Tag Archives: nonfiction

Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson

Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson: In 1900, one of the deadliest hurricanes in American history leveled the city of Galveston, Texas. This story is as much about the weather as it is about the troubled beginnings of the National Weather Bureau and turn-of-the-century American culture in general. The tale is intricately woven and exquisitely detailed, blunt and unflinchingly tragic but never gratuitous. It’s fascinating and maddening and hard to put down. I wish my edition had photographs in it, especially since the text makes so many references to them, but to be honest I was able to picture most of it in my mind without any trouble. This was written before Katrina; I wonder how it would have been different after, with that so fresh in the mind for comparison. Anyone with an interest in severe weather or the time period would get quite a lot out of this one. Lucky for me, I happen to have an interest in both.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Long Quiet Highway by Natalie Goldberg

Long Quiet Highway by Natalie Goldberg: I first discovered Goldberg in a college creative writing class that used Writing Down the Bones as a textbook. I instantly fell in love with her gentle-yet-firm “just write it” philosophy. I read several of her other writing books and her novel, but am only now getting to her autobiographical works. Here, she talks mostly about her life as a Buddhist and her relationship with her teacher while she lived in Minnesota. It’s actually a really interesting glimpse into a life that is so completely foreign to me. I’ve never lived in a hippie neighborhood or taught sixth graders or spent entire days in meditation or even ever visited the parts of New Mexico, Minnesota, and New York where Goldberg lived. This is certainly not an exciting book by any stretch of the imagination, but I really enjoyed joining Goldberg on this quiet journey from childhood through love and loss until finally finding her true home.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Don’t Know Much about Geography by Kenneth C. Davis

Don’t Know Much About Geography by Kenneth C. Davis (unabridged audiobook; 13 hrs on 10 discs): This was just the book I was looking for. Geography is a science not just of place names and boundaries, but of politics and culture and environment and history. I learned tons about exploration and wars and colonization and weather and climate and more, all in bite-sized chunks that somehow managed to be very accessible without talking down to the reader. I never felt embarrassed by my lack of knowledge, and it opened my eyes to a number of subjects I never knew could be interesting. Definitely recommended as a solid introduction.

A note on the audio: There are six narrators credited here. Joe Ochman read about 95% of this book. Paul Boehmer read the “geographic voices” quotes. Kenneth C. Davis read the introduction. The rest of the folks read some (but not all) of the chapter titles. I have absolutely no idea why they were included, but I wish they hadn’t been, since changing narrators is kind of jarring.

The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs

The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs: A man decides to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover. This was not quite the book I thought it was going to be. I expected it to be a lot of commentary on the information itself and the layout of the Britannica. And it was, in part, but it was also about Jacobs’s relationship with his father; his attempts to get on trivia game shows; enthusiasts of “intellectual” pursuits like crosswords, speed-reading, and Mensa; he and his wife’s difficulties conceiving; one-upping his perfect brother-in-law; and the constant connections he finds between his life and what he’s just read about in the encyclopedia. It was very readable and sometimes quite funny, but in the end it’s basically the diary of a magazine editor who decides to do something bizarre. He never says anything of the sort, but I could not shake the feeling that writing this book was a significant part of his motivation behind the project. Still, I did enjoy the random trivia shared here and there. If nothing else, it convinced me that I have exactly no desire whatsoever to read the Encyclopedia Britannica myself. So Jacobs has saved me a whole bunch of time.

P.S. – The back cover refers to “10 billion years of human history”. Um. Humans have been around less than a million years; latest estimates say about 200,000.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

The Law of Superheroes by James Daily and Ryan Davidson

The Law of Superheroes by James Daily and Ryan Davidson: The concept is clever: take superhero stories and apply real-world US law to them. Could someone testify in court while concealing their true identity? How does property law work for immortal beings? Does Superman have to file flight plans with the FAA? Not only is it a fun take on familiar comic book characters but it’s also a very good introduction to law in general. Parts are a bit dry, when the ratio of law to comic book leans a bit too far to the legal side, but by and large it’s very accessible and entertaining. You don’t need to be a legal scholar to appreciate follow along, and while it helps to at least be reasonably familiar with such big names as Superman, Iron Man, and the X-Men, you don’t have to be a huge comic book geek either. Definitely recommended for comic book fans looking for a broad overview of law, or even just a new way of looking at some of their favorite characters.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey

