Posts Tagged ‘Nonfiction That Reads Like Fiction’

The Life and Times of the the Thunderbolt Kid

July 8, 2013

lifeandtimesBill Bryson writes two kinds of books: humorous travel essays (A Walk in the Woods) and serious books about history and language (A Short History of Nearly Everything). This memoir doesn’t fit into either category, although it comes closest to the former, only the “place” we are traveling is Bryson’s 1950s childhood. I was recently looking for a good audio book and was pleased to find a Bill Bryson book I hadn’t read yet. The author narrates his memoirs and he does a wonderful job evoking the voices of teachers, relatives, and other adults he encountered growing up, as well as himself as a child, and his young friends.

Bryson was born in the middle of the Twentieth Century (1951), in the middle of the United States (Des Moines). He uses his unique world view and wit to shine a nostalgic light on what most people would call a simpler time. Bryson doesn’t view the past through rose-colored glasses however, he recalls both the good, and the bad from this time, although “the bad” mostly refers to getting in trouble (accidentally setting his friend’s house on fire – twice), under-performing in school (he had more absences than a kid with a chronic disease), and the annoying things his parents did (his dad didn’t wear underpants at night and his mom couldn’t cook). I often found myself laughing out loud in the car while on my daily commute and hope my fellow drivers didn’t think me too odd.

In addition to Bryson’s wonderful childhood reminiscences, he also includes brief historical background about life in the ’50s for almost every chapter. There’s a brief section about the Cuban Missile Crisis accompanying the story of the time young Billy got his teacher in trouble because he refused to duck and cover during a drill (because no one ever checked to see if you actually did it). He provides interesting facts and statistics about the growth of per capita household income and the explosion of labor saving devices during the ’50s as he discusses the time his parents got a new refrigerator and showed it off to neighbors and visitors for the next six months. He discusses the times spent as his grandparents’ farm for family gatherings and also lets us know just how much farming and farm land has decreased in America over the past half century. He laments the loss of the individuality of different towns & cities, which is something that those born in the ’60s & even ’70s can relate to.

Bryson’s funny stories and entertaining anecdotes are too numerous to mention, so if you’re looking for a good read this summer, I hope you’ll give The Thunderbolt Kid a try. Again, the audio version is excellent, although the print version has lots of photographs from the 1950s. One small warning: there is adult language in this memoir of childhood, but I think it is used sparingly and to great comic effect.

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Hellhound On His Trail by Hampton Sides

April 26, 2013

I stumbled across Hampton Sides while looking for a new audiobook. This is one of the best audiobooks I’ve ever listened to. He writes nonfiction in the most vivid, engaging style that makes this a page turner of a book, as good as the best novel with plenty of suspense.

This is the story of the hunt for Martin Luther King’s killer. The name James Earl Ray never comes up because Ray used many different aliases. Sides painstakingly depicts Ray as a habitual petty criminal and extreme racist from a family of the same kind whose motivation appeared to be to commit the perfect crime and prove to himself that he was a master of the game. Ray seemed to think that he could outsmart all the people who were looking for him.

The manhunt began immediately based on where the witnesses said the shot came from. There is a famous photo showing the men pointing toward the rooming house from which Ray fired the fatal shot.

All of King’s associates, J. Edgar Hoover, the other FBI agents, family and others are part of the story. Suspense mounts as Ray stays just ahead of efforts to apprehend him. Just as he was about to sail from England to Africa on a forged passport, he was captured and the brought to justice. It was a supreme achievement for the many law enforcement agencies that were on the hunt for him.

Ray eventually confessed, was sentenced to prison, managed to escape and was recaptured. He attempted to recant his original confession in order to gain a trial, but was not successful. Even if you have read the newspaper accounts, there is so much more to be learned from this book. I highly recommend it.

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French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork and Corkscrew by Peter Mayle

June 5, 2012

This week we’re featuring some of our favorite Audio Books, just in time for planning your summer road trips. You can also click the Audio tag at the bottom of this post or at the top of the tag cloud on the right hand side of our blog’s home page for more great audio book suggestions!

