Thursday, August 27, 2009

New Notable Nonfiction

Sometimes it feels like all of the nonfiction books that are being published these days are about three topics: food (growing, cooking, and eating -- how to, what to, where to, when to), finances (crises and criminals), and politics of one form or another. Sigh. There must be more to read about.

A quick perusal of our shelves is reassuring, however, as I find MANY great new books to read that AREN'T about these three topics. Here are a few that might grab your interest:

Young Woman & the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World, by Glenn Stout. In 1926, an American teenager named Trudy Ederle captured the imagination of the world when she became the first woman to swim the English Channel, beating the existing record (held by a man) by nearly two hours. Set against the backdrop of the Roaring Twenties, Young Woman and the Sea tells the story of Ederle's pursuit of a goal no one believed possible, and the price she paid for going after it, shattering centuries of stereotypes and opening doors of generations of women to come. A couple of good friends have recently read this book and give it high marks -- not only for telling Ederle's story but for providing the historical context in which it unfolded.

I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears, and Other Intriguing Idioms from Around the World, Jag Bhalla. I heard about this book on NPR and just had to get it. The author provides a light-hearted tour of the world's idioms, which in turn provide a wonderful window on how different cultures see the world. For example, to express a feeling of ecstasy, the Spanish say they are "as happy as castanets," while for Germans to be ecstatic is to "hang heaven full of violins." And the French idiom for "to die laughing" is "to bang your butt on the ground." Hmmm. Expressive. The Italians describe the attempt to revive a lapsed love affair as "reheated cabbage." Russians describe something gnawing at one's heart as "cat scratches on the soul." Clearly, this book is both educational and entertaining -- and think of how much fun you'll be at cocktail parties (not that you're not already). And by the way, "I'm not hanging noodles on your ears" is a Russian idiom for "I'm not pulling your leg."

A Splintered History of Wood: Belt-Sander Races, Blind Woodworkers & Baseball Bats, by Spike Carlsen. This book was selected as an NPR Best Book of the Year when it came out in hardcover, and it has just been published in paperback. Just think where we'd be without wood: what would be do for fire, heat, and shelter? What would we use to make violins, or chopsticks? Frankly, without wood, even books wouldn't exist. Carlsen mixes well-researched history, trivia, and humorous anecdotes to tell the story of something most of us take for granted. But you won't after reading this book!

The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, by Douglas Brinkley. Brinkley, a history professor at Rice University and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, has produced a doorstopper of a book, clocking in at a mere 800+ pages, plus notes. By setting aside more than 230 million acres of wild America for posterity between 1901 and 1909, Theodore Roosevelt made conservation a universal endeavor. Roosevelt's most important legacies led to the creation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and passage of the Antiquities Act in 1906. His executive orders saved such treasures as Devils Tower, the Grand Canyon, and the Petrified Forest.Tracing the role that nature played in Roosevelt's storied career, Brinkley brilliantly analyzes the influence of the works of John James Audubon and Charles Darwin. With descriptive flair, the author illuminates Roosevelt's bird watching in the Adirondacks, wildlife obsession in Yellowstone, hikes in the Blue Ridge Mountains, ranching in the Dakota Territory, hunting in the Big Horn Mountains, and outdoor romps through Idaho and Wyoming. He also profiles Roosevelt's incredible circle of naturalist friends, including the Catskills poet John Burroughs, forestry zealot Gifford Pinchot, Sierra Club founder John Muir, Oregon Audubon Society founder William L. Finley, and pelican protector Paul Kroegel, among many others. This book is no walk in the park -- pun intended -- but it is a groundbreaking epic biography.

One Ring Circus: Dispatches from the World of Boxing, by Katherine Dunn. Dunn, Portland resident and author of the bestselling novel Geek Love, has been described as "hands-down the best boxing journalist working today." This collection of essays and articles on boxing by Dunn is a rare treat for aficionados of the "sweet science," highlighting her novelist's ear for the vernacular and eye for the telling detail. Did you see Jeff Baker's wonderful article on Dunn in The Oregonian recently? It was terrific.

The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum, by Rebecca Loncraine. L. Frank Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1899, and it was first published in 1900. A runaway hit, it was soon recognized as America's first modern fairy tale. Baum's life, too, is uniquely American, rooted in the transforming historical changes of his times. Baum's restless and creative spirit led him from the Finger Lakes region of New York (where he was born in 1856) to the rugged Dakota territory to the excitement of Chicago and the World's Fair to Hollywood, the true land of Oz. After his first book, he went on to write thirteen Oz sequels. Unfortunately he wasn't around to see the ginormous success of the Technicolor MGM movie production of his book; he died in bed in 1919 just weeks after completing his final Oz book.

And I think I wrote about this book before, but my partner just finished reading it and said it was terrific so I have to include it in this round-up: Halfway to Heaven: My White-Knuckled -- and Knuckleheaded -- Quest for the Rocky Mountain High, by Mark Obmascik. Some of you might remember Obmascik as the author of The Big Year, about the competition among obsessed bird watchers to spot the most number of species during a year. This new book tells of his attempt -- at age 44, no less -- to scale all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot mountains, known as "the Fourteeners," in less than one year. Think Bill Bryson and A Walk in the Woods, but with less oxygen.

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