Recommended Reading--Good Stuff!
Someone with nothing to do but read could still only scratch the surface of what's out there. So this is hardly a complete list of good nonfiction. But you'll not go wrong with these selections. Go to the library or bookstore, or buy at a bargain price through Bibliofind.com.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Find out why small minds put this on banned-book lists.
The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism, edited by Kevin Kerrane and Ben Yagoda. From the jacket blurb: "'Making facts dance.' . . . unites the reporter's eye for detail with the novelist's gift of storytelling." Over 60 pieces of the best journalism, including: Stephen Crane, Jack London, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Lillian Ross, Joseph Mitchell, Rebecca West, John McPhee, Joan Didion,
Best American Essays
Each year, starting in 1986, various guest editors--Gay Talese, Annie Dillard, Ian Frazier, Cynthia Ozick, etc.--have chosen 25 of the best for a paperback anthology you can find in any good bookstore. The 1997 edtion is particularly good.
Roy Blount, Jr.:
The only book I have of Blount's is Now Where Were We?: Getting Back to Basic Truths That We Have Lost Sight of Through No Fault of My Own, (a collection of columns), but I'm glad I've got it. The Best American Essays 1997 includes his First Tell Me What Kind of Reader You Are, a short piece that combines humor and serious commentary in a way that few writers manage (Mark Twain comes to mind).
A Walk in the Woods Bryson and pal decided to walk the Appalachian Trail. About every third page you literally have to put the book down till you're finished laughing. But it's more than just funny.
I'm A Stranger Here Myself A collection of Bryson's columns--having returned to America after twenty years in England, he writes hysterical, dead-on commentary on our country.
In a Sunburned Country--Australia.
This House of Sky Memoir of growing up in Montana ranch country.
Great Plains Just read it, you'll see.
The Meadow Fact and fiction mixed, about a corner of Colorado and Wyoming. This may be the truest western story you'll ever find. Galvin's poetic voice describes place and people with power and grace, yet never hits a saccharine note. It's mostly 2-3 page chapters. Here's the start of a chapter about a man in a blizzard with his sons . . . and then its end:
"The problem is there is no one to blame for this. It's just so much snow you can't see. . . .
Pete, the oldest, bumps blindly into his father's back, and then he, too, sits down in the snow. Ray shouts, 'Jack won't get up, Dad. He says he wants to take a nap.'
The wind cheers louder."
Melissa Fay Greene:
Praying for Sheetrock. 1991. I hate to choose favorites, but if I had to name one book this would be it. A story about change in McIntosh County, Georgia in the 70s. How civil rights came about there, about the end of the reign of the old high sheriff, and about people in general. The prologue, in particular, is almost pure poetry.
The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators. 1998. Don't ask me why, but I wouldn't have expected to find as good a writer as Grice living in rural Oklahoma. Intelligent and perceptive, he writes elegant (often funny) prose about natural-born killers. His "The Black Widow" was included in The Best American Essays 1996.
SEABISCUIT: An American Legend. 2001. An unlikely horse and some unlikely men all crystallize into an American success story. Hillenbrand makes it sparkle. Possibly the most exciting book I've read all year.
Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She? She's a killer Texas political columnist.
The Perfect Storm Waves up to ten stories high, 120 mph winds-- an Atlantic storm. A commercial sword-fishing crew on the Andrea Gail goes down. Others have better luck. Over 10 months on the NY Times bestseller list because the story is well told. (Forget the lousy movie--read the book.)
Letters of . . . or The Collected Letters of . . . E.B. White's and John Steinbeck's letters, especially, have meant a lot to me. On my one-of-these-days-when-I-can list is Letters of Flannery O'Connor: The Habit of Being."
The Land Where the Blues Began 1993. Won the 1993 National Book Critics Circle Award. "The man who first recorded Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, the man who is more responsible than any other person for the twentieth-century folk-song revival, has finally found time to tell what it was like recording in the Deep South in the 1930s and 1940s." -- Pete Seeger, from a book blurb. Meet the legends: Muddy Waters, Son House, Robert Johnson, and others who emerged from the Delta to play the blues, the progenitors of Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger and a host of others.
