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.
Two of my library reads from this month were about different aspects of mind–body medicine. I expected them to overlap more than they did, actually, and hoped that the second might serve as a sort of well-written rebuttal to the first, but in the end they stayed in different camps: the first is about psychosomatic illness and psychiatric treatment, while the second is about the placebo effect and how alternative and holistic treatment strategies might be complementary to orthodox medical approaches. Both gave me a lot to think about.
It’s All in Your Head: Stories from the Frontline of Psychosomatic Illness
By Suzanne O’Sullivan
O’Sullivan is a UK-based neurology consultant. I picked this up on a whim because I knew it had won the Wellcome Book Prize, as well as the Royal Society of Biology General Book Prize. The conditions she writes about go by many names: psychosomatic illnesses, conversion disorders, or functional conditions. In every case the patients have normal neurological test results – they do not have epilepsy or nerve damage, for instance – but still suffer from seizures or lose the use of limb(s). Their symptoms have an emotional origin instead. Many of her patients are outraged by referral to a psychiatrist, as if they’re being told they’re making it all up, but it’s actually a holistic approach: acknowledging the influence the mind has on how we feel.
Along with cases from her own career, the author writes about early doctors who developed the science of conversion disorders, including Jean-Martin Charcot and Sigmund Freud. I read the book very quickly, almost compulsively; these are fascinating stories for anyone who’s interested in medical mysteries. That’s in spite of the fact that O’Sullivan does not strike me as a natural storyteller: her accounts of patients’ cases are often no more than just one thing after another, and in reports of her own conversations with patients she comes across as robotic and not always very compassionate. Ultimately I believe she does empathize with those with psychosomatic illnesses – otherwise she wouldn’t have written a whole book to illuminate their plight – but it would have taken the writing skill of someone like Atul Gawande for this to be a better book. I’m somewhat surprised it won a major prize.
Note: Chapter 7 tackles CFS/ME/fibromyalgia. These are controversial fatigue disorders, and O’Sullivan is aware that even mentioning them in a book about psychosomatic illnesses is “foolhardy to say the least.” I don’t think what she actually has to say about these conditions is offensive, though (and I say that as someone whose mother struggled with fibromyalgia for years). She allows that there may be physical triggers, but that emotional wellbeing and traumatic experiences or regular stress cannot be overlooked.
Chew on this: “More than seventy per cent of patients with dissociative seizures and chronic fatigue syndrome are women.” The author’s best guess as to why this is? “On the face of it, women turn their distress inward and men turn it outward.”
Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body
By Jo Marchant
In this absorbing and well-written work of popular science, 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. On the other hand, she shows how stress and trauma in early life can set (usually poor) people up for ill health in later years. She also travels everywhere from Boston to Lourdes to meet patients and medical practitioners, and even occasionally proffers herself as a guinea pig.
A relentless scientist, Marchant is skeptical of any claims for which there is no hard evidence, so when she acknowledges that there’s something to these unusual treatments, you know you can believe her. As Jeremy Howick of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, Oxford puts it, “I think it’s more important to know that something works, than how it works.” I finished the book feeling intrigued and hopeful about what this might all mean for the future of medicine. The problem, though, is that most medical trials are funded by big pharmaceutical companies, which won’t be supportive of non-traditional methods or holistic approaches.