Friday, December 21, 2012

Best Nonfiction Books and Memoirs of 2012

With 9 days left to go in this year, I am prepared to give you my picks for what I consider to be the best nonfiction books I've read in 2012. I am also including memoirs in this list, too.

Note that I said "books I've read," not necessarily books that were published since the last time we did this.

It's a little earlier than usual for this, I know. I typically wait until the clock is striking midnight on New Years Eve to give you my selections (because I know you're all waiting with bated breath). But since next week's schedule is a jam-packed one, I doubt much reading will be done - and I don't think I will get to the nonfiction and memoirs currently in the queue.

Hence, The List.

The links under each title either take you to my review (if I managed to do one; if not, I included a few thoughts about the book) or to the Amazon page where you can learn more, should it interest you.

As the title promises, Collins truly does pack 400 years of American women's history into what is a chunkster of a book. Make no mistake, though: this is no dry textbook. Collins presents a comprehensive and thorough view of American women's history in a way that is incredibly informative, engaging, shocking, and entertaining. At some points, I couldn't put this down.

Beginning with the very first settlers at Jamestown, Collins traces the history and the stories of strong, formidable women through an ever-changing America during the Revolutionary War, slavery, pre-and post-Civil War, the pioneer days, the Gilded Age, the Depression. There are the names from the history books: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Elizabeth Blackwell, Carrie Nation, Annie Oakley, Margaret Sanger and countless others - but whose individual stories and accomplishments we may not have ever quite completely learned or fully remember. (continue reading)

From my review: "It's like going back to the future. It's like reading a mystery novel where you know the clues - and you just want to reach into the pages and stop people and time in their very tracks, to shake them, to warn them about what's ahead. Because we know - the good and the bad. Things are so different now and we know so much now that we didn't know then, especially in the very early days, which are really, really tough to read about."  (continue reading)

Father's Day: A Journey Into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son, by Buzz Bissinger 

This gets my vote for best memoir of the year and it should have gotten more acclaim. Honestly, it's hard to put into words how incredibly powerful Buzz Bissinger's memoir is - which is one of the reasons I didn't do a proper review. (Plus, OK ...I'm a little scared of Buzz.) But goddamn, this guy can write. (I knew that before reading this. I'm from Philly and so is Buzz. I've been a fan of Buzz's writing for many, many years.) 

As wonderfully written as Father's Day is, it is also brutally and seeringly honest. And I, for one, appreciate that.  I'm lobbying hard for The Husband to read it. He's resistant, as he is to any autism-related books, having been burned by a half-assed one in the very early days of Boo's diagnosis.

I should say, Father's Day is probably not one I would recommend for a parent - father or otherwise - who has just gotten word of a child's special needs diagnosis.  The stuff of which Buzz writes comes from a deep place and his accompanying anger is genuine, absolutely true-to-life and completely understandable. I think it's hard to "go there" and understand that if you haven't been there ... and I think a lot of people haven't, in those very early, initial days.  And that's a scary prospect to think of, that there might be even darker days and darker moods to come. I don't know if I could have handled that in the early days, but regardless, I found myself recognizing - and yes, appreciating and understanding - Buzz's anger all too often as I read.

The Middle Place, by Kelly Corrigan

I'm partial to well-written books that are set in one of my favorite cities. I'm not surprised at how much I loved The Middle Place because much of it takes place in my hometown of Philadelphia and a part of the area that I'm very familiar with and very fond thereof. Kelly Corrigan's writing style is also absolutely superb, completely engaging and heartfelt.

But here's the thing. When your father dies suddenly (as mine did, when I was 15), and when you still find yourself at weddings 28 years later bolting for the restroom as a precaution when "Daddy's Little Girl" is played, you don't expect to fall in love with a story of a father-daughter relationship like this one as much as I did.

It's because through words like this, Corrigan makes you remember what it was like, once upon a time.
"He does that for me too. He makes me feel smart, funny, and beautiful, which has become the job of the few men who have loved me since. He told me once that I was a great talker. And so I was. I was a conversationalist, along with creative, a notion he put in my head when I was in grade school and used to make huge, intricate collages from his old magazines. He defined me first, as parents do. Those early characteristics can become the shimmering self-image we embrace or the limited, stifling perception we rail against for a lifetime. In my case, he sees me as I would like to be seen. In fact, I'm not even sure what's true about me, since I have always chosen to believe his version." (pg. 3-4)
And that's just in the prologue, for God sakes. There's more like this - much more (this is the story of Corrigan and her father having cancer at the same time) - throughout The Middle Place. 

Joan Frank gets this writing life in a way that is so authentic and real, and this comes across the pages as easily as if you are sharing several hours - and stories and knowing nods - over a cup of coffee or tea. She is that understanding friend who doesn't tell you how to write but rather commiserates with you about all the ways that being a writer is simultaneously wonderful, exhausting, satisfying, frustrating, freeing, and ever-changing. (continue reading)

I'm planning to do a separate list of my picks for Best Young Adult Books Read this year, Best Fiction Books Read, and of course, my complete recap.

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Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

Wonderful picks Melissa! I actually haven't read any of these, although several are on my wish list. I love Bissinger too, but he is a little scary online :)

Book Dragon said...

I found "The Cat Who Came Back for Christmas" the other day and was wondering if you've read it yet.