Nonfiction

Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone

Did you ever dream of being in a tsunami? As a college freshman I did, repeatedly over a course of a couple of months. Luckily, I lived in the mountains then, a few hundred miles from the sea.

Richard Lloyd Parry, an English journalist, who spent over a decade in Japan, did six years of research for this excellent book. In one chapter, he recounts Teruo Konno’s experience being swept and tossed for hours in the great tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011. Konno’s tale reads like a thriller.

As a city employee, Teruo opened the doors to evacuees at a city hall branch office next to the Kitakami River, fifteen feet above sea level and inland from the ocean. Everyone in the building survived the severe shaking, but the building lost power. No one knew that officials had revised the tsunami warning to 120 feet.

Love, Africa

This memoir by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist will make you feel as though you have boarded a jet and begun a new life.

Jeffrey Gettleman, nineteen-year old college student, wanders his way into East Africa, does community service work, and falls in love with the landscapes, people, swirl of languages, and colorful clothing there. In fact, he eventually decides he must come back to live in the region, not just visit.

A Short History of DADA

"Beautiful like the chance meeting on a dissection table of a sewing machine and an umbrella." —Compte de Lautréamont

Is it possible for an art movement to be anti-art? What would such a movement (anti-movement?) even look like? For the founders of DADA, which grew out of the aftermath of World War I in Europe, the answer is disruption—of society, of culture, and of art itself. 

Hillbilly Elegy

Many in the media and politics keep trying to figure out why our new President attracts so many Rust Belt and Appalachian voters. This memoir of a young man’s coming of age in both regions may offer some insight.

At only thirty-one, J.D. Vance admits he's way too young to have penned a memoir. He hasn’t done anything extraordinary (though he did graduate from Yale Law School, a major accomplishment for a kid from a single-parent home in a working-class town in Ohio, where many did not finish high school).

Vance writes most vividly of Jackson, his dirt-poor but beautiful ancestral home in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. He also describes his people: a great-grandmother who once killed someone, and his own Mamaw who often threatens to do the same to her husband when he comes home drunk. In fact, J.D. relates, one night he saves his Pawpaw after Mamaw poured gasoline over him and lights a match.

Birds, Art, Life: a Year of Observation

If you love the natural world, this little book about birding will entice you.  It’s also about much more: how to be in the world, parenting, partnering, creativity, and friendship. She also explores the first books people fell in love with, celebrity eyebrows, art, and especially how to make peace with the roaring, anxious self inside you.

Maclear, a Canadian author of children’s books, decides after a heavy stint caring for her aged father after suffering two strokes that she needed to take up a hobby for herself. She is also a mom raising two young boys, the younger of which, has the weird propensity for falling, resulting in emergency room visits.

First, she plans to take up drawing again. But the renowned teacher she interviews about lessons seemed too structured for her. As you can see in the beautiful line drawings, she also spent a year with pen and ink.

One night her husband suggests that she look at some bird photographs taken by the musician who scored his latest film.  These bird pictures wowed Kyo. So much so, that within a few days, she’d contacted the musician and asked if he would be her guide to the world of birding for an entire year. What she liked about her guru, who she simply calls “The Musician” throughout the book was that he was “fervent about birds without being reverential.”

The Hidden Life of Trees: what they feel, how they communicate: discoveries from a secret world

I have always felt a strong connection to trees; I love them in all seasons and am fascinated by their intricacies, their shapes, varieties of bark, leaves and shapes, the patterns they make interplaying with light.

This biography of a forest, so to speak, fills you in on a forester’s own passion for trees. He uses the language of a nature lover and also that of a scientist to describe the myriad connections trees have to each other in a healthy forest.

A connection that made him refuse to bring huge modern machinery into a forest and only use horses and saws when a tree needed cutting, an amazing evolution for a trained forester.

The Six: the Lives of the Mitford Sisters

Having grown up in a family of six sisters (and two brothers), I understand the influences, cooperation and competition that six sisters often have for each other. The similar interests, wildly divergent ones, pet names shared, and shifting alliances.

The Mitford sisters:  Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, and Deborah were born between 1904 and 1920, so their youth encompassed the roaring and irreverent 1920s as well as the anxious, and violent pre-war period before WW II. The last of the Mitford sisters, Deborah, died only two years ago.

They had an idyllic childhood on a country estate, and were left mainly to themselves, a nanny and a tutor. They were almost totally home-schooled. They read deeply books from their parent’s library and were fascinated by the world of ideas. All except Pamela, who loved farming and developed close connections with animals and the land. Just before dying she sighed and said she wished only for one more hunt.

Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel

Can’t say when the last time I read a book written by a seventeen-year old, but this memoir by a high school student was touching and well-written despite Nicolaia Rips' youth. Growing up in New York’s famed Chelsea Hotel gives one a head start, at least when it comes to knowing interesting characters.

The Chelsea’s fame reached its ascendency in the 60s and 70s with noteworthy residents:  Leonard Cohen, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Patsy Smith, who wrote her own memoir about it, Just Kids.

First Nicolaia describes how she came into being. Her mom was a globe-trotting artist, and her dad had zero interest in raising a child, but somehow the artist got pregnant, and the couple began a new way of life. Though not immediately.

While pregnant, her Mom traveled through Europe and along the Silk Road in Asia. Her dad, a non-practicing lawyer and writer, stayed in New York and added a psychiatrist’s office to his daily rounds of coffee shops. He also denied that he was the father, accusing a gay friend for parenting the child. However, once Nicolaia was born, he came around and warmly embraced being a dad, but still the family remained footloose, decamping for several years in Italy, and then roaming North Africa and India, before returning to NYC and the Chelsea Hotel.

Happy Birthday, National Park Service, 100 Years!

Terry Tempest Williams writes passionately about our natural world in the tradition of Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopard, Annie Dillard, and Edward Abbey.

This book--timed to come out with the hundredth year anniversary of the National Park System--argues strongly about the necessity of keeping our park lands protected. It also reinforces why we need them in our modern world.

“Whenever I go to a national park, I meet the miraculous,” she writes in the opening section. She also says that our national parks “are blood. They are more than scenery, they are portals and thresholds of wonder.” Having just returned from Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, I heartily second that.

Although she has visited many parks, and some, over and over, she has chosen twelve to highlight here. And I love how she does it. Not only does she share personal anecdotes about each of the twelve, but she uses various formats to do so.  For example, in the Big Bend section, she includes journal entries she wrote while there. Through riffs, all on a color theme, she shares what she saw and experienced there.

Living with a Dead Language

They say that you really learn about a people only when you learn their language. Multiply that for a culture long gone, say, that of the Romans.

This book by a former editor describes her love for Latin-- how she went back to college to study it after thirty-five years in New York City publishing.  I can’t believe I even picked it up after all my complaints about being forced to take Latin in high school. But the fact that I continued studying the language after the mandatory first two years tells you something.

But this is a book about much more than Latin. It’s about following one’s passion. Along the way, Ann Patty reveals much about her life. She describes sharing a home with a man entirely opposite herself. Her partner, an arborist, lives for the outdoor life. He hikes and skis, even on the coldest days. She’s definitely a city person even though she now lives in upstate New York, often rushing back to the city for cultural events.

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