Nonfiction November: This Year’s Overlooked Gems

You can tell a more incredible over-the-top story if you use a nonfiction form.
Chuck Palahniuk

There is really no fiction or non-fiction; there is only narrative. One mode of perception has no greater claim on the truth than the other . . .
E.L. Doctorow

November is a busy month, and that’s not just because of Thanksgiving and the beginning of the holiday season. I don’t know how these things work, but the powers that be have determined that November is also National Novel Writing Month, National Peanut Butter Lovers Month, Historic Bridge Awareness Month, Manatee Awareness Month, and International Drum Month — and of course, it’s No Shave November. Thank goodness for that, because who has time to shave while writing a novel and learning about historic bridges?

In the world of book blogging, it’s Nonfiction November.  Dozens of reviewers share their favorite recommendations for nonfiction books. Many of the same best-selling titles pop up again and again, and for good reason — they’re excellent books, well worth reading. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal should be required reading for anyone who’s mortal, but you don’t need me to tell you about it.

I suspect many readers regard nonfiction as a homework assignment, not riveting reading. Novelist Chris Bohjalian said, “People seem to read so much more nonfiction than fiction, and so it always gives me great pleasure to introduce a friend or family member to a novel I believe they’ll cherish but might not otherwise have thought to pick up and read.” I’ve found the opposite — in my experience, nonfiction is usually a harder sell than fiction.

Over the past year, I’ve read plenty of nonfiction, including a few books that — at least in my little corner of the world — haven’t received the love they deserve. I’ve mentioned these terrific books before, but they’re worth mentioning again.

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
Poet Alexander has written a gorgeous chronicle of her family’s grief after her 50-year-old husband died unexpectedly. Every short chapter (most are 2-3 pages) is like a poem, with spare, beautiful feeling and intense feeling. The book is reminiscent of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.
From the Boston Globe review:  ” . . . A poetry lover, and a memoirist of loss myself, I expected to like Alexander’s book. But nothing could have prepared me for the experience of reading The Light of the World. It riveted me, rent me, sent me reeling. It flooded me with ineffable joy.”

9780804140164The Rising: Murder, Heartbreak, and the Power of Resilience in an American Town by Ryan D’Agostino
The devastating true story of Dr. William Petit, who lost his wife and two daughters — and was critically injured himself — in a brutal attack in the family’s Connecticut home. Amazingly, Petit has not only survived but managed to rebuild his life.
From the Publishers Weekly review: “D’Agostino’s tender approach to his subject and story is impressive as he artfully charts Petit’s emotional thawing without resorting to cloying prose or melodrama . . .Though a horrific crime provides the backdrop, this book is a remarkable account of hope, fellowship, and love in the face of tragedy.”

9780062268679Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, A Virginia Town, A Civil Rights Battle by Kristen Green
Veteran journalist Green chronicles the years when Prince Edward County, Virginia closed its public schools rather than obey the federal mandate to desegregate — and tells the story of her family’s part in this shameful chapter of history.
From the New York Times review: “It is this personal story that makes her mix of memoir and history . . . so absorbing as she returns home to interview family and friends about a past that many would rather leave there.”

9780062351494The World’s Largest Man by Harrison Scott Key
A hilarious (and sometimes heartbreaking) memoir about a bookish son’s relationship with his testosterone-fueled father. Although Key is a gifted humorist, The World’s Largest Man is not a nonstop laugh riot. At its heart, it’s a story about love and acceptance. Much of the book is heartbreaking and poignant. Key succeeds in showing us the contradictory aspects of his father’s deeply flawed personality — a personality that turns out to be a greater influence on him than he had ever imagined. Perfect for fans of Pat Conroy.
From the Florida Times-Union review: “The first part of this memoir by Savannah College of Art and Design professor Harrison Scott Key will have you laughing out loud. The remainder may bring you to tears . . . Key laments the lost art of Southern story-telling, one he believes has gone the way of the family farm, but once you read The World’s Largest Man, you’ll realize he may be a tad premature.”

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
Much more than a copy editor, Norris is a delightfully wicked and witty writer. She’s been on staff at the New Yorker since 1978, upholding the magazine’s notoriously high standards. Her memoir is sprinkled with grammar advice, as well as plenty of gossipy tidbits. I enjoyed every page, and learned a few things besides.
From the New Republic review: “Norris’s very funny, lucid, and lively new book” is  “part memoir, part language guide, and part personal account of life at the New Yorker.”

