Since it’s “Nonfiction November” I thought I’d spend some time reviewing my favorite nonfiction reads from this year. I’d say that on the whole, 2022 has been a better-than-usual year for nonfiction—basing that statement on nothing other than my personal experience. I feel like this year I broke through a bit of a dry spell and read several phenomenal books. You’ll find them below spanning a number of genres—from history to natural science to memoir to politics to self-improvement.
#1 Tunnel 29
I learned of Tunnel 29: The True Story of an Extraordinary Escape Beneath the Berlin Wall, by Helena Merriman, from one of my favorite bloggers, Rennie at What’s Nonfiction. If you like nonfiction, I highly recommend regular visits to this site. Tunnel 29 was one of her favorite books from 2021. So when I began reading, I already had high expectations. It did not disappoint.
Tunnel 29 reads like a nail-biting thriller only better because it really happened. Merriman thoroughly researched myriad details, giving the reader unsettling insights into life in East Berlin during the 1950s and early ’60s. She also conducted extensive interviews with one of the book’s central characters, Joachim Randolph. A student at the time, Randolph managed to escape from East Berlin, then set his sights on digging a tunnel under the wall, from west to east, so that others could follow.
The risks that he and his co-conspirators took are chilling. Spies roamed on both sides of the wall so even the location of the tunnel’s entrance in West Berlin had to be guarded with the utmost caution. Despite ever-mounting tensions and justifiable paranoia, the team managed to dig a 140-yard tunnel, approximately 1 x 1-yard square. In addition to avoiding detection by the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, they had to deal with flooding, partial collapse, disposal of excavated materials, and much more. The story had me sitting on the edge of my chair.
Merriman did a beautiful job describing the people involved: those working on the tunnel, the citizens in East Berlin that waited for weeks to escape knowing that the plan could be abandoned at any moment, and the messengers with nerves of steel that traveled between the two camps. Complicating matters was a CBS news team that had gotten wind of the project and wanted to film on the night of the escape. If I could only recommend one book from a year in which I have so far read 30, this is it.
#2 A Most Remarkable Creature
I used the free library app, Libby, to listen to A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey, by Jonathan Meiburg. The book is written in the first person. It’s part memoir/travelogue, part bestiary, and part biography of the Victorian naturalist William Henry Hudson. Meiburg narrates the audiobook. Normally, I feel authors are not well-suited to performing a role that professional narrators and actors have spent years polishing. Meiburg, however, does a beautiful job, birdcalls and all. This is a book that I hope to someday return to because it contains so much information but if I do, I’ll go with the audio version again.
I found myself backing up and relistening to sections, not only in order to better retain the material, but also to savor Meiburg’s, and in places Hudson’s, writing. Aside from these two brilliant authors/naturalists, the star of this show is the striated caracara, a species of bird found only in the Falkland Islands and “so insatiably curious that they stole hats, compasses, and other valuables from the crew of [Darwin’s} Beagle“. These bold and opportunistic raptors are the southernmost species of bird on earth and are sadly close to extinction with numbers similar to that of the panda.
Darwin was probably one of the first humans to encounter striated caracaras as there is no evidence that humans lived on the islands prior to his arrival. He spent more ink describing their behaviors than any other species of bird. Darwin was not, however, a fan of the dreary landscape of the Falklands and was eager to leave, hoping to return someday to study them more thoroughly. That never happened and very few scientific researchers have added to our understanding of this highly intelligent species until Meiburg. The caracara’s survival does not look promising but at least A Most Remarkable Creature is making their plight more widely known and if nothing else, leaving us a captivating record of this playful species’ colorful history on our planet.
#3 On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong, is perhaps the most beautifully written memoir I’ve ever read. Published when Vuong was just 29 years old, the book is billed as a novel but it closely follows the author’s life so I’m including it in this post. Vuong had already established himself as an acclaimed poet and essayist before writing this book and his prose reflects his ability to produce images of trauma, survival, and redemption that are both ethereal and penetrating. The book is structured as a letter from a Vietnamese-born American son to his immigrant mother who cannot read. I appreciated the story because it presented me with an existence that, while authentic, was not recognizable. However, it was Vuong’s writing that really blew me away.
