Monday, December 05, 2011

best of 2011: nonfiction

And now it's time for my favorite nonfiction books of 2011. The usual disclaimers apply:

  • Aside from the first book mentioned, these aren't necessarily listed in preferential order.
  • Not all of these were originally published in 2011, but that's when I first read them.
  • As always, your mileage may vary.

1. Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton: When I picked this up at the library and saw the blurb on the cover from Anthony Bourdain claiming it was the "best memoir by a chef EVER", checking it out was a no-brainer. Happily, my BFF didn't steer me wrong, because it was terrific. The passages on cooking, food, and summers in Italy are gorgeous and vibrant, but she also doesn't pull any punches when it comes to the grimier aspects of owning her own restaurant, like cleaning up shit and a dead rat bursting with maggots from the back steps, casual sexism (she writes that any business letter addressed to "Sir" automatically gets dropped on top of her bloody tampon), and trying to juggle her career, troubled marriage, and two small children. Pardon the horrible pun, but if you love cooking memoirs, you'll devour this one.

2. Dirty Secret by Jessie Sholl: A fascinating memoir about the author's relationship with her mother, a compulsive hoarder, and how her mother's disorder affected just about everything else in her life.

3. The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok: After her father abandoned them, the author and her sister lived with their severely schizophrenic mother Norma, their grandmother, and their vicious grandfather. Eventually, after a fight with Norma turned violent, the author and her sister moved away and changed their identities so their mother couldn't find them. But after many years, Bartok learned that her mother was dying, and they were reunited. There are moments of devastating lyrical beauty; for example, when her sister is preparing to leave for college, stranding Bartok with their mother, she writes "How heavy is a dresser when you're the only one pushing it against the door?"

4. Half Baked by Alexa Stevenson: A heartbreaking but often grimly funny memoir about the author's infertility struggle, the loss of one of her twins, and then the health problems of the surviving twin, who was born prematurely.

5. Sometimes I Feel Like a Nut by Jill Kargman: A hilarious collection of essays covering everything from the author's first period ("Cracky Chan enlisted in the red army"), getting criticized at a Mommy & Me meeting for saying "Indian style" instead of "crisscross applesauce" ("It's not like my apartment is full of cigar-store headdress wearers and I'm sitting there in a Redskins jersey greeting people by holding up a palm and saying How"), and her post-pregnancy "Holland Tunnel" vagina.

6. Tiger, Tiger by Margaux Fragoso: When the author was 7 years old, she met a man named Peter at the public pool. He instantly befriended her and her mother, and after a period of careful "grooming", he began to molest her. Margaux's mother was mentally ill and her father prone to violent rages, so Margaux desperately clung to Peter as the only constant in her life. Their relationship lasted until she was 22; the inside flap spoils the reason why it ended, but I won't do so here. It's a powerful, gutwrenching book, but because it's extremely graphic, I must include a trigger warning if you are a sexual abuse survivor.

7. God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales by Penn Jillette: The famous magician talks about atheism and what it means to him, as well as interspersing anecdotes about his career. He's not particularly nice to agnostics; he basically calls us spineless pussies who can't commit. Despite that, I loved this book. He makes some great points, and he's really funny; one chapter in which he visits a gay bathhouse made me laugh so hard I started gasping for breath.

8. Kosher Chinese by Michael Levy: An entertaining and funny (well, mostly; there are a couple of horrifying anecdotes about animal cruelty he witnessed and, to his credit, tried to stop) memoir about the author's stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guiyang, China, where he earned the nickname "Friendship Jew".

9. The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary by Andrew Westoll: The sanctuary of the title was founded by a Canadian woman in order to give former lab chimpanzees a safe place to live out their "retirement". The author, a journalist who had always been interested in primates, volunteered there for several months in order to learn more about the chimps and their heartbreaking pasts. Did I say "heartbreaking"? I meant utterly fucking devastating. Powerful reading, but have some tissues handy. By the end, I was sobbing.

10. Tokyo on Foot by Florent Chavouet: A gorgeously illustrated graphic memoir of the author's time in Japan, including detailed maps of various neighborhoods and sketches of people and things he saw along the way. If you love Japan, this is a must read.