advocates took to the streets in Baltimore to protest the unjust death of Freddie Gray. Instead of America heeding the call to evaluate police response, we’ve since had a long list of Black men killed at the hands of law enforcement. Moore interviews various people involved in the Baltimore protests and it offers a unique perspective into these movements. We can all learn from these accounts and, hopefully, find ways to be better so that all Americans, but especially those of color and diverse backgrounds, can feel safe when they come in contact with police.
- Redeeming Justice: From Defendant to Defender, My Fight for Equity on Both Sides of a Broken System by Jarrett Adams – Wrongfully convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, Adams enlisted the help of the Wisconsin Innocence Project to help him clear his name…but it took nearly ten years of his life away from him. Once released, he worked his way through law school and now helps defend other wrongfully accused people in prison. Reminiscient of Just Mercy, it’s remarkable that there are human beings out there that are treated the way they are and still continue to stay resilient and then use that same resiliency to help others. These stories are important and need to be shared in hopes that someday it may change.
- Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford – Ford’s father was incarcerated for much of her childhood and his absence made her long for his connection and acceptance. Ford holds nothing back as she explores her father’s crimes and grapples with how that makes her feel. Ford’s mother also has a lot of issues that leave her feeling lonely and confused that she must come to terms with as well. The audiobook is excellent as Ford narrarates it herself.
- Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virgina by Elizabeth Catte – Unintentionally, I’ve read a lot of books about Virginia and the hand it played in the founding of America; specifically, it’s incredibly racist past. Catte delves into the atrocities of how white men in power treated the poor, vulnerable, and Black; she even offers some history on the development of Shenandoah National Park. This book opened my eyes to the foundations of white supremacy, eugenics, and how fearful white men are of poor and/or vulnerable people rising up to challenge their systems and ways of thinking.
- Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe – This could have been so much better if it had had a tighter edit! What should have been a fascinating deep dive into one of the most nefarious crimes of our history, sadly got bogged down in minute details that slowed the story down and, ultimately, bored me. Many others have found this story to be compelling, so don’t just take my word for it!
- We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence by Becky Cooper – As Cooper investigates the 1969 murder of Jane Britton, she also delves deep into the cultures of anthropology, academia, and cold cases. Unlike some murders that go years without being resolves, this one does have a resolution by the end, so steer. clear of Google and other reviews if you want to follow the trail Cooper lays out in the book. This one is bulky but it reads quickly.
- Every Minute Is a Day: A Doctor, an Emergency Room, and a City Under Siege by Robert Meyer & Dan Koeppel – This is an incredible firsthand account of the silent killer that ravaged through New York City last year. We now know more about Covid-19 than we did, but it still threatens to take over our health care systems and claim more victims. As a person living in rural America, I haven’t personally been exposed to the full scope of this virus, so I devoured this page by page. Multiple times I felt like I had the breath knocked out of me and I could not imagine the things some ER doctors, medical personel, and EMTs had to see and decipher. This is an important look into a piece of history that will be examined and talked about for a very long time!
- The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson – Long before the world had heard of coronavirus, scientists were working on the means to eradicate various diseases from society. In this fascinating book, Isaacson introduces us to Jennifer Doudna, the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize winner, for her efforts in discovering ways to fight diseases of all kinds, but especially the coronavirus. While it was very science-y at times, Isaacson made sure I was never entirely lost and I’m surprised at how much I actually feel like I gained in terms of scientific information. The discoveries set forth in this book are life-changing for all of humanity and it was quite interesting to read about.
- No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder – Until recently, no one had really compiled the data of red flags that can highly predict a future homicide in domestic situations. Truly, there just isn’t a lot of information out there that helps us deter domestic violence, so this book is timely and important. I think it would be a valuable asset to any law enforement and/or social services trainings. In addition to a lack of information, there is also a lack of communication between different public health and safety organizations (ie: police departments, emergency departments, abuse shelters, etc). Many people have worked to change these faults of the system and they have seen significant improvements in the communities where these changes have been implemented. With this kind of information available, it should help to make a big difference.
- Good Morning, Monster: A Therapist Shares Five Heroic Stories of Emotional Recovery by Catherine Gildiner – Even though this book is dark, emotional, and has all kinds of messed up stories in it, there is also a lot of value in Gildiner’s advise (especially as a parent) of how to change traumatic cycles, generational trauma, and psychological information. Simple things like how kids can’t grow into healthy adults without a healthy attachment to their parents, and when that doesn’t happen, why adults recreate the trauma they had when they were kids. There are a lot of triggers, but I found the advice worth the read!
