a fiction lover’s guide to nonfiction

Hello, gang.

It’s me—back at it again with the posts. Doing the thing. The usual.

During this blog’s short and rather sporadic career, I have only discussed works of fiction. And that’s because I LOVE FICTION, and also it makes up at least 89% of the literature that I consume. Fiction made me love reading, and I will always love reading it.

BUT in the past couple of years, I’ve also felt my lack of knowledge of and appreciation for other genres. Do you ever think of how many books there are in the world? There are poetry books! Nature books! Humor books! Book books! How had I not noticed this before? How had I not noticed the infinite number of lovely books in existence, just waiting for me to find them? Definitely not because I was too busy rereading Harry Potter ANYWAY. My perspective on nonfiction really began to change when I took a couple nonfiction writing classes in college. I loved those classes, loved reading essays and works of nonfiction that made me feel just as alive as I did while reading my favorite novel. Words are magic, always.

BUT I also realize that a lot of people struggle stepping into the murky waters of nonfiction. It can be daunting facing the walls of self-help books, the mountains of histories, the fortresses of memoirs. Where do you begin? How do you know which are good?? Or which will bore you to death???

Well, you, dear reader, are in luck, because I have some slammin’ recommendations of books I have read in the past months.

(and fyi, I’m not going to get into the specifics of nonfiction sub-genres and whatnot. These books are simply not fiction, and thus fall into the required category.)

1. notes from a small island by bill bryson

bill

If you’ve ever thought I want to read a travel book, but I also want to laugh, and also I’m pretty into Britain, then this is the book for you. Bill Bryson, American, describes his misadventures as he travels around the whole of Britain as a last goodbye after living on the island for several years. As an uprooted American, he offers a very interesting perspective of the nation, at once removed and within it. But the most important thing about Bill Bryson is his voice. Bryson writes like no one else: equal parts hilarious and precise and surprisingly touching. This book captures the heart and the dirty underwear of Britain, displaying them in flagrant but very affectionate manner.

I first read a chapter of this book—the one where he’s hiking in the Lake District—while on a study abroad two years ago. We read it because we were doing the same exact thing—hiking in the Lake District, as it happens. It instantly became one of the best things I’d ever read. Not only did it have me rolling over laughing, but it captured so well the same emotions I was feeling at the time. I knew the exact sensation Bryson described after having summiting the mountain. I didn’t know that a writer could do that, capture life and emotion, so exactly.

I meant to read the rest of the book after I returned, but somehow forgot to do so amidst life responsibilities and other things. But then, while I was staying in England a couple months ago, I saw it again in a bookstore and decided to have it for my own. Of course, I adored it. The whole book is a delight, partly because it reflects my own love and bemusement for that odd, lovely little island. I highly recommend it, especially for fellow Anglophiles.

And then, just as I was about to lie down and call for a stretcher, we crested a final rise and found ourselves abruptly, magically on top of the earth, on a platform in the sky, amid an ocean of swelling summits. I had never seen anything half so beautiful before. “F*** me,” I said in a moment of special eloquence and realized I was hooked.

2. h is for hawk by helen macdonald

mable

First, let’s have a moment of appreciate for this gorgeous cover. Hot dang.

Okay.

I’d had this book on my to-read list for ever, but somehow had never been in the mood to read it. I don’t really know why. Perhaps our souls know when they need to read a book, and my soul was eventually ready for this one.

H is for Hawk is an amalgamation of many things: nature writing, memoir, biography. Helen MacDonald blends them all so beautifully, so seamlessly that it seems perfectly natural for them to coexist in a genre all their own. The basic premise is this: after the death of her father, Helen, falconer, sinks into a depressive state and out of crazed desperation buys a goshawk, one of the most notorious of all birds of prey.

But it’s also much more than that. It’s a heartbreaking portrayal of grief, how it breaks us and leaves us to piece ourselves back together again. It’s a beautiful examination of goshawks (an animal about which I knew NOTHING about beforehand), their place in nature and in falconry. It’s an insightful glimpse into the life of author T. H. White and his own experiences with love and loss and goshawks. MacDonald ties these narrative threads into a gorgeous tapestry, leaving us with an image of a woman, driven by heartache, to find her place amongst life and memory.

Aside from the lovely sad prose, I super enjoyed learning more about falconry. As I said before, I know embarrassingly little about birds of prey, but Helen’s book opened my eyes to the wonderfully haunting creatures. I was a bit surprised by the inclusion of the T. H. White narrative at first, but I adored the biographical sections. Again, I knew little about the man, but soon began to ache for his sad lonely self. Reading about him made me just want to give him a nice hug.

Conclusion: I wish I’d read this book sooner.

You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.

3. the problem of pain by c.s. lewis

clive

Real talk. I freaking love C. S. Lewis. He’s just the best, you know? I’ve always imagined him as my loving and sensible old grandpa. He’s the kind of guy I’d like to have afternoon tea with in a cozy library, discussing life, literature, etc., as we sip our tea and eat our cakes. He pat my head and refill my tea and then tell me a fairytale.

Anyway.

Naturally, I love the Chronicles of Narnia. (Which, come to think, I really need to reread. It’s been a while.) BUT I haven’t read any of Lewis’s other works, save Till We Have Faces, which is a lovely and interesting retelling of the Cupid / Psyche myth—and yet another piece of fiction. Long story short, I want to read his nonfiction religious works.

I’m starting with the Problem of Pain. 

I haven’t finished it yet, but I’ve enjoyed it immensely thus far. Lewis has quite an interesting way of discussing religion. It’s rather academic, and I like how complex, and yet simple, he makes these theological issues appear. Mostly, I just love when he gets down to the real heart of things. C. S. Lewis can really cut me down to the core. He aches in such a sincere way.

There is a quote I adore from this book, and I am going to share it, despite its mammoth length. Forgive me, for I am sentimental.

You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words: but most of your friends do not see it at all, and often wonder why, liking this, you should also like that. Again, you have stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life; and then turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw – but at the first words a gulf yawns between you, and you realise that this landscape means something totally different to him, that he is pursuing an alien vision and cares nothing for the ineffable suggestion by which you are transported. Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are curiously ignorant of – something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through, the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clapclap of water against the boat’s side? Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it – tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest – if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say “Here at last is the thing I was made for.” We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.

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So, here are my few and hardly all-encompassing recommendation. I am hoping to read many a good nonfiction book this year and will share my discoveries as they come.

Until then, happy reading.

xx, natalie

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