Eat your way across France and then write about it? That’s right. Peter Mayle took the challenge and ran with it, and the result is a literary delight that will leave you laughing at the wonder (and at times horror) of the French culinary world. From frog leg festivals to the blessing of the sublime truffle, Mayle’s
year-long journey will captivate you.

This book is especially engaging as an audio edition — narrated by Simon Jones — as you can truly appreciate the French pronunciation of their foodstuffs (something they take very seriously as evidenced by the amount of time and money the French are willing to spend in pursuit of gastronomic enjoyment). In addition, narrator Simon Jones’ droll humor truly brings to life Mayle’s descriptions of life in France.

And never fear, Mayle does not simply drag you along from food item to food item. There are also delightful forays into kitchens, restaurants, and local festivals all interspersed with informative, and yet often hilarious, historical background on the subject.

For anyone who has yet to give nonfiction a try, this is your book. Put it in your car, listen as you clean or organize your closets, or just get inspired to try some of those French recipes you have gathering dust in the corner of your kitchen. You’ll feel as if you have spent a year in France!

If you enjoy this audio book, try Mayle’s first book A Year In Provence on audio, or try any of his wonderful nonfiction writings (my personal favorites) or his novels.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

February 6, 2012

At one time, the travelers on the road to the Suhar International Airport in Mumbai could look out their car windows and see a tall, shiny, aluminum fence.  Ads for a company that sold floor tiles ran its length.  “Beautiful Forever” read the corporate slogan.

Behind that wall promising eternally beautiful floors lay what airport management didn’t want customers to see:  Annawadi, a slum first settled in 1991 by workers brought in from southern India to repair an airport runway.  Seventeen years later, when Katherine Boo did the research that led to this book, three thousand people still lived and worked there.

Boo introduces us to several Annawadi residents and gives us intimate glimpses into their lives.  There is Abdul, the young entrepreneur striving to improve the fortune of his family through recycling garbage.  We meet Asha, a rising star in the political life of the settlement.  We watch Abdul’s neighbor, Fatima, make a fateful choice that changes lives forever.

This is a gorgeously written book, but not an easy story to read.  Abdul, Asha and Fatima are people with few resources struggling to succeed in a corrupt system that does not seem very fair, especially to the poor.  Boo shows how precarious their lives are, and how quickly hardworking people can find their lives turned upside down by circumstance.

Boo, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and current staffer at The New Yorker, has spent two decades writing about poverty.  She hopes this book will “show American readers that the distance between themselves and, say, a teenaged boy in Mumbai who finds an entrepreneurial niche in other people’s garbage, is not nearly as great as they might think.”

She succeeded with this American reader.  I quickly grew to care about the people Boo portrays so vividly, especially Abdul.  The three years Boo spent in Annawadi researching this story were evident.  She made me see the dwellings and the faces of the people she met, and experience their daily struggles.

I would recommend this book to readers who like nonfiction that reads like fiction, people interested in India, readers with an interest in economic issues, nonfiction book clubs looking for a title with themes that easily lend themselves to discussion, and last, but not least, to devotees of beautiful writing.

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Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and other books by Alexandra Fuller

November 15, 2011

Alexandra Fuller, born in England while her parents were briefly living there, moved to central Africa at the age of two, living there until her marriage in 1993 and a move to Wyoming.  She writes nonfiction books:  a reminiscence of her childhood (Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight); an acquaintance’s experiences during several African wars (Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier); her mother’s life (Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness); and The Legend of Colton Bryant, which portrays the life of an unusually interesting young cowboy from Wyoming, who died young in an oil rig accident.  I listened to audio versions of each of these, which enhanced the experience greatly: the first three are read by a narrator with a South African accent, while Colton Bryant’s narrator has a Western twang, putting the listener in mind of the wide open American West immediately.

