Why My Books Are Not Clutter

Clutter n: A large amount of things that are not arranged in a neat or orderly way : a crowded or disordered collection of things.

Clutter n: A crowded or confused mass or collection; a mass of disorderly or distracting objects or details.

IMG_1221When it comes to my books, I’ll admit to “large amount, and even to “crowded” — but definitely not to “confused” or “disorderly”. I do find them “distracting” — but isn’t that part of the point of books? My books are organized by subject and in the case of fiction, even alphabetized by author. They are lined up neatly on shelves and stacked on tables. Clutter, to my mind, is the stuff I shove in my laundry room junk drawer — mysterious cords, chargers, and hardware items. I’m also guilty of hanging on to piles of magazines. The homes featured in those very magazines don’t have overflowing baskets of House Beautiful and Veranda in their living rooms. (They also rarely have reading lights next to chairs and sofas, I’ve noticed.)

We’ve recently tried to spruce up our house, recovering furniture, replacing rugs, and adding window treatments. So I’ve been reading a lot of interior design magazines, blogs, and books. I’ve learned that there are some very big no-nos — “brown furniture” (which apparently means antiques made of wood) and “matchy matchy” frequently come up as evils to avoid. The absolute worst sin that amateur decorators can commit is failing to eliminate clutter. Clutter not only causes people to experience stress, it may contribute to obesity — according to professional organizer Peter Walsh, author of Lose the Clutter, Lose the Weight: The Six-Week Total-Life Slim Down.

Judging from much of what I’ve been seeing, today’s ideal home looks like an upscale chain hotel, with lots of neutral colors and empty space. (In a large percentage of these homes, the designer adds “personality” by tossing a zebra skin rug over a sisal rug.)

Dominique Browning  (past editor-in-chief of House & Garden) wrote a lovely and insightful article, “Let’s Celebrate the Art of Clutter”, published in the New York Times a few weeks ago. She laments today’s “propaganda of divestment”, and asks, “Why on earth would we get rid of our wonderful things?” :

It is time to celebrate the gentle art of clutter. We live, and we pick up things along the way: the detritus of adventure; the vessels of mealtimes; the books and music of a life of the mind; the pleasures of our daily romps through the senses . . . And yes, you will have bookshelves. Never enough of them. And more books, to replace all those books you gave away. That, too, is a law of nature.

9781607747307Organizational guru Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, says that “books are one of three things that people find hardest to let go”. Maybe this should tell her something. Why must we feel pressured to let go of things we would like to keep? She says the “true purpose” of books “is to be read, to convey the information to their readers. It’s the information they contain that has meaning. There is no meaning in their just being on your shelves”. That’s where Kondo and I disagree. Being surrounded by my books (even those that don’t particularly “spark joy”, to use Kondo’s phrase), gives me a sense of comfort and warmth that half-empty, dust-free shelves can’t provide.

Kondo recommends placing bookcases in the closet, leaving “nothing to obstruct the line of vision”.  But books are exactly what I want in my line of vision. Just because I’ll never reread a book, cover to cover, doesn’t mean I don’t want it on my shelf. The familiar gray cover of Bonfire of the Vanities reminds me of stolen hours on the couch while my infant son napped. On the shelf above I see Gorky Park and recall reading it on a lounge chair on my honeymoon. I know without looking that The Poisonwood Bible was published in 1998, because I remember that it was one of my very first purchases with my employee discount at Lake Forest Book Store. I’ll never forget coming home from work and reading it during a power outage, by candlelight, while the children were at school.

Every now and then I reread some of my childhood favorites — most recently, I reread A Wrinkle in Time. The lines I underlined when I was 12 are the same ones I would underline now:

In your language you have a form of poetry called the sonnet . . . There are fourteen lines, I believe, all in iambic pentameter. That’s a very strict rhythm or meter . . . And each line has to end with a rigid pattern. And if the poet does not do it exactly this way, it is not a sonnet…But within this strict form the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants . . . You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.

