Category Archives: Nonfiction

Strange But True Stories

Spent a great day yesterday listening to entertaining panels of authors, publishing reps, and Library Journal editor Heather McCormack at the Massachusetts Library Association’s annual conference. In a session about stories that are “strange but true” from HarperCollins, two authors with Massachusetts connections dropped tantalizing details about their new and upcoming books.

Lost in Shangri-La by BU professor Mitchell Zuckoff sounds like the more exciting, about a daring mission to rescue three survivors of a plane crash. The plane carrying a group of military personnel and WACs out on a recreational flight goes down in a nearly inaccessible jungle valley in what was then Dutch New Guinea during World War II. Nicknamed and known as Shangri-La by American army personnel stationed there, the valley is home to native tribal peoples who have never been in contact with the outside world, and are rumored to be cannibals. If you weren’t at the library conference yesterday, the author’s interview on NPR was aired this morning and you can catch it on the NPR Web site. This sounds like a great one to recommend to readers who like history to read like fiction.

More personal and still intriguing, the other “strange but true” story, Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way, is by Molly Birnbaum who grew up in the Boston area and now lives in Cambridge, Mass. Having fallen in love with cooking in college, she is preparing to enter the Culinary Institute when she is hit by a car while out for a run. Among other serious injuries, her skull is badly fractured in the accident, which causes her to lose her sense of smell — a devastating loss for anyone, but, for this young woman, it shatters her dream of becoming a chef. Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way will be released in June.

It was very moving to listen to Molly Birnbaum tell about her accident and long period of recovery. You can find out more about her and how she researched the science of smell for this book (and get recipes!) on My Madeleine, a blog about food, scent, and her experience with both. This sounds like it will be great for the cooking memoir fans and well as readers who like a touching personal story with some neuroscience thrown in.

The Guinea Pig Diaries by A.J. Jacobs

Winter snow and ice getting you down? Try some humorous reading. Esquire editor-at-large A.J. Jacobs has made a niche for himself by practicing various extreme ways of life — to the exasperation of his wife, friends, and complete strangers — and thenwriting about them.

His last book, A Year of Living Biblically, was about trying to follow all the prescriptions and proscription in the Bible. Before that, he read the whole Encyclopedia Britannica, from A to Z, and sharing his newfound knowledge in The Know-It-All.

In The Guinea Pig Diaries, the author writes about, among other experiments in abnormal living, trying radical honesty for a month (in a chapter called “I Think You’re Fat”) and, for another month, abiding by all of George Washington’s 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation (“What Would George Washington Do?”).
Here’s how the chapter on outsourcing (“My Outsourced Life”) begins:

“I really shouldn’t have to write this piece myself. I mean, why am I the one stuck in front of a computer terminal? All this tedious picking out of words on my laptop. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions. Sheesh. What a pain in my butt. Can’t someone else do it?”

Read a longer excerpt — and sample other memoirs– at SMITH Magazine here:
Excerpt: The Guinea Pig Diaries by A.J. Jacobs | Memoirville

Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill & An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken

>Two women — one nearing the end of life and one whose child was stillborn — write about death. These two moving memoirs are as clearsighted and honest as Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking.

Diana Athill, a book editor for fifty years and author of two other memoirs, writes about her outlook on life from the vantage point of age 89.

All through my sixties I felt I was still within hailing distance of middle age, not safe on its shores, perhaps, but navigating its coastal waters. My seventieth birthday failed to change this because I managed scarcely to notice it, but my seventy-first did change it. Being “over seventy” is being old; suddenly I was aground on that fact and saw that the time had come to size it up. (Somewhere Towards the End, p. 13)

Former librarian Elizabeth McCracken is the author of a collection of short stories and two novels, The Giant’s House and Niagara Falls All Over Again. She and her husband were living and writing in France during her first pregnancy which had been gloriously trouble-free until the very end; their child, a boy, died before he could be born.

I don’t want to wear my heart on my sleeve or put it away in cold storage. I don’t want to fetishize, I don’t want to repress, I want his death to be what it is: a fact. Something that people know without me having to explain it. I don’t feel the need to tell my story to everyone, but when people ask, Is this your first child? I can’t bear any of the possible answers.
I’m not ready for my first child to fade into history. (An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, p. 15)