Whether listened to or read silently, Fuller’s books immediately place you in her setting.  For instance, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight begins:

Mum says, “Don’t come creeping into our room at night.”
They sleep with loaded guns beside them on the bedside rugs. She says, “Don’t startle us when we’re sleeping.”
“Why not?”
“We might shoot you.”
“By mistake.”

Fuller’s descriptions are so sensual that you hear, see, feel, and even smell exactly what she is portraying, as in “It is so hot that the flamboyant tree outside cracks to itself, as if already anticipating how it will feel to be on fire…our throats are papered with the heat.”  In addition to the immediacy of her writing, Fuller smoothly fills in pertinent facts and history lessons to help the reader make sense of the complex situations found both in a changing Africa and in oil rush Wyoming.  Nonfiction readers who aren’t simply looking for facts, but for nuance and personal experience, will be enticed by Fuller’s writing and choice of subject.  Fiction readers, too, will be drawn into the place and characters, which are fascinating and personify the old saying, truth is stranger than fiction.

Find and reserve one of Alexandra Fullers books in our catalog.

I’m Kind of a Big Deal: And Other Delusions of Adequacy by Stephanie Wilder-Taylor

September 14, 2011

I really enjoy collections of funny essays, and if they have a little bit of snarky-ness to them, all the better. I’m Kind of a Big Deal is exactly that. Wilder-Taylor’s essays are arranged chronologically though the book, so that while each can stand on its own in a comedic fashion, they also run together create a memoir of her life to date.

The book starts directly after the author has graduated from high school and chronicles her time in New York City as an unemployed 18 year old bunking with a friend and working as a singing waitress in a family-owned Italian restaurant (and no, she could not sing.) The NYC stint did not, of course, last long, and soon she was on the train back to her parents’ house in Massachusetts with her sights already set on her next big adventure – Los Angeles.

Wilder-Taylor takes us through a series of comical events in L.A. including dancing in a video for Bob Dylan, being a guest on the dating show Studs, stalking a guest from The Love Connection, and working as a limo chauffeur for the rich, famous, and sometimes not so nice.

The stories are written with a glib wryness that makes the author likeable despite her many obvious faults.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

July 21, 2011

For many years I lived in the town of Clayton, and on the corner of Robertson St. and US 70 there is a historical marker for William  E. Dodd  that I have stared at many a time waiting for the light to turn green. It says; “Ambassador to Germany, 1933-37; professor and writer of U.S. history. He was born 2 mi. N.E.”. I always thought it was neat that a local farm boy ended up as an Ambassador to Germany, and always wondered what his story was; well now I know.

In the year 1933, Mr. William F. Dodd, a Professor from Chicago, along with his family (wife, daughter and son) were sent to Berlin by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to become the American Ambassador. Mr. Dodd was the first Ambassador to Germany from the U.S. and settled in Berlin during the year that was to become a turning point in history. Mr. Dodd, a fairly docile gentleman, was perfectly willing to accept the German politicians and their ways, which proved later on, that he was a bit overly naïve. Mrs. Dodd and Bill, Jr. were content with their lot in life and daughter, Martha, was extremely social and loved to party. Some of the handsome young men of the Third Reich were more than happy to show her the town. Martha was so impressed with these men that she had many affairs, one of them with the head of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels.

But, as the days progress, it is evident that the new regime in Germany is starting a little “ethnic cleansing,” as they say now, and the Jewish race and many others are being persecuted. These attacks against citizens of Germany are certainly not kept quiet and Mr. Dodd is getting very nervous and sending letters back to the State Department telling the President what is going on. Sadly, the State Department is very unconcerned about the letters and thinks that Mr. Dodd is crying wolf. Mr. Dodd watches the new laws passed by German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, and also the newspapers are censored as to what they can write. He even has a meeting with Hitler, where Hitler swore that he was not interested in starting a war. Unfortunately, Mr. Dodd believed Hitler and said so to the U.S. State Department.

Erik Larson has once again created a narrative non-fiction masterpiece. In the Garden of Beasts is another of his skilled well-documented historical chronicles that will join fiction lovers with history buffs, with neither realizing the merge. Mr. Larson, in my opinion, is a master at making this work.

