The best Canadian nonfiction of 2020
Here are the CBC Books picks for the top Canadian nonfiction of the year.
This Is Not the End of Me is the story of Layton Reid, a young man who lived a life full of adventure and risks — until he was diagnosed with cancer. He changed his life, got married and started a family. And when the cancer returned, Layton did everything he could to find a cure, including risky alternative therapies. Eventually, he comes to terms with the fact that his life is going to end sooner than he'd like and focuses on making sure his young son is ready for life without his father.
Dakshana Bascaramurty is a reporter for the Globe and Mail. Her work has also appeared in the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen and on CBC. This Is Not the End of Me is her first book.
Billy-Ray Belcourt was the youngest-ever winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize. He was also the first First Nations Rhodes scholar from Canada. But he was once a young boy, growing up in Driftpile Cree Nation in Alberta. A History of My Brief Body tells his story: how his family was impacted by colonialism and intergenerational trauma and yet still hold joy and love in their hearts and lives, how he came into his queer identity and how writing became both a place of comfort and solace and a weapon for a young man trying to figure out his place in the world.
Belcourt is a poet, writer and academic from Driftpile Cree Nation in northern Alberta. He is a Rhodes Scholar and earned his PhD in English at the University of Alberta. His debut collection of poetry, This Wound is a World, won the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize. He is also the author of the poetry collection NDN Coping Mechanisms.
Like a Boy but Not a Boy is a collection of essays by non-binary poet and writer andrea bennett as they explore parenthood, gender, mental illness, creativity, mortality and identity and how it all interconnects. Like a Boy but Not a Boy is about forging your own path and accepting yourself, and finding family, love and faith on your own terms.
bennett is an editor, journalist and poet from Montreal. Their work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Walrus and Reader's Digest. Like a Boy but Not a Boy is their first book.
In Relax, Dammit!, health expert Timothy Caulfield looks at a regular day in modern life and the habits and decisions we make. He digs into the science behind many of our mindless day-to-day tasks and argues that many of the things we think make our lives easier, more convenient and more manageable, actually don't. He also argues that there is a way for us to become more relaxed, more at ease and less busy.
Caulfield is a professor at the University of Alberta, the host of the TV series A User's Guide to Cheating Death and the author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?
In The Skin We're In, journalist and activist Desmond Cole looks at what it's like to live in Canada as a Black person. In The Skin We're In looks at one year, 2017, and chronicles Coles's personal journalism, activism and experiences alongside stories that made the headlines across the country, including refugees crossing the Canada-U.S. border in the middle of winter and the death of Somali-Canadian Abdirahman Abdi at the hands of the Ottawa police.
Cole is a journalist, radio host and activist based in Toronto. His writing has appeared in the Toronto Star, Toronto Life, Now Magazine and the Walrus. The Skin We're In is his first book.
The Fight for History is a book by renowned historian and professor Tim Cook about the Second World War. But it's also about our relationship with the war after it ended: how the stories we told about the war have changed over time and how the war has shaped Canada's sense of identity and nationhood.
Cook is a professor at Carleton University and the Great War historian at the Canadian War Museum. He has written several books about military history, including No Place to Run, Shock Troops and Fight to the Finish. In 2014, he was named to the Order of Canada.
Christa Couture has lost a lot over the course of her life: her leg was amputated, her first child died when he was one-day old, her second child died as a baby after a heart transplant, her marriage ended in divorce and a thyroidectomy threatened her music career. But through it all, she has found hope, joy and love and maintains a perspective filled with compassion and understanding. She shares her journey, and what she's learned along the way, in her memoir, How to Lose Everything.
Couture is a writer, musician and broadcaster who is currently based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in CBC Arts and CBC Parents and she has been a columnist on CBC Radio's The Next Chapter. How to Lose Everything is her first book.
Lorna Crozier is one of Canada's most beloved and accomplished poets, as was her long-time partner, Patrick Lane. They met in 1976 and built a life together, publishing more than 40 books between them along the way. But in 2017, Lane became ill and their life changed forever, and eventually Lane died in 2019. Crozier writes about their relationship, their personal and creative partnership, and comes to terms with her grief, in the memoir Through the Garden.
Through the Garden was on the shortlist for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.
