Best Non-Fiction Books of 2016

All year long I’ve shared my reads with you, but now we get down to the good stuff: the best books of 2016. In order to make the lists manageable and catered to your interests, I’m breaking down the year’s best reads into three categories: Best Fiction, Best Non-Fiction, and Best Middle Grade/Young Adult. One thing to note: my Best Of lists consist of the best books I read in 2016, but is not limited to books published in 2016. Okay then, let’s talk non-fiction!

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist

I’ve been waiting not-so-patiently for Shauna Niequist’s newest book, Present Over Perfect. Her previous book of essays, Bread & Wine, made my Best Of list in 2014. It’s a book I return to often, and love to give as a gift. I found Present Over Perfect to be just as lovely, but with one caveat: it won’t appeal to women as broadly as Bread & Wine does. Niequist writes with a certain woman in mind: the overworked woman who feels spread too thin. Niequist tells of her own breaking point, when the responsibilities that came along with a successful writing and speaking career threatened to overtake her health and her family. I found every part of Bread & Wine relatable, however there were a few essays in here which I couldn’t identify with. I still love the book as a whole, though, with its message that so many of us need to hear: you are enough.

How To Celebrate Everything by Jenny Rosenstrach

I’ve been a fan of Jenny’s from the moment I first stumbled upon her blog, Dinner: A Love Story. Her love of the family dinner, combined with her realistic view on just how difficult dinner can be as a parent, makes for a comforting, practical and useful resource. I own every one of her cookbooks (the others are Dinner: A Love Story and Dinner: the Playbook), and they show the signs of love and everyday use: stained and splattered. You might wonder how a cookbook ended up in my Best Of list. Isn’t it just recipes? Not this one. Jenny goes through the rituals of life, big and small, sharing her family’s traditions and encouraging you to create your own. Buy this now, make the Shredded Pork Lettuce Wraps and Chocolate Pudding Pie, and tell me you don’t love it as much as I do!

Grit by Angela Duckworth

Do you believe that the secret to great achievement is talent, and that some people are just destined for greatness while the rest of us slog along? Or is it possible that talent is only one part of the equation, and that effort, skill, passion and perseverance are far greater predictors of what one can achieve? These are a few of the questions that Angela Duckworth explores in Grit. I was initially curious to read Duckworth’s book out of a desire to nurture grit in my own kids. And while I learned a great deal about what grit is and how to foster passion and perseverance in my children, I was even more inspired to rethink my own attitude towards work and living a grittier life. We all have the potential to do meaningful, interesting and powerful things, according to Duckworth’s research. What we do with that potential is something entirely different. I love non-fiction that reads like fiction, and through Duckworth’s highly readable research and anecdotes, I felt like I was reading a personal journey through self-discovery as opposed to a dry book about how to be more successful. I found myself sharing snippets of the book often, both with Mike and the kids, which is a sign that a book is a game-changer for me. This book will stay with me for a long time, and I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t benefit from reading it.

168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam

168 hours: that’s how many hours we get in one week. How, exactly, do we spend those 168 hours? Most of us would say working, and many of us often wish for more time so that we could pursue interests outside of work and the other drudgeries of daily life. Vanderkam insists that we don’t need more time – that big pockets of time are available to use every day and we just don’t recognize them as opportunities. Vanderkam suggests keeping a weekly time log for at least one week, and then walks the reader through work, home and family life to discover what you want more of and how to make it happen.

This isn’t a typical time management book, and while the focus is clearly on readers who work full or part-time, I found it to be illuminating and helpful. I kept a time log for a week and it gave me incredible insight into how I spend my 168 hours (more on that in a future post for sure). Two things stuck with me, and can be transformative for those ready to make changes in how they spend their time. One: we spend more time than we think doing things that take up precious time and don’t bring us much joy or relaxation (such as mindless Internet surfing, scrolling through our phones, or watching TV). Two: if you don’t know what you want more of in life – whether it’s career, personal, or in your relationships – you can’t focus your valuable time toward making it happen. Vanderkam encourages readers to log and review their time, reflect on your dreams and goals (both very big and very small), and shows you how you can find time you already have to make them a reality. I initially only gave it 3 stars on Goodreads, which normally wouldn’t make the cut-off for the Best Of list. However as I wrap up my year and plan for 2017, I realize just how often the information I gleaned from this book keeps reappearing in my life in the most useful of ways – definitely a sign of a good book!

