Non-fiction recommendations

My 2012 resolution was to read more non-fiction, which I’ve been very successful at. I’ve aimed to read one a month and overal I’ve probably managed to average that. I’ve had a few people ask me for recs so here are the top non-fiction books I’ve read over the past two years.

Game Change (Heilemann/Halperin)

A really interesting look at the 2008 US elections. While I’m not usually that interested in US politics beyond facepalming and feeling sympathy for people who live there, this was well written, well researched and the authors created a narrative that made it a fast-paced and engaging read.

Nothing to Envy (Barbara Demick)

The story of six people who escaped North Korea, from their childhoods as true believers, to what motivated them to leave and how they got out – and how they adjusted to a world that had sped rapidly forward as North Korea remained the same. Highly recommended.

The Black Count (Tom Reiss)

One of the top books on this list, and one of the first I recommend to people who usually read fiction because it has a strong narrative and a lot of emotional impact. It follows Alexander Dumas (father to the author) from his birth in what is now Haiti, to becoming a succesfull soldier and eventually general fighting along side Napoleon. A fascinating look at an age that gets a lot of attention but from an angle I wasn’t familiar with.

Sex at Dawn (Jetha/Ryan)

An investigation into the sex lives of early humans. Looking at what we can tell from biology, current hunter-gatherer societies, and close ape relatives, the authors discuss the “Monogamy Myth” and how it’s created unrealistic expectations and unhappy partnerships.

The Etymologicon (Mark Forsyth)

Another top pick from this list, especially for word geeks. Starting, appropriately, with the word “book” Forsyth works his way from word to word, history to history and language to language. My favourite was tautological place names in England, where each new group doesn’t recognize the word from the earlier group so you get places like Torpenhow Hill, which actually means “Hillhillhill Hill” in Brythonic, Norse and English.

Delusions of Gender (Cordelia Fine)

Gender is a social construct. Don’t believe me? Read this book. There are no gender differences that have been consistently measured in circumstances that account for socialized differences. Also, it’s really useful to read this if you ever debate “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” type gender binary believers.

Lost at Sea (Jon Ronson)

This is a really good one if you want something you can pick up and put down in between other reads. All shorter journalism pieces, from The Insane Clown Posse to the too-easy debt that lead to the global economic crisis. Solid reproting, a wide range of topics and lots of different lengths so you can jump around the articles without worrying about reading in order.

Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? (Everly Daniel Tatum)

This was actually recommended elsewhere on Tumblr as a way to better understand privilege and racism. It does focus on the USA, but certainly still offers insights into other countries. Because I’m not from the USA, sometimes the things I see there seem ridiculous and I can’t understand how the country got to such a divided point. This offered a lot of history and insight into the patterns at work and gave me a better understanding and empathy for all the groups involved.

Wild (Cheryl Strayed)

I hesitated over adding this to the list even though it was one of my favourite books of 2013 because it’s a memoir, which I sort of think of as semi-non-fiction. However, it was too good to leave off so I’ll leave it to you guys to decide whether you’ll give it a go. It was a beautifully written, emotional ride about grief, independence and taking risks from the writer behind The Rumpus’s Dear Sugar. It made me cry, then I bought it and mailed it to my mother.

The Plutocrats (Chrystia Freeland)

Soon there won’t be any middle class as the gap between rich and poor gets bigger. Which side of the divde will you be on? Freeland (fun fact, she’s also my MP) looks at teh bigger economics at work, and the trends of the last 10 years, plus looking forward. It’s scary and makes me kinda wish I had a private plane.

Incognito (David Eagleman)

I’m really interested in brain structure and the research is just constantly updating what we know and understand about how our own minds work. This was a fairly comprehensive look at some of the more recent research into what we know about the processes that go into how we react and how our senses trick us.

The Elegant Universe (Brian Greene)

So I’m still reading this but it’s a great introduction to string theory and I’ve found it really interesting. It’s a bit slow to read, partly because it doesn’t have a narrative and partly because it is such a high level topic that I have to read it slowly and occasionally reread to really get it, but it’s definitely worth it. I wouldn’t recommend getting it from the library because I had to renew it twice, so it might be one to buy or borrow from a friend.

The Emperor of the Maladies (Siddhartha Muckerjee)

I picked this up on a recommendation from a friend. and definitely didn’t regret it. A great overview of the history of cancer and the attempts at treating it throughout the ages. It gets pretty dark in some places, but it has a lot of hopeful pieces, and the chapters on where we’re at now and where we’re heading is really encouraging and uplifting. Muckerjee does a great job of balancing history with personal stories and the science side. It was a very engaging read, but again a bit of a slower read, partly for the length and partly because of the heavy subject matter.

Hope that gives everyone some ideas. If you have any other great non-fiction suggestions for me, pass them on, I’m always looking for recommendations.

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January 4, 2014 · 3:53 am

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