I’m glad I have this book on my shelf, even though I may never open it again. I understand a little more about what Madeleine L’Engle has to say about fate and free will than I did when I was 12, and I’m inspired to read her adult books. As our world becomes more digital, I find myself becoming more attached to physical objects that evoke memories — books, of course, but letters and photographs as well. The books I read electronically don’t seem to lodge themselves in my memory as well as the “real” books I read. A few times, I’ve actually bought the physical version of an e-book I’ve read just so I can add it to my collection.

elements-of-style-9781476744872_lgOne book I recently bought that I had already read is Elements of Style: Designing a Home and a Life, by Erin Gates. The photos didn’t show up well in the electronic version (which was a galley, anyway), and it’s a book I’ll stack on my coffee table and refer to again and again. I love that lots of the rooms Gates designs include bookcases that are filled with books, rather than with pottery and knickknacks. She has lots of great decorating tips for the amateur, and plenty of funny anecdotes also.

I’ve amassed piles of design books, including Books Make a Home, Living With Books, and Novel Interiors: Living in Enchanted Rooms Inspired by Literature. My house is not “enchanted”, but it’s not cluttered either — it’s just full of books!

The Joys of Podcasts — Put Those Headphones On!

UnknownA couple of years ago, when I came up with the crazy idea of writing a book blog, I thought I had the perfect name: Books on the Nightstand. A Google search revealed that a website by that name already existed. My initial disappointment evaporated when I spent some time exploring Books on the Nightstand. Two Random House sales reps started recording podcasts in 2008 and since then, have produced 340 episodes. (They recommend books from many publishers, not just Penguin Random House.) Here’s their description of Books on the Nightstand:

At Books on the Nightstand, we strive to bring you great book recommendations, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at the world of books, bookstores and publishing. We do this through our weekly podcasts and frequent blog posts. Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman are friends and colleagues who work in the publishing industry. That means that we talk about books all day long to other people who love to talk about books. But sometimes, those conversations have to end before we’re ready to stop talking. Thus, this blog . . . Our weekly podcasts (internet radio shows) are the heart of what we do here, and we hope you’ll join us. We post new episodes every Wednesday (or often late Tuesday night).

coverBooks on the Nightstand podcasts usually follow the same format: a discussion about a book related topic, with book suggestions; an in-depth book recommendation from both Michael and Ann (“Two books we can’t wait for you to read”); and an audiobook recommendation. Most often, the recommended books are hot off the press, although about once a month backlist books receive attention in a feature called “Don’t you forget about me”.  The books chosen for discussion are always interesting, and often surprising; recent selections include one of my favorite neglected gems, The Rope Walk, by Carrie Brown;  a new — and very topical — thriller, The Cartel, by Don Winslow;  and a new memoir, Blackout, by Sarah Hepola. (By the way, I just read Blackout, and I don’t think I’ve stopped cringing. It’s very well-written, but painfully honest.)

I’ve moved quite a few books to the top of my stack after listening to a review on Books on the Nightstand. (The podcast is the next best thing to in-store presentations by our own Random House reps, Bridget and Laura.) Ann’s high praise for The Painter inspired me to read the novel right away:

My pick for this week is The Painter by Peter Heller. I love this novel so much, even more than I loved The Dog Stars, which I wouldn’t have thought possible. I think this is a book that will appeal to so many of you: those of you who love beautiful sentences, those that like intriguing characters, those that love great descriptions of the landscape, and all of you that love a fully-realized story. Don’t miss this one!

rosie-effect-9781476767314_lgI especially enjoy the audiobook reviews, which focus not only on the content of the books, but the performances of the narrators. I’ve mentioned before that I love listening to audiobooks when I’m on car trips (Road Trip “Reading” — The Joys of Audiobooks). Right now, I’m able to relax — and even laugh– while driving in Chicago traffic because I’m listening to The Rosie Effect, by Graeme Simsion.

Podcasts are perfect for getting me moving — an hour of brisk walking seems to fly by when I’m listening to something interesting. Music just doesn’t do it for me. Once I discovered Books on the Nightstand, I found that there are countless podcasts that hold my attention. If you haven’t listened to Serial, download it immediately — you’ll be hooked.  The Huffington Post reports that host Sarah Koenig announced that two more seasons are in the works, and provides some background on the  series:

Serial debuted in October as a spinoff of This American Life, a long-running podcast from Chicago public radio station WBEZ. In it, Koenig reinvestigated the case of Adnan Syed, who is serving a life sentence for the 1999 strangulation of his high school ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, whose body was found in a Baltimore-area park. The show racked up unprecedented numbers of downloads and took on a life of its own as devotees debated Syed’s guilt.

