Below I’ve chosen my top 15 nonfiction releases of 2021. This list plus yesterday’s post on fiction and poetry together represent about the top 10% of my year’s reading. In previous years I’ve assigned rankings within best-of lists, but this time I didn’t feel compelled to do so.
The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell: Hoping to reclaim an ancestral connection, Ansell visited the New Forest some 30 times between January 2019 and January 2020, observing the unfolding seasons and the many uncommon and endemic species its miles house. He weaves together his personal story, the shocking history of forced Gypsy relocation into forest compounds starting in the 1920s, and the unfairness of land ownership in Britain. The New Forest is a model of both wildlife-friendly land management and freedom of human access.
On Gallows Down: Place, Protest and Belonging by Nicola Chester: So many layers of history mingle here: from the English Civil War onward, Newbury has been a locus of resistance for centuries. A hymn-like memoir of place as much as of one person’s life, this posits that quiet moments of connection with nature and the rights of ordinary people are worth fighting for. I particularly loved a chapter about how she grounds herself via the literature of the area. She continues a hopeful activist, her lyrical writing a means of defiance.
The Glitter in the Green: In Search of Hummingbirds by Jon Dunn: A wildlife writer and photographer, Dunn travels the length of the Americas, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, to see as many hummingbirds as he can. He provides a thorough survey of the history, science and cultural relevance of this most jewel-like of bird families. He is equally good at describing birds and their habitats and at constructing a charming travelogue out of his sometimes fraught journeys. Passionate and adventurous.
The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart: Engelhart spends time with doctors and patients who are caught up in the assisted dying argument, chiefly in Western Europe and the United States. Each case is given its own long chapter, like an extended magazine profile. The stories are wrenching, but compassionately told. The author explores the nuances of each situation, crafting expert portraits of suffering people and the medical professionals who seek to help them, and adding much in the way of valuable context. A voice of reason and empathy.
Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn: Flyn travels to neglected and derelict places, looking for the traces of human impact and noting how landscapes restore themselves – how life goes on without us. Places like a wasteland where there was once mining, nuclear exclusion zones, the depopulated city of Detroit, and areas that have been altered by natural disasters and conflict. The writing is literary and evocative, at times reminiscent of Peter Matthiessen’s. It’s a nature/travel book with a difference, and the poetic eye helps you to see things anew.
The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster: A Renaissance man as well versed in law and theology as he is in natural history, Foster is obsessed with swifts and ashamed of his own species: for looking down at their feet when they could be watching the skies; for the “pathological tidiness” that leaves birds and other creatures no place to live. He delivers heaps of information on the birds but refuses to stick to a just-the-facts approach. The book quotes frequently from poetry and the prose is full of sharp turns of phrase and whimsy.
Intensive Care by Gavin Francis: Francis, an Edinburgh physician, reflects on “the most intense months I have known in my twenty-year career.” He journeys back through 2020, from the January day when he received a bulletin about a “novel Wuhan coronavirus” to November, when he learned of promising vaccine trials but also a rumored third wave and winter lockdown. An absorbing first-hand account of a medical crisis, it compassionately bridges the gap between experts and laymen. The best Covid chronicle so far.
A Still Life by Josie George: Over a year of lockdowns, many of us became accustomed to spending most of the time at home. But for Josie George, social isolation is nothing new. Chronic illness long ago reduced her territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto George’s quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons. (Reviewed for the TLS.)
The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a human-centered planet by John Green: In essays of about 5–10 pages, Green takes a phenomenon experienced in the modern age, whether miraculous (sunsets, the Lascaux cave paintings, favourite films or songs), regrettable (Staph infections, CNN, our obsession with grass lawns), or just plain weird, and riffs on it, exploring its backstory, cultural manifestations and personal resonance. I found a lot that rang true and a lot that made me laugh, and admired the openness on mental health.
The Book of Difficult Fruit: Arguments for the Tart, Tender, and Unruly by Kate Lebo: I have a soft spot for uncategorizable nonfiction. My expectation was for a food memoir, but while the essays incorporate shards of autobiography and, yes, recipes, they also dive into everything from botany and cultural history to medicinal uses. Occasionally the ‘recipes’ are for non-food items. Health is a recurring element that intersects with eating habits. The A-to-Z format required some creativity and occasions great trivia but also poignant stories.
A Braided Heart: Essays on Writing and Form by Brenda Miller: Miller, a professor of creati.ve writing, delivers a master class on the composition and appreciation of autobiographical essays. In 18 concise pieces, she tracks her development as a writer and discusses the “lyric essay”—a form as old as Seneca that prioritizes imagery over narrative. These innovative and introspective essays, ideal for fans of Anne Fadiman, showcase the interplay of structure and content. (Reviewed for Shelf Awareness.)
Flesh & Blood: Reflections on Infertility, Family, and Creating a Bountiful Life: A Memoir by N. West Moss: In her 50s, Moss needed an exploratory D&C, a cruel flashback to failed pregnancies of her 40s. Soon she faced a total hysterectomy. Here she tenderly traces the before and after of surgery and how she came to terms with childlessness. While she doesn’t shy away from medical details, Moss delves more into emotional effects. The few-page chapters are warm slices of life. She leavens her losses with a sense of humour. (Reviewed for Shelf Awareness.)
These Precious Days: Essays by Ann Patchett: This second collection of thoughtful, sincere autobiographical essays has a melancholy bent – the preoccupation with death and drive to simplify life seem appropriate for Covid times – but also looks back at her young adulthood and key relationships. The long title piece, first published in Harper’s, is about her stranger-than-fiction friendship with Tom Hanks’s assistant; “There Are No Children Here” says everything I’d ever like to say or hear about childlessness. (Full review to come.)
Sanctuary by Emily Rapp Black: A continuation of The Still Point of the Turning World, about the author’s son Ronan, who died of Tay-Sachs disease at age three. In the months surrounding his death, she split from her husband and raced into another relationship that led to her daughter, Charlie. Rapp Black questions the sorts of words she got branded with: “brave,” “resilient.” Sanctuary is full of allusions and flashbacks, threading life’s disparate parts into a chaotic tapestry. It’s measured and wrought, taming fire into light and warmth.
Forecast: A Diary of the Lost Seasons by Joe Shute: Shute probes how the seasons are bound up with memories, conceding the danger of giving in to nostalgia for a gloried past that may never have existed. He provides hard evidence in the form of long-term observations such as temperature data and photo archives. The book deftly recreates its many scenes and conversations, and inserts statistics naturally. It also delicately weaves in a storyline about infertility. Wide-ranging and so relevant.