2021 – The Non-Fiction Books I Rated 5/5

In 2021, I read 21 non-fiction books. These are the seven that I awarded 5 stars!

Please note, I have tried to keep these reviews as spoiler-free as possible.

1/ Jackie Kay – Red Dust Road: An Autobiographical Journey (2010)
Genres + themes: Memoir, Adoption, Race, Nationality, LGBTQ+, Identity

Jackie Kay is a poet, playwright and novelist who was born in 1961 to a Scottish mother and Nigerian father. Soon after, she was adopted by a white couple living in a suburb of Glasgow. This memoir follows Kay’s 20-year long search for her biological parents, and how these meetings subsequently affected her life and her own impression of herself.

If this sounds familiar to you, you may be thinking of her poetry collection, The Adoption Papers, which won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 1991.

This is a truly personal read and I was astounded by Kay’s level of intimacy and generosity. We see her forced to reconcile the fantasy birth parents she daydreamed about for years with the real flesh and bone. And indeed, they are not what she expected – her mother being a very timid Mormon lady who keeps cancelling their meetings at the last minute, and her father a born-again Christian who prays over her for two hours when they first meet and sees her very existence as the embodiment of his past sins.

In addition to these conversations with her birth parents, we see Kay reconcile with her multitudes of identities (as a Black Scottish woman, an adoptee, a lesbian), bringing together the formative moments that moulded her into the person she is today.

2/ Michael Pollan – Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World (2020)
Genres + Themes: Historical, Science, Food, Health

Michael Pollan is a Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, USA.

This book details the oftentimes surprising importance of caffeine and the many roles it has played throughout history. Did you know, for example, that caffeine is said to have played a role in the Union winning the American Civil War? How? You’ll have to download Caffeine to find out!

I say download because unfortunately, this book is only available as an audiobook as it is an Audible original. It’s a shame too because I would have loved to gift my coffee fanatic mother a physical copy for Christmas!

On the other hand, the audiobook is narrated by Pollan himself, which is a joy because you can hear how excited he is by his research and findings. This is no dry lecture; it’s teaming with interesting facts and stories. It’s also very digestible, being only 2 hours 2 mins long, and does not require any prior knowledge about the subject.

3/ Mikey Walsh – Gypsy Boy (2010) and Gypsy Boy on the Run (2011)
Genres + Themes: Memoir, LGBTQ+, Coming of age, Community, Identity

Cheating slightly here, but you can look at these two books as one book in two parts, as Gyspy Boy on the Run starts where Gypsy Boy ends. There is some crossover between the two however, and both can be read independently as well as one after the other.

Gypsy Boy chronicles Walsh’s upbringing in the Romany community, from birth up until his departure at the age of 15, when he ran away due in part to the physical and sexual abuse he was receiving at the hands of family members and also because of his fear that his community would never accept him for being gay. Gypsy Boy on the Run sees Walsh adapting to life outside of his community whilst hiding from his dad’s men, who have been sent to drag him back home.

Mikey Walsh’s books are difficult reads, but offer great insight. His writing style is incredibly open, honest and raw, and as he has lived both in and outside of the (often misunderstood and mistrusted) Romany community, he is able to examine it from both perspectives. He brings together the highs and lows of his upbringing, celebrating his community and holding onto his identity whilst at the same time holding an unflinching lens up to the harmful parts. It all makes for a deeply personal account.

As an added note – I follow him on Twitter, and I greatly enjoy every time he tweets about his French bulldog, Brian. What a sweetie.

4/ Lindy West – Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman (2016)
Genres + Themes: Memoir, Essay, Feminism, Humour, Body positivity, Journalism

Lindy West is a writer, comedian and activist from the USA, perhaps most famous for being a staff writer for Jezebel, a news site featuring mostly cultural commentary geared towards women. This book comprises a series of essays detailing her life, with somewhat of a focus on her experiences working in the field of journalism as a plus size woman.

I can honestly say that I’ve never nodded along in understanding to any book as much as I did this one. Some sections felt like she was speaking directly to me, about experiences I understand first hand. It interrogates how women are conditioned and raised to be small and agreeable, and how sometimes, the most radical thing you can do is to put your foot down and be loud.

Not only did I feel seen and heard, West is also fantastically funny, sharp-witted and warm. Her book is as vulnerable as it is informative – this is Lindy West stripped bear and, as such, it demands self-awareness from the reader.

It was also adapted into a fantastic feel-good comedy TV series of the same name by Hulu. For my UK readers – this series is also available on Amazon Prime.

