Politics, Food, and the Offbeat: My Nonfiction Year in Review

I’m running a little behind this month, but so long as it’s the eleventh month of the year, then it’s the perfect time to start talking about Nonfiction November. It’s a yearly feature hosted by Rennie at What’s Nonfiction?, Katie at Doing Dewey, Julie at Julz Reads, and Leann at Shelf Aware with the goal of celebrating all of those wonderful nonfiction books we’ve read since last year. If you’d like to participate, head on over to their sites, check out the topics for the month, and be sure to look at the weekly link-up to find other participants.

As I suggested above, this post technically should have been up last week. However, I couldn’t resist the chance to revisit my nonfiction choices from this past year. There were certainly a lot of them.

Week 1: (November 2-6) Your Year in Nonfiction (Leann at Shelf Aware): Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

This might be the understatement of the century, but it’s been an interesting year. For a number of reasons, I’ve found it hard to sit down and read a book, which is something I’m sure a lot of us can relate to. That noted, when I sat down to write this post, I assumed I wouldn’t find that I had read a lot of nonfiction between last November and now. Just doing a quick scan on Goodreads, however, I found that I’ve read over seventy works of nonfiction. Seventy-seven, assuming I counted correctly.

So right off, that seems like a lot. But the strange thing is, just looking at the titles, relatively few of these left any lasting impact. I remember the covers, I definitely remember cracking open the spines, and that’s about it.

Part of this is because I read a lot of political books—far more than any sensible person should. If a book focuses on a scandal or a moment in the news that ultimately has a bookstore shelf life of about a week, then I definitely want to read it. Questionable research? Awkward conclusions? Blatant lies? Those comprise a solid chunk of my bookshelf and, this year, my brain rewarded me by blocking any memory of some of them. Thanks, brain!

When I wasn’t abusing what cells I have up there, my reading habits look close to what they are in quieter years. Lots of food and lots of books that skew a little offbeat. Bugs, bears, and big personalities? All led to some great reading.

Below is a list of titles that I really, really loved this past year. Books I can actually remember reading. What a concept. If any of these remind you of a book you’ve enjoyed, feel free to recommend it. I’m always on the lookout for good nonfiction, and that’s definitely the biggest reason why I’m participating in Nonfiction November … even if I am a week behind.

BECOMING DUCHESS GOLDBLATT: A MEMOIR by Anonymous

Duchess Goldblatt is a blip of optimism on the hellscape known as Twitter, yet the author’s real backstory is far less rosy than her fictional life. One of the most impactful memoirs I have ever read.

My Review | Goodreads

Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey by Mark Dery

Finally, Edward Gorey has a wickedly whimsical biography to match the man himself. Mark Dery has done a remarkable job of peeling back the Edwardian veneer to find out what made him—and his eccentric work—so indisputably Gorey.

Goodreads

Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson

I’m not the type of person who’s instinctually afraid of insects, though I have to admit I never gave them nearly as much thought as author Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson rightly suggests they deserve. Fascinating and funny, Buzz, Sting, Bite explains exactly why these little creatures are so important to our very existence.

Goodreads

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl

Ruth Reichl knows food. And while I could read an entire book describing her favorite dishes, this one explores her former weird and wonderous life as a critic. It’s as funny as it hunger-inducing.

Goodreads

Hats In The Ring: Conversations with Presidential Candidates by Brad Koplinski

One of the few political books I read this year that actually stuck with me. A series of interviews with former presidential candidates, it offers up their personal recollections of running for office. If you’ve ever wondered why someone would run for an office that they have zero chance of winning, this is the book for you.

Goodreads

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin

This book came from a wonderful recommendation from Rennie. A collection of essays exploring the wonderous world that is the kitchen, Home Cooking might have been written over thirty years ago, but it’s as fresh as baking bread.

Goodreads

THE HOT ZONE by Richard Preston

Richard Preston might be one of the best horror writers working today … and it’s all true. The Hot Zone, which details viral hemorrhagic fevers like ebolavirus, might not make for the best read in the middle of a global pandemic, but there’s no denying it’s scary good.

Goodreads

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

What do you get when you cross a libertarian utopia, a mass of bears, and local populace caught in the middle? You’ll just have to read the book to find out.

My Review | Goodreads

May the Lord in His Mercy Be Kind to Belfast by Tony Parker

I’ve spent a lot of time this year reading books that focus on Northern Ireland. As a piece of journalism, this is a remarkable look at the region from an outsider looking in.

Goodreads

The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South by John T. Edge

Food books always find their way to the top of my reading list—especially food history. For a look at Southern cooking, its evolution, and impact, there are few that can compare to The Potlikker Papers.

Goodreads

Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith by Timothy Beal

I’m a big fan of roadside attractions and oddities, so a book that mixes that idea along with American religion? Yeah, this was easy for me to pick up. Timothy Beal packing his family into a motorhome and driving across the country to visit places like the World’s Largest Ten Commandments and the Precious Moments Chapel is just as entertaining as it sounds.

Goodreads

Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch by Alexandra Jacobs

There will never be another performer quite like Elaine Stritch, but this book comes close to matching her energy. Funy and sharp, it’s a brilliant celebration of her life.

