Nonfiction by author

Cross-posted, with a few modifications, on the Robbins Library blog as “Nonfiction: Where to Begin?

Since finding out that the public library in Northampton, Massachusetts offers “YOUR NEXT GREAT READ LIVE!” – that is, live readers’ advisory on the Forbes Library Facebook page on Fridays – I’ve been interested in doing the same, and last month I just went ahead and started. If you follow the Robbins Library Facebook page, you might have seen these sessions from the past few Friday mornings. Some comments are quite specific, mentioning particular authors, titles, or genres; but once someone simply asked for “nonfiction.”

Nonfiction is…well, everything, really, that isn’t made up. It’s a category of reading that people tend to approach more by subject than by author. That said, there are several authors who turn out a book every few years in different interesting areas, whether narrative nonfiction or memoir/personal essays. I started brainstorming (with help from my brilliant, well-read co-workers, of course), and here’s what we came up with:

Narrative nonfiction

Local author Steve Almond has written about music (Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life), chocolate (Candyfreak), and football (Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto). In other words, something for everyone!

British professor and influential thinker Mary Beard’s most recent book is SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. At over 600 pages, it may take you a while, but when you do finish, don’t worry – she’s written more.

Cover image of A Walk in the WoodsBill Bryson is well-known and well-liked; you’ve probably heard of (or already read) A Walk in the Woods – it’s the one with the bear on the cover – but he has many others, including A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bryson’s writing style is welcoming and witty.

Stephanie Coontz is a social historian and author of several books, including: Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap and The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms With America’s Changing Families.
Think you know (or remember) how it was in the ’50s? Think again.

Perhaps you are interested in letter-writing (To the Letter), fonts (Just My Type), maps (On the Map), time (Timekeepers), or a specific shade of purple (Mauve)? Simon Garfield is your man.

Cover image of The Checklist ManifestoBoston surgeon Atul Gawande is also a wonderful author, who writes with medical expertise and deep empathy, and is driven by a constant desire to improve. His most recent book is Being Mortal, but don’t miss his earlier ones: Better, Complications, and The Checklist Manifesto. (See also: Siddhartha Mukherjee.)

A staff writer for The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell made a splash with The Tipping Point in 2000 and has written four books since: Blink, Outliers, David & Goliath, and What the Dog Saw and Other Adventure Stories. If you’re interested in psychology and human behavior, give Gladwell a try.

Laura Hillenbrand‘s two books have been huge successes, and with good reason: they are fascinating stories, tremendously well-researched and compellingly told. Both Seabiscuit and Unbroken are very nearly un-put-down-able. Both have been made into feature films.

cover image of The Ghost MapI discovered Steven Johnson through his book The Ghost Map, about a cholera outbreak in London and how people figured out how the disease was spreading – and how to stop it. It’s like a mystery novel, except it’s real! Johnson has written several other books as well: The Invention of Air, How We Got to Now, Everything Bad is Good for You, Where Good Ideas Come From, and Wonderland. If you’re interested in innovation and discovery, past and present, try one (or more) of Johnson’s books.

Highly informative, not particularly cheerful: Elizabeth Kolbert wrote The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, which won a whole slew of prizes, including the Pulitzer, in 2015; she is also the author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (2007).

Mark Kurlansky writes about food and about history, often together (Salt, Cod). His most recent book is Paper: Paging Through History. Learn about the world through a new (fisheye?) lens.

One of the most prominent popular nonfiction authors, Jon Krakauer has written riveting stories of extremes: Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, Where Men Win Glory, Under the Banner of Heaven, and Missoula.

Cover image of Dead WakeErik Larson is another perennially popular nonfiction author, and with good reason: his well-researched books often use multiple narratives to tell the same story, enhancing the aspect of suspense through different perspectives. The pacing, particularly in his latest, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, is superb. His other books include The Devil in the White City, Isaac’s Storm, Thunderstruck, and In the Garden of Beasts.

Do you like extensively researched doorstoppers about historical figures? Allow me to introduce you to David McCullough, author of The Wright Brothers, 1776, John Adams, and several others.