Crozier is a Governor General's Literary Award-winning poet who has written more than 15 books. Her poetry collections include The House the Spirit Builds, God of Shadows and What the Soul Doesn't Want.
In 2015, writer Steven Heighton made a sudden decision: he would travel to Greece and volunteer at the frontlines of the Syrian refugee crisis. Once there, he found himself working in a transit camp offering support to refugees who recently made the harrowing journey across the sea from Turkey, and alongside the refugees and the aid workers stationed there, finds himself overwhelmed. Heighton shares this story in the memoir Reaching Mithymna.
Reaching Mithymna was on the shortlist for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.
Heighton is a novelist, short story writer and poet from Toronto. His other books include the poetry collection The Waking Comes Late, which won the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry, and the novel The Nightingale Won't Let You Sleep.
Eva Holland explores fear in her first book Nerve. After losing her mother suddenly, Holland decides it's time to face her fears and dives headfirst into tackling them. Along the way, she explores the science of fear and tries to get answers to questions like: Can you really smell fear? What causes fear? Is it possible to be truly fearless?
Nerve was one of four Canadian titles named to Time's 100 must-read books of the year list.
Holland is a writer and editor based on Whitehorse. Her work has appeared in Outside, Wired, the Walrus and Canadian Geographic. Nerve is her first book.
In 2005, 22-year-old University of Waterloo student Kenton Carnegie was killed in a wolf attack near his work camp in northern Saskatchewan. Harold R. Johnson, an experienced hunter and trapper, had been told to stay away from wolves. Johnson takes on wolves and the mythology around them in Cry Wolf. He explores Carnegie's death and other wolf attacks and suggests that we should take wolves more seriously.
Johnson is a former Crown prosecutor who has written several works of both fiction and nonfiction. His book Firewater: How Alcohol Is Killing My People (and Yours) was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction. His other books include the novel Corvus, the genre-bending memoir Clifford and the nonfiction work Peace and Good Order.
Sarah Kurchak was diagnosed with autism at 27 years old. While she was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, she realized she was different from her peers — and did everything to overcome it. I Overcame My Autism and All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder is a memoir about how Kurchak became "an autistic 'success' story," how it almost ruined her life and what she did to reclaim her identity and her health.
Kurchak is a writer whose work has appeared in the Guardian, CBC, Vox and Electric Literature. I Overcame My Autism and All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder is her first book.
For more than 10 years, Julie S. Lalonde kept a terrifying secret: she was being stalked by her ex. At 20 years old, Lalonde left an abusive relationship, and he would go on to stalk her for the following decade. While Lalonde rose to national prominence as a women's rights advocate, writer and speaker, she would ask herself the same question at every event, rally or conference: Was he here? Resilience is Futile is about this terrifying experience, and also about how we handle trauma and find the strength to not only survive, but thrive.
Lalonde is a women's rights advocate and public educator. Her writing has appeared on CBC, Wired and Flare. Resilience is Futile is her first book.
In most fairy tales, characters who have disabilities or look different are often mocked or are the villain. In Disfigured, Amanda Leduc looks at fairy classics, from the classic Brothers Grimm to the modern Disney films, and explores how the representation of disability has informed how we see the world around us from a very young age and makes a case for a new set of tales, ones that celebrate difference and inclusivity.
Leduc is the communications and development coordinator for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) in Brampton, Ont. She is also the author of the novel The Miracles of Ordinary Men. She was longlisted for the 2019 CBC Short Story Prize.
Two Trees Make a Forest is an exploration of how geographical forces are interlaced with our family stories. A chance discovery of letters written by her immigrant grandfather leads Jessica J. Lee to her ancestral homeland, Taiwan. There, she traces his story while growing closer to the land he knew. Throughout her adventures, Lee uncovers surprising parallels between nature and human stories that shaped her family and their beloved island. In the memoir, she also turns a critical eye onto colonialist explorers who mapped the land and named plants, and both relied on and often erased the labour and knowledge of local communities.
- In Taiwan's lush landscape, Jessica J. Lee found a deeper understanding of her family's turbulent history
Lee is a British Canadian Taiwanese author, environmental historian, and winner of the RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Author Award. Her first book, Turning, was longlisted for the Frank Hegyi Award for Emerging Authors.