Which books this year have you loved that haven’t received their share of attention?

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A Deadly Wandering — Book Review

9780062284075

We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technologies.
E.O. Wilson (epigraph to A Deadly Wandering)

The tragedy was the product of a powerful dynamic, one that elite scientists have been scrambling to understand, even as it is intensifying. It is a clash between technology and the human brain.
Matt Richtel, A Deadly Wandering

Every so often I read a book that inspires a certain evangelical fervor. I want everyone to read the book, because what the author has to say is original, compelling, and life-altering. When I read a book like this, I recommend it to everyone, without regard to reading tastes. I will even recommend it to people who don’t read much, reasoning that if they read ONE book this year, this should be the one.

A Deadly Wandering is one of those books I tell people they absolutely have to read. Pulitzer Prize winner Matt Richtel combines a groundbreaking legal case and the latest scientific research on the brain in a compulsively readable, multi-layered story about a devastating accident and the perils of multitasking in today’s digital world.

Just released in paperback, A Deadly Wandering has a new cover and a new subtitle. Despite my enthusiasm, I had a hard time selling the book in hardcover. Maybe I made it sound too much like a preachy public service announcement, rather than the engrossing and moving story it actually is. Or maybe the subtiitle was the problem: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention. The new subtitle, A Mystery, A Landmark Investigation, and the Astonishing Science of Attention in the Digital Age, isn’t perfect either, but I guess the publisher couldn’t just call it A Deadly Wandering: Why You Shouldn’t Text and Drive. Whatever market research publishers use must have suggested to them that “mystery” and “investigation” appeal to more readers than “tragedy” and “redemption”.

15865-a-teen-girl-texting-while-driving-pvThere’s actually not much of a mystery in A Deadly Wandering. The reader knows “whodunit”: 19-year-old Reggie Shaw crossed the center line on a Utah highway on a rainy morning in 2006, killing two people. As the investigation of the tragic accident progresses, it becomes clear to the investigative team that Reggie’s distracted driving caused the crash. Scott Singleton, a Utah State Trooper, and Terryl Warner, a victim’s advocate, are determined to bring Reggie to justice, and are frustrated by Reggie’s initial denial of responsibility, as well as the lack of community support for their crusade:

Some members of the community, while sympathetic to the victims, couldn’t understand the fuss. So what if he’d looked at his phone, or texted — haven’t we all been distracted behind the wheel? Who knew that was so wrong? The law was no help: Nobody in Utah had ever been charged with such a crime.

The real mystery isn’t how the crash happened, or why Reggie lied about it. Richtel delves into Reggie’s background, painting a sympathetic portrait of a young man who transforms himself from what the New York Times calls “a thoughtless, inadvertent killer” and “denier of his own culpability” to “one of the nation’s most powerful spokesmen on the dangers of texting behind the wheel”. The mystery is why we continue to jeopardize our lives, and the lives of others, by using technology while driving.

Dr. David Strayer, a human factors expert, is a pioneer in the application of attention science to driving. His research centers on an important question:

Why, given it was becoming clear that the brain faced limitations, were people continuing to multitask, particularly in challenging, even dangerous situations? When he first started his work on distracted driving, he just assumed people would stop the behavior when they realized how dangerous it could be. But when phone use by drivers continued, even grew, he was forced to reach another conclusion, one that vexed him. People didn’t stop using the technology, because they couldn’t.

Matt-RichtelIn an interesting follow-up to A Deadly Wandering, Matt Richtel published an article in the New York Times two days ago (5/31/15) called “Eyes on the Road. Head in the Cloud”, covering new devices that are designed to “provide safer ways for people to multitask while driving”. Is that possible? Psychologists and neuroscientists say it’s not.

If A Deadly Wandering focused exclusively on cognitive science and the legal issues surrounding distracted driving, it would still be an interesting book. What elevates the book to page-turner status is Richtel’s treatment of the human beings involved. The reader becomes intimately acquainted with not only Reggie and his family, but other key players: the victims and their families, scientists, police investigators, attorneys, and legislators. The New York Times review points out that the story of Terryl Warner, a survivor of child abuse and a passionate advocate for crime victims, is “every bit as fascinating and redemptive as Shaw’s.” Everyone is trying to do his or her best under difficult and confusing circumstances.