The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey: When the Duke of Rutland died in his study in 1940, his son ordered the rooms sealed. Bailey, one of the first historians allowed in, had intended to use the Duke’s meticulous record keeping to aid in a book about the experiences of the locals during World War I. What she found was three specific periods of time carefully excised from the record. This book is about her search for what happened during those times, and why he took such pains to hide it. For the most part, all is revealed. I found it much more interesting than I’d expected. There aren’t any grisly murders or anything truly sensational hidden in those lost months, but the aristocratic intrigue was fun to detangle. Fans of Downton Abbey would probably enjoy this, as it takes place during the same time period (the 1910s).

Also posted on BookCrossing.

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson (unabridged audiobook read by Alan Sklar; 8.5 hrs on 7 discs): In 1854, London suffered a terrible cholera epidemic in the area around Broad Street. This is the story of its investigation, primarily by anesthetist Dr. John Snow and local curate Rev. Henry Whitehead. This took place before the germ theory of disease had really caught on, with many believing in the miasma theory – that is, that disease was caused by bad air. Snow’s assertion that cholera is a waterborne pathogen was met with heavy resistance. In addition, Snow’s map of cholera deaths was groundbreaking in the fields of information design and epidemiology. There were definitely parts of this book you don’t want to read while eating – cholera is a nasty disease and sewers aren’t exactly the most appetizing of subjects – but all in all it’s a fascinating discussion of the event and subsequent study. Books like this are my favorite mode of learning.

A note on the audio: At first I was a little concerned about an American narrator reading a book about an event that happened in England, but Sklar was great.

Standing Up by Marion Grodin

Standing Up by Marion Grodin: Though the author of this memoir is a stand-up comedian, this book is not funny. It has its moments, of course, especially at the very end, but by and large it’s a rather heart-wrenching tale of love, grief, addiction, illness, and loss. Grodin grows up in New York, the daughter of actor Charles Grodin and his extraordinarily needy ex-wife Julia. She has complicated relationships with her parents, years of drug abuse, and general aimlessness before she finally decides she wants to be a comedian. I liked reading this – I found it interesting to read about a life so strikingly different from my own – but it is not the same sort of memoir as, say, Laurie Notaro or Jen Lancaster. It is not a series of amusing anecdotes with the occasional touching scene, but rather a series of tragedies with the occasional joke thrown in. Parts of it, particularly when Grodin deals with cancer (her mother’s and her own), can be very inspiring, but do not come into this thinking it’s going to be a laugh-a-minute romp. It simply isn’t.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

The Book of Times by Lesley Alderman

The Book of Times by Lesley Alderman: As one might expect, this is a collection of assorted factoids about time – more specifically, how people spend their time. It’s not nearly as interesting as I’d hoped. For one thing, almost all the data is from surveys, and many of those are from internet surveys, and we all know how accurate those are. The results are often contradictory as well: for example, on one page we learn that smoking takes nine years off your life, but just two pages later we learn it’s only four. This general lack of continuity isn’t helped any by the large number of typos, some quite prominent. How long do rock banks last? I didn’t understand until I read the list and realized it was supposed to be rock bands. In short, unless you are desperate for a book of trivia about how people may or may not actually spend their time, I’d suggest giving this one a miss.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach (unabridged audiobook read by Sandra Burr; 10.5 hrs on 9 discs): I have never wanted to be an astronaut. The notion of having nothing between you and the vacuum of space but a thin wall is absolutely terrifying. I don’t want to worry about using the toilet while weightless or eat food from a tube or go weeks without bathing. I am also prone to motion sickness. That said, it’s still interesting to read about the challenges involved in propelling man out past the atmosphere. I liked a lot of the history, but unfortunately the majority of the facets of space life covered here have to do with vomit and feces. I understand how important those two things are in these sorts of conditions, but it got really old. Not something I’d recommend to the casual reader, but if you’re hoping to become an astronaut, it could serve as a much-needed warning for what you’re getting yourself into.

A note on the audio: I dislike Burr’s fiction narration intensely, but she reads nonfiction like this very well.

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