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Summer reads: Nonfiction

Jacob Thomas

Most summer book lists focus on fiction — understandably, as those long, lazy hours at the beach, pool, or hammock invite readers to lose themselves in story. Yet some of the most captivating storytellers work in nonfiction genres, from narrative journalism to history to memoir. Just because a story is true doesn’t mean that, in the right hands, it can’t become art.

“The Big House” by George Howe Colt (Scribner, 2003). Colt chronicles the life and times of a rambling, 11-bedroom summer house perched above Buzzards Bay. Over the decades, the house “has watched over five weddings, four divorces, three deaths, several nervous breakdowns, an untold number of conceptions, and countless birthday parties, anniversaries, and love affairs.” Beautifully observed and deeply moving, Colt’s book is a love letter to both his family’s house and to family itself.

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“Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire” by Andrea Stuart (Knopf, 2012). In a very different family saga, Stuart traces her ancestors’ passage through migration, slavery, and emancipation. “Sugar in the Blood” begins with Stuart’s first known ancestor, a white man who arrived in the Caribbean from England in the 1630s, and continues with mixed-race descendents whose other ancestors were slaves. Partly a narrative of one family’s complicated tree, partly a meditation on larger historical forces, “Sugar in the Blood” is wholly satisfying.

“Swimming Studies” by Leanne Shapton (Penguin, 2012). Winner of the National Book Critics Circle award, this autobiography is stunningly original; what’s most thrilling about it is its author’s careful attention to detail and unlikely beauty. Growing up in Canada, Shapton swam in the Olympic trials in 1988 and 1992; she never made the team. After leaving competitive swimming, Shapton studied art. In this small, lovely book, she combines words and images in an exquisitely observed meditation on swimming and memory, sport and art. “When I swim now, I step into the water as though absentmindedly touching a scar,” Shapton writes. “My recreational laps are phantoms of my competitive races.”

“Red Dust Road” by Jackie Kay (Picador, 2010). By turns heartbreaking and hilarious, the Scottish poet’s autobiography follows Kay, who is adopted and biracial, as she seeks and finds her birth parents. Her biological mother is white, fragile, and already querulous from Alzheimer’s; traveling to Nigeria to meet her father introduces her to a landscape as different from her native Glasgow as possible, yet one in which she feels “as if my footprints were already on the road before I even got there.”

“Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West” by Dorothy Wickenden (Scribner, 2010). When longtime New Yorker magazine editor Wickenden found the letters left by her grandmother, Dorothy Woodruff, she uncovered a story ripe for retelling. In 1916, Woodruff and her friend Rosamond Underwood, unmarried Smith College graduates, left behind their comfortable lives in upstate New York to accept work as schoolteachers in still-wild, isolated rural Colorado. In “Nothing Daunted,” Wickenden tells their tale in a narrative as beautifully structured and quietly moving as a Willa Cather novel.

“The Circus Fire” by Stewart O’Nan (Random House, 2000). O’Nan tells a devastating true story. In the summer of 1944, a fire at the Ringling Brothers circus tent in Hartford killed 167 people, mostly women and children — newspapers dubbed it “the day the clowns cried.” Better known as a novelist, O’Nan explains in his introduction that he eschewed fiction to write about the fire because he “felt it deserved only the most stringent, very best intentions of nonfiction.” Here, O’Nan’s powers of sympathy and imagination find the beauty beneath the pain.

“The Children’s Blizzard” by David Laskin (HarperCollins, 2004). Another sad story that yields a riveting work of narrative nonfiction is “The Children’s Blizzard,” which tells of a devastating storm that swept through the northern Plains in 1888. More than 200 people died, about half of them children who had been sent from their rural schools to find their way home through swirling snow and windchill factor of 40 below zero. “Chance is always a silent partner in disaster,” Laskin writes. “Bad luck, bad timing, the wrong choice at a crucial moment, and the door is inexorably shut and barred.” As moving as it is chilling, the book resonates with humanity.

“The Story of America: Essays on Origins” by Jill Lepore (Princeton University, 2012). July Fourth is a most uniquely American celebration, and what better to read on this holiday than our own national stories? “The Story of America” comprises 20 pieces, each focusing on a key American text and digging deeply into the back stories, myths, legends, and lies that make up what we call history. Lepore brings to the task a keen eye for the often-competing claims of history, politics, and literature. She finds her most fruitful subjects in the intersections among the three; as she argues, “the rise of American democracy is bound up with the history of reading and writing, which is one of the reasons the study of American history is inseparable from the study of American literature.” The result is terrifically readable, intellectually engaging, and thoroughly entertaining.

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” by Joan Didion (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968). As the sixth season of “Mad Men” winds down, readers who find themselves haunted by the dissonant mood of 1968 should consider revisiting one of that year’s most crucial books, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” In its first essay, “Some Dreamers in the Golden Dream,” Didion establishes complete control over her ideas, her prose, her readers — its last, “Goodbye to All That,” is almost overwhelming in its emotional transparency and structural vigor. Didion has gained a wide audience in her two most recent books, both of them memoirs of grief, but those who have not yet met her as a young writer have a great pleasure in store with this, her first nonfiction collection.

“Everybody Was So Young” by Amanda Vaill (Houghton Mifflin, 1998). Going back another few decades, readers seeking a more glamorous history will find it in “Everybody Was So Young,” which chronicles the lives of Sara and Gerald Murphy, the bright, creative couple at the heart of the American expatriate community in France in the 1920s. Their parties were legendary, and they invented resort style at their beach house in Cap d’Antibes. We can’t all summer on the Riviera, but reading about the Murphys may inspire you to throw more elegant beach parties (Champagne, anyone?).

“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments” by David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown, 1997). Last but never least is Wallace’s dizzyingly smart, extremely funny book of essays. Wallace is better known perhaps for his fiction, especially the doorstop “Infinite Jest,” but his essays are so lively that to read (or re-read) them is to feel freshly what an enormous loss it was when Wallace committed suicide in 2008. The book’s title essay, describing a Caribbean cruise, includes these lines: “I have now heard — and am powerless to describe – reggae elevator music. I have learned what it is to become afraid of one’s own toilet. I have acquired ‘sea legs’ and would now like to lose them. I have tasted caviar and concurred with the little kid sitting next to me that it is: blucky.”

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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