Tag Archives: Nonfiction

Nonfiction To Win Over Book Club Readers @MassBook

Looking to add some nonfiction to your book club’s reading list? Try one of these Massachusetts Book Award honorees – narrative nonfiction titles selected for their literary quality and discussablity in libraries and book groups.

They’re all either written by Massachusetts authors and/or have a connection to Massachusetts, but take a look and you’ll see that the subjects of these books are wide-ranging and of broad interest. The first-place winner, The Sixth Extinction, also won the Pulitzer Prize.

In other words, you don’t have to be from the Bay State to enjoy reading these award-winning nonfiction titles with your book club!

Massachusetts Book Award 2015 Nonfiction
2015_winnerThe Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert  (Holt)cover image of The Sixth Extinction

Over the last half-billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us. In prose that is at once frank, entertaining, and deeply informed, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert tells us why and how human beings have altered life on the planet in a way no species has before.  – from the publisher

The Court-Martial of Paul Revere by Michael M. Greenburg (ForeEdge)

cover imageThe single event defining [Paul] Revere to this day is his ride from Charlestown to Lexington on the night of April 18, 1775, made famous by Longfellow’s poem of 1860. Greenburg’s is the first book to give a full account of Revere’s conduct before, during, and after the disastrous Penobscot Expedition, and of his questionable reputation at the time, which only Longfellow’s poem eighty years later could rehabilitate. Thanks to extensive research and a riveting narrative that brings the battles and courtroom drama to life, The Court-Martial of Paul Revere strips away the myths that surround the Sons of Liberty and reveals the humanity beneath. – from the publisher

John Quincy Adams by Fred Kaplan (Harper)

cover imageIn this fresh and lively biography rich in literary analysis and new historical detail, Fred Kaplan brings into focus the dramatic life of John Quincy Adams — the little known and much misunderstood sixth president of the United States and the first son of John and Abigail Adams — and persuasively demonstrates how Adams’s inspiring, progressive vision guided his life and helped shape the course of America. – from the publisher

The Map Thief by Michael Blanding  (Gotham Books)

Once considered a respectable cover imageantiquarian map dealer, E. Forbes Smiley spent years doubling as a map thief — until he was finally arrested slipping maps out of books in the Yale University library. The Map Thief delves into the untold history of this fascinating high-stakes criminal and the inside story of the industry that consumed him. – from the publisher

Other People’s Houses by Jennifer Taub  (Yale)

cover image of Other Peoples HousesIn the wake of the financial meltdown in 2008, many claimed that it had been inevitable, that no one saw it coming, and that subprime borrowers were to blame. This accessible, thoroughly researched book is Jennifer Taub’s response to such unfounded claims…. Taub chronicles how government officials helped bankers inflate the toxic-mortgage-backed housing bubble, then after the bubble burst ignored the plight of millions of homeowners suddenly facing foreclosure. – from the publisher

The Race Underground by Doug Most (St Martin’s)

cover image of The Race UndergroundDoug Most chronicles the science of the subway, looks at the centuries of fears people overcame about traveling underground and tells a story as exciting as any ever ripped from the pages of U.S. history. The Race Underground is a great American saga of two rival American cities, their rich, powerful and sometimes corrupt interests, and an invention that changed the lives of millions. – from the publisher

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Massachusetts Book Awards


The Massachusetts Book Awards is a program of Massachusetts Libraries administered by the Massachusetts Center for the Book. Find out more about your state’s Center for the Book here (USA).


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The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly: Memoirs of Traveling with Family #books

Travel memoirs are one of my favorite types of nonfiction. There’s one on this list for every mood. Some of these are literally laugh-out-loud funny; others may start you bawling before the end, or will at least bring a tear to your eye.

