Where to begin with this year’s non-fiction? (be sure to read our Staff Picks in Fiction and Graphic Novels as well.) Always an opportunity to expand what we know and challenge what we thought we did, this year we’ve been treated to everything from notes on transness and growing up autistic, to a celebration of music, the outdoors, geekdom and more. Here our are favourites.
Artificial Gut Feeling by Anna Zett
(Divided Publishing, 9781916425033, £10.99)
Thrilled to say that this is the first book from a really exciting new publisher we started working with this year, as well as being generally a brilliant 2019 non-fiction pick. Published to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it explores the effects of a childhood spent in the GDR on both the mind and the body, and how those effects translate into adulthood. Divided Publishing will be bringing out some rad books going into 2020, including a book by Fanny Howe in January, so keep your eyes out for them! Their books are orange and shiny and very cool-looking, you won’t miss them.
Daddy Issues by Olivia Sudjic
(Peninsula Press, 9781999922399, £6.00)
Also from an extremely brilliant indie press, Daddy Issues is the latest in Peninsula Press’s essay series, following on from Mixed Race Superman by Will Harris and Exposure by Olivia Sudjic. Published around the time of Father’s Day (lol), Daddy Issues is a cracking essay about fathers and feminism, and how feminism deals with that relationship in the wake of #MeToo. I think it’s probably the first time anything has been written about this? It’s really interesting and worthwhile, and Katherine Angel is the ideal writer to explore it. And WHAT A COVER.
I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World by Kai Cheng Thom (Arsenal Pulp Press, 9781551527758, £12.99)
Earlier in the year I read and loved Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars by Kai Cheng Thom – it was published in 2016 and chosen for Emma Watson’s Goodreads book club this year. When Arsenal Pulp announced this essay collection by Kai Cheng I was thrilled. The essays are about love, mercy, forgiveness and transness, and are really the kind of essays everyone should be reading in this trying climate. The writing is funny and wise and super smart, and the collection overall navigates social justice in a wholly accessible and inspiring way. If you haven’t read her work yet I recommend you do so!
A Song for You: My Life with Whitney Houston by Robyn Crawford (Dutton, 9781524742843, £20.00)
I grew up listening to a lot of Whitney Houston because my mum loved her, and because we watched The Bodyguard a lot of times in our house. When I got older there was always some kind of knowing among my queer friends that Whitney was somehow part of our community, and that there was truth to the rumours about her friendship with Robyn Crawford. In A Song for You, Crawford breaks her silence about their relationship and tells Whitney’s story in her own words. It’s definitely a sad read, and you can’t help thinking that, if it had been easier to be a queer person in the 80s and 90s, that Whitney might still be alive, but it’s also very loving and funny and fascinating. And I say that as a person who usually snarls about celebrity memoirs.
The English Heritage Guide to London’s Blue Plaques by Howard Spencer
(September Publishing, 9781912836055, £17.99)
The first thing I bought when I moved to London was a walking guide through some its central boroughs. These days, London walking guides form the bulk of my library loans, and walking has become my favourite way of exploring the city’s history. Updated to include more women and people of colour, the guide is a heavy listing of all 950+ plaques in London, complete with short biographies of the people they depict. It offers glimpses into London’s past, and makes a great companion for treks through the city’s back streets.
Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy, and the Fear of Female Power by Sady Doyle (Melville House, 9781612197920, £14.99)
“Women have always been monsters.” So begins Sady Doyle’s brilliant exposé on monstrosity, patriarchy, and the fear of female power. Through a series of essays Doyle explores myth, history, and pop-culture about female monsters, and links them to wider patriarchal beliefs about women. Doyle never forgets either that she is largely writing about cisgender, heterosexual white women, and investigates what that means rather than ignoring it. Her no-nonsense tone and occasional bursts of outrage make for a highly entertaining dissection of patriarchal practice in media culture, with room given to marginalised identities too. If you’re like me and spend far too much time yelling about popular culture on the internet, this is one for you.
New Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent edited by Margaret Busby (Myriad Editions, 9781912408009, £30.00)
New Daughters of Africa is a wonder in every sense of the word. Physically, it is a beautifully bound, 800-page hardback that would look perfectly at home on a library lectern. Content-wise, it is a major international collection celebrating over 200 women writers of African descent. Almost every genre imaginable is included, from slam poetry to oral history and journalism, with every page offering something new. Whether you’re going through it cover to cover, checking favourites, or randomly picking a page, New Daughters of Africa is a necessary work documenting a vast cultural history that absolutely everyone should read.
The Body Papers: A Memoir by Grace Talusan
(Restless Books, 9781632061836, £19.99)
Winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, this lucid, enthralling memoir touches on themes of identity, inheritance both genetic and otherwise, the legacies of abuse, and what ‘home’ really means. Grace Talusan was born in the Philippines and moved with her family to a New England suburb in the ‘70s, facing racism as ‘one of the few kids with a brown face’, while at home she endured her grandfather’s abuse and the silence of her family. She explores her experiences growing up and confronting the familial spectre of cancer, returning to the Philippines as an adult both foreign and not, and dealing with learning that, for a time, her family’s immigration status in the USA was very uncertain. Affecting, clear, and brave, Talusan’s memoir has stuck with me as a testament to the power of giving voice to the unspeakable.
Folk Magic and Healing: An Unusual History of Everyday Plants by Fez Inkwright
(Liminal 11, 9781912634118, £11.99)
Did you know that the juice from the bulbs of bluebells has an adhesive quality, and was commonly used in fletching arrows and bookbinding? How about that the sap of birch trees can be used as a shampoo?