Judge Thomas Willmore, the presiding judge on Reggie’s case, keeps cherished books in his chambers. One is “a beat-up paperback edition of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserablés, in which he’d underlined passages in red and blue pen. It touched on so much of what he faced: crime, rehabilitation, the role of the system for good and sometimes ill.” When Judge Willmore gives Reggie his sentence, he adds a final condition: requiring Reggie to read Hugo’s masterpiece, “which talks about a man who has done a terrible thing and makes it right again”.

Judge Willmore believes that redemption is possible. Reggie Shaw has pledged to devote the rest of his life to preventing others from making the same mistake he did. But, Richtel asks us, how can we come to terms with the addictive power of technology? I urge you to read this provocative book — and to share it with the new drivers in your family.

For more reviews, please visit TLC Book Tours, as well as From Reid’s Dad, a blog written by a father who lost his teenage son to a car crash. I also recommend The Deadly Wandering website, which includes a video of Richtel discussing the book and a quiz that measures your knowledge of current information about texting and driving. I’m embarrassed to admit that even after reading the book twice, I still didn’t do well on the quiz. If I were in school, I’d complain to the teacher that the material wasn’t covered in the book!

10 Favorite Books of 2014 — I Couldn’t Resist Making a List

cvr9781476746586_9781476746586_lgThis is the time of year when every publication, print or online, feels obligated to publish a “Best Books” of the year list. Every year, hundreds of thousands of books are published in the United States, so it seems like an impossible task for anyone to pick 10 of the “best” books. The New York Times publishes a list of 100 notable books, and then a couple of weeks later, announces the 10 best. (I thought it was amusing that the Times initially gave All the Light We Cannot See, my favorite novel this year, a mediocre review back in May when it came out, but now has the book listed as one of its 10 Best).

These year-end lists seem to make more sense with movies. I don’t know how many movies are released each year, but I would guess that a critic could manage to see most of them. Even if a critic read a book a day, he or she would still have read a tiny fraction of the books published by major publishers each year. It’s disheartening to think about how many brilliant books are published each year that fail to receive critical acclaim or even much readership.

Authors seem to get grumpy about these lists. Ayelet Waldman, an author who is famous for airing her opinions on social media (her thoughts on the Kardashians: they are “vile scumbag pigs”), was disappointed that the New York Times didn’t include her well-reviewed novel, Love and Treasure, in its list of notable books. So she tweeted: “It’s just so f***ing demoralizing. You pour your heart into your work, you get awesome reviews, and then someone decides it’s not “notable.” I mean. Why do I bother? I could write a f***ing journal.” Charming . . .

Booksellers aren’t always crazy about ranking their favorite books. In a blog post titled Trying to Come Up With My Year’s Favorites, Daniel Goldin (Boswell and Company in Milwaukee) flatly states, “I hate making these sorts of lists.” Every year, the store publishes a year-end “Boswell Best” list, and Daniel says, “Every year, I am one of the last people to come up with my books, which sort of drives people crazy, but what can they do, as I always look very, very busy, and heck, I own the place.” Parnassus Books in Nashville (owned by author Ann Patchett) sidestepped the problem by asking 18 well-known authors what books they will be giving for the holidays this year (Writers to the Rescue: Your Favorite Authors Share Their Gift Lists.) I love that Héctor Tobar and Hampton Sides each recommend one another’s books, without knowing the other was being asked for a book recommendation.

Still, the urge to create a list of favorite books can be irresistible. For what it’s worth, here’s a list of the books I loved the most this year. What do they all have in common? To quote Maureen Corrigan of NPR, “All of the disparate books on my list contain characters, scenes or voices that linger long past the last page of their stories.”  I kept it to 10 (five nonfiction, five fiction) — unlike Corrigan, who included a dozen books on her list (Sometimes You Can’t Pick Just 10). Candidates for my list were books originally published in 2014, which eliminated some great books from 2013 (or earlier) that I read this year.

NONFICTION

9780385535373In the KIngdom of Ice by Hampton Sides
Like all the best narrative nonfiction books, In the Kingdom of Ice is much more than an enthralling account of a historical event. 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.