My Review | Goodreads

15 thoughts on “Politics, Food, and the Offbeat: My Nonfiction Year in Review

  1. Christopher, I don’t even know how you find SO many fascinating books on such varied topics but seriously, I’m in awe. And don’t even worry about being late. I’m so happy you’re taking part because your recommendations are always superb. And ugh, the political books…I find a lot of them forgettable too, but I’ve also felt like knowing more was the best way to counter anxiety this year. Here’s hoping things start looking up soon!

    The food books! I was surprised when I went back through my reads this year that I’ve read hardly any food stuff, and DNFed more than I finished! I guess it was my attention span, and being anxious/worried, and instead of being calming like I thought they’d be I just couldn’t concentrate? I want to get back to reading more in foodie lit though. I’m so glad you liked Home Cooking. I can’t say enough good things about it. I feel such an affinity to her. PS – there’s a second part to it, More Home Cooking, that’s just as delightful! And Ruth Reichl is a treasure. I haven’t read Garlic and Sapphires and for some reason was less enthusiastic about it, but you’re making me reconsider. And The Potlikker Papers sounds fascinating! Anything about Southern food ticks the boxes for me.

    I’m intrigued by A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear (what even…) and Roadside Religion!! So, fun fact, if that ark on the cover is the same one I think it is (are there multiple sites where this is happening? I wouldn’t be surprised) then it’s in the county where I grew up. It’s been that way as long as I can remember and I’m curious about the story behind it. Even as a kid driving by I was like “what exactly is the problem here?” It was just so odd. I’m hesitant about picking up books about the American approach to religion because they can be intense, but it is a part of the culture I’m very interested in (and a bit terrified of). I think I need to read that one though, because I also share your appreciation for roadside attractions.

    So glad you enjoyed The Hot Zone too. I finally read The Demon in the Freezer a few weeks ago! (Again, why do we do this to ourselves during a pandemic?) It may have helped my mindset a bit though, I felt like well, there are worse things that could be happening.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s high praise coming from you! At this point, I just assume you know every nonfiction book in existence. And that’s such a good point about using political books to counter anxiety. There’s some comfort in knowing plenty of other people are as stressed about all of this as I usually am…

      Seriously, what is it about this year? I kept thinking I’d want to escape into a good book, but there were definitely stretches where that was the last thing on my mind. My DNF pile is wild. But Home Cooking! Thank you so much again for putting that on my radar. Colwin’s words—even coming thirty years after they were published—were so reassuring. She might have been talking potatoes or fish, but her writing was immensely comforting. I definitely cannot wait to get around to More Home Cooking. I think you’ll definitely enjoy both The Potlikker Papers and Garlic and Sapphires. I was hesitant about the latter, but it has just as much heart as Save Me the Plums.

      Okay, this is too funny! The ark on the cover of Roadside Religion is the one in Maryland and it’s part of the reason I picked the book up. When I first moved to DC, I drove past it and really didn’t think anything of it because I’m from the Bible Belt. We’ve got random arks everywhere. But then, years later, when I was moving again, I drove past and had the exact same response you did. What the heck is the problem? Anyway, I kind of forgot about it until I saw this book, which was published in 2005. It absolutely blows my mind that this thing has been sitting there, barely finished all this time. The author goes into some good detail about it and, honestly, there’s an argument to be made that this ark is the most ‘normal’ story featured. I can totally understand being hesitant to picking up American religious books because of the usual intensity, but Timothy Beal has such a light touch. He basically shoved his family into a motor home so they could tour the U.S., so there’s a pretty funny travel aspect that tones down some of the more intense stuff.

      Seriously, why do we keep doing this? I mean, on the one hand, I’m glad we’ve finally read both of these books that we’ve talked about for a while … on the other, we really went for the worst possible pandemic reads.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am just so thrilled I could introduce you to Home Cooking! It’s such a heartwarming little piece of magic book. I agree, it was so reassuring and felt timeless. I connected with her in a weird way too, we ended up having so many odd little details in common — the tiny NYC apartment with crumbling bathroom, a period of obsession with cooking eggplant, it was so bizarre! And I loved that she could write about food but make it about so much more. It’s what the very best food writing is to me.

        That’s TOO funny that you’ve driven by it and wondered about it! I’m actually excited now to find out the story behind it. We always joked about it living there, but no one even actually knew what the situation was or why it’s unfinished. I’m kind of amazed by it, honestly. That’s good to know that the book is lighter too. Maybe I need that after what we’ve put ourselves through this year!

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  2. Good list. I’ve had Home Cooking on my TBR for about 10 years. SInce obsessing on Milkman I’ve wanted to read everything on Northern Ireland [I studied in ’81 for aa semester as an undergrad) so that book will likely go on my TBR. Pol Likker brings to mind the book I just finished–Food for a Young Land. Very, very interesting list of titles. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is an intriguing list. I am not anxious to look back over this year, but I am not convinced that the craziness will have disappeared with the changing of the calendar. I thank God that we have books to read–fiction, nonfiction. We’ll get through this with style and grace…and books!

    Liked by 1 person

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