ISO nonfiction book recommendations
March 26, 2018 11:41 AM   Subscribe

My mom will be spending a lot of time in the near future as a companion in a hospital room. When I asked what I could send her, she asked me to surprise her with a book to help her pass the time; I need recommendations. She prefers nonfiction.

In general, she's not a fan of pop culture - don't suggest "Bachelor Nation". My dad says that she recently read "The Master Switch" by Tim Wu, and that she's been reading a lot of WWII history lately ( but may be WWII'ed out). She thought "Code Girls" was very interesting content wise but groused about the writing quality. She also likes science stuff - "Spineless - the science of jellyfish and the art of growing a backbone" fascinated her except that IIRC she didn't like it when the author talked too much about her personal life. If you're noticing a theme here, she's pretty persnickety about quality of writing and gets cross if books are repetitive or poorly edited.

She's tired and drained, so I'm looking for engaging books rather than long-slog books here. An exceptionally good book of essays could work as well.

Thanks for helping me offer a tiny bit of moral support by sending her the perfect book (or books, depending on how things go).
posted by telepanda to Media & Arts (48 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Robert Sapolsky, Primate's Memoir - science - primatology & neuroscience, memoir, humor.
posted by theora55 at 11:46 AM on March 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books is written by a teacher who had female Iranian students who met with her to discuss forbidden Western classics.
posted by FencingGal at 11:50 AM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Perhaps Sy Montgomery's Soul of an Octopus? But it is personal, I think; not in the sense of talking about the author's home life or whatnot, but in the sense of embracing subjectivity and putting the cards on the table in the course of engaging with the subject.
posted by inconstant at 11:54 AM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

A Scandalous Life: The Biography of Jane Digby is a brilliant, fascinating, madcap read.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:02 PM on March 26, 2018

Anything by Mary Roach.
posted by glitter at 12:02 PM on March 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

Ruth Goodman's How to Be a Victorian and How to Be a Tudor convey her enthusiasm for the history of daily life. The Triumph of Seeds by Thor Hanson has lots of botany accessible to the non-scientist as well as science experiments done with the assistance of his little son.
posted by Botanizer at 12:03 PM on March 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

I don't really read nonfiction but I read A Civil Action a few months ago and loved it. It was long and dense, BUT! I found it thoroughly engaging throughout.
posted by phunniemee at 12:08 PM on March 26, 2018

One Jump Ahead about how Checkers was solved.

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water
posted by zinon at 12:08 PM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Color: A Natural History is a book I found mind-bendingly fascinating. A good dose of science/chemistry at a layman's level, but then explained in historical and societal contexts and with a very broad world view (not just european history, although a lot of that too).
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 12:09 PM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

John McPhee.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:12 PM on March 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

Anything by Mary Roach. The Ghost Map. The Great Influenza. The Poisoner's Handbook. High Crimes.
posted by jeather at 12:15 PM on March 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

Bill Bryson's A Walk In The Woods had my mom laughing out loud in a hospital waiting room. I read it and loved it, too.
posted by mochapickle at 12:30 PM on March 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

Lots of Bryson’s stuff is good. I also recommend A Brief History of Nearly Everything and At Home.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 12:40 PM on March 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

Rin-Tin-Tin: The Life, the Legacy is so good and I'm not even much of a dog person.
posted by chaiminda at 12:41 PM on March 26, 2018

I was also going to suggest A Brief History of Nearly Everything and also anything by Carl Sagan.

Also, the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 12:42 PM on March 26, 2018

I dropped in to recommend Bill Bryson's At Home as well, and am currently enjoying How to be a Victorian, referenced above.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 12:46 PM on March 26, 2018

Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 is a pretty simple read but a very well-researched book about an odd historical thing.
The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction - Quammen is an exceptional nature writer
Amazing Rare Things: Visualizing the Age of Discovery by David Attenborough (note, a somewhat large book, in case her hospitalization has something to do with her hands, might be tough to hold), along these same lines is Field Notes on Science & Nature by Michael Canfield about how scientists keep their field notes. Well-illustrated.

The book I just finished reading which I LOVED along these lines is The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg by Tim Birkhead. You would not think it would be so good, but it is! Amusing and full of anecdotes, very well written. Y
posted by jessamyn at 12:52 PM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

She might appreciate Grandma Gatewood’s Walk by Ben Montgomery which has impressed me with her persistence and following a dream at 67
posted by childofTethys at 12:54 PM on March 26, 2018

Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All:A New Zealand Story by Christina Thompson is memoir and history with real-life, modern cultural collision.
posted by childofTethys at 1:07 PM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

My favorite nonfiction from the last several years that might resonate:

Going Clear, by Lawrence Wright, is a fascinating look at Scientology.

