The best books of 2017: the 20 best non-fiction books

A guide to the 20 very best books of non-fiction – essays, memoirs, biographies, even a cookbook and a self-help book for God’s sake! – published in 2017.

The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminisms by Rebecca Solnit (Granta, $27)

These succinct essays focus on the importance of empathy, the white noise around silence, and the silencing of women. Weaving together personal anecdotes, case studies and cultural and social critique, these exacting and persuasive pieces are personal, political, universal and pertinent. Read it and give it to everyone you love.

Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard (Profile Books, $23)

A side-dish to Roxane Gay and Rebecca Solnit. Historian and classicist Beard revisits the power template and shows how history has treated powerful women. Her examples run from Medusa to Theresa May. She asks: if women aren’t perceived to be within the structures of power, isn’t it power that we need to redefine?

Driving to Treblinka by Diana Wichtel (Awa Press, $45)

Wichtel’s Holocaust memoir is both deeply affectionate and devastating. Even during the lighter moments (yes, there are some) you can never forget what is coming. Reviewed at the Spinoff by Margo White.

Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) by David Sedaris (Hachette, $38)

The great observer. Sedaris catalogues many forms of weirdness, also casual, everyday violence, and racism and misogyny and homophobia – and yet his diaries are a delight to read, full of scenes and people who, in their oddball humanity, are captivating.

How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell (Penguin, $40)

Full-on bean-spilling memoir by the famous New York ex-beauty editor who tried and failed to annihilate herself on Ritalin, abusive boyfriends, and being a workaholic at Conde Nast. An awesome gift idea for that young woman millennial in your life with a vicarious or actual appetite for self-destruction. Reviewed at the Spinoff by Louisa Kasza.

These Two Hands by Renée (Mākaro Press, $38)

Otaki playwright and author Renee, 88, has stitched a beautifully detailed autobiography, told in a series of patches, like a quilt. The Spinoff has posted two excerpts – a raw, agonizingly sad tale of the night she left her husband for a woman, and a recollection of Mervyn Thompson, who was tied to a tree in Auckland and labelled a rapist by women who got the idea for the assault from one of Renee’s plays.

Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington 1888-1903 by Redmer Yska (Otago University Press, $40)

Blazingly original psychogeography of the Wellington where Katherine Mansfield grew up – the sight of it, the smell of, the mood of it. Yska’s biography, along with Diana Wichtel’s memoir, are the two best New Zealand books of non-fiction in 2017 by a long stretch. Reviewed at the Spinoff  by Charlotte Grimshaw.

Late Essays by JM Coetzee (Knopf, $38)

Great collection of literary criticism from one of the best novelists alive. Each essay’s so satisfying in itself that you don’t feel any need to read the book, and the readings are so rich and idiosyncratic that you don’t have to – you could fake a conversation on them easy. An excellent, economic alternative to actually reading Ford Madox Ford or Heinrich von Kleist.

False River by Paula Morris (Random House, $35)

There are essays and short stories in this beguiling collection by one of New Zealand’s master storytellers, including an epic 10,000 word essay – psychologically acute, politically underscored – on the Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie kids books phenomenon.

Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker by A N Wilson (Hodder & Stoughton, $39.95)

The craziest biography of the year, the most derided and most scorned. Wilson makes the case that Darwin was “a ruthless careerist”, and that his great theory doesn’t add up to a hill of beans. Wilson is so fucking wrong about everything that his book is an unintended comedy masterpiece.

Sticky Fingers by Joe Hagan (Viking, $40)

The life and kiss-ass times of Jann Wenner, the founding editor of Rolling Stone. Events have somewhat overtaken the book – Wenner was accused of sexual harassment in the scummy wake of Weinstein – but there is still good, sordid fun to be had in this tabloidy expose of Wenner, who left his wife for a younger man and seems to find hanging out with Bono, Mick and Bruce the greatest thing that could ever happen to anyone.

Insane Clown President by Matt Taibbi (Penguin, $40)

Rolling Stone is still with us, for the most part battered and sad, but it has always produced some of the best journalism in America and employed some of the best writers; Taibbi is just about the most spectacular prose stylist of practising feature writers in the US, and his catalogue of the Trump campaign is hilarious and terrifying, a pleasure to read.

Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right by Angela Nagle (Zero Books)

Does the world seem even more full of hate than usual? And how much of that is social media’s fault? It’s a slim book but Nagle’s Kill All Normies goes deep into the subject. See how the online right stole transgression, satire and nihilism from the left and weaponised it.

The High Road: A Journey to the New Frontier of Cannabis by Colin Hogg (HarperCollins, $37)

In which the author shows us the future, stoned off his motherfucking ass. Hogg’s book is a wonderfully entertaining road-trip through the US, where he tells of smoking loads of painstakingly graded, legally available marijuana. Read an extract here.

Nikau Café Cookbook by Kelda Hains & Paul Schrader (Nikau Café, $60)

Best cookbook of 2017 by a long stretch.

The Robin: A Biography by Stephen Moss (Vintage, $37)

Stocking filler of the year. Moss is probably the UK’s most charming writer on the public and secret lives of birds, and here he tells of the life cycle of England’s best-loved garden variety redbreast.

The Man Who Ate Lincoln Road by Steve Braunias (Luncheon Sausage Books, $25)

The man who set out to eat a street, and had the time of his life. It’s wall to wall  chicken wings, fries, pizza, doughnuts and everything else served by the 55 fast-food franchises on Lincoln Road in west Auckland. Read to your children at bedtime, or read in the shade of summer until you get that overwhelming urge to drive to good ol’ KFC or somesuch happy place.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson (Macmillan, $35)

The best self-help, motivational book of the year. Manson takes a novel approach to the whole business of coping with modern life: he offers the freedom of throwing up your hands, and exclaiming, “Aaah, who gives a fuck!” In many ways it’s the equivalent to “Flying Fuck”, the poem by Wellington writer James Brown, which goes: “We spend too much time/ doing things for people who don’t/ give a flying fuck about us.”

Good-bye Maoriland: The Songs and Sounds of New Zealand’s Great War by Chris Bourke (Auckland University Press)

Taonga from the cultural historian, who has patiently and lovingly researched New Zealand music made during World War One. It’s a soundtrack to the Somme, an added trumpet part to the dawn parade; it’s about the first great wave of popular Māori music, and the Pākehā’s love of brass; it’s beautifully produced, and it’s the best illustrated book of New Zealand non-fiction of 2017 by a long stretch. Bourke expands on the subject here.

Māori at Home: An Everyday Guide to Learning the Māori Language by Scotty & Stacey Morrison (Raupo, $35)

In the year of Don Brash, Sir William Gallagher and some cunt from the ODT losing their shit over the use of a few words of te reo on Radio New Zealand, this is the book you want – for your family, for your kids, for yourself.

Chosen and/or reviewed by Joseph Barbon, Steve Braunias, Kiran Dass, Louisa Kasza, Tilly Lloyd, Philip Matthews and Neil Young.


The Spinoff Review of Books is brought to you by Unity Books.

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