The 3 Best Nonfiction Books I Read in 2020 (So Far)

As an English major, I read many classics in college from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Shelley’s Frankenstein. For the first couple years after graduation, I was a book snob who literally only read classics. I’m still a classics lover–just finished Eliot’s Middlemarch–but I got turned on to nonfiction last year when I started participating in the United Methodist Women Reading Program. I just love learning, so I quickly became addicted to gaining new knowledge from nonfiction. Today’s post touches on the three best ones I’ve read this year (though I could read more awesome ones before the year ends!). [The first and third book came from the Reading Program.]

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

In 1979, two years before our protagonist Kamila was born, Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan and waged a decade-long war with the Muhajideen. When the Soviet forces dried up, they were forced to admit defeat and withdrew the last of their troops by 1992. At that point, Muhajideen leaders began fighting with each other for control of Kabul. In spite of the constant discord, Kabulis still went to work and school. Kamila, a natural leader, earned a teaching certificate and planned to continue her education to eventually teach Dari or literature. The trajectory of her life changes when the Taliban move in and take over the city. Women were no longer allowed to attend school, hold a job, appear in public without a male companion, show any skin (even exposing the wrist incurred a brutal beating), or talk to a man in public.

For a while, Kamila is resigned to this new, indefinite, oppressive way of life. But her family and others around start struggling to put food on the table since less household members can make an income. Necessity eventually drives Kamila to start a business from her own home and employ women around her in making and selling dresses.

Kamila is amazingly sharp and resilient, and her leadership abilities really blossom through her circumstances. The story is so investing and easy to digest that one could read it in a couple sittings, and the heart-wrenching moments are balanced by triumphant ones. There were also times I was holding my breath, wondering when or if Kamila might get in trouble

Highly recommend this exciting, inspiring read for anyone (who doesn’t love a good “defying the odds” story?).

What This Cruel War Was Over by Chandra Manning

Scholar Chandra Manning sets out to answer a basic question: why did primarily non-slaveholding men fight a war over slavery? Moving chronologically through the four years of the American Civil War, she uses primary sources–Union and Confederate soldiers’ letters, newspaper articles, and other written records–to explain the motivations of both sides and examine how and why they shifted as the war progressed. Manning doesn’t project her views on to the past; the soldiers’ own words speak for themselves. In fact, one-third of the book is just a list of citations and references. Though the book takes longer to read, it’s never dry or boring.

In the beginning, Unionists wanted to defend/preserve America because it was a beacon of hope for the world and proved that democracy leads to a prosperous nation; from this standpoint, the Confederates were traitors for seceding and shattering that noble image. The Confederates saw slavery as preserving a God-given hierarchy of white men-white women-white children-black people, and they also felt the government’s main purpose was to benefit them (as opposed to ordering them around). Thus, the resistance to deem new states joining the Union “slave states” threatened Southern white mens’ authority and the structure of their society while also qualifying as government overreach, making secession vital.

It’s important to remember that, throughout the four years of the war, the reasons to keep going evolved. Many Union soldiers wound up interacting with black people to a degree they hadn’t before, strengthening their resolve against the dehumanizing parts of slavery like family separation, while Confederates nursed a growing fear that black people would vengefully brutalize white people if the South lost. To be fair, even Union soldiers who supported abolition didn’t see black people as equal to themselves. Brutality occurs in the way Confederates treated blacks in general AND the way Union soldiers treated their fellow black soldiers.

Highly recommend this enlightening read for anyone who wants to dive deep into this slice of history.

America’s Original Sin by Jim Wallis

This book is a great resource–basically “Racial Justice 101” from a Christian perspective. It delves into systemic racism, white privilege, implicit bias, police brutality, and more. These subjects are very touchy, but Wallis mostly does a good job of coordinating stories, statistics, and biblical lessons to explain/support his points and convict Christian readers. While it felt a bit repetitive at times, that’s understandable with a complex subject. I’m not going to lie; it occasionally felt preachy. But the moments where I felt mentally exhausted came few and far between, thankfully.

I find it commendable that Wallis doesn’t just identify problems but provides solutions, too. Since these topics are so heavy, it’s nice to be given optimism for resolving the issues. Considering that the Christian faith rests on hope in salvation through Jesus, the hope incorporated throughout this book is fitting. For instance, in the chapter on police brutality, he ends with a list of ways that law enforcement officers and the communities they serve can reconcile broken relationships and build trust.

Highly recommend this comprehensive read for those who want to learn more on these topics. I will note that some of my fellow UMW members struggled to swallow it, and to be frank, one should only read this if they are willing to acknowledge that systemic racism exists (or are willing to be uncomfortable/challenged).

Thanks for reading! Do any of these pique your interest? Do you like to read nonfiction? Do you have any recommendations to share? Let me know in the comments.

P.S. I’m behind on comment responses, but thanks to those who leave them. Replies coming soon! 🙂

10 comments

  1. I think I never really ‘learned’ how to enjoy non-fiction. As I tend to let my mind and imagination drift into stories I find that becoming too scary and real in non-fiction settings I guess. Although they all three sound quite readable…

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m pathetic!! I haven’t started the book yet because I’m finishing another one…The Hiding Place is one I checked out from the library and now I’ve called to renew my check out twice and still haven’t started the book!!! But I’m not returning it until I’ve read it!! I’m determined!😅

        Like

  2. Insightful post, Lily. Your line “ I just love learning, so I quickly became addicted to gaining new knowledge from nonfiction,” resonates with me. The books you reviewed and shared are intriguing. I tend to read more nonfiction these days than I did years ago. But I think I’ve always enjoyed nonfiction, devouring biographies and historical narratives. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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