Wednesday, December 16, 2009

best of 2009: nonfiction

It wasn't a particularly good year for nonfiction; several of these wouldn't have made the cut in a better year. But in my opinion, they're all worth reading, though your mileage may vary. These aren't in order of preference, aside from the book in the #1 slot.

1. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman: This is the story of how the author and her college friend were inspired to visit China by, of all things, an IHOP Pancakes of the World placemat. It was 1986 and the country had been open to international visitors for "roughly ten minutes", but they were determined to have an authentic experience. The trip started off on the wrong foot as they tried to find clean and comfortable lodgings, but they had no idea just how bad things would get. I couldn't put this riveting book down. It may sound like an "ugly American" memoir from my description, but trust me, it's not. (Explaining why would be a spoiler.)

2. Lopsided by Meredith Norton: A candid, irreverent, and at times hysterical memoir about breast cancer. Yes, you read that right. She certainly doesn't downplay the seriousness of her diagnosis and recovery, but she's smart enough to find the black humor in it. As one of the blurbs on the back cover says, "This isn't chicken soup for the soul; it's Tabasco."

3. Love Junkie by Rachel Resnick: A blisteringly honest, sad, and ultimately redemptive account of the author's addiction to terrible relationships.

4. The Guinea Pig Diaries by A.J. Jacobs: A hysterical collection of essays on the author's many experiments, from posing as Shine actor Noah Taylor at the 1997 Oscars to adhering to the Radical Honesty movement, in which you're not supposed to lie about anything, even if it hurts someone else's feelings or gets you into trouble. My favorite was "My Outsourced Life", in which he hired virtual assistants in India to help him with complaints to the Colorado Tourist Board, buying birthday presents for his son...and arguing with his wife.

5. Homer's Odyssey by Gwen Cooper: The author already had two cats, but her vet managed to talk her into adopting a tiny black kitten whose eyes had become so seriously infected that they had to be removed. She named the kitten Homer, and he wound up teaching her a lot about life and love. Even though all of the cats are still alive at the end (I don't consider this a spoiler, since the author blurb mentions that she lives in Manhattan with her husband and the cats), I was crying through most of this book. The chapter where she's trying to get back to her apartment and rescue the cats after 9/11 is especially heartbreaking.

6. Lit by Mary Karr: The author wrote Liars' Club, one of my favorite memoirs of all time, so I was eager to get my hands on this one...and she didn't disappoint. It's about her descent into alcoholism and how it affected her marriage ("If you lie to your husband---even about something so banal as how much you drink---each lie is a brick in a wall going up between you, and when he tells you he loves you, it's deflected away") and her other relationships, from her young son to her troubled mother. Despite her misgivings as an agnostic about their "higher power" philosophy, she turns to AA, but as she becomes sober, she has to face the problems she'd been drinking to forget. Blackly funny, heartbreaking, and uplifting, though not in a saccharine way.

7. I'm Down by Mishna Wolff: The author grew up with a father who believed he was black...which he wasn't. He was determined to make his daughters "black" too by living in a black neighborhood and making them hang out with only black kids. Eventually, at the behest of her mother, she started to go to a white school and became even more confused about her place in the world. Although there are some somber moments, for the most part this book is hysterical. (Sample line: Admiring a friend frying bologna, she writes "She was like Julia Child for the food stamp set.") A surprising number of typos, but it's so fresh and funny that I'm willing to overlook them.

8. Body of Work by Christine Montross: A memoir about the author's experiences dissecting a cadaver during her medical training. In the wrong hands, this could have been revolting, but it's respectful, beautifully written (Montross was a poet before she was a doctor), and full of interesting tidbits. For example, "If an uncomplicated procedure such as a hernia repair or a tubal ligation is scheduled in early July when the new residents have just begun, it is likely that the operating resident will never have done the procedure before in his life."

9. Shelf Discovery by Lizzie Skurnick: Based on the Fine Lines column that runs periodically on Jezebel, this is a series of essays about the books that many of us loved as teenagers. God, reading this brought back so many memories, both about books I reread until their covers fell off (anything by Judy Blume and Laura Ingalls Wilder, Flowers in the Attic) and ones I'd totally forgotten about (The Girl with the Silver Eyes, The Cat Ate My Gymsuit) until I picked this up. If you're a bookworm who grew up in the late 70's or early 80's, I guarantee that you will fucking LOVE this book. There are some glaring typos and a few punctuation/factual errors (My Sweet Audrina didn't come out in 1988!), but I didn't care all that much because this was such a fabulous trip down memory lane for me.

10. It Sucked and Then I Cried by Heather B. Armstrong: A chronicle of the author's pregnancy, struggle with postpartum depression, and experiences with motherhood. For obvious reasons I couldn't relate to a lot of this, but I still enjoyed the hell out of its irreverent humor.