This compendium of common plants of the British Isles and the folklore and history associated with them is a treasury of delights, full of the sorts of things I didn’t know but have always felt I should. From ash to wormwood, foxglove to verbena, hawthorn to yew – each plant is accompanied by a poem or piece of writing from history mentioning it, and a page or two on its significance in myth, medicine, or both. The gorgeous illustrations by Fez Inkwright are concise, clear, informative, and worth the price alone. Ideal for hedge witches, aromatherapists, druids, cooks, or anyone who wants to know more about the wealth of flora on these islands.
Eastern Blocks: Concrete Landscapes of the Former Eastern Bloc by Zupagrafika
(Zupagrafika, 9788395057434, £18.99)
This striking photographic journey through the concrete post-war suburbs of the former Eastern Bloc contains over 100 photographs as well as maps and some fascinating history. Showcasing monumental examples of modernist architecture and Brutalism throughout the cities of Moscow, Berlin, Warsaw, Budapest, Kyiv, and Saint Petersburg, Eastern Blocks follows Zupagrafika’s tradition of incredible books on architecture.
Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT Leroy by Savannah Knoop
(Seven Stories Press, 9781609808419, £12.99)
The story is well-known by now. In the late 90s and early 2000s, author Laura Albert wrote a number of books under the persona of JT Leroy; a transgender, HIV positive ‘lot lizard’ forced into prostitution by his mother at a young age. JT’s books were enormously popular, and he became a kind of literary wunderkind among grunge rockers and Hollywood stars. As JT’s star rose, somebody had to play JT in public. Laura recruited her boyfriend’s sibling, Savannah, to act as the body of the androgynous author. So what was it like to actually be JT Leroy? Or, half of JT Leroy, at least. In their memoir, Savannah Knoop talks about the cognitive dissonance of being two people at once, of the strange mix of agency and lack of it that they experienced embodying JT, their gender fluidity, and JT’s fall from grace. The truth (whatever that is) is an odd beast indeed.
The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator by Timothy C. Winegard
(Text Publishing, 9781911231127, £12.99)
Here’s something to think about the next time you hear that tell-tale whine in the otherwise silent dark of your bedroom; the mosquito has been responsible for the deaths of around 52 billion people. How many people have died over the course of history? Oh, around 108 billion. Those bloodsucking little bastards have caused around half of all human deaths ever. In The Mosquito, Timothy C. Winegard tells the story of the greatest purveyor of extermination we have ever known, showing how one insect has altered the course of human history time and time again.
Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest by Hanif Abdurraqib
(Melville House, 9781911545446, £8.99)
Since writing Go Ahead in the Rain, Hanif Abdurraqib has been asked a lot of questions on the same general theme: ‘why write a book about A Tribe Called Quest’? In response, he’s quick to point out that nobody would ask ‘why’ if he had written about a white band, like Pink Floyd or the Rolling Stones. Throughout the book he addresses Tribe’s legacy and career, their innovation in genre and their street-level impact, but also writes letters directly addressed to the members of the band. Like Hanif’s previous book They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Go Ahead in the Rain is more than a book about music. It’s about culture, history, fandom, and the way that bands can shape your life.
Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT Leroy by Savannah Knoop
(Seven Stories Press, 9781609808419, £12.99)
Described as one of the biggest literary hoaxes of our times, it wasn’t until the beginning of 2019 that I had actually heard about the infamous story of Jeremiah Terminator Leroy, a literary persona invented by Laura Albert in the ’90s that everyone from Bono to Winona Ryder bought into. Weird then how in the space of a few months I had not only read the book, but watched the documentary, seen the new film adaptation (starring Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern – go watch it, it’s fab), and even met JT (aka Savannah Knoop) themselves. This is an incredible, riveting, bonkers true story about how two people conned celebrities, the public, and the literary world. But it’s also a moving memoir of discovered identities, and an insight into how a persona, however invented, can be as real and as compelling as any alternative.
How To Be Autistic by Charlotte Amelia Poe
(Myriad Editions, 9781912408320, £8.99)
We hear autism being talked about a lot, but nine times out of ten it will be by neurotypical people who can only ever be outsiders looking in, and often in way that can impersonal and degrading. Written by autistic artist and writer Charlotte Amelia Poe, How To Be Autistic flips the perspective completely, retelling Charlotte’s experience growing up autistic from harrowing middle school days to the life-changing moment when they won the inaugural Spectrum Art Prize. I blew through this thing in under a week. It’s an incredibly candid, impassioned account that’s as difficult to put down as it was sometimes to read. But it was also funny, hopeful and most of all human. I was able to interview Charlotte for the blog and you can check out their responses here.
Vintage Geek: Quiz Book by Marshall Julius
(September Publishing, 9781912836024, £12.99)
Widely known fact: I am a big geek. Little surprise then that nerd extraordinaire Marshall Julius’ Vintage Geek quiz book has found a spot on my list. A one thousand strong repository of questions and answers covering the depth and breadth of 20th century fandom, from The Simpsons to Spielberg and everything in between, this is as much a love letter to fandom as it is your typical “trivia” book. Moreover as a big Star Wars nerd who has thoroughly perused the relevant section, I can confirm the questions in here are good, Marshall certainly knows his stuff and more than once I found myself mistaken about a great many things. Plus, it’s got guest star questions from the likes of John Carpenter, George Takei and the wonderful Mark Hamill. For vintage geeks of all ages, this is a treat!