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.
I have a soft spot for uncategorizable nonfiction like this. 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. Kate Lebo has a finger in many pies – a figure of speech I use deliberately, as she is primarily a baker (but also a poet) and her three previous books are about pie.
You won’t find any ordinary apples or oranges here. Difficult fruit – “the Tart, Tender, and Unruly,” as the subtitle elaborates – is different: rarer to find, more challenging to process, perhaps harder to love. Instead of bananas and pears, then, you’ll read about the niche (aronia and thimbleberries), the rotten and malodorous (medlars and durian fruit), and the downright inedible (just one: the Osage orange, only suitable for repelling spiders or turning into decorations). These fruits might be foraged on hikes, sent by friends and relatives in other parts of the USA, or sold at Lebo’s local Spokane, Washington farmer’s market. Occasionally the ‘recipes’ are for non-food items, such as a pomegranate face mask or yuzu body oil.
The A-to-Z format required some creativity and occasions great trivia but also poignant stories. J is for juniper berry, a traditional abortifacient, and brings to mind for Lebo the time she went to Denver to accompany a friend to an abortion appointment. N is for the Norton grape, an American variety whose wine is looked down upon compared to European cultivars. Q is for quince, what Eve likely ate in the Garden of Eden; like the first humans in the biblical account, Lebo’s pair of adopted aunts were cast out for their badness. W is for wheat, a reminder of her doomed relationship with a man who strictly avoided gluten; X is for xylitol, whose structure links to her stepdaughter’s belief in the power of crystals.
Health is a recurring element that intersects with eating habits: Lebo has ulcerative colitis, depression and allergies; her grandfather was a pharmacist and her mother is a physical therapist who suffers from migraines and is always trying out different diets. The extent to which a fruit can genuinely promote wellness is a question that is pondered more than once. Whether the main focus is on the foodstuff or the family experience, each piece is carefully researched so as to be authoritative yet conversational. The author is particularly good at describing smells and tastes, which can be so difficult to translate into words:
My first taste of durian was as candy, a beige lozenge with a slight pink blush that my boss at the time dared me to try. … It tasted of strawberries and old garlic. I had to will myself to finish. … My second taste of durian was at dim sum in New York City, visiting a man who would never love me. The durian was stewed, sweetened, and crenellated with flaky dough. … [It] was like peaches laced with onions, and had a richness that made my chest tight. Each bite was a dare. Could I keep going?
A single medlar that has been bletted outdoors through early December can be eaten in three bites. The first taste will be of spiced applesauce. … The second taste, because the medlar has spent long cold weeks on the branch, is sparkling wine. Not a good sparkling wine, but pleasant enough. Slightly explosive-tasting, like certain manufactured candies. Ugly, but what a personality. The third taste is a cold mildew one usually only smells, and generally interprets as a warning not to eat any more. You have now finished the medlar.
Two essays in a row best exemplified the book’s approach for me. The chapter on gooseberries, the cover stars, captures everything I love about them (we have two bushes; this year we turned our haul into a couple of Nigel Slater’s crumble cakes and a batch of gingery jam) and gives tips on preparation plus recipes I could see myself making. “Gooseberries are sour like you’ve arrived before they were ready for company, like they wanted you to see them in a better dress,” Lebo writes. The piece on huckleberries then shares Indigenous (Salish) wisdom about the fruit and notes that in a Spokane McDonald’s you can buy a huckleberry shake.
Over the eight months I spent with this collection – picking it up once in a while to read an essay, or a portion of one – I absorbed a lot of information, as well as some ideas for dishes I might actually try. Most of all, I admired how this book manages to be about everything, which makes sense because food is not just central to our continued survival but also bound up with collective and personal identity, memory, and traditions. Though it started off slightly scattershot for me, it’s ended up being one of my favorite reading experiences of the year.
With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.
I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once (usually 20–30), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. I’ve realized that, of course, synchronicity is really the more apt word, but this branding has stuck. This used to be a quarterly feature, but to keep the lists from getting too unwieldy I’ve shifted to bimonthly.
The following are in roughly chronological order.
- Young people studying An Inspector Calls in Somebody Loves You by Mona Arshi and Heartstoppers, Volume 4 by Alice Oseman.
- China Room (Sunjeev Sahota) was immediately followed by The China Factory (Mary Costello).
- A mention of acorn production being connected to the weather earlier in the year in Light Rains Sometimes Fall by Lev Parikian and Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler.
