Friday, January 8, 2016

Fiction for Non-Fiction Lovers

For whatever reason, I am a pretty staunch fiction reader. It's rare that I'll pick up a non-fiction book for pleasure reading, regardless of the subject matter. There's no real reason for this, as I have certainly enjoyed non-fiction in the past, but I just consistently gravitate toward the fiction section. Recently, I've stumbled across a few books that I like to think of as fiction for non-fiction readers. These books read like a biography or autobiography, to the point that I finished them feeling as if I had gained a little more historical knowledge. They were captivating, detailed, and interspersed with real people and facts. If you're a fan of realistic or historical fiction, a lover of biography, or someone who's looking to make the leap from non-fiction, these books could be for you!

Sweet Caress by William Boyd has been described as being a "literary trickster," and I definitely have to agree. Boyd tells the story of fictional photographer Amory Clay, a fearless and immensely talented woman, who spent her entire life defying conventions. Her career began when her uncle took her on as his assistant, and while this instills in her a love for the camera, she quickly realizes that shooting high-society events is not where her passion lies. So, she finds herself in the sex clubs of 1920's Berlin, attempting to capture a scandal that will make her name in the photography world.
When this abruptly backfires, she travels to New York to begin working for a magazine, which eventually brings her back to Europe where she discovers her true calling and passion - war photography. Amory goes on to lead several love affairs, photograph two different wars, marry Scottish aristocracy, have two daughters, and live a very long, very accomplished life. Reading this novel is like reading an autobiography, it is so richly detailed and Boyd manages to pepper the story with real people and (of course) real events. He even goes so far as to include 70 vintage photographs throughout the text, attributing them to Amory herself. This novel is compelling and nostalgic, taking historical fiction to the next level.

The fiction debut of non-fiction writer Susan Gilman, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street tells the story of Lillian Dunkle, the self-professed Ice Cream Queen of America. When we first meet her, Lillian is aging and extremely wealthy, however she is also in a bit of trouble with the law and the empire she has spent her entire life building is threatening to crumble around her.Born Malka Treynovsky, she is brought to New York by her Russian parents in the early 20th century. Soon after landing in America, she is run over by a horse cart in the city streets. When her father disappears and
her mother goes insane, Malka finds herself disfigured, crippled, and orphaned. Taking pity on the girl, Salvatore Dinello (ice cream man and owner of the cart in question) brings her home, transforms her into an Italian Catholic, and teaches her everything he knows about ice cream. Years later, when she marries Jewish Albert Dunkle, she is kicked out of the family and the new couple decide to open an ice cream company to rival the now prosperous Dinello's. And that's just what they do. Through hard work and good luck, Dunkle's Famous Ice Cream becomes a household name and Lillian herself is the face of the company. While the story of Lillian Dunkle and her ice cream empire is totally fictitious, Gilman has written it in such a way that when I was finished reading it, I felt like I knew everything about the history of soft-serve ice cream. Of course, the truth was that I knew very little, but that just goes to show how engaging and effective this darkly humorous novel is.

In the engaging and personal Half-Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel, Jeanette Walls tells the story of her real life grandmother, Lily Casey Smith. While this is a true story, Walls has pieced it together from multiple sources, filled in the gaps with her own imagination, and given the role of narrator to Smith herself. Because of this, it cannot be called a work of non-fiction, but it's about as close to it as fiction can get. "Lily survived tornadoes, droughts, floods, the Great Depression, and the most heartbreaking personal tragedy. She bristled at prejudice of all kinds - against women, Native Americans, and anyone else who didn't fit the mold. Rosemary Smith Walls always told Jeannette that she was like her grandmother, and in this true-life novel, Jeannette Walls channels that kindred spirit. Half Broke Horses is Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults, as riveting and dramatic as Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa or Beryl Markham's West with the Night. Destined to become a classic, it will transfix readers everywhere." - Publisher

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