Untangled by Lisa Damour

If I could put this in the hands of every parent of a tween and teen girl I would. I can’t even begin to express what a gift this book is to parents wondering how to make it through the teen years. Damour, a clinical psychologist who specializes in child development and research on girls, writes a handbook for parents that guides them through the seven transitions girls need to go through on their way to adulthood. These transitions (Parting with Childhood, Joining a New Tribe, Harnessing Emotions, Contending with Adult Authority, Planning for the Future, Entering the Romantic World, and Caring for Herself) are necessary but tricky, leaving even the most confident parents and girls wondering what on earth is going on! What I love about Damour’s book is that it talks about these issues in a calm, informative way – never condescending, never preachy, and most importantly – never panic-inducing. Each chapter explains these developmental processes with the reasons why they need to happen and why they’re normal, and ends with specific examples of when a parent should worry. The teen years (unfairly) get a bad rap, especially teen girls. This book will help parents leave that notion behind and parent in a way that will ease the tension and drama, leaving them to enjoy this fantastic phase before their girls leave them for adulthood.

Rising Strong by Brené Brown

In Daring Greatly (one of my favorite non-fiction reads of 2015), Brené Brown invites us “to embrace vulnerability and imperfection, to live wholeheartedly, and to courageously engage in our lives.” In this follow-up book, Brown looks deeper at vulnerability: what happens when we’re brave and vulnerable – and we inevitably fall down? I find Brown’s writing both delightful to read and supremely insightful. I took so many notes, and there are ideas and passages that will resonate with me for a lifetime. At the same time, what Brown has to say isn’t always easy to take in. She looks deeply into what triggers shame, anger, fear, embarrassment, doubt and vulnerability, and shows us how easy it can be (in the short term), to stuff those feelings back down and cloak them in an entirely different story we tell ourselves. Best of all, Brown gives us to the tools we can use to break out of that cycle by recognizing our story, rumbling with our feelings and changing the way we live, love, work and parent. Buy your own copy and break out your highlighters!

How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims

Written by a former Stanford freshman admissions dean, Lythcott-Haims examines the generation of kids she helped usher through Stanford and investigates why this generation in particular has had such a difficult time adjusting to adulthood. She tells stories of young adults whose parents intervene in college courses and post-graduate job interviews, and of kids who don’t know how to manage themselves on their own. Using these anecdotes as a guide, she formulates a plan for parents raising this next generation, helping us raise grounded, confident and independent kids who will be ready to tackle adulthood equipped with the tools they’ll need. I found it inspiring, eye-opening and extremely helpful. I’d especially recommend it for parents of tweens and teens who are on the cusp of the college admissions process.

What non-fiction books inspired you in 2016?

These 7 non-fiction books changed my life for the better in 2016.

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The Beauty of Egg Roll Season

You can smell them before you see them. It’s the fragrance of carbs hitting hot oil. But underneath the ubiquitous deep fried smell that goes hand in hand with an outdoor market or fair in the summer, there’s something else. An exotic smell that you don’t usually expect when you catalog the odors of Indiana fried foods: egg rolls. For as long as I’ve been visiting the Fishers Farmer’s Market, Mathoo’s Egg Rolls has been there. When I strolled by the first time, I was amused. Egg rolls? At 9 a.m.? Sandwiched between the guy tossing bags of sweet corn to customers and the vendor selling every part of the cow you can imagine, she seemed just a little out of place. Perhaps knowing this, she offered samples. This woman was no fool. She knew all you needed was one bite of her freshly fried egg rolls, dipped in her homemade sauce. One taste and you wouldn’t be chuckling anymore. You’d be handing over your wallet.

Mathoo's Egg Rolls from Fishers Indiana Farmer's Market

It didn’t take long for the doubters like me to turn into weekly customers. The following year there were no samples. If you wanted to know if the egg rolls were worth buying, you only needed to look at the line. It was always there, growing as the morning went on until the saddest words in the English language were delivered to the poor, egg roll-less souls: “Sorry! All sold out today!” When she folds up shop for the day, you know you won’t be able to get your egg roll fix again until the following Saturday (unless you foolishly sleep in). When the Farmer’s Market packs it up for the season in the crisp and cool days of fall you panic a little. You see, they don’t sell egg rolls out of a brick and mortar store or a roaming food truck. Egg roll season, while a blissfully long season by farmer’s market standards, is over when the market is over. And while your belly may enjoy a little break in November, by December you’re jonesing for more. The opening day of the market in early May is kind of pitiful. Strawberries if you’re lucky, radishes, some tender greens here and there. But that first bite of egg roll, always ripe and perfect after months without that taste in your mouth, is a beautiful thing.

Last spring, we spent a week in California. It was our first visit out west, and we were thrilled to try foods and restaurants we don’t have in Indianapolis. Driving through LA, I spotted a Shake Shack. I’ve had it before, but Mike and the kids were Shack virgins. As we tore into our burgers and shakes, we mused about how wonderful it would be to have one in Indiana. The idea isn’t crazy – it is a chain, after all, and there’s one in Chicago. Eating that first egg roll of the season shortly after we returned from California had me second guessing our wish.

