Favorite Nonfiction Reads of 2016
Below I’ve chosen my 10 favorite nonfiction books published in 2016, followed by five older nonfiction reads that I only discovered this year. I find it nigh on impossible to compare different genres of nonfiction, so I’m not ranking these but simply listing them alphabetically by author (interestingly, all but one of the 2016 books are by women).
As with yesterday’s fiction choices, many of these books have already featured on the blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
The Best of 2016
This Is Cancer by Laura Holmes Haddad: A stage IV inflammatory breast cancer survivor, the author wrote the “What to Expect” guide she wishes she could have found at the time of her diagnosis in 2012. Throughout this comprehensive, well-structured book, she uses her own experience to set out practical advice for dealing with the everyday medical and emotional realities of cancer.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren: With witty anecdotes and recreated dialogue, Jahren tells about her Minnesota upbringing, her long years in education, her ultimate specialization in geobiology/botany, crossing the country to take up academic posts in Atlanta, Baltimore and Hawaii, her long-time platonic relationship with eccentric lab partner Bill, and zany road trips across America for conferences and field work. What I think she does best is convey what it’s like to have true passion for your work, a rare thing.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: Kalanithi was 36 and just completing his neurosurgery residency in Stanford, California when he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer that did not respond well to treatment; he devoted his last year to writing this. I would recommend this cancer memoir to anyone for the beauty of its prose – a fine blend of literature and medicine – and the simple yet wholehearted picture of a life cut short.
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing: A remarkable piece of work fusing social history, commentary on modern art, biographical observation and self-knowledge. It’s a testament to Laing’s skill when I say that I knew next to nothing about any of these artists to start with and have little fondness for modern art but still found her book completely absorbing.
Squirrel Pie (and Other Stories): Adventures in Food across the Globe by Elisabeth Luard: Broadly speaking, this is about indigenous and peasant cooking traditions, a remit that allows Luard to include and adapt travel pieces she’s written over the past 20 years. It’s a cozy and conversational book for anyone who enjoys cooking or eating food from different cuisines (from Maui and Romania to Gujarat and Ethiopia); Luard’s own sketches and line drawings provide a lovely accompaniment.
Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body by Jo Marchant: Marchant, a journalist with a PhD in genetics and medical microbiology, investigates instances where the mind seems to contribute to medical improvement: the use of placebos in transplant recipients, hypnosis for IBS patients, virtual reality to help burn victims manage pain, and the remarkable differences that social connection, a sense of purpose, meditation and empathic conversation all make. I finished the book feeling intrigued and hopeful about what this might all mean for the future of medicine.
Poor Your Soul by Mira Ptacin: Ptacin’s wonderful memoir is based around two losses: her brother in a collision with a drunk driver, and a pregnancy in 2008; she skips back and forth in time to examine the numb aftermath of trauma as well as the fresh pain of actually going through it. I loved so much about this book, especially her memories of growing up in the cereal capital of America in Michigan and the account of her mother coming to America from Poland and setting up a fine-dining restaurant.
The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End by Katie Roiphe: An erudite, elegiac work of literary biography that takes in Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak and James Salter. What Roiphe observes of Sendak’s habit of drawing the dead and dying could equally be applied to The Violet Hour: it’s about seeing the beauty in what terrifies you.
Beyond the High Blue Air: A Memoir by Lu Spinney: In March 2006 Lu Spinney’s twenty-nine-year-old son, Miles King, was on a snowboarding holiday in Austria; on the final morning of the trip he took a fall that would leave this athlete, intellectual, and entrepreneur with a traumatic brain injury. Spinney tells her sad tale remarkably well, in a consciously literary style: with no speech marks and present-tense narration, thought and action flow lucidly into dialogue and daydream; she always chooses just the right metaphors, too.
The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World by Abigail Tucker: From the earliest domestication of animals to the cat meme-dominated Internet, Tucker marvels at how cats have succeeded by endearing themselves to humans and adapting as if effortlessly to any habitat in which they find themselves. This is the amazing cat book I’d been looking for, but I don’t think you even have to be a pet person to find this wide-ranging book enthralling.
If I had to list an overall favorite nonfiction book of the year, it would be The Violet Hour.
The Best of the Rest
Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home by Jessica Fechtor (2015): At age 28 Fechtor, then a graduate student in history and Yiddish, collapsed on a treadmill with a brain bleed; a subsequent surgery to clip the aneurysm left her blind in one eye. She gives a glimpse into an ordinary existence turned upside down and the foods that helped her regain a zest for life by reconnecting her with her family and her Jewish heritage.
