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.
The Zookeeper’s Wife
By Diane Ackerman
A different sort of Holocaust story, set at Warsaw Zoo in the years surrounding World War II. Even after Nazis dismantled their zoo and killed many of the larger animals, Jan and Antonina Żabiński stayed at their home and used the zoo’s premises for storing explosives and ammunition for Jan’s work in the Polish resistance as well as sheltering “Guests,” Jews passing through. This is a gripping narrative of survival against the odds, with the added pleasure of the kind of animal antics you’d find in a Gerald Durrell book. Their son Ryszard kept as pets a badger who bathed sitting back in the tub like a person and an arctic hare who stole cured meats like “a fat, furry thug.” Much of the book is based on Antonina’s journals, but I wish there had been more direct quotes from it and less in the way of reconstruction.
Walking Away: Further Travels with a Troubadour on the South West Coast Path
By Simon Armitage
As a sequel to Walking Home, the account of his 2010 trek along the Pennine Way, Armitage walked much of England’s South West Coast Path in August–September 2013. As before, he relied on the hospitality of acquaintances and strangers to put him up along the way and transport his enormous suitcase for him so he could walk about 10 miles a day to his next poetry reading. Emulating a modern-day troubadour, Armitage passed around a sock at the end of readings for donations (though the list of other stuff people left in the sock, with which he closes the book, is quite amusing). Along the way he meets all kinds of odd folk and muses on the landscape and the distressing amounts of seaside rubbish. His self-deprecating style reminded me of Bill Bryson. A pleasant ramble of a travel book.
Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival
By Bernd Heinrich
This great seasonal read carefully pitches science to the level of the layman. Heinrich, an emeritus professor of biology at the University of Vermont, surveys various strategies animals use for surviving the winter: caching food, huddling together, hibernating or entering torpor, and lowering their body temperature – even to the point where 50% of their body water is ice, as with hibernating frogs. He carries out ever so slightly gruesome experiments that make him sound like a lovably nutty professor:
To find out how quickly a fully feathered kinglet loses body heat, I experimentally heated a dead kinglet and then measured its cooling rate. … I do not know how many seeds a chipmunk usually packs into each of its two pouches—I easily inserted sixty black sunflower seeds through the mouth into just one pouch of a roadkill.
His passion for knowledge carries through in his writing. I came away with a fresh sense of wonder for how species are adapted to their environments: “Much that animals have evolved to do would have seemed impossible to us, if experience has not taught us otherwise.”
Poor Your Soul
By Mira Ptacin
Ptacin’s memoir is based around two losses: that of her brother, in a collision with a drunk driver; and that of 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. In places I felt Ptacin sacrificed the literary quality hindsight might have allowed, prioritizing instead the somewhat clichéd thoughts and responses she had in the moment. Still, I loved so much about this book, especially her memories of growing up in the cereal capital of America and the account of her mother coming to America from Poland. Her mother is a terrific character, and it’s her half-warning, half-commiserative phrase that gives the novel its title (not a typo, as you might be forgiven for thinking): a kind of Slavic “I pity the fool.”
Miss Fortune: Fresh Perspectives on Having It All from Someone Who Is Not Okay
By Lauren Weedman
Weedman is a playwright and minor celebrity who’s worked on The Daily Show, Hung and Looking. This is a truly funny set of essays about marriage (from beginning to end), motherhood, working life and everything in between. Self-deprecatingly, she focuses on ridiculous situations she’s gotten herself into, like the world’s unsexiest threesome and an accidental gang symbol tattoo. Amid the laughs are some serious reflections on being adopted and figuring out how to be a responsible stepmother. With a warning that parts can be pretty raunchy, I’d recommend this to fans of David Sedaris and Bossypants.