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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WWW Wednesday — Fall Reading Version 1.0

September’s Baccalaureate
A combination is
Of Crickets — Crows — and Retrospects
And a dissembling Breeze

That hints without assuming —
An Innuendo sear
That makes the Heart put up its Fun
And turn Philosopher.

Emily Dickinson

Here’s a little anecdote about this poem, and Emily Dickinson, one of my favorite poets. I remembered that she had written a  little poem about September — and aging — but I couldn’t find it in my copy of her collected poetry. So I searched the Internet, using the terms “Emily Dickinson September poem”. I found the poem, but I also came upon the following quotation by Suzanne Supplee (an author with whom I am not familiar): “Emily Dickinson, in my opinion, is the perfect (although admittedly slightly cliche) poet for lonely fat girls.” I’d been so happy to find the poem, which was as lovely as I remembered, and then Suzanne Supplee had to go and take the wind right out of my sails. I’m not going to let that quote (which I’m sure was taken out of context) ruin Emily Dickinson for me. I’ll be turning the beautiful line “Of Crickets — Crows — and Retrospects” over in my mind for a long time.

What am I currently reading? What did I just finish reading? And what will I read next?

9781594634475I’m about halfway through Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which I almost put down after the first 30 pages or so. Several reviews (both from professional critics and from readers I trust) convinced me to stick it out, and I’m glad I have — I’m thoroughly absorbed now. I have a love-hate relationship with Groff’s writing style — some sentences amaze me with their originality, while others strike me as pretentious. A review on NPR raves about Groff’s writing:

The book is a master class in best lines; a shining, rare example of that most unforgiving and brutal writer’s advice: All you have to do is write the best sentence you’ve ever written. Then 10,000 more of the best. Then find a way to string them together into the story of something.

Which is what Groff has done here. And if you do want to learn how to be a great writer, you could do worse than skipping out on that M.F.A. program or pricey writer’s retreat, dropping 28 bucks on this book, studying the hell out of it, and then spending all that money you just saved on gin cocktails and hats. It’s that good. That beautiful. Occasionally, that stunning.

I’m warming, just a little, to the characters, now that I’m in the second half of the book (“Furies”), but at first I found them not only unlikable but unrealistic. As one commenter on NPR said,

Amazing writing. Absolutely beautiful. My question for the author: Do you think people like this couple actually exist, and you are delving into their psyches, or are you purposely creating otherworldly main characters? I have met many people from many different walks of life but have never met anyone even remotely like Lancelot and Mathilde. Am I just not meeting the right people? Is it all just metaphorical?

All I can reveal about the plot is that it revolves around a marriage and the two people’s very different perceptions, and that it’s very well constructed. Sounds like Gone Girl, right? Both have their share of melodrama and plot twists. Fates and Furies is rooted in Greek mythology, with plenty of Shakespearean references (one of the main characters is a playwright), making it self-consciously literary while Gone Girl presents itself as a straight page-turner. I’m looking forward to following the discussion on NPR, which has chosen it to discuss on the Morning Edition Book Club.

y648I need something light and funny to counterbalance the darkness in Fates and Furies, so my current audiobook is Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. Yesterday I drove several miles past my exit because I was having so much fun listening to Amy. She jumps from childhood to Second City to motherhood to Saturday Night Live, with several guest readers — including her mother. I know the print book has lots of photos and illustrations, but it can’t be as entertaining as the audio — although I have to be honest and tell you that it’s not as good as Bossypants, by Amy’s good friend Tina Fey.

9780804140164I just finished reading The 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. This book, which I read in one day, is a real-life companion to Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family.

9780399173004Because every serious book needs to be followed by something light and amusing, I read Shakespeare, Not Stirred: Cocktails for Your Everyday Dramas, by two English professors — Caroline Bicks, Ph.D. and Michelle Ephraim, Ph.D.

Now some of you may be thinking: Booze? Professors? Isn’t this why we need to get rid of tenure? But hear us out. Shakespeare wasn’t just interested in Fate, Revenge, and Tragic Flaws. His plays are saturated with alcohol-related themes, and it’s our job to know about them.

These Shakespeare scholars obviously had a blast putting together this collection of recipes for cocktails and appetizers. Every page contains fun and interesting Shakespeare trivia; reading this short book is a bartending course and Shakespeare seminar combined.

y648-1What’s next? Because I can never get too much of World War II, probably Early One Morning by Virginia Baily, about the decision a young Italian woman makes to save the life of a young Jewish boy — a decision that has repercussions 30 years later. The reviews describe the novel as not just a war story, but as an adoption story. And because I always need a laugh, Carrying Albert Home by Homer Hickam, the “semi-true” tale of Hickam’s parents’ journey from West Virginia to Florida with their pet alligator in tow. I started reading the ARC a couple of months ago, and misplaced it — I just found it, and can’t wait to pick it up again, because it’s sweet and nostalgic and funny. It’s a rough world, and as I just heard Elizabeth Berg say, there’s nothing wrong with a little sentimentality.