Monday, January 16, 2017

Best Non-fiction Reads of 2016

One of my favorite blog postings is listing what I consider my best reads for the previous year.  So it's that time again.  My book tally for this past year was 42, with 8 non-fiction and 8 fiction in my "best reads" list.  (I'll do fiction next time.)

In alphabetical order by author:

1.  Elisabeth Tova Bailey.  The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating.  This was a lovely surprise, a lovely book.  The author, bed-bound, barely able to move due to a mysterious illness that lasted years, was given a flower in a pot that she could set beside her bed.  The friend who gave it to her found a snail outdoors which she put in the pot.  This snail became the author's bedside companion, first in the pot and then in a terrarium with mosses, leaves, bits of mushrooms, twigs.  She would study the snail's habits--what it liked to eat, how it procreated, where it slept, how it traced its path with its slime which also served as a good way to shut anything out when it sealed itself in its shell to sleep.  Who would guess that a snail was so fascinating, but this is a dear little book that, as one reviewer wrote, has already become a classic. You might call this a double memoir--author's and snail's.

2.  Bill Bryson.  The Road to Little Dribbling.  Set in England, the author considers it THE outstanding country in the world ... with its universities, museums, architectural sites, World Heritage sites, public ramble paths, abbeys, and incredibly beautiful scenery.  But as he goes from one end of the country to the other, he makes an excellent point that a concerted effort should be made (and money spent) to preserve/ restore the English village rather than tear down and replace it with garbage-y claptrap.  KEEP the butcher's shops, the greengrocers, the pubs, the post offices, the tea houses, he says.  Let people access them easily--by walking into the village rather than driving out to some depressing mall.

3.  Bill Bryson.  A Walk in the Woods, Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.  Take note--the book is much better than the movie.  In 1996, Bryson and his friend, Katz, walked a portion of the AT, finding it much more difficult and much longer (some 2,000 miles) than they imagined.  His description is amusing, informative, enjoyable.

4.  Thomas Cahill.  How the Irish Saved Civilization, The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. In a very readable fashion, this describes the spread of Christianity by St. Patrick and St. Colomba and the monks and scholars who copied the West's ancient texts including the classics and the Bible ... thus preserving what the Barbarians destroyed on the European mainland.

5.  Candice Millard.  The River of Doubt, Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey.  This is a fabulous telling of the first exploration of a thousand-mile-long Brazilian river led by Brazil's leading explorer of the day plus Theodore Roosevelt.  The expedition included every conceivable problem: illness, hostile people, piranhas, starvation, lost boats and crew-members, and the constant need to portage what boats they had left to avoid rapids and falls.  This was in the spring of 1914 just after TR lost his bid for the Presidency when running as a Progressive.  You wonder how anyone survived at all.  In fact, he nearly died but with grit and determination, he managed to survive though never fully regained his health.

6.  Marcel Pagnol.  My Father's Glory and My Mother's Castle.  Though I've seen this listed as "an autobiographical novel," these are two separate memoirs in one book which describe the author's life as a boy around 1905 in the mountainous region just outside Marseille with his school master father, fragile mother, and younger brother.  Totally charming, they are told in a wonderfully human way and center around his love of the region--the aromatic vegetation, the silence of the garrigue and Mt. Garlaban.  In fact, both tales were turned into excellent films in 1990 that beautifully maintained the integrity of the stories.  Anyone who loves France and evocative writing will enjoy this.

7.  Helen Russell.  The Year of Living Danishly, Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country.  A young British couple move to a small village in Denmark where he works for Lego and she works at discovering why the Danish way of life is such a happy one.  A small manageable population, a single culture, a social safety net, and trust in people (to the extent that young mothers would leave baby and carriage outside a restaurant while they went in for lunch).  Amusing, informative, well researched.

8.  Lee Smith.  Dimestore, A Writer's Life.  The title comes from the dimestore her father owned in a small coal-mining town in southwestern Virginia, Appalachia, where she grew up.  The title may also indicate the bits and pieces she includes in this memoir as she tells the tale of when and how she became a writer.  Loose style, engaging.

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