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.
Read more here.
Ta-Nehisi Coates£10.99 £10.22
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.”
Alexander Chee£9.99 £9.29
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.
Esme Weijun Wang£9.99 £9.29
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.
Julia Scheeres£12.99 £12.08
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.
Tara Westover£9.99 £9.29
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.