Other podcasts I enjoy listening to are The Moth: True Stories Told Live, Selected Shorts: Let Us Tell You a Story,  and Slate’s Audio Book Club. The online magazine Bustle has a good list of literary podcasts, noting that “podcasts are a great excuse to shut out the world for a little bit on your next commute, jog, or errand, and get lost in a community of people who are just as psyched about books as you are. Put those headphones on; all the cool people are doing it”.

One question: why haven’t I lost any weight, with all the walking/listening I’ve been doing?

Vacation

I’m on vacation this week, which means lots of reading and relaxing — and no reviewing. I’ll be back next week with book reviews. 

9780804170154On my vacation, I’ve read two books I loved: The Painter, by Peter Heller, which came out last year, and Hold Still, by Sally Mann, just published.

If I were teaching a class called “How to Write a Novel”,  I would use the opening lines of The Painter as an example of how to grab a reader’s attention:

I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea.

(By the way, I just read the advance reader’s copy of a terrific novel with the title How to Write a Novel, by Melanie Sumner, that will be published as a paperback original in early August. I enjoyed every page of this clever and endearing book, and what I loved most was the voice of the 12.5 year old (yes, that’s how she refers to herself) narrator, Aristotle. If you liked Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (and who didn’t?), you’ll have a great time with How to Write a Novel.)

02dde0b11247a412ef5ab2d18f7ba165I think Hold Still is one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. It doesn’t seem fair that Sally Mann is not only a renowned photographer but a talented writer as well. Don’t be tempted to read the book electronically, because the photographs — and there are many — are integral to the story, and I think you need to see them on the printed page.

IMG_1535I’m in the middle of The Rocks, by Peter Nichols, which I brought along because it seemed like such a vacation book — it’s good, but I’m able to put it down. There’s so much else to do, especially when the sun is shining!

Nonrequired Reading

children-studying-670663_640Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.
Maya Angelou

Yesterday I saw a sight that warmed my heart. A little boy, on his way home from our local library, just couldn’t wait to read one of the books he’d just checked out. He meandered along the sidewalk, once nearly bumping into a tree, while reading one of his books. I don’t know what book captured his attention, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t one of the books on a required summer reading list.

I remember riding my Schwinn Hollywood home from the library, the basket piled with books. Some were books I’d read before, some were below my reading level, some were what is now called “inappropriate”; very few were the kinds of books teachers would be likely to assign. If I didn’t like a book, I didn’t finish it. If I liked it a lot, I’d read it again. No one paid any attention, as far as I could tell, to what I read. The school didn’t send home a list of books that were required summer reading.

Here is the information on required summer reading my old elementary school publishes on its website:

Summer provides a wonderful opportunity for nurturing self-directed learning experiences, but it is equally important to give students more structured activities that keep them from losing ground over the long break from school. This summer’s reading requirements closely align to the English Language Arts Curriculum so that students are prepared to jump right into their first unit of study. Below you will find an overview of the summer reading program with directions explaining how to access the reading list and assignments.

The assigned fiction title will prepare students for their first unit of study in English Language Arts. Each grade has one specific novel and an accompanying assignment. No substitutions will be accepted. Grade six has an additional link to a teacher model of the assignment. Remember that the fiction title and assignment are on the same document, and is accessed the same way, as nonfiction.

61iWdIYvLcLPretty grim . . . doesn’t exactly make you want to pick up a book, or even “nurture a self-directed learning experience”, does it? (And by the way, what is “English Language Arts”? Maybe the school couldn’t decide whether to call the subject “English” or “Language Arts”, so they came up with this weird compromise?) When I reviewed the “assigned fiction titles”, I was very glad I wasn’t entering fifth grade, because I would have been forced to read Avi’s Something Upstairs (published in 1988), a horror story about a boy who discovers a ghost. I hated those types of books when I was 10, and guess what — I still do. I did enjoy S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (published in 1967) when I read it in the early 1970s, but it seems like an odd, dated choice for today’s seventh graders.

