Tag: Katie Roiphe

Favorite Nonfiction Reads of 2016

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-cancerThis 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 girlLab 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-breathWhen 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.

lonely cityThe 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-pieSquirrel 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 (below) provide a lovely accompaniment.

cureCure: 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 soulPoor 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.

violet hourThe 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-theBeyond 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.

lion-in-theThe 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 Homestir 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 Giftstime-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 Walkcloister-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 Usone 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.

mausThe 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.

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The Violet Hour by Katie Roiphe

I don’t believe that you can learn how to die, or gain wisdom, or prepare, and the work I have done on this book has, if anything, confirmed that suspicion, but I do think you can look at a death and be less afraid.

violet hourThe subtitle – “Great Writers at the End” – gives you a hint of what to expect from this erudite, elegiac work of literary biography. In a larger sense, it is about coming to terms with the fear of death, one of the last enduring Western phobias.

Roiphe was a sickly, morbid child. After a serious, extended case of something like pneumonia, she had half a lung removed, and her chosen reading was books about Armenian genocide. Although she was convinced she was going to die at 12, it was only a blip; her next significant encounter with death was her father’s cardiac arrest at age 82. Once again, she was utterly unprepared. In investigating six great authors’ deaths, Roiphe is not so much looking for sage tour guides to the underworld as asking how one faces and narrates death.

Katie Roiphe (from her Goodreads page)
Katie Roiphe (from her Goodreads page)

To start with I was skeptical about Roiphe’s set of chosen writers. Between Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak and James Salter there’s no class or racial diversity, and the gender balance is poor. Yet as I read on I set these quibbles aside. There are literally hundreds, maybe thousands of subjects Roiphe could have chosen, so in a sense the particular authors discussed here are arbitrary. She’s eschewed more obvious candidates like Christopher Hitchens, probably because he wrote enough about his own impending mortality himself. The criteria were probably as plain as this: an author who meant something to Roiphe, left a lot of documentary evidence, preferably had some living descendants and colleagues to interview, and whose death was drawn out enough that s/he had time to wrestle with the thought of it in writing.

Starting each chapter with the vigil at an author’s deathbed in a hospital room or at home, Roiphe skips back and forth in time to pinpoint where illness and death cropped up in that author’s life and work. For Susan Sontag, dying at New York’s Sloan Kettering in 2004, it was her third bout with cancer. A final extreme intervention, a bone marrow transplant at Seattle, had recently failed. Still Sontag shirked the notion of death, refusing even to talk about it. Work was how she had always transcended the specter of death – by writing books like Illness as Metaphor and inserting scenes of false death into her fiction – and now it was all that kept her going. Perhaps, Roiphe theorizes, there was a kind of solipsism at the heart of Sontag’s denial of death: she just could not believe that anything would continue existing without her. Well before her first experience of cancer in the 1970s, she wrote in a notebook: “Too abstract: death. Too concrete: me.”

Susan_Sontag,_Cimetière_du_Montparnasse
Susan Sontag’s grave at the Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris. (By Wikimedia Commons / Mu (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons.)

One might expect Freud to have been more disciplined about the business of dying, what with his theory of Thanatos (the death drive) and his frequently professed acceptance. However, as Roiphe emphasizes, it is one thing to say you accept death, and quite another thing to actually accept it. In Freud’s case, his refusal to give up cigars despite painful throat cancer and 33 oral surgeries flew in the face of his otherwise rational methods. Cigars were his only vice, he shrugged. Is a cigar just a cigar, or are there overt sexual connotations? For Updike, sex was like Freud’s cigars: sensual evidence that life goes on. Adultery, a frequent theme in his fiction, was perhaps an unconscious strategy for ‘cheating’ death. It was only after his diagnosis with lung cancer that death replaced sex as the central obsession of his work. His last book, like his first, would be poetry: Endpoint, one last valiant effort before death.

Freud with one of his beloved cigars, 1922. Max Halberstadt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Freud with one of his beloved cigars, 1922. Max Halberstadt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
I found the Updike chapter the most absorbing, even though I’ve never read any of his work. (Like Joyce Carol Oates, he was so darn prolific I have no idea where to start.) Prior familiarity with the author in question is neither here nor there, though: you learn everything you need to know from Roiphe’s biographical treatment, and thematic threads are strong enough to lead from one to another. Self-destructive behavior, compartmentalizing life, turning to work or sex to ward off depression, ignoring signs of mortality like serious illness and others’ deaths – we all employ hypocritical strategies, and these authors are no different. Even Thomas’s “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” resistant as it might sound, was actually delivered in a lulling tone of resignation when he read it aloud, Roiphe reveals.

Each chapter is its own microcosm. The author herself only appears in the prologue and epilogue; in between, although she obviously interviewed survivors (and Salter, who died before he could read the finished book), she edits herself out so we can be right there with the subject. There’s no distance at all. That sense of intimacy is clearest in the chapter-heading photographs of the authors’ (posthumously?) empty studies. These are haunting images. Look at Sendak’s desk covered in paints and drawings, slippers carefully waiting underneath; a cardigan on the back of the chair – there’s such a sense of life. The life continues in the work.

None of these authors got death perfectly right. Several of them fought it right to the end; several of them veered towards faith despite a lifelong antipathy to religion; several of them were ultimately taken aback by the simple realization that they, too, were mortal. Roiphe discovers no magic formula for how a writer should do death. Despite their contradictory approaches, though, all her subjects had the same destination:

here’s what I learned from the deaths in this book: You work. You don’t work. You resist. You don’t resist. You exert the consummate control. You surrender. You deny. You accept. You pray. You don’t pray. You read. You work. You take as many painkillers as you can. You refuse painkillers. You rage against death. You run headlong toward it.

In the end the deaths are the same. They all die. The world releases them.

This would be an ideal book for fans of Olivia Laing (see my review of The Lonely City) or Julian Barnes’s Nothing to Be Frightened of. 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. One of my top few nonfiction reads of 2016 so far.

With thanks to Grace Vincent of Virago for sending a review copy. The Violet Hour releases today in the UK; it was published on March 8th in the States by The Dial Press.

My rating: 5 star rating