The top five nonfiction books I read in 2010

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I sat down to write about just the 5 best books I’d read this year, but surprisingly found that the first 4 I put on the list were nonfiction. I grew up a hardcore fiction reader. I was the kid who jonesed to get to the library in the summer. There was a period during graduate school when I felt that really the only thing I should be reading as a responsible adult was nonfiction. So I didn’t read much at all. And then I came back home to fiction once I had a job, a house, a partner and tenure. I don’t know what that all means, but I like a good nonfiction book, too, obviously, and this year, they topped my list.

My Life in France, Julia Child and Alex Prud’Homme. Like many people, this was put on my list after seeing Julie and Julia and feeling that all in all, I wished the movie (and I guess the book) had been just Julia. Surely, I thought, no woman could be so very upbeat and full of joie de vivre as Julia Child appeared to be in the movie. That was just Meryl Streep’s take on Julia Child, right? In fact, based on this memoir, which is, after all, a memoir, Julia Child did seem to have that kind of gusto for life, and especially for French cooking, of course. I loved this book because it begins when Child is about 37, which is about the age I am now. These are the years no one tells you about, or if they do, they tell you about mid-life crises and being bogged down in the mundanity of whatever makes your particular life mundane. But Child is kind of just getting going at this age, starting on the adventure of her life in France. It’s lovely to read about someone finding their true calling. And very interesting I thought to see what goes into writing a cookbook. It made me feel better about the recipes I try sometimes which flop. Perhaps it’s not about me, but that the person writing the cookbook just wasn’t quite as meticulous as Julia Child.

Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression, Mildred Armstrong Kalish. This is what I imagine my mother’s memoirs would be kind of like if she would ever take the countless journals with pre-written prompts (“What’s your earliest memory?” “What were holidays like when you were little?” “How was school different when you were growing up?”) I have given her over the years and actually write in them. This book answered the question my husband and I had asked ourselves, how did people cook before the fifties and the advent of processed food? Like this. They baked cakes and pie crusts in woodstoves and Kalish tells you exactly how. I love her complete lack of pretension and am so glad someone said to her, “Hey, your stories would be interesting to people.” They are.

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, Randy O. Frost. My friend who is a great fan of all the hoarding shows on television was reading this. I saw only one reality related hoarding show on t.v., and it was incidentally while I was home with my more television savvy brother and sister-in-law, but there was clearly something very strange going on with the phenomenon of hoarding. What seems appealing about the shows and this book is that a lot of us have a little hoarder inside. Sometimes he or she comes out and takes over our lives and sometimes he or she does not. But for anyone who’s ever insisted that they really need all those plastic bags or plastic containers, this is an interesting book.

Rural Free: A Farmwife’s Almanac of Country Living, Rachel Peden. If there’s some ordering to my selections, it’s this: these last two are by far my favorites. The only reason I ever picked up Peden’s book to read is because I’m embarking on an oral history project of farmers, and this sounded like it might be helpful. In all other ways, it looked in the bookstore like something quaint and fluffy and generally without substance. It turned out to be a collection of often zen-like meditations on what it means to live on a farm, and therefore in close communion with nature and community, and how those two things often overlap. These are essays, some of them as short as one sentence, which appeared in The Indianapolis Star and other Indiana newspapers during the 1960s and at one level are very simple vignettes about Peden’s life on a Brown County farm. Perhaps it’s that Peden is a farmwife, and not a farmer, and so she’s one step removed from the battle with nature which many farmers might see themselves engaged in. Perhaps it’s just Peden’s unique vision of the world, but I found this book so quietly and yet insistently reminding me of what it means to live in nature every day (which of course, all of us do) and to see it in its beauty and intricacy (which of course, very few of us do). You don’t need to assemble your life list of exotic bird species or even travel to a state park to enjoy nature, and in fact, there’s something to be said for staying in one spot and watching nature change around you through the seasons and through the years. The essays are organized seasonally, month by month, and so you can see how things change in Peden’s world, and how they stay the same. The book is not completely oblivious to the workings of humanity, as well, being a part of nature as we are, and there are just the tiniest hints of the hardships of being a farmer during this particular period of American history that peek out at you here and there. I checked this book out of the library and then I bought it so that I could continue to read it throughout the year, one month at a time, and hopefully begin to see the world as Peden does.

The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin. I don’t even remember how I came across this book. It was a New York Times bestseller, so it’s not hard to find, but it sat in my To Read list on Goodreads for a while before I actually put it on hold and got it from our local library. The timing was perfect, but I have to say, I wish I would have gotten to it sooner. Rubin sets out on a happiness project for those of us who cannot pick up and go to Italy, India, and Indonesia. A happiness project for those of us with mortgages and children and partners and jobs. She is a pragmatic, and boy, do I appreciate pragmatism. Though she barely wades into the extensive body of Buddhism and Eastern philosophy, she is, in many ways and without particularly knowing it, running parallel to those traditions. A better world begins with you, and a better world begins with happiness. Buddhism is a pragmatic map for achieving that, and Rubin’s pragmatism includes checklists and charts, resolutions and rules. This upcoming year, I will be embarking on my own happiness project, so I’ll be keeping everyone updated on my blog. But even as I was reading the book, my partner noticed a palpable change in my approach to life, realized primarily in the fact that he actually began to see me smile before like, noon. The fact that Rubin has done a lot of the grunt research on happiness (which is something that makes her happy—bonus!) makes me happy because I can cut to the chase and get to the useful bits, of which there are many (she also has a website with happiness toolkits to use from the book). I bought this book for my sister, my partner is reading it, and I would recommend it to anyone I know. It is not just one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read this year, but one that may very well change my life.  As Rubin points out in the book, there’s a tendency among some groups (and perhaps especially academics) to somehow think happiness is unproductive or simple or basically uncool.  What bullshit.


  1. LIke everybody else, I fell in love with Julia Child through the move Julie and Julia. I've not read My Life In France yet, but I'm about halfway through the book of letter that she and Avis DeVoto wrote to each other. What a pair of interesting & fabulous women!

  2. Oh, I'll have to check that out next.

  3. I loved, loved, loved My Life in France. It made me want to go downstairs and cook something really complicated. Julia came across as such a loveable goofball. I still love to watch her PBS shows; Meryl Streep really had her pegged in the movie. 🙂

  4. Pam, my local library just got in a copy of As Always, Julia, which are her letters to Avis DeMoto. I can't wait to get started. Isn't it funny, I never watched Julia Child on PBS. I only saw the Saturday Night Live skits!

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