Matchmaking: 10 Nonfiction/Fiction Pairs

Fiction and nonfiction are not so easily divided. Fiction may not be real, but it’s true; it goes beyond the garland of facts to get to emotional and psychological truths.
Yann Martel

The National Endowment for the Arts recently studied the reading habits of Americans, and one of their findings won’t surprise any bookseller: “Men are more likely to read nonfiction books than fiction, while the opposite holds true for women.” The NEA defines a “literary reader” as someone who has read “at least one novel, play, or poem within the last 12 months”. According to this definition, 47% of American adults are “literary readers”. So if a person (female) reads one novel in a year — say, Fifty Shades of Gray — she is a “literary reader”, but if a person (male) reads dozens of nonfiction books — The Boys in the Boat, The Innovators, The Warmth of Other Suns — he is some type of “non-literary”, inferior reader?

Like Nancy Pearl, librarian, NPR book critic, and author of Book Lust, I’m an omnivore when it comes to books. When asked how she chooses the books she discusses on Morning Edition’s “Under the Radar” segments, she said:

Simple: I just pick some of the titles that I’ve most enjoyed since the last time I was on, without concern for whether they’re fiction or nonfiction, genre or not, or aimed or classified as being for children or teens. Because I am an omnivorous reader, at first glance my choices always seem to me to be completely higgledy-piggledy, with no book bearing any similarity to any other.

So whether you’re an omnivore, a carnivore (nonfiction reader), or herbivore (fiction reader), here are some complementary sets of fiction and nonfiction books. (For a list of books for the confirmed carnivore, check out 10 Books for “Carnivorous” Readers — which includes Steven Rinella’s Meat Eater: Adventures of an American Hunter.)

9780804137744Interested in Civil War cross-dressing?
Nonfiction: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott
A rollicking chronicle of the exploits of four female spies (two Union, two Confederate) during the Civil War.
Fiction: I Shall Be Near to You by Erin McCabe
In this beautiful story of love and war, a headstrong young woman disguises herself as a man, enlists in the Union Army, and follows her new husband off to battle.

Want to read about work/life balance?
Nonfiction: Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
Sandberg’s book advising young women to be more ambitious received a lot of unfair criticism — much of it, I suspect, from people who didn’t read it. Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of the recent book, Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Faa-window-opens-9781501105432_lgmily, wrote an excellent review in the New York Times.
Fiction: A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan
The clever and entertaining story of a full-time mother and part-time editor who suddenly needs to find a “real” job — and lands at “Scroll”, an up-and-coming company with a diabolically quirky corporate culture

Want to understand more about developmentally disabled young adults?
Nonfiction: An Uncomplicated Life: A Father’s Memoir of His Exceptional Daughter by Paul Daugherty
A wonderful book for any parent — through the story of the first 25 years of his daughter Jillian’s life, Daugherty reminds us of the precious gifts our children are, “exceptional” or not.
Fiction: A Step Toward Falling by Cammie McGovern
In McGovern’s second novel for young adults, two achievement-oriented high school students fail to protect a developmentally disabled classmate, Belinda, at a pivotal moment. Belinda, who narrates sections of the book, comes to life as a three-dimensional character.

Think you need to learn more about why school shootings happen?
Nonfiction: Columbine by Dave Cullen
Cullen spent 10 years researching the events at Columbine High School, and what he found was that “most of what we ‘know’ about Columbine was wrong.” The killers, he points out, were not bullied — they were, in fact, bullies themselves.
Fiction: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
One of the most chilling books I’ve ever read.

Interested in the craft of writing?
Nonfiction: On Writing by Stephen King and Escaping Into the Open by Elizabeth Berg
Both are not only excellent writing manuals but entertaining memoirs as well.
Fiction: How to Write a Novel by Melanie Sumner9781101873472-1
Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch pairing How to Write a Novel with books on how to write, because Sumner’s debut novel is only on the surface about writing a novel. While trying to write a book, following the instructions in a writing manual, 12-year-old Aristotle stumbles upon some family secrets. Fans of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? will adore this smart and endearing novel.

Fascinated by World War I?
Nonfiction: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
This classic memoir of love and loss in World War I-era England should be required reading for anyone interested in that time period.
Fiction: The Absolutist by John Boyne and A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry
I love both of these books so much that I can’t decide which is my favorite World War I novel. (Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks, is a runner-up.) Both are beautifully written and almost unbearably sad.

9780061958274Are you a Little House on the Prairie fan?
Nonfiction: Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Pamela Smith Hill
Hill, the author of a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited Wilder’s memoir — which is really a rough draft of the Little House books. An article in the Los Angeles Times points out that the Little House series was written for children, and Wilder’s memoir “would have been rated R for violence and adult content.”
Fiction: Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen
Lee Lien, daughter of hardworking Vietnamese immigrants, is a newly minted Ph.D. in English literature with no job who finds a mysterious gold brooch belonging to her mother — an item that may have belonged to Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Curious about reclusive authors?
Nonfiction: My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
Actually, Salinger doesn’t show up much in Rakoff’s memoir of her stint as a famously eccentric literary agent, but his brief appearances are memorable — and so is the book.
Fiction: & Sons by David Gilbert
A big, fat novel centering on A.N. Dyer — a reclusive writer reminiscent of J.D. Salinger. If you like Jonathan Franzen, you’ll like this. There’s a lot going on — a novel within a novel, lots of characters, and even a touch of science fiction.