In a starred review of The Emperor of All Maladies, Booklist wrote, “Apparently researching, treating, and teaching about cancer isn’t enough of a challenge for Columbia University cancer specialist [Siddhartha] Mukherjee…” and indeed, his “biography of cancer” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. Those interested in science and history should pick this one up, and try Mukherjee’s more recent book, The Gene: An Intimate History as well. (See also: Atul Gawande.)

Michael Pollan is a well-known writer on the topics of food, nutrition, sustainability, and related issues. Try The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, The Botany of Desire, or Cooked. Or, for a condensed version of Pollan’s guidance, Food Rules.

Cover image of StiffMary Roach‘s clever one-word titles (with the exception of Packing for Mars, which is three words, but still intriguing) encapsulate her sense of humor and scientific curiosity, and invite you to read on to learn more about human cadavers (Stiff), the afterlife (Spook), humans at war (Grunt), sex (Bonk), and digestion (Gulp). Who knows what she’ll write about next? But it’s sure to be interesting…

Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote about the brain and how it (sometimes doesn’t) work. Check out The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales (1998), Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (2007), or Hallucinations (2012). Sacks published his autobiography, On the Move, just four months before he died in 2015.

Rebecca Skloot has only written one book, but what a book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will have a lasting impact. Tumor cells taken from an African-American woman without her knowledge in the 1950s became known as “HeLa” cells, the key to many scientific discoveries. Booklist says Skloot writes with “a novelist’s artistry, a biologist’s expertise, and the zeal of an investigative reporter.”

Dava Sobel is a former New York Times Science writer. Her most recent book is The Glass Universe try it if you liked Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly – but she has been publishing steadily every few years since Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time in 1995.

Cover image of Far From the TreeIf you only ever read one 900+ page book in your life, there is a very good case for Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon. (If 900 pages is simply too many for you, it’s worth reading the introduction, which is only about 50 pages.) Solomon writes about identity, particularly when a child has an identity that isn’t shared with the parent, such as deafness, schizophrenia, or musical genius. This book will expand your understanding of other people and increase your empathy. Solomon has also written The Noonday Demon, a book about his struggle with depression.

Interested in a bit of true crime, Victorian-style? The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale is just that; detective Jonathan Whicher of Scotland Yard provided a model for many fictional detectives. Summerscale is also the author of Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady and The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer.

Cover image of The World Without UsEven wonder what would happen to Earth if all the humans just…disappeared? Alan Weisman takes that thought experiment and expands it into a book in The World Without Us, explaining what would last, what would crumble, and what would explode in a rather dramatic fashion. In 2013, six years after The World Without Us, Weisman published Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?

From the seemingly tame subject of the Oxford English Dictionary (The Professor and the Madman; The Meaning of Everything) to the large and explosive (Krakatoa; A Crack in the Edge of the World), Simon Winchester writes “just the kind of creative nonfiction that elevates a seemingly arcane topic into popular fare” (Booklist).

Jeffrey Zaslow was a journalist for The Wall Street Journal and also an advice columnist. He wrote thoughtful, serious, tender books about women’s lives, including The Girls From Ames and The Magic Room, and co-wrote a number of other books, including The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope with Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly.

Personal experience/memoir/essays

Cover image of The Year of Magical ThinkingJoan Didion: There are too many books to list here, but try her memoirs, The Year of Magical Thinking or Blue Nights, or the collection We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live.

Jonathan Franzen is better known as a novelist (The Corrections, Freedom, Purity), but his essays are both thoughtful and thought-provoking; he has the ability to make any topic (birdwatching; the postal service in Chicago) interesting. Try How to Be Alone, The Discomfort Zone, or Farther Away.

Elizabeth Gilbert: Probably still best known for Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert has also written Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage and, more recently, Big Magic: Creative Living Without Fear. She is also the author of the novel The Signature of All Things.

Nick Hornby: In addition to writing novels and screenplays (e.g. High Fidelity), Hornby has written a decade’s worth of “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns for The Believer. They’re collected in Ten Years in the Tub.