The beauty of the farmer’s market egg roll and the Shake Shack burger, along with the countless other foods we crave and make travel plans around, is the anticipation. It’s remembering the taste, the people you shared it with, the “otherness” of your life when eating it. Whether it’s the way food tastes better when your on vacation or when the season of your life while consuming it is different, it’s something that can’t be easily replicated. The egg roll itself isn’t a work of culinary art. It’s an egg roll … a well-made, freshly fried egg roll, sure. But it’s still just an egg roll. It tastes magnificent because no matter how much money you have, no matter how much you need one on January 17th, you can’t have one. It’s the same with a Shack burger, or the shrimp you boil in your beach house, a Sonic cherry limeade on a road trip, or the ice cream we used to eat in the Malley’s gazebo in northeast Ohio. You can replicate any of those things at home, or open an outpost next to all the other familiar chains on the highway. It won’t taste the same.

I’m human and terrible at waiting for things, and so I still long for certain shops and restaurants to open in my hometown. And living near Indianapolis, it does happen. I got my wish and a Container Store appeared a few years ago. I can get in my car and ten minutes later be eating a freshly scooped dish of Graeter’s ice cream. Next fall I’ll be able to ride my bike to an IKEA and feast on lingonberry juice and Swedish meatballs. I’ll gladly trade in our Zaxby’s for a Raising Canes. But I also recognize that having these things available at a whim takes away their specialness. No longer do I block out two hours to walk the aisles of Container Store, or feel the delicious anxiety of wondering whether I want a scoop of Black Raspberry Chip or Bourbon Ball. I can pick up a cute container to organize my office supplies on a Thursday at 9 a.m. I can come back tomorrow and get whatever flavor I didn’t choose today.

That won’t stop me wishing for a Shake Shack or a Jeni’s Ice Cream right around the corner. But if the genie in the bottle knows what’s good for us, he’ll keep our cities just different enough to encourage us to wait and wander for the things we wish for.

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DIY Instant Oatmeal Mix

Homemade Instant Oatmeal

My kids, like Mike and I, are polar opposites when it comes to breakfast. Mike and Elena could care less about breakfast, and wouldn’t think twice about skipping it. Mike is a grown man, so I let him get away with it. I shudder at some of the things Elena manages to call “breakfast” in her attempt to appease me by eating something before heading out the door in the morning (Cheese and pepperoni at 6:30 am? Yuck!), but at least she’s getting some food in her belly. Hangry, decaffeinated Angie is a real monster, so I have to eat something and have a cup of tea or coffee in the morning. And Eli? I swear he consumes his entire caloric intake for the day at breakfast.

Because he eats so much and is more open to trying new things in the mornings, I try to make breakfast his best meal of the day. One of the things that he loves to eat is oatmeal. I love it, too, because in one fell swoop I can serve him whole grains and protein that will last him all morning long. Throw in some fruit on the side and the kefir he loves to drink, and it’s easily one of the most nutritious meals he eats all day.

The only issue I have with oatmeal is that if I don’t have any on hand, it’s not easy to whip up on a school morning. My very favorite oatmeal recipe involves cooking oats with milk low and slow for about an hour. It’s easy to make a big batch, and it reheats beautifully, but there are plenty of times when I haven’t gotten around to making a batch. We’re also fans of overnight steel-cut oats, but again, I don’t always think that far ahead.

I’ve eyed those easy packets of instant oatmeal many times in the grocery store, knowing that Eli would love them and it would make those mornings when I’m out of my homemade oatmeal easy. But I also know that they contain lots of things I don’t necessarily want to fill him up with, and that once I get into the habit of just ripping open a packet I’d have a hard time giving up the ease of it.

Instead I got to work in the kitchen, and concocted my own recipe for instant oatmeal. There are quite a few suggestions online, and I tinkered with a few different recipes until I got it exactly the way our bellies like it. And the bonus? Our groggy, decaffeinated selves approve of it at the crack of dawn as well. We still love a good, slow-cooked batch of oatmeal. But for those mornings when ain’t nobody got time for that, it’s nice to have quick, easy (but still delicious) instant oatmeal to fall back on.

DIY Instant Oatmeal Mix

This makes about 14 1/2 cup servings. You can easily double or triple the recipe to have a big batch on hand.

INGREDIENTS

6 cups quick-cook oats

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup powdered milk

1/4 cup brown sugar

2 tablespoons cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon vanilla powder (optional)

DIRECTIONS

Blend 2 cups of the oats in a food processor into a coarse powder. In a large bowl, mix the powdered oats with 4 cups of whole oats. Add the salt, powdered milk, brown sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla powder (if using). Stir to combine.

Store mixture in an airtight container.

When ready to serve, scoop a heaping 1/2 cup of the oatmeal mixture into a bowl. Add 3/4 cup of boiling water or hot milk. Stir and let stand for 3 minutes. Depending on how you like the consistency of your oatmeal, you can adjust the amount of water or milk you add. Fancy up your oatmeal with chopped fruit and/or nuts, if you like. Eli’s a purist – oatmeal only for him. I’m loving mine with roasted coconut chips and a spoonful of peanut butter at the moment!

 

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