9781101872871What happens when cultural and religious differences collide with modern medicine?
Nonfiction: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman
Published almost 20 years ago, this award-winning book — one of my “top 10” works of narrative nonfiction — includes a new afterword with updates on the characters and on the author herself.
Fiction: The Children Act by Ian McEwan
The morally complex and emotionally resonant story of a London family court judge who must make a decision about whether to order a lifesaving blood transfusion for a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness.

What was it like to live through Hurricane Katrina?
Nonfiction: Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink
The author is a physician and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who’s written a gripping account of the life-and-death decisions medical staff at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans were forced to make during Hurricane Katrina.
Fiction: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
The 2011 National Book Award for fiction, set in Mississippi just before and during Hurricane Katrina, has ‘the aura of a classic”, according to Ron Charles of the Washington Post.

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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?

10 Books for “Carnivorous” Readers

Is anyone else really, really tired of the term “curated”? To quote from the Chowhound website: “You curate a museum, or perhaps an art collection for a billionaire”. I agree — restaurants don’t “curate” wine lists, and book reviewers don’t “curate” lists of books. I promise never to use that annoying word in this blog! What I will do is present a list of books that my oldest son liked a lot. Today is David’s 27th birthday, so of course I bought him a book. (I also bought him a plane ticket, but he’ll need something to read on the plane, right?) I started thinking about David’s evolution as a reader, from Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, to the DK Eyewitness Pond and River LIfe, to Rick Reilly’s Who’s Your Caddy?.

To make a silly analogy to the animal kingdom, readers can be divided into three categories: herbivores (fiction readers), carnivores (nonfiction readers), and omnivores (people who read anything). David, like so many of his gender, is a carnivore. Even as a young child, he preferred the fact-oriented series The Magic Schoolbus to its fictional cousin, the Magic Tree House series. (Although he loved Jon Scieszka’s  books about the Time Warp Trio — it must have been the humor. I’ve found, as a bookseller and a parent, that if a book is funny a little boy will like it.)

coverSo is it any surprise that a book David recently enjoyed, and recommends to other carnivores, is called Meat Eater? It’s written by journalist Steven Rinella, also the author of American Buffalo: A Lost Icon. But don’t take David’s word for it. Here’s what the New York Times and Wall Street Journal had to say about the book:

The stories in Meat Eater are full of empathy and intelligence….In some sections of the book, the author’s prose is so engrossing, so riveting, that it matches, punch for punch, the best sports writing. When Mr. Rinella wades into the surging Grand River, to throw a fly for steelheads, the story moves as well as Tom Callahan writing about Johnny Unitas in the 1958 championship or Bill Nack writing about Secretariat. — Wall Street Journal

Truth be told, I have lived a life plenty comfortable with my disdain toward hunters and hunting. And then along comes Steven Rinella and his revelatory memoir Meat Eater to ruin everything. Unless you count the eternal pursuit of the unmetered parking space, I am not a hunter. I am, however, on a constant quest for good writing. . . This is survival of the most literate. —New York Times

If you’re a carnivore, or know someone who is, here are a few other suggestions from David’s library (both his childhood library and his current bookshelves):

Harris and Me (Gary Paulsen)
All Paulsen’s books are wonderful, but this one is special. It’s about a city boy who spends the summer on his cousin’s farm. There are many hilarious incidents, with just the right amount of crude humor to appeal to grade school age boys. It’s fiction — as are many of Paulsen’s other books (including the Hatchet series) — but still good for carnivores.

9780060537845Joe and Me: An Education in Fishing and Friendship  (James Prosek)
A coming of age story about a teenage boy who runs afoul of the local fish and game warden. David’s copy looks like it’s been read a few times. Prosek has written many other terrific books about fly fishing, but this is the only one for YA readers.

Who’s Your Caddy?: Looping for the Great, Near Great, and Reprobates of Golf (Rick Reilly)
I think I enjoyed this book as much as David did, and I don’t even follow golf. Reilly has to be a great writer if he can get me to read a golf book. I started reading it because I was slightly worried about the content, and then got hooked. (Looking back, I can’t believe I was worried about what a sophomore in high school was reading. Can you tell David is my oldest?)

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster (Jon Krakauer)
A classic adventure story about an ill-fated ascent of Mount Everest in 1996. Krakauer’s Into the Wild is excellent as well.

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry (Jon Ronson)
Our whole family passed this book around on vacation a couple of summers ago — it’s fascinating!  What a relief it was to find that none of us is a psychopath.

Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town (Nick Reding)
Journalist Reding spent four years in a small town in Oelwein, Iowa, examining the effects of the meth epidemic on that town and similar towns all over the Midwest. My daughter and I couldn’t put this book down either.

9780393081817_300Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World (Michael Lewis)
It seems that Michael Lewis can do no wrong — his books, starting with Liar’s Poker (another favorite of David’s) — are uniformly excellent, transforming complicated economics into entertaining and informative narratives.

No Easy Day: A Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden (Mark Owen)
The movie Zero Dark Thirty tells a little bit of the story; this book, written by a Navy SEAL,  provides all the details. Apparently the author (who used a pseudonym) was criticized for revealing secrets without clearance from the government.

An American Caddie in St. Andrews: Growing Up, Girls, and Looping on the Old Course (Oliver Horovitz)
An American teenager spends a “gap year” in Scotland as a caddy at the world’s most famous golf course — and returns to work there year after year, even after college graduation.

Guess where we are going to celebrate David’s birthday tonight? A hot new barbecue restaurant in Chicago — Green Street Smoked Meats*. And I hope he likes the book I’m giving him: The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of Our Great Universities, by Bill Cohan. It just got a rave review in the New York Times.

*Thank you, Gina, for organizing!