Monday, April 16, 2018

Top Ten Works of Journalistic Nonfiction

I'm linking up with That Artsy Reader Girl for another Top Ten Tuesday.

This week it's a freebie! I decided to pick a sub-genre that I particularly like and share some of my favorites. It turns out to be quite difficult to parse journalistic nonfiction from closely related sub-genres like histories and social science research, but I did my best. I excluded anything that I thought veered too much into memoir, like Gang Leader for a Day. I think journalistic nonfiction books have more of a tone of a long-form magazine article than any of those other related genres — it's ultimately about the writer devoting time to researching some specific topic, even if they insert themselves into the narrative in some way. Here are ten that I've enjoyed.

1. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
Katherine Boo spent about four years living among the people in a Mumbai slum and recording their lives. This book is the result. It will break your heart and give you no easy answers to walk away with, but I think everyone should read it, especially anyone who thinks getting out of poverty is easily attainable if people would just do X or Y.

2. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
I can't think of another book that so honestly and accessibly deals with the end of life and all that it entails. Gawande takes us from nursing homes to hospitals to show how modern medicine's triumphs in extending life have made it harder and harder for us to accept the true end of life when it approaches. I want to get this into the hands of every medical professional out there, but in the meantime, everyone else ought to read it too.

3. Bonk by Mary Roach
Roach is best known for her first book, Stiff, but my favorite is the first one of hers I read, which is all about the science of sex. It's interesting, hilarious, and informative, which is the best combination in this type of book.

4. 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. The book also raises many important questions about issues still being debated today, particularly around consent, exploitation, and the furthering of medical research.

5. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
I guess this is technically a biography. Oh well. If you haven't already heard of this blockbuster of a book, it's the story of Louis Zamperini, a WWII soldier who survived more than a month adrift in an inflatable life raft and then experienced utter brutality as an unlisted Japanese POW. Hillenbrand is a masterful storyteller who will have you on the edge of your seat through waves of hope and despair as you experience Zamperini's trials along with him.

6. Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
This is a fascinating look at Mormon Fundamentalism and how the early years of Mormonism provided the roots for various fundamentalist beliefs, particularly polygamy and blood atonement. It combines history, true crime, and an investigation of modern-day fundamentalist communities. It's valuable not just for the deep dive into the world of Mormon Fundamentalism but also for the larger truths it points to about faith and the practice of religion in general.

7. The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley
This dips a bit into social psychology, but it's in a larger context of how our disaster preparedness systems need to be adapted to account for human behavior. Ripley manages to strike a necessary balance between frightening and empowering in explaining which parts of our current preparedness practices are helpful and which are not, with the most damning indictments leveled at the leaders and experts who place all their faith in technology and authorities and don't trust the average person well enough to train and equip them.

8. The Working Poor by David Shipler
This is an in-depth look at those who remain in poverty despite being employed, and all of the ways in which the American Dream fails those who looks to its promises. It's comprehensive, in that he looks not just at poor people of color in inner cities but also at poor whites in rural areas; not just at the experience of employees but also at the pressures on employers that create some of the systems that trap workers in low-wage jobs; not just about the ways the labor market fails poor people but at the ways they or their families get trapped into cycles of child abuse and substance abuse.

9. Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder
This also could be considered a biography, but Dr. Paul Farmer's life is worth reading about not so it can inspire you to be him — a man who knows everyone, does everything, and barely sleeps — but so you can understand global health through a different lens than the cost-benefit perspective usually put forward. It raises questions about who we have responsibility for as global citizens, where non-profit organizations should put their efforts, and whether audacious dreams can outlive their charismatic creators.

10. Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild
In this book, Hochschild seeks to explore what she calls the Great Paradox — that the areas of the country most devastated by pollution are also most populated with conservative voters, who vote for candidates supporting deregulation and less oversight. Through interviews with residents of one region in Louisiana, she develops a "deep story" that explains the driving philosophy of the typical Tea Party member and how they see themselves and others in the big picture of America. It's thoughtful, enlightening, and (for me) incredibly frustrating to read, but I found it worth it for gaining a fuller picture of my fellow citizens.

What are your favorite journalistic nonfiction reads?

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

Looking back:
One year ago I was reading: The Bees and The Hate U Give
Five years ago I was reading: Thirteen Reasons Why, Moby-Dick, and American Voices of World War I
Ten years ago I was reading: The Devil Wears Prada

No comments:

Post a Comment