Cover image of On WritingStephen King: King is best known for his novels, of course, but his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is “a blend of memoir and craft” that makes for fascinating reading whether or not you ever plan to become a writer yourself.

Caitlin Moran: Colorful British feminist writer Moran wrote the hilarious bestseller How to Be A Woman, as well as essay collections Moranthology and Moranifesto. She is also the author of the novel How to Build A Girl.

Ann Patchett: Beloved novelist Ann Patchett brings the same wise, considered approach and deep understanding of people to her nonfiction writing. This Is The Story of A Happy Marriage is a collection not to be missed.

Cover image of The Happiness ProjectGretchen Rubin: The Happiness Project was a year-long personal project supported with research; it’s a memoir only a very “Type A” person could write, and may lead to other interesting academic reading. Rubin followed up the success of that book with Happier At Home and Better Than Before.

Cheryl Strayed: You know her as the author of Wild, but she also spent time as the advice columnist “Dear Sugar”; many of her columns were collected and published as Tiny Beautiful Things.

What are your favorite nonfiction books or authors? Which ones on this list are new and interesting to you?

Reading Passport: Book a Trip Around the World

Reading Passport

Reading Passport, 1994-1995

During the 1994-1995 school year, the school librarian (we had those, back then) issued the students a Reading Passport, which entitled (pun intended?) the owner to Book a Trip Around the World (pun definitely intended)! Because I am a highly organized pack rat whose mother had storage space in her garage until recently, I still have mine.

Like many of today’s popular reading challenges, students chose books in various categories (and got stickers for each book read. Who doesn’t love stickers?). Categories included classics, mystery, “true to life” (i.e. realistic), fantasy, humorous, adventure, historical fiction, animal, sports, and biography.

Some of these books I have entirely forgotten; others I remember vividly from re-reading them so often, and still adore – The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop, Matilda and The BFG by Roald Dahl, and Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher by Bruce Coville. Though it’s not on the Reading Passport, 1994-1995 was also the year I read Buffalo Brenda by Jill Pinkwater. I think it was the following school year when I first read Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, and the year after that when I first read The Giver by Lois Lowry.

reading passport with stickers

Since 2007* when I first joined Goodreads and LibraryThing, I’ve kept a record of all my reading, but I’ve often wished for a lifelong record. I’m pleased to have unearthed this piece of my elementary school reading history, and grateful to the librarian who made it a fun experience worth documenting.

*TEN YEARS AGO.

 

 

Gracious by Kelly Williams Brown

The heart of graciousness is compassion. It’s attention to those around you, whether they are your favorite person in the world or that person trying to get by you on the sidewalk. It’s kindness, and most of all, it’s giving love to those around you.”

Cover image of Gracious

What does it mean to be gracious? It’s more than just manners, although they are related (and manners, as any Emily Post devotee knows, is more about making people feel at ease than about using the right fork).

In her new book, Louisiana native Kelly Williams Brown expounds on the topic, largely by asking gracious people for their advice, worldview, philosophy, and practical tips (e.g. what to have on hand should guests drop by).

Graciousness flows from the recognition that “Every human is just as human as you are. …Though it is very (very) easy to assume otherwise, each person you will ever encounter is just as much in their own head as you are in yours.” Graciousness is “assigning and extending humanity to everyone you meet.” It is about “facing the world with kindness and compassion.”

Brown asks, “How do you live a life in which kindness and assurance, instead of anxiety and irritation, are the emotional guideposts?” And if you weren’t already interested in becoming more gracious, that might be the question that gets you interested – because who wouldn’t rather be assured than anxious, kind than irritated? Being irritated is, well, irritating. The occasional burst of righteous outrage can be satisfying, but as a constant mode of operation, it’s stressful and tiring. Wouldn’t it be more pleasant to navigate the choppy waters of life as calmly and smoothly as a steamship? (Steamships, incidentally, are Brown’s favorite style of transportation. Those who dislike flying will really enjoy her section on air travel.)

