Thursday, July 14, 2022

When the Fiction Reader Encounters Great Nonfiction


I may be losing my credibility as a reader who prefers fiction, but I keep finding memoirs and other clever nonfiction books landing on my stack and completely capturing my focus. Of course, I've been an Ann Patchett fan since I read Bel Canto. Since moving to Nashville where I can drop by Parnassus Books, which she co-owns with Karen Hayes, I find more reasons to admire her work and her advocacy for books and for authors. I bought her latest collection of essays These Precious Days (evoking "September Song") as soon as it came out, but for some reason delayed beginning. I know that when it's time, a book finds me. By sharing her own life, she opens up a world to readers. Asked which is my favorite, the answer would change on any given day.

She writes about her "three fathers," her home, books and authors she loves. One particularly tender story is the account of the time Tom Hanks' assistant moved into Patchett's house during COVID while undergoing a cancer trial. I also suspect that I am not the only person who finishes this book with a longer "to read next" list.

By no coincidence, I read Mary Laura Philpott's latest memoir Bomb Shelter, after hearing her speak at a Parnassus event. Rather than focusing on book sales, she took the time to raise awareness of the good work of Vanderbilt's Monroe Carrell Children's Hospital, where her son was treated after the sudden onset of epileptic seizures.

At the event, I also had the opportunity of meeting Dr. Jay Wellons, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Vanderbilt, whose first book All That Moves Us was released this month and merits a review all its own.

In a completely different vein, I have been recommending A. J. Jacobs' The Puzzler to anyone who, like me is obsessed with puzzles and word play. Jacobs, who may be best known for his earlier work of nonfiction The Year of Living Biblically, goes chapter-by-chapter through all types of puzzles. He starts with crossword puzzles, then discusses the New York Times' Spelling Bee, which has a surprising number of people waking in the wee hours and starting on the newest bee, published daily at 3 am EST. He also discusses the Rubik's cube, jigsaw puzzles, logic problems, and so much more. The writing is clever and the audiobook, which he reads himself, offers a pdf of the puzzles from the book that are difficult to translate into words. (He also includes some special puzzles at the end of each chapter specifically for audiobook listeners.) Since I blame crossword puzzles for slipping to third place in the 6th grade race for class rank and since I must admit that if I get up to use the restroom in the middle of the night, I check the spelling bee, this book spoke my language.

The End of Average by Todd Rose was recommended by a colleague who is ahead of me in our doctoral studies. For someone who is statistically challenged, this book was a reassuring consideration of how averages can be misused, to the detriment of students, work productivity, and even pilot error. 

Rose uses stories that are both interesting and true to draw attention to ways that an obsession with average has its drawbacks. This book served as a perfect companion to my favorite nonfiction book of the year Range by David Epstein. Rose, like Epstein, isn't ready to dismantle academic research, but her encourages readers to consider different perspectives. After all, he points out, no one is average.


Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel


One of the few disadvantages of reading voraciously is analogous to eating a many-course gourmet meal: it's difficult to savor one because of the conflicting details. That's a small lingering regret after finishing Emily St. John Mandel's latest novel Sea of Tranquility. With so many--and such varied--books I have read this summer, I feel the need to sit with this one a little longer.

Like Trust by Hernan Diaz, which I discussed in an earlier post, this novel makes me envious of the writer's sheer ability to weave and order a story like this. With the many characters over centuries, the author plays with historical fiction, time travel, and the impact of technology. From 1912 to the 23rd century, from Europe to the  New World to the second colony on the moon, Emily St. John Mandel pulls together a shared paranormal experience, plagues, book tours, and avant-garde film, without dropping a single stitch.

I confess that although I read (and loved) The Glass Hotel, I completely missed that the character Vincent in Sea of Tranquility was a character in the earlier novel. Perhaps this is good justification for literature tests asking students to remember names, dates, and places. When Jennifer Egan pulled a similar sleight of hand in Candy House and when Stephen King planted little details from The Shining in Billy Summers, (and should I mention David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks?) I was gratified to recognize the connection. Somehow, though, I want to re-read--or at least review--the original novel.

I've seen people ask on reading sites whether it's important to read The Glass Hotel first; I'd say, no. Honestly, it might be interesting to read it second to see if personal literary time travel works just as well. If only my list of what to read next weren't so long, I might do just that.