Thursday, March 26, 2020

Rachel Vs. Nonfiction

I confess, nonfiction and I aren’t friends, or even really casual acquaintances. But if my super-useful liberal arts degree has taught me anything, it’s to be open-minded to new ideas (or at least pretend), so here I am, trying my hardest to expand my knowledge base. Here are some nonfiction selections that are novelistic and worthy of consideration from my fellow fiction snobs.

When I started reading The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, Jason said “how 2003 of you!” But at this point, it’s something of a classic, and I can see why. It reads like fiction, with the extra fun of making you practice self-control by not “spoiling” historical events with a quick Google search. Larson’s latest, The Splendid and the Vile, about Winston Churchill's first years as prime minister, is at the top of my list for what to read next.

Currently, I’m in the middle of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (how extremely 2010 of me!). One of my best friends, a science teacher, (Hi Holden!) recommended this to me because, while it’s about “arguably one of the most important medical discoveries of the 20th century,” it’s also a very human story about a marginalized woman and her family and how science as a field has a lot to answer for, ethically speaking. I think what sets this book apart is the presence of Skloot in the narrative; her dedication to digging into this story and finding the humanity behind it is admirable, especially since the Lacks family was so completely neglected in the wake of Henrietta’s staggeringly important contribution to science.

My more well-read colleagues have some suggestions for me as well. Tim recommends The Furious Hours by Casey Cep, about Harper Lee's attempt to write a true crime book about Reverend Willie Maxwell. If I had realized this book was about Harper Lee, I would have been all over it! I had no idea that she did research for a true crime novel of her own after her BFF Truman Capote was met with such success with In Cold Blood (another excellent classic, this time from 1959!). Tim says Cep "gives us remarkable depth in biographical pictures of Maxwell, Lee, Capote, and others, and along the way she captures the mood of both the landscape and the politics of civil rights era Alabama and New York, where Lee split her time." This seems like the perfect book for fans of true crime, and who doesn't love true crime these days?

Jenny recommends An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System: A Tale in Four Lives. I love what she has to say about this: “There is nothing more engaging than a nonfiction book about medicine that’s written with the pace and tension of a thriller and doesn’t require more than a vague memory of high school biology. Even better if I come away wishing I’d paid more attention in class!” The book weaves together the lives of four people who experience various immunity-related issues. In the age of COVID-19, this is definitely a must-read.

Finally, Madi recommends Black Death at the Golden Gate by David K. Randall, saying that it's "a necessary book to remind why medicine needs to be respected and acknowledged. Randall's detailed history of how racial profiling and an unwillingness to listen to medical professionals nearly doomed San Francisco before it could flourish. Black Death at the Golden Gate gives insight to the spread of disease and how misinformation strengthens it." There's nothing I can add to that - I can't think of a more relevant book to read right now.

Please, go forth and read, and hopefully someday our current crisis will be a distant memory dredged up by a beautifully-written bestselling novel.
- Rachel Copeland

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