Arts » Books

Who says nonfiction can't be entertaining?

comment

Summer 2010 has seen the re-release of some remarkable, and remarkably accessible, nonfiction books. Any of these four new paperbacks would make engaging, lively, out of the ordinary beach reading. Pick one up and see why very often, fiction's story appeal more than meets its match in real life.

American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot by Craig Ferguson (It Books, $15.99). Here's a book that was woefully under-publicized in hardback. It's a real rarity: a terrific celebrity autobiography -- written entirely by the celeb himself, no less. Craig Ferguson, the host of The Late Late Show on CBS, is a recovering alcoholic, a smartass workaholic, at times rashly impulsive, and, luckily, a fine writer: honest, irreverent, reflective and dead-on hilarious. The book is fast-paced and riddled with snarky, funny asides, which, in their own way, give readers an insight into how Ferguson survived his rough upbringing in a suburban "shit-pile" outside Glasgow. As a teenager, he visited an uncle in New York City, fell in love with America's peculiar energy, and determined to live in the U.S. one day. He went home, quit school at 16, worked various jobs, got drunk a lot and took a million drugs. Ferguson jokes, "I have an addictive personality. I'll try something a hundred times just to be sure I don't like it." After stints as everything from construction worker to punk rock musician to avant-garde actor, he veered into stand-up comedy, moved to L.A. in 1994, and got a break when he landed a choice slot as Drew Carey's boss, Mr. Wick, in Carey's sitcom. Ferguson is bracingly honest about his relationship problems and what a lousy mate he's been, but his book is by no means the usual celeb pity party. In fact, one of the most refreshing things about American On Purpose is that unlike many Hollywood stories, Ferguson's doesn't include self-pity, blame, kissing-and-telling, sudden enlightenment, or Jesus-in-a-blinding-flash. What you get is just a decent, very talented, funny guy with manic energy who grew up hard and made his way, making tons of mistakes in the process. By the way, in January 2008, Ferguson became a U.S. citizen (after answering one of the test questions, "Who wrote the Star-Spangled Banner," with "Francis Scott Key and Puff Daddy").

I'm Down by Mishna Wolff (St. Martin's Griffin, $13.99). So you think you felt out of place while growing up? Read I'm Down, and you'll get a broader perspective on just how odd "not fitting in" can be. Wolff grew up in the early '80s in Seattle with her father, a white man who lived his life as if he were black, and wanted -- no, expected -- her to "act black," too. Her dad, a frustrated, and frankly confusing, anti-establishment guy, moved with Mishna and her younger sister to a poverty-stricken African-American neighborhood. Wolff's tale of adjusting to her rough surroundings by learning the art of trading insults and becoming a championship-caliber wit is refreshing, strange and eye-opening.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (Vintage, $15,95). This was one of our favorite books of 2009. Fiction prodigy Eggers switched to narrative nonfiction to tell the true, closely observed story of one New Orleans family and their experiences of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. When Katrina hit New Orleans and levees broke, a successful contractor named Abdulrahman Zeitoun (pronounced Zay-toon) decided to stay through the hurricane and protect his home and business. In the days following the storm, he paddled the city in a canoe, helping those he could and handing out supplies. Then, all of a sudden, he disappeared. Zeitoun is as all-American a book as can be, tragic and funny and everything in between, a work of wide vision, and a clear portrait of individual courage in the face of official stupidity. The irony is that this all-American book's main character is a Syrian immigrant whose courage and love of his adopted city were most obvious during a time of post-9/11 national paranoia. Eggers penetrates both the goodness in America's psyche as well as its darker dysfunctions in times of crisis.

K Blows Top by Peter Carlson (Public Affairs, $14.95).

Lively, smart popular history at its best, K Blows Top is about the first example of modern media frenzy. It relates the insanity, screw-ups, scary temper tantrums, goofy misunderstandings and compelling cultural conflicts that utterly mesmerized America when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev visited the U.S. for two weeks in 1959. K's visit -- highlighted by veiled nuclear threats and the premier's harsh outbursts when told he couldn't visit Disneyland -- was one of the grandest, most outlandish and surreal spectacles of the Cold War, and Carlson captures the odd ambience of the time perfectly.

Add a comment