There’s little I can write here to give this book the praise that it deserves. I’ve selected a brief excerpt to give you an idea of Vuong’s style.
The large boy took out a key chain and started scraping the paint off my bike. It came off so easily, in rosy sparks. I sat there, watching the concrete fleck with bits of pink as he gashed the key against the bike’s bones. I wanted to cry but did not yet know how to in English. So I did nothing.Ocean Vuong
That was the day I learned how dangerous a color can be. That a boy could be knocked off that shade and made to reckon his trespass. Even if color is nothing but what the light reveals, that nothing has laws, and a boy on a pink bike must learn, above all else, the law of gravity.
#4 A Libertarian Walks into a Bear
For its sheer entertainment value, I give A Libertarian Walks into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate a Town, by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, 10 out of 10. This is the story of a rag-tag band of utopian-seeking Libertarians and their plan to take over the town of Grafton, New Hampshire, and completely eliminate its government. Not surprisingly, the residents of Grafton were leery when hundreds of freedom-loving, gun-toting, rebels came from across the United States to settle in dwellings that were less than traditional for the area: shipping containers, yurts, mobile homes, cabins, and tents. Yet, members of this rural community tolerated their new neighbors surprisingly well.
Little by little, municipal tax revenues were eaten away and so were services that most communities value highly like police and fire protection, road repairs, and a public library. Hongoltz-Hetling interviewed many Grafton residents on both sides of the Libertarian fence. The resulting cast of characters is priceless—far better than what you can find in most works of fiction. Yet, the author seems to treat his subjects with respect, gaining their confidence and sometimes lending them a helping hand.
I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to tell you that gradually, life in Grafton began to go awry. Crime went up while living conditions went down. It turns out that one of the unforeseen consequences of living near a wilderness without a controlled plan for managing food storage or waste disposal is the arrival of bears. With each homestead choosing a different method to deal with these clever scavengers—some feeding the animals, others setting traps, still others hoping to shoot them down—little progress was made in ridding Grafton of a growing and dangerous problem.
In the end, the Libertarian experiment failed miserably, in part because every political ideology, in its purest form, has its flaws. Hongoltz-Hetling covered this story as a freelance journalist for many years before compiling the book. His account isn’t at all preachy or judgemental but if there’s a moral here it’s that utopian societies are trickier than they seem and aren’t going to blossom in a setting where liberty and self-governance are valued above cooperation and the common good.
#5 L’Arabe du Futur 5
Regrettably, L’Arabe du Futur 5: Une jeunesse au Moyen-Orient, 1992-1994, by Riad Sattouf, is the only book in French that I can add to my top 10 nonfiction reads. I’ve written before about this fascinating graphic novel series that follows the author’s life growing up in Libya, Syria, and France. Volume 5 unfolds in Rennes, where the adolescent Riad now lives with his French mother and maternal grandparents. His Syrian father has abducted Riad’s younger brother and fled to Syria. With little hope of recovering her younger son, Riad’s mother struggles to establish a “normal” existence.
Luckily, Riad’s grandparents fill in the missing gaps. Their eternal optimism and support of Riad’s interests and abilities give hope to the struggling teenager. Sattouf is a master at describing the pains of dwelling in the shadows of teenage social circles. Riad perceives himself as an outcast. He’s new to the school and has Arab roots—becoming the target of racist classmates. What’s more, he lives with a persistent fear of hell, instilled while attending Islamic schools as a child. If those early lessons are accurate, he is surely doomed to eternal suffering.
Sattouf’s personal history is in many ways sad and upsetting. Yet, somehow he always manages to inject a steady stream of humor throughout each volume. This series is as rich and illuminating as any auto-biography I’ve ever read and I eagerly look forward to volume 6.