- This Is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to the Surprising Foods That Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, and More by Uma Naidoo – There is so much interesting information about the effects of food on our bodies and brains and it only helped solidify the very real struggle many are dealing with trying to make dietary changes. This book isn’t about weight maintenance at all – it talks about our brain/gut connection and how to maintain that important connection in order to live our best lives! It was so good and I will be referring to it for a long time!
- All the Young Men by Ruth Coker Burks – This is one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. Ruth Coker Burks helped gay men with AIDS at a time in our history when most people abandoned them in their greatest time of need. She became a tireless advocate for people with AIDS; she loved them when no one else would, she gave them dignity in their death, and she advocated for the entire community to help them get funds and resources. Not only do I admire Burks for her work within the AIDS context, but I was beyond impressed with her resilience, determination, and attitude in the face of so many challenges.
- Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York by Elon Green – The Last Call Killer stalked the gay community of New York City, terrorizing gay men for years as murders went unsolved. Not only was it a time when the AIDS epidemic was high, but simply being out as a gay man was dangerous enough. Cops targeted gay bars and looked the other way when dealing with crimes against homosexuals. It was the perfect set up for a serial killer to stalk a community. The book’s set up is certainly enticing, but it lacked in editing and the prose was a little too disjointed for me. I still appreciated the true crime aspect of the book, but it wasn’t as memorable as a story of this caliber should be.
- Nowhere Girl: A Memoir of a Fugitive Childhood by Cheryl Diamond – This is one of those books that fall under the category ‘Truth is Stranger Than Fiction”. I kept getting Educated and The Glass Castle vibes; one of those crazy coming-of-age tales that just blows your mind. I loved Diamond’s metaphorical writing and really sunk into the audiobook version of her story. I wish the momentum it starts off would have lasted throughout the entire book, but about halfway through, the story started to fizzle out for me. Regardless, it’s an incredible story and I’m glad I listened to it!
- Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu – This is a memoir, but it also a cultural and historical journey. Owusu covers an a lot of topics – racism, colorism, stuggles with her relationship with her mother and stepmother, grief and the loss of her father, the Armenian genocide, mental health, etc – as well as a lot of locations around the world – Tanzania, London, Rome, New York, Uganda, etc – that was quite fascinating. There are parts of Owusu’s story that are quite sad and must have been difficult to navigate as a young child, but it was also those experiences that made her into this incredibly independent, and very strong, women.
- American Daughter by Stephanie Thornton Plymale – Plymale had a terrible upbringing – homelessness, foster care, sexually abused – the list is long and heartbreaking. Her mother suffered from mental illness and addiction, leaving Stephanie and her siblings to fend for themselves. Even though Plymale’s mother gave her a difficult childhood, their relationship reminds the reader that what one sees on the outside is just a piece of the overall puzzle. Without excusing her mother’s behavior, Plymale was able to heal her pain when she had more insight into her mother’s past and it’s an inspiring story.
- Dancing With the Octupus: A Memoir of a Crime by Debora Harding – At the tender age of fourteen, Harding was kidnapped, raped, and left to die on the side of a road. What follows is her account of trying to reconcile the after affects of this horrific incident, as well as trying to come to terms with her abusive mother and complacent father. This book is sad and depressing; fans of Educated and The Glass Castle would be able to appreciate the resilienceness that the authors must possess to make a meaninful life after such atrocities.
- Good Apple: Tales of a Southern Evangelical in New York by Elizabeth Passarella – Passarella is quite literally living my dreams and it was so fun to see NYC through her eyes and as a mother! She is unapologetic in her decision to raise her children in the heart of NYC, depite others’ criticism about the lack of a suburbia experience. I totally admire her love for the city and I had so much fun living vicariously through her book! Unfortunately, the book lost some of its steam so it isn’t necessarily one of my favorite reads of the year, but it was worth reading.
- This Is All I Got by Lauren Sandler – Through immersive journalism, the reader is introduced to all the complicated layers of homelessness in America. Even when one is well-versed in the government’s games, it’s still hard to get the help one needs to lift themselves off the streets. Lauren Sandler did a great job of providing the story of Camila and her son, Alonso, while also giving the reader facts and information about the current homeless crisis in New York.
