To say I read a lot is like saying it’s a little cold in the depths of winter. For as long as I can remember, books have been my window to another world, my chance for time travel, my sense of comfort.
Isolation was the perfect excuse for a book-lover like me, and I well and truly took the chance to indulge. My initial distress at the library being closed (given that I was a weekly visitor) was somewhat alleviated by the free deliveries they offered, and the ever-convenient BorrowBox app.
I’ve been loving true stories lately – you know that saying about truth being stranger than fiction? It totally is. So many of you are always asking for book recommendations, so I thought I’d pull together a post of my favourite true crime/narrative non-fiction/memoir titles. Some of these I’ve recommended before, but if they’re on the list, they are just that good. So no apologies.
1. When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanithi)
I barely breathed myself while reading this incredible memoir written by neurosurgeon, Kalanithi, as he came to terms with his own mortality after being diagnosed with lung cancer. It is achingly beautiful and utterly heartbreaking at the same time. There is so much depth and wonder, philosophy and literature, wisdom and insight and I felt like Kalanithi was straddling the place between worlds, trying with desperate urgency to communicate a message to us on this side of the gap. You will definitely cry at the end of this one, because it is no secret that he passed away shortly after finishing the book. Breathtakingly brilliant.
2. Bad Blood (John Carreyrou)
Oh my goodness. This book – about the biggest corporate fraud since Enron – was so good. I really struggled to put it down, even though I had next to no knowledge about the blood testing industry. Carreyrou (the journalist who exposed this fraud) draws you in and introduces you to a cast of characters so interesting and diverse, and keeps the plot pushing forward all the while. Elizabeth Holmes (the founder of Theranos) and Sunny (her lover and business partner) are ruthless and relentless, so bold in their increasing stranglehold on the company and their missteps – doing anything to keep a hold on power. I kept saying to my husband that I just wanted to see them exposed and that was such a powerful drive to keep reading. Read this book – you will be flabbergasted that this kind of stuff can still happen and people (almost) get away with it. It is just like a movie or a thrilling TV series. Wow.
3. The Woman Who Fooled the World (Beau Donelly, Nick Toscano)
If you, like me, followed the Belle Gibson controversy in 2015 and wondered what would compel someone to fake cancer and con large companies like Apple into joining into partnership with her, this is the book for you. Donelly and Toscano – the journalists who exposed the truth after a long period of investigation – manage to present a controversial story respectfully, going back into Gibson’s childhood and upbringing as a clue to her strange behaviour. More importantly, they widen the investigation to the wellness industry and query how a deception of this magnitude could take place, what factors helped Gibson shoot to fame, and the misinformation that is currently masquerading as fact in relation to diet and nutrition. Very well-written, with great pace and thorough research.
4. Educated (Tara Westover)
Educated is empathy-provoking memoir at its best – allowing you to feel as if you have ‘lived’ the experience of another. Stunning in its respectful treatment of a family who ended up doing a lot of damage to her, Tara has managed to straddle the gap between two disparate worlds and try to bring them into a meaningful dialogue. Tara has an incredible way with words and she paints a vivid picture of what it was like to live on that scrapheap farm in Idaho preparing for the Days of Abomination. Education is, obviously, a key theme in this book as Tara never received any proper home-schooling but was able to educate herself through hard work and determination, eventually ending up at Harvard and Cambridge. This is a hard read at times, but definitely worth it. Challenging, inspiring and a triumph.
5. Burial Rites (Hannah Kent)
The word bleak has been used many times to describe this book, and it is absolutely accurate, but at the same time, there is something transcendent about this story. I read this haunting and captivating book to the soundtrack of Icelandic artist, Olafur Arnalds, and there couldn’t have been a more perfect combination. Kent’s reams of research into the final months before the execution of Agnes Magnusdottir are evoked incredibly to craft a vivid portrait of all the characters and the bleak landscape (without once feeling as if she strays into over-telling the details). This is a brutal read at times, and one cannot help but feel for Agnes as the story unfolds. I feel as if I have experienced the harsh Icelandic winters and touched the frozen grasses in Kornsa… brilliant writing, indeed
6. The Tattooist of Auschwitz (Heather Morris)
It takes a lot for me to be brave enough to read this type of book, but somehow this manages to be uplifting, raw, compelling and hopeful at the same time. Based upon the true story of Lale and Gita, who meet as he tattoos her arm upon her arrival in Auschwitz, the story begins as they are transported to the death camp. I really appreciate how Morris juxtaposes the hopeful acts alongside the brutal ones, celebrating the humans who chose in small but ever so brave ways to resist the oppression. This part of history is complicated and awful, but it must be known and continue to be told for generation after generation.
7. The Arsonist (Chloe Hooper)
When a non-fiction account of the Black Saturday fires reads like a crime thriller, you know it’s going to be good. Hooper has a remarkable gift of empathy, in entering the minds of so many different characters connected to the tragic fires and the aftermath, but managing to tell their stories with respect and gentleness. It is impossible to read this book and take sides. You become so involved with the detectives investigating the crime, the alleged arsonist and his family and the barrister representing the accused. You hear from the families who lost so much, the complicated web of relationships and interactions that lead to the moment of horror and why we as a society have a remarkable responsibility to bear for the way we treat each other. Stunning and challenging read.
8. Teacher (Gabbie Stroud)
I am not a teacher (though I am married to one) but this book reached straight into my heart and ripped it apart. My goodness, if you want to know how incredibly hard (and incredibly necessary) the job of being a teacher is, you should read this. Such a well-told story, with crucial themes throughout – including the introduction of standardised testing, the impact of family life on the classroom, grief, suicide, relationships, special needs kids, workload, the divide between Principals and teachers, and the difference a good teacher can make (for decades to come).
9. Your Own Kind of Girl (Clare Bowditch)
I really enjoyed reading this memoir of Clare’s which goes right back to her childhood and early journey in becoming a singer/songwriter. She has an incredibly deep way of viewing the world and shares in a raw and heartfelt manner about what it is like to experience anxiety, depression and a complete breakdown. The inspiring way in which she was able to recover and learn how to conquer so many things just by taking it one step at a time (using the insight of the field we now know as neuroplasticity) is worth the read alone. Clare is a natural-born storyteller and you won’t be sorry you picked up this book. (There is a bit of language in it if that might offend you, though).
10. The Less People Know About Us (Axton Betz-Hamilton)
What happens when you discover that someone has stolen your identity and run up thousands of dollars of credit card debt in your name? What happens if this occurred while you were a child? This true story – told by identity theft expert, Axton Betz-Hamilton about her own situation – is a great insight into family, consumerism, marriage, mental illness and the stories we tell about ourselves. It isn’t an easy read, simply because of the horror of imagining having to live through the experience, but is well told and fascinating all the same.
What are your favourite true crime/memoir titles? Please let me know! I’m completely addicted to reading and if you have any page turners to add to my list I will be eternally grateful! And if you want to follow along with my reviews in real time, add me on Goodreads.