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1977): Over the course of three years in the 1930s, starting when he was just 18, Fermor walked from Holland to Constantinople; this first of three volumes covers up until his entry into Hungary. His descriptions of the landscape and the people he interacted with are as fresh as if they happened yesterday; the precious glimpse of pre-war history and the damn fine writing make this a true masterwork of travel writing.
The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris (1996): Norris draws lessons from the time she spent as a lay Benedictine oblate but also simply reflects on her own life: the blessings and challenges of being a freelance poet and theologian; the daily discipline involved in marriage, keeping a house and gardening; and childhood memories from Virginia, Illinois and Hawaii. This is an impressively all-encompassing and eloquent set of essays on how faith intersects with everyday life.
One of Us: The Story of a Massacre and Its Aftermath by Åsne Seierstad (2015): An utterly engrossing account of Anders Behring Breivik’s July 22, 2011 attacks on an Oslo government building (8 dead) and the political youth camp on the island of Utøya (69 killed). This is a book about love and empathy – what they can achieve and what happens when they are absent; it shows how wide the ripples of one person’s actions can be, and how deep individual motivation goes.
The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman (1986): Spiegelman drew these allegorical tableaux to illustrate what, from a distance of decades, his Polish father Vladek told him about his almost unbelievable series of escapes, including time in Auschwitz. The only graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize, this brings the Holocaust home in a fresh way and paved the way for comic artists like Roz Chast and Alison Bechdel.
What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll list some runners-up for the year, and award a few more superlatives.
Books in Brief: Five I Enjoyed Recently
By Hope Jahren
This memoir puts so many things together that it shouldn’t work, yet somehow – delightfully – does. With witty anecdotes and recreated dialogue, Jahren tells about her Minnesota upbringing, crossing the country to take up geobiology/botany academic posts in Atlanta, Baltimore and Hawaii, her long-time platonic relationship with eccentric lab partner Bill, and zany road trips for conferences and field work. On the serious side, she writes about how bipolar disorder complicated work life, marriage and motherhood. Add to that the interspersed chapters illuminating aspects of plant biology and you get a truly varied and intricate narrative. What Jahren does best is simply convey what it is like to have true passion for your work, a rare thing. You don’t have to be a science type to enjoy this book. All that’s required is curiosity about how others live. Jahren might even inspire you to go plant a tree.
It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool, Too)
By Nora McInerny Purmort
Purmort was hit by a triple whammy of loss: within weeks of miscarrying her second child, both her father and her husband were dead of cancer. After a seizure revealed his brain tumor, she and Aaron got engaged on his hospital bed and went through fertility treatment to have their son. All in all they got three years together, after which the Minneapolis-based author founded what she calls the “Hot Widows Club.” She’s only about my age but, as she puts it, has “been through some shit.” The book is in the form of short essays, a lot like blog entries, that tread the fine line between heartbreak and humor. I might have preferred a bit more of a narrative; I wearied of open letters and lists. The book is best where she eases up on self-deprecating jokes and pop culture references and just tells her story, so much of which resonates with my sister’s experience. As soon as I finished the book, I ordered her a copy.
My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome
By Amy Silverman
When her younger daughter Sophie was born with Down’s syndrome in 2003, Silverman had no idea what to expect. The long-time Arizona journalist put her investigative skills to work, finding out everything she could about the discovery of Down’s and the history of how patients have been treated down the decades. In addition, she delves into the foundation of the Special Olympics (which had a connection with the Kennedy family) and its alternatives, and – not being a “support group kinda girl,” the other sources of encouragement she finds, especially through fellow bloggers. A significant portion of the book is about finding the best schools for Sophie – information that may well be not just U.S.-specific but particular to Arizona, where charter schools are popular. Still, what comes through is Silverman’s fierce love for her daughter and her insistence that every person with Down’s is an individual.
How to Ruin Everything: Essays
By George Watsky
Watsky is a slam poet and rap/hip hop artist from San Francisco. These essays about his misadventures reminded me most of Lauren Weedman (Miss Fortune) and John Jeremiah Sullivan (Pulphead). My favorite pieces were “Tusk,” on smuggling a narwhal tusk from Canada to the States to be his roommate’s great-aunt June’s hundredth birthday present, and “The White Whale,” about his unreliable tour bus. Others see him moving from a crumbling Boston college house to the heart of Hollywood deadbeat territory, traveling through India, fishing in Alaska, trying to attract older women, and reflecting on a childhood love of baseball. In the other stand-out essay, a more serious one, he reveals his experience of epilepsy and weaves in the history of its diagnosis and treatment. Also remarkable was a mention of Pauly Shore, a personage I haven’t thought about in, oh, I don’t know, a decade?
