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Blue Truck Recommends: Nonfiction Books

22 Mar

Nonfiction can be tricky, but when it’s good, it’s amazing.

Below are my top recommendations for nonfiction reads (in alphabetical order by author, ’cause that’s how nonfic rolls.)

The Diving Bell & The Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death, Jean-Dominique Bauby

Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, Diablo Cody

Columbine, Dave Cullen

Abraham: Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths, Bruce Feiler

Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America, Andrew Ferguson

The Know-it-All: One Man’s Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, A.J. Jacobs

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, A. J. Jacobs

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott

Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott

Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy, Melissa Milgrom

The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession, Susan Orlean

Pretty is What Changes: Impossible Choices, the Breast Cancer Gene, and How I Defied My Destiny, Jessica Queller

A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern Day Slavery, E. Benjamin Skinner

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Mary Roach

Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff (reviewed here)

Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, Robert Sullivan

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, James Swanson

Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell

Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Captain America, and the New Face of American War, Evan Wright

* * * * * * * *

(This post goes out to Shayla Dvorak, who asked me for recommendations for her nonfiction book group. Thanks for opening the wormhole into my brain.)

As always, happy reading!

Book review: Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss

15 Feb

When Dwight Garner of The New York Times described Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss as “a deeply unusual and forceful thing to have in your hands,” he wrote the truth.

Redniss’ graphic book, an illustrated biography of Marie and Pierre Curie, is a fascinating, almost preternaturally delicate and beautiful creation. Her use of cyanotype printing – ethereal and spooky photographic images created in white on bright blue backgrounds – balances so perfectly with her writing that it’s difficult to choose which better mirrors and influences which: the art would be less without the writing, and the writing would be less without the art.

Whether you know anything about the Curies or not, whether you even care is irrelevant: Redniss weaves a captivating narrative, equal parts science, love story, and passion for life. Her great skill here is not only in her ability to tell an interesting tale, but luring us into truly understanding, perhaps for the first time for many of us, the unequivocally tremendous contribution the Curies made to science. She shows us, in a fresh and poignant way, how they changed the future.

It’s not often that a book is as visually bewitching as the words on its pages, but Redniss has somehow achieved this. Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout is its own miraculous discovery.

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This book was published by It Books in December 2010. For more information, including the author’s explanation of why she was interested in the Curies, visit the author’s website. I’m an Indie Bound affiliate, so if you’d like to purchase this book, please consider doing so from an independent bookstore. As always, happy reading.

FTC Disclosure: This review was based on my own copy of this book.

Book Review: Good Eggs: A Memoir by Phoebe Potts

14 Jan

Good Eggs: A Memoir by Phoebe Potts was what every graphic novel memoir should aspire to be: touching and poignant and funny, sad and hopeful, with a truth all its own, with a voice that takes as much from the visual aspect of the drawing on the page as from the writing itself.

Potts’ book might have been called Infertility: A Love Story, not because there’s anything to love about infertility and not because Potts loves the numerous painful processes she and her husband endure for many months, but because she tells her story with love. In showing the reader her desire to be a mother, she shows also the underbelly of being in a family, the difficulties of growing up and finding one’s calling in life, the complicated road toward faith (in Potts’ case, Judaism), and of the myriad ways that we disappoint ourselves and others. Her honesty, rendered openly in her drawings, reveal a tender soul, a loving person, and most heartbreaking, someone who would make a great mother.

Recommended for fans of Fun Home by Alison Bechdel or Blankets by Craig Thompson, for anyone who likes an intimate view of another person’s “normal” life, for women struggling to get pregnant (or in pain over simply not being pregnant, capabilities aside).

Potts’ book is beautiful. Good Eggs is, very simply, a good egg.

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This book was published by Harper Collins in 2010. For more information, visit the author’s website. For a cool sneak-peek slide show of the inside of the book, stop by the Huffington Post. If you’d like to purchase this book from an independent bookstore and support me as an IndieBound affiliate by sending a few eggs my way, by all means, do so. As always, happy reading.

FTC Disclosure: This review was based on my own copy of this book.

Book review: Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

4 Jan

If one day you told me, “You can be a powerful queen and ruler, you can have riches beyond imagining, you can possess an exceptional brain, a confident manner, a loyal nature, a brave soul, and gifts for both pageantry and persuasion, but…you must also withstand being misunderstood as a seductress, a succubus, and a whore for 2,000 years and counting,” I might have some inkling of what is was like to be Cleopatra. (I might still also agree to the bargain.)

In her 2010 biography, Cleopatra: A Life, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff peels away the dual layers of time and history to reveal the multi-faceted woman behind the myth, and in doing so, she has written an excellent book.

For any lover of non-fiction, this is a rich and engaging read, but Schiff’s real talent is making Cleopatra’s story as accessible as fiction. Accompanying Cleopatra from the time she ascends her throne at age 18, through years of uncertainty and triumph, through both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, until her suicide (which did not happen the way you think it did) at 39, Schiff offers a portrait of a real woman. An accomplished writer, with a clear sense of pitch and timing, Schiff renders her subject matter not merely interesting, but downright fascinating.

That Cleopatra was a complicated and compelling woman is undeniable. That her true story – rather than the one that has endured – is just as complex is a riveting and welcome surprise.

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This book was published by Little, Brown, and Company in 2010. For more information, visit the author’s website. To purchase this book from an independent bookseller and to marginally support me as an affiliate of IndieBound, please follow this link and pat yourself on the back. As always, happy reading.

FTC Disclosure: This review was based on my own copy of this book.

Best Books of 2010

23 Dec

I read 83 books in 2010, less than usual, but that happens sometimes.

In honor of my spare year, I’m doing likewise with my round-up, because the cream really rose to the top.

Here are the highlights. Happy reading, and Happy New Year!

My favorite book of 2010:

The Boys of My Youth by Joann Beard

Honorable mentions for 2010, in no particular order:

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Petty Magic by Camille DeAngelis

Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Captain America, and the New Face of American War by Evan Wright

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Favorite character of the year?

Miranda from When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

(Links from book titles will bring you to purchase details through IndieBound.org, which supports independent bookstores. I’m an IndieBound affiliate and could potentially receive a  small kickback from your purchase, but trust me, that never happens. You should support your community anyway. Links from author’s name will bring you to author’s websites, or the next best thing.)

Book review: Google’lize Your Life by Jeff VanDrimmelen

20 Dec

When I first received Jeff VanDrimmelen’s book, Google’lize Your Life, I was terribly excited. The book whispered, “Do you want to Google’lize your life?” Predictably, I screamed, “Hell yes!”

This was the first warning sign. (You get pretty familiar with warning signs when you are an obsessive organizer and someone who uses obsessive organization as a way to manage your chronic anxiety.) Yet I decided to ignore this, and also the fact that I’ve been using Google products since Gmail first came out in 2004 – eons, in internet years – and probably didn’t need the advice.

Yet I stick with these tools precisely for the same reason, I assume, VanDrimmelen wrote an entire book about them: they work. And because I’m a more productive person thanks to these products, because I value their consistent simplicity, and because I can never consume enough information about the things I love, I was interested in the little hacks and tweaks that might take me to the stratosphere.

And that was a great plan, except that Google’lize Your Life didn’t rock it, at least not for me.

To his credit, VanDrimmelen writes in an easy and accessible way that would benefit any Google beginner, and I would recommend his book to anyone who is unfamiliar with Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Tasks, especially if they’re looking to get a lot out of a straightforward productivity system.

