Genre: Narrative Nonfiction

Nonfiction appeal from Neal Wyatt

Narrative exists on a continuum…There are many other reasons to enjoy a title than the force of its story. Just how much narrative is needed depends on the reader(3).

[S]ubject does matter a great deal. It measures the initial degree of interest a reader has in a title (7).

Readers go to a book because of its subject but they stay for everything else…[Readers] want the book that focuses on the subject in the way they want to experience it (8).

Type defines what kind of book on the subject they want…memoir, reporting, etc. (8-9).

Type offers readers the variance of mood and perspective. Type Strongly affects the tone, pace, language, detail, story line, mood, and narrative nature of a book (10).

In working with nonfiction there are at least eight appeal elements to consider: pacing, characterization, story line, detail, learning/experiencing, language, setting, and tone(10).

Pacing is a way to describe how a book moves through the story arc. It has two facets: the feel of the pace when the book is read and the speed at which the story enfolds.

Pace is affected by the amount of fact and the theory the reader has to process and how the author incorporates and presents those elements (11).

Perception of pace is also affected by the knowledge readers bring to the book and their interest in the topic (11).

Books that are highly narrative tend to unfold more directly than titles that are less narrative. Strong narrative drive not only acts as a hook to pull the reader through the book, it also acts as a map to give direction to the reading experience (11).

As in fiction, character and pace work together in nonfiction. Nonfiction characters tend to either be quickly defined and remain relatively constant or to be slowly revealed as they develop over the life of the story (12).

The types and number of characters in a book, secondary characters, and repeating characters is another aspect of appeal to consider (13).

Some readers see secondary Characters as adding to the richness of the work; others prefer not to break away from the main story and character for someone else (14).

Nonfiction books have repeating characters that are treated by many different authors (14).

Consider the reader’s interaction with the characters.
Are the characters there to be identified with or observed?…The reading experience changes depending on how the reader responds to the character (14).

Unique to nonfiction is the question of the reader’s trust and engagement with the author and the authorial voice. A great deal of nonfiction is someone else’s story…a great deal of nonfiction is in fact about the author…For these books, the reader must be able to engage the with the author on at least some minimal level (15).

Story Line is effected by the narrative nature of the book, the intent of the author and the focus of the story, and how the subject is treated by the author (15)…Story line has a strong influence on the narrative nature of a work…highly narrative nonfiction books tell a strong story and tend to be the easiest books to suggest to readers(16).

All books are written with a specific intent and focus…thinking about the author’s intent removes us from the need to judge a book on the basis of any criteria other than those internal to the book (16).

Story line provides a place in the appeal construct to consider how the subject is approached. Subjects tend to be sole-focus or used as a vessel to collect a range of other subjects to muse on (17).

Story line is a multifaceted aspect of appeal…blend[ing] all four aspects of nonfiction–narrative context, subject, type, and appeal (18).

Detail refers to the level of description and background in the story (18)…often extending to the visual content of the book and the way it augments the text (19).

Readers who like detail notice its absence and tend to enjoy books according to the amount of detail present(19).

Part of the biggest difference in reading nonfiction is the nonfiction’s intent to turn fact into a teachable moment(19).

Books that do not intend to teach usually intend to share an experience or explain a particular feeling or event (20).

Learning and experiencing, for some readers. outweigh any other consideration when they are searching for a book (20).

Clarity of language matters a great deal in nonfiction, as does the ability to describe events, action, theory, and motivations.

Does the writing style matter to the reader? (20)

The importance of language to the reader is idiosyncratic to the book and to the reader’s mood and tastes (21).

Ask if the setting is important to the story and if the location is brought to life (21).

Tone is a description of how it feels to read a book (21)…tone is based on the mood of the reader…Tone is the aspect of appeal that readers are least willing to be flexible about (22).

Individual responses [to nonfiction] vary depending on many factors–reader’s mood, life experience, reading history, importance of each element at a particular time, and skill of the author. Additionally, factors such as the social and political climate, the amount of publicity a book receives, its critical reception, the opinions of family and friends, and the reader’s own point of view all affect the way a reader experiences a title (22).

(Wyatt,Neal. The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Nonfiction, 2007)

Benchmark Title: Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City
Minutes from November Discussion

Notes from 11/24/09 meeting of NMRLS RA RT

The next genre will be Gentle reads. Leane says that Saricks has an interesting take on it. Inspirational Fiction is its own genre. You may also want to look more closely at Christian Fiction…you should consider it since it is HUGE. Leane mentioned certain authors, Tracy Peterson, Laurie Wick.

