2019 will go down in the books as one of the best reading years for me. Not only were there fantastic new releases to discover and celebrate, but there were also quite a few backlist titles that made their way onto my forever favorites list. For the first installment of my 2019 5 Star Reads, I want to focus on Nonfiction. These are the essay collections, memoirs, and true stories that tugged at my heart strings, taught me something, let me explore different places, or helped me walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. These are the nonfiction reads that stood out in a sea of imagined stories and showed that sometimes life is even more unbelievable/strange/heartbreaking than fiction.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coates details his journey from childhood to adulthood as a Black man in America through a letter written to his son. Through his words, he eloquently describes growing up navigating the unspoken language of the streets and trying to understand the violence and oppression against Black bodies. Coates deftly illustrates how the “American Dream” was built on institutionalized racism and that white people are still complicit in upholding that same system. It may be slim and intimately written, but it is powerful and universally important. Toni Morrison herself called this required reading. I truly feel that any review I write would pale in comparison to her words so I will just agree and say “read it.”
Buy it here.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee
As much as the title may suggest so, this is not a how-to for writing. This is a poignant and moving collection of essays about a writer's life. Chee covers a range of topics from his life as a Korean American to Tarot-reading, self exploration, being an activist, writing classes, the HIV/AIDS epidemic and more, but it’s all wrapped up into the craft of writing and what it means to be a writer. Chee details how, as a writer, it can be equally difficult and therapeutic to write about ones own trauma, as he did when he wrote Edinburgh about his own sexual abuse. It’s sharp and insightful, vulnerable and candid. It’s everything a reader would want in an essay collection.
Buy it here.
The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang
Though this is a collection of essays, it flows as easily as a memoir. Wang uses these essays to shed light on the dark corners of mental illness by deftly describing her own experience with Schizophrenia and Lyme disease. She takes a hard look at how the medical field and medical professionals handle mental illness, explaining how its misdiagnosed, not taken seriously at times, and how harmful and complicated forced institutionalization can be. It’s deeply personal and anecdotal but at the same time filled with extensive research and knowledge on the subject. Though there are no easy or clear cut answers found among these pages, it is a necessary narrative about erasing stigmas and opening up a discussion about how we handle and view mental illnesses.
Buy it here.
Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres
Julia Sheeres’ memoir details growing up with her adopted Black brother, David, in a fundamentalist household with a mostly absent father and an overly devout mother. Having moved to the rural midwest, the two are confronted with virulent racism on top of the normal trials and tribulations that teenagers go through. Through a series of what their parents consider “bad decisions,” both teenagers are shipped off to a Christian boarding school in the Dominican Republic. Likened more to a cruel prison system than to a house of worship, the two realize they must use all of their determination and love for each other to make it through.
This memoir still stands out as one of the best I’ve ever read. Something I found so refreshing about Scheeres’ writing is that she presents the story through the eyes of her 16/17 year old self. Not affording herself or the reader the kindness of hindsight. She seamlessly bridges the gap between “adult looking back” and “teenager living through” by baring the misconceptions and ignorances about racism that she herself held as a young adult. She also recounts her story with candor and humor that is surprising considering the heartbreaking contents. It’s one of those memoirs I wish I could personally deliver to everyone I know.
Buy it here.
The Edge of Everyday: Sketches of Schizophrenia by Marin Sandy
Another incredibly important and illuminating nonfiction book about mental illness, this time from the perspective of a family member. Marin Sandy is the daughter and the sister of schizophrenics. She grew up in a family deeply touched and affected by mental illness, yet it wasn’t discussed or brought out into the open. Even as her mother was stolen by a “shapeless thief” and even as her brother followed down that same path, it wasn’t talked about. These vignettes, sometimes fragmented, piece together their heartbreaking stories. It’s a thought-provoking testament to what someone will do to help their family members.
Buy it here.
The Reckonings by Lacy M. Johnson
Lacy M. Johnson was once kidnapped and raped by a man she loved and since then she has been repeatedly asked, “What do you want to happen to him?” In this meditative collection, Johnson explores and expands upon the idea of justice. She takes society’s version of what justice means and expands it to include things that most of us don’t associate with it, such as grace and compassion. She takes the question she’s constantly asked and opens it up to encompass issues like global warming, human consumption, white privilege, feminism, and the prison system. It’s a force of sharp insights and poetic prose and it’s not one that should be passed by.
Buy it here.
Educated by Tara Westover
If you’ve never imagined a memoir could be considered a page turner, I’ve got a memoir for you. In this completely binge-readable memoir, Tara Westover tells her story of growing up with religiously fanatic parents. The kind that don’t believe in doctors or modern medicine, think the public school system is just a way the government controls you, and have a doomsday shelter they keep regularly stocked. Westover didn’t attend school until she was 17. She spent her childhood and teenage years helping her mother create herbal remedies for her midwifery and helping her father sort metal in the junkyard. When she finally attended school, she realized very quickly how much she had missed out on learning when she pointed out a word in a book that she didn’t understand. It was the Holocaust. She’d never learned what that was.
I think one of the most powerful aspects of this memoir is Westover’s own acknowledgement of how flawed our own memories can be when recounting events, particularly traumatic ones. She included notes of how other family members remembered the same event, even noting how their stories shifted and changed over time. It’s not something you come across in memoirs and instead of casting doubt on her story, it just reinforces the heartbreak and trauma she endured.
Buy it here.
So those are my favorite nonfiction books of 2019! I would recommend each and every one of these wholeheartedly. I’d love to know if you’ve already read one of them or if they’ve now made your coveted TBR list. Let me know and happy reading!