Wednesday, December 21, 2011

my best of 2011--non-fiction

So the truth is that I read way, way less non-fiction than I do fiction. So I've chosen my top five (with one honorable mention) instead of top ten. And I don't tend to read traditional history or biography or anything like that. I'm mostly a memoir kind of girl. So keep that in mind.

A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres
You know that phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid?” Reading Julia Scheeres’ book about the Jonestown Massacre made me realize that one thing many of the residents of Jonestown were not doing in their final hours and minutes was “drinking the Kool-Aid.” So many of them were stuck in Jonestown—physically trapped, blackmailed, and deceived from the very beginning. They were overworked, undernourished, and totally cut off from the world. They weren’t the Jim Jones zombies that history has told us they were.

Scheeres’ account is fascinating and simply heartbreaking. Read her memoir Jesus Land too. You’ll understand why she wrote A Thousand Lives.

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness
by Alexandra Fuller

This is a fantastic follow-up to the story Fuller told in Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight. If Dogs was the story she had to get off her chest, then Cocktail Hour is the story her heart taught her to tell after many years wrestling. She seems to have really wanted to understand what the African experience was for her parents, and she lets them explain it in their own, inimitable style (her mom is hilarious!). She has come to a clearer understanding of what it all meant for them—living through wars, losing children, constantly moving, battling manic depression, all while desperately loving Africa and not feeling at home anywhere else in the world.

Expect more of the voice (so funny & stylish, yet cuts to the bone) you came to love in Dogs, plus the understanding that comes with age and acceptance.

Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson
This is one powerful memoir. Donna Johnson spent her childhood, the sixties and seventies, traveling across the country with her mother and siblings and an evangelist named David Terrell. Her time with the big tent revival varied from the fervor of fellowship and larger than life miracles to hard-scrabble poverty, abandonment, and bitter disappointment.

If you have any experience with evangelicals, good or bad, you’ll understand the push and pull of this memoir. Johnson absolutely nails the desire to believe in something as great and mystical as the power to heal and the truly devastating way that belief can so easily break when hypocrisy and human weakness edge in.

This Life Is In Your Hands by Melissa Coleman
This is a lovely memoir about growing up on a homestead on the coast of Maine in the 70s, just at the beginning of the back to the land movement, out of which grew our modern day concept of organic, self-sustaining farming. Coleman's father is Eliot Coleman, considered by many to be the father of organic gardening. Melissa's early childhood was spent in carefree innocence, running wild with her younger sister Heidi. The magic is broken, however, when Heidi accidentally drowns. This tragedy, coupled with the difficulties of living off the grid, drives her parents apart.

This is not a whiny sob story kind of memoir. I can't emphasize that enough. Melissa writes with empathy and surprising strength about parents who so often chose the cause or their own feelings over her and her siblings. On top of that, this is meticulously researched and a truly fascinating portrait of the times. Stayed with me.

Your Voice In My Head by Emma Forrest
This is a simply heartbreaking memoir about the journey from sickness to health; a story about how that journey isn't always a straight line. Emma Forrest is a young woman, a writer, in NYC dealing with mental illness (cutting, depression, etc.) when she meets the man who will change her life: not a boyfriend or lover, but Dr. R, a gentle but firm therapist who helps her get a grip on life. When he dies suddenly, she most understandably goes off the rails. Her boyfriend throughout the book, who she calls Gypsy Husband, is actually the actor Colin Farrell. Trust me, after you read this book you’ll never look at him the same way again.

In beautiful, incisive writing, Forrest cuts to the core of what it means to want to get better so badly and yet need help to do so. This book could help a lot of women on their journey to wellness.

Honorable Mention:

Blue Nights by Joan Didion
I adored The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion's last book about the death of her husband, in the way that you can love a terribly sad book, and I was eager to read Blue Nights when I heard about it. But it was difficult to love this new book, about the devastating death of her daughter Quintanna. Her writing has the same freshness and emotional depth it has always had. But, and I never say this, part of me thinks I'm too young to fully appreciate Blue Nights. She's so aware of death and aging and how some things go and are gone forever. I think I'm just too young to go there. I think I'll just keep re-reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem to get my Didion fix from now on.

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