The school district in the town where our bookstore is located has a slightly more upbeat attitude toward summer reading. I say “slightly” because the school refers to summer reading as a “task”. What was the last “task” you enjoyed? Warning parents that “while the summer months are a wonderful opportunity for fun and relaxation, the break from the rigors of school can cause a lag in learning”, the school does acknowledge that an additional goal is “to foster and encourage a lifelong habit of reading — for pleasure as well as knowledge — in our students.” I wonder how many eighth graders will find reading And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie, to be a pleasure. A few will, I’m sure, but the school has required students to read this book for many years and I don’t think I’ve ever had a child come back to the store and ask for more Agatha Christie books.

At least, from a bookseller’s perspective, it’s easy to hand over the requested copy of And Then There Were None. What we dread are the requests for sixth grade reading, which is supposed to center on themes of hope and gratitude:

For your summer reading, we’d like you to read 2 – 3 books of various genres that focus on the themes of hope or gratitude. Look for books where the characters may have overcome struggles or where, despite the conflict within the book, it has a “happy ending”; you believe the characters will be OK.

I suppose almost any book could fit this description, especially since the school mentions Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl as an example of a book that focuses on optimism. (News flash: the “characters” were not OK.) If an important goal is to develop a love of reading, wouldn’t it be better to ask children to read a few books — on any subject and on any reading level — and tell why they liked these books? Anything, from graphic novels/comics to series books to sports biographies, would be fair game. The only requirement would be that kids find something to read that they enjoy.

Is that an unrealistic idea? Schools are understandably concerned about students losing ground over the long summer vacation. Our school website says: “Research demonstrates that students must read at least three challenging books during the summer break simply to maintain fluency and comprehension skills; a minimum of five such books is necessary to improve on any reading weaknesses.” But what is the cost of forcing children to read books they don’t enjoy? What good is “fluency and comprehension” if children don’t want to read? I’m curious to hear what teachers and parents of school-aged children think.

WWW Wednesday — Summer Reading Version 1.0

IMG_1492

My favorite reading spot, rain or shine.

It’s WWW Wednesday, when I answer three questions: What are you currently reading? What did you recently finish reading? What do you plan to read next?

Although it’s officially summer, I have yet to enjoy that quintessential summer pleasure: reading at the beach or the pool. It’s been cool and wet, so I’ve logged quite a few blissful reading hours on my screened porch, listening to the rain on the roof. Who needs those damaging UV rays, anyway, along with screaming children and biting flies?

16087465710_cf0a2d0c1e_o-500x500I’m reading, as usual, several books at once. Yes, I understand it’s not really physically possible to read more than one book at a time. I like to have a novel, a nonfiction book, and an e-book (either fiction of nonfiction) going. A recent topic on one of my favorite podcasts, Books on the Nightstand, was how to squeeze more reading into the day. A suggestion, which I think is terrific, was to read nonfiction in the morning and fiction in the evening. Another idea — even better —  is to change the screen saver on your phone to say “Read a book instead”. (Click here for a great screen saver you can download.)

9781400063369I just started reading Robert Kurson’s Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship, the follow-up to Kurson’s terrific Shadow Divers (2004) — and I’m already hooked. Shadow Divers is one of my all-time favorite narrative nonfiction books; Kurson’s second book, Crashing Through, about a man who regains his sight after nearly a lifetime of blindness is a must-read as well.  My friend and colleague Diane recommended Pirate Hunters to me, noting that one of the daring wreck divers in search of famous pirate Joseph Bannister’s ship. Golden Fleece, is John Chatterton — hero of Shadow Divers. The book is not as much about the actual diving as it is about the history of piracy and how Chatterton and his partner, John Mattera, needed to understand Bannister’s psychology in order to find his ship.

9780062367556My current novel is Church of Marvels, by Leslie Parry, historical fiction set in turn-of-the-century New York City —  mostly Coney Island and the Lower East Side. The stories of an abandoned infant,  sideshow performers, a beautiful mute, and a young woman trapped in a mental hospital all converge (I’m not sure how, yet!) in this vivid and imaginative debut novel. A Chicago resident, debut novelist Parry recently appeared at the Printers Row Lit Fest with Matthew Thomas (We Are Not Ourselves). I wish I had been able to go — but I’ll be interviewing Parry later this summer.

