Ever since I picked up the Dear America series as a kid in my early library-loving-self days, I’ve been fascinated and in awe of learning about other people’s lives. I never imagined that not everyone would have the exact same experience as me, and I am still a little bit shocked by that to this day. I’m constantly looking for stories that will move me, inspire me, shock me and help me to learn and grow my own mind and experiences from outside my tiny, tiny bubble perspective. Here are some of the best nonfiction books of 2018 that helped me gain new perspective throughout the year.
What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte
I think we are all well aware of the current state of politics, and it’s definitely giving a lot of us headaches. So when Hillbilly Elegy was published and became the sole voice of “Trump Country,” it seemed this voice was finally being heard around America. But this one voice (white, cis, male and Ivy League-educated) is not all that encompasses Appalachia and the region. Elizabeth Catte brilliantly points out that Vance’s account is just that – one account – and dives into the rich and complex history behind the Appalachian region in all its diversity and strangeness. This book gives a much-needed perspective on a suddenly highly scrutinized area of the United States.
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
I’m throwing some serious side-eye to anyone who hasn’t heard of this book – it’s been all over, well, everything. Every list, every retailer, every librarian and bookseller is talking about this book, and for good reason. Tara didn’t set foot in a classroom until she was 17 years old, growing up in the mountains of Idaho in a survivalist family preparing for the end of days. Tara’s struggle with finding herself and desire to stay loyal to her family while breaking free is both heart-wrenching and uplifting as she recounts how she discovered her own meaning of home. A book that totally lives up to (and, in my opinion, surpasses) the hype.
Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli
This small but mighty collection is an absolute must for today’s Americans to pick up. Structured around questions the author asks undocumented Latin American children facing deportation from the United States, this account highlights the stark contrast between the revered “American Dream” and the reality that young migrants face as they attempt to flee (out of fear, necessity, or hope) to start a new life, but instead of finding the dream, they find racism and hatred. This should be required reading for the entire country as far as I’m concerned.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark.” This haunting look at the Golden State Killer – the serial rapist and murderer who terrorized California residents for more than a decade – is both fascinating and heartbreaking. McNamara, a true-crime journalism legend, researched this case for years, ultimately passing away before completing her life’s work: this book. Her husband, Patton Oswalt, along with researcher Paul Haynes and journalist Billy Jensen, compiled and collected her works, publishing this posthumously to pay tribute to her incredible sleuthing skills and dedication. In fact, while they were on the tour, the announcement was released that the Golden State Killer was in custody. This is a masterpiece and will be a modern classic in the true-crime space.
Gross Anatomy: Dispatches from the Front (and Back) by Mara Altman
Ladies, this one’s for us! I loved this fun and refreshing look at what the heck our bodies do, exactly, and why it’s fine to be a little gross. The fact that someone was finally saying it’s okay if I don’t reek of glitter and unicorns but could still have femininity was so wonderful. Complete with fun (gross) charts, illustrations and cartoons, this delightful (gross) book helped me feel a little less alone and a little more okay with the weird thing that is keeping this “sack of meat” (as she lovingly puts it) healthy (and gross).
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown
From page one, I had a whole new perspective on things I’ve never had to think about before. When Austin was seven, she learned her parents not only named her Austin after her grandmother, but they believed that the name would give her a better chance at education, employment and would allow her to be perceived differently – all because it’s traditionally a white male name. This account was particularly eye-opening for me, as it targets those who don’t believe they are racist (most of us, I would hope) but illuminates everyday actions, thoughts and occurrences that illustrate just how prominent white privilege is.
Everything Is Horrible and Wonderful: A Tragicomic Memoir of Genius, Heroin, Love and Loss by Stephanie Wittels Wachs
All it took was one harrowing phone call to change Stephanie’s life forever – her younger brother, Harris, had died of a heroin overdose. Harris, most known for his work as a writer on shows like Parks and Recreation, had revealed his addiction to his sister three days before her wedding, and now she suddenly had to cope with the loss of her brother in a very public space (her parents had found out about Harris’s death because of reporters’ calls). This is a striking story that will have you thinking about your siblings and it deals with unexpected grief and all the emotions that come with it. A stunning memoir that should be more widely read.
This title has taken on a whole new meaning with the recent attacks against trans rights and equality, making this book even more important than it already was. Sarah McBride is an activist – the first transgender person to speak at the Democratic National Convention – and an inspiration. But before all that, she was a regular teenager struggling with her identity. Sarah shares her own struggle with coming out, finding her way and navigating her never-ending journey in the fight to be equal and loved. I shed tears more than once during the course of reading this book, which is not only a call to action but a beautiful story of love and loss and finding yourself.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
I can’t be the only one who sings Taylor Swift when I think about this wild ride of a book. Theranos was a huge, multibillion-dollar tech startup company that had an incredible rise and a shocking collapse. The company promised to change the face of the medical industry with a machine that would make blood testing incredibly fast and efficient. Suddenly, it had investors galore and was selling shares so fast it couldn’t keep them on the market. The only problem? That technology didn’t work. For those who typically like fiction and fast-paced books, this one will have you questioning how something like this could possibly happen. This book will have you gasping until the end.
Never Stop Walking: A Memoir of Finding Home Across the World by Christina Rickardsson
I had never heard of this, but it jumped out at me in the library’s “new books” section one day, and I was so glad I happened to see it. Christina was born in Brazil into extreme poverty, and spent the first seven years of her life with her mother and younger brother living in forest caves and begging for food. Even though it was difficult, she felt very loved. Suddenly, she and her brother were put up for adoption, where she gets adopted by extremely caring parents in Sweden. This memoir is a journey through Christina’s life as she struggles to balance the two realities she lived as a child. A different read from what I usually pick up, the story is incredibly immersive and compelling, and you will feel as though Christina is your friend telling you her story.
Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America by Alissa Quart
If you had told me 10 years ago that I would one day be reading non-fiction books about money, my YA-romance-loving self would have scoffed. But here we are, and suddenly, I can’t get enough of these kinds of books. Squeezed in particular called to me because I’m more interested in middle-class lives, as I am (one of the millions) saddled with student loans and just trying to make it work. Between daycare, jobs with decreasing annual raises, education and general grocery payments, this was an illuminating look at just how much stuff costs. Quart’s journalistic approach allowed for the book to be engaging and thoughtful, through regular families’ experiences, while also being practical, offering small suggestions for the average reader as well as what our country needs to focus on and accomplish in order to stop squeezing our families out.
If You Love Me: A Mother’s Journey Through Her Daughter’s Opioid Addiction by Maureen Cavanagh
We’re all well aware of how much the opioid crisis is affecting the country (another great one on this topic is Dopesick), but for me, the personal accounts are truly the most compelling and heartbreaking. Maureen never thought it would come this close to her, but when she and her ex-husband see needle marks on their daughter’s arms, they are shocked and disheartened. This is an illuminating account of how substance-abuse disorder can affect anyone – even people in picturesque, small American towns with loving parents – but it is also a mother-daughter story and a look at the bond between families, and how fighting and struggling may just be the way to save the ones you love the most.