Archive for the 'Nonfiction' Category

Friday, January 13th, 2006

The mother tongue : English & how it got that way.:
Bill Bryson:

Eats shoots and leaves:
Lynne Truss

Why I liked these books:

Bryson is always funny. As an American writer who’s spent much of his life in the U.K. , it’s a natural for him to take on our more-or-less common language. It’s been done before, and it only shows how interesting the history and current state of the language is that he can tell the tale again so well. Every time I read about the ideosyncrasies of English I’m again amazed that so many people around the world want to learn it – and even more amazing that so many learn it as a second language so well.

The phenomenal success of Lynne Truss’s book on punctuation in English again shows that we really do like our language – and want to do right by it. If you think you couldn’t possibly read an entire chapter on the semicolon; well think again. She’s certainly right that punctuation is more important than most people think. Whether her campaign to improve the punctuating of email will sell as well as her book, remains to be seen. It sure makes you more self-conscious every time you hit the key for one of those little marks.

Thursday, December 1st, 2005

Title: I Thought My Father Was God
Author: edited by Paul Auster
Genre: Non-fiction

Why I liked this book: Everyone has special stories — the ones they tell at parties, the ones they tell to make their friends laugh, the ones that they tell late at night over a bottle of wine. Stories about family, about life, about the little things that are too good to be true, or too horrible to be made up. I Thought My Father Was God is a collection of those true favorite stories of hundreds of Americans, gathered up through NPR’s National Story Project.

I’ve been listening to these stories using the audiobook, which is read by Auster himself. He has a lovely reading voice, and a strong sense of character, tone, and pacing, which makes it an easy book to listen to. But the content of some of the stories make it hard, as well. I’ve been moved to laugh out loud (on an airplane, prompting some funny looks…), smile in recognition, and suddenly begin crying, all from the stories in this collection. They showcase some of the best, the worst, the funniest, the most touching, and the most unbelievable of the things that happen to real people living real lives.

Read it. It’ll make you grin, it’ll make you grimace, and it’ll drag you in and not let go.

For more information on the National Story Project, try the following websites:
About the National Story Project at
National Story Project Archives at
Observer interview with Auster

Wednesday, October 19th, 2005

Title: Truman
Author: David McCullough
Genre: Biography

Why I liked this book: This is a big book – over 900 pages long. I am still reading it (at about page 750). David McCullough knows how to bring history alive and Harry Truman is a big subject to write about. He was actually a president during my life time, but not really in my memory, so this book fills in many gaps for me – things I have heard about, but didn’t really understand. Truman was quite an amazing man – one who totally defies stereotypes. He was a farmer, an accomplished pianist, a retailer of men’s clothing, and a military officer in World War I. He loved to read, especially history, but never went to college. He married his high school sweetheart, but not until he was in his late 30s. He failed at business and went into politics because he didn’t know what else to do, but became President of the United States. He became a politician through machine politics in Kansas City, but developed a reputation for political independence. He barely won a seat in the Senate, but captured enough attention to become FDR’s running mate in 1944, becoming President after FDR’s death in 1945. He faced some of the most difficult and significant decisions of any modern president. His campaign for the presidency in 1948 remains legendary. McCullough brings all this to life. And Harry Truman’s life and accomplishments are inspiring.

Monday, October 3rd, 2005

Title:Refuge: an unnatural history of family and place
Author:Terry Tempest Williams

Why I liked this book:This very personal book relates the parallel stories, during the mid-1980s, of the rise and fall of Great Salt Lake and the sickness and death of the author’s mother and grandmother. It is a telling full of anguish – and ultimately anger at the abuse of our environment and at betrayed trust. She asks, why should there be such destruction and pain? Is this just nature at work? Are we responsible for any of it? These are questions worth asking, but given the author’s immediate personal distress I’m not sure they get the most helpful answers.

Williams is constantly drawing connections between her personal sorrows and the greater world. This method of analysis is problematic. One feels that if her life were joyous, the earth would look radiant and healthy. “Trust your feeling. I have trusted mine.” her mother tells her. Is this really good advice? I’ve found that it’s often better to distrust your feelings – to look for the real motivation behind why you feel a certain way.

On the political side, the author does remind us how difficult it is for a rural area to resist being sacrificed for a national objective. Much if Utah is “downwind” of where much nuclear testing was done. This area, described as “virtually uninhabited” still did have many “virtual uninhabitants” – as they wryly refer to themselves. They believe they continue to suffer the effects of those years of testing. The author makes a good case that our wanton destruction of the environment is more than just ill-advised – it is killing us.

Monday, September 26th, 2005

Title:Exuberance: the passion for life
Author:Kay R. Jamison

Why I liked this book:The author claims that while much attention has been directed to the opposite end of the psychological spectrum, the end characterized by exuberance, energy, and enthusiasm has been relatively neglected. While there are obvious reasons why this should be so, she make a good case for redress. The exuberant 10% (approx.) of the population have had an influence out of proportion to their numbers. Much of the book is a recounting of the lives of persons who represent the author’s notion of exuberant personalities. Some very clever psychological experiments have been conducted to assess this phenomenon. One asked five and one-half year old children to toss a ball into a basket, from whatever distance they chose. Why did some stand close, as if to insure success, while others moved back to increase the challenge? And exuberance can even, apparently, be epidemic. The author relates one epidemic of laughter that closed 14 schools and did not fully subside for over two years.

The book is not without its annoyances. Inclining to be repetitive, the author may in fact be suffering from an excessive enthusiasm for the topic. Scan the hyperbole, and enjoy the nuggets she as assembled from the history and research on this neglected topic.

This book is in Crumb Library at: BF 575.H27 J36 2004

Saturday, September 24th, 2005

Title: Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
Author: Azar Nafisi
Genre: Autobiography/Literary Criticism

Why I liked this book:

This book is difficult to describe because it is about so many different things at once. On one level, it is an amazing account of an oppressed, educated, contemporary, group of women, who possess the courage to hold secret meetings where they study banned books under an increasingly intolerant government. As they arrive for each meeting, most of them remove the veil that they are forced to cover their faces with in public. During these meetings they discuss forbidden books, talk about their own lives, and debate about religion, politics, and the wearing of the veil. Nafisi flashes back often and rounds out the story by describing what it was like for her to live as a “privileged” professor of literature during the bombings and ever stricter laws imposed on women in Iran during the Islamic revolution.

On another level, the book contains a lot of astute literary criticism. It sheds light on possible interpretations of Nabokov’s Lolita, and even made me want to try reading some of the other books that were discussed. The literary criticism sections of this book were more interesting when they were discussing books that I had read, but even the discussions about the other books were still interesting and related to the narrative of the story.

Monday, September 12th, 2005

Title: Founding Brothers
Author: Joseph Ellis
Genre: Non-fiction

Why I liked this book: I like history served up in bite-sized chunks. I’ve never been good at reading endless narratives about what happened when and then what happened next, and what happened after that… I’m more interested in small pieces of history that illustrate how and why something happened the way it did.

This book does just that. Ellis tells about major events in American history by telling small stories. He describes the duel between Hamilton and Burr (and why they had it), he tells the story behind a dinner party in which the decision was made to move the capitol to Washington, DC, and he talks about the meaning and the politics behind the writing of Washington’s Farewell Address. And more! Each incident has its own chapter, and each small story relates to the much bigger picture of how these men, the founders of our country, came to their own conclusions about what the American Revolution meant, what they thought the government of the United States of America should look like, and what it meant to them to make the choices that they did.

After reading this book, I have a better understanding of how fragile the early American government was, and I also have a much more complete sense of who these men were as people. It seems to me that they were interesting people, who lived in interesting times. And it also seems to me that politics in this country aren’t so different now than they were then…

Founding Brothers is available in the Bregman Browsing Collection, and will be the subject of the Bregman Book Discussion on September 27.

Friday, August 12th, 2005

Title: City of Bits : Space, Place, and the Infobahn
Author: William J. Mitchell
Genre: Nonfiction

Why I liked this book: William J. Mitchell (an MIT professor of architecture, of all things) wrote this book in 1996. I had to keep that in mind as I read it, because what he predicted and described is so close to the world we live in that I kept thinking, “well, of course!” as I read. In 1996, graphical web-browsers like Netscape and Explorer were new, so it’s impressive that Mitchell could predict, with remarkable accuracy, the ways that our social and cultural lives would change when the Internet became the force it is today. His theories and predictions are based on solid research of past networking trends like railroads and telephone lines, and his analysis of how those trends will and won’t hold true for cyberspace is fascinating.

Mitchell has several books since City of Bits — including Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City and e-topia — and I’m curious to know if he’s done as good a job at predicting the near future as he did in predicting the future we’re currently living.

Friday, June 17th, 2005

Title:The piano shop on the left bank
Author:Thad Carhart

The author is an American living in Paris. His discovery of and eventual friendship with a local piano repair shop owner opens a fascinating window on life in Paris and the world of fine (and decrepit) pianos. You may find yourself wanting to take up the lessons you abandoned in childhood (as the author had), and maybe even find a place for a piano in your living room.

Thursday, June 2nd, 2005

Title: A Short History of Nearly Everything
Author: Bill Bryson
Genre: Non-fiction

This is a hefty book — the kind you can use as a doorstop or a paperweight — but its heft is just as much a result of its content as the number of pages. With this book, Bryson (a very funny man, and a smart one) sets out to describe life, the universe, and everything in a carefully and exhaustively researched scientific history of our world. Reading this book I learned hundreds of facts about quantum physics, the big bang, volcanoes, the fossil record, the evolution of scientific thought in Europe and America, astronomy, and tiny details of human history. Better than the individual facts, though, I came to understand how those tiny details fit together to form our collective understanding of science, nature, life, and, well, everything.

Bryson manages to stuff an awful lot of information into this very not-short book, but he does it with wit and style. A good (if long!) read.

Available at the Potsdam Public Library, and (soon) at Crumb Library.