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.
Despite my largely successful resolution to focus on my own books for the summer, I’ve also gotten through plenty of e-books from NetGalley and Edelweiss, too. I just find it easier to fit time with the Kindle into my day, whether it’s 20 minutes over lunch (food-themed nonfiction works particularly well for such situations) or 30 minutes on the cross trainer. Here’s a sample of the e-books I’ve enjoyed this summer: four nonfiction and one fiction.
Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France
By Craig Carlson
A good-natured memoir about the travails of opening the first American-style diner in Paris. Carlson charts his somewhat chaotic growing-up years in Connecticut, the college study abroad experience that kindled his love for France, his years trying to make it as a screenwriter and director in Hollywood, his long-held dream of opening Breakfast in America, and finding a French sweetheart of his own. Much of the book is devoted to a blow-by-blow of the bureaucratic nightmare of opening a restaurant, starting with getting investors on board and continuing through France’s ridiculously restrictive labor laws. (The impression I came away with was: France – great place to be an employee or rent property; terrible place to start a business.) Next time I’m in Paris, I will be looking to get myself a stack of his signature blueberry and white chocolate chip pancakes. Releases September 6th.
When in French: Love in a Second Language
By Lauren Collins
Collins, a journalist from North Carolina, married a Frenchman named Olivier she met while working in London. They then moved to Geneva, a mutually unfamiliar place but one where French reigned. For the first time, she was forced to learn a new language to survive. I love how she blends her own story with the philosophy, history and science behind language use. As she learned how to do things she never expected to have to in French – deal with her in-laws and give birth, for instance – she developed a new appreciation for the marvel that is bilingualism and pondered whether she was the same person in a different language. My favorite section recounts a holiday to Corsica that brought her family and Olivier’s into close quarters and cast her in the unforeseen role of translator. There’s a surprising amount of linguistic detail here, but Collins incorporates it well. Releases September 13th.
A Body, Undone: Living On After Great Pain
By Christina Crosby
Crosby teaches English and gender studies at Wesleyan University. Her inclusion in this “Sexual Cultures” series has to do with her lesbian feminist ideology but also the new understanding of her body an accident forced upon her at age 50. While she was cycling, a stick stuck in her spokes and she fell over onto concrete, breaking vertebrae in her neck that damaged her spinal cord. In the midst of a full and physical life, she became a quadriplegic. The great irony was that in this she joined her brother Jeff, whose MS had long since reduced him to a wheelchair. Here, in a memoir written 11 years after the accident, she reflects on chronic pain and new limitations – even including bowel habits – with blunt honesty as well as literary allusions. Along the way she remembers physical pleasures now denied to her. Nonetheless, she never comes across as sorry for herself. I found this to be highly absorbing.
The Reader on the 6.27
By Jean-Paul Didierlaurent
Guylain Vignolles works in a paper pulping plant. Rather than an enemy of books, however, he’s really a champion of the written word and its power to improve people’s lives. Every day when he descends into the belly of “The Thing” to clean it, he rescues the stray pages that escaped destruction and reads them aloud the following morning on his twenty-minute train commute, or to the residents of an old-folks home, no matter what their subject. He also helps his disabled former colleague Giuseppe stockpile all the books made from the recycled paper created on the fateful day the machine shredded his legs. There’s a charming Amélie vibe to this short novel, especially in the later chapters when Guylain sets off on a romantic quest to find the lavatory attendant whose wry diary he finds on a memory stick on the train. Most of the subplots could do with some expanding, but it’s a pleasant and super-quick read.
Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals that Brought Me Home
By Jessica Fechtor
For me this is right up there with Molly Wizenberg and Ruth Reichl in how the author merges food writing with a frank recounting of personal experiences with crisis and heartache. At age 28 Fechtor, then a graduate student in history and Yiddish, collapsed on a treadmill with a brain bleed. Surgery to clip the aneurysm left her blind in one eye. During her long recovery process she started a food blog. At the end of each chapter she shares recipes that alternate between simple, favorite dishes and more involved ones. It’s that unpretentiousness that really endears her to me. She doesn’t think she was particularly brave in getting through an unwanted illness; nor does she think the perfect almond macaroon or cherry clafoutis is beyond anyone’s capability. Instead, she gives a glimpse into an ordinary life turned upside down and the foods that helped her regain a zest for life.