Wednesday, June 6, 2007

In non-fiction, Babs recommends . . .

Tales of a Female Nomad: Living At Large in the World by Rita Golden Gelman When Rita Golden Gelman traveled to Mexico during a two-month separation from her husband, she hoped to satisfy an old craving for adventure and, in the process, rejuvenate herself and her marriage. Little did she know it was the beginning of a new life, not just as a divorcée, but as a nomad of the world. Since 1986, Gelman has had no permanent address and no possessions except those she can carry. She travels without a plan, guided by instinct, serendipitous opportunities, and a remarkable ability to connect with people. At first her family and friends accused her of running away, but Gelman knew she had embarked on a journey of self-discovery and a way of life that is inspiring and enviable.

Babs says: "I love reading books you can find in the Travel Essay section of the bookstore. This book is not in the humor sub-genre, a la Bill Bryson, which I dearly love. It is in what I would call the inspirational rebirth/transformation sub-genre. I like to read books like this when I am feeling like I wish I were anywhere else besides my cushy life here in the good old U.S. of A!

Own? Yes

The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Man in the World by AJ Jacobs
School Library Journal: When Jacobs, a pop-culture junkie and magazine editor, got a bee in his bonnet to read the entire abridged set of the Encyclopedia Britannica to stave off the decline of his recalled knowledge, his wife, family, and coworkers looked on with disbelief, amusement, and annoyance. They thought he'd give up on his quest, but fortunately he did not, for his recap manages to impart the joys of learning, along with a lot of laughs.

Babs says: "O.k., I admit it! I was totally drawn to this book because I too tried to do this as a kid! Now yes, I did not even come close - much like my attempts to read the dictionary from beginning to end (there are a lot of boring "A" words!! :^)) And AJ Jacobs has a nice writing style (as we would hope a magazine editor would) and he is funny. Who among us can't appreciate self-deprecating humor, eh?"

Own? Yes

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
Publisher's Weekly: "Uproariously funny" doesn't seem a likely description for a book on cadavers. However, Roach, a Salon and Reader's Digest columnist, has done the nearly impossible and written a book as informative and respectful as it is irreverent and witty. From her opening lines ("The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back"), it is clear that she's taking a unique approach to issues surrounding death. Roach delves into the many productive uses to which cadavers have been put, from medical experimentation to applications in transportation safety research (in a chapter archly called "Dead Man Driving") to work by forensic scientists quantifying rates of decay under a wide array of bizarre circumstances. There are also chapters on cannibalism, including an aside on dumplings allegedly filled with human remains from a Chinese crematorium, methods of disposal (burial, cremation, composting) and "beating-heart" cadavers used in organ transplants. Roach has a fabulous eye and a wonderful voice as she describes such macabre situations as a plastic surgery seminar with doctors practicing face-lifts on decapitated human heads and her trip to China in search of the cannibalistic dumpling makers. Even Roach's digressions and footnotes are captivating, helping to make the book impossible to put down.

Babs says: "A MUST-READ!" C'mon, how often do we get to read entertaining tales about cadavers? All I can really say is - who KNEW?!?!?"

Own? Yes

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott For most writers, the greatest challenge of spiritual writing is to keep it grounded in concrete language. The temptation is to wander off into the clouds of ethereal epiphanies, only to lose readers with woo-woo thinking and sacred-laced clichés. Thankfully, Anne Lamott (Operating Instructions, Crooked Little Heart) knows better. In this collection of essays, Lamott offers her trademark wit and irreverence in describing her reluctant journey into faith. Every epiphany is framed in plainspoken (and, yes, occasionally crassly spoken) real-life, honest-to-God experiences. . . . Whether she's writing about airplane turbulence, bulimia, her "feta cheese thighs," or consulting God over how to parent her son, Lamott keeps her spirituality firmly planted in solid scenes and believable metaphors. As a result, this is a richly satisfying armchair-travel experience, highlighting the tender mercies of Lamott's life that nudged her into Christian faith.

Babs says: "I was familiar with her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and this book looked interesting. This book about faith works in my opinion because Anne Lamott is a real, flawed person."

Own? Yes.