The list is in alphabetical order, of course.

cover imageFour Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World by Anthony Doerr (Scribner, 2007)
Before Anthony Doerr became famous for the novel All the Light We Cannot See, he had to write the book. He writes about working on it (and about not working on it) in Four Seasons in Rome, a memoir about the author’s year in Rome with a studio to write in and an apartment to live in, covered by a stipend.
Literary and lyrical except for a few episodes of parenting panic and moments when he wonders “what was I thinking when I accepted the Rome Prize with newborn twins?”, this book about reading, writing, and the terrifying and wonderful experience of being a new parent and living for a year in the heart of Rome when you don’t speak much Italian will appeal to readers of literary memoirs.

cover image audiobookIncontinent on the Continent: My Mother, Her Walker, and Our Grand Tour of Italy (Audio) by Jane Christmas, read by Eileen Barrett (PostHypnotic Press, 2009)
Incontinent on the Continent is a serio-comic travelogue about a six-week trip through Italy that the author, an adult (in her 50s) takes with her aging mother in an attempt to repair their fragile relationship before it’s too late. The dream trip turns into somewhat of a nightmare as the author’s expectations and what her mother wants to do (and is physically capable of doing) don’t coincide; the weather won’t cooperate; and the hoped-for mother/daughter bonding doesn’t come easy. The book is funny, but cringe-worthy in a lot of places.
The audiobook narration is great and, since the author learned conversational Italian in preparation for the trip, the book includes frequent snippets in Italian.
Read AudioFile review of Incontinent on the Continent

cover imageAn Innocent, a Broad by Ann Leary (William Morrow, 2004)
Back in 1990, when her husband Dennis Leary was an unknown comedian, he was hoping for his big break on a weekend jaunt to London. He got his big break, but his pregnant wife’s waters break while she’s walking down a London street. Only 26 weeks along, Ann Leary is put on bed rest, and due to the premature birth of their son, the Learys don’t return home to the U.S. for five months.
If you’ve read either of the author’s novels (The Good House, Outtakes from a Marriage) you know Ann Leary has a caustic sense of humor that manages to be essentially kind, and she writes about her experience figuring out the English people, the National Health Service, and first-time parenthood with a graceful wit.

cover imageTaking the Kids to Italy by Roland Merullo (PFP Publishing, 2013)
Originally published in serial form, Taking the Kids to Italy is the author’s account of a disastrous family vacation with his wife, two very young daughters, and his mother (who has the patience of a saint, and is a tremendously good sport). The humor that the adults can see in retrospect doesn’t always manage to cover the despair that seeps into the narrative, but I found myself laughing despite myself. The author has also written a memoir about a wonderful family trip abroad – The Italian Summer: Golf, Food, and Family at Lake Como (Simon & Schuster, 2009) – which would probably make a good companion read.

cover imageThree Weeks with My Brother by Nicholas Sparks and Micah Sparks (Grand Central, 2006)
It’s been years since I read this with a book club, but I do remember being surprised at how much I liked it. The bestselling author of tear-jerker novels such as The Notebook, Nicholas Sparks has actually experienced more than his share of tragedy in real life, and this book is a result of realizing your world can change in an instant. In Three Weeks with My Brother, he and his brother – both in their mid-thirties and the only surviving members of their family – share their experience of traveling around the world, hitting major global landmarks like Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal, and musing on fate and faith. (The Christian or spiritual aspect of the book is very low-key, if I remember correctly.)

cover imageTraveling While Married: How to Take a Trip with Your Spouse and Come Back Together by Mary-Lou Weisman (Workman, 2003)
This is a collection of humorous essays, illustrated with drawings by Edward Koren, that are laugh-out-loud funny. (Or maybe you have to be married?, I don’t know!) From the publisher: “This is the real skinny on what happens when Mars and Venus hit the road. With a sly wink, a comic nod, and just the right amount of optimism, Weisman shows us that despite the shortcomings of one’s beloved, harmonious travel is possible.”
Written by a wife, but her own foibles and failings are just as funny as her husband’s.

cover imageUntil I Say Good-Bye: My Year of Living With Joy  by Susan Spencer-Wendel (HarperCollins, 2013)
When the author, a journalist, is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), she has been in denial for some time, so her physical decline is steep and sharp after the diagnosis. If you choose to read this memoir, which she laboriously typed out first on an iPad and then on a phone, which was all she had the physical ability to manage, you will probably cry your way through it as I did, but you will marvel at the emotional strength she holds onto for the sake of her husband and three children. She decides to fill the year she has left with trips with family members – going with each child to a place of his/her choosing, and taking trips with her sister, her best friend, her husband.
While every page may not be beautifully written, the language she uses to tell the story of her final months spent making joyful memories for those she’ll be leaving behind is never sugarcoated and is very moving.