Only in Naples: Lessons in Food and Famiglia from My Italian Mother-in-Law
By Katherine Wilson
This is just the kind of book I would want to write about my experience studying abroad in England and eventually settling here. Of course, Wilson had it harder: she had to conduct her romance with Salvatore Avallone, relate to her future in-laws, and start a career all in a different language. But there were consolation prizes, chief among them the food. A lot of the best anecdotes revolve around Italian cuisine, like Salva’s mother Raffaella sending food down to her daughter in the apartment below via the elevator, or his uncle catching octopi with his one arm. I loved the colorful Italian and Neapolitan dialect expressions Wilson dots around, and as a fellow expat it was interesting to see what her non-negotiable American imports are (we all have our own list, I’m sure): wall-to-wall carpeting, air conditioning, a garbage disposal, and peanut butter – I’m with her on that last one, anyway.
(For each one, read my full Goodreads review by clicking on the title link.)
Have you read any of these? Which one takes your fancy?
Note: I’m traveling until the 24th so won’t be responding to comments right away, but will be sure to catch up soon after I’m back. I always welcome your thoughts!
Better Late than Never: The Signature of All Things
Who knew Elizabeth Gilbert had it in her? I’ve read and loved all of her nonfiction (e.g. Big Magic), but my experience of her fiction was a different matter: Stern Men is simply atrocious. I’m so glad I took a chance on this 2013 novel anyway. Many friends had lauded it, and for good reason. It’s a warm, playful doorstopper of a book, telling the long and eventful story of Alma Whittaker, a fictional nineteenth-century botanist whose staid life in her father’s Philadelphia home unexpectedly opens outward through marriage, an adventure in Tahiti, and a brush with the theories of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.
The novel’s voice feels utterly natural, and though Gilbert must have done huge amounts of research about everything from bryophytes to Tahitian customs, nowhere does the level of historical detail feel overwhelming. There are truly terrific characters, including mystical orchid illustrator Ambrose Pike, perky missionary Reverend Welles, and a charismatic Polynesian leader named Tomorrow Morning.
We see multiple sides of Alma herself, like her enthusiasm for mosses and her sexual yearning. For a short time in her girlhood she’s part of a charming female trio with her adopted sister Prudence and their flighty friend Retta. I loved how Gilbert pins down these three very different characters through pithy (and sometimes appropriately botanical) descriptions: “Prudence’s nose was a little blossom; Alma’s was a growing yam,” while Retta is “a perfect little basin of foolishness and distraction.”
Gilbert also captures the delight of scientific discovery and the fecundity of nature in a couple of lush passages that are worth quoting in full:
(Looking at mosses on boulders) Alma put the magnifying lens to her eye and looked again. Now the miniature forest below her gaze sprang into majestic detail. She felt her breath catch. This was a stupefying kingdom. This was the Amazon jungle as seen from the back of a harpy eagle. She rode her eye above the surprising landscape, following its paths in every direction. Here were rich, abundant valleys filled with tiny trees of braided mermaid hair and minuscule, tangled vines. Here were barely visible tributaries running through that jungle, and here was a miniature ocean in a depression in the center of the boulder where all the water pooled.
The cave was not merely mossy; it throbbed with moss. It was not merely green; it was frantically green. It was so bright in its verdure that the color nearly spoke, as though—smashing through the world of sight—it wanted to migrate into the world of sound. The moss was a thick, living pelt, transforming every rock surface into a mythical, sleeping beast.
Best of all, the novel kept surprising me. Every chapter and part took a new direction I never would have predicted. Like The Goldfinch, this is a big, rich novel I can imagine rereading.
One of my favorite parts of reviewing (e.g. for Kirkus and BookBrowse) is choosing “readalikes” that pick up on the themes or tone of the book in question. I’ve picked four for The Signature of All Things:
Lab Girl, Hope Jahren: An enthusiastic, wide-ranging memoir of being a woman in science. There’s even some moss! This was a really interesting one for me to be reading at the same time as the Gilbert novel. (See Naomi’s review at Consumed by Ink.)
Euphoria, Lily King: Based on Margaret Mead’s anthropological research among the tribes of Papua New Guinea in the 1930s, this also has a wonderfully plucky female protagonist.
The Paper Garden, Molly Peacock: This biography of Mary Delany, an eighteenth-century botanical illustrator, examines the options for women’s lives at that time and celebrates the way Delany beat the odds by seeking a career of her own in her seventies.
The Seed Collectors, Scarlett Thomas: A quirky novel full of plants and sex.