Below I’ve chosen my 10 favorite nonfiction books published in 2016, followed by five older nonfiction reads that I only discovered this year. I find it nigh on impossible to compare different genres of nonfiction, so I’m not ranking these but simply listing them alphabetically by author (interestingly, all but one of the 2016 books are by women).
As with yesterday’s fiction choices, many of these books have already featured on the blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
The Best of 2016
This Is Cancer by Laura Holmes Haddad: A stage IV inflammatory breast cancer survivor, the author wrote the “What to Expect” guide she wishes she could have found at the time of her diagnosis in 2012. Throughout this comprehensive, well-structured book, she uses her own experience to set out practical advice for dealing with the everyday medical and emotional realities of cancer.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren: With witty anecdotes and recreated dialogue, Jahren tells about her Minnesota upbringing, her long years in education, her ultimate specialization in geobiology/botany, crossing the country to take up academic posts in Atlanta, Baltimore and Hawaii, her long-time platonic relationship with eccentric lab partner Bill, and zany road trips across America for conferences and field work. What I think she does best is convey what it’s like to have true passion for your work, a rare thing.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: Kalanithi was 36 and just completing his neurosurgery residency in Stanford, California when he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer that did not respond well to treatment; he devoted his last year to writing this. I would recommend this cancer memoir to anyone for the beauty of its prose – a fine blend of literature and medicine – and the simple yet wholehearted picture of a life cut short.
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing: A remarkable piece of work fusing social history, commentary on modern art, biographical observation and self-knowledge. It’s a testament to Laing’s skill when I say that I knew next to nothing about any of these artists to start with and have little fondness for modern art but still found her book completely absorbing.
Squirrel Pie (and Other Stories): Adventures in Food across the Globe by Elisabeth Luard: Broadly speaking, this is about indigenous and peasant cooking traditions, a remit that allows Luard to include and adapt travel pieces she’s written over the past 20 years. It’s a cozy and conversational book for anyone who enjoys cooking or eating food from different cuisines (from Maui and Romania to Gujarat and Ethiopia); Luard’s own sketches and line drawings provide a lovely accompaniment.
Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body by Jo Marchant: Marchant, a journalist with a PhD in genetics and medical microbiology, investigates instances where the mind seems to contribute to medical improvement: the use of placebos in transplant recipients, hypnosis for IBS patients, virtual reality to help burn victims manage pain, and the remarkable differences that social connection, a sense of purpose, meditation and empathic conversation all make. I finished the book feeling intrigued and hopeful about what this might all mean for the future of medicine.
Poor Your Soul by Mira Ptacin: Ptacin’s wonderful memoir is based around two losses: her brother in a collision with a drunk driver, and a pregnancy in 2008; she skips back and forth in time to examine the numb aftermath of trauma as well as the fresh pain of actually going through it. I loved so much about this book, especially her memories of growing up in the cereal capital of America in Michigan and the account of her mother coming to America from Poland and setting up a fine-dining restaurant.
The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End by Katie Roiphe: An erudite, elegiac work of literary biography that takes in Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak and James Salter. What Roiphe observes of Sendak’s habit of drawing the dead and dying could equally be applied to The Violet Hour: it’s about seeing the beauty in what terrifies you.
Beyond the High Blue Air: A Memoir by Lu Spinney: In March 2006 Lu Spinney’s twenty-nine-year-old son, Miles King, was on a snowboarding holiday in Austria; on the final morning of the trip he took a fall that would leave this athlete, intellectual, and entrepreneur with a traumatic brain injury. Spinney tells her sad tale remarkably well, in a consciously literary style: with no speech marks and present-tense narration, thought and action flow lucidly into dialogue and daydream; she always chooses just the right metaphors, too.
The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World by Abigail Tucker: From the earliest domestication of animals to the cat meme-dominated Internet, Tucker marvels at how cats have succeeded by endearing themselves to humans and adapting as if effortlessly to any habitat in which they find themselves. This is the amazing cat book I’d been looking for, but I don’t think you even have to be a pet person to find this wide-ranging book enthralling.
If I had to list an overall favorite nonfiction book of the year, it would be The Violet Hour.
The Best of the Rest
Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home by Jessica Fechtor (2015): At age 28 Fechtor, then a graduate student in history and Yiddish, collapsed on a treadmill with a brain bleed; a subsequent surgery to clip the aneurysm left her blind in one eye. She gives a glimpse into an ordinary existence turned upside down and the foods that helped her regain a zest for life by reconnecting her with her family and her Jewish heritage.
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1977): Over the course of three years in the 1930s, starting when he was just 18, Fermor walked from Holland to Constantinople; this first of three volumes covers up until his entry into Hungary. His descriptions of the landscape and the people he interacted with are as fresh as if they happened yesterday; the precious glimpse of pre-war history and the damn fine writing make this a true masterwork of travel writing.
The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris (1996): Norris draws lessons from the time she spent as a lay Benedictine oblate but also simply reflects on her own life: the blessings and challenges of being a freelance poet and theologian; the daily discipline involved in marriage, keeping a house and gardening; and childhood memories from Virginia, Illinois and Hawaii. This is an impressively all-encompassing and eloquent set of essays on how faith intersects with everyday life.