- The experience of being lost and disoriented in Amsterdam features in Flesh & Blood by N. West Moss and Yearbook by Seth Rogen.
- Reading a book about ravens (A Shadow Above by Joe Shute) and one by a Raven (Fox & I by Catherine Raven) at the same time.
- Speaking of ravens, they’re also mentioned in The Elements by Kat Lister, and the Edgar Allan Poe poem “The Raven” was referred to and/or quoted in both of those books plus 100 Poets by John Carey.
- A trip to Mexico as a way to come to terms with the death of a loved one in This Party’s Dead by Erica Buist (read back in February–March) and The Elements by Kat Lister.
- Reading from two Carcanet Press releases that are Covid-19 diaries and have plague masks on the cover at the same time: Year of Plagues by Fred D’Aguiar and 100 Days by Gabriel Josipovici. (Reviews of both coming up soon.)
- Descriptions of whaling and whale processing and a summary of the Jonah and the Whale story in Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs and The Woodcock by Richard Smyth.
- An Irish short story featuring an elderly mother with dementia AND a particular mention of her slippers in The China Factory by Mary Costello and Blank Pages and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty.
- After having read two whole nature memoirs set in England’s New Forest (Goshawk Summer by James Aldred and The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell), I encountered it again in one chapter of A Shadow Above by Joe Shute.
- Cranford is mentioned in Corduroy by Adrian Bell and Cut Out by Michèle Roberts.
- Kenneth Grahame’s life story and The Wind in the Willows are discussed in On Gallows Down by Nicola Chester and The Elements by Kat Lister.
- Reading two books by a Jenn at the same time: Ghosted by Jenn Ashworth and The Other Mothers by Jenn Berney.
- A metaphor of nature giving a V sign (that’s equivalent to the middle finger for you American readers) in On Gallows Down by Nicola Chester and Light Rains Sometimes Fall by Lev Parikian.
- Quince preserves are mentioned in The Book of Difficult Fruit by Kate Lebo and Light Rains Sometimes Fall by Lev Parikian.
- There’s a gooseberry pie in Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore and The Book of Difficult Fruit by Kate Lebo.
- The ominous taste of herbicide in the throat post-spraying shows up in On Gallows Down by Nicola Chester and Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson.
- People’s rude questioning about gay dads and surrogacy turns up in The Echo Chamber by John Boyne and the DAD anthology from Music.Football.Fatherhood.
- A young woman dresses in unattractive secondhand clothes in The Echo Chamber by John Boyne and Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney.
- A mention of the bounty placed on crop-eating birds in medieval England in Orchard by Benedict Macdonald and Nicholas Gates and A Shadow Above by Joe Shute.
- Hedgerows being decimated, and an account of how mistletoe is spread, in On Gallows Down by Nicola Chester and Orchard by Benedict Macdonald and Nicholas Gates.
- Ukrainian secondary characters in Ghosted by Jenn Ashworth and The Echo Chamber by John Boyne; minor characters named Aidan in the Boyne and Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney.
- Listening to a dual-language presentation and observing that the people who know the original language laugh before the rest of the audience in The Book of Difficult Fruit by Kate Lebo and Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney.
- A character imagines his heart being taken out of his chest in Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica and The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki.
- A younger sister named Nina in Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore and Sex Cult Nun by Faith Jones.
- Adulatory words about George H.W. Bush in The Echo Chamber by John Boyne and Thinking Again by Jan Morris.
- Reading three novels by Australian women at the same time (and it’s rare for me to read even one – availability in the UK can be an issue): Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, The Performance by Claire Thomas, and The Weekend by Charlotte Wood.
- There’s a couple who met as family friends as teenagers and are still (on again, off again) together in Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason and Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney.
- The Performance by Claire Thomas is set during a performance of the Samuel Beckett play Happy Days, which is mentioned in 100 Days by Gabriel Josipovici.
- Human ashes are dumped and a funerary urn refilled with dirt in Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica and Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith.
- Nicholas Royle (whose White Spines I was also reading at the time) turns up on a Zoom session in 100 Days by Gabriel Josipovici.
- Richard Brautigan is mentioned in both The Mystery of Henri Pick by David Foenkinos and White Spines by Nicholas Royle.
- The Wizard of Oz and The Railway Children are part of the plot in The Book Smugglers (Pages & Co., #4) by Anna James and mentioned in Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith.