Nonfiction

Garbage! Water! Or Why I Love Non-fiction

GarbologyI read a lot of narrative non-fiction - historical, microhistory, natural sciences, travel, and environmental. I read these to be better informed, but also for pleasure so my ultimate test for a narrative non-fiction book is whether it would have made a better magazine article. I hate finishing something that I think was interesting, but could have been boiled down into a 20 page magazine article with the same impact. I've recently read two non-fiction books passed the magazine article test and then some. 

The Big Thirst: The Marvels, Mysteries & Madness Shaping the New Era of Water by Charles Fishman isn't about how to make changes in your lifestyle with regards to water conservation. It isn't a how-to book for urban or rural planners. It is a book that will challenge what you think you know about water from the big picture including where it comes from and what do we really mean by "clean". This book will also identify our emotional connection with water and will put those assumptions to the test. Near the end of the book, an economist presents a model for future water use that makes sense for both dry places like Las Vegas and Australia should also be considered for wetter places like Atlanta and even Bloomington. There are pages and pages of research, calculations and notes at the end, but the book was captivating, accessible and provides much food for thought.

How Gutenberg Changed the World

While some predict the imminent demise of the printed book, some profess that the printed book will continue on in perpetuity. I stand with the second group. As much as I enjoy the convenience of ebooks, there is a majesty to a beautifully illustrated and bound printed book that not even the most colorfully animated ebooks can equal. There is so much ephemeral electronic correspondence today that a printed book, by its sheer mass and substance commands a certain amount of respect. Or, perhaps it's simply the history of the printed book that I revere.

From the Good Mountain: How Gutenberg Changed the World lavishly presents the early history of the printed book as pioneered by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450.  Categorized as a biography, this new picturebook by James Rumford focuses more on Gutenberg's revolutionary invention of the printing press, than on the life of Gutenberg himself. Each richly illustrated double-page spread describes the process of creating a book as a mystery of sorts, asking the reader to guess the elements that formed the finished product: "What was this thing made of rags and bones?" and answering on the next page: "It was paper, and it was ready."

The epilogue to this book notes that Gutenberg's invention remains a bit of a mystery, as no one knows for sure how he was able to produce such beautifully crisp and clear letters in the 1400s. But some of the books he produced more than 500 years ago endure to this day. In fact a copy of one of those books resides in Bloomington at the Lily Library on the campus of Indiana University. The Gutenberg Bible rests in a glass case on display in the Lily Library, open for anyone to visit. 

From the Good Mountain concludes with an illustration of computer circuitry, suggesting that as hand copied books gave way to printed ones, and printed books give way to ebooks, perhaps it doesn't matter at all what books look like -- what form they take -- as long as people keep writing and reading them. What are you reading today?

Photographing a Vanishing America

If you've ever seen any of Edward Curtis's photos of Native Americans, you cannot forget them. Not only did Curtis capture members of various tribes with respect but their individuality and humanity stares at you from the page. He also recorded many spiritual ceremonies and active shots that give us some insight into what daily life was like for these people.

This excellent biography tells the story of the famous photographer's life, how he came from utter poverty in Wisconsin, then provided for his entire family as a young teen-ager, to a hardscrabble existence fishing and crabbing near Seattle. But in his late teens, he buys something for himself - a rare occurrence. He purchases a lens for his dad's old camera. 

Soon he manages to round up $150 - a large sum for a young man supporting an entire family in those days--and buys into a photography business in downtown Seattle. In a mere two years, he becomes the most famous photographer in the Northwest, in high demand to immortalize society and business leaders. But though the work makes him rich and feted by society, it's the Native American culture that draws him. He realizes that the country has finished expanding, that the westward migration has ended, and that the native tribes will have less and less space to call their own. Curtis understood that their way of life-- the clothing, the hunting, and especially the spiritual ceremonies--will mostly cease to exist.

Our Changing Planet

It's Earth Day. Senator Gaylord Nelson was the driving force behind the first one which occurred in 1970 as a day of education about environmental issues. As I scanned the new releases in the environmental section, this book caught my eye. It was a sobering read but one that was very thought-provoking. World-renowned legal scholar, Andrew Guzman, wrote Overheated. In it, he examines the political and sociological changes from climate change that the author reports have already started to occur.  Not just flooding and mega-storms, but also droughts, food scarcity, refugees forced from their land, lack of water for agriculture, etc. In his preface, the author states that "climate change will affect nearly everyone on this planet."

The chapter topics reveal his major concerns: one on flooding shows how some island nations will disappear, and  that at least one very populated one - Bangladesh - will suffer massive flooding that will lead to migrations of millions of refugees. The chapter entitled "A Thirsty World" depicts how the melting of glaciers will affect the water supply of many people on earth, not only in India, Pakistan, Argentina, and Chile, but also in our American West. He predicts that this will impact both our food supply and the prices of commodities.

In "Climate Wars: A Shower of Sparks" he hypothesizes how the conflict in Darfur in the 1990s may have been the first war sparked by climate change. Guzman also says that more wars will be caused by a scarcity of resources. He is very concerned about the Middle East, already one of the most arid areas in the world.

