Monday, December 22, 2014

Top Ten Nonfiction Books I Read in 2014

I'm linking up with The Broke and the Bookish for another Top Ten Tuesday.

Technically this is part two of last week's Top Ten Tuesday theme, naming my top ten books of the year. Last week I shared my top ten fiction of the year; here are my top ten nonfiction picks:

1. The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande
For being such a popular book, this was a nicely focused, concise book with a simple premise: Checklists can help make sure things are done the right way, every time, even in crises or complex situations. Gawande explains how a committee can do extensive research and produce a thorough report — for example, on safety in medicine or transportation — but unless it's condensed into a checklist of specific action steps (following the guidelines he shares), the research is unlikely to be applied, at least not widely or well. This is a quick and engaging read that provides readily applicable lessons regardless of your line of work.

2. Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh
Venkatesh had an opportunity few ethnographic researchers have ever had: he befriended a gang leader and spent several years getting a firsthand look at how the gang operated and interacted with the community in the projects where they lived. He finds many ways in which traditional ideas about gangs and poverty are wrong and reasons why well-intentioned solutions simply don't work. I learned a lot from this book and found it well-written and memorable.

3. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Skloot manages to weave three stories together: The life and death of Henrietta Lacks and her descendants; the ups and downs of scientific research related to Henrietta's cancer cells, which continued to grow and divide indefinitely after her death; and Skloot's own adventures in trying to get the Lacks family to trust her enough to do interviews with them for the book. Her writing is incredibly readable, even when delving into detailed scientific explanations, and the story itself (all three of them) is constantly engaging. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this.

4. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King
King does an amazing job at bringing out into the open the things that white people in the United States and Canada believe about native people but rarely question consciously. He shows how we idealize the "Dead Indian" (the one you see in movies), while ignoring present-day Indians' realities. He provides examples of how seizure of Indian lands isn't just something that happened in the long-ago past. He explains the tricky concept of sovereignty, considers the question of casinos on reservations, and argues that everything comes back to land in the end. This is definitely worth a read.

5. Parent Effectiveness Training by Thomas Gordon
I've mentioned this several times already, as a favorite new author, a book I want to reread, and possibly my favorite book of the year. It is clear, straightforward, and presents a logical framework for identifying which communication methods are most appropriate for different situations with children. At the core of P.E.T.'s ideas is the notion that a child is a person, which does not sound that revolutionary until Gordon illustrates how we treat children different from every other person in our lives. Highly recommended.

6. Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber
Another repeat mention, my favorite book of November. It's probably the most honest Christian book I've ever read, and Bolz-Weber doesn't waste any time trying to fit your mold of what a Christian "should" be. She cuts through the crap and talks about what is at the core of faith, a faith she can't walk away from no matter how much she may dislike its various cultural trappings and expectations. If you're looking for a genuine book on faith and you don't mind a lot of cursing, put this one on your list.

7. Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America by Melissa V. Harris-Perry
An incisive exploration of the stereotypes that affect African American women's identity, both in how others perceive them and how they perceive themselves, and how that impacts the interaction between black women and politics. Harris-Perry does a nice job of outlining the historical prejudices about black women and how those continue to affect perceptions today. I gained a valuable perspective on some historical contexts which I was not very familiar with and a new lens through which to understand media representations of black women and coverage of events involving them.

8. Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi
This is written as a novel, but it's actually the author's own story. Kuroyanagi attended a unique school in Japan in the 1940s where children were encouraged to explore their natural interests and were taught many lessons from everyday experiences. The stories of Totto-chan learning to behave in school and navigate the world of adults reminded me of the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary, though near the end the book tackles serious topics like the death of a classmate and the destruction of the school in the bombing of World War II. I would recommend this book for children and adults alike, whether you're looking for examples of supportive education and parenting or simply want to revisit the innocent time of childhood.

9. "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" by Beverly Daniel Tatum
This was the other book I pegged previously as my favorite book of the year. A fabulous, extremely accessible book that could be titled "Everything you've wondered about race but were afraid to ask," this book seems to be written primarily for a white audience but would probably be helpful for anyone to read. Tatum explains the process of racial identity development, but also delves into important areas like how a white person can think about race and racism without getting weighed down with guilt and anger and how the experience of different racial and ethnic groups is similar and different. I wished I'd picked this up years ago.

10. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
Aslan turned most of what I thought I knew about the New Testament on its head. I've generally viewed Old Testament stories, particularly the early ones, as more symbolical than literal/historical, but I had not previously brought the same scrutiny to the New Testament. I didn't realize that I was taking the New Testament at its word as a historical document until Aslan pointed out all the things that don't match up to known history. Aslan doesn't take a pro or anti stance on faith or Christianity; he just summarizes what historians generally agree upon related to Jesus' life. If you're a person of faith who also takes science and history seriously, it's worth having the historical knowledge Aslan shares in this book.

What are the best nonfiction books you read this year?

You can find more lists of 2014 favorites at Modern Mrs. Darcy!

This post contains Amazon Affiliate links. Thanks for supporting A Cocoon of Books!


  1. I don't think that we read the same kinds of nonfiction books but Zealot looks amazing. I'm definitely going to check that out.

    Great list and Merry Christmas!

  2. Thanks for sharing these. I've read a couple and I'm going to add a couple to my wish list.

    Here's my Top Ten Books I Hope Santa Brings!

  3. I hope you enjoy them!

  4. You should! It shook me up a little bit, but ultimately in a good way.

    Merry Christmas!