Thursday, December 02, 2010

best of 2010: nonfiction

And now it's time for the best nonfiction books of 2010, at least in my humble opinion. A few notes first:

  • Not all of these were first published in 2010, but that's when I read them.
  • Aside from the first title listed, these are not necessarily in preferential order.
  • As always, your mileage may vary.

NOTE: On December 9th, I changed number 2 from The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker.

1. Everything Is Going to Be Great by Rachel Shukert: After graduating from NYU, the author had an opportunity to visit Europe and perform in a play directed by a famous theater director. She knew upfront that she wouldn't get paid and that she'd have to play a man AND wear a "poop hat", but she didn't want to miss the opportunity. When she told her mom she wanted to go to Europe to find herself, her mother's tart reply was "We've already sent you to Europe twice. If you didn't find yourself then, you're probably not there." But she blithely went anyway, and found herself dealing with everything from the shock of seeing her first uncircumcised penis (she describes the end of a foreskin as looking like "a wrinkly Cheerio, or a hemorrhoid cushion for a dollhouse") to buying a stolen bicycle from a junkie in Amsterdam and suffering karmic consequences almost immediately. I couldn't read this in public because it made me laugh out loud constantly, but there are also a few heartbreaking moments.

2. You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know by Heather Sellers: The author grew up with a paranoid schizophrenic mother and an alcoholic father, so when she got older, she wondered if she might have mental issues of her own. This fear was only compounded when she developed a rare condition called prosopagnosia, which means that she can't recognize faces, even when they belong to someone she knows, like her boyfriend or a coworker. A terrific book, refreshingly devoid of self-pity, and well worth a read.

3. Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro Zombies: A Film Critic's Year-Long Quest to Find the Worst Movie Ever Made by Michael Adams: Make sure to have several empty slots in your Netflix queue before reading this hysterical book, because I guarantee you'll find at least a dozen howlers listed that you'll want to watch immediately.

4. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: The powerful true story of the woman whose cells (called HeLa) survive to this day. She died of cervical cancer in the fifties, and doctors took cells from her body without her family's permission. The cells have been used for everything from developing the polio vaccine to testing the effects of outer space and atom bombs. Medical companies have made tons of money off her cells, but her family can't even afford health insurance. A troubling and brilliant book that raises some very important questions about ethics, race, and science.

5. Rapture Ready! by Daniel Radosh: A wildly entertaining book in which the (Jewish) author explores the lucrative world of Christian pop culture. He visited a Christian retail show and looked at everything from golf balls imprinted with Bible verses to Salvation Challenge, a board game so awful that "the only people I could imagine enjoying [it] were Rod and Todd Flanders". He also went to the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, explored the abstinence movement, and talked to Rob Adonis, the founder of Ultimate Christian Wrestling. Many of these anecdotes are hysterically funny, and often in a snarky way (oh, does he ever rip on Stephen Baldwin), but I thought he was generally fair. (Though ultraconservative Christians would no doubt disagree with me.)

6. People Are Unappealing by Sara Barron: A hysterically funny collection of essays covering everything from the author's stint as an Olive Garden waitress (where on one memorable occasion a customer asked her if a pork dish was vegetarian) to landing a date with her dream guy and discovering his pee fetish.

7. Orange Is the New Black by Piper Kerman: Shortly after graduating from college, the author's girlfriend convinced her to smuggle money for a West African drug lord. Kerman initially enjoyed the excitement, but eventually it got too scary and she stopped doing it. She thought she'd gotten away with it, but years later the police showed up at her door and arrested her. After pleading guilty to a lesser charge, Kerman was sent to federal prison for 13 months. Her experience in prison wasn't nearly as harrowing as you might think; she made friends with several other inmates, and she was never sexually or physically assaulted. But, of course, it wasn't exactly summer camp either. A fascinating look at a place most of us will hopefully never visit, and peppered with black humor and lots of bizarre details, like a prison recipe for cheesecake (ingredients: graham crackers, 4 pats of margarine, Laughing Cow cheese, vanilla pudding, Cremora, and a squeeze bottle of lemon juice) and how to make a dildo using a spork, a maxipad, and a rubber finger cut from a glove. Crafty!

8. I Don't Care About Your Band by Julie Klausner: An uproariously funny book about the author's many disastrous relationships. My favorite parts: when she talks about having a sexual awakening over a Night Court episode she watched during a slumber party ("I had a case of 12-year-old blue clit that an army of Coreys couldn't slake") and the inherent unfairness of girl/girl/guy threesomes. "With the exception of maybe Oskar Schindler, I don't believe there's a man who's ever lived who deserved sex with more than one woman at a time...Isn't it enough that they run society? A guy claiming he's entitled to a three-way with two women is like a chubby kid demanding frosting on his Snickers bar."

9. Role Models by John Waters: The famously filthy filmmaker talks about some of his favorite people, ranging from a lesbian stripper named Zorro to "Manson girl" Leslie Van Houten. As you'd expect, several of the chapters are funny and eye-opening ("blow roasts" HAVE to be an urban legend!), but this book can also be surprisingly poignant.

10. Packing for Mars by Mary Roach: It's a testament to this author that I read a book on outer space just because she wrote it. In her usual informative but funny style, Roach covers topics ranging from the hassles of crapping in space (let's just say the term "fecal popcorn" is used) to the unfair reputation of "astrochimp" Enos as an unrepentant masturbator.