I just finished two wonderful novels — Language Arts, by Stephanie Kallos, and Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf. They are two very different books — Language Arts is over 400 pages, with a complicated plot, and Our Souls at Night (described by several reviewers as “spare”), is a short novel, focusing on just two characters.

9781101875896Our Souls at Night is a beautiful and sad story, made sadder by the fact that Kent Haruf died shortly after completing his final edits on the novel. Haruf’s books are all set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado and focus on everyday people and their need for connection with each other.  The New York Times says: “His great subject was the struggle of decency against small-mindedness, and his rare gift was to make sheer decency a moving subject.” Addie Moore and Louis Waters, both widowed and in their seventies, are long-time neighbors who seek respite from loneliness in an unusual way: through a platonic friendship that includes sleeping in the same bed. Addie says:

I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably. Lying down in bed together and you staying the night. The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?

Kent Haruf gives more insight into the lives and longings of his characters in less than 200 pages than many authors do in books double that length. I read the book in one afternoon and had to slow myself down so I could appreciate the plain yet poetic language. My book group will be discussing Our Souls at Night next month, and I’m disappointed to miss the meeting.

9780547939742Language Arts explores many of the same themes as Our Souls at Night, especially the themes of loss and human connection. How do you connect with someone you love who doesn’t have language? Charles Marlow, an English teacher and a lover of the written word, is the divorced father of an adult autistic son. His daughter has just left for college, and Charles is desperately lonely. He reflects on his unhappy childhood, particularly his traumatic fourth-grade year; his broken marriage, and his relationship with his son, Cody:

Language left him gradually, a bit at a time. One would expect words to depart predictably, in reverse order — the way a row of knitting disappears, stitch by stitch, when the strand of working yarn is tugged off the needle — but that was not to be . . . God was the last holdout . . .

I absolutely loved this book, but I don’t want to say too much about it because the plot is full of surprising twists. As a review in Paste magazine says, “Kallos can spin a reveal like nobody’s business. At her best, she compels you to recalibrate everything you thought you knew about the book.” The review goes on to point out that while Kallos is a talented storyteller, her real gift is her deep understanding of her characters:

One thing that separates a good novel from a great one is when empathy accompanies insight. The novels of Stephanie Kallos are filled with the sort of empathy that elevates not just the books but their readers. They convey the overarching sense that repairing the world is a real possibility, however remote—more than one absorbing read away, to be sure, but certainly closer at the last line than the first.

What’s next? I’m looking forward to reading The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro. I don’t know why I haven’t read it yet — it’s been sitting on my shelf for quite some time, several people whose opinions I trust have raved about it, and I’ve loved Ishiguro’s other books. After that . . . I can’t decide. Too many choices!

 

 

 

 

The Cherry Harvest — Book Review

9780062343628

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I didn’t read much YA literature — because there wasn’t much available, not because I was a particularly discerning reader.  I read everything from Jane Eyre to The Thorn Birds, without much awareness that there was a difference in literary quality. I did read some books that were specifically written for teens (The Outsiders, Forever, Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones), and my favorite was Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene.

Summer of My German Soldier, originally published in 1973, has been in print ever since. It tells the story of a young Jewish girl growing up in a small Arkansas town in World War II, with an abusive father and a cold mother who prefer her sister. She befriends a German POW from a nearby camp, and shelters him when he escapes.

The Cherry Harvest, Lucy Sanna’s debut novel, appealed to me because of its setting in Wisconsin and because it focused on a fascinating topic I hadn’t read about i in years — German POWs on American soil. When I started reading the novel I was reminded of Summer of My German Soldier and unearthed my old copy. Before I knew it, I was immersed in my 40-year-old book, which was as wonderful as I’d remembered. So when I returned to The Cherry Harvest, I’m sorry to say that the new book  — while enjoyable — suffered in comparison.

The Cherry Harvest is set on a family farm in Door County, Wisconsin, during World War II. Because of labor shortages, no workers are available to help with the harvest and the Christiansen family is living hand-to-mouth. When Charlotte Christiansen proposes that German prisoners move into her family’s migrant worker camp and provide much-needed labor to the surrounding area, she initially meets with resistance from the community. But eventually the local officials relent, and the POWs (called PWs in this book, as they were at the time) move in, resulting in repercussions no one could have predicted.