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The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

August 27, 2010

For some reason this was published in Britain under the title The Surgeon of Crowthorne, which sounds like a mild-mannered BBC drama that takes place in the Cotswolds or something.  But no!  This is in part the true tale of Dr. William Chester Minor, an astonishingly well-read Civil War surgeon, contributor of over 10,000 citations to the Oxford English Dictionary…and criminally insane murderer! He cut off his own penis!  It’s true!

During The Battle of the Wilderness in 1864, 5,371 Union soldiers deserted. In an effort to prevent additional desertion and avoid mass executions (the normal punishment for being AWOL), doctors were ordered to brand a 1.5 inch ‘D’ on the face of convicted deserters. Dr. Minor branded the face of an Irishman, and went mad– thoughts of retribution haunted him for the rest of his life.  It was this imagined retaliation that drove him to murder an innocent factory worker on the streets of London in 1872, after which he was imprisoned in the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane.  From there he found out about the OED, and sent submissions to the editor (a self-educated Scotsman named Murray).

So half of the Oxford English Dictionary was penned by a lunatic, and that’s part of what makes Winchester’s book so exciting to read; Dr. Minor helped create one of the most important works in the English language, and he was wackadoo crazy.  BUT, the OED isn’t an English language usage guide– it’s a comprehensive  history of word etymology, and the sheer idea that a complete inventory of the English language could be compiled, alphabetically, with representative quotations is amazing.  That it was done long before computers and primarily by two people–one of them completely out of his mind–is utterly astonishing.

Read all about it.

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson

July 6, 2010

What’s more American than the majestic views and scenic vistas of our National Parks?  Did you know that the most visited National Park in the United States is North Carolina’s own Great Smoky Mountains?  America’s longest hiking trail, The Appalachain Trail, winds it’s way through our North Carolina mountains from Georgia all the way to Maine.  I’ll be heading there later this week for a trip to check out the Asheville area and drive “America’s Favorite Journey” on the Blue Ridge Parkway (so dubbed in a recent WRAL documentary).   I’ve been to the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia before and have camped and even been white water rafting down the Nantahala River.  Even though I love the mountains, I’d never be foolish enough to think that I could “thru-hike” the entire Appalachian Trail from end to end.  But, that’s exactly what Bill Bryson did back in the mid-nineties upon returning to the United States after living as an ex-patriot for about 20 years in England.  Not only did the overweight, out-of-shape author think it would be a great way to get re-aquainted with his homeland, he also though it would be a great idea to bring his even more overweight and out-of-shape ex-alcoholic friend, Stephen Katz, too!

I first read this hilariously inspiring and informative book before it was published, as the publisher had sent copies to thousands of booksellers around the country to generate buzz.  It worked like a charm as I devoured the book, bought copies as gifts and suggested it to everyone I could think of.  It went on to become a huge best-seller and has remained very popular over the past decade, as well.  Bryson used to “hike” quite a bit in England, but evidently hiking in England means short to medium country walks from village to village and pub to pub.  Wilderness hiking in America is something quite different – as Bryson & Katz discovered.  Soon after moving back to America and settling with his family in a small New Hampshire town, Bryson found a local path that disappeared into the woods.  His curiosity being too great to resist, Bryson followed the path and discovered that it connected to the famed “AT” and inspiration struck.  Now he just had to convice his family to let him attempt what is possibly the most difficult “thru-hike” in America … and start getting into shape and buying his supplies.

What makes this books such a great read, especially in the Summer, is not only Bryson’s writing style and the unique adventure they find themselves in, are the strange cast of characters they meet along the way and the beautiful descriptions of nature & the fascinating history discovered along the journey of the “AT.”   Bryson presents a tale that will entertain and make you think about the need to renew our commitment to preservation of America’s National Parks and wild places.  If you enjoy this book, you’ll want to try some more of Bill Bryson’s wonderfully humorous, engaging and surprisingly informative books.

Find and reserve A Walk in the Woods in our catalog.

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