I was recently reminded that there’s a lot of fascinating reading in non-fiction if you only know how to find it. Non-fiction offers a different reading experience than fiction does. Where fiction affects your emotions and takes you on a journey (often tense, angsty, or deeply emotionally wrenching), non-fiction engages your mind with more intellectual fascination. Here are some non-fiction books I’ve read that offer various entry points into the genre.
My top category is always science – I love Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery, and What If (1 & 2) by Randall Munroe. I’ve also started on the works of Mary Roach, renowned for her approachable and entertaining forays into topics like death, sex, space, and most recently animal offenders in Fuzz. I’d say my love for scientific non-fiction (and fiction; my favorite author is Andy Weir after all) is because of my natural curiosity, since these books explore different realms of knowledge and the limits of what’s possible.
My second-favorite nonfiction category is books by humorists like David Sedaris; I’ve read most of his work (for the title alone I particularly love Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls) as well as other hilarious and relatable personalities. I remember loving Wow No Thank You by Samantha Irby.
Another very common entry point into nonfiction is true crime books – I’m still working my way into this area but I have read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (a classic and definitely fascinating) as well as The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary and the convicted murderer who was an invaluable part of it.
Many people also love memoirs like Crying in H Mart (I’ll read it when I need to cry and not before, thank you) or poetry by breathtaking wordsmiths like Rupi Kaur (I tried Milk and Honey, and it made me feel raw, vulnerable and exposed so I decided to try again later), or powerful, expose-type social science reads. The power of the latter is in making you feel seen, or as if your eyes have been opened. For that reason I loved Ace by Angela Chen and highly recommend it.
The key in my experience is identifying what it is you value in a reading experience and seeking them out. For me, this includes infectious enthusiasm, a dry sense of humor, a sense of hope, and engrossing storytelling. Do you have something that immediately hooks you, or a favorite nonfiction read? Let us know below!
At long last I read a work by eminent non-fiction author Mary Roach! She’s been on my to-read list for a long time because of her reputation for entertaining and accessible explanations of various topics, and I finally took the plunge with her most recent, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law.
In this wide-ranging volume Roach explores the field of “wildlife-human conflict” – the zone in which the natural world infringes on human activity and the various methods used to control, combat, or understand that invasion. This includes the predators you’d expect: bears, elephants, leopards, and the like, but also invasive non-native species, dangerous trees, destructive birds, and the cute creatures with unexpected impacts on the ecosystem. Also covered are a wide variety of anti-wildlife strategies including frightening devices (most notably a screaming tube dude), lasers, monkey birth control, poisoned beans, and many more. The book ultimately coalesces around a meditation on humanity and its various approaches to nature – those who coexist, those who condemn, and those who struggle to know determine the right decision.
I enjoyed Roach’s humor, and that the book challenges the idea of human supremacy while still sympathizing with those whose livelihoods (or just their lives) are endangered by wildlife behaviors. I also appreciated the global scope of Roach’s survey and how vividly she renders the people she works with along the way.
If you’re a non-fiction reader, science lover, animal lover, or looking for an entertaining learning experience, give this book a try.
Perspective matters: that’s what I kept thinking while reading The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Whose voice tells the story has a huge impact on the story’s effect. In this retelling of HG Well’s original classic science fiction novel, a change of perspective shows us that “monsters” are much more likely to be arrogant white men of power than animal-human hybrids.
In the original story, the narrator was a man shipwrecked on the island of Doctor Moreau, a man who was horrified to see the doctor’s creations: animals he had attempted to turn into humans. The hybrids in that case were obsessive and easily turned to violence as their animal natures inevitably reasserted themselves. In this case, the Doctor’s house is a peaceful haven in the jungle of the Yucatan for the doctor’s daughter Carlota, who knows no other home. Through her eyes we see the beauty of the natural setting and the easy community of the hybrids she has grown up with and loves like family. The handsome city men, sent by the doctor’s patron Hernando Lizalde, who come knocking one day are, by contrast, strange, alien, frightening, thrilling, and soon pose a great danger to her peaceful life. Alternating with her voice is that of the man hired to oversee the estate, the alcoholic Montgomery who is all too aware of his failings and is struggling to find a better sense of meaning. Gradually his growing bond with the hybrids and with Carlota drives him to take action for their protection.
Rather than focusing on the concept of human nature as opposed to, or entwined with, “animal savagery” as HG Wells did (which frankly reads now like eugenics and racism), this book meditates on who has power and how they harm others by using it and/or withholding it. One example of this – and of the power of perspective – is Carlota’s romantic storylines. Both Montgomery and the younger Lizalde are attracted to Carlota, and how they handle that (do they give Carlota any voice or power in that situation, do they act on the attraction, what action do they take) is very revealing about their respective characters’ values, motivations, and views on authority.
