Top non-fiction reads of 2011

Non-fiction recommends
One thing I’ve realized is that I can actually read a lot of crap. When you read as fast as I do, you will look at a book and think, “Hey, I can read that in a couple of hours, and be done.” I realized this when I started reading Steven Tyler’s biography, because I could read it in less time than it took me to listen to the audiobook. This is how I justified reading Rick Springfield’s biography, even though I don’t really care about Rick Springfield. I read a lot of rock biographies and memoirs.
The main theme of my 2011 non-fiction reads was DRUGS. I didn’t really notice this until my mother, who follows me on my, asked why I was reading so many books about drugs. I can trace this back to my teenage fascination with rock music and psychedelia, particularly the Doors. I’ve read a ton of drug literature in my lifetime. Reading about drugs is cheaper and safer than doing them. I can also blame my interest on reading drug literature on an interest in counterculture, and neuroscience. I’m fascinated by the brain, and the science of addiction. There are three drug-related books on my top non-fiction reads.
The secondary theme of my 2011 non-fiction reads was animals. I love animals, and biology and read some great books about animals this year.
I found that it was way easier for me to pick out my non-fiction favourites than my fiction favourites. (Legend * is a 2011 release, CAN means Canadian)
1. Methland by Nick Reding- My training as a journalist influences the way that I read non-fiction. When I’m reading, I often find myself admiring the work of the writer and the way they research. This book was amazing. I read it after many of my online friends raved about it. Reding traces the rise of meth in Midwestern America. He goes into historical detail and looks at the socio-economic conditions that led to the rise of meth. He also follows several people whose lives have been affected by meth use. Excellent journalism and compelling subject matter. I made my dad read this too.

2. Some we love, some we hate, some we eat by Hal Herzog- This book is about our complicated relationship with animals. Herzog looks into farming, and cock fighting. He also investigates animal testing and the pet industry. I didn’t come away from this book with any solutions, but I was intrigued and interested. I’d recommend this to anyone who is interested in the connection between humans and animals.

3. Reality bites back by Jennifer L. Pozner- This book explores reality television and the messages that it is feeding us. They also trace how people’s perceptions are changed after they watch reality television. This book was pretty disturbing and shocking and I learned a fair amount. I learned that there are basically 3 men who are responsible for reality television, and that writers for reality television are non-union and low paid. You can absorb some really gross messages by watching most reality television. (The author is also rather non-judgemental and admits to having a bit of an obsession with Project Runaway.)

4. Cinderella ate my daughter by Peggy Orenstein *- This book should be a must-read for anyone who was a daughter or who is going to raise a daughter. It examines how the princess culture hurts girls, and how they absorb messages from the girly, overly effeminate culture. What’s really interesting about this book is that Orenstein injects herself in the narrative and talks about her own parenting decisions. How many times can a mother resist the siren call of the princess? I found the chapter on the Disney Princesses and the rise of their marketing to be particularly interesting. Orenstein also goes to a child beauty contest and a Miley Cyrus show. She is very dedicated to her research. Girlie-girl culture leads to early expressions of sexuality, higher rates of depression and narcissism. I highly recommend this book, even though it made me worried at some points, and I don’t even have a daughter. I also liked discussing this book with friends who are raising girls.

5. 13 ways to kill your community- by Kelly Clemmer and Doug Griffiths (CAN)- This book was written by Kelly, one of my former bosses. MLA Doug Griffiths talks about how to build a successful community, based on his experiences travelling around and working in rural development. (I can’t remember his exact position, sorry). As someone who has lived in 8 different places and who spends a lot of time in rural communities, I could really relate to this book and identify many of the problems that they talked about. I would recommend this to anyone who works in community or rural development. This book was based on a talk given by Doug Griffiths, expanded into a book.

6. Day of Honey by Annia Ciezadlo* – In this memoir, American journalist, Annia Ciezadlo moves to the Middle East with her Lebanese husband. She lives in Beirut during the civil war and spends time reporting from Baghdad. This book gives the reader a window into the lives of people living in the Middle East. She was able to look at how the average person lives during periods of ferocious violence. Ciezadlo also focusses on the importance of food in Middle Eastern culture and includes numerous recipes. This book made me somewhat obsessed with Lebanese food. This book is packed with a lot of history and information, so it took me a long time to read. However, it was worth it.

7. The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok*- My mom read this book before I did and recommended it to me. She is always happy when she discovers a book before me, and even happier when she reads a book that I will like. The Memory Palace is a memoir about the author’s mother, who was a severe schizophrenic. The author, Mira Bartok, was forced to go into hiding and become estranged from her mother because of her mother’s paranoid behaviour. When her mother is dying, the two become reunited. Bartok has gone through her own memory problems, as she has been in a bad car accident, and has had to rehabilitate herself and try to recover old memories. This is a book about family, reconciliation, mental illness and memory and I cried when I was reading it. This book is multi-layered and should be more popular. It kicks the ass of that best-seller, “The Glass Castle”, which blew chunks.

8. Little Princes by Conor Grennan*- This book tells the story of Conor Grennan and his work to bring Nepalese trafficked children back home. Grennan is just an average dude who decides to volunteer in a Nepalese orphanage. The experience changes his life and he becomes very interested in the plight of trafficked children. I had some knowledge of how child trafficking worked, but this book really explained it to me. I also admired how Grennan talked about his own shortcomings. I read this book while I was at camp, and I was late for supper one night because I was reading. However, the book loving kids at camp understood my plight 😉

9. Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer*- Josh Foer is in fact, Jonathan Safran Foer’s little brother. In this book, Foer probes into memory and competitive memory championships. Apparently there are memory championships where people have to look at lists and recite digits of Pi and such. Foer investigates memory and travels around looking at people with amazing memories and people who have lost their memories. Parts of this book are very scientific, and parts are similar to “Word Wars” (a book about competitive scrabble playing). My dad recommended this book to me, and I’ve already recommended it to two other people, who loved it. This book also talks about the idea of the memory palace, which was featured in two books I read this year.

