Saturday, January 1, 2022

The Best Nonfiction of 2021


“Just the facts, ma’am” is a statement often attributed to Sgt. Joe Friday on the 1950s TV series Dragnet. Facts are important, especially in today’s  polarized world. The best nonfiction presents facts with sizzling dialogue, well-described and developed characters, similes and metaphors that make the reader feel the setting and action, and a narrative arc that leads the reader into the events portrayed. Outstanding nonfiction writers document every quotation, observation, and description with notes, recordings, transcripts, and research. They then take those documented facts and weave them into a tale that makes us want to learn why and how things happened. The following books were the best I read in 2021.

The Best Nonfiction of 2021

Becoming Duchess Goldblatt by Anonymous is spectacular and unique. Based on a Twitter account written by an anonymous writer, it reveals how the woman builds her life out of profound disappointment. While it’s the memoir of a fictional woman, it’s primarily a pondering on the meaning of life. It shows how starting over can be beautiful even when painful and heartbreaking. It’s sardonic, sweet, profound, and charming without being trite. Vulnerability personified. It’s quite a testament to the Duchess that her identity has remained a secret this long. We don’t need to know her name, we only need to know what she teaches us about life. “When someone you love dies, you lose them in pieces over time, but you also get them back in pieces: little fragments of memory come rushing back through what they cared about, what brought them joy. If you’re lucky, you get little pieces back for the rest of your life.” GPR/S/SF (2020)

Jaouad, Suleika, Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted, Susan Sontag wrote about the fine line between the “kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick.” When Jaouad was 24, she was diagnosed with advanced leukemia and entered the kingdom of the sick. She tells the story of her treatment followed by her journey across the U.S. to see the people who wrote her when she was ill. This book gorgeously tells what it means to live a full life. I inhaled it and believe everyone will love it. Yes, it’s about her cancer treatment, but more importantly, it’s a book about embracing life. GPR/SF, BC

Breathe, A Letter to My Sons by Imani Perry is scholar Perry’s epistle to her sons in which she lets them know that despite the inevitable perils of being Black young men in America that she wants them to overcome fear and live life fully. Breathe is her demand that all Black children be treated with dignity and kindness. Her words are exquisite and I hope they make some of us white readers go beyond being “silent witnesses” and leave behind our passive acceptance that allows us to reap “silent rewards.” This book is remarkable and Perry is a genius. 
G/SF (2019)

Most Beautiful Thing: The True Story of America’s First All-Black High School Rowing Team by Arshay Cooper is one of the most inspiring memoirs I’ve ever read. When Arshay was fifteen, a crew came to his troubled west-side Chicago high school to recruit kids for a rowing team and Arshay’s life changed. You will adore Arshay and cheer for him and his teammates. Watch the documentary based on the book to see them in action. It’s available on several platforms. Note: Arshay is just as engaging in person and as a speaker. He’s a gem. GPR/SF/SN, BC (2020)

This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing by Jaqueline Winspear is the memoir of the author of the Maisie Dobbs series that showcases her childhood of rural poverty, love, and hard work. It explains why Maisie feels so real and endearing. Read it to feel Winspear’s resilience and to share her life. If you’re considering writing your life story, it would be a fine guide. GPR/SBP/SF (2020)

Three Girls from Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood by Dawn Turner illuminates Chicago’s Bronzeville area where disinvestment and poorly planned and maintained low-income high rises led to worsening inequities in education and opportunities in the 1970s. Turner, an award-winning journalist, whose work in the Chicago Tribune was one of the reasons I kept subscribing, made me feel the pain of loss and the power of forgiveness, resilience, and redemption in this book about second chances and who gets them. Those three girls will live forever in my heart. Powerful writing! Watch or listen to interviews or programs Turner has given since publication. She makes her story come alive. GPR/SF/SN, BC

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