There was some discussion about Duncan Smith’s talk at Methuen in October and reference to his RUSA article (sent to everyone by email attachment). Nanci commented on the Historical Fiction title her group will be reading, The Red Tent and said the next choice will be The Other Boleyn Girl.

Tricia talked about the results of her RA group. They are doing Fantasy and the first benchmark title was Daughter of the Forest. It seems that it is good to choose a book that most can get into and you should try to get some positive response the first time your staff begins to read their chosen genre. Tricia says you need to keep them on board and stress the need to build their skill level to understand the genre. Tricia says her staff did not really understand much about the fantasy genre. After the first discussion, some people began to understand the appeal factors.

Nanci says it is mandatory that Methuen staff participate if they are on a public service desk. Because Methuen had Duncan Smith come in and address 22 people and later will have Leane come to talk to staff, she feels they have become more involved in the study.

Leane says the worst part of the genre study is you have to allow for certain people who will never “buy in” to the study. However, by in large, your (staff) will walk away from the process having much more. It isn’t going to be perfect but they will be much closer to comprehending their goals. Not everyone is going to do it but it is a basic skill that everyone will gain…so people are not making that face.(Assumption of that response at the desk when someone asks if you can help them find a book). When Danvers announced its next subgenre as Epic High Fantasy-there was a lot of grumbling. They are doing their study two months apart (Danvers)

In Methuen staff voted on the genre; suggestion was made that MBLC trainer Debbie Walsh will share Biblical historical fiction with them if asked. Nancy devised an approach to Historical Fiction where they will read every five weeks using the following schedule: British Isles, Europe, Americas, Adventures, Romances, Mysteries.

Romance is often the least favorite genre among staff. Shelley mentioned that at the MBLC training in October only 3 out of 21 participants admitted to reading Romance but among the general public 40% of readers read Romance. The observation was made that there is a group of people who read Non Fiction because they think it is better quality material. This does not mean that some people do read NF for pleasure. Leane mentioned a recent Carole King, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell biography (Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller) that she liked but stated Devil in the White City was a good benchmark title [for narrative nonfiction).

Eileen commented that she likes to read nonfiction because of the way people live, it helps you understand the world, get information, learn something she would not have known, and to live through someone’s experience. You are experiencing a point of view.

Leane said she likes to read to know why someone would do something. Nanci says she reads both fiction and NF but she only reads narrative non fiction. People who come from an extensive fiction background probably need narrative NF. The trend in NF is that more and more seems to be written in narrative like Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert which helps one to understand another culture, or Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. Sometimes people like to read in-depth about current issues such as the financial situation, global warming, experiments in medical science. Eileen says she likes to understand “how we got here”.

People read NF who are searching for self education. Gave example of the Tom Friedman book Hot, Flat, and Crowded. Leane commented on a fellow staff member who is looney for ET stuff. She wants the non fiction books about it. This is a staffer who doesn’t care about the narrative structure. Leane and Nanci both read to escape.

Some people are looking into things because they want to understand. Tricia mentioned the NF which focuses on one thing like Cod or Salt (both by Mark Kurlansky). This is called microhistory. Leane used the Salt title with her book group and said many of this type of book reflects the artistry of the writer. When she used it with her group it generated a discussion about what people like in non fiction. Leane observed that it was very valuable what Neal Wyatt wrote in her discussion of the “story continuum.” The question was: Is it a garnish or the “meal”? Leane put a summary of the nonfiction handout by Neal Wyatt up on the on the wiki.

Began discussion of The Devil in the White City (DWC) Leane asked if people felt the book was readable.

Mary found it was overwhelming in one place…all the details were confusing. Jan felt not so much unreadable but uninvolving. Looking back at it she wished she had known more about why Holmes did what he did.

Nanci liked the Holmes’ chapters better [than the Architect chapters]. She liked the alternating points of view. Becky found the architecture parts less interesting but liked the parts about the World’s Fair better. Mary said if this were presented as a work of mystery fiction it would be hard to believe it could have happened. Leane said that Walker had written a work of mystery fiction novel based on this story. Robert W. Walker’s City for Ransom (2005). BTW, I have attached here a link to the Morton Grove Public Library’s reading list for World’s Fair titles.. they would make a great display. [2]

Nanci said she was not disturbed about why Holmes did what he did. The book needs to speak to you as a reader. It needs to show how the characters were shaped (but Nanci reads true crime).

