Tuesday, December 11, 2012

best of 2012: nonfiction

It's time for my favorite nonfiction books of 2012!  Just a few notes before I begin:

  • Not all of these were first released in 2012, but that's when I read them.
  • Aside from the first three titles listed, these aren't in preferential order.
  • I just noticed these are all by women, which is a coincidence and not me rejecting the patriarchy or anything like that.
  • And, as always, your mileage may vary.

1. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo:  How's this for an opening sentence:  "Midnight was closing in, the one-legged woman was grievously burned, and the Mumbai police were coming for Abdul and his father."  I was hooked immediately.  This book follows several residents of a Mumbai slum, ranging from a teenage trash picker to a young woman who wants to be the slum's first female college graduate.  It reads like a great novel, and although at times it's distressing, it's almost impossible to put down.

2. Wild by Cheryl Strayed:  Left reeling by her divorce and her mother's death, the author decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail by herself, dealing with rattlesnakes, creepy dudes, and fucked up feet along the way.  It's heartbreaking at times (be warned, if you've lost a parent, some of the chapters will rip you apart), funny at others, and riveting throughout. 

3. Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson:  This memoir covers everything from the author's unconventional upbringing to marriage and motherhood, and Jesus H. Christ is it FUNNY.  One chapter, in which she's home alone with a horrible case of diarrhea and thinks a rapist is passing notes under the door to her (you just kind of have to read the story to understand), had me laughing so hard that tears were streaming down my face.  Good shit, y'all.

4. Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan:  One night, the author was watching TV with her boyfriend when she had a seizure.  Things rapidly deteriorated over the next several weeks as she became paranoid and had hallucinations.  Her doctors were baffled until one neurologist figured out that she had an extremely rare autoimmune disorder that causes the body to attack the brain.  Absolutely fascinating, especially if you're a big fan of memoirs and/or true medical mysteries.

5. Hot Cripple by Hogan Gorman:  The author, an ex-model and aspiring actress, was hit by a car going 40 miles per hour.  She suffered severe injuries, but because she didn't have health insurance, she went into debt and wound up on welfare and food stamps.  To add insult to (major) injury, she had to deal with government workers who just didn't give a shit, a drunken judge, and "friends" who couldn't handle her situation.  Occasionally grating, but it has some darkly funny moments and it's a sobering look at our fucked up health care system.

6. Are You My Guru? by Wendy Shanker:  At the age of 33, the author was enjoying her dream job and her life in Manhattan as a single woman.  Then she was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder called Wegener's granulomatosis, and she decided to try alternative medicine in addition to the more traditional kind.  Shanker doesn't hold back any details---the scene where she gives herself an enema of hot oil and herbs made me both laugh and cringe---and it's filled with both black humor and pathos.

7. Breaking Night by Liz Murray:  The author grew up in poverty with her sister and their drug addicted parents.  She eventually wound up homeless, but despite her rough start in life, she managed to win a scholarship and get into Harvard.  It sounds like a total treaclefest, but it most assuredly isn't.

8. Crazy Enough by Storm Large:  Convinced that she'd turn out like her severely mentally ill mother, the author gorged herself on sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, figuring she might as well live it up while she still could.  Fascinating and often searingly funny.

9. How to Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran:  In candid and often uproarious prose, the author talks about many issues important to women---to wax or not to wax, fashion, love, abortion, childbirth---and shares anecdotes from her own life.  She also has one of the best definitions of feminism I've ever read (though a bit reductive, since men can be feminists too): "So here is the quick way of working out if you're a feminist.  Put your hand in your underpants.  A) Do you have a vagina? and B) Do you want to be in charge of it?  If you said yes to both, then congratulations!  You're a feminist."

10. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed:  Before her memoir Wild made her famous, Strayed wrote an advice column called "Dear Sugar".  This is a collection of some of her most memorable letters and her perfect, beautifully written responses, and let me tell you: have some goddamn tissues handy, because I swear I was misting up every five pages.