- What We Carry by Maya Shanbhag Lang – This is a beautiful testament to motherhood and the sacrifices a mother makes for her children. Lang’s mother immigrated to the United States and continued to live a life of sacrifice to ensure the success of her daughter. Later, Lang’s mother suffers severe mental decline and is eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Through it all, I really felt the connection between Lang and her mother and it reminded me so much of my own grandma.
- Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America by Ijeoma Oluo – What an incredible job Oluo did of mixing history with modern day examples to drive her points home! I learned a TON from this book and I’m definitely going to dive deeper into many of the examples she put forth. I highly recommend this one!
- Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from My Daughter’s School by Courtney E. Martin – This was a very interesting read and I learned quite a bit. My kids are in a very rural district so the social justice movement hasn’t quite reached us yet. I have been very interested in all the happenings around the US since the murder of George Floyd, so this book gave me some great context in regard to how cities are seeing and handling some of these issues. I found Martin’s methodical decision-making admirable and could only hope I would follow in her footsteps if given the same circumstances. I liked how inclusive she was with those less fortunate in her neighborhood and how she worked towards solutions instead of just complaining about them.
- The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom – After reading this account, Broom only reemphasizes that what happened in New Orleans in 2005 has been happening since the beginning of time (and continues to happen today): the poor communities in our country are largely ignored and sacrificed for the richer, whiter populations. The question I’m left wondering is: now that we’ve been shown this time and time again, when is enough enough? When will these communities of people going to be prioritized and treated with even the smallest amount of decency and respect? It’s beyond time we recognize our mishandlings of these situations and work to correct them.
- Oak Flat: A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West by Lauren Redniss – This is an incredible visual nonfiction book that educated me on the fight for Oak Flat, a sacred mesa located in Arizona that belongs to the Apache. The land is rich with copper, an important and expensive supply used in nearly everything (buildings, cars, etc). Once the American government found out about its supply, the battle was on. But the Apache, like so many other tribes in the United States (the Souix at Standing Rock in South Dakota is the first that comes to mind) are fighting to preserve these lands that they respect and call home.
- Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy by Talia Lavin – While I probably appreciated the chapter on social media the most (Chapter 7), I learned A LOT from this book and how the internet plays a big role in how white supremacy has gained a foothold in our current world. The question that is begging to be answered is: where do we go from here? How do we make changes that disallow hate to have a platform? And how do we heal this divide? Those are questions I don’t necessarily have an answer for, but I think this book is an important piece to strategizing out some possibilities.
- That Will Never Work: The birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea by Marc Randolph – I really appreciated Randolph’s recollection of Netflix’s beginnings. Many reviewers have said that Randolph comes across as egotistical and money-obsessed; I didn’t get those vibes at all. I loved hearing how he and his partner, Reed Hastings, came up with the idea of Netflix, the hurdles they had to overcome to start the company, and the obstacles they continued to face for the first couple of years.
- Laundry Love: Finding Joy in a Common Chore by Patric Richardson – This would never have been on my radar, but Anne Bogel added it to her Summer Reading Guide and raved about it on a podcast episode. She made it sound like I was somehow missing out on laundry enjoyment and I wanted in on all the secrets of how to like this chore! But honestly, I learned little to nothing new and I was quite disappointed. I figured at the very least Richardson would tell me what products to use since he basically lambasted common commerical products, but nope!
- The Lie About the Truck: Survivor, Reality TV, and the Endless Gaze by Sallie Tisdale – This book really opened my eyes to the “reality” of reality tv and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I was especially disheartened to read about the ways production treats the locals and environments…it was enough to make me really question why I’m watching (and inadvertently supporting) this show. I think we need to realize how our subconscious support can be pretty detrimental to the locals. After finishing the book, I don’t honestly know how I feel about continuing to watch the show…it definitely made me see things in a new way and also made me rethink my weekly viewings.
- Not All Diamonds and Rosé: The Real Housewives Spilling Tea, Throwing Shade, and Sharing Secrets by Dave Quinn – This is a delicious endulgment for any real Housewives fan out there! I absolutely love the franchise and I devoured this book in just a few days (full disclosure: I didn’t read the sections of the cities I don’t follow, but out of seven cities, I do follow five of them!). It was fun to revisit some of the iconic scenes from over the years, and while I did want a little more “tea” spilled, this book was still a fun one!