2024 Reading Challenge

2024 Reading Challenge
Jill Elizabeth has read 1 book toward her goal of 285 books.

2023 Reading Challenge

2023 Reading Challenge
Jill Elizabeth has read 5 books toward her goal of 265 books.

Non-Fiction Redux or When Truth Really IS Stranger than Fiction

When we last saw our Fearless Writer and the Tuesday Book Review, she was discussing the miracles of non-fiction (see “On Non-Fiction or When a Story is Not a ‘Story'”) and promising a follow-up post featuring reviews of some of her favorite non-fiction books. So here we are, one week later, and I am all set to deliver on that promise.

These are but a smattering of the fabulous works of non-fiction out there – each of which, to my mind, reads as easily and entertainingly as any fictional bestseller. It just goes to show that sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction, and that anyone who thinks non-fiction has to be dry, boring, and slow-going is just plain wrong. And if you doubt me, think about this – where on earth do you think fiction writers get the inspiration for their stories?? I mean, sure, some of my ideas literally come to me in dreams (and from what I have seen/read, I am not that unusual in this regard – which is both a comfort and a bit of a downer, because I liked thinking that I was unique in this…), but many more are inspired by true events, conversations, or tidbits of daily life. Because the theater of the absurd is (sad but true) all around us…

  • The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific
    by J. Maarten Troost – I was first intrigued by the title (I mean, who wouldn’t want to know what, exactly, the sex lives of cannibals entails?) and secondarily by the bright sunny-colored tropical-island-in-the-middle-of-water cover. Then I read the description on the back of the book and I was hooked. At the time that I first stumbled upon Troost’s book, I was mired in the daily grind of a job that was increasingly boring me at a company that was increasingly aggravating me. So the central premise – the life and times of a man who up and quits his job to follow his wife to a tiny tropical island in the South Pacific (where she is transferred for work) – appealed greatly to me both for its story-telling potential and for its whole life-altering-jolt-ness. Troost is a master at painting word-pictures – his descriptions of the scenery, the locals, and the ridiculousness of Western expectations about modern conveniences and daily life are rich, evocative, and hysterical. I laughed out loud and cringed in just about equal measure at his tales of adapting to local culinary, hygienic, and social customs. This was my first foray into the genre of travel books, and I assure you it was not my last. The follow-up story (Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu
    ) is equally worth the read – not only for those of us who have dreamed of running away from the uptight and hyper-stressful daily grind, but also for those who just need a brief respite from it.
  • The Demon in the Freezer
    by Richard Preston -I love Richard Preston’s books and am horrified by them in pretty much equal measure. He manages to make epidemiology and cellular biology sexy, action-packed, accessible and thoroughly engaging – no small task, I assure you (and I speak as someone who worked with pharmaceutical researchers for years). The eponymous “demon” is smallpox and I assure you, the description is entirely apt. Preston provides a history of the disease and its eradication in natural form (samples were intentionally retained in two storage facilities – in the US and Russia – to facilitate countermeasures should the disease ever re-emerge) that is both frightening and enlightening (hey – I’m a poet and don’t I know it!). His theories on the potential for man-made (or at least man-manipulated) smallpox as a biological weapon and the likelihood that such research and development is currently going on in a number of countries are chilling in their simplicity and straightforward presentation. In the world we live in, unfortunately, it is all too easy to see his point of view and share in his concerns. Regardless of the heavy subject matter, the book is a lightning-fast read that you will not be able to put down.
  • Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of the Mona Lisa (Vintage)
    by R.A. Scotti – True or false: The Mona Lisa was once stolen and to this day no one really knows how or why. True! The incredible story of the theft of the world’s most famous painting combines almost slapstick comedy (seriously – at times you will not be able to even believe that anyone could pull some of these feats off), a brilliantly masterminded heist (the painting was literally stolen off of the wall of the Louvre), and a vast mysterious conspiracy-laden quest that implicated some of the biggest names in the literary and art worlds at the time (including Picasso and the poet Apollinaire). The painting was missing for over two years; many presumed it would never be found and some have questioned whether the “original” hanging in the museum today is in fact the “real” painting. The brazen heist is sure to capture your imagination at least as strongly as the enigmatic smile of its victim…