Getting Stoned With Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu by J. Maarten Troost
Publishers Weekly: Troost and his wife, Sylvia, move from busy Washington, D.C., to Vanuatu, a nation made up of 83 islands in the South Pacific. As Sylvia works for a regional nonprofit, Troost immerses himself in the islands' culture, an odd mix of the islanders' thousand-year-old "kastoms" along with imperialist British and French influences. This really means that Troost gets to live in a nice house while he gets drunk on kava; dodges "a long inferno of magma and a cascade of lava bombs" at the "world's most accessible volcano"; and checks out the "calcified" leftovers from one of Vanuatu's not-so-ancient traditions, cannibalism. At the end of the book, the couple move to Fiji so that Sylvia will have state-of-the-art medical care when she gives birth to their first baby. While modern-day Fiji provides little fodder for Troost's comic sensibilities, the birth of his son enables him to share some deeper thoughts and decide it is "time to stop looking for paradise." A funny travelogue with a sentimental heart, Troost's latest work genuinely captures the search for paradise as well as the need for home.

Babs says: "Troost also wrote another book - The Sex Lives of Cannibals, which if I don't recommend further along in this post, it is because I read it before January 2005. :^) But I would recommend reading that first, as chronologically the events in that book pre-date those in this one. I just really, really like the travel essay genre. I think it's because I wish I were these people, traveling all over the world and making money by writing books about my experiences."

Own? Yes

War Reporting for Cowards by Chris Ayres
The New Yorker: A twenty-seven-year-old hypochondriac, Ayres managed just nine days as an embed in Iraq before retreating to a luxury hotel in Kuwait, and his book is principally about the serendipitous career path that landed him in the back of a Humvee. With self-deprecating wit, he recollects his days as a newsroom intern and then as a reporter covering the dot-com boom for an English paper. He dates his vocation as a war correspondent to the collapse of the Twin Towers and the receipt of an e-mail from London requesting a "thousand wds please on ‘I saw people fall to death,' etc." When the Iraq invasion began, his editors dismissed embedding as a diversionary ruse by the U.S. Army, and put their veteran correspondents far from the front lines, leaving Ayres with an American artillery unit nicknamed Long Distance Death Dealers. Facing his own death during an ambush by Iraqi tanks, Ayres admits that he feels like a coward not "for being scared of war" but, rather, "for agreeing to go to war" and letting "my journalist's ego get the better of me."

Babs says: "I decided to read this book because I had followed almost nothing concerning the war in Iraq (mainly because it started three or four days after Naomi was born and also because it is frustrating and depressing). And what better way to immerse myself I thought than by reading a book by a Brit who had no idea what the heck he was doing there."

Own? Yes

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson
Publishers Weekly: In this splendid, beautifully written followup to his blockbuster thriller, Devil in the White City, Erik Larson again unites the dual stories of two disparate men, one a genius and the other a killer. The genius is Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of wireless communication. The murderer is the notorious Englishman Dr. H.H. Crippen. Scientists had dreamed for centuries of capturing the power of lightning and sending electrical currents through the ether. Yes, the great cable strung across the floor of the Atlantic Ocean could send messages thousands of miles, but the holy grail was a device that could send wireless messages anywhere in the world.

School Library Journal: Larson's page-turner juxtaposes scientific intrigue with a notorious murder in London at the turn of the 20th century. It alternates the story of Marconi's quest for the first wireless transatlantic communication amid scientific jealousies and controversies with the tale of a mild-mannered murderer caught as a result of the invention

Babs says: "I didn't find this book as compelling as The Devil in the White City because the two stories are not happening simultaneously. The connection is that the invention later helps to catch the murderer; unlike Devil in the White City, where everything was happening all at the same time, lending it better pace and excitement in my opinion. It is still a wonderful read though!"

An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography by Paul Rusesabagina
Publishers Weekly: For former hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, words are the most powerful weapon in the human arsenal. For good and for evil, as was the case in the spring of 1994 in Rwanda. Over 100 days, some 800,000 people were slaughtered, most hacked to death by machete. Rusesabagina, inspiration for the movie Hotel Rwanda used his facility with words and persuasion to save 1,268 of his fellow countrymen, turning the Belgian luxury hotel under his charge into a sanctuary from madness. Through negotiation, favor, flattery and deception, Rusesabagina managed to keep his "guests" alive another day despite the homicidal gangs just beyond the fence and the world's failure to act. . . . This tale of good, evil and moral responsibility winds down with Rusesabagina visiting a church outside Kigali where thousands were massacred and where a multilingual sign-cloth now pledges, "Never Again." He once more stops to consider words, the ones he worries lack true conviction like those at the church as well as the ones with the power to heal. For the listener, the words of Paul Rusesabagina won't soon be forgotten.

Babs says: "A compelling read. A reminder of the horrors that have happened in our lifetimes. It's really unfathomable."

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