I am ending the year the way I end pretty much every year: wishing I had read more nonfiction. No matter how good my intentions might be at the beginning of the year, I always ended up reading somewhere between thirty-five and forty nonfiction titles. The total never seems to vary by much, and this year is no exception. Fortunately, however, I did discover some very good nonfiction titles:
Book Chase 2016 Nonfiction Top 10
1. When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi – When Breath Becomes Air is part autobiography and part memoir, but most of all it is a very talented doctor’s farewell to a world that is surely less than it would have been were he still a part of it. I should note, too, that the last part of the book is his widow’s memoir because, after Kalanithi’s surprisingly quick death, she finished the book for her 37-year-old husband. Just twenty-two months after learning of his illness, Paul Kalanithi’s journey was over, a journey described by his wife as “one of transformation – from one passionate vocation to another, from husband to father, and finally, of course, from life to death, the ultimate transformation that awaits us all.”
2. The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer – Skip Hollandsworth – Skip Hollandsworth, a regular columnist for Texas Monthly magazine, became so intrigued by a true crime story from Austin’s past that he turned it into his first book, The Midnight Assassin. The book recounts a series of murders that happened there in 1884 and 1885, murders that were so horrendously bloody that they rivaled those committed three years later by London’s Jack the Ripper. The murders in the two cities were in fact similar enough that some newspapers of the day speculated that London’s Ripper may have tested and developed his skills in Austin before bringing them with him to Europe.
3. Walking Point: From the Ashes of the Vietnam War – Perry A. Ulander – Perry Ulander managed to come out Vietnam in one piece, and in Walking Point: From the Ashes of the Vietnam War, he tells us how he did it. The memoir begins with the stunned nineteen-year-old Ulander reading a letter from his Uncle Sam directing him to report to Chicago for his pre-induction physical. It ends more than a year later when a very different Perry Ulander, having just completed a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam, is equally stunned to so suddenly find himself back on U.S. soil.
4. The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones – Rich Keinzle – Four years after Jones’s death, his legacy has become more settled and his whole story can be told in one volume – and that is exactly what Rich Keinzle has done in The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones. From the very beginning of his career, country music fans were intrigued by the craziness that followed Jones around the country as he performed. By the end of that career, George Jones had become a much-respected vocalist (still with a reputation for craziness) who had managed to grab the attention of music lovers around the world. It was never easy for the shy, insecure performer that Jones was throughout his lifetime, but, public warts and all, he was just too good to ignore.
5. Dimestore: A Writer’s Life – Lee Smith – Lee Smith is a wonderful storyteller, and for the last forty-five years she has been telling us stories about life in the Appalachian Mountains, a region and a people she knows like the back of her hand. Now, in Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, Smith finally shares her own story. I see that the book’s subtitle changed somewhere between its publication as an Advance Readers Copy and its final version, but I actually find the ARC subtitle to be the more fitting of the two (“A Memoir in Stories”) because that perfectly describes the approach Smith takes here in recounting her life for readers.
6. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis – J. D. Vance – What J.D. Vance has accomplished in his young life is almost a stereotypical representation of the American Dream. His grandparents came to Ohio as very young newlyweds with almost nothing to their names where they managed to raise a middle-class family that included Vance’s mother. Vance, as it turned out, would spend more of his childhood with his grandmother than with his mother (and barely knew his father), but would go on to become a Marine and would earn degrees from both Ohio State University and Yale Law School. So in just three generations, Vance’s family had gone from dirt poor to having a member of the immediate family graduate from one of the most prestigious law schools in the country. But it was not easy.
7. West Texas Middleweight: The Story of LaVern Roach – Frank Sikes – Middleweight boxer LaVern Roach was a very successful professional boxer from the end of World War II to early 1950 but today his name is a relatively unknown one even among boxing fans. But despite being unfamiliar with the name LaVern Roach, I was very familiar with several of the boxers who were his biggest rivals at the time for the middleweight world championship, names like Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Jake LaMotta. As an amateur, he had a record of 100 wins and 5 losses (with four of the losses coming before he turned eighteen), so his fast start as a professional was not a surprise to those in the sport. His unusual good looks and his success made him one of the more popular boxers of his day, and LaVern Roach seemed destined for great things. Sadly, it was not to be.
8. Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq – Sarah Glidden – Frankly, I had doubts about Sarah Glidden’s decision to use “comic panels” to tell the intriguing story of her visit to Turkey, Syria, and Iraq with her two journalist friends and a friend of theirs who just happened to have seen military action in Iraq as an American soldier. Rolling Blackouts manages to pack in more factual information than I expected from graphic nonfiction genre, but it is more effective when illustrating the emotions of the interviewer and those being interviewed. Sarah Glidden’s 2,500 illustrations (she calls them “comics”) are truly wonderful, and they greatly add to the book’s emotional impact on the reader. This one was a pleasant surprise.
9. Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide – Michael Kinsley – Michael Kinsley’s guide to old age is primarily aimed at his fellow boomers, the millions of us born between 1946 and 1964. As a group, boomers are the next generation in line to “lose the game of life,” as Kinsley puts it, so it is time to prepare ourselves for the inevitable. And, early on in Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide, Kinsley makes the case that since we are all destined “to stay dead many years longer than we were alive,” the only thing we are going to leave behind is memories of ourselves – our reputations. But here’s the kicker, boomers: if you want to be remembered as a good person, now is the time to get started because that old game clock is busily ticking away even as you read this.
10. The Drone Easts with Me: A Gaza Diary – Atef Abu Saif – It is difficult to read Atef Abu Saif’s The Drone Eats with Me: A Gaza Diary and simultaneously keep oneself divorced from the politics that caused the situation to happen in the first place. But that is exactly what Saif, who hardly addresses the cause of the 2014 war that Israel waged in the Gaza Strip, asks his readers to do. Doing so allows the fifty-one days of war he describes in his 2014 diary to be experienced strictly through the eyes of those helplessly caught up in the middle of it all with no place to hide. And that makes The Drone Eats with Me a very effective war memoir.