Favorite Nonfiction Reads of 2011

by Kim on December 30, 2011 · 35 comments

Part of this post first appeared on Book Riot on 12/15/11 as part of my Best Books of 2011 recommendation, which you can read here.

Yesterday I posted my short list of favorite fiction reads of 2011The Magicians, Domestic Violets, When She Woke, The Art of Fielding, and The Imperfectionists. Today I’ve got five of my favorite nonfiction reads to share. They’re in no particular order — trying to rank them would have just been too difficult! Thoughts?

This Life is In Your Hands by Melissa Coleman

If there’s one book I’ve gushed about and tried to shove into the hands of just about everyone who asks for a memoir recommendation, it would be This Life is In Your Hands. What impressed me most about this book is the way Coleman was able to build narrative tension into the story even though she reveals the big tragedy of the book in the first chapter. Not every writer can do that, and almost none can do it as elegantly as Coleman does in this book.

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

For as much as North Korea is always in the news, I never realized how much I didn’t know about that country until I read Nothing to Envy. In this book, Demick interviews North Koreans who have defected from the country to get an insider’s look at what life is like in one of the world’s most oppressive regimes. With North Korea back in the news because of Kim Jong-Il’s death, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

I haven’t managed to write my review of this book yet, but suffice it to say I thought The Emperor of All Maladies was a fantastic read. Mukherjee manages to infuse what could be a relatively standard medical history book with the emotional heft that comes from his experiences working with cancer patients as an oncology fellow. This book is a long one, but Mukherjee’s writing is gorgeous and practically makes the pages fly by.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch

I’m willing to bet that anyone who loves to read will find something to love in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair. A chronicle of Sankovitch’s year of reading a book a day, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is a story about loving books that explores what books mean to readers and how we use the greater truths that can be found through the written word to inform our own lives. It’s a lovely read.

Big Girls Don’t Cry by Rebecca Traister

Te 2008 presidential was a fantastically interesting time to pay attention to politics, and Big Girls Don’t Cry is a fantastically interesting look back on that time. As a young, feminist journalist, Traister brings a different perspective to the subject than most other sources. If there’s any one lesson to take from the book, it’s that discussions of sex, race, and politics are — despite years of advancement for women and people of color — still complex and, often, difficult.

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

bermudaonion (Kathy) December 30, 2011 at 8:28 am

I listened to This Life is in Your Hands – it was read by the author, which was a very poor decision. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I’d read the print version.

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Kim January 14, 2012 at 7:00 pm

Awww, that’s too bad. It’s a bummer when the audio production doesn’t do a book justice.

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Lorren December 30, 2011 at 12:04 pm

I LOVE Emperor of All Maladies. I really wish that it had been published earlier in 2010 or that it had been published in 2011 because it got completely ignored by the Indie Lit Awards. I have been seeing a lot about Tolstoy and the Purple Chair lately… going to be reading it I think!

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Kim January 14, 2012 at 7:02 pm

Yeah, it wasn’t published at a great time for the awards. I think Unbroken was another one that fell between the cracks too. I loved Tolstoy so very much when I read it.

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Helen Murdoch December 30, 2011 at 12:23 pm

I recently read Nothing to Envy as well and found it really fascinating! Like you I feel like we hear about North Korea, but I knew hardly anything of the details of life in that country. I felt so clever that I read the book and their leader died only days later… on the cutting edge of what’s “going on” so to speak

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Kim January 14, 2012 at 7:04 pm

I sort of hope King Jong-Il’s death will inspire more people to read the book because it’s just so great.

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Joanna December 30, 2011 at 12:43 pm

I’ve added Nothing to Envy and Tolstoy and the Purple Chair to my list, they sound so interesting.

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Kim January 14, 2012 at 7:05 pm

Awesome! I hope you like them!

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Jennifer December 30, 2011 at 12:53 pm

You always make the best nonfiction recommendations. I will definitely be reading some of these in the near future. I’m just a little bummed I never got around to reading some of these sooner!

