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?


“It Takes a Genius to Make People Laugh” — 10 Funny Authors


Give me a choice and I’ll take A Midsummer Night’s Dream over Hamlet every time. Any fool with steady hands and a working set of lungs can build up a house of cards and then blow it down, but it takes a genius to make people laugh.
Stephen King

I think I am a pretty good seat mate on planes and trains. (Automobiles,too.) I don’t take up more than my share of the available space, I don’t initiate inane conversations, I don’t listen to loud music with improperly inserted earbuds, and I definitely do not carry and eat bags of fast food. If anyone has an explanation, please let me know why someone would sit at an airport gate, clutching a bag of greasy McDonald’s burgers and fries, and then wait to eat the cold, smelly food until an hour or so into the flight.

However, on a recent flight, I think I really annoyed the grumpy man sitting next to me. My offense? I laughed, and more than once. The first time it happened, I chuckled softly and he shifted in his seat and looked slightly irritated. The irritated look progressed to a lengthier glare, and finally he connected his headphones to his laptop. No, he did not appear to be outlining a plan for combating terrorism or putting the final touches on an important scientific presentation. He was playing solitaire.

The book that made me laugh — again and again — was The World’s Largest Man, a memoir by Harrison Scott Key about his complicated relationship with his father.  It’s Key’s first book, but he has published essays in many magazines. According to his website, Key writes with the “comic verve of David Sedaris and the deft satire of Mark Twain or Roy Blount, Jr.”, but if we’re going to make comparisons, I’d say he is more like a cross between Bill Bryson and Pat Conroy.

Key grew up in Mississippi, the bookish son of a father whose main interests were hunting, fishing, and football — and in transforming his sensitive son into a different person, one who enjoyed waking at 4 a.m. and spending the day in a deer stand:

Why couldn’t I have been born with no arms? I knew, though, even if I had no arms, Pop would have found a way for me to hunt, rigging complicated pulley systems into trees and hoisting me up in a sack, then dropping me on the animals with a knife in each foot.

Key enjoyed a special bond with his mother, an elementary school teacher. who introduced “the perverse habit of reading through the gateway drug of encyclopedias, which she begged my father to purchase from a man at the door, hoping to counterbalance our growing knowledge of firearms and axes and tractors with more peaceful, productive knowledge.” Key preferred spending the day grocery shopping with his mother to hunting with his father and brother:

I was not encouraged, generally, to go grocery shopping with Mom, because Pop knew that if you sent your sons to the grocery store too much, they might learn how to locate water chestnuts, which could lead down a dark path toward vegetarian stir-fry and the wearing of aprons and eventually marrying someone named Cecil . . . How could hunting deer ever compare to hunting vanilla ice cream, which is generally docile and will let you pour syrup on it without running away?

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.

One of the best things about humorous books is that they lend themselves to rereading. Sometimes it’s comforting knowing that what you are about to read will tickle your funnybone.

9780670824397_xlgI adored Roald Dahl as a child, and I still do. Which of his books is the funniest? It’s hard to say, but I’m partial to Matilda, probably because she’s a bookworm;

“There aren’t many funny bits in Mr. Tolkien either,” Matilda said.
“Do you think that all children’s books ought to have funny bits in them?” Miss Honey asked.
“I do,” Matilda said. “Children are not so serious as grown-ups and love to laugh.”

The first “grown-up” funny book I remember reading was Auntie Mame, by Patrick Dennis (a pseudonym). I found it on my grandmother’s bookshelves, and it made me laugh and laugh. It was out of print for more than 50 years, but it was reissued in 2001 and remains available.

Adam Freudenheim, publisher of Penguin Classics, called Auntie Mame “a lost classic” and said that he could not resist publishing a “laugh-out-loud” novel. He said: “There are lots of comic novels that aren’t that funny. It is very difficult to write ‘funny’ well. This one is sheer bliss.”

A lot of parents and teachers turn their noses up at Dav Pilkey‘s books, particularly the Captain Underpants seriesThat makes me sad, because my children loved Dav Pilkey. Guess what — kids and adults like different things. For example, some of the activities I remember enjoying as a child were throwing rocks in puddles with neighborhood children to see who could 9780062238498-1make the biggest splash . . . spinning in circles until I got dizzy and fell down . . . dressing my dog in pajamas. If Pilkey’s books had been available, I’m sure I would have laughed myself silly over them. What 7-year-old could resist Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers, or Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants? A little potty humor ever did anyone any harm, and I think Pilkey shows kids that reading doesn’t have to be a grim and serious pursuit, accompanied by timers and worksheets, but can be entertaining and laugh-inducing.

Comic actress Ali Wentworth has published one humorous memoir, Ali in Wonderland: And Other Tall Tales, and has another one, Happily Ali After: And Other Fairly True Tales, coming out in June. They’re perfect light reading, full of wickedly witty anecdotes about Wentworth’s growing-up years, career, and current family life.

9780804140416Comedian Jim Gaffigan is the male counterpart to Ali Wentworth. His books, Dad is Fat and Food: A Love Story, are hilarious when it comes to raising children and (of course) food:

There’s an old Weight Watchers saying: “Nothing tastes as good as thin feels.” I for one can think of a thousand things that taste better than thin feels. Many of them are two-word phrases that end with cheese (Cheddar cheese, blue cheese, grilled cheese).

I recently reread Nora Ephron’s roman à clef about the breakup of her marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein, Heartburn. I was worried it would seem dated, but it was every bit as clever and funny as I remembered:

Vera said: “Why do you feel you have to turn everything into a story?”
So I told her why.
Because if I tell the story, I control the version.
Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.
Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.
Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.

David Sedaris‘s books are hysterically funny, but best listened to on audio. And if you ever have the chance to hear his live performance, don’t pass it up. He is extremely gracious and will spend hours after his shows personalizing books and chatting with readers. I love the stories in Me Talk Pretty One Day in which Sedaris imagines how his broken French must sound to his classmates in French class. Attempting to describe the Easter bunny, he says, “‘The rabbit of Easter. He bring of the chocolate . . . He come in the night when one sleep on a bed. With a hand he have a basket and foods.'”

9780307279460I think Bill Bryson‘s funniest book might be his account of hiking the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods. I’m a little dubious about the upcoming movie — Robert Redford, who is almost 80, plays Bryson, who was in his 40s when he wrote the book. Also, the humor doesn’t stem as much from the events as it does from Bryson’s way with words:

Black bears rarely attack. But here’s the thing. Sometimes they do. All bears are agile, cunning and immensely strong, and they are always hungry. If they want to kill you and eat you, they can, and pretty much whenever they want. That doesn’t happen often, but – and here is the absolutely salient point – once would be enough.

Christopher Buckley is a political satirist, skewering everything from Chinese-American relations (They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?) to the tobacco industry (Thank You for Smoking) to the fiscal crisis (Doomsday). I’ve enjoyed his comic novels, but I especially liked his collection of essays, But Enough About You. According to the New York Times:

Buckley writes in a conversational style replete with deadpan asides. Perhaps he spends hours meticulously crafting each bon mot, but what he conveys in his work is the image of an assured writer amusing himself at the keyboard, expansively waving the reader over to join in the fun.

What are your favorite humorous books?