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“Reading is my inhale; writing is my exhale.” ~ Glennon Doyle
I haven’t been writing much lately.
It’s felt like a dry spell. By that, I mean I haven’t been journaling or blogging much.
I do write weekly freelance articles for a Spanish academy blog on assigned topics, like verb conjugation and traditional Costa Rican food. And I spend a lot of time editing other people’s writing, which I nerdily enjoy.
I look back at myself from several years ago. She was a self-starter who wrote voraciously and published several articles a month on Elephant Journal. Back then, I was a part-time schoolteacher. I had a lot to say. Ideas flowed.
Now, I sometimes feel that I’ve lost my voice. It’s a practice not to judge, criticize, and compare my current self to my former self.
You’d think my present freelancing lifestyle would lend itself to more consistent blogging on Elephant, but it hasn’t. Since I launched my freelance writing/editing career a few years ago, I’ve put most of my creative energy into finding and completing paid assignments. I consciously put my own creative writing on the back burner.
But lately, gratefully, I’ve been feeling the pull to write again. I got a new desk last week. Something as simple as creating a dedicated space for an activity can work wonders.
From where I sit, I can see the verdant treetops, the blue lake, and two misty volcanoes. I can see the birds gliding across the big blue sky. I’m living a long-awaited dream, joyfully reading and writing from my perch in this little hillside forest.
All this year, I’ve been reading up a storm, voraciously devouring books, one after the next. Mostly nonfiction. I’ve read about African American history, recent (21st century) history, and a boatload of memoirs.
Here are 12 of the best books I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year. While I do enjoy novels on occasion, this list is exclusively nonfiction.
1. The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson
This gripping masterpiece chronicles the “Great Migration,” a largely untold story of the United States history: the 20th-century migration of black citizens (over the span of six decades) who fled the South in search of a better life in northern and western cities.
Pulitzer-prize-winning Wilkerson spent years interviewing people, and she shares the intimate details of the lives of three African Americans who left the South for New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, respectively.
It’s certainly not an easy read emotionally, but it is a highly recommended one for all conscious citizens of the world.
I also recommend her subsequent book, Caste, in which Wilkerson artfully draws parallels between the caste systems in India, Nazi Germany, and the United States.
2. Hunger, by Roxane Gay
I found this concise memoir to be both stark and moving. Gay’s ultimate teaching is “be yourself.” This book covers her gang rape at age 12, her overeating as a result, and her experience as a morbidly obese, intelligent, bisexual black woman in the United States. Authenticity with a capital A.
3. Permanent Record, by Edward Snowden
Infamous CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed in 2013 that the United States government was secretly pursuing a vast system of mass surveillance with the ability to pry into the private lives of everyone on the planet. In this 2019 memoir, Snowden shares how he helped build this system—and why he was compelled to expose it.
Permanent Record is witty, fascinating, and frank. It’s not only a crucial memoir of our digital age but also a highly readable book that makes you feel like Ed Snowden is a friend. I highly recommend reading it and then watching “Citizenfour,” an Oscar-winning 2014 documentary about Snowden’s monumental leak.
4. Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala
This memoir is a testament to human resilience. In the December 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, the author lost her parents, husband, and two young sons. Only Sonali survived to tell their tale. This is her account of unfathomable tragedy and grief. Her ability to document it alone is amazing, and it also happens to be a profoundly well-written book.
5. Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement, by Albert Woodfox
“Albert Woodfox’s extraordinary life story is both an inspiring triumph of the human spirit and a powerful call for the necessity of prison reform.” ~ Van Jones
6. The Puma Years: A Memoir of Love and Transformation in the Bolivian Jungle, by Laura Coleman
A British backpacker in her 20s goes to Bolivia and falls in love with a puma at a wildlife sanctuary on the edge of the Amazon. It’s a poignant coming-of-age tale against the backdrop of deforestation, forest fires, and wild animal rescue.
7. The Buddhist on Death Row: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place, by David Sheff
Jarvis Jay Masters has been incarcerated in San Quentin prison since the early 80s. He himself is a talented writer and author of a memoir called That Bird Has My Wings. This touching and powerful biography of Masters traces his journey into meditation and Buddhism.
Edward Curtis was a charismatic mountaineer and a famous portrait photographer in Seattle. At age 32, in 1900, he gave it all up and spent the next 30 years documenting the Native American tribes before their old ways disappeared.
He photographed over 80 North American tribes. Curtis ultimately created 40,000 photographs and 10,000 audio recordings—and made the first narrative documentary film.
Did you know that FDR died suddenly in April 1945 at the height of World War II? Harry Truman had been an obscure vice president for less than three months when he suddenly took on the most powerful job in the world.
This historical nonfiction book flows as the author shares the details of Truman’s monumental first four months in the White House, including his negotiations with Stalin and Churchill and his decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan.
10. A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown, by Julie Scheeres
Jonestown and “drinking the kool-aid” has become part of the American vernacular since the infamous mass suicide/murder of nearly 1,000 individuals who were part of Jim Jones’ radical “church” community.
This is the story behind how Jones got started with his whacked-out ministry in the 50s and how it all culminated in tragedy in the late 70s in a remote jungle in South America.
11. Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11, by Mitchell Zuckoff
Leading up to the 20th anniversary of 9/11 a few months ago, I read several books about the event, including oral histories, survivors’ memoirs, and a novel.
Fall and Rise was the best and most comprehensive volume. Former Boston Globe journalist Zuckoff masterfully details the events in the air in the four hijacked airplanes, and on the ground in lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The book provides a thorough account of that shocking, sad day.
A young woman from England named Lucie who was working in Tokyo in the summer of 2000 disappeared without a trace, and months later her dismembered remains were discovered in a seaside cave.
Richard Lloyd Parry covered Lucie’s disappearance, the massive search for her, and the lengthy murder trial. It delves into Japan’s legal system, which is quite different from what we’re used to in the States. Parry takes a deep and chilling dive into the mind of the murderer.
>> The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
>> Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe
>> Breaking the Spell, by Jane Stork
>> On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong
>> The Same Kind of Different as Me, by Ron Hall and Denver Moore
Have you read any of them? What books have you read lately that you’d recommend? If inspired, please leave a comment with your favorite title or three.