Let's Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson, is a hysterically funny memoir -- though it's more a collection of pieces than a truly coherent single work.

Zealot, by Reza Aslan, about the context of the historical Jesus, is really fascinating and also not over-long.

Command and Control, by Eric Schlosser, about nuclear weapons and policy, is exhaustive, but splits its time between a big-picture view of how our nuclear weapons policy & planning came to its current state, and a more focussed narrative about a pretty horrifying accident that occurred around a Titan silo in Arkansas in 1980.

The Answer to the Riddle is Me, by David Stuart MacLean, about his experience with lariam-induced amnesia while on a Fulbright in India. This one's also not super long, but raises some really interesting questions about the notion of self. MacLean basically "woke up" standing in a train station, with no memory of how he got there, why he was there, or even who he was; many of his memories never came back.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I'm sure you know.

I've also had great success with more or less the collected works of Michael Lewis, even the stuff about sports (and I mostly hate sports). He's the guy who wrote Moneyball (about how the Oakland A's became a championship team with a tiny payroll by figuring out 99% of the league were undervaluing really, really key skills) and The Blind Side (about the development of the modern NFL offense, & also the story of Michael Oher), both of which became huge movies.

He's also written quite a bit on economics (Liar's Poker, The Big Short, Flash Boys), and just generally has a knack for taking something obscure and opening it up in a way that allows you to appreciate and understand what's fascinating about it.
posted by uberchet at 1:18 PM on March 26, 2018

I thought Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Frasier was engaging, generally well-written, if a tad bit long.

Sarah Vowell's Wordy Shipmates isn't new, so your mother may have read it, but it's smart, witty, and really enjoyable. I also liked Unfamiliar Fishes, which relates thematically in some ways to WS, but lots of people didn't, so y(m)mmv.

I just started Teju Cole's Known and Strange things, and based on the part I've read so far, I highly recommend it.

Has she read SPQR by Mary Beard?
posted by platitudipus at 1:18 PM on March 26, 2018

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

".... explores the clash between a small county hospital in California and a refugee family from Laos over the care of Lia Lee, a Hmong child diagnosed with severe epilepsy. Lia's parents and her doctors both wanted what was best for Lia, but the lack of understanding between them led to tragedy. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest, and the Salon Book Award, Anne Fadiman's compassionate account of this cultural impasse is literary journalism at its finest. The current edition, published for the book's fifteenth anniversary, includes a new afterword by the author that provides updates on the major characters along with reflections on how they have changed Fadiman's life and attitudes."
posted by 6thsense at 1:22 PM on March 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

All The President's Men.
posted by AppleTurnover at 1:49 PM on March 26, 2018

A companion to Prairie Fire would be Wendy McClure's The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie. And that leads me to a companion book Don't Trade the Baby For a Horse which I have not read.
posted by Constance Mirabella at 2:28 PM on March 26, 2018

The Oregon Trail, A New American Journey - a pleasant read that combines a modern day effort to travel the entire length in the Oregon Trail with mule and wagon intermixed with a very readable history of the settler's adventures. One advantage is that each day is it's own little adventure so it doesn't matter much if you can't remember what you read yesterday. I found it engaging and not stressful when read in the hospital/nursing home.
posted by metahawk at 2:33 PM on March 26, 2018

I also enjoyed Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough's jointly written memoir of their trip across Europe shortly after graduating college back in the 1920s. You'll have to either get the book from the library or used but I remember thinking the book was hilarious.
posted by Constance Mirabella at 2:47 PM on March 26, 2018

I just finished The Woman Who Smashed Codes. It ticks both the science and the history boxes. I thought it was well written, in that it was informative, engaging, and quick. Something I could enjoy even if I was tired, since it did not require a huge amount of deep thought.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 2:59 PM on March 26, 2018

All of these are nonfiction but narrative-driven, which might be why they're some of my favorites:

My Own Country: A Doctor's Story

My Traitor's Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face His Country, His Tribe, and His Conscience

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

Edit: re-reading, the first two are first-person perspective and the authors' identities are core to the books, so depends on what it was about hearing about the author's personal life that turned her off of the jellyfish book
posted by orangejenny at 3:43 PM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

