14 great Canadian nonfiction books to read this summer

If you're a fan of nonfiction, you'll want to pick up one of these books.

If you're a fan of nonfiction, you'll want to pick up one of these books.

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott

Alicia Elliott is the author of A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. (Doubleday Canada, Ayelet Tsabari)

Alicia Elliott explores the systemic oppression faced by Indigenous peoples across Canada through the lens of her own experiences as a Tuscarora writer from Six Nations of the Grand River. Elliott examines how colonial violence, including the loss of language, seeps into the present day lives of Indigenous people, often in the form of mental illness. Elliott, who lives in Brantford, Ont., won gold at the National Magazine Awards in 2017 for the essay this book is based on.

Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me by Anna Mehler Paperny

Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me is a memoir by Anna Mehler Paperny. (Random House Canada)

Anna Mehler Paperny is a journalist who has struggled with depression her entire life. After a suicide attempt in her 20s, she decided to look into her disease: how it's caused, treated and talked about. Part memoir, part investigation, Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me is an examination of an illness that is far too common and far too little understood. 

Big Lonely Doug by Harley Rustad

Big Lonely Doug is a nonfiction book by Harley Rustad. (Harley Rustad, House of Anansi Press)

Big Lonely Doug is about an ancient Douglas fir tree that stands at roughly the height of a 20-storey building on Vancouver Island. Saved by a logger named Dennis Cronin, the tree stands alone in the forest near Port Renfrew, as its neighbouring cedar, hemlock and great fir trees were clear cut and hauled away. Big Lonely Doug was originally a magazine article, which won silver at the National Magazine Awards.

Chop Suey Nation by Ann Hui

Ann Hui is a Toronto-based author and journalist. (CBC)

In Chop Suey Nation, Ann Hui drives to small towns across Canada and visits the family-run Chinese restaurants that dot the country. She also discovers her own family's secrets of working in the industry. Hui, a journalist with the Globe and Mail, begins her journey as an authenticity snob, but comes to appreciate the determination and enterprise of families across the nation.

The Vagabond Valise by Siris, translated by Rupert Bottenberg

The Vagabond Valise is Siris's English-language debut. (Conundrum Press)

A founding father of Quebec's vibrant comix underground, Siris has released his first graphic novel in the form of the autobiographical The Vagabond ValiseRepresenting himself as a chick-headed boy named Chick-o, Siris documents a coming-of-age spent in a series of foster families, separated from his four older siblings and parents. In discovering a talent for art, Chick-o finds glimmers of hope under grim circumstances.

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The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman

The Real Lolita is a nonfiction book by Sarah Weinman. (Knopf Canada, Anna Ty Bergman)

Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 book Lolita, the controversial novel of a professor who falls obsessively in love with his 12-year-old stepdaughter, has sold over 60 million copies worldwide. The novel was based on the real abduction of an 11-year-old American girl named Sally Horner. Sarah Weinman pores over news articles and conducts interviews with Horner's living relatives to chronicle the young girl's life, including her kidnapping and rescue, in mid-century America. She also investigates how much Nabokov knew about Horner's case and the ways he hid it when publishing what is considered both an infamous and classic novel.

The Emperor's Orphans by Sally Ito

The Emperor's Orphans is a book by Sally Ito. (Marlis Funk, Turnstone Press)

When approximately 4,000 Japanese-Canadians were "repatriated" to Japan during the Second World War, many of Sally Ito's relatives left their lives in Canada. Ito, who grew up in Edmonton, tells her family's story of displacement and their experiences in the dark days of the Pacific War.

They Call Me George by Cecil Foster

Cecil Foster is a Canadian novelist, essayist, journalist and scholar.
Cecil Foster is a Canadian novelist, essayist, journalist and scholar. (Sharon Beckford-Foster, Michael Vrana & Biblioasis)

At the beginning of the 20th century, being a train porter in Canada was a job reserved for black men only. Cecil Foster documents this underreported piece of Canadian history in the nonfiction book They Call Me George. The tiring, thankless and low-paying job — that consisted of hauling luggage, folding down beds, shining shoes and serving passengers— forced these men to be separated from their families as they travelled the country. 

They Call Me George documents how one man, Stanley Grizzle, went from being a porter to leading a movement and eventually receiving the Order of Canada.

All Our Relations by Tanya Talaga

Tanya Talaga wrote the 2018 Massey Lectures and accompanying book All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward, on the subject of youth suicide in Indigenous communities. (Steve Russell, CBC)

Journalist and writer Tanya Talaga investigates the alarming rise in youth suicides in Indigenous communities. All Our Relations — part of the 2018 Massey Lectures and based on Talaga's Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy series — is a call for action and justice for Indigenous communities and youth.

Murder by Milkshake by Eve Lazarus

Murder by Milkshake is a nonfiction book by Eve Lazarus. (Kerp Photography, Arsenal Pulp Press)

Murder by Milkshake revisits the suspicious 1965 death of a popular radio personality's wife that became one of British Columbia's most sensational criminal cases of the century. When Esther Castellani — wife to charismatic CKNW radio personality Rene Castellani — passed away after a painful and prolonged illness, the cause of death was initially undetermined. But soon after Rene quickly moved on with his girlfriend Lolly, the truth was revealed: he had methodically poisoned his wife by putting poison in her vanilla milkshakes.

This nonfiction work by Eve Lazarus provides a well-researched look at murder, infidelity and the social and political realities in 1960s Canada.

Spies of No Country by Matti Friedman

Matti Friedman is the author of Spies of No Country. (Signal,

Matti Friedman tells the story of a espionage unit known as the "Arab Section," a small group of Jewish men who could pass as Arabs. They were chosen by British spies and Jewish militia leaders during the Second World War and were disguised as Palestinian refugees when the first Jewish-Arab war broke out in 1948. They passed messages from Beirut to Israel for two years. Five were caught and executed.

Friedman is a journalist and the author of the memoir Pumpkinflowers, which was shortlisted for the RBC Taylor Prize and Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle

From the Ashes is a memoir by Jesse Thistle. (Lucie Thistle, Simon & Schuster)

Abandoned by his parents and raised by his difficult grandparents, Jesse Thistle struggled with addiction as an adult and spent 10 years homeless. Thistle is now a leading academic and expert on Indigenous homelessness. He has earned many honours for his work in academia, including the 2016 Governor General's Silver Medal. He is also a Trudeau and Vanier Scholar. He shares his story of overcoming his circumstances in the memoir, From the Ashes.

Feast of Fields by Sean Karemaker

Feast of Fields is a graphic novel by Vancouver comic and exhibition artist Sean Karemaker. (Conundrum Press)

In this black and white book, Sean Karemaker records a grim period of his mother's childhood, spent in an orphanage in Denmark. Karemaker's love and admiration for his mother is evident on every carefully designed page, drawing a woman whose kindness, compassion and curiosity outweighed the tremendous sadness of her circumstances.

The Wife's Tale by Aida Edemariam​

Aida Edemariam is a senior feature writer and editor for the Guardian. (David Levene, Knopf Canada)

In The Wife's TaleAida Edemariam records her grandmother Yetemegnu's long and storied life in Ethiopia. Yetemegnu was born in Gondar, married to an ambitious man before the age of 10 and grew into a spiritual and resilient woman. Over the stretch of her 97 years, Yetemegnu raised a family through violent fascist regimes, civil war and revolution.

The Wife's Tale was shortlisted for the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction.