Rebecca Skloot: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Some pompous bozo on the internet claimed that Skloot violated a “rule” of creative nonfiction and journalism: “never insert yourself in the story.” That’s news to me. The truth is that every nonfiction project sets its own rules, and in this case, her involvement is essential. In this book, Skloot uncovers the life of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman whose freakishly powerful cancer cells find ‘eternal life’ in laboratories and played an essential role in a vast body of medical research. Meanwhile Lacks’ family was kept in the dark about the mighty “HeLa” cells and couldn’t even afford proper health care. A deeply engrossing and shocking story. Skloot didn’t “discover” this story but she tied the strands together, using investigative reporting skills, immersion journalism and good old-fashioned storytelling. John D’Agata: About a Mountain. Wow — talk about inventing your own rules for a creative nonfiction book. D’Agata took a lot of risks in this one and got a certain amount of flak for it, but this long meditative essay on human ambition, language and self-delusion is one of the best nonfiction books of the year. The Nick Tosches Reader includes outstanding — and scary — profiles of George Jones, Sonny Liston and Jerry Lee Lewis, and a few other essays that were so funny and raunchy, I kept thinking I was going to get struck by lightning for the sin of reading it. Under the “unjustly overlooked” category, I’ll include The Show I’ll Never Forget, edited by Sean Manning. It’s an anthology about mind-altering (for better and worse) concert experiences. Some of the essays focus squarely on performance. In others, the performance barely even registers, and it’s all about the circumstances leading up to, and away from, the concerts. The standout is Heidi Julavits looking back, through several layers of murk, at a Rush concert. (She struggles to remember whether Rush is the band “with the one-armed drummer.”)
Don’t overlook Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. The narrator is a dreamer (and a stammerer) in an English town in the grips of the Falkland Islands war. I loved his use of tone and his ability to toggle back and forth between comedy and heartbreak. An initiation scene, involving a middle school “Skull and Bones” styled secret society, is almost unbearably suspenseful.
Speaking of comedy and tragedy (and messed-up families), I’m now reading Oh The Glory of It All by Sean Wilsey. So far, its also very sad and funny. I haven’t Googled any stories about this one, but he must have gotten a lot of grief for writing this.