Thursday, December 22, 2011

What I've Been Reading Lately, Part II: Nonfiction

As happy as I've been with my fiction reading choices of late, I've been equally satisfied with what I've been reading on the nonfiction side. Here are the last few I've read, plus a look ahead at some to come.

The most recent nonfiction book I read was Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard. I've been eagerly awaiting a new book from this writer, and I was not disappointed. Millard's first book was The River of Doubt, about what had to have been history's most poorly planned trip -- a harrowing journey by Teddy Roosevelt and his son Kermit down an uncharted tributary of the Amazon after he lost the presidential election in 1912.

Her new book tells the story of James A. Garfield, our twentieth president and the last of "the log cabin presidents," who -- to the surprise of many -- was elected in 1881. Just a few months after his election, a deranged office-seeker shot him in the back. The book focuses on the drama of what hap­pened subsequently, as a team of physicians administered shockingly archaic treatments, to disastrous effect. Even Alexander Graham Bell got in the game, as he attempted to invent an instrument that could locate a bullet in a body.

Janet Maslin of The New York Times named it one of the top ten books of 2011, