Non-boring Nonfiction

I’m not a nonfiction fan. At least, I haven’t read much nonfiction. I’m trying to branch out into more genres, and I’ve discovered something interesting: I like nonfiction. Not all of it, but I’ve read enough to say that, maybe, the genre deserves more of a chance. With that in mind, here are a few that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed:

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

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The Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary — and literary history. The compilation of the OED, begun in 1857, was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane. (taken from Amazon)

This was absolutely engrossing. Prior to reading it, I had no idea how weird the genesis of the Oxford English Dictionary was.

A Gathering of Saints: A True Story of Money, Murder, and Deceit by Robert Lindsey

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The yellowed manuscripts threatened the foundations of the Mormon Church, and the elders were willing to pay millions of dollars to suppress them. But the documents were fakes, and their brilliant forger committed double murder to hide his crime. The sensational case of the 1985 Salt Lake City bombings exposed a master plot to topple the powerful Mormon empire. (taken from Amazon)

Having grown up in Salt Lake City, I naturally found this engrossing, although the events in the book happened when I was too young to remember. I devoured this book.

Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

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The bestselling author of Postcards from the Edge comes clean (well, sort of) in her first-ever memoir, adapted from her one-woman Broadway hit show. Fisher reveals what it was really like to grow up a product of “Hollywood in-breeding,” come of age on the set of a little movie called Star Wars, and become a cultural icon and bestselling action figure at the age of nineteen. (taken from Amazon)

This book is brilliant. Equally hilarious and inspiring, this meant even more to me because I was diagnosed with bipolar when I was in high school. She handled her mental illness with grace and more than a bit of humor.

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

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An award-winning memoir and instant New York Times bestseller that goes far beyond its riveting medical mystery, Brain on Fire is the powerful account of one woman’s struggle to recapture her identity.

When twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. What happened?

In a swift and breathtaking narrative, Susannah tells the astonishing true story of her descent into madness, her family’s inspiring faith in her, and the lifesaving diagnosis that nearly didn’t happen. “A fascinating look at the disease that . . . could have cost this vibrant, vital young woman her life” (People), Brain on Fire is an unforgettable exploration of memory and identity, faith and love, and a profoundly compelling tale of survival and perseverance that is destined to become a classic.

I found this utterly engrossing. Due to her symptoms, at times the author relied on others to tell what happened simply because she didn’t remember. It was a very interesting read.

The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell

Nineteen-year-old Greg Sestero met Tommy Wiseau at an acting school in San Francisco. Wiseau’s scenes were rivetingly wrong, yet Sestero, hypnotized by such uninhibited acting, thought, “I have to do a scene with this guy.” That impulse changed both of their lives. Wiseau seemed never to have read the rule book on interpersonal relationships (or the instruc­tions on a bottle of black hair dye), yet he generously offered to put the aspiring actor up in his LA apart­ment. Sestero’s nascent acting career first sizzled, then fizzled, resulting in Wiseau’s last-second offer to Sestero of costarring with him in The Room, a movie Wiseau wrote and planned to finance, produce, and direct—in the parking lot of a Hollywood equipment-rental shop.

Wiseau spent $6 million of his own money on his film, but despite the efforts of the disbelieving (and frequently fired) crew and embarrassed (and fre­quently fired) actors, the movie made no sense. Nevertheless Wiseau rented a Hollywood billboard featuring his alarming headshot and staged a red carpet premiere. The Room made $1800 at the box office and closed after two weeks. One reviewer said that watching The Room was like “getting stabbed in the head.”

The Disaster Artist is Greg Sestero’s laugh-out-loud funny account of how Tommy Wiseau defied every law of artistry, business, and friendship to make “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” (Entertainment Weekly), which is now an international phenomenon, with Wiseau himself beloved as an oddball celebrity. Written with award-winning journalist Tom Bissell, The Disaster Artist is an inspiring tour de force that reads like a page-turning novel, an open-hearted portrait of an enigmatic man who will improbably capture your heart. (taken from Amazon)

Tommy Wiseau is the most fascinating, mysterious person I’ve ever had the extreme pleasure to read about. This book is fantastic! After you read the book, look him up on YouTube and watch some clips of him acting. Just…Oh, man.

There you have it. If, like me, you don’t read much nonfiction, I suggest you give it a go!

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Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography by Eric Idle

I have a feeling that I’m going to contradict myself several times during this post. For those who don’t know, Eric Idle is one of the writers and members of Monty Python, so maybe being odd and contradictory is the best way to review this book. Sure, let’s go with that.

I found myself laughing uproariously several times during this book, of course. Eric Idle has the gift of stating the saddest things in a way that neither diminishes what happened, or dwells on it. Kind of a like a “Yeah, that sucked, but it’s life” attitude (you’ll see what I mean when you read about what happened to his dad). He’s well aware of his talents, but equally well aware of his faults and finds humor in them.

This book both needed to be longer, but could have been condensed. See what I mean about being contradictory? At less than three hundred pages, there’s really not much to the book length-wise, so being longer wouldn’t have been bad IF there was more that could be said. Of course, I also found myself thinking that parts dragged. Some of it read like sitting with someone who suddenly switches from telling you a story to muttering to themselves about it.

Eric Idle would be the perfect person to hang out with at Thanksgiving, or during a family reunion: he has the most interesting reminiscences. However, some of that was lost in the writing.  I really liked his stories of the random weirdness he got into. Because of that, I wish there was also a book with memories written in collaboration with all the members of Monty Python. That would be epic. Of course, Graham Chapman would have to come back from the dead for that, and who would cheat death just to argue with editors?

All in all, the funny parts were hilarious, the little-known tidbits were fascinating, and the rest was just there. Would I recommend it? Ummmm…maybe? It wasn’t a bad way to ring in a new year of reading, but it wasn’t incredible.

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The Library Book by Susan Orlean

I just finished The Library Book , a nonfiction book about the worst library fire in the history of the United States-and no one knows about it. Although it’s ostensibly about the fire and the possibility of arson, it’s really a love letter to books and libraries.

The Los Angeles Library caught fire in April of 1986, destroying hundreds of thousands of books. I’m not going to lie, that was hard to read. A lot of these books were irreplaceable, like an 1860 illustrated copy of Don Quixote. Hundreds of thousands more were badly damaged.

Despite sounding like this wouldn’t be interesting for longer than the length of an article, this book is fascinating. I was invested in it from beginning to end, thanks in large part to the author’s attention to detail.

I do sometimes wonder, with nonfiction: is everyone interviewed actually remembering things that clearly, or do authors add their own flavor to the book? Thoughts on that? I wonder simply because my own memory is so flawed that reading the incredibly descriptive writing was very impressive.

Either way, this is a book worth reading. I really enjoyed it and, as someone who doesn’t read a ton of nonfiction, it’s encouraged me to to look for more nonfiction gems.

Have you read it? What did you think?

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Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter

I’ve made it a goal to read more nonfiction this year. I don’t know how well I’ve succeeded, but I did just finish Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson.

Rosemary’s story was sad in many ways: She was intellectually disabled, something that her family went to great lengths to hide. At the young age of twenty-three, Rosemary was lobotomized. She was very isolated, even learning about her brother’s assassination on TV, like the rest of the country!

This books shows that, even though her family kept her hidden away, she had an integral role: as her siblings came to grips with what had been done to Rosemary, they became invested in bettering the treatment and lives of those living with disabilities.

Kate Clifford Larson put a lot of time and research into her book and it shows. It’s quite obvious throughout the book that she took her burden of giving an honest and complete look at Rosemary’s life very seriously.

The book is fascinating, but dry (I told my husband that and he said it should have been basted every hour. Ba-dum tish!). While it’s full of information and photos, it feels more like an essay than a book. That being said, I’m glad that Rosemary’s story was told respectfully and wasn’t sensationalized.

If you’ve read this book, what was your opinion? What other biographies should I read?

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