Nonfiction November, Week 4: Nonfiction Favorites

In Week 4 of Nonfiction November,  Katie @ Doing Dewey brings us Nonfiction Favorites.

She says: We’ve talked about how you pick nonfiction books in previous years, but this week I’m excited to talk about what makes a book you’ve read one of your favorites. Is the topic pretty much all that matters? Are there particular ways a story can be told or particular writing styles that you love? Do you look for a light, humorous approach or do you prefer a more serious tone? Let us know what qualities make you add a nonfiction book to your list of favorites.

 

First, can I say I love this question?

Especially since I was recently pondering this very topic. A few weeks ago, while talking about books with the Dear Man, I said something and then realized it was abundantly true: I think narrative voice is the most important element for me as a reader.

It stopped me in my tracks, that’s how true it was.

If I enjoy the writer’s voice, I’ll read nearly anything. Here’s proof:

I’ve read and loved these books, which are about topics I wouldn’t say I enjoy reading about:

 

Sports

Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand

Over Time by Frank Deford

An Accidental Sportswriter by Robert Lipsyte

 

Police Life (too gritty for my sensibilities, I always think, but then… these books)

Blue Blood by Edward Conlon 

The Job by Steve Osborne 

 

I think their lively narrative voice is the reason I dearly adore reading books by journalists. They get right to the point, and they keep it punchy.

 

So, my fellow nonfiction fanatics… I read for narrative voice. What nonfiction books should I add to my TBR?

Memoir of a super tough swimmer

Find a Way by Diana Nyad

3 words: forthright, vigorous, candid

Wow. I mean: seriously.

When I heard about Diana Nyad’s historic swim from Cuba to Florida, I was impressed. But reading her account of the lifelong journey she took to accomplish this goal… Wow.

I’m not sure what knocked me over more:

  • It took five attempts (over the course of 30+ years) to complete the swim
  • She began training for the Cuba crossing after a 30-year hiatus from swimming
  • Nyad was 64 years old when she successfully finished the swim
  • The effort that went into engineering the swim so it wouldn’t kill her (a series of jellyfish stings nearly ended her life during a 2011 swim)
  • The sheer strength of will she personified

And then there’s her remarkable backstory. After doing several landmark open water swims in her 20s, Nyad left swimming and became a sports reporter.

It was only when she reached age 60 that she realized she needed to do something momentous to get her life out of autopilot. And then she set about doing that thing.

Nyad also addresses the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. And it’s both horrific that she had to experience such abuse, and inspiring to see how she overcame it. It’s an unexpected part of her story that surprised me and nearly broke my heart.

So when she goes on to live a big, bold life that she built with her own strength and with the love and support of her loved ones, it’s powerful stuff.

Nyad reads the audiobook, and I’m also glad she did. She’s a talented broadcaster, and she brings emotion to her reading.

Finally, this book is a remarkable thing because of the team Nyad assembled to help her achieve the Cuba swim. Reading about the way the team worked together–and especially the key role played by her head handler, Bonnie–I’m awed. It’s a beautiful thing, this story. There’s plenty of shadow, yes, but: the light, people! This story is filled with light breaking through the dark.
Give this book a whirl if you like… swimming, extreme sports, strong women, perseverance, stories of abuse survivors, senior power, living a bold life

 

So, folks… Whose stories have you found completely awe-inspiring?

The Cubs Way… is to keep me reading non-stop

The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse by Tom Verducci

3 words: personal, detailed, inside baseball

bleacher bums!

Oh my goodness. Such a good book!

If you’re a Cubs fan, then: of course.

If you’re not a Cubs fan, but you are a reader who likes learning the inside story of building a culture of teamwork and success, then this book is also for you.

There’s so much to love here.

First: The people. Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon were of one mind when it came to assembling the perfect team. They agreed that the character of the players mattered as much as their athletic talents. So this team is made up of strong people who are devoted to the group, rather than to themselves. And they’re darn tough guys who have faced and overcome tough times with grace.

And Maddon himself. The guy’s fascinating. (I’m kind of thinking I need a “Try Not to Suck” t-shirt to add to my fleet of Cubs shirts.)

Maddon: a reader’s gotta love him. To draw out Addison Russell, he assigned him to read Stephen King’s 11/22/63 and talk to him about the book every 50 to 100 pages.

I adore this!

Second: The behind-the-scenes stuff is fantastic. For example, that whole story about Rizzo borrowing Szczur’s identical bat and having immense good luck with it during the World Series? Partly fiction!

(with that stance… Bryant)

Third: Even though we obviously know the outcome (spoiler alert: Cubs win the World Series), this book is a page turner. The chapters alternate between each World Series game and the back story that brought the team together from 2012 to 2016.

Fourth: All that psychology. Here’s Maddon: “Too many times in the past, in the postseason, I know we’ve got the other team by the look in the other team’s eyes. There’s a distant look. They’re anticipating bad. It’s almost like a concession look. I never want us to be that team. So know that something bad is going to happen. Know it is. Expect it to happen. And when it happens, we have to keep our heads and fight through it.” (p. 283)

I mean seriously: Isn’t that good?

And then there’s this scene from the rain delay in Game 7, when Epstein eavesdropped on the players-only meeting. “‘I saw our guys meeting and it snapped me back,’ he said. ‘It reminded me of how much I admired them and how tough they are, how connected they’ve stayed with each other, and the great things human beings can accomplish when they set out to achieve for other people, not for themselves.’” (p. 347)

Verklempt! I read this section at Panera and got all verklempt (in public). I try to avoid displays of readerly overwhelm, but sometimes it does a sneak attack. This book got to me.

We might need a short musical break here…

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… baseball, stories of Overcoming, workplace narratives, the behind-the-scenes story, camaraderie, building an organizational culture
Anyone else read any great sports books lately?