  • A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash
    by Sylvia Nasar – I know a great number of words have been written about Nasar’s book and the subsequent movie, but I simply cannot resist adding a few more. At times heart-breaking and at others heart-pounding, the story of mathematician John Nash’s struggle with schizophrenia is chock-a-block full of spies, sex, intrigue, paranoia, game theory, and Cold War politics. Nasar is an economics writer; her ability to translate complex theories of math, science, and medicine into language that even those of us with decidedly non-math/science brains can comprehend is impressive. Equally impressive is her ability to do so in language that readers will find compelling and enlightening.
  • Sixpence House
    by Paul Collins -I am extremely saddened by the statement I am forced to write now: Sixpence House
    is not available in any hard-copy format via the two largest online bookstores (Amazon.comor BarnesandNoble.com) at this time. So unless you are a Kindle or Nook reader, you may have to hunt around a little to find this absolute pearl of a book, which I think is a travesty. And a tragedy. And a travail. And other “tra-” words as well. This is a gorgeous story about Hay-on-Wye, a small Welsh town known as the “Town of Books”. And, for a time, it was home to Collins and his family when he relocated there to find inspiration and camaraderie among its 1500 residents – and forty bookstores. Collins’ writing is a pleasure to read and his descriptions of the characters both in the town and in the stories surrounding it are sure to capture your imagination. It may take you a little effort to find this one in hard copy, but I assure you, it is effort well spent…
  • She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders
    by Jennifer Finney Boylan -Jennifer Finney Boylan is one of my favorite author “finds” – she writes poignant personal memoirs that are thought-provoking, compelling, more than a little emotionally wrenching, and ultimately triumphant. In this, her first effort, Jennifer shares her life story from her birth as James through her self-realization that she self-identified as a female and her eventual sexual reassignment surgery and transition to life as a woman. The story of the development of Jennifer’s identity in James’ body is captivating and gut-wrenching in equal measures. I suspect most of us have, at one time or another, questioned our own identity and/or felt uncomfortable in our own skin – yet most people at these times are at least able to take some comfort in knowing that they are in the right body. The challenges facing Jennifer in her quest to find herself (and then place herself in the right body) are myriad, but she meets them head-on with aplomb and grace – as does her wife and their two children (who go from having a mommy and a daddy to having a mommy and a “maddy”). The familial transition is poignant without feeling over-dramatized, and left me with a warm fuzzy feeling about true love and what it means to really love a person for who they are, even when who they are is not who they were when you married/first met them. This is her authorial debut as Jennifer (she has another, equally excellent, memoir titled I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted: A Memoir
    and a children’s series (the Falcon Quinn books) that I have not yet had the pleasure of reading). Fans can also look for the number of fictional works she wrote prior to her reassignment surgery under the name James Finney Boylan – although I must admit that I have not enjoyed the James FB books anywhere near as much as the Jennifer FB ones. Jennifer writes in a straightforward, easy and authentic style; to me, James’ books feel slightly more forced. An interesting realization with possible layers of meaning in itself, if you think about it…

So there you have it – a slew of new recommendations for fabulous and engaging reads that fall smack-dab in the middle of the non-fiction category. They range from the funny to the heart-breaking, from thrillers to romance. That, to me, is the beauty of non-fiction. In the hands of a storyteller, the drama flows as readily and easily when the underlying story is true as it does when it is pure fantasy. The range of human emotions plays out all around us every day. Much of the time, there is no need to dramatize events in order to turn them into great stories – drama is built into life and at times it seems as though avoiding it would be harder than finding it. The trick is to keep your eyes open and watch for it…



2 comments to Non-Fiction Redux or When Truth Really IS Stranger than Fiction

  • I read The Sex Loves of Cannibals. Interesting title and work. I was introduced to the book by a woman who lived on a sailboat in Puerto Vallarta. She lived alone and had traveled around the world on her boat. If only we were brave enough.

    Nice blog.


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