5/ Yeonmi Park – In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom (2015)
Genres + Themes: Memoir, History, Politics, Coming of age

Having fled her native North Korea in 2007, Yeonmi Park is now an activist and advocate for victims of human trafficking. In this book, Park details her time in North Korea, her escape, and her life afterwards; the book spanning her entire life, from birth up until the point of publication.

In many ways, this is the most astonishing and eye-opening book I’ve ever read, much because so little about North Korea is really known to the public, but also because of how intimate and generous Park is willing to be.

Although the book is a hard read – indeed, at many points it is heart-breaking and descends into horror – it is also very inspiring and warm, and Park is passionate about ending the kind of suffering she underwent. You can feel with every page Park’s love and appreciation for her family, as well as her sense of hope in the face of utter disaster.

6/ David Baddiel – Jews Don’t Count (2021)
Genres + Themes: Essay, Judaism, Religion, History, Racism, Politics

This book is short but packs a real punch. Writer and comedian David Baddiel writes openly about how, in spite of the fact we are living in a time of heightened awareness surrounding minorities, the same attention is not afforded to Jews.

I found Baddiel’s discussion on Schrodinger’s Whites particularly intriguing. It was a term I had not heard before, and essentially boils down to this: Jews are seen as white or non-white depending on the politics of the observer. Far-Right groups do not accept any Jews as being white (for example, Jews are not included in the “Aryan” race). On the other hand, far-Left groups that want to undermine anti-Semitic experiences that Jews face will refer to Jews as “white” and associate them with (imagined notions of) money, power and privilege.

This duality and interrogations such as this fill the pages of this book and render it a truly eye-opening read, especially important for non-Jews like myself.

7/ Tressa Middleton and Katy Weitz – Tressa: The 12-Year-Old Mum: My True Story (2015)
Genres + Themes: Memoir, True crime, Abuse, Coming of age

I’ve left this one ’til last because I have a story to go with it.

In 2008, I was living in France and attending a French boarding school. One day, my maths teacher bounded into the classroom, giddy with news to share. He was the kind of teacher everyone liked – the kind who was prone to long tangents that had nothing to do with the subject matter.

“I have something to share with you all,” he said. “And a question in particular for Izzy.”

We waited with baited breath. What he could possibly have to say that had anything to do with me? He eyed us, waiting for our impatience to bubble over before he happily declared: “A young girl aged 12 in England has given birth to a baby girl. She is Britain’s youngest ever recorded mother. Izzy – is this a normal thing to happen in your country?”

The class erupted with laughter and for the next two weeks, my classmates bombarded me with questions about pre-teen pregnancies in the UK. This news story actually came from 2006, but I suppose the French media didn’t pick it up for a few years. As such, I was only 12 years old myself when my teacher told us this story. I’m sure I remember feeling like it shouldn’t have been a laughing matter and that it should be taken seriously, but that could be retroactive thinking on my part. It’s entirely possible that, at the time, I cared more about the unwanted attention I received more than anything to do with that other, distant girl.

That other girl was Tressa Middleton.

This autobiography chronicles her life as a child and teenager. It’s an important read; it speaks of the failing support systems that families in need receive and warns of how disadvantaged people can end up in dangerous situations when they aren’t receiving proper care and attention.

It’s a hard read, making you wish you could go back in time and whisk Tressa away from her pain and neglect she received during her childhood. She talks openly about her attacker, her own brother, and the confusing family dynamic the attacks on her caused, especially after she gave birth.

It is bitingly well-written and you are left with nothing but hope for Tressa’s future. Having been in the eye of the press for such a long time, and her words mangled for years, I am so happy she managed to get her side of the story out there.

Image sources:

[1] Red Dust Road: An Autobiographical Journey
Featured photo: https://thechildrensbookshow.com/news/week-one-jackie-kay
Book cover: https://www.panmacmillan.com/authors/jackie-kay/red-dust-road/9781509858392

[2] Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World
Book cover: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Caffeine-How-Created-Modern-World/dp/B083MSM45K

[3] Gypsy Boy on the Run
Book cover: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11741114-gypsy-boy-on-the-run
Twitter screenshot: https://twitter.com/thatbloodyMikey/status/1421553245777022980

[4] Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman
Book cover: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Shrill-Notes-Woman-Lindy-West/dp/0316348406
Shrill TV show poster: https://nl.pinterest.com/pin/150448443789088541/

[5] In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom
Book cover: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24611623-in-order-to-live

[6] Jews Don’t Count
Book cover: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/56925393-jews-don-t-count

[7] Tressa: The 12-Year-Old Mum: My True Story
Book cover: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25495585-tressa—the-12-year-old-mum

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