[Volumes 1 through 4, titled Arab of the Future, are available in English.]
#6 Hidden Valley Road
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, by Robert Kolker, is the sobering story of a middle-class American family with 12 children, 6 of whom developed schizophrenia. Over a 20-year period starting in 1945, Don and Mimi Galvin regularly churned out kids, ending with 10 boys and 2 girls. By the mid-1970s, 6 of the boys had been diagnosed as schizophrenic. In an era where little was understood about the disease, therapies ranged from shock treatment to institutionalization to lobotomy. Medical professionals of the day believed that the mother of such offspring was largely to blame for their children’s disorder. So it’s not surprising that most families dealing with a sick loved one tried to keep their struggles hidden.
Through myriad interviews with family members, medical professionals, and people who knew the family, Kolker pieces together the story of what took place behind the front door of the Galvins’ stylish Colorado Springs home. He skillfully interweaves the history of scientific research on schizophrenia into the narrative. Long before geneticists found the DNA markers that signal susceptibility to the illness, the Galvins provided a pivotal case study for showing that schizophrenia might stem from hereditary factors rather than an unhealthy upbringing.
The Galvins’ story is heartbreaking and not a book I’d recommend without warning you of its potential to send the reader into multiple days of sadness. Often stories of hardship end on a high note by showing the reader that moments of quality and joy are still possible, even in the face of soul-crushing adversity. I can’t say this is true of Hidden Valley Road. Even those family members who somehow manage to enter adulthood mentally unscathed and who today lead successful and productive lives were, and remain, profoundly affected by their family’s catastrophic disintegration. If however, you have a keen interest in mental illness, this is an excellent read.
#7 The Grizzly in the Driveway
I guess I was on a bit of a bear tear in 2022 because shortly before reading the Libertarian saga, I finished The Grizzly in the Driveway: The Return of Bears to a Crowded American West, by Robert Chaney. Chaney, an award-winning journalist based in Missoula Montana and avid nature photographer, has been following the grizzly bear’s plight for years and knows of what he speaks. Chaney masterfully shows why the fate of the grizzly lies in human hands. His book interweaves statistics, history, colorful anecdotes, and expert testimony to illustrate how emotional responses to the bear, both fear-ridden and endearing, often influence both pro and anti-grizzly legislation. Chaney doesn’t come down on either side. But he argues that humans should minimally base decisions affecting the survival of the species on legitimate data and known science.
To date, that has not been happening. Those that understand very little about all sides of the grizzly bear issue are directing the future of this magnificent species.
#8 My Losing Season
I came across a copy of My Losing Season: A Memoir, by Pat Conroy, in one of the little library boxes that pepper my community. I haven’t read anything else by the bestselling Conroy but I’ve appreciated several movies based on his books, including Conrack and The Lords of Discipline. The title intrigued me because I generally enjoy stories about sports but who writes about their losing season? Books centered on athletics might include setbacks and struggles but they typically end in triumph. In this case, however, Conroy covers his humbling senior year as a point guard for the Citadel Bulldogs’ undistinguished basketball team.
Before bringing the book home, I pulled up the Goodreads page and read through several reviews. A few mentioned that you don’t have to be a basketball fan to thoroughly enjoy this book. This may be true but I have a feeling that the authors of those reviews were serious basketball fans. Conroy describes a lot of games and after the 5th or 6th, I found myself skimming over subsequent contests, eager to return to the mounting intrigue percolating in many of Conroy’s off-the-court relationships.
Conroy attended the Citadel as an English major. He’d set his sights on becoming an author while still in high school and by the time he was a freshman in college, he was possibly one of the most well-read 18-year-olds our country has ever seen. While this book centers on the seminal season that Conroy considers the most consequential period of his life, it also provides revealing glimpses of Conroy’s entire high school and college trajectory as well as the painful relationships he had with his abusive father and beloved but brow-beaten mother.