It was observed that this book was set in a time in the country when things are starting to change. Using all that is happening in Chicago, Larson brings it all together. He makes Chicago a character in the book. He is braiding the stories by using writers techniques that are appealing. For example, he teases the reader when he describes the person who was contracted to produce the object that would “out Eiffel “ the Eiffel Tower. Mary observed that one can’t imagine the lack of communication so many years ago. People were disappearing and there was no way to find out what was happening to them.

Discussion about how individual readers approached the book. For example Frances Millet was introduced at the beginning of the book as being on the Titanic and Shelley had to immediately look up to see if he had drowned (he did). This demonstrates an experience of how some readers may approach reading non fiction when they have the ability to check their facts.

Aside from the slowness (a spot [in the book] somewhere) many felt the title was pretty gruesome. Leane observed that To kill a Mockingbird has some very sickening and violent content but is more psychological. Yes, there is depravity in The Devil in the White City and this may be off-putting to some readers.

You could tell someone to read alternate chapters. Mary was most upset about the disappearance of the little girls. She said it was ironic that HH Holmes was caught because of the fraud and insurance scam and not the murders. This was one of the first documented cases of society dealing with a serial killer.

Discussion about how Holmes got away with it. He had different contractors build different parts of the building. Today the authorities would know what to look for. It wasn’t just a plain homicide.

There was discussion about what type of book the reader is in the mood for. Each reader is looking for the book that focuses on how they want to read the story.

It has to be a good story with the quality of reporting details. Some people felt there was too much detail; for example: about the architecture (However, this is individual taste). Some people wanted more visual accompaniment. The book Operation Jericho [a fictional YA novel by Joshua Mowll]was mentioned as a good example of fiction that makes up the maps, letters, phots, etc. Leane mentioned other Larson titles: Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (1999) which is about the Galveston flood, a weather book. It is another book you come away with knowledge and other things happen in that book. Also title that is told in another way is Thunderstruck which alternates the story of Marconi’s quest for the first wireless transatlantic communication amid scientific jealousies and controversies with the tale of a mild-mannered wife murderer caught as a result of the invention.

What else about DWC makes it a compelling read? Tatiana commented on how Larson used hooks for the reader. Question about how does the author do that in non fiction? There was discussion about the use of narrative description in a work of NF. For example: Larson mentioned that Holmes “was sweating”. For some readers if this were a work of historical fiction they could accept it. Others think it is believable if you are developing the character. Others felt Larson could not possibly know what Holmes was thinking. For some it was hard to believe how Larson knew what Holmes was thinking or what emotions he might have had (although he did leave three diaries or accounts but probably lied in some of what he wrote). Some readers will allow for it, some will believe, and others with reject it.

Mary mentioned that Holmes kept the letters from the little girl. As people began to get closer and closer to the truth, Holmes seemed to try to see how far he could go.

Elective Titles (Should all be posted by readers on Wiki).

Mary read The Poet and the Murderer by Simon Worrell that took place in Amherst and involved the Jones Library. They had to go to auction and raise money to buy a lost poem by Emily Dickinson. It was discovered that the poem had gone through the hands of a master forger, There is a connection with the Mormans. This murderer also has blue eyes, too. (A reference to Larson’s description of HH Holmes). This took place in 1980s.

[Shelley read John Berendt’s City of Venice.See her summary under Elective titles.

Eileen read Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge which is set in Utah in the 1980’s. She stressed that the writer was a naturalist in residence in Utah; she became the matriarch of her family because everyone had died of cancer because of nuclear testing. This story is beautifully written and as part of her grieving process the author writes about the bird sanctuary on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. Apparently birds’ eggs were breaking up and nests were being destroyed. The author uses the bird sanctuary and nature to help herself heal. It is more of a memoir. It reflects environmental concerned literature such as that started by Rachel Carson. The appeal in this title is language, and the descriptions are wonderful, She likes the character of the author. Some reference made to another title by Alan Weisman, The World Without Us which talks about what happens when you abandon a house, [a city’s infrastructure, etc. Excellent environmental writing. Leane’s note]

Tatjana read Blue Latitudes by Tony Horowitz. It follows the voyages of Captain Cook who went around the world three times. Horowitz tries to recapture what Cook was going through in Polynesia and what has happened to these places since then. Cook was a bit mysterious. He kept a diary, but there were not a lot of memorials for all his travels. This is a travel memoir and the appeal is setting and character. The tone is thoughtful and follows each of his journeys. Another title mentioned was Alone Across the Atlantic by Jerry Spease who traveled in a small sailboat across the Atlantic in a boat he built himself.