Missing from the Village is the story of serial killer Bruce MacArthur, and the eight men he killed over nearly a decade in Toronto's gay village. When the cases of three men who went missing in 2013 — Skandaraj Navaratnam, Abdulbasir Faizi and Majeed Kayhan — were left unsolved, journalist Justin Ling decided to investigate, believing the cases could be linked. What unfolded was a tragic story about a serial killer going undetected, a police investigation that failed, and about a community on edge and left to grieve when Bruce MacArthur was finally arrested in 2018, and his horrendous crimes became public.
When Canadian journalist Ethan Lou left Toronto in January 2020, the novel coronavirus had barely registered in the minds of North Americans and others in the West. Everything was fine — and then it wasn't. In Field Notes from a Pandemic, Lou details witnessing the earliest stages of the COVID-19 crisis when visiting China to see his ailing grandfather — and then unexpectedly travelling to other hot zones around the world, where he repeatedly relives the lockdown he left behind and sees the raw effects of the crisis.
Lou has written for the Guardian, the South China Morning Post, the Washington Post, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, Maclean's and The Walrus. He is also the author of another forthcoming book, Once a Bitcoin Miner.
Eternity Martis was smart, bookish and excited to go to university. But once she got to campus, life wasn't what she imagined. She was often the only student of colour in classes, at parties and in dorms, and had to face racial slurs, students in blackface at parties and more on a regular basis. They Said This Would Be Fun is a memoir about the difficulty of navigating through white spaces as a student of colour and asks us to confront the systemic issues that define the college experience for racialized and marginalized students.
Martis is a Toronto-based journalist, author and senior editor at Xtra. Her work focuses on issues of race and gender and has been featured in Vice, Salon, Hazlitt, TVO.org, The Walrus, Huffington Post and CBC. They Said This Would Be Fun is her first book.
Historian Margaret MacMillan looks at how conflict has shaped human society and culture over the centuries in her new book, War: How Conflict Shaped Us. Tracing conflict from ancient Greece to modern times, MacMillan looks at how war was often a catalyst for political upheaval, scientific developments and more — showing readers that war's long shadow over history is darker, bigger and murkier than we can even imagine.
War: How Conflict Shaped Us was the only Canadian book on the New York Times' list of notable books of 2020.
MacMillan is a historian, and an emeritus professor of international history at Oxford University and professor of history at the University of Toronto. She is the author of several books, including Paris 1919 and The War that Ended Peace. Paris 1919 won the Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction in 2003. She gave the 2015 Massey Lectures, which were titled History's People.
Tessa McWatt was born in Guyana and came to Canada when she was three years old. She grew up in Toronto and spent years living in Montreal, Paris, Ottawa and London. Her heritage is Scottish, English, French, Portuguese, Indian, Amerindian, African and Chinese. Shame on Me is a memoir about identity, race and belonging by someone who spent a lot of time trying to find an answer to the question, "Who are you?" and who has endured decades of racism and bigotry while trying to figure out who she is and where she belongs.
- How life in a Trumpian, post-Brexit world prompted Tessa McWatt to explore race and identity in her new memoir
McWatt is the author of several works of fiction. Her novels include Dragons Cry, Vital Signs and Higher Ed. She is also the co-editor of the anthology Luminous Ink: Writers on Writing in Canada. Shame on Me is her first work of nonfiction.
David A. Neel is from a family of traditional Kwakwa̱ka̱'wakw artists. But his father died when he was a baby and he was separated from his family, and grew up away from his culture and traditions. Twenty-five years later, when he saw a mask made by his great-great-grandfather in a museum, he decided it was time to reconnect with his culture and follow in his father's footsteps and become an artist himself. He also worked on coming to terms with the trauma and abuse he suffered in his childhood. Neel shares his story in the memoir The Way Home.
Neel is a carver, jeweller, painter, printmaker, writer and photographer who is a member of the Kwakwaka'wakw First Nation in British Columbia. The Way Home is his third book, he is also the author of Our Chiefs and Elders and The Great Canoes.
Bahar Orang is a physician-in-training. She's also a poet. In Where Things Touch, Orang tries to find the beauty in her clinical encounters and redefines and reimagines what beauty is and how it's defined. She explores intimacy, queerness, love, memory and asks what makes beauty — from physical attributes to human connection.