Roger Ebert: Film Critic and Writer

Life ItselfRoger Ebert, film critic extraordinaire and Pulitzer Prize winner, died last week after a battle with cancer.  Immediately following his death, there were lots of quotes circulating online from Ebert which reminded me what a great writer he was.  In writing about movies, Ebert was able often able to put his finger on the pulse of real life human behavior and articulate the human condition - both the happy and the sad.  I forgot how funny he was, and his reviews are a joy to read even if you disagree on the rating.

Those interested in starting with the basics, check out his Movie Yearbooks - complete with movie reviews, essays, tributes, journal entries, and new additions to his popular Movie Glossary.  If you are looking for critiques that might lead you to viewing of really good movies, try The Great Movie series. However, some of Ebert's best writing was in critiquing bad movies.  If you aren't looking for movie suggestions, but just some hilarious examples of his writing check out Your Movie Sucks

The Violinist's Thumb

OK, I selected this book based solely on its title, but boy did I luck out. What an incredibly gifted writer Sam Kean is.  In The Violinist's Thumb: and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius as Written by Our Genetic Code, he translates dense scientific concepts into lucid, beautiful prose.

He also knows how to tell stories. The first chapter contrasts the biographies of two of DNA's discoverers, Mendel and the less well-known, Johannes Friedrich Miescher, who because he studied fish slime had to work in very cold conditions so that his material would not deteriorate before he could examine it. And who knew that Mendel joined a monastery so he could secure a university education? His passion for raising peas taught us so much about human inheritance.

This book tackles and at least partially answers many of life's great questions including: Why did it take eons for life to become complex? What is our most ancient DNA? Why do humans have no more DNA than so many smaller, less complex creatures?  Why did we almost become extinct?  Why did we break away from monkeys? Is the impulse for art conveyed by our DNA? Why are identical twins not identical?

Your Voice in My Head

Your Voice in My Head"Can I tell you what it's like to live inside Millais' painting of Ophelia"? asks Emma Forrest in her memoir, Your Voice in My Head.  Forrest is already a published author and journalist when in her early 20s moves from London to New York.  Her professional rise as a writer coincides with her extreme struggles with self-cutting, an eating disorder, mania, a suicide attempt, and depression. 

Forrest credits a lot of her survival to psychiatrist, Dr. R.  So when Dr. R dies suddenly, and then a famous Hollywood actor dumps her via text message shortly after, Forrest is left alone to pick up the pieces of her heartbreak and loss. 

This isn't the type of memoir I usually read, but I'm glad I did.  Forrest walks well the line of artistic genius and insanity.  You care for her, even when the choices she makes are hard to understand.  Rounding out the sympathetic characters are Dr. R, and Forrest's own parents who deal the best they can from London. 

Travels in Siberia

This is exactly what I am looking for in a travel book. Frazier does an excellent job in combining extensive historical research and personal travel details and interweaves them into an immensely enjoyable book. Ignore the fact that Travels in Siberia is about 600 pages long, and travels to someplace you may never get to or wish to visit.

Frazier spent several years and several trips to various parts of Siberia, and this remains the main focus of this book.  The engaging factor is that none of these are just trips, and he allows for the Russian Far East to become part of his life, his passion.  Supplementing the daily details of the trips, including what they ate, where they camped, what they wore, and how they suffered the army of mosquitoes, is a rich history of Siberia and the overall international implications that stem from that vast region. 

Animals in Winter: Preschool Science and Math

 

As any parent knows, young children are curious about the world. At the library, we explore a range of topics during Preschool Science and Math. When the weather turns cold, I turn to one of my favorite themes for preschool science: Animals in Winter. Here are some of the activities we did in December!

The End of Your Life Book Club

You don't have to be in a book club to be touched and inspired by this generous, warm-hearted account of a son helping his mother through her last year of life with the help of books. Former teacher and refugee worker, Mary Anne Schwalbe, had always been close to her son, Will, who was an editor and worked in publishing. Not only did they constantly share books and recommend titles to each other, but they also had many discussions--some heated--about these same books.

After his mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Will spent a lot of time with her in hospital waiting rooms before her doctor visits and chemo treatments. On one of those trips they decided to pass the time by exploring the same books. "But how can we have a book club without food?" Mary Anne asked.

But The End of Your Life Book Club is so much more than analyzing contemporary literature à deux. Will also chronicles his mother's illness, her acceptance of her forthcoming death, and the effect these changes had on the family.

In one chapter Mary Anne and her husband revisit her favorite foreign city, London, where she lived as a young student. The book that mother and son shared that month was Felicia's Journey by Will Trevor. In another section, Mary Anne, Will and his brother discuss Russell Banks' Continental Drift while sharing a table with Mary Anne's birthday-bash barbecued pig. Will had stayed awake the night before regretting that he had encouraged his mom to read such a depressing book, but at the party, he heard her recommending it to many people.

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