Jan read Stephen Puleo’s Dark Tide, the true story of the Molasses flood in Boston’s North End. Puleo focuses on individual characters (he uses real characters). There is plenty of testimony that he draws on but he does use some fiction techniques. He describes the building of the tank. He includes testimony from the treasurer of the company and timelines; There was a civil trial where people were trying to sue for damages. May appeal to people who have read The Given Day by Dennis Lehane which is fiction from the same period. Also it is set against the backdrop of WWI. The reader can follow the trial or court case which is often a good unifying device in these stories.

[Leane also read The Poet and the Murderer by Simon Worrell. As well as listened to Tony Horvitz’s Blue Latitudes, and mentioned that a good readalike for Horvitz is Bill Bryson commenting on the narrator as traveler character, descriptions of the places & people, and humorous element in both. Also listened to Bryson’s “In a Sunburned Country.”]

Nanci read Fiend by Harold Schecter. This is true crime about a young boy named Jessie Pomeroy. As a young serial killer, he started with animals, moves on to killing younger children. There is some Boston connection. His mother suspects that he is behind the disappearance of some missing children. His mother moves the family but the murders continue in the new location. It is set in the 1870’s. He is sent away after murdering 12; sentenced to life in solitary confinement) sent to prison farm. There is a tie in with Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. Other titles mentioned were The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester and Longitude by Dava Sobel.

Rebecca also read Dark Tide and another title called A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel. This is memoir and is written as interconnected series of vignettes. [Sweeter, cozier Glass Castle.] Other titles mentioned were The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, and Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres.

Michelle read Lady in Red by Hallie Rubenhold. This is the true story of Lady Seymour Fleming. She was valued because she had money and married someone titled name Worsley. She was sued for being in “criminal conversation” with another man, not her husband and he demanded 30 million dollars (in today’s terms). In the end there was a trial which takes up a great deal of the meat of the book. The Duchess of Devonshire who was the subject of a recent feature film is a character in the book.

Tricia read The Lost City of Z by David Grann. This is the story about Percy Fawcett who was an Amazonian explorer; he wanted to find a fabled city in the Jungle (Mato Grosso, Brazil). He was secretive about his plans and his expedition was reported as missing. A number of people tried to find out what had happened to him. Supposedly more than 100 people have died following up on this expedition. [Readers who enjoy this may like Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief.

[Other nonfiction titles mentioned were: Learning Joy from Dogs Without Collars a memoir by Lauralee Summer; Jen Lancaster’s Bitter is the New Black, Join Me by Danny Wallace, and Gerald Durrell’s essays.]

[Members felt that if we were to read nonfiction titles again perhaps we should try memoir, microhistory, travel writing (women’s travel is a subgenre), food writing–all popular with our patrons.]

Shelley Quezada Nov 25, 2009

Choose your second read from Leane’s list:

Second Titles

Simon Worrell’s The Poet and the Murderer would appeal to anyone who is interested in the psychological make-up of a master criminal and the art of forgery. It also contains local color for those interested in Massachusetts—specifically Amherst and Emily Dickinson. As you learn of this master forger’s many crimes (including murders), you also learn a great deal about the Mormons. This is not a page-turner but the author does reel you in by moving from the forgery’s detection to the forger and back again. On the Narrative Continuum of 1-10, I’d give this a 5. APPEAL: Characterization/Plot/Subject

Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country was a delightful listen. He narrates this himself and is quite funny. The author tells his personal travel tale to Australia with humor and zest as he educates the listener on this intriguing country. Bryson is a character himself. On the Narrative Continuum of 1-10, I’d give this a 8. APPEAL: Characterization/Subject/Humor

Lost City of Z ~ David Grann
David Grann is a reporter for the New Yorker Magazine who likes to write about people who are obsessed with one thing or another, so writing about Percy Fawcett’s obsession with the Amazon rainforest and a lost civilization in that region was a perfect assignment for him. Grann gives the reader a wonderful look at Fawcett’s personality and career. He was one of the last “gentleman explorers” as exploration became more academic in nature. After Fawcett disappears on his last highly secretive journey to find his lost civilization that he referred to only as “Z”, the mystery of his disappearance sparked another obsession among a variety of people who were determined to find out what happened to Fawcett. As far as obsessions go, this is a dangerous one. As many as 100 people have died looking for Fawcett and his lost city. Ultimately Grann, who takes the elevator to his second floor apartment and has never gone camping in his life, is drawn to the Amazon. His experiences interspersed among those of Fawcett and his followers made this fast-paced adventure story more compelling. His characters are fully-developed and there are some interesting secondary characters. Grann really knows how to tell a story so that you can’t put it down. After reading the preface, I was in for the long-haul and the ending took me by surprise. I think this book would have a great deal of cross-over appeal for fiction reader’s who like adventure, history and armchair travel.

