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Must Read Nonfiction: KWL Team Recommendations

The Kobo Writing Life team loves Nonfiction November! While the experiences chronicled by these authors are undoubtedly unique, they show us the universal complexity of what it means to be human. In this selection of novels, you’ll find stories that are uplifting and inspiring, grief-stricken and devastating, ones that stir outrage and others that restore your belief in humanity.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Here is a book as joyous and painful, as mysterious and memorable, as childhood itself. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings captures the longing of lonely children, the brute insult of bigotry, and the wonder of words that can make the world right. Maya Angelou’s debut memoir is a modern American classic beloved worldwide. Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.

The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison

The Source of Self-Regard is brimming with all the elegance of mind and style, the literary prowess and moral compass that are Toni Morrison’s inimitable hallmark. It is divided into three parts: the first is introduced by a powerful prayer for the dead of 9/11; the second by a searching meditation on Martin Luther King Jr., and the last by a heart-wrenching eulogy for James Baldwin. In the writings and speeches included here, Morrison takes on contested social issues: the foreigner, female empowerment, the press, money, “black matter(s),” and human rights. She looks at enduring matters of culture: the role of the artist in society, the literary imagination, the Afro-American presence in American literature, and in her Nobel lecture, the power of language itself. And here too is piercing commentary on her own work and that of others, among them, painter and collagist Romare Bearden, author Toni Cade Bambara, and theater director Peter Sellars. In all, The Source of Self-Regard is a luminous and essential addition to Toni Morrison’s oeuvre.

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah

At the age of twelve, Ishmael Beah fled attacking rebels in Sierra Leone and wandered a land rendered unrecognizable by violence. By thirteen, he’d been picked up by the government army, and Beah, at heart a gentle boy, found that he was capable of truly terrible acts. At sixteen, he was removed from fighting by UNICEF, and through the help of the staff at his rehabilitation center, he learned how to forgive himself, to regain his humanity, and, finally, to heal. This is an extraordinary and mesmerizing account, told with real literary force and heartbreaking honesty.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

*National Book Award Winner* In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden? Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son, through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken as American plunder. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. When sober, Jeannette’s brilliant and charismatic father captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn’t want the responsibility of raising a family. The Walls children learned to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another, and eventually found their way to New York. Their parents followed them, choosing to be homeless even as their children prospered. The Glass Castle is truly astonishing—a memoir permeated by the intense love of a peculiar but loyal family.

Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

Among the most powerful accounts of the Nazi occupation, “The Diary of Anne Frank” chronicles the life of Anne Frank, a thirteen-year old girl fleeing her home in Amsterdam to go into hiding. Anne reveals the relationships between eight people living under miserable conditions: facing hunger, threat of discovery and the worst horrors the modern world had seen. In these pages, she grows up to be a young woman and a wise observer of human nature. She shares an unparalleled bond with her diary, which holds a detailed account of Anne’s close relationship with her father, the lack of daughterly love for her mother, admiration for her sister’s intelligence and closeness with her friend Peter. Anne Frank’s account offers a compelling self-portrait of a sensitive and spirited young woman who turns thoughtful and learns of the many terrors of the world.

Night by Elie Wiesel

Night is Elie Wiesel’s masterpiece, a candid, horrific, and deeply poignant autobiographical account of his survival as a teenager in the Nazi death camps. This new translation by Marion Wiesel, Elie’s wife and frequent translator, presents this seminal memoir in the language and spirit truest to the author’s original intent. And in a substantive new preface, Elie reflects on the enduring importance of Night and his lifelong, passionate dedication to ensuring that the world never forgets man’s capacity for inhumanity to man. Night offers much more than a litany of the daily terrors, everyday perversions, and rampant sadism at Auschwitz and Buchenwald; it also eloquently addresses many of the philosophical as well as personal questions implicit in any serious consideration of what the Holocaust was, what it meant, and what its legacy is and will be.

Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris

As a teenager, Kate Harris realized that the career she most craved–that of a generalist explorer, equal parts swashbuckler and philosopher–had gone extinct. From her small-town home in Ontario, it seemed as if Marco Polo, Magellan and their like had long ago mapped the whole earth. So she vowed to become a scientist and go to Mars. To pass the time before she could launch into outer space, Kate set off by bicycle down a short section of the fabled Silk Road with her childhood friend Mel Yule, then settled down to study at Oxford and MIT. Eventually the truth dawned on her: an explorer, in any day and age, is by definition the kind of person who refuses to live between the lines. And Harris had soared most fully out of bounds right here on Earth, travelling a bygone trading route on her bicycle. So she quit the laboratory and hit the Silk Road again with Mel, this time determined to bike it from the beginning to end. Weaving adventure and deep reflection with the history of science and exploration, Lands of Lost Borders explores the nature of limits and the wildness of a world that, like the self and like the stars, can never be fully mapped.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

A landmark volume in science writing by one of the great minds of our time, Stephen Hawking’s book explores such profound questions as: How did the universe begin—and what made its start possible? Does time always flow forward? Is the universe unending—or are there boundaries? Are there other dimensions in space? What will happen when it all ends? Told in language we all can understand, A Brief History of Time plunges into the exotic realms of black holes and quarks, of antimatter and “arrows of time,” of the big bang and a bigger God—where the possibilities are wondrous and unexpected. With exciting images and profound imagination, Stephen Hawking brings us closer to the ultimate secrets at the very heart of creation.

North Korea Journal by Michael Palin

In this beautifully illustrated journal based on a TV documentary, writer, comedian and world traveler Michael Palin journeys to North Korea, offering a glimpse of life inside the world’s most secretive country, uncovering surprises and making friends along the way. In May 2018, former Monty Python stalwart and intrepid globetrotter Michael Palin ventured into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, camera crew in tow, to gain a glimpse of life in the most notoriously secretive and cut-off nation on earth. Now he shares the journal he meticulously kept during his trip, in which he describes his experiences in a country wholly unlike any other he has ever visited: a country where you will find the Tallest Unoccupied Building in the World; where the residents of Pyongyang awake every morning to the strains of ‘Where Are You, Dear General?’, broadcast from speakers across the city; and where there are fifteen approved styles of haircut. He chronicles a journey of stark contrasts that takes in a gleamingly modern capital complete with triumphal statues and arches one day, and a countryside that has barely changed in decades on another. He travels to the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone, to a centuries-old Confucian academy, and to the heart of North Korea’s exquisitely beautiful mountains and lakes.

All the Wrong Moves: A Memoir About Chess, Love, and Ruining Everything by Sasha Chapin

An enthralling journey into the world of chess–a story of heartbreak, obsession, failure, and the hunger for greatness.

Sasha Chapin is a victim of chess. Like countless amateurs before him–Albert Einstein, Humphrey Bogart, and Marcel Duchamp among them–the game has consumed his life and his mind. Like a spurned lover, he tried to move on, but he found the game more seductive the more he resisted it. And so, he reasons, if he can’t defeat his addiction, he will try instead to master the game. All the Wrong Moves traces Chapin’s rollicking two-year journey around the globe in search of glory. He travels to tournaments in Bangkok and Hyderabad. He seeks out a mentor in St. Louis, a grandmaster whose personality is half rabbi and half monk, and who offers cryptic wisdom and caustic insults (“you’re the best player in your chair.”) His story builds toward the Los Angeles Open, where Chapin is clearly outmatched and yet determined not to lose. Stylish, inventive, and laugh-out-loud funny, All the Wrong Moves is more than a work of history or autobiography. It is a chronicle of the highs and lows of obsession, of love pursued to its limits, and of a life driven by lust, terror, and the elusive possibility of victory.

Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith

From the National Book Award-winning author of Just Kids and M Train, a profound, beautifully realized memoir in which dreams and reality are vividly woven into a tapestry of one transformative year. Following a run of New Year’s concerts at San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore, Patti Smith finds herself tramping the coast of Santa Cruz, about to embark on a year of solitary wandering. Unfettered by logic or time, she draws us into her private wonderland with no design, yet heeding signs. In February, a surreal lunar year begins, bringing with it unexpected turns, heightened mischief, and inescapable sorrow. In a stranger’s words, “Anything is possible: after all, it’s the Year of the Monkey.” For Smith–inveterately curious, always exploring, tracking thoughts, writing–the year evolves as one of reckoning with the changes in life’s gyre: with loss, aging, and a dramatic shift in the political landscape of America. Taking us from California to the Arizona desert; to a Kentucky farm as the amanuensis of a friend in crisis; to the hospital room of a valued mentor; and by turns to remembered and imagined places, this haunting memoir blends fact and fiction with poetic mastery. The unexpected happens; grief and disillusionment set in. But as Smith heads toward a new decade in her own life, she offers this balm to the reader: her wisdom, wit, gimlet eye, and above all, a rugged hope for a better world.

If you’ve read some of these books, which ones were your favorites? Did we leave anything out? Leave a comment for the KWL Community!

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