Nonfiction Friday badge with text listing different Dewey Decimal subjects, e.g. literature, religion, technologyThis post is linked up to Nonfiction Friday at Doing Dewey

Becoming a Happier Person in 365 Days: The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin @joyweesemoll

New Year's Resolution Reading Challenge 2014

The Happiness Project Read Along badge
The Happiness Project is the Read Along book for The New Year’s Resolution Reading Challenge of 2014

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin is a stunt memoir about the author’s year of experimentation to become a happier person. Like many memoirs, especially the stunt-type, The Happiness Project seems to either inspire or annoy – depending, maybe, on how much empathy a reader feels for Gretchen as she appears in her own portrayal. To me, she seemed she was trying to be as honest as possible in reporting on her faults, failures, and emotions, but I guess to some readers her assessments of herself come across as humble-bragging.

The book’s chapters are divided by the month and each focuses on a different theme, but is layered onto the others. The final three chapters are the shortest, as Gretchen continues to try to follow her resolutions from the earlier nine months, while adding on Mindfulness (October) and Attitude (November), before getting to Happiness (December) where she tries to reach “Boot Camp Perfect” by following all of her resolutions all of the time.

Here’s an excerpt from the Attitude chapter that gives a sense of what Gretchen’s writing is like, and how she blends reporting on her research with her personal goals and observations.

GIVE POSITIVE REVIEWS

I wanted to laugh more, I wanted to show more loving-kindness, and I also wanted to be more enthusiastic. I knew that it wasn’t nice to criticize – but it was fun. Why was it so deliciously satisfying to criticize? Being critical made me feel more sophisticated and intelligent – and in fact, studies show that people who are critical are often perceived to be more discerning. In one study, for example, people judged the writers of negative book reviews as more expert and competent than the writers of positive reviews, even when the content of both reviews was deemed to be of high quality. Another study showed that people tend to think that someone who criticizes them is smarter than they are. Also, when a person disrupts a group’s unanimity, he or she lessens its social power. I’ve seen people exploit this phenomenon; when a group is cheerfully unanimous on a topic like “The teacher is doing a great job” or “This restaurant is terrific,” such a person takes the opportunity to deflate the group’s mood. Being critical has its advantages, and what’s more, it’s much easier to be hard to please. Although enthusiasm seems easy and undiscriminating, in fact, it’s much harder to embrace something than to disdain it. It’s riskier.
When I examined my reactions to other people, I realized that I do often view people who make critical remarks as more perceptive and more discriminating. At the same time, though, it’s hard to find pleasure in the company of someone who finds nothing pleasing. I prefer the company of the more enthusiastic types, who seem less judgmental, more vital, more fun.

Probably because I have some minor public speaking to do tonight, I was feeling a little glum this morning. When I told my husband I needed to write my final discussion post about The Happiness Project, he saw my face and said, “It looks like it didn’t work.” Of course, that’s the bothersome thing about all self-help books! Reading the book isn’t enough; the book should give the reader the impetus to change whatever the reader is hoping to change by reading the book. In this case, the book is meant to inspire a reader to do his or her own happiness project, because what makes one person happy may not work for someone else, and I was inspired again (This was my second reading of The Happiness Project.) to at least think about starting my own, less ambitious project one of these days.

If you liked The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, you may want to read her follow-up book, Happier at Home, in which she focuses on appreciating and improving her home and family life. She also maintains The Happiness Project blog and has a wide following.

The Happiness Project
Rubin, Gretchen
HarperCollins, 2011
978-0-06-158326-1310 pp.
$14.99, soft.

Disclosure: I bought my own copy of The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin to read with librarian-blogger Joy Weese Moll and others at Joy’s Book Blog. Visit Joy’s Book Blog to join the group read or find more discussion of The Happiness Project.

 

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