Orang is a writer and physician-in-training. Her writing has appeared in Arts Medica, Hamilton Arts & Letters and Guts. Where Things Touch is her first book.
In 1958, Willie O'Ree stepped on the ice for the Boston Bruins, becoming the first Black player to play in the NHL. For the next 20 years, he would continue to play, facing racist taunts from fans and fellow players. After he retired from playing, he would build an even bigger legacy as an advocate for diversity in sport, helping more than 40,000 kids discover the game he loved. Willie, a memoir written with journalist Michael McKinley, looks back on O'Ree's life, legacy and career.
O'Ree was the first Black player in the NHL. He is also the subject of the documentary Willie. Willie is his first book.
McKinley is a journalist, documentary filmmaker and screenwriter from Vancouver. He is also the author of the nonfiction book Hockey: A People's History and the novel The Penalty Killing.
David A. Robertson is a member of Norway House Cree Nation, but grew up not knowing much about his Indigenous heritage. His father, Don, grew up on the trapline in northeast Manitoba, but lost his connection to his Indigenous roots, language and culture after his family was moved to a reserve, and Don wasn't allowed to speak Cree at school. David decides to go traplining with his father as an adult, as a way to connect to his own Cree heritage and the land, but to also better understand his father. Black Water is the story of these journeys: a father and son heading into the wilderness, and of a son connecting with his father, but also with heritage and, ultimately, himself.
Robertson is a writer based in Winnipeg. He has published more than 25 books across a variety of genres, including the graphic novels Will I See? and Sugar Falls, a Governor General's Literary Award-winning picture book called When We Were Alone, illustrated by Julie Flett, and the YA book Strangers. He is also releasing a middle-grade novel, The Barren Grounds, in fall 2020. He hosts the CBC Manitoba podcast Kiwew.
Changing the Face of Canadian Literature is an anthology compiled and edited by writer, spoken word poet and editor Dane Swan. It's a book that highlights and celebrates the work of BIPOC Canadian writers, including Doretta Lau, Ayelet Tsabari, Jael Richardson, Kaie Kellough, Doyali Islam and Charles C. Smith.
Swan is a Bermuda-born, Toronto-based spoken word artist, former slam poet, musician, author and editor. Swan's second poetry collection, A Mingus Lullaby, was shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry in 2017.
Imperilled Ocean by Laura Trethewey follows several different people and their remarkable stories, but they all have one thing in common: the ocean. Imperilled Ocean combines remarkable stories — such as a community living on the water battling eviction to a Ghanian teenager trying to make it to Europe on a life raft — with deep research to paint a portrait of a place that takes up most of the space on this planet, yet we know so little about, in a time when climate change is rapidly changing the ocean and humanity's relationship to it.
Trethewey is a science journalist who specializes in oceans. She is a writer and editor for Vancouver Aquarium's website Ocean.org. Imperilled Ocean is her first book.
Emily Urquhart is the daughter of writer Jane Urquhart and artist Tony Urquhart. When the family was celebrating her father's 80th birthday, Emily was struck by how her father has continued his daily artistic practice into his old age, and was even trying new forms and styles. The Age of Creativity is Urquhart's exploration into later-in-life creativity, blending the story of her father with research and the stories of other seniors finding new and dynamic creative outlets later in life.
Urquhart is a writer and folklorist currently living in Kitchener, Ont. She is also the author of the memoir Beyond the Pale.
Njoki Wane's From My Mother's Back takes a look at her childhood living in Kenya where her parents owned a small coffee farm. It explores her African identity and how her upbringing and close relationship with her mother ensured her sense of self as a Black woman.
Wane is a professor at the University of Toronto and a recognized scholar in the areas of Black feminism and African spirituality.
When she was 35, Julia Zarankin was divorced and changing careers. She decided she needed a hobby, and unexpectedly turned to birdwatching. Her memoir, Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder, blends together a blossoming love affair with birding with her own biography — she was born in the Soviet Union, grew up in Canada and spent time living in Paris.
- The description for I Overcame My Autism and All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder was updated.Dec 01, 2020 9:31 PM ET