However, my major complaint is that the screen shots for Google Tasks that VanDrimmelen provides in-text don’t match any screen shots in real life. I don’t know how he’s getting his Tasks list to look like this, and he doesn’t tell me. I would have loved to access this feature, and was greatly disappointed when I got online and found I couldn’t expand my Tasks this way. (So disappointed, in fact, that I’ve put off writing this review so that I could calm down enough to assess it fairly.)

Google’lize Your Life is a good starting point for people who are considering the basic Google products. It’s just not enough for someone who has already Google’lized to the power of Google, with a big Googly smile on her face.

Update: A day after this post was published I received an email from the author. To access the canvas view of Google Tasks, log into Gmail and follow this address: https://mail.google.com/tasks/canvas. Thanks, Jeff!

* * * * * * * *

This book was elf-published by the author in 2010. For more information, visit the Google’lize website. This book is not currently available through independent booksellers. As always, happy reading.

FTC Disclosure: This review was based on a copy of the book that I received from the author.

Book review: It Could Be Worse, You Could Be Me by Ariel Leve

15 Aug

There are rules, I can only assume, for book blogging. I have to remind myself this isn’t a personal space. I’m not supposed to tell you that I’m more than a little burnt out, suffering from tremendous nose bleeds several times a day, and otherwise uninterested in social contact right now. Admitting that I spent half of last night awake in terror from a bad dream, alone and still unused to our new house, watching some really rotten anime kind of kills what very little gravitas I may possess, on a good day, and this is not a good day.

But Ariel Leve would support my telling you all of this. In fact, Ariel Leve, if she could be convinced to leave the house (and barring things like thousands of miles, last-minute notice, and reality) would happily come over and commiserate, even discussing what possible grave medical condition I probably have, given all these pesky nosebleeds. And I would welcome her, because she is, I knew from page one, what I call My People: suspicious, antisocial, neurotic to the nth degree. After all, the first chapter of her book of essays, It Could Be Worse, You Could Be Me, is titled “Getting Through the Day.” It’s a wonder I didn’t break down crying the minute I saw this. (I could have run through the library screaming Simpatico!, smacking into toddlers screeching their own calls of recognition. But I digress.)

Yet there is a problem. Not several, just one. And that’s the fact that it’s a little difficult, nay, depressing, to see yourself so readily in someone else’s work. It’s not so bad when this happens with a novel. If it keeps you up at night you can tell yourself, well, at least it’s fiction, you nutter. But essays are harder to brush off. Chapters like “Personality Defects,” “Sweating the Small Stuff,” and “Not a Fan” – which seem funny if you are free of defects, know exactly how to roll with the punches, and generally like things and people and the outside world – hit a little too close to home if you aren’t and don’t.

I loved Leve for sentences like these, on page 47: “Research shows a person is likely to feel more alienated and alone when they witness others whose lives have worked out. Was I the subject for this research?”

Likewise for page 71: “Most stories about children are never as funny as parents think, and unless you too have a child, it becomes a one-sided conversation. There’s no way I can join in unless I try to remember what I was like when I was that age. But whenever I add, ‘I used to do the same thing,’ they look horrified. Because suddenly there’s the possibility their child will end up like me.”

If you know me at all, right now you’re probably saying to yourself, Wait, did Sarah write this book? Exactly.

Which was why I couldn’t finish it. Yup. I abandoned it a little over halfway through, on page 146, without really knowing I was doing it. I just put it down and started something else, telling myself I would come back to it in a few days. But when I went to pick it up again, I realized I didn’t want to. I had gotten tired of reading about how odd and solitary and compulsive I — I mean — Leve is.

Despite this, she is clearly a strong and funny essayist. This book is packed with some terrific observations about the post-millenium social world, from friendships and parties to facebook and yes, other people’s kids, and I would highly recommended it to fans of early David Rakoff, or anyone looking for a morose Sloane Crosley.

In the end, Leve is right: It Could Be Worse, You Could Be Ariel Leve. Or, you know, me.

* * * * * * * *

This book was published by Harper Perennial in 2009. For more information, visit the author’s website. If you’d like to purchase this book, why not support independent booksellers? Follow the link below, and happy reading.

Shop Indie Bookstores

FTC Disclosure: This review was based on a copy of the book I borrowed from the public library.

Book Review: Food Rules by Michael Pollan

21 Jul

I traded for Michael Pollan’s latest book, Food Rules, a few weeks ago when I was doing a massive weeding of my library in anticipation for my impending move to a tiny, rural town even further into southwestern Wisconsin. Two heavy boxes for Pollan’s pocket-sized book and Driftless by David Rhodes? Yes, please.

I opened Food Rules in the store and knew I would read it in an hour (which I did), but I bought it anyway because I wanted to carry it in my bag to the grocery store. If I were less of a geek I’d be kidding, but you can see where this sentence leads.

Before I’d ever seen Food Rules, I knew Pollan was weathering some criticism for “stretching his material,” for perhaps cashing in on the empire his publishers have built around The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. I suspected that criticism was warranted, and after reading it, that may still be true.

Except, so what?

Pollan’s entire philosophy can be summed up, quite brilliantly, I believe, in three sentences: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” So while I can understand the particular complaints about Pollan ripping himself off – the brief book is composed of 64 rules, in 139 pages, with only a fair amount of text – I just don’t care. I loved Food Rules precisely for its distillation and brevity. We need more simplicity in our sensibility these days, no?

In her February review for the New York Times, Jane E. Brody writes, “If you don’t have the time and inclination to read [Pollan’s last two books,] you can do yourself and your family no better service than to invest $11 and one hour to whip through the 139 pages of “Food Rules” and adapt its guidance to your shopping and eating habits.”

I read that and very nearly screamed “Yes, MA’AM!,” in that crazy way one does when imitating a rodeo star. Or, you know, whatever it is you do when you’re in agreement.

It might reveal my bias to admit that a large part of why I loved Food Rules is that I found it to be a comforting pat on the back for the many ways I am already living the nutritional life Pollan advocates. We stopped buying meat at the grocery store a while ago – our meat consumption consists of whatever my husband kills during deer season or catches during trout season, with few exceptions (Rule 38: If you have the space, buy a freezer + Rule 31: Eat wild foods when you can). For the second spring and summer, we’ve bought a share in a CSA, and have been overjoyed with the arrangement (Rule 22: Eat mostly plants, especially leaves). I already avoid highly processed anything because chemicals in boxes seem to contribute to my migraines. (Rule 3: Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry). I could go on.

So yes, sure, Pollan was preaching to the converted, but beyond that bias, I was inspired. I was motivated. Food Rules made me want to do even better than I’m already doing, not because I want to lose weight or save the world, but because I want to feed my body food that makes it feel good, run well, and stay healthy. Pollan’s compilation of nutritional science, cultural history, and folk wisdom is some of the only eating advice that has ever made sense to me.

My biggest endorsement of this book came late last week, when I opened the refrigerator to find a jar of organic applesauce, which I had not purchased.

“Someone’s been in the house!” I screamed to my husband. “There’s some alien applesauce in here!” He came into the kitchen and looked right at me.

“I was at the grocery store looking for applesauce. When I looked at the ingredients–”

“Wait, what?”

“When I looked at the ingredients,” he continued, ignoring me, “I couldn’t picture any of them in my mind. So I went down to [our local natural food co-op] and got this stuff.”

(Rule 14: Eat foods made from ingredients that you can picture in their raw state or growing in nature.)

“You read the book? With your eyes?”

“Sweater,” he said, still basically ignoring me, “It tastes like real apples.”

Sold.

* * * * * * * *

This book was published by Penguin in December 2009. Visit Michael Pollan’s website for more information. If you’d like to purchase this book, why not support independent booksellers? Follow the link below, and happy reading.

Shop Indie Bookstores

FTC Disclosure: This review was based on my own copy of this book.

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