I just finished For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose, and really enjoyed it. Nothing terribly deep, but interesting history.
posted by frumiousb at 4:00 PM on March 26, 2018

I read Chaos: Making a New Science years ago and it changed the way I look at the world. Highly recommend.
posted by SonInLawOfSam at 4:38 PM on March 26, 2018

If she wants to switch wars, The Sleepwalkers is a good account of the stumble by the Great Powers into WWI.
posted by praemunire at 4:57 PM on March 26, 2018

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
posted by ivanthenotsoterrible at 4:58 PM on March 26, 2018

I really enjoyed The Girls of Atomic City, about the women who worked on the Manhattan Project in a variety of roles.
posted by suelac at 5:09 PM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

A few more good history books that aren’t about World War II:
Faith and Treason by Antonia Fraser (about the Gunpowder Plot).
The Boxer Rebellion by Diana Preston

I also really liked Pioneer Women: Voices of the Kansas Plains. However, it relies heavily on personal accounts by pioneer women, not the author. So I don’t know if she’d like it or not.
posted by FencingGal at 5:38 PM on March 26, 2018

I've recently read some really good science/nature books lately:

Brandon Keim - The Eye of the Sandpiper - this is a really interesting collection of essays on animal intelligence and touches on some slightly radical concepts like personhood for non-humans.

Anything by Richard Conniff, like The Species Seekers.

I also liked The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman.
posted by tybstar at 5:46 PM on March 26, 2018

Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson, and Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky
posted by misfish at 6:07 PM on March 26, 2018

I just read and loved Hidden Figures. I'd also recommend The Soul of the Octopus, The Women Who Wrote the War, and heartily agree with A Primate's Memoir (my personal favorite primatology book other than In The Shadow of Man).
posted by ChuraChura at 6:20 PM on March 26, 2018

Previously: Gripping nonfiction books about THINGS
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:20 PM on March 26, 2018

A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression
posted by bq at 6:24 PM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Just finished Soon by Andrew Santella, an extended essay about procrastination that is just plain delightful. An easy read despite its discussions of Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, and St. Expedite, and has some amusing one-liners.
posted by Peach at 7:19 PM on March 26, 2018

Does she like philosophy?
* The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property by Lewis Hyde (more recently retitled, The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World - same book.)
* The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia by Bernard Suits (Involves Socratic dialogue, which is fiction)
* Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity by Lawrence Lessig

Law & politics?
* The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind by James Boyle
* Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber
* Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto

* The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense by Suzette Haden Elgin
(This book changed my life, and my husband grumbles that I have an unfair advantage in arguments because I've read it and the sequels.)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 8:01 PM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is different, but very readable and interesting
posted by gemmy at 8:52 PM on March 26, 2018

Sara Wheeler is a travel writer and biographer with an engaging voice who chooses interesting subjects. Of the books listed on her Amazon page I particularly enjoyed Terra Incognita, Travels in a Thin Country, and O My America.
posted by Morpeth at 7:09 AM on March 27, 2018

Anything by Jon Ronson or memoirs by the late Dr. Oliver Sacks. Ronson is a journalist who seeks out interesting people, and by interesting, I mean charismatic racists, conspiracy theorists, scientologists, people who were publicly shamed, Army Generals who believe in telekinesis, and so on. Dr. Sacks was a neurologist who writes many interesting accounts of his patients and their peculiar afflictions and the adaptations they use to cope with them.

Actually, get one of each author-- start with "Them" for Ronson and "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" for Dr. Sacks. If she likes the style, then pour them on.

I'll happily second Mary Roach as well.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:20 AM on March 27, 2018

I've read two books by Richard Lloyd Parry and enjoyed them both immensely: People Who Eat Darkness and Ghosts of the Tsunami.
posted by jabes at 11:32 AM on March 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh and Caitlin Doughty is great. I haven't read From Here to Eternity, but Smoke Gets In Your Eyes was excellent.
posted by jabes at 11:34 AM on March 27, 2018

I have read From Here to Eternity and it's very good.
posted by jessamyn at 11:37 AM on March 27, 2018

The books orangejenny recommended are some of my favourites.

I just read I’ll Be Gone in the Dark about the Golden State killer and the reporter who became obsessed with the case. And Educated by Tara Westover was amazing.
posted by guster4lovers at 8:44 PM on March 29, 2018

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