Best Non-Fiction of 2017

There was less non-fiction in my 2017 reading list, but so much of it was incredibly inspiring, and I really had trouble coming up with my favourites, although #1 and #2 just blew me away.

1. Les Parisiennes
Anne Sebba
This is a wholly comprehensive look at Parisienne women during WW2. Edith Piaf, for instance, worked with the Germans so she could smuggle identity papers into concentration camps. Other women hid or smuggled Jews, catalogued stolen artwork, worked as spies, and spread resistance notices. Many women, like Colette, tried to ignore the whole thing, while some, like Chanel, thought their best bet was to collaborate. Masterfully researched, the book covers so many people it can sometimes be difficult to follow, but it does astound with the bravery and courage these women exhibited in the face of rape, torture, concentration camps, and death.

2. Hannah’s Dress: Berlin 1904 – 2014
Pascale Hugues
I LOVED the premise of this book, which is not about a dress, but rather a small street and its history. The author, a French ex-pat, researches her street in Berlin, tracking down and telling the stories of some of the many people who lived there, including the descendants of some of the well-to-do Jews (lawyers, doctors) who fled or who were killed by the Nazis. She finds some German families too, with their own tales of woe, and even some recent neighbours (like Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream, who hosted David Bowie in his flat during the 70s). The book falters in the translation, which is clunky in parts, and when Hugues is telling her own story about the present-day changes to the street, she often comes across as weirdly judgmental but this could also be a translation issue. Nonetheless, a really cool book that is worth a read.

3. We Were Feminists Once: From Riotgrrl to Covergirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement
Andi Zeisler
If everything is empowering to women, then nothing is actually empowering. Zeisler looks at the commodification of feminism and how it’s become just another way to sell things to women (while mostly still making us feel bad about ourselves). Read this, think about your choices, and understand both how you’re being marketed to and how to avoid it. Also, is “empowerment” just a pink, glittery, watered-down, inoffensive term for personal “power”? 

4.  Jane Austen – The Secret Radical
Helena Kelly
If your experience of Austen is to look at her books as sweet romance novels, this might be an eye-opener. Under the guise of romance, verging on Gothic, Austen subtly slipped various serious themes into each book, dealing with slavery, primogeniture, enclosure laws, and other current issues of the time. Some of these will whiz over a modern reader’s head, whether because of the context and time frame of the issues or because Austen was making an effort to be intentionally subversive. Kelly does tend to go off on some speculative tangents, such as suggesting that Austen might actually have died of a drug overdose administered by those caring for her, but I will keep this in hand for the next time I read any of Austen’s novels.

5. The Nazi Officer’s Wife
Edith Beer
This true story about a Jew from Vienna who rode out the Holocaust in plain sight, using a friend’s identity papers and married to a member of the Nazi party. A different perspective on the horrors of WW2 that demonstrates how women had to be cunning and resourceful to stay alive.

6. Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley
Charlotte Gordon
Examines the lives and struggles of the creator of Frankenstein and her feminist mother, including their shared fight for acceptance in society and the rights of women. 

7. Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women
Renee Engeln
This is an intense read that covers everything from street harassment to women’s “fat talk” (you know, when one woman talks about how fat she is and others list off their own supposed flabby faults). Englen attacks the problem from a scientific perspective, performing a variety of studies, interviews, and research to create a clear picture of how western society (gender roles, media, traditional expectations) influence how women view themselves. Most importantly, she offers concrete suggestions for actions that can be taken to change our attitudes on how we think about our appearance. Every woman and girl should read this.

8. The Greedy Queen
Annie Gray
Queen Victoria was one of the most interesting characters in history, whether you look at her from the perspective of royalty, parent, or politician. But what about Victoria’s life in food? She certainly did love to eat, as Dr. Annie Gray points out in this detailed work about not just Victoria’s own meals but about how food was procured, prepared, and eaten within the royal palaces during the Victorian era. From corruption and theft to kitchens that often flooded with backed-up sewage, right down to the variance in menus for staff, courtiers and the royal family (the kitchens sometimes needed to turn out thousands of meals per day, most with extensive multi-course menus), Gray covers it all from Victoria’s first meal as Queen to her last. There’s even a collection of recipes for some of Victoria’s favourite dishes.

9. We Are Never Meeting In Real Life
Samantha Irby
This hilarious collection of essays is from the creator of the blog Bitches Gotta Eat, and touches on everything from illness and disability to dating to her (possibly possessed by the devil) cat. Irby is honest and to the point, even in discussing abuse suffered as a child, and always manages to find the humour in things, even when they fill her with panic and anxiety. 

10. Nature Fix
Florence Williams
Hey! Go outside and sit under a tree. Do it regularly to feel better. Williams examines the science and philosophy of being out in nature and it turns out that it’s good for our brains.