Archive for the 'Nonfiction' Category

Wednesday, September 12th, 2007

Well, not really. Eats, Shoots & Leaves is only about pandas in that there’s one on the cover and involved in the joke that is the title. It’s really just a concise, funny, and detailed look at the effect punctuation has on the English language. The humor of it is probably more satisfying if you’re one of those people (like me) who cringes when you see a sign in the grocery store that says “Sale: Apple’s”, but everyone will find something to giggle at and something to learn from this book. Check it out — if you’re a college student, and read this one, you’ll find a lot less red pen on your papers. And if you’re a professor, you might find more places to put that red pen.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss.

Tuesday, May 29th, 2007

Title:Imperium
Author:Kapuściński, Ryszard
Genre:non-fiction

Why I liked this book: What a time to be a reporter with access to the Soviet Union. Kapuscinski, a Polish journalist with a reputation built on his reporting from corners of the third world, turned his attention to his large neighbor as it was coming apart. He travels from Azerbaijan and Armenia to Vorkuta and Kolyma, and places in between. He has a keen eye for the absurd, and the details that capture the essence of the human situation in each locale. He knows the history, and the weight that history still brings to bear on the people. He has called what he does, “literature by foot” since so much is on the scene reports.

What you sense most when you read, in addition to the outrage that so much suffering has been inflicted, is his compassion for the people still trying to live in these environmentally and politically blighted lands. Kapuscinski is a talented storyteller. His writing brings to life these seldom visited corners of the vast Soviet empire. Many of these places are now struggling with self-governance – still burdened with the legacy of years under the Soviet yoke.

Kapuscinski died on Jan. 23, 2007, at age 74.

His other books include: The Soccer War, Another Day of Life, Shah of Shahs

Wednesday, March 21st, 2007

Title:The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Author:Michael Pollan
Genre:non-fiction

Why I liked this book: There is so much fervent and conflicting opinion about food these days – what is one to do? The author tries to take as objective a look as he can at the food system in the U.S. – from farm field to dinner plate (or styrofoam box, as the case may be.) He is not a vegetarian, but considers seriously the case made for that option. He examines the claims for organic farming, and the skeptics and opponents. He looks at the industrial food system that produces most of our food.

What makes his book most interesting is that he goes to see contrasting systems in action – on the ground, as it were. He buys a beef cow and follows it through the process from Wyoming ranch to slaughterhouse. He follows corn from the field to its many derivatives. What fascinates him most is a farm in Virginia practicing a form of integrated farming that produces a variety of foods largely without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides – where the whole operation runs on well-managed grass.

Some critics have noted mistakes, including miscalculation of the relative caloric content of a bushel of corn and a half-gallon of gasoline (which he incorrectly equates), but exact numbers are not his main point. The case he effectively makes is that the highly industrialized system that dominates food production and distribution in the U.S. (and increasingly worldwide) has hidden costs that make it unsustainable and unhealthy. Since we all eat, this is a problem that everyone should all care about, whether one reads this book or not.

In Crumb Library at GT 2850.P65 2006
The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

Title: The Intellectual Devotional: Revive Your Mind, Complete Your Education, and Roam Confidently with the Cultured Class
Author: Kidder and Oppenheim
Genre: Nonfiction

Why I liked this book: I wish I read more non-fiction, but it’s hard to find truly readable and gripping non-fiction. So I read less than I wish I did, and I have a hard time motivating myself to read more.

One page a night, though… that I can do, even on my longest, tiredest days. The Intellectual Devotional offers up one page on a different topic each day, with pithy and concise encyclopedia-style entries in seven different areas (one for each day of the week): history, literature, philosophy, mathematics and science, religion, fine arts, and music.

Because the entries are short, and written with a quiet bit of humor here and there, and some really entertaining footnotes, they’re easy to read, reflect on, and really pay attention to. Of course, because the entries are short, they’re far from comprehensive. But I’m enjoying this — I know more about Alexander the Great than I did yesterday, and I find myself reflecting, with horrified amusement, on Hammurabi’s Code of Laws. So… I’m learning. And that’s always good. And if I want to know more, I DO work in a library.

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

Title:Salonica, city of ghosts: Christians, Muslims, and Jews, 1430-1950
Author:Mark Mazower
Genre:History

Why I liked this book: The city now known as Thessaloniki, Greece has had a remarkable history. Situated very strategically, on the eastern shore of the Balkan peninsula, the city was a crossroads for Greek, eastern Mediterranean, Turkish, Albanian, and Slavic peoples. It also became a major destination for Jews expelled from western Europe at the end of the 15th century. The interrelationships among these groups were complex, but often in surprising ways. Religion was clearly a recurring issue, but toleration was more common than not. Business interests often exerted a stronger influence than ethnic or religious ones – until the German occupation of the 1940s.

This book takes the story of the city from the time it began to become an important port, through the centuries of Ottoman rule, the Greek-Turkish partition which brought the Greeks to power, and to the atrocities of the second world war. It is a vast story, but one that illustrates very well some of the major forces at work in modern history. In addition to the broad picture, the narrative includes personal histories that show how the great forces play out in the lives of individuals. 490 p.