Conroy downplays his talent as a basketball player and praises the skills of nearly all of his teammates. Yet, it’s clear that what Conroy lacked in natural talent, he made up for with a nearly maniacal ability to drive himself to the edge of collapse, overpowering more skillful opponents with his unrelenting will to get the ball to any player on his team in a position to sink a shot. That same dynamic plays out in his quest to someday call himself a writer. He idolized American authors such as William Faulkner, Upton Sinclair, Flannery O’Connor, and Tennessee Williams and hoped to one day find himself among their ranks.
In my humble opinion, Conroy doesn’t match the stature of one of these awe-inspiring masters but his writing in My Losing Season mirrors his college basketball career in that most of us would be extremely proud to attain Conroy’s level of proficiency.
#9 The Creative Doer
A longtime friend and perhaps the most creative person I know recommended I read The Creative Doer: A Brave Woman’s Guide from Dreaming to Doing, by Anna Lovind. Lovind addresses head-on women’s propensity for self-doubt and their self-sabotaging need to take care of everyone else before they tend to their own aspirations. During the first 50-pages or so, I found the book a bit formulaic and its conclusions somewhat obvious. But I stuck with it and ended up appreciating much of what it has to offer.
Unlike The Artist’s Way, another popular book aiming to spark the reader’s creativity, the Creative Doer doesn’t impose exercises or a rigorous schedule of tasks to accomplish. Lovind takes a far more laid-back approach, reassuring us that it’s okay, in fact beneficial, to take breaks. Life inevitably gets in the way of our hopes and dreams and we’re allowed to hit pause and resume when our days are less hectic. Instead, many women (myself included) tend to throw up their arms and give up when they find that they can’t match the productivity level of a man who does little outside of his chosen field(s) of interest.
The book tackles a number of similar issues and Lovind’s writing is excellent. In a chapter titled, Share Your Work, Lovind challenges the notion that you shouldn’t show your work to other people unless it meets some imaginary standard that deems it view-worthy. Art, she argues, is useful.
I’m convinced that a society without artists and creators wouldn’t last long. Artists are sanitation workers. We compost the waste of human existence. We gather the left overs, the pain, the questions and the untold stories and turn it into something else, something new. We connect the dots. We are the keepers of our collective memory. Without artists we would lose our way. We would drown in our own dirt.Anna Lovind
What’s not to love about passages like that? If you’re looking for inspiration, validation, or simply a little nudge to get started, check out The Creative Doer.
#10 Off the Edge
If you’ve ever wondered how you might convince a loved one to let go of a strongly-held belief that defies all evidence and logic, the answer is that you probably can’t. As the title suggests, Off the Edge: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything, by Kelly Weill, provides ample evidence that for many in our society, being part of a welcoming community is orders of magnitude more satisfying than trusting in science’s often complex and ever-evolving models of the real world.
Weill takes us inside the Flat Earth community, populated by devoted adherents that come from all segments of society. At the same time, she walks us through the history of the Flat Earth movement. It turns out that people have recognized the earth as spherical since the time of Pythagoras. Modern-day Flat Earth Theory originated in the mid-1800s, with the English writer and provocateur Samuel Rowbotham. Weill follows the series of grifters, arm-twisters, and tyrants who followed in Rowbotham’s footsteps, leading to today’s conspiracy theory celebrities who may not profess to hold the same beliefs, but give Flat Earthers plenty of air time.
As expected, if you’re willing to suspend disbelief in order to adopt a conviction that has no basis in clearly observable reality, you’re likely to swallow a whole host of crackpot ideas. While reading, I oscillated between giddy amusement and sobering concern for mankind’s future. The ad-revenue-generating bots of Social media platforms and YouTube have unwittingly learned that you can keep people online for hours simply by serving up one eyebrow-raising story after another with little regard for the veracity of their messages. Weill’s book is far more than a story about Flat Earthers. Ultimately, it asks us to consider how we rein in an online world that seems to be spinning beyond our control—an important dilemma for our times.