For myself, I didn’t find it quite as compelling as Mexican Gothic, but I love its improvements on the original source material and how it makes an iconic story accessible for modern audiences. I also think the questions it raises – questions the original raised as well, about the reasonable boundaries of science and innovation – are important ones to think about. If you like thoughtful retellings, chosen family, women’s empowerment, or the lush, entrancing prose of Silvia Moreno-Garcia, you’ll want to try reading this book.
If you love natural history, biology, poetry, or lyrical memoir, you’ll probably love World of Wonders. Poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil and illustrator Fumi Nakamura have created an enrapturing book-cum-artwork which shows the breathtaking biodiversity of our world alongside the mosaic of memories that makes a human life remarkable.
Nezhukumatathil (nuh ZOO KOO mah tah till) skillfully interweaves her own story of growing up and living in many different places (Kansas, Arizona, and Ohio to name a few, not to mention visits to family in Kerala, India) with profiles of vital plants and wildlife which feature in that locale and her memories of it. One of my favorite examples is the chapter in which she describes the corpse flower, an enormous plant which blooms into a foul odor only once every few years. Not only does she describe the plant’s origins and lifecycles, but she also tells the reader how she used to use this flower as a story to test potential dates: her date’s reaction to hearing her enthusiasm for the corpse flower told her whether or not they should get a second date. Only one reacted with interest and curiosity and without judgement, and she married him. It makes for a fascinating, funny, and ultimately heartwarming chapter.
Other entries take the reader to more serious places: the enigmatic smile of the endangered axolotl is woven into Nezhukumatathil’s memories of the casually racist comments she endured growing up and well into adulthood. The fabulous flair of the peacock is part of a painful memory of a prejudiced teacher who assigned the class to draw their favorite animal — so long as it was an “American” animal. Even the first chapter about the catalpa tree is a bittersweet memory of going with her sister after school to meet their mother at her workplace – a Kansas mental institution – and facing the ridicule of classmates. In any circumstance, Nezhukumatathil found comfort and advice in the myriad strategies and adaptations of nature.
A book full of wonder, hope, gratitude, and ecological appreciation, peppered with lovely sketch-like illustrations, World of Wonders is not something you’ll want to miss.
I’ve reviewed one of Roan Parrish’s earlier works before and while I loved it, it had some issues. I’m happy to report that in her more recent Garnet Run series many of my complaints have been fixed! The first in a duology, Better Than People is a sweet romance for animal lovers and mental health advocates alike.
Jack is a prickly artist who has surrounded himself with a menagerie of animals, finding their company more enjoyable and trustworthy after a recent betrayal. Unfortunately, he can’t find his usual joy in taking care of them after breaking his leg in an accident. He’s going to need help – his least favorite situation to be in. Enter Simon, a man burdened with crippling shyness soothed only by the company of animals and his recently-widowed grandmother. But that’s his problem: his grandmother is terribly allergic to animals, keeping him from having a pet of his own. Having Simon walk Jack’s dogs (and cat) solves both their immediate problems AND their underlying loneliness, as a business arrangement blooms into love. But there’s a reason they both prefer animals to people; can their love triumph?
Being a shy animal lover myself, I really sympathized with the characters in this case, and I appreciated that Parrish’s take on anxiety and shyness is NOT “they need to get out more”, but rather a compassionate observation that some people are just built differently and have different social needs. To have Jack respond empathetically to Simon and listen to what he needs was exactly what I, as an anxious mess myself, needed to read.
If you take comfort and company from animal friends, if you find other people difficult to navigate sometimes, and if you like stories of supportive, affirming love (with spicy scenes mixed in), this may be the book for you.
I first discovered the eco-thriller genre – action-packed books focusing on environmental threats – through The Swarm by Frank Schatzing. It’s a somewhat intimidating book because of its length, but extremely well done in action, characterization, and scientific explanation. Ocean creatures begin unexpectedly attacking humans, and it’s up to a diverse set of scientists and environmentalists to figure out what’s causing it and how to stop it. The answer to the puzzle is both bone-chillingly deadly and incredibly beautiful. If you’ve ever felt worried about just how deep the oceans are and how little we know about them, this book will fascinate (and maybe terrify) you.
Inspired by how much I enjoyed The Swarm, I started a quest to read more eco thrillers and see how they compare. Here are my first two contenders and how they measure up.