Charlotte is a difficult character to like. I have no problem with unlikable characters; some of the best characters in literature are unlikable, but they have qualities that make them compelling. I found Charlotte unpleasant and uninteresting, and couldn’t figure out what the men in the novel found so appealing about her. The very first scene of the book, which is written in vivid, gruesome detail, describes Charlotte butchering her daughter Kate’s rabbit so the family will have food on the table that evening. This scene successfully shows Charlotte to be a tough, pragmatic person who will do what she needs to do, without much emotion.

Charlotte’s husband, Thomas, is a reluctant farmer who had hoped to finish college and pursue a literary career. Now his son is fighting in Europe and Thomas has pinned his hopes on his daughter and fellow book lover. Kate plans to attend the University of Wisconsin as an English major and aspiring writer in the fall, even though Charlotte repeatedly comments that reading is a waste of time. (Just another reason not to like Charlotte!)

Kate is an endearing character, sheltered and naive, but ready to take on the world. She meets her first love early in the novel, a privileged senator’s son who is, in Kate’s view, shirking his patriotic duty. Lucy Sanna mentions in her author’s note that Kate’s part in the novel came alive when Sanna and her daughter were walking along the lakeshore in Door County and noticed a summer home that belonged to a politician.

Sanna, a Wisconsin native, says she was intrigued to learn that German POWs were housed in camps throughout the state during World War II. She says:

I saw great potential for conflict. I imagined a small town that feared the prisoners and a farming family that needed them. There would be a strong woman at the center of the controversy, an attractive teenage daughter who would surely come into contact with the prisoners, and a son fighting against the Germans in Europe.

Perhaps there is too much conflict — or too many subplots — in this novel. Each thread of the novel receives relatively superficial treatment, because there are so many threads. I would have preferred to have the novel concentrate on one or two issues, rather than try to include everything from post-traumatic stress syndrome to war profiteeringl. I’d also have liked Sanna to delve more deeply into one or two relationships — particularly Ben’s relationship with his fiancée, Josie — rather than skim over multiple relationships. Sometimes less is more, and I think with this book I’d have liked more character development and less plot.

Whenever I finish a book, I ask myself, “Who’s the audience for this book? Will I recommend it, and to whom?” I think The Cherry Harvest would be a good choice for YA readers making the transition to adult books. They will appreciate the straightforward writing, the fast-paced plot with plenty of action, and they will identify with the teenage characters, particularly Kate. And they’ll get a bit of a history lesson besides. (I also recommend that they pick up Summer of My German Soldier!)

For more information about Lucy Sanna, visit her www.lucysanna.com. Although she lives in California, you can tell she’s a native Midwesterner from this quote on her website:

I love weather. I gain energy from thunderstorms, and peace from snow. I like walking in summer rain as much as walking on a foggy ocean beach. I like sunsets on the lake. I like weather.

Fall in the Midwest, that’s my favorite season. Colored leaves crunchy dry beneath my feet. The clear air, the last sharp smells of life.

For more reviews of The Cherry Harvest, visit TLC Book Tours.

10 Summer Paperback Picks — Nonfiction

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to
possibilities; Truth isn’t.
Mark Twain

Lee Gutkind, editor and founder of the literary magazine Creative Nonfiction, wrote a book on narrative nonfiction called You Can’t Make This Stuff Up. Many of the best stories I’ve ever read are true — yet they are improbable, unlikely, and downright unbelievable. In an interview with Creative Nonfiction, brilliant narrative historian Erik Larson discusses the joy of researching and telling a true story that readers would find implausible if it were presented in a novel:

If you find the story and you get enough details, you can tell a good story. There’s a great paradox with fiction. If I tried to write a novel in which I proposed that the daughter of the American ambassador was sleeping with the first chief of the Gestapo, no one would believe it. But because it happened—wow!—this is interesting.

The difference between narrative nonfiction and other nonfiction (history, biography, politics, etc.) is that in narrative nonfiction the story is more important than the subject. I have zero interest in horse racing, for example, but I loved Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit. The best nonfiction writers transcend their subject matter to shape stories that read like novels. That said, there are some topics I find irresistible; here are some paperbacks, new and old, that kept me up late at night and that I think are perfect summer reading. The publication dates are the dates when the paperbacks were released; in many cases, the paperback editions include updated information as well as author interviews and discussion questions.

If you’re interested in polar exploration and the indomitable human spirit:

9780307946911In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides (2015)

Like all the best narrative nonfiction books, In the Kingdom of Ice is much more than an enthralling account of historical events. Sides paints a detailed picture of post-Civil War society, when many young men who missed the opportunity to fight in the war were looking for opportunities to become heroes. His engaging, and often very funny, portrayal of newspaper titan James Gordon Bennett, Jr. (backer of the voyage), shows us the increasing role of the press. He covers Native American culture in the Arctic . . . the state of scientific and geographic knowledge in the Victorian era . . . and most of all, the enormous human capacity for courage and endurance.

Like the crew of the Jeannette, the sailors in Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage (reissue, 2015) were locked in the polar ice pack. You won’t complain about summer heat and humidity when you read about their hellish experiences. The book was originally published in 1959, and the survivors of the expedition to Antarctica all provided first-hand accounts to Lansing. The new edition includes more illustrations and maps, as well as a terrific introduction by Nathaniel Philbrick, who explains how “a young Midwesterner . . .  came to write this classic tale of survival and the sea and how, after languishing in relative obscurity, Lansing’s Endurance came to be so enthusiastically embraced by a new generation of readers.”

If you’re fascinated by cannibals and headhunters:

9780062116161Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest by Carl Hoffman (2015)

In 1961, the 23-year-old son of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller disappeared while traveling through New Guinea on an expedition to find art for his family’s Museum of Primitive Art. While his death was officially ruled a drowning, questions remain — and Carl Hoffman attempts to solve the 50-year-old mystery, delving into an investigation of the violent culture of the Asmat tribe. The New York Times calls the book a “taut thriller”, and it’s an apt description.

Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Daring Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff (2012)

Lost in Shangri-La, one of the best nonfiction page-turners I’ve ever read, is unusual in that one of the heroic survivors is a woman. A plane is shot down over the cannibal-infested jungles of New Guinea, with only three survivors, all of whom are injured.

If you are a fan of antiquarian maps and books, not to mention true crime:

9781592409402The  Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps by Michael Blanding (2015)

You rarely encounter a baffling title in narrative nonfiction. The subtitles almost always do a great job summarizing the book, although sometimes — as in this case — they sound a little unwieldy. (I think the reader should decide if the story is gripping, thank you.) The story is gripping, as promised in the subtitle, and interesting from a psychological point of view. What drove E. Forbes Smiley to destroy his career by becoming a thief?

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (2005)

I’ll never get tired of recommending this book. Once again, the subtitle provides almost all the information you need to know before starting the book, but I’ll fill in the blanks by telling you that the “professor” is Dr. James Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the “madman” is Dr. William Minor, a Civil War veteran incarcerated in a mental hospital who is the dictionary’s most prolific contributor of definitions. The shocking ending of this book gives new meaning to the phrase “you can’t make this stuff up”.

If you are struggling to understand class and race, especially in relation to higher education:

the-short-and-tragic-life-of-robert-peace-9781476731919_lgThe Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs (due in paperback 7/15)

Robert Peace, a 2002 graduate of Yale and a product of inner-city Newark, was murdered at age 30 in a drug-related shooting. Hobbs, who was Peace’s roommate in college and who remained a close friend after graduation, has written one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time. Why did Peace, a brilliant young man with a promising career in scientific research, succumb to the drug trade? Hobbs thoroughly and thoughtfully examines Peace’s life in all its complexity and contradictions, with the help of Peace’s family, friends, colleagues, and teachers.

A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League by Ron Suskind (1999)

Pulitzer Prize winner Suskind follows teenager Cedric Jennings as he, with the help of his dedicated and hardworking mother, strives to succeed at a high school in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. and later at Brown University.

If you love Shirley Jackson as much as I do:

9780143128045Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson (reissue, 2015)

These gems from the 1950s have recently been reissued in paperback — I suspect because a collection of Jackson’s previously unpublished writings (Let Me Tell You)  is being published in August. The  humorous essays about family life in Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages are very different from the dark, sinister fiction for which Jackson is known.

What are your favorite nonfiction books?

I