That sports book that’s way more

Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian by Anthony Ervin and Constantine Markides

3 words: introspective, unflinchingly honest, surprising

The book I can’t stop talking about? It’s this one.

Ervin and Markides have written themselves one doozy of a memoir / biography mash-up.

This book’s got in goin’ on in multiple ways.

First, the structure is fascinating. If you like books with multiple viewpoints, you’re gonna love this thing. Ervin and Markides share the storytelling, and the story is so much more interesting than it would’ve been with only one viewpoint. Ervin tells his story in his own words, which brings an intimacy and an immediacy to the narrative. But Markides’s writing about Ervin is equally fascinating, because we see him from two angles.

Second, Ervin’s story is so outrageous and complex, it’s only believable because it’s actually true. No way you’d get me to buy this story if it were fiction.

Dude won the gold medal in 50 meter freestyle at the 2000 Olympics, then fell off the face of the Earth.

Except really, he fell into and out of school, drug abuse, homelessness, tattooing, rock & roll, cigarette smoking, nearly every type of high-risk behavior imaginable, and all kinds of different belief systems. He nearly wrecked himself.

Then, in 2011, he started swimming again.

And by 2012, he qualified for the Olympic team.

Again.

It’s pretty stunning.

Roll in there, the fact that he has Tourette’s, is half African-American and half Jewish (but doesn’t particularly identify with either group), and is training for the 2016 Olympics right this minute, and People, We’ve Got Ourselves a Story Here.

This book is a very intriguing look inside the mind of an elite athlete who’s also a philosopher.

And the book contains remarkable descriptions of Ervin’s form as a swimmer. Markides had me breathless when I read these words:

“It was strange to reconcile the unhurried, cerebral Ervin I knew with the swift aquatic creature slicing toward me. But it wasn’t even his speed that astonished me so much as the way in which he traveled through the water–although ‘through’ isn’t even exactly right. There was something in his swimming I’d never seen before: he seemed to swim not through the water but over it.” (95)

Yowser, guys. That’s some good stuff there.

 

(He’s the one in mint green.)

 

So yeah. This book, I couldn’t put it down. It’s not the usual heroic sports story; it’s way more more nuanced than that.

I’m grateful to Ervin for “torching his soul” to write this book, and to Markides for writing such a stunning, close third-person view of Ervin’s story thus far.

Anyone else gonna be watching the Olympic trials to look for the guy with the sleeves?

 

Addicted to the Biscuit

Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand
3
words: inspiring, journalistic, vivid
Seabiscuit, where have you been all my
life?
Oh,
just sitting on a library shelf, being all obvious and popular with readers for
more than a decade.
I’m
telling you… there are books I know I’d like, and then I just don’t read them.
Until I get infected with horse fever after a visit to the Kentucky Derby
Museum.
And
then I spent the happiest days absorbed in the Depression-era story of an
unlikely winner and his troupe of humans.
Damn,
why can’t reading always be like this?
Seabiscuit
was a hugely famous horse whose name I’d never heard until the book was
released. But he was a cultural phenomenon in the late 1930s. And he’s one of 4
main characters in this doozy of a book. The others are humans: the trainer,
the jockey, and the owner.
Of the
humans, the trainer, Tom Smith, was probably my favorite. He looked like Truman
and spoke like (Silent Cal) Coolidge. Here’s a good quote:
 “‘Tom
Smith,’ wrote a reporter, ‘says almost nothing, constantly.’” (p. 204)
However,
later in the story:
“Seabiscuit,
sound, brilliantly fast, and impeccably prepared, had spoken on Smith’s
behalf.” (p. 237)
Smith
was laconic to the extreme, and he was a brilliant horseman. And he knew
exactly what to do to bring out the best in Seabiscuit. The two had a
connection.
“In
moments of uncertainty, the horse would pause and look for Smith. When he found
his trainer, the horse would relax.” (p. 104)
I
adore that.
Another
thing I found fascinating was the jockey-horse relationship, and the way the
two act as one on the racetrack. Seabiscuit’s primary jockey was Red Pollard, a
book-loving man who suffered serious injuries that would’ve halted a man less obsessed
with his work. He and Smith knew their horse, and Seabiscuit trusted them. It
really was a lovely thing.
“When
Pollard, who called the horse Pops, sat outside the stall, reading the paper
while Seabiscuit was cooled out, the horse would tug his hot walker off course
to snuffle his jockey’s hands.” (p. 104)

Seabiscuit himself is my favorite of anyone in the book. In looks he was compared to a plowhorse, he had legs that didn’t straighten, he was short, and his gait was ungainly. But the guy got the job done. He was a fierce competitor.

But he also suffered some serious
setbacks and injuries, and that makes the story even more inspiring. Seabiscuit
and his humans were masters of the comeback.

So the story by itself is fantastic, and then you throw in Hillenbrand’s lively writing, and this book becomes nearly perfect. 
 

The
description of the match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral is some of the
best writing I’ve ever read. Here’s just one excerpt:
Seabiscuit
“cocked an ear toward his rival, listening to him, watching him. He refused to
let War Admiral pass. The battle was joined. The horses stretched out over the
track. Their strides, each twenty-one feet in length, fell in perfect synch.
They rubbed shoulders and hips, heads snapping up and reaching out together,
legs gathering up and unfolding in unison.” (p. 272)
I read
that chapter as hungrily as I used to read as a child.
And
then, watching the footage of the race, at first it gave me chills. And then I
burst into tears. And continue to do so every time I watch the thing start to
finish.
I’m gathering some tissues; here it is:

And then there’s that Hollywood movie that I hear isn’t half bad. (Hesitant to see it: I liked the book too much!)