First: Zoo by James Patterson. This book was made into a TV series a few years ago, though the series only loosely follows the plot of the book. In the book, we follow almost-scientist full-time conspiracy theorist Jackson Oz as he struggles to understand and raise awareness of the rash of animal attacks spreading across the world. He’s aided by beautiful French scientist Chloe along with a host of military and government figures. The picture of humanity’s future that this book paints is chillingly real, to say the least, though honestly the characters are such standard action-movie stock as to be disappointing. In my opinion, it doesn’t measure up to the complex mosiac of The Swarm.
Second: Eden by Tim Lebbon. In this book, Dylan, his daughter Jenn, and their team are escaping the polluted, climate-change-wracked world by an adventurous race across one of ‘The Virgin Zones’: protected swaths of land where no humans are allowed to live or visit. They’re attempting to be the first to cross Eden, the oldest Virgin Zone which has swallowed up many would-be adventurers. Once inside, their adventure turns frightening as the jungle turns against them, a malicious force which might be responsible for the disappearance of Jenn’s mother… This book is very good at building suspense and a sense of horror, getting more gory toward the end as the climax is reached. I wasn’t as convinced by the Nature Personified element or the resolution, but the characters and action are well-drawn. It almost measures up to the Swarm, but not quite.
The one thing all three had in common is a sobering message of warning for humanity: if we abuse our planet and its resources past a certain point, there will be consequences that we’re most likely not prepared for. The realism of that message makes these books heavy material to consider, but moving, important, and thought-provoking. This is a fascinating genre to explore, so stay tuned for a possible part 2!
I recently came across this 2019 middle grade fiction book, Hazel’s Theory of Evolution by Lisa Jenn Bigelow, and I honestly can’t recommend it enough. It covers heavy subjects (content warning: including miscarriage) and doesn’t shy away from hard feelings and uncomfortable situations, but it does these things with incredible gentleness, authenticity, and hope. If you’re looking for a warm and wholesome read about family, friendship, and personal growth, you may like Hazel’s Theory of Evolution.
The main character of this book is Hazel, a thirteen-year-old going into 8th grade at a new school, thanks to local redistricting. She refuses to be open or optimistic about this development, determined to keep her head down and “hibernate” her way through one last year before being reunited with her best friend in high school. Unfortunately for her, her best friend grows increasingly distant and mysterious, befriending Hazel’s longtime bully and trying out for cheerleading (which Hazel has always deplored as a ridiculous and sexist activity). Meanwhile, in her new school, a green-mohawked classmate starts pushing his way into her self-isolation, and she makes an unexpected connection with Carina, a fellow transfer looking for a fresh start. At the same time as her social life grows increasingly confusing, her moms announce that one of them, Mimi, is pregnant again…after suffering two miscarriages. Unable to face the agony of hope and loss again, Hazel tries to live in denial: the baby isn’t real until its born safe and healthy. But painful or not, some things can’t be denied or ignored, and Hazel will have to find her way through her new realities.
There are many good things about this book, as mentioned above, including positive representation of multiple identities (ethnic, religious, gender, and sexual identities), and positive parenting: Hazel’s moms do a good job talking to her about her feelings as well as their own, while giving her space to process what she’s going through. I also appreciated reading a modern and well-formed school Health class, complete with discussions of family relationships and positive and comprehensive sex ed. The book is also peppered with Hazel’s articles for the Encyclopedia of Misunderstood Creatures she’s writing, which make delightful educational asides. I recommend this book for a wide range of ages (though be prepared to cry); Hazel has something to resonate with anyone who’s struggled with change and feeling misunderstood or alone in the world.
An uncharacteristic thing has happened to this librarian lately: I haven’t felt much like reading. Of all the strange happenings in our world right now during this COVID-19 pandemic, this was yet another unexpected experience. I have no shortage of reading material. I have a reliable device I can use to download a variety of digital books. This seems like the perfect time to work my way through that looming stack of print books on my table waiting to be read.
And yet, my heart is just not in it. I sit down for about five minutes and then I am distracted and put it down and go do something else.
There has been one exception, however. I happened to be in the middle of reading The Wild Robot by Peter Brown with one of my children before bedtime each night before all this began. The chapters are short, and at one chapter a night, it was taking us a while to work our way through this 279-page book about a robot stranded on an island. But each night I read it aloud, the Wild Robot and its island populated by many animals and no humans endeared itself to me more and more.
You might think that reading a book with no humans in it during a pandemic is a lonely choice in an already lonely situation. Or perhaps on the contrary, you think it is a logical and fitting choice to read about being stranded on an island when it often feels exactly like that as we are isolated in our homes. I think there was something reflective about this mechanical protagonist who gradually (though paradoxically) becomes more humane through time and experience that captured my interest and my heart. Human interaction right now -when it does happen- is less warm and personal, more technological. Somehow the mirror image of a technological being becoming more warm and personal through challenging life experiences was a sort of balm to my woes.