John McPhee: This guy has written a shelf-full. Anything you pick up by McPhee will be worth reading.
The Control of Nature, 1989. Normally you couldn't drag me with a chain to text with "long-chain aliphatic hydrocarbons" in it. But when I come to it in "Los Angeles Against the Mountains," McPhee's magic is such that: 1. he makes it understandable, and 2. I want so much to know about the molecular structure of soil at "one to six centimetres down" that I'd put off sex until I finish reading.
The John McPhee Reader, (volumes I and II) selections from his many works (vol. II includes "Los Angeles . . ."). The introduction to vol. I is often recommended as a primer to nonfiction writing. When it comes to nonfiction, McPhee is God.
Up in the Old Hotel. Great stories by a master story-teller. Mitchell was raised a North Carolina country boy, came to NYC in 1929 and wrote for several papers, then joined the New Yorker around 1937. This man's eye and ear for character is rarely matched. On the surface his stories seem disarmingly simple, yet they reveal subtleties of character, irony, incongruity, and more--fodder for an active mind. In "The Gypsy Women," Mitchell profiles NYC detective Captain Daniel Campion, retired from over twenty-five years in the Pickpocket and Confidence Squad, and his fascination with the gypsy rackets. Even in retirement he keeps files and maintains genealogy charts. It is apparent that--through prolonged, intimate contact, multiple arrests and such-- Campion's feelings for these people are complex. Considering the gypsies' thievery, preying unmercifully on poor widows and such, his affection is striking. He recites names and describes grave sites in a New Jersey cemetery: "There's women lying over there that I stood in doorways across the street . . . waiting and watching for the moment to go in and nail them, and they despised me and I despised them, but I knew them very well . . . and when I look at their tombstones and read their names and dates, after all they're dead and gone, I must admit it makes me sad."
The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People. 2001. Collected profiles. Orlean does it right, showing you seemingly unremarkable people, yet the strength of her stories makes you care and understand.
Bad Land: An American Romance To say it's about history and Montana wouldn't do it justice.
Hunting Mr Heartbreak: A Discovery of America
An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales
Sacks, a neurologist, delivers fascinating accounts of neurological oddities that reveal much about the human condition. He's written several other titles as well, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: And Other Clinical Tales.
Me Talk Pretty One Day I first heard Sedaris on NPR radio. Like Garrison Keillor his vocal delivery adds something to his stories. But even without his voice, his stories are a hoot.
Fame and Obscurity 1970. Collected profiles. I was really struck by "The Bridge," a novella about the building of the Verrazano Narrows bridge, and especially the "boomers," the steelworkers who built it. He's written plenty more since.
This Boy's Life, memoir
Like Water for Chocolate
Any of his books will make you laugh till you hurt.
The Poisonwood Bible
A River Runs Through It Newsweek's reviewer said it best--the movie's pretty, the book is beautiful.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez:
One Hundred Years of Solitude is a spellbinding classic. Also, his short story "Goodbye, My President" is one of the finest I've ever read. It appeared in The New Yorker several years ago, and is included in a collection of his stories: ______.
E. Annie Proulx:
The New Yorker published "Brokeback Mountain," a great story which is anthologized in Close Range: Wyoming Stories.
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. If you read only one older novel, make it this one. The man was 250 years ahead of his time. . Published in nine slim volumes from 1759-67. The later volumes trail off some in energy and wit, but it is howlingly funny. Many serious people of the time were not amused.
Huckleberry Finn Be sure to read it as an adult-- it's no kid's book.
Tobias Wolff: (one of our best current fiction writers)
"Bullet in the Brain," just two pages in The New Yorker, 9/25/95, is one of the finest stories I've read in years. It's anthologized in The Night In Question (the title story is also exceptional).
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