I love fiction, but non-fiction is good for you–and just like balancing your diet, now and again non-fiction should be your reading choice. Here are a few that will whet the appetite. And because we now often have hot weather in September, I’m still calling these Summer Non-Fiction Picks!
1. During a time when I attended the University of Iowa Summer Writing Workshop, I had the privilege of working with writer David Payne, author of many novels including Gravesend Light and Back to Wando Passo. Payne was a sensitive and helpful teacher, a sharer of ideas and emotions. His newly published memoir, Barefoot to Avalon reflects such a persona. It recounts the time he was moving to North Carolina and on the road, through his rearview mirror, he watched his brother George A. who was driving another vehicle to help him, lose control, flip the truck over and die. Payne relates that the death of George A., a manic depressive, had such a powerful impact on him that his career as a writer stopped, his marriage disintegrated and his drinking increased. George’s death brought to the forefront a family history of suicide, mental illness and alcoholism and he realized the only way to dispel these ghosts was to write. Jay McInerney relates that this book is “one of the most powerful and penetrating memoirs I’ve ever read; it is fiercely honest, deeply engaging, and utterly heartbreaking.” Through this work, Payne is able to reveal the legacy of sibling rivalries and to break open family silences–the only way to free himself from haunting and debilitating memories.
2. Next up: On Immunity: An Inoculation, by Eula Bliss. One critic writes: “On Immunity casts a spell. . . . There’s a drama in watching this smart writer feel her way through this material. She’s a poet, an essayist, and a class spy. She digs honestly into her own psyche and into those of ‘people like me,’ and she reveals herself as believer and apostate, moth and flame.”—Dwight Garner, The New York Times Why did Bliss dig and spy–because as a new mother she realized she had fears–fears about her child’s future and health, about immunizations, the government, the medical establishment and what’s in her baby’s mattress, food and air. But she came to the conclusion that you cannot immunize your child from the world and as she investigated the very concept of immunity and then the uproar over vaccination, she finds that she: “…sanely takes on the anti-vaccine mob.”—Vanity Fair An award-winning book, Bliss relates how she read and became convinced that we are all interconnected–our bodies and our fates.
3. In his comprehensive and helpful book, Being Mortal, Dr. Atul Gawande, author of Complications, Better, The Checklist Manifesto, once again forges new territory as he educates physicians, other medical personnel and us about the importance of choice when one is severely ill or close to death. Thus this is a book every Boomer or person who is a caregiver must read, because though doctors are trained to heal and to save, more and more patients and their caregivers realize that how we will be living, the quality of life we will have should be a major consideration when making difficult decisions about surgery, chemotherapy, and clinical trials.
Gawande recounts the story of a daughter whose father was hospitalized with cancer–a tumor growing and filling his spinal column. While driving across the Golden Gate Bridge to her home, she was thinking about her father’s surgery that was scheduled for the following morning and all that the doctor had said. Close to midnight, she suddenly realized that she didn’t really know what her father wanted, though the doctor had talked about possible outcomes–but nothing had been settled. She drove back to the hospital, waking her father and asking him: If the surgery results in you gradually becoming a quadriplegic is that really acceptable? When he finally answered, he said yes, as long as he could eat chocolate ice cream and read he would accept the gradual loss of movement that might occur. The daughter and her father had the necessary conversation, so that depending on the results of the surgery — if he woke up or if for some unknown reason he didn’t wake up — she knew — no intubation, no Intensive Care Unit for months and months because that would mean no chocolate ice cream, no reading.
That’s what Gawande emphasizes in this book: choice. And he takes us on his own personal journey of watching Hospice nurses do their work when his father is dying. Amazed at how they approach a dying client and how they are able to help this person choose what they need as the last journey begins–Gawande becomes an advocate for hospice. He writes: When it is hard to know what will happen, it is hard to know what to do. But the challenge, I’ve come to see, is more fundamental than that. One has to decide whether one’s fears or one’s hopes are what should matter most. (taken from my article in the Huffington Post.)
4. Meanwhile There Are Letters The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald. Edited by Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan. If you like reading mainstream novels and short stories (Eudora Welty) or if you prefer detective novels with murder and mayhem (Ross Macdonald) or if you are fascinated by two people having a relationship through letters that covers not only writing but current history and then slips into profoundly romantic missives, then you will enjoy this book. One reviewer calls it: a prose portrait of two remarkable artists and one unforgettable relationship. Though they only met six times or so at writing conferences, their feelings for each other were deep and passionate. In the Washington Post Review, Michael Dirda recounts that in 1973 Macdonald interrupted Reynolds Price who was speaking about Welty saying: “No, you don’t understand. You love Eudora as a friend. I love her as a woman.” And when Macdonald was beginning to show signs of Alzheimer’s disease, Welty was still writing to him about her feelings: “Dear Ken, I have all your letter to keep me company. Every day of my life I think of you with love. Yours always, Eudora.”
5. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold in the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. You will learn a great deal about rowing, about the making of the shell that is a rowers boat and the sport itself–the position of each rower, the talent and endurance each needs so they can obtain the perfect unison that moves the shell forward to victory. Featuring the lives of the nine men who were not born to wealth and position like some of the rowers they competed with–but who were the sons of loggers, shipyard workers and farmers from the state of Washington–this book recounts how they bonded as a team and rowed to gold as Adolf Hitler stood fuming. Even given the worst position on the competition lake, these tough Americans were still able to row to victory.
Wishing you HAPPY SUMMER READING and if you’ve recently read a work of nonfiction that will remain on your bookshelf as a favorite, please share.
P.S. A Mother’s Time Capsule, my collection of stories about motherhood, available on Amazon at elizabethahavey.com But it’s fiction!