Brown’s writing made reading effortless for me once again. His animal characters have unique personalities. The events that happen on his remote island, both tragic and joyful, are magically relatable. I have always been a fan of anthropomorphism. I am even more so now.
I wish I could point you to a digital version of this title that you can download immediately for free through the library, but our library currently only owns this in print. If you would like to request it for purchase in digital format, you can log into your library account using either the Libby or Overdrive apps and request this title. Be aware that it ends on a cliffhanger and you will probably want to read its sequel, The Wild Robot Escapes.
In the meantime, here are some similar books with anthropomorphic characters available digitally when you log into Overdrive with your Davenport Public Library account that you may enjoy:
Hello Fellow Challenge Readers!
It’s time for a new topic in our Online Reading Challenge! This month our focus is on: Nature! There are lots of great choices and a couple of different ways you can approach this topic – here are a few ideas.
Books from an animal’s point-of-view. These would include classics like Watership Down by Richard Adams or the more recently published The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein (a book I recommend very highly).
Books about animals. From wild creatures (such as H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and Life of Pi by Yann Martel) to domestic (like The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski or Marley and Me by John Grogan) there are a lot of titles to choose from. I love the country vet stories by James Herriot, set in the Yorkshire Dales of 1930s England.
Books about the environment. Another classic, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, is as relevant today as it was when it was published in 1962. One of the best books I’ve ever read is Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (although we still have a waiting list – I recommend that you read it whenever you can get a copy), which evokes the wilderness of the low country of North Carolina beautifully. For more evocative landscapes, reach for Tony Hillerman’s southwestern mysteries or Dana Stabenow’s Alaska mysteries.
Books about Man and Nature. Lots to choose from here, when man (or woman) venture out into the wilderness. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild takes you along the Pacific Crest Trail, while Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder travels to the Amazon. If you’ve never read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, do yourself a favor and do so immediately (It’s very funny but will also put the fear of bears into you for good!) Jon Krakauer has two great titles that fit into this category – Into the Wild about a young man attempting to live off the land in Alaska and Into Thin Air about a doomed excursion to Mt Everest. Both are gripping and thought provoking.
I’m planning on reading Open Season by C.J. Box, the first of his Joe Pickett mysteries. They are set in the Bighorn Mountain area of Wyoming where Joe is a Game Warden. Box’s mysteries get consistently good reviews so I’m looking forward to reading this!
Now it’s your turn? What will you be reading in October?
What would you do if one day you woke up and realized that the life you were living was not the life that you wanted for yourself? Walking into work and having that one bad day, that one interaction, that pushes you over the edge? How would you handle it? Would you try to work through it? Talk to your significant other? Would you take a much needed vacation? Quit your job? Start all over in another city with another job and another family? All of these are questions that Barbara Delinsky tackles in her novel, Escape.
Escape tells the story of Manhattan lawyer Emily Aulenbach. She is 32 years old and has been married to another lawyer, James, for the last seven years. Emily has become increasingly frustrated with her life, both professionally and personally. In law school, she dreamed of representing victims of corporate abuse and campaigning for the little guy. Always the idealist, she hoped to brighten the world. Now she sits in a cubicle alongside hundreds of other lawyers in their tiny cubicles, a headset plastered to her ear, talking to victims of tainted bottled water. You’d think that this would partly be Emily’s dream, except for the major fact that she is on the bottler’s side, NOT the victims.
After a particularly devastating interaction with a victim, Emily has had enough. She packs up, leaves town, and just drives. Looking for a purpose in her life and an escape, she meanders aimlessly and eventually ends up in the place that gave her great joy ten years ago. This small New Hampshire town is rife with good and bad memories. Emily has to find a way to deal with both, interact with the people from her past, and convince her husband and family that she’s okay and not crazy. By putting her happiness first, Emily’s selfishness reverberates throughout all the lives of the people that she knows. She must work to find her center and to decide what she actually wants. Add in an animal refuge, a former lover, and someone in desperate need of legal advice and Emily’s escape brings up some dilemmas that she cannot run away from.
This book did not go the direction that I thought that it would, for which I am very grateful. I have read too many novels where the main character decides that she needs a complete do-over and throws her entire life into shambles trying to find herself. Delinsky goes another route of self-discovery that still hits all of the necessary emotional highs and lows, but thankfully misses all of the predictable actions. This was my first Delinsky read and I am quite ready to pick up another! There was nothing that didn’t delight me within this novel.
This book is also available in the following formats: