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?

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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?

 

 

 

Nonfiction November — 10 Favorite Survival Books

9780141001821MI just saw a preview for the movie version of In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books. (And by the way, when did the word “trailer” creep into common usage, replacing the unpretentious and much more accurate “preview”?) Seeing a clip from the movie –which included a glimpse of the deadly white whale — reminded me how much I enjoyed Nathaniel Philbrick’s enthralling account of the survivors of the sinking of the Essex. (It won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2000.) I’ve had a strange fascination with survival stories, especially those that take place at sea, ever since childhood.

I grew up near the ocean, and spent most of my summers on boats. I remember lying in my cozy bunk at night, reading Survive the Savage Sea (originally published in 1973, and still in print) by the light of a little battery-powered lamp. Dougal Robertson’s book describes how his boat was sunk by a pod of killer whales, and how his family managed to survive for 38 days in a little dinghy with few provisions. As I recall, they had little more than a bag of onions and some fruit. I felt a little guilty when I complained about the stale cereal and canned vegetables we ate on our boat.

When I ran out of tales of shipwrecked sailors, I turned to adventure on land. Alive, by Piers Paul Read, was shocking and gruesome– so it was right up my 14-year-old alley. I don’t think my tastes have evolved much, because I continue to be intrigued by true stories of bravery in the face of danger. The best one I’ve read recently is In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Voyage of the USS Jeannette, by Hampton Sides. Sides, a journalist and historian, has written several other excellent works of nonfiction; I especially liked Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission, about a daring raid on a POW camp in the Philippines.

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

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing, takes place at the other end of the world. The book (originally published in 1959) was just re-issued in honor of the 100th anniversary of Shackleton’s amazing expedition. It’s deservedly a classic. And it’s more uplifting than many survival stories; Shackleton’s entire crew survived their ordeal.

Several members of Teddy Roosevelt’s party in The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard, were not so lucky. After he lost the presidential election in 1912, Roosevelt planned an expedition to explore the River of Doubt, a previously unmapped tributary of the Amazon. I recommend this book over and over — it’s on its way to becoming a classic in adventure literature.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand, has to be one of the most moving stories of survival ever written. All I can say is that if you haven’t read it, you should. I also think it should be required reading for all high school students. Especially the ones who think they’re deprived if they don’t have the latest iPhone.

9780061988349Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II, by Mitchell Zuckerman, 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. This book didn’t get the attention it deserved when it was published, but it’s one of the best nonfiction page-turners I’ve ever read.

Batavia’s Graveyard: The True Story of the Heretic Who Led History’s Greatest Mutiny, by Mike Dash, has it all: shipwreck . . . mutiny . . . murder . . . and survival. When a Dutch ship sinks off the coast of Australia, the survivors take refuge on a desert island — where they are at the mercy of a fanatical band of mutineers. It’s another “truth is stranger than fiction” story that reads like a thriller.

Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That9780374280604 Set Them Free, by Héctor Tobar, probably shouldn’t be listed as one of my favorites — because I haven’t read it yet. But I have heard so many glowing reviews from trusted sources that I am pretty sure I am going to love it. Here’s what the Los Angeles Times reviewer has to say:

The miners’ journey into the underworld and their miraculous return is an epic tale for all time. In his new book, Deep Down Dark, journalist and former Times staffer Héctor Tobar proves equal to the occasion. Weaving together the drama of the miners’ harrowing ordeal below ground with the anguish of families and rescuers on the surface, Tobar delivers a masterful account of exile and human longing, of triumph in the face of all odds. Taut with suspense and moments of tenderness and replete with a cast of unforgettable characters, Deep Down Dark ranks with the best of adventure literature.

What determines whether a person survives an ordeal? Obviously, luck is the most important factor — but, as all these books show us, some people possess an indomitable spirit. Louis Zamperini, hero of Unbroken, says:

Yet a part of you still believes you can fight and survive no matter what your mind knows. It’s not so strange. Where there’s still life, there’s still hope. What happens is up to God.