I read 48 non-fiction books in 2018. These were my favorites…
11. A River in the Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa
Half-Korean, half-Japanese, Masaji Ishikawa has spent his whole life feeling like a man without a country. This feeling only deepened when his family moved from Japan to North Korea when Ishikawa was just thirteen years old, and unwittingly became members of the lowest social caste. His father, himself a Korean national, was lured to the new Communist country by promises of abundant work, education for his children, and a higher station in society. But the reality of their new life was far from utopian.
In this memoir translated from the original Japanese, Ishikawa candidly recounts his tumultuous upbringing and the brutal thirty-six years he spent living under a crushing totalitarian regime, as well as the challenges he faced repatriating to Japan after barely escaping North Korea with his life. A River in Darkness is not only a shocking portrait of life inside the country but a testament to the dignity—and indomitable nature—of the human spirit.
10. Miss Ex-Yugoslavia by Sofia Stefanovic
A funny, dark, and tender memoir about the immigrant experience and life as a perpetual fish-out-of-water, from the acclaimed Serbian-Australian storyteller.
Sofija Stefanovic makes the first of many awkward entrances in 1982, when she is born in Belgrade, the capital of socialist Yugoslavia. The circumstances of her birth (a blackout, gasoline shortages, bickering parents) don’t exactly get her off to a running start. While around her, ethnic tensions are stoked by totalitarian leaders with violent agendas, Stefanovic’s early life is filled with Yugo rock, inadvisable crushes, and the quirky ups and downs of life in a socialist state.
As the political situation grows more dire, the Stefanovics travel back and forth between faraway, peaceful Australia, where they can’t seem to fit in, and their turbulent homeland, which they can’t seem to shake. Meanwhile, Yugoslavia collapses into the bloodiest European conflict in recent history.
Featuring warlords and beauty queens, tiger cubs and Baby-Sitters Clubs, Sofija Stefanovic’s memoir is a window to a complicated culture that she both cherishes and resents. Revealing war and immigration from the crucial viewpoint of women and children, Stefanovic chronicles her own coming-of-age, both as a woman and as an artist who yearns to take control of her own story. Refreshingly candid, poignant, and illuminating, Miss Ex-Yugoslavia introduces a vital new voice to the immigrant narrative.
9. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area.
Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist who created the popular website TrueCrimeDiary.com, was determined to find the violent psychopath she called “the Golden State Killer.” Michelle pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was.
At the time of the crimes, the Golden State Killer was between the ages of eighteen and thirty, Caucasian, and athletic—capable of vaulting tall fences. He always wore a mask. After choosing a victim—he favored suburban couples—he often entered their home when no one was there, studying family pictures, mastering the layout. He attacked while they slept, using a flashlight to awaken and blind them. Though they could not recognize him, his victims recalled his voice: a guttural whisper through clenched teeth, abrupt and threatening.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark—the masterpiece McNamara was writing at the time of her sudden death—offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind. It is also a portrait of a woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth. Framed by an introduction by Gillian Flynn and an afterword by her husband, Patton Oswalt, the book was completed by Michelle’s lead researcher and a close colleague. Utterly original and compelling, it is destined to become a true crime classic—and may at last unmask the Golden State Killer.
8. Judas by Astrid Holleeder
Astrid Holleeder is in hiding because she had the courage to write this book. Her brother Willem Holleeder, best known for his involvement in the 1983 kidnapping of the CEO and chairman of Heineken brewing company, is one of the most notorious criminals in contemporary history. For decades, Wim ruled over his family mafia-style, threatening death if any of them betrayed him. Astrid and her sister, Sonja, watched as their brother eliminated anyone who got in his way, and they lived in terror of inciting his rage, unable to protect even their own young children from his violence. Trained as a lawyer, Astrid served as her brother’s unwilling confidante.
Now, she’s turning the tables on him. Charged for his involvement in multiple assassinations, including that of his former partner and brother-in-law, Holleeder is finally on trial for murder, all due to the shocking testimony of his own family.