In Crumb Library at DF951.T45 M39 2006

Monday, December 11th, 2006

Title:The fly in the cathedral
Author:Brian Cathcart
Genre:non-fiction

Why I liked this book: Some of the most amazing stories have been the true tales of scientific discovery. Tell them well, and the drama comes through along with the science. The Fly in the Cathedral is the story of the men and women who first probed (literally) the atomic nucleus to try to discover what was there and how it was built. The central characters are the handful of men who worked under the formidable Sir Ernest Rutherford at the Cavendish laboratories in Cambridge, England. Between 1919 and 1932 the secrets of the nucleus were slowly unraveled, and physics moved into the era of big apparatus (cyclotrons, linear accelerators, etc.). The work of the theoretical physicists – Einstein et al. – has been famously celebrated. This is the tale of those who labored with primitive equipment to gather the experimental data that the theorists needed.
The story includes the many failures and mis-directions, the competing teams of experimental physicists around the globe, and the personal lives of those most involved. Among those who play a role are the very biggest names in modern physics – Bohr, Heisenberg, Curie, Gamow, Dirac, de Broglie. But the heroes of this tale are no less interesting for being less well known. James Chadwick, John Cockcroft, and Ernest Walton provide perfect opportunities to look into the life of science at the dawn of the nuclear age.

In Crumb Library: Q 141.C2525 2005

Tuesday, August 29th, 2006

Title: Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier
Author: Joanna Stratton
Genre: Non-fiction

Why I liked this book: From the first time I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, I’ve been fascinated with the pioneer days — with the idea that people would pick up everything they had, leave everyone they knew and loved, and travel to the wilderness to set up a new home, a new livelihood, and a new life. Such a risk! Such danger! From the comfort of my modern American life, it’s always been almost unimaginable. Part of what the Little House series did for me was make the unimaginable into something almost tangible. Pioneer Women does the same thing, but with a harder, less sanitized view of the prairie. This book isn’t written for children, so it doesn’t gloss over the starvation, the danger, the politics, the wars, or the hardship. What it does do is take the heart of hundreds of letters, memoirs, diaries, and personal writings of the women who settled Kansas and share them with the reader — the good, the bad, all of it. The reality.

Letters and memoir are, of course, tinged with the emotions, desires, distance of time, and envisioned audience of she who wrote them, but even accepting those biases these are affecting stories of hardship, perseverance, and joy. I found this a fascinating read, like a window into another world.

Wednesday, May 24th, 2006

Title:A Woman in Berlin
Author:Anonymous
Genre:journal

Why I liked this book: First published in 1954, this book has just been reissued, and is now finding a more appreciative audience. This book was just too vivid an account, too soon after the events, to be welcomed when it first appeared. Berlin during the first weeks of Russian occupation at the end of the war was a harrowing time – especially for the women. The keeper of this journal, an intelligent and perceptive woman, was convinced to publish (albeit anonymously) only after many years. What she had to do to survive, and to help other women do the same, is plainly told. No one is vilified. The journal ends as Berlin begins to claw its way out of chaos. In Crumb Library you will find the original edition of 1954. The author reportedly died in 2001.

Monday, May 1st, 2006

Title: Persepolis
Author: Marjane Satrapi
Genre: Memoir

Why I liked this book: Satrapi’s memoir of her life from ages 6-13 is a story worth reading in a time when we could all benefit from learning more about Iran, revolutionary governments, and the human toll of war. To quote from the publisher’s description of this graphic novel,

Persepolis paints an unforgettable portrait of daily life in Iran: of the bewildering contradictions between home life and public life and of the enormous toll repressive regimes exact on the individual spirit. Marjane’s child’s-eye-view of dethroned emperors, state-sanctioned whippings, and heroes of the revolution allows us to learn as she does the history of this fascinating country and of her own extraordinary family.

Satrapi’s tale of her childhood is by turns an instructive lesson in the tumultuous political and cultural history of Iran, an extraordinarily funny tale of childhood and rebellion, and a gutwrenching exploration of the cost of war and regime change. Satrapi (and her translators) have written a story that, in conjunction with the stark but never spare black-and-white images, brings a sadly gripping story to life, with enough humor and familiarity that the tragic events of Iranian history don’t overwhelm the reader. But they will probably make you think, and, if you’re like me, make you wish you knew more. (Fortunately, Satrapi has continued the family saga in Persepolis 2 and Embroideries.)

Monday, January 23rd, 2006

Title: The River at the Center of the World
Author: Simon Winchester
Genre: Nonfiction

What I liked this book: I very much enjoy reading travel writing as a way to learn a bit about history, culture, landscape, and people in places I’ve never been. Travel writing is often more accessible than more scholarly approaches to a subject, and it’s almost always more colorful. Winchester’s book on the Yangtze is no exception; he paints wonderfully descriptive word-pictures of the people (rural, urban, military, commercial, Chinese, foreign) that he encounters on his journey, and his appreciation for the unique places he’s visiting, as well as the grandeur of the river he’s travelling, shines though. I also learned more about various moments in China’s history that I’ll be reading more about in some other venue — he sparked my curiosity.

What I DIDN’T like about this book: I’ve read other books by Winchester, including The Professor and the Madman, and Outposts, both of which were focused on very British topics. As a result, I’d never noticed before how personal, how British, how western, his understanding of his subjects is. When he’s talking about Britain, or explicitly about the British Empire, it’s not terribly obvious! But when he’s talking about China, it becomes clear how much his own cultural beliefs are intruding on his observations. He writes with an obvious sympathetic nostalgia about the westerners who tried to open China to trade, and with an equally obvious disdain about the Soviet and communist Chinese forces that impacted the country’s later history — and he glosses over nearly everything in between. And that bias became overwhelming for me — I was hoping for more impartiality, and his politics got in the way of my enjoyment of the book.

So, in total, if you can overlook the author’s personal feelings when they intrude into the narrative (something that, in a travel book, is entirely allowable!), this is a vivid look at a grand river, and the people who have lived on its banks.