“We decide, every moment, who we shall be and what we are going to add into the world with our words and actions or lack thereof.”

As a librarian who works at a public service desk, I have many opportunities every day to practice being helpful, kind, patient, and gracious. (I say practice, because of course, I am not always all of these things.) I have a lot of practice giving people the benefit of the doubt – imagining what might be going on in their lives to explain why they are behaving a certain way right now – and practicing compassion and calm.

Brown’s section on customer service is quite good, no matter which side of the desk you’re on (and most of us have experience on both sides). She advises, “Try thinking about every relationship, no matter how brief, as an ‘us.'” What moves “us” forward? Think about the other person’s needs as well as your own, and you’re more likely to reach a conclusion that satisfies you both.

“Graciousness is about focused attention, kindness, and empathy and about moving deliberately in accordance with your values.”

In addition to being full of wisdom – both philosophical and practical – on being gracious, Brown’s book is written in a close, conversational, and often very funny way. It’s clear that she is interviewing these women (they are mostly women) because she aspires to be as gracious as she perceives them to be. As one of Brown’s subjects said, “Maybe we’re just going through life to come out on the other side with compassion.”

 

Quotes from books, part VI

This batch of quotes is from books I read between April and August 2016. The tenth quote was hard to choose because nearly every sentence in The Gap of Time was so knockout beautiful.

  1.  “Mostly I’m just trying to get it right, whatever that means.”The Truth About Forever, Sarah Dessen
  2.  But, of course, the hardest shells hid the most fragile selves. The Expatriates, Janice Y.K. Lee
  3.  He made a whole city full of windows. -Harold and the Purple Crayon, Crockett Johnson
  4.  “You can’t compare one person’s coping capacity to another, hon.”The Raven King, Maggie Stiefvater
  5.  He considered how memories hold our lives in place but weigh nothing and cannot be seen or touched.Father’s Day, Simon Van Booy
  6.  “And fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gift of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.”The View From the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction, Neil Gaiman
  7.  There are pockets of time, she thinks, where every sense rings like a bell, where the world brims with fleeting grace.The Last Painting of Sara De Vos, Dominic Smith
  8.  Unlike the world of technology, where rapid innovation produces improvements, innovation in fashion just produces arbitrary stylistic changes. Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth Cline
  9.  It’s impossible, what I’m trying to do. To say good-bye without telling them I’m leaving.Imagine Me Gone, Adam HaslettCover image of The Gap of Time
  10.  Forgiveness is a word like tiger – there’s footage of it and verifiably it exists but few of us have seen it close and wild or known it for what it is. The Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson

Quotes from books, Part V

Continuing my series of quotes from books I’ve read semi-recently (this batch is November 2015-April 2016), originally inspired by The Broke and the Bookish and Three Good Rats. Here are quotes from three YA novels, three nonfiction books, one etiquette book, one book of essays, and two adult novels.

  1.  “When it comes to controlling human beings there is no better instrument than lies.” 
    1. b. “Oh, the world is full of things you don’t see.”The Neverending Story, Michael Ende
  2.  “Peace is joy at rest, and joy is peace on its feet.” –Small Victories, Anne Lamott
  3.  “It is surely a premise of democracy that the rules apply equally to everyone.” –Common Courtesy, Judith Martin
  4.  “The big problem doesn’t lie in differences between what men and women want out of life and love. The big problem is how hard it is to achieve equal relationships in a society whose work policies, school schedules, and social programs were constructed on the assumption that male breadwinner families would always be the norm.” –Marriage, a History, Stephanie Coontz
  5. “When you don’t know what made someone leave once, you also don’t know what might make him do it again.” –Conviction, Kelly Loy Gilbert
  6.   “The biggest difference between boys and girls is how people treat them.”None of the Above, I.W. Gregorio
  7.  “What redemption there is in being loved: we are always our best selves when loved by another. Nothing can replace this.” –This Must Be the Place, Maggie O’Farrell
  8.  “God is a human invention.”Gretel and the Dark, Eliza Granville
  9.  “We can stretch our personalities, but only up to a point….We might call this the “rubber band theory” of personality….We are elastic and can stretch ourselves, but only so much.” –Quiet, Susan Cain
  10.  “The first rule of a successful getaway is not to look as if you’re trying to get away.” –A Burglar’s Guide to the City, Geoff Manaugh