An international bestseller that has sold more than 500,000 copies in Holland, this stunning, edge-of-your seat memoir chronicles Astrid’s terrifying experience working as a double agent, preserving her brother’s trust just so that she could get enough information to put him away for life. Judas is the intimate account of Astrid’s deeply personal betrayal, set against the backdrop of their haunting family history and the astonishing world of the criminal underground.
7. Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune by Tiffany Watt Smith
You might feel schadenfreude when…
- the boss calls himself “Head of Pubic Services” on an important letter.
- a cool guy swings back on his chair, and it tips over.
- a Celebrity Vegan is caught in the cheese aisle.
- an aggressive driver cuts you off – and then gets pulled over.
- your co-worker heats up fish in the microwave, then gets food poisoning.
- an urban unicyclist almost collides with a parked car.
- someone cuts the line for the ATM – and then it swallows their card.
- your effortlessly attractive friend gets dumped.
We all know the pleasure felt at someone else’s misfortune. The Germans named this furtive delight in another’s failure schadenfreude (from schaden damage, and freude, joy), and it has perplexed philosophers and psychologists for centuries. Why can it be so satisfying to witness another’s distress? And what, if anything, should we do about it?
Schadenfreude illuminates this hidden emotion, inviting readers to reflect on its pleasures, and how we use other people’s miseries to feel better about ourselves. Written in an exploratory, evocative form, it weaves examples from literature, philosophy, film, and music together with personal observation and historical and cultural analysis. And in today’s world of polarized politics, twitter trolls and “sidebars of shame,” it couldn’t be timelier.
Engaging, insightful, and entertaining, Schadenfreude makes the case for thinking afresh about the role this much-maligned emotion plays in our lives — perhaps even embracing it.
6. Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs
A frank, smart and endearing literary memoir of growing up as the daughter of Apple founder Steve Jobs in the rapidly changing Silicon Valley of the tech boom. Born on a farm and named in a field by her parents – artist Chrisann Brennan and Steve Jobs – Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ childhood was marked by two distinct parental figures and a Bay Area on the cusp of the modern tech era. When she was young, Lisa’s father was a mythical figure rarely in her life. As she grew older, her father took an interest in her, ushering her into a new world of mansions, holidays and private schools. His attention was like nothing else, but he could also be cold and inattentive, an outsized critic, unpredictable and cruel. As Lisa and her mother’s fights became extreme during her adolescence, she decided to move in with her father in the hopes that he would become the parent she wanted him to be. Small Fry is Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ poignant story of family, of growing up, and of a childhood spent between two imperfect but extraordinary homes. Scrappy, smart and funny, young Lisa is an unforgettable guide through her parents’ fascinating worlds. As much a portrait of a child’s complex relationship with the adults in her midst – her warm, passionate mother, and her brilliant, distant father – as it is a love letter to California, Small Fry is an enthralling book by an insightful new literary voice.
5. Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy
Beth Macy takes us into the epicenter of America’s twenty-plus year struggle with opioid addiction. From distressed small communities in Central Appalachia to wealthy suburbs; from disparate cities to once-idyllic farm towns; it’s a heartbreaking trajectory that illustrates how this national crisis has persisted for so long and become so firmly entrenched.
Beginning with a single dealer who lands in a small Virginia town and sets about turning high school football stars into heroin overdose statistics, Macy endeavors to answer a grieving mother’s question-why her only son died-and comes away with a harrowing story of greed and need. From the introduction of OxyContin in 1996, Macy parses how America embraced a medical culture where overtreatment with painkillers became the norm. In some of the same distressed communities featured in her bestselling book Factory Man, the unemployed use painkillers both to numb the pain of joblessness and pay their bills, while privileged teens trade pills in cul-de-sacs, and even high school standouts fall prey to prostitution, jail, and death.
