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.
There can’t be many of us whose lives haven’t been touched by cancer. Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Emperor of All Maladies, estimates that one in three of us will have cancer at some point in life, and that figure is steadily rising to one in two. Cancer hit home for me in late 2010 with my brother-in-law’s diagnosis of a brain tumor and his subsequent death in early 2015. Since then I have been reading cancer and bereavement memoirs almost compulsively, looking for clues to how we can deal with this near-universal phenomenon. Here are three personal stories of cancer that have stuck with me lately.
This Is Cancer: Everything You Need to Know, from the Waiting Room to the Bedroom
By Laura Holmes Haddad
A stage IV inflammatory breast cancer survivor, Laura Holmes Haddad 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. On the technical side, she gives an alphabetical glossary of “Cancerspeak” vocabulary, as well as explanations of different types of scans, chemo drugs, radiation treatments, methods of coping with pain, and options for reconstruction surgery. But she also goes deep into the less obvious aspects of the disease, like hidden financial costs, little-known side effects, and complications that could affect your sleep and travel. Her tips range from the dead simple—bring your own pen for filling out hundreds of pages of forms; schedule little pick-me-ups like a mini-makeover—to major issues like marriage and parenting with cancer.
“Don’t be surprised if this thing—this cancer road trip—leads to places you never could have imagined,” Holmes Haddad writes. “I’m trying to pay it forward to other patients, to help ease some angst, to comfort.” You might be surprised to learn that this is a very pleasant read. It fluidly mixes anecdote with facts and maintains an appropriate tone: forthright and reassuring yet wry, as in the ‘Devil’s Dictionary’ type translations (“DOCTOR: ‘You might feel some discomfort.’ MEANING: ‘This will hurt like hell.’”).
No cancer patient should be without this book. That statement needs no qualifying. Yes, it might be geared more towards women, specifically breast cancer patients, and there’s some U.S.-specific information about health insurance, but much of the guidance is universally applicable. Whether for yourself or to help a family member or friend, you’ll want a copy.
My thanks to publicist Eva Zimmerman for the free e-copy for review. This Is Cancer will be released by Seal Press on Tuesday.
Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You (About This Magnificent Life)
By Kate Gross
By the end of this charming memoir, I felt I knew Kate Gross as a friend. A high-flying British civil servant who helped Tony Blair found an NGO in Africa, she was shocked to learn in her early thirties that her occasional ‘bottom trouble’ was end-stage colon cancer with liver metastases. “I’m a golden girl, a people-pleaser, something who is used to graft and a pleasant smile being rewarded,” she writes, yet here was a situation she could not control. She died at age 36 in 2014.
In this short, clear-eyed book, she balances a brief recounting of her life with observations about terminal illness and trying to ensure a good future for her five-year-old twin sons. Memoirs by people facing death can often skirt close to cliché, but I felt Gross had fresh things to tell me about many subjects:
Cultivating “bitter gratitude”: “How strange, how brilliant it is that this awareness of wonder, this sense of the sublime, has been so closely intertwined with my illness as it has progressed.”
The value of literature: “Reading is an experience by which we connect ourselves to what we are, to this magnificent, awful life, in which the same grooves are being scored over and over again in different times and tongues.”
How to act around the dying: “we don’t expect great words of wisdom or solace. I just want this shit to be acknowledged”
Gross doesn’t believe in an afterlife beyond her children’s memory and this book—“nothingness-with-benefits.” I could sympathize with her picture of death, “me in the back of a black taxi, leaving an awesome party before the end, just when everyone else was starting to have real fun.” I wish she’d had longer at the party, but I’m glad she left these thoughts behind.
Haematemesis: How One Man Overcame a Fear of Things Medical and Learned to Navigate His Way Around Hospital
By Henry G. Sheppard
This is a mordantly funny account of one Australian man’s experience with recurrent cancer. In remission since 2007, Sheppard discovered in 2015 that he was once more riddled—that awful word—with leukemia. Having vowed never to go through chemo again, he learned that it had somewhat improved in the intervening years, with the drip treatments now partially replaced by tablets. This time around he ran into a lot of what he calls “Big Hospital Attitude”: scheduling issues with his bone marrow biopsy, nurses who didn’t think he could manage his own insulin treatments, and constant problems with finding veins for his many injections. Was this the much-touted “Patient-Centered Care”? Would he be better off with the “quick and relatively-painless death offered when one is mauled by a pack of wild dogs”?
“Haematemesis” means vomiting blood, and be warned: there is a lot of blood here; if you’re squeamish about needles you may struggle. There is also plenty of scatological humor. But in general I found the tone to be reminiscent of Bill Bryson in a hospital gown, especially when he’s describing squeezing his belly into a CT scanner or recounting his flatulence.
My main complaint is that at 80 pages this feels incomplete, like it’s telling just part of the story. What about his first bout with leukemia, or his earlier life (which, from a look at his Goodreads biography, seems very eventful indeed)? I understand that Sheppard wanted to get this book released while he was still able. I wish him well and hope for a sequel.
My thanks to the author for the free e-copy for review.