Recommendations staff favorites

Best of 2022: Non-Fiction

by Public Services Associate Beth

As we get closer and closer to wrapping up another year, I want to talk about some of my favorite non-fiction books from 2022. Admittedly, this was a difficult task to choose only a couple of books, as I read many excellent books this year. But I chose 3 of my top favorites to share with you here, some you may have heard of, and some that may have flown under the radar. So without further ado…

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The first of my favorites is probably one you HAVE already heard of. Making a huge splash this summer was I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jeanette McCurdy. (Though to be fair, with a title like that, it’s no surprise it got so much publicity.) For those who haven’t heard of it though, Jeanette McCurdy was a child-actress, who is most well known for her role on the Nickelodeon show “i-Carly”. I’m Glad My Mom Died is McCurdy’s memoir and she recounts her complicated, toxic and abusive relationship she had with her mother growing up. Of course, like many abusive child-parent relationships, McCurdy doesn’t understand her mother’s abuses until she is an adult and attending therapy. McCurdy writes that acting was never anything she enjoyed doing, but because of pressure from her mother, she pretended that it was something she wanted to do. On top of being pushed into a career at a young age, McCurdy also talks about her struggles with eating disorders: something she developed at a very young age, when her mother taught her how to restrict calories. 

Of course the subject matter is pretty heavy, but somehow McCurdy is able to write about her experiences in a way that is raw and emotionally difficult, but also hilarious. There were several times throughout the book that I found myself laughing (or at least chuckling) out loud.

Last month it was confirmed that McCurdy has a two book deal with Ballantine books, and McCurdy will write and release her debut novel. I know I’m very excited to see what McCurdy writes next, and will be requesting the book as soon as I can. 

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My next nonfiction pick of 2022 is Wastelands: The True Story of Farm Country on Trial by Corban Addison. Wastelands is a real-life David versus Goliath tale. The book takes place in North Carolina, where residents sued Smithfield Foods, Inc. – the largest pork processor in the country. To understand why the residents sued the company, it might be good to give a little background on how pork is currently processed in the US. First, it’s important to note that most of the hogs raised for pork in the US are raised on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs for short), or what is often referred to as “factory farms”. These feeding operations tend to be owned by individuals who have a contract with Smithfield to raise the hogs until they are ready for “processing”. 

North Carolina ranks in the top 5 of states that raise and produce the most hogs in the country. And the amount of hogs raised in the state has exploded dramatically in the past few decades. In the early 1970s, North Carolina had about 18,000 hog farms, with an average herd of about 75 hogs. Today, it has over 2,000 hog operations, with herds as large as 60,000 hogs. And as with any other animal, these animals produce A LOT of waste. Indeed, in North Carolina, hogs produce anywhere from three to 10 times as much waste as New York City does. So what do these feeding operations do with that much waste? The waste is pumped into large pools, called “lagoons.” One lagoon is able to hold enough waste to cover 15 football fields with waste that is one foot deep. And when lagoons are full, the untreated waste is sprayed onto nearby fields. Addison describes how giant spray guns shoot 200 gallons of waste per minute into the air, a noxious mist with a muddy-pink color that drifts from the fields into the surrounding area. Addison writes how residents could hear the waste that was sprayed falling onto their homes like rain. And DNA tests revealed traces of hog waste inside the homes of residents: in kitchens, on refrigerators, on stovetops. After years of having to deal with such living conditions, and after asking for contractors with Smithfield to change the way they dealt with waste, as well as years of appealing to state and local authorities, these residents, who were mostly poor and black, decided to sue Smithfield for deterioration of their quality of life. 

While Wastelands is a true story, it reads like a thriller. It’s full of memorable people, who are masterfully depicted so that they become living breathing characters in the pages of Addison’s book. Though the book is thorough in its research, indeed the book is more than 450 pages long, it was no slog in getting through the book. The book is eye-opening in understanding the lengths that a multi-billion dollar company would go in trying to avoid responsibility – incredulously, during the trial, the defense attempted to convince jurors that it wasn’t clear that the smell from this kind of spraying would really be that bad. 

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My final book is a bit like my previous pick, in that it’s a tale so wild, it almost sounds made up. The third of my favorites from 2022 is Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries by Rick Emerson. 

Unmask Alice tells the true story behind two of the most famous “diaries” in the literary world. Go Ask Alice was published in 1971, and was supposedly the diary of a teenage girl who fell into using drugs after attending a party with some classmates. Her life dramatically spiraled after she developed an addiction: she ran away from home, she lived for some time in the streets in California, she had a psychotic break and by the end of the book, there is an editorial note stating that Alice passed away. The diary was sold as a “real life diary” of a real teenage girl, and it was a major publishing success. Critics at the time hailed the book and deemed it necessary reading for young adults and their parents. Copies were sold out and libraries had difficulty in meeting demand of their patrons. 

Fast forward a few years, and Jay’s Journal is published in the same vein as Go Ask Alice. It portrays itself as a real diary of a teenage boy Jay. Jay is a 14 year old boy, an upstanding Mormon teen in the town of Pleasant Grove, Utah. He’s a boy scout, goes to church and loves his family. One day though, while working at the family’s drugstore, he catches the attention of a girl from school who is known for using drugs.Soon Jay starts using drugs too, and begins stealing from his family’s pharmacy. He is then sent to a reform school where he joins a group of other teens who begin experimenting with practices and ideas that we may now call “New Age”. After leaving school, Jay is determined to go back to his old self, but then falls in with another group where he begins using hard drugs and engaging in darker practices, including animal sacrifice. Jay eventually believes that he is possessed by a demonic force. Jay tragically dies by suicide by the end. 

Like Alice, Jay’s Journal also is a publishing success. And it’s not surprising, the two diaries seem to have a lot in common: they’re two true cautionary tales about teens who strayed and died at a tragically young age. Perhaps more so in the case of Alice, these books still have a lot of cultural import. I myself read Go Ask Alice, nearly four decades after it was written. But above all, the most  important common thread between the two was: they weren’t in fact real diaries, and they were both written by the same woman. 

Unmask Alice tells this unbelievable true story. How one woman was able to trick the publishing world into believing that she was in possession of two incredible diaries. That woman was Beatrice Sparks, and she eventually published a few more diaries under the same guise, and given her influence on the Young Adult genre managed to find herself being a judge at the National Book Awards. 

Emerson’s book is incredible in the thoroughness of its research and is very well-written. Emerson combines an academic level of research with a personal tone that makes the book wildly readable. Like Wastelands, Unmask Alice reads more like a work of fiction. While telling the story of how Sparks was able to con her way into the publishing world, Emerson also situates the “diaries” in the larger context of the drug-scare and Satanic panic in the years and decades that followed. While the story of the two diaries is unbelievable enough, the impact they had on the large society is even more so. Also like Wastelands, Unmask Alice is a bit on the longer side, about 400 pages. I finished the book in just a couple of days. For those who may not be traditional fans of nonfiction, this one is worth checking out. Especially if you’ve read either of the diaries.