10. Bossypants by Tina Fey*- This was the only audiobook I “read” this year. I had it on loan from the library when I fell sick with a month long illness. I spent the first few days of my illness listening to this audiobook, which is read by Fey. She talks about her experiences working in comedy, her early childhood and her experiences on SNL and 30 Rock. This was a fun thing to listen to. My only criticism was that I laughed so hard that I made myself cough.

11. Why I am a Buddhist by Stephen T. Asma- This guy and I would totally get along! In this easy to read book, he explores how Buddhism deals with moral issues and why Buddhism makes the most sense to him. This book is funny, personal and truthful and I found it uplifting. He came to Buddhism the same way that I did, and talks about the intersection between Buddhism and science and how Buddhism helps him be a better parent.

12. Drinking, a love story by Caroline Knapp- This is a classic book. Knapp details how she became an alcoholic, why she drank and how she stopped. This is frank, painful and honest. It’s not pretty in any way. My only caution about this book is how alcohol is fetishized at the beginning. I’m not a big drinker, and even I wanted a glass of white wine as I was reading it. Beautiful writing, and full of facts. I learned a lot from reading this.

13. Eating Dirt by Charlotte Gill*(CAN)- This book showed up on a lot of Best of 2011 lists and was nominated for a number of awards. All of this is well deserved. This is Gill’s memoir about treeplanting. She also goes into the history of logging and forestry. I treeplanted for one month in 2004 (I sucked) and have long wondered why no one has written about treeplanting when hundreds of Canadians have planted. Well, Gill has, and her book is great. She really captured the experience and why people plant and what happens when you are planting. Fabulous, beautiful work.

14. Sex, Sin and Zen by Brad Warner- Brad Warner is a Buddhist monk who was in a punk rock band. He also worked on monster movies. I like this dude a lot. In this book, he tries to uncover what Buddhists think about sex, and the Buddhist philosophy of sex. This is a very frank and funny book and I agreed with about 95% of his arguments.

15. The Chemical Carousel by Dirk Hanson- This book is about the science of addiction. I’m not sure why it isn’t more well known. It might be because most people do not like reading words like “serotonin reuptake” and neurotransmitter. Well, I do. I was intrigued to read about the similarities between the depressed brain and the addicted brain. Both of these brains display similar characteristics. Hanson also looks at anti-depressants in this book, which was fascinating for me. I read this book in the airport and on the plane, and probably got some weird looks as a result. If you’re into scientific writing and the science of addiction, this should be required reading. The book also spurred me to read “Understanding Marijuana” because Hanson’s book stresses that we know very, very little about marijuana, even though one third of Americans have tried it and it is the most commonly used drug. There are all kinds of reasons why we haven’t studied marijuana, even though it has been in use for thousands of years and could be used for medicinal purposes. I would recommend parts of that book, but other parts were drier than a cereal box.

16. The Man in Blue Pyjamas by Jalal Barzanji* (CAN)- Jalal was the first writer in exile at the Edmonton Public Library. He’s a writer from Iraq who was imprisoned and who had to flee the country and eventually immigrated to Edmonton. This is a difficult book, because it was hard for me to read about how he was tortured, and I found I had to really concentrate to understand what was happening in Iraq in the 1990s (Hey, I was about 14 when some of this stuff happened. I don’t remember it well) However, this is a brave book and Jalal deserves to be commended and his efforts recognized.

17. The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary by Andrew Westoll* (CAN)- This book was one of the reasons why I was glad I waited until 2012 to make this list. I finished this book on December 23, and it made the list. Westoll, a former primatologist, spends several months volunteering in a chimp sanctuary in Quebec. He gives a biography of the chimps, talks about the people who have dedicated their lives to taking care of chimps and talks about the impacts of animals research on chimps. Many of these chimps are quite ill and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Researchers who have done this kind of research also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as well! I was moved by the portrayal of the chimps and the humans and our similarities and differences. Westoll doesn’t sugarcoat things and he doesn’t try to pretend the chimps are human. I cried at the end of this book.

18. Life itself by Roger Ebert*- I really like Roger Ebert. This book is a collection of his essays. I would recommend some of these essays, and there were some that didn’t interest me at all. Still, I find myself talking about this book a lot. Some of these essays made me cry, others made me laugh out loud. One of the things I love about Roger Ebert is like me, he loves life. He appreciates a good meal, a good book, a good movie, people, beautiful walks, dogs and specific locations. What’s not to love about that?

Non-fiction read that weirded me out the most- Emma Forrest’s “Your voice in my head”. The author has a lot of mental health issues, many of which come out when she breaks up with a boyfriend she refers to as My Gypsy Husband. This man is actually actor Colin Farrell. I’m all for some good neuroticism, but this book took the cake. I learned that dating Colin Farrell is extremely dangerous for your mental health. DO NOT DATE COLIN FARRELL even if he is a good actor.

2 thoughts on “Top non-fiction reads of 2011

  1. Ooooh… thank you so much for bringing Cinderella Ate My Daughter to my attention. I hate the whole princess thing. I mean I REALLY freaking HATE the whole pink and princesses thing. I am surrounded by women trying turn my daughter into a junior-wannabe-princess and are always telling me to “lighten up” and “it’s just for fun”… I almost went straight to Amazon and ordered five copies (Mother, Mother-in-law, sister, sister-in-law, me). Of course they probably wouldn’t read it… So I’ll just have to read it (already requested from the library) and “let ’em have it”.

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