Deep Down Dark by Héctor Tobar
Ann Patchett’s favorite book of the year was just selected as the first book for NPR’s Morning Editions Book Club. In an NPR interview, Patchett says, “It’s a riveting story. It was riveting when we were watching it on the news, it’s riveting in the book . . .  Even though we already know they’re safe, there’s an enormous amount of suspense and tension.” The book also stands out, Patchett says, because of Tobar’s beautiful and thoughtful writing. “He’s taking on all of the big issues of life,” she says. “What is life worth? What is the value of one human life? What is faith? Who do we become in our darkest hour?”

9780062284068A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention by Matt Richtel
A groundbreaking legal case and the latest scientific research on the brain and attention combine in this compulsively readable, multi-layered story about a devastating accident affecting several families and the perils of multitasking in today’s digital world. There are no villains in Pulitzer-Prize winning author Richtel’s moving account of a young man’s journey from what the New York Times describes as a “thoughtless, inadvertent killer to denier of his own culpability to one of the nation’s most powerful spokesmen on the dangers of texting while behind the wheel.” The book isn’t preachy by any means, but the message it delivers about distracted driving is lifesaving.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs
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.cover

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
I’m not sure if this is a self-help or a business book — at Lake Forest Book Store, we shelve it in the business section. Either way, these are categories I rarely explore.  Essentialism really resonated with me; in fact, as soon as I finished it I ordered multiple copies for gifts. McKeown’s book shows us how to shape a life that is filled with meaningful activity. The book doesn’t advocate that we abandon our electronic devices, and it doesn’t provide tips for time management or organization.  It’s a philosophical guide to setting priorities in life.

FICTION

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
It didn’t win the National Book Award, but can we hope for the Pulitzer? This is the only book I’ve ever jumped the gun on and reviewed on the blog before it was published, which I don’t think I’m supposed to do. It’s such an extraordinary book, I just couldn’t wait.

9781410468895The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
A widowed bookseller has lost his zest for life — but his life changes when two things happen: he finds a baby on his doorstep and he falls in love with his sales rep. This wonderful book is a love letter to the book business, and to reading. I loved this book so much that as soon as I finished it I reread it. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before! It lives in a stack on my nightstand along with a few other very special books.

The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene
The Headmaster’s Wife is a page-turner with very surprising plot twists, but much more than that —  it’s a beautifully written exploration of marriage, friendship, grief, and mental illness. What do we owe to those we love? What actions are unforgivable? What is the breaking point from which a person can’t recover? Greene said the questions he asked himself when writing the book were, “What happens if you don’t hold it together? What happens if life just completely falls apart?”

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
I think this debut novel, the story of more than 50 years in the life of Eileen Tumulty Leary and her family, is a masterpiece. I read the book months ago, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. As I was reading it, I was reminded of Alice McDermott. The New York Times reviewer remarked on the connection between the two authors: “Mr. Thomas’s narrow scope (despite a highly eventful story) and bull’s-eye instincts into his Irish characters’ fear, courage and bluster bring to mind the much more compressed style of Alice McDermott. (According to this book’s acknowledgments, she has been one of his teachers. If he wasn’t an A student then, he is now.)”9780804137744

I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe
A headstrong young woman disguises herself as a man, enlists in the Union Army, and follows her new husband into battle in this beautiful story of love and war. Based on letters written by Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, this is historical fiction at its best. My husband (a Civil War buff) enjoyed I Shall Be Near to You as much as I did, and his usual taste in Civil War books runs to long, detailed biographies of Civil War generals.

What books are in your top 10?

 

 

 

10 Books to Read This Fall

I can’t believe it’s already the last day of September. It’s been a glorious month here in Chicago, and I’m savoring every minute of the warmth and sunshine. For what it’s worth, the Farmers’ Almanac is predicting another frigid and snowy winter in the Midwest. All the more reason to have a pile of good books waiting to be read! Here are 10 books either just published or due to be published this fall to add to your list.

