I think cheated a little bit, splitting out my favorite memoirs from my favorite nonfiction since technically memoirs are also nonfiction. But, this way I got to highlight even more of my favorite books from the year, and there’s nothing wrong with that, right?
House of Stone by Anthony Shadid
After years of being beaten down working as a foreign correspondent, journalist Anthony Shadid returned to Lebanon to rebuild himself as he rebuilt his ancestor’s ancestral home. In House of Stone, which was published just after Shadid died in Syria from an acute asthma attack, Shadid parallels his story of rebuilding the estate with the story of his family’s long immigration from Lebanon to the United States. This book is one of the more quiet books I read this year, but it was also one of the most beautiful. Shadid lovingly shares a story about history, home, and family that I wanted to re-read the moment I turned the last page.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
When Cheryl Strayed was 26 years old, four years after her mother’s unexpected death and her own personal traumas, she made the remarkably gutsy and foolish decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,663 hiking trail that goes from the Mojave Desert in southern California all the way into Canada. Aside being an utterly crazy story, the thing that made me tear through Wild in less than 24 hours was the way Strayed wrote about her experiences. Given everything that happened in the years between her mother’s death and her decision to walk the PCT, the memoir could have easily turned melodramatic or self-pitying. But Strayed never goes there. There’s a sense of wisdom to her writing and a sense of distance from this experience that let her write about it in an almost serene and matter-of-fact way, even when the experiences she describes are far from that reality. I loved this memoir deeply.
Full Body Burden by Kristen Iversen
Kristen Iversen grew up in a small subdivision just outside of Denver, a neighborhood downwind of a nuclear weapons facility that, years later, would be identified as the most contaminated site in the United States. Neither Iversen nor her family nor her neighbors knew what was produced at Rocky Flats. When asked, Iversen’s mother often guessed cleaning supplies. Besides, Iversen and her family had more important things to worry about —paying the bills, dealing with boys, and surviving their father’s alcohol-induced neglect. As Iversen grew older, her perspective on Rocky Flats shifted, first from blissful ignorance then to skepticism, then to frustration and anger. Full Body Burden is a narrative account both of Iversen’s life growing up in the shadow of Rocky Flats and a history of the weapons plant. It’s a story about idealistic dreamers, inattentive government officials, and criminally negligent corporations that I found alternately fascinating, rage-inducing, funny, and melancholy within a single chapter. This was one of the most important books I read this year.
Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan
Brain on Fire is journalist Susannah Cahalan’s account of the month she lost her mind because of a nearly fatal brain infection. Cahalan reconstructs her month of madness — a month she still cannot remember — using medical records, hospital security video, and a diary her father kept. This is a really scary memoir (especially if you’re creeped out by illness), but it’s nearly impossible to put down.
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns by Mindy Kaling
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? is probably more of a collection of personal essays than memoir, but that’s a relatively meaningless distinction. In this book, Mindy Kaling, a former writer and actress on The Office and current producer and actress on The Mindy Project, writes about her childhood as an awkward Indian kid and her path to Hollywood. Kaling is very funny and although there isn’t a lot of depth to some of the pieces, overall I found this collection delightful.
This is part three of a series of post highlight my favorite books of the year and the books that got away. On Monday I highlighted my favorite fiction and Wednesday I highlighted my favorite nonfiction. After Christmas I’ll share the books I’m most distressed about missing this year.