Previously:

Part I (August-November 2015)

Part II (June-September 2015)

Part III (January-June 2015)

Part IV (some all-time favorites, no particular order)

Quotes from books, IV

After more than a year, I’m picking this up again (see Part III here, with links to Parts I & II). The quotes below are some of my longtime favorites.

Clipart quotation marks

It occurs to her that there is one thing about people you can never understand well enough: how entirely inside themselves they are.Pigs in Heaven, Barbara Kingsolver

She’ll be okay without me, I think as I watch her, but I know that she will not. –The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

“I love my children. No one will tell you otherwise, but just between the two of us I have to say I admire you for not having any. The ways they break your heart, Jesus, and it never stops. I mean it, it simply does not stop.” –The Magician’s Assistant, Ann Patchett

People had their natural habitats, after all, demarcated not in ecologies but in ages. He’d been perfectly adapted to being nineteen, and she was better at being thirty-two. –Gold, Chris Cleave

The shelves were supposed to be loaded with books – but they were, of course, really doors….A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination….They are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead. -“Alma Mater,” Caitlin Moran (anthologized in The Library Book)

Clipart quotation marks

Arlington Reads Together: Becoming Nicole

Last fall, I was on the selection committee that chose Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt as the 2017 Arlington Reads Together book. Last Saturday, I got to be in the audience to hear Nicole herself, and her father Wayne, speak to the Arlington community for the A.R.T. kickoff event in our beautiful old Town Hall building.

In the weeks leading up to this event, as we have had library displays announcing the book and the related programs this month, I have been pleasantly surprised how many people have shown so much enthusiasm for the book and for the topic. (Transgender issues, unfortunately, have been in the news again lately as the federal government has just revoked protections for transgender students in public schools to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity.)

I encourage everyone to read Becoming Nicole, if you haven’t already. My brief review and quotes from the book from when I read it last year are on LibraryThing; I’ll use this space to recap the event.

Nicole’s talk emphasized the need to educate people on transgender issues. When kids know what “transgender” means, they are less likely to bully other trans students; when adults know, they are more likely to support trans people’s rights. She called the recent rollback of federal protections for trans students an “unnecessary backward step” because “people don’t put a face to the trans movement. Who actually is this affecting?” In the Q&A after the talk, Nicole said, “It’s harder to marginalize a human being than a foreign idea.”

Nicole also emphasized the importance of education because “kids know their gender identity early….Parents need to get on board early so kids can get medical treatment.” She spoke about “the importance of having adults support you”; her mother Kelly supported her from the beginning, and her father Wayne eventually got on board as well. Her elementary school supported her at first, but later things deteriorated to the point where the Maines family had to move. Nicole also mentioned Camp Aranu’tiq as a wonderful, inclusive summer camp experience for trans kids.

Though Nicole and Wayne appreciated the supportive Arlington audience, Nicole said, “We can’t keep preaching to the choir”; we have to have conversations with people who don’t understand. “The people in power don’t get it, and they need to.”

During the Q&A, one preschool teacher and one middle school teacher asked for advice. For the preschool teacher, Nicole suggested specific books (including I Am Jazz; there is also Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen), and suggested not enforcing a gender binary (e.g. allowing children to play with any toys in the classroom, not identifying some as “girls’ toys” and some as “boys’ toys”). She mentioned the need to educate parents as well, though she acknowledged the balancing act that might take. For the high school teacher, she said that being available for students to come talk to is important.

This was a wonderful event, and we were so lucky to hear directly from Wayne and Nicole, who were both well-prepared, entertaining, sympathetic, and humorous speakers. You can see photos of the event (taken by librarian/photographer Rob Lorino) on the library blog.