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Kim January 14, 2012 at 7:05 pm

Oh thanks, I try, even though there are so many great nonfiction books I never get the chance to read. I hope you get to read some of them soon!

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Meg December 30, 2011 at 2:03 pm

I’ve had my eye on Tolstoy and the Purple Chair for quite some time, and I remember visiting Sankovitch’s blog and learning about she and her sister. It’s definitely on my “must buy” list.

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Kim January 14, 2012 at 7:06 pm

I really think that’s a memoir you’d love Meg. It’s beautifully written, and all of the meditating on books is perfect for a book lover.

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Emma @ Words And Peace December 30, 2011 at 4:16 pm

I enjoyed very much Tolstoy and The Purple Chair, but my top favorite non-fiction for 2011 is… well, you will have to go to my recap to know lol: http://wordsandpeace.com/2011/12/30/year-of-reading-2011/

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Kim January 14, 2012 at 7:06 pm

Now I’m intrigued!

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Natalie ~ the Coffee and a Book Chick December 30, 2011 at 7:16 pm

I really need to read more non-fiction and I think Tolstoy and the Purple Chair might be a good fit!

Have a safe and Happy New Year, Kim!

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Kim January 14, 2012 at 7:07 pm

Absolutely. It’s a memoir, so not especially dense, and also an ode to books, which makes me think it’d be a good starter nonfiction book.

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Maphead December 30, 2011 at 7:45 pm

I soooo wanna read Nothing to Envy ! Considering what’s been going on in North Korea, it would be the perfect book for the times !

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Kim January 14, 2012 at 7:08 pm

You haven’t read that one? You must!

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Stephanie December 30, 2011 at 8:24 pm

I am adding many of these to my list. Thank you, and Happy New Year!

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Kim January 14, 2012 at 7:08 pm

Same to you!

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Trisha December 30, 2011 at 9:04 pm

I haven’t read any of these! This is why I love blogging and bloggers. :)

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Kim January 14, 2012 at 7:09 pm

None of them? I’m sort of surprised by that. If you have to pick one, Tolstoy is probably the most accessible.

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Susan December 30, 2011 at 11:33 pm

I forgot about Tolstoy and The Purple Chair! I’ve been looking at The Emperor of All Maladies, and have it on my to-get list. This is a good list of good non-fiction for this year!

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Kim January 14, 2012 at 7:09 pm

Tolstoy just left me in a happy blur after I finished it. I love reading books that are all about a love of books.

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Andi January 1, 2012 at 9:00 pm

Great choices — several of which I want to read in the new year. I especially enjoyed Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, which I read earlier this year.

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Kim January 14, 2012 at 7:10 pm

Thanks! I had a lot of great nonfiction reads in 2011.

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Christy (A Good Stopping Point) January 2, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Both Nothing to Envy and Emperor of All Maladies are near the top of nonfiction books I’d like to read soon, maybe even this year.

I unfortunately could not get into Melissa Coleman’s book. I just didn’t care for her writing style.

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Kim January 14, 2012 at 7:11 pm

That’s a bummer. I thought her writing was beautiful, but everyone has different tastes.

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Jessica @ Quirky Bookworm January 2, 2012 at 7:58 pm

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is sitting on my desk right now! Hoping to get to it soon. :)

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Kim January 14, 2012 at 7:11 pm

Read it! I loved that one.

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Buried In Print January 9, 2012 at 8:42 pm

I’ve added the Coleman memoir to my list; it sounds like a great fit for my reading taste, and I hadn’t noticed it before, so thanks! (I have Purple Chair kicking around somewhere too. Of course, because it’s about books.)

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Kim January 14, 2012 at 7:12 pm

That was one of my favorites, it hit a lot of the things I love best about memoirs.

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Rebecca Reid January 12, 2012 at 6:52 am

I’ve been interested in THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES but must admit that the size intimidated me. I’m so glad to hear that it was an engaging read that didn’t feel too long!

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Kim January 14, 2012 at 7:13 pm

It is a long book, but once I got into the narrative, it really sped along. There are some great passages in it too.

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