Through unsparing, yet deeply human portraits of the families and first responders struggling to ameliorate this epidemic, each facet of the crisis comes into focus. In these politically fragmented times, Beth Macy shows, astonishingly, that the only thing that unites Americans across geographic and class lines is opioid drug abuse. But in a country unable to provide basic healthcare for all, Macy still finds reason to hope-and signs of the spirit and tenacity necessary in those facing addiction to build a better future for themselves and their families.
4. Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found by Gilbert King
In December 1957, the wife of a Florida citrus baron is raped in her home while her husband is away. She claims a “husky Negro” did it, and the sheriff, the infamous racist Willis McCall, does not hesitate to round up a herd of suspects. But within days, McCall turns his sights on Jesse Daniels, a gentle, mentally impaired white nineteen-year-old. Soon Jesse is railroaded up to the state hospital for the insane, and locked away without trial.
But crusading journalist Mabel Norris Reese cannot stop fretting over the case and its baffling outcome. Who was protecting whom, or what? She pursues the story for years, chasing down leads, hitting dead ends, winning unlikely allies. Bit by bit, the unspeakable truths behind a conspiracy that shocked a community into silence begin to surface.
Beneath a Ruthless Sun tells a powerful, page-turning story rooted in the fears that rippled through the South as integration began to take hold, sparking a surge of virulent racism that savaged the vulnerable, debased the powerful, and roils our own times still.
3. Two Sisters: A Father, His Daughters, and Their Journey into the Syrian Jihad by Asne Seierstad
Two Sisters, by the international bestselling author Asne Seierstad, tells the unforgettable story of a family divided by faith. Sadiq and Sara, Somali immigrants raising a family in Norway, one day discover that their teenage daughters Leila and Ayan have vanished–and are en route to Syria to aid the Islamic State. Seierstad’s riveting account traces the sisters’ journey from secular, social democratic Norway to the front lines of the war in Syria, and follows Sadiq’s harrowing attempt to find them.
Employing the same mastery of narrative suspense she brought to The Bookseller of Kabul and One of Us, Seierstad puts the problem of radicalization into painfully human terms, using instant messages and other primary sources to reconstruct a family’s crisis from the inside. Eventually, she takes us into the hellscape of the Syrian civil war, as Sadiq risks his life in pursuit of his daughters, refusing to let them disappear into the maelstrom–even after they marry ISIS fighters. Two Sisters is a relentless thriller and a feat of reporting with profound lessons about belief, extremism, and the meaning of devotion.
2. Robin by Dave Itzkoff
From his rapid-fire stand-up comedy riffs to his breakout role in Mork & Mindy and his Academy Award-winning performance in Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams was a singularly innovative and beloved entertainer. He often came across as a man possessed, holding forth on culture and politics while mixing in personal revelations – all with mercurial, tongue-twisting intensity as he inhabited and shed one character after another with lightning speed.
But as Dave Itzkoff shows in this revelatory biography, Williams’s comic brilliance masked a deep well of conflicting emotions and self-doubt, which he drew upon in his comedy and in celebrated films like Dead Poets Society; Good Morning, Vietnam; The Fisher King; Aladdin; and Mrs. Doubtfire, where he showcased his limitless gift for improvisation to bring to life a wide range of characters. And in Good Will Hunting he gave an intense and controlled performance that revealed the true range of his talent.
Itzkoff also shows how Williams struggled mightily with addiction and depression – topics he discussed openly while performing and during interviews – and with a debilitating condition at the end of his life that affected him in ways his fans never knew. Drawing on more than a hundred original interviews with family, friends, and colleagues, as well as extensive archival research, Robin is a fresh and original look at a man whose work touched so many lives.
1 Educated by Tara Westover
Tara Westover was 17 the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head-for-the-hills bag”. In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged in her father’s junkyard.
Her father forbade hospitals, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education and no one to intervene when one of Tara’s older brothers became violent.
Then, lacking any formal education, Tara began to educate herself. She taught herself enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University, where she studied history, learning for the first time about important world events like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.
Educated is an account of the struggle for self-invention. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty and of the grief that comes with severing the closest of ties. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes and the will to change it.