Here at the National Magazine Awards Foundation, nothing brings us greater joy than diving into our next non-fiction read. Non-fiction gnaws at us because prose based on real people and real events tends to capture, move, and inspire us.
So to bid farewell to the year that was, we’ve rounded up some of our top non-fiction reads by National Magazine Award-winning authors — aka fool-proof gift ideas — that will undoubtedly please (and hopefully inspire) anyone you’re looking to spoil this holiday season.
Also, check out our top Fiction reads, too.
“Invisible North” by Alexandra Shimo
Alexandra Shimo’s new book, Invisible North, is a cry for help for our Indigenous peoples: their lives, their land and their dignity.
Shimo is not Indigenous. The lived experience and documentation of our Indigenous peoples, by Indigenous peoples, is of utmost importance to the amendment of Canada’s history and will play a crucial part in shaping our country’s future. Shimo is, however, an investigative reporter, who, while on assignment for CBC’s The Current, discovered the devastating reality of Canada’s Indigenous reserves. When Shimo travelled to the Kashechewan reserve in northern Ontario — known better to some as “ground zero” for the First Nation experience — she witnessed firsthand the deplorable living conditions, major lack of services and the relentless government inaction faced by the Cree living on that land. In Invisible North, she recounts her deep-seated guilt, struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and ultimate inability to cope with the living conditions on the reserve.
Shimo is a former editor of Maclean’s. She is the recipient of three honorable mentions at the National Magazine Awards, including for her Toronto Life piece, “Kandahar Diaries,” five stories from soldiers after their return from Afghanistan. This is her third book.
“A Disappearance in Damascus” by Deborah Campbell
“Did I find her or did she find me?” writes Deborah Campbell in her new book, A Disappearance in Damascus (Knopf Canada), winner of the Writers’ Trust Award. Her is in reference to Ahlam, Campbell’s ‘fixer’— journalist jargon for a foreign correspondent’s interpreter or guide. An Iraqi mother and humanitarian, Ahlam is of invaluable assistance to Campbell throughout her Middle-East reportage, and when she gets taken by secret agents, the journalist, who has reported from countries including Egypt, Qatar and Russia among others, can’t help but take the blame for her disappearance. Campbell spends months in search of her friend in the perilous city.
The story takes place almost a decade ago, rendering the title somewhat misleading. When Ahlam disappeared, Campbell was reporting on the Iraq War, at a time when Iraqis were fleeing to Syria for refuge. Despite this, Campbell’s account provides a contemporary piece of the puzzle that is the current state of war in Syria.
Campbell is the winner of two National Magazine Gold Awards for her articles in The Walrus— “The Most Hated Name in News” and “Iran’s Quiet Revolution”— published in 2009 and 2006 respectively. She has written for many publications, including Harper’s, The Guardian and Foreign Policy, and has spent over a decade reporting abroad.
“The Marriott Cell” by Mohamed Fahmy (w/ Carol Shaben)
Just over one year ago, Egyptian-born Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy was awaiting bail from behind bars of an Egyptian maximum security prison. He, along with two other Al-Jazeera journalists, were sentenced to 7-10 years, accused of reporting false news, after police raided their makeshift studio in the Marriott Hotel in Cairo. According to Human Rights Watch, the trial of Fahmy was a “miscarriage of justice based on zero evidence.” Despite this, the three spent over a year in prison before making bail following a presidential pardon.
Now, finally free and back in Canada, Fahmy is an adjunct professor at UBC, and he’s just published The Marriott Cell (Random House), a book on his harrowing experience in Egypt. The book is a collaboration of efforts by Fahmy and Carol Shaben, a former NMA winner.
Shaben is the winner of two National Magazine Awards for her story, “Fly at Your Own Risk” (The Walrus), about the deficiencies of Canada’s smaller aviation aircrafts and companies. She has written one other book, Into the Abyss, and lives in Vancouver.
Read our interview with Carol Shaben.
“Sixty” by Ian Brown
The problem with turning 60? It’s so goddamn melodramatic, says Ian Brown, who wrote about the experience in a bygone Globe and Mail column.
A year later, he’s written a book on the subject of his life since, entitled, Sixty: The Beginning of the End, or the End of the Beginning? A Diary of My Sixty-First Year (Penguin Random House). The title itself sounds characteristically self-deprecating — perhaps not surprising for any seasoned journalist in 2016. Fearing he’s “misplaced” the last 20 years of his life, Brown begins writing a diary in an attempt to embrace the next 20. He isn’t necessarily unhappy with how his life has played out — he is a successful journalist by anyone’s standards — but he grapples with how inconspicuously the last six decades slipped by. Brown provides both an intimate and humorous look at the aging process, in hopes it really is just “the End of the Beginning.”
Ian Brown is a journalist and author of five books. Currently, he hosts Human Edge and The View from Here on TVOntario. He is also a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. Brown has collected many National Magazine Awards over the years, most recently a Gold for “Man Vs. Behemoth,” his short feature published in Explore Magazine.
“Bad Singer” by Tim Falconer
If you’re into books like Daniel Levitan’s This Is Your Brain on Music or David Byrne’s How Music Works, Tim Falconer’s Bad Singer (House of Anansi) should logically be next on your reading list. Sure, it’s another look at music through a scientific lens, however, the latter takes a more personal approach, as Falconer himself suffers from amusia — the technical term for tone deafness, encompassing both pitch processing and musical memory. Weaving through the science behind singing, the limitations of the body and the trait of human persistence, Falconer is able to prevail, capturing the interest of any reader, simply by exploring a topic dear to so many.
Falconer’s book is based on his 2012 Maisonneuve piece “Face the Music,” that won him a Silver at the National Magazine Awards.
Falconer is the author of five books. Currently, he is a professor at Ryerson’s School of Journalism in Toronto, a mentor in the Creative Non-Fiction program at the University of King’s College in Halifax and an editor at the Literary Journalism program at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.
“The Promise of Canada” by Charlotte Gray
Just in time for Canada’s 150th birthday, historian Charlotte Gray has released her new book, The Promise of Canada: 150 Years – People and Ideas That Have Shaped our Country (Simon & Schuster). Gray deconstructs nine influential Canadians and their respective roles since Confederation.
Gray includes the obvious, from George-Étienne Cartier to Tommy Douglas to Emily Carr, but strays (somewhat) with a chapter on Elijah Harper, former Indigenous NDP MLA, and noted critic of the Meech Lake Accord. If history textbooks of our past didn’t suffice in the area of Indigenous peoples pasts, perhaps Gray’s account will follow the lead of Harper’s, that is, to bring the stories of our Indigenous people into mainstream conversation.
Gray has received eight honourable mentions at the NMAs, including a Chatelaine profile of global activist Naomi Klein and a Walrus political piece on leader of the NDP, Thomas Mulcair.
Happy holiday reading from the National Magazine Awards.
And remember, submissions for this year’s 40th anniversary awards are being accepted until January 20. Enter at magazine-awards.com.