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams
A beautifully written story of family and nature. At thirty-seven, Terry Tempest Williams became the matriarch of her family as the women had all died from cancer due to the fallout from the nuclear testing done by the American government in the Nevada dessert in the 1980’s. As TTW’s tries to move through her grief, she takes the reader on a journey of healing through the telling of dual stories. One is the story of her family, especially that of her mother, while the other is of the bird life in the sanctuaries along the shores of the Great Salt Lake as the water levels rose to unprecedented heights in the early 1980’s destroying their habitats. Although this may sound depressing, it is a truly moving book and so gracefully written that it is a joy to read it.

Appeal Factors: Perfect for a person going through their own grief and healing process. Also, it is a soul-feeding book as TTW writes about nature, even the destructive aspect, so beautifully.

The Poet and the Murderer, by Simon Worrall. Some interesting parallels with The Devil in the White City: wanting power and control over others, having no remorse, and, what about the blue eyes? There was “localness,” i.e., the story starts and ends in Amherst with Emily Dickinson. Appeal: Pace, character, stranger than fiction.

John Berendt. City of Falling Angels. Penguin, 2005. Berendt explores the dark side of Venice just as he treated Savannah, GA in his best selling Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Starting with the spectacular burning of the historic La Fenice Opera House, Berendt weaves together a series tales anchored by the trial of the arsonists who were accused of starting the fire. Woven into the narrative are side stories about the famous, Ezra Pound and Peggy Guggenheim and the not so famous, workmen and tradespeople who have made Venice their home. Quirky (real life characters) and a compelling, if convoluted story make this a page turner for those who have been lucky enough (like I) to visit this watery city or for those who need to fulfill their personal goal to “see Venice and die”.

Dark Tide: the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo
In January 1919 a hastily built steel tank collapsed releasing a 15 foot tide of molasses into a Boston neighborhood, killing people and animals, and destroying lives, businesses and homes. At the time, molasses was a key ingredient in rum and explosives. In a very personal way, Puleo outlines the events and decisions leading up to this catastrophe, the events themselves and the aftermath. The most effective part of this book is the context. Puleo clearly outlines: immigrant prejudice, anarchists, WWI, prelude to Prohibition, and the effects of Big Business on communities and workers.

This narrative is very readable because Puleo interweaves the events with the impact on individual lives. He has taken testimony and blended it with his factual backbone to make it both grounded and personal. Dark Tide should appeal to general readers of nonfiction, readers of historical fiction, and can be tied into a discussion/read of Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day.

Appeal: Characters, setting, pace (using short segments and lots of date markers, the structure is almost like a thriller.)

Dark Tide by Stephen Puleo
In 1919, 21 people in Boston’s North End were killed by a tidal wave of gooey molasses. This is the first full-length book ever written on the subject, by historian Stephen Puleo.

Puleo has researched the flood extensively and is quite good at setting the scene. The book is split roughly into three parts; in the first, Puleo tells us about the tank’s construction, a hurried one with little regard for safety. He also brings us into the minds of the eventual victims, mostly working-class immigrants, as they go about their days in the year or so prior to the tank’s collapse. In the second part, Puleo describes the tank’s actual collapse in minute detail. In the third, Puleo covers the trial of United States Industrial Alcohol, or USIA–the owners of the tank, against a group of plaintiffs–the families of the dead and injured.

At times, reading this book, I could swear I was reading a novel. Puleo manages to please both fiction and non-fiction readers alike by weaving in rich narratives of different individuals along with quite a few facts about the historical and political landscape of the mid-1910’s to the mid-1920’s. He goes into the very active anarchist movement in Boston at that time, as well as the famous Sacco-Vanzetti trial. Reading the book, 1919 begins to feel very much like 2009: Big Business corporations pitted against the little guy; issues of immigrants’ rights; the safety of residents in low-income areas; the anti-war sentiment. Appeal: Characters (Puleo takes care to make them interesting); pace (fluid yet factual and informative writing style) ; subject (quirky and interesting, like The Devil in the White City)