One of Us: The Story of a Massacre and Its Aftermath by Åsne Seierstad (2015): An utterly engrossing account of Anders Behring Breivik’s July 22, 2011 attacks on an Oslo government building (8 dead) and the political youth camp on the island of Utøya (69 killed). This is a book about love and empathy – what they can achieve and what happens when they are absent; it shows how wide the ripples of one person’s actions can be, and how deep individual motivation goes.
The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman (1986): Spiegelman drew these allegorical tableaux to illustrate what, from a distance of decades, his Polish father Vladek told him about his almost unbelievable series of escapes, including time in Auschwitz. The only graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize, this brings the Holocaust home in a fresh way and paved the way for comic artists like Roz Chast and Alison Bechdel.
What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll list some runners-up for the year, and award a few more superlatives.
Here are mini-reviews of five books I loved recently: two I originally reviewed for other websites and three stellar library reads; three works of historical fiction and two nonfiction books.
Known and Strange Things: Essays
By Teju Cole
This collects 55 short pieces under three headings: literature, visual arts, and travel. Alongside straightforward book reviews are essays in which Cole engages with his literary heroes. A 400-page book of disparate essays is a hard ask, and even photography aficionados may struggle through the long middle section. All the same, patience is rewarded by Part III, “Being There,” in which he deftly blends memoir and travelogue. Again and again he reflects on displacement and ambiguity. Born in Michigan but raised in Nigeria, Cole returned to the States for college. Though erudite and wide-ranging, these essays are not quite as successful as, say, Julian Barnes’s or Geoff Dyer’s in making any and every topic interesting to laymen. Still, Cole proves himself a modern Renaissance man, interweaving experience and opinion in rigorous yet conversational pieces that illuminate the arts. (See my full review on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website.)
By Christopher Nicholson
A perfect novel about a few months of Thomas Hardy’s later life. On the surface it’s the story of a rather odd love triangle: the octogenarian Hardy was infatuated with Gertrude Bugler, a local Dorset actress who had agreed to play his Tess on the London stage; his neurotic second wife, Florence, got wind of his feelings and jealously decided to sabotage Gertie. Underneath, I found this to be a deeply moving book about fear – of death, but also of not having lived the way you wanted and meant to. The perspective moves between Florence and Gertie in the first person and an omniscient third-person narrator. Chapters 1, 6 and 8, in particular, are a pitch-perfect pastiche of Hardy’s style. A bleak country winter is the perfect setting for a story of personal decay and a marriage grown cold. This brought back vivid memories of my visit to Hardy’s house in 2004 and coincided with my own vision of who Hardy was.
The Complete Maus
By Art Spiegelman
The only graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize, this brings the Holocaust home in a fresh way. Like Animal Farm, it uses the conceit of various animal associations: Jews are mice, Poles are pigs, Nazis are cats, and Americans are dogs. Spiegelman draws what, from a distance of decades, his father Vladek remembers about his almost unbelievable series of escapes, including time in Auschwitz. Spiegelman gives the book an extra dimension by including his 1970s/80s recording sessions with his father as a framing story for most chapters. The narration is thus in Vladek’s own broken English, and we see how exasperating Spiegelman finds him – for pinching pennies and being racist against blacks, for instance – even as he’s in awe of his story. You can see how this paved the way for comic artists like Roz Chast and Alison Bechdel. I recommend it to absolutely anyone, graphic novel fan or no.
By Francis Spufford
Bawdy, witty, vivid historical fiction; simply brilliant. You’ll never doubt for a second that you are in 1746 New York – an English colony with a heavy Dutch influence, and slavery still the standard. The novel opens suddenly as twenty-four-year-old Richard Smith arrives from London with a promissory note for £1000. He won’t explain how he came by the money or what he intends to do with it, but the order seems legitimate. This puts the merchant Mr. Lovell in rather a bind, because that kind of cash simply can’t be come by. Before he can finally get his money, Smith will fall in and out of love, fight a duel, and be arrested twice – all within the space of two months. In a book full of fantastic scenes, Smith and Septimus’ narrow escape via the rooftops on Pope Day stands out. The finest thing about the novel, though, is the authentic eighteenth-century diction. Spufford writes very good creative nonfiction, with five books to date, but with his debut novel he’s hit a home run.
By A.N. Wilson
From a prolific author of both fiction and nonfiction, a meticulously researched novel about George Forster, one of the naturalists on Captain Cook’s second voyage. Rather than giving a simple chronological account of the journey and its aftermath, Wilson employs a sophisticated structure that alternates vignettes from the voyage with scenes from about 10 years later, when George is unhappily married to Therese and struggling to find suitable work. This is the second novel I’ve read by Wilson, after The Potter’s Hand. I find his fiction to be thoroughly convincing as well as engaging. This reminded me most of Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann, another rip-roaring tale of exploration with prose emulating the more detached narrative style of the eighteenth century. Recommended to any readers of historical fiction and adventure stories. (See my full review at The Bookbag.)