9780062306814The Miniaturist (Jessie Burton)
In 17th century Amsterdam, a young woman marries a wealthy businessman, who gives her a replica of their canal house — opening the door to many strange happenings. The book was inspired by an actual cabinet house owned by Petronella Oortman — which I was lucky enough to see recently in the Rijksmuseum.  The Guardian says it is “a fabulously gripping read” that will “appeal to fans of Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Goldfinch“, which think describes it perfectly. (Although I dislike the word “read” used as a noun . . .)9780062336019

Gutenberg’s Apprentice (Alix Christie)
Author Christie, a letterpress printer, contends that Gutenberg’s success was due to his gifted young apprentice, Peter Schoeffer. According to the New York Times, “Christie spotlights intriguing parallels between 15th-century Europe and the digital media of the 21st-century world.” As a lover of the printed page, I can’t wait to read this one.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace (Jeff Hobbs)
Robert Peace escaped the slums of Newark, New Jersey to attend Yale University — where he was author Hobbs’s roommate. He died at age 30, the victim of a gang-related drug assassination. The book has been receiving a lot of acclaim; the Los Angeles Times says: “In the end, The Short Tragic Life of Robert Peace is a book that is as much about class as it is race. Peace traveled across America’s widening social divide, and Hobbs’s book is an honest, insightful and empathetic account of his sometimes painful, always strange journey.” (Two other excellent books on this topic are The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore and A Hope in the Unseen by Ron Suskind.)

9780062284068A Deadly Wandering (Matt Richtel)
A groundbreaking legal case and the latest scientific research on the brain and attention combine in this compulsively readable page-turner about a devastating accident affecting several families and the perils of multitasking in today’s digital world. There are no villains in Pulitzer-Prize winning author Richtel’s moving story of heartbreak and healing. I can’t recommend this book strongly enough.

What the Lady Wants (Renee Rosen)
Rosen’s first historical novel, Dollface, is an entertaining and enlightening excursion back to Prohibition-era Chicago.  I’m anxious to read her next book, set in the Gilded Age, about department store tycoon Marshall Field and his love affair with Delia Canton. There will be opportunities in Chicago to meet Renee Rosen, hear her read from the book, and ask questions; details to come.  (Due November 4)

9780307700315Some Luck (Jane Smiley)
Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for A Thousand Acres, a modern-day retelling of King Lear.  She returns to Iowa farm country with her new novel about 33 years in the lives of Walter and Rosanna Langdon and their five very different children. Each chapter covers a single year, beginning in 1920 soon after Walter’s return from World War I. The book is the first installment in a trilogy about the Langdons, and about the transformation of American culture and society in the 20th and 21st centuries. According to Publishers Weekly, “Smiley conjures a world—time, place, people—and an engaging story that makes readers eager to know what happens next.”

A Sudden Light (Garth Stein)
The Art of Racing in the Rain is one of my favorite books, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting Stein’s new novel. This one is not narrated by a dog — instead, by a 14-year-old boy, Trevor Riddell. Trevor’s bankrupt, recently separated father brings him and his sister Serena to their grandfather’s mansion in order to move the old man to a nursing home and sell the property for much-needed cash. However, Trevor discovers that there may be a ghost in the house, and secrets in his family’s history, that will prevent his father from carrying out his plan. I’m in the middle of the book now, and loving it . . . and that is surprising, because I hate ghosts.

we-are-not-ourselves-9781476756660_lgWe Are Not Ourselves (Matthew Thomas)
I think this debut novel, the story of more than 50 years in the life of Eileen Tumulty Leary and her family, is a masterpiece. I read the book months ago, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. As I was reading it, I was reminded of Alice McDermott. The New York Times reviewer remarked on the connection between the two authors: “Mr. Thomas’s narrow scope (despite a highly eventful story) and bull’s-eye instincts into his Irish characters’ fear, courage and bluster bring to mind the much more compressed style of Alice McDermott. (According to this book’s acknowledgments, she has been one of his teachers. If he wasn’t an A student then, he is now.)”

Five Days Left (Julie Lawson Timmer)
If you’re in the mood for a good cry, this is the book for you. Two people have five days left with the people they love most. I can’t really tell you more than that, except that if you read it on public transportation, make sure you have some Kleenex handy. It will definitely get your book club talking, although if you are the one who recommends it, you may be accused of suggesting “depressing” reading material.

Nora Webster (Colm Tóibín)9781439138335
I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Irish author Tóibín, especially Brooklyn and The Master, and have been hearing wonderful things about his new novel. Set in his hometown in Wexford County, Nora Webster is the story of a widow raising four children in Ireland during the 1960s and early 1970s.  The Chicago Tribune says: “There is no flash and dazzle in Tóibín’s writing, just unobtrusive control, profound intelligence and peerless empathy that is almost shocking in its penetration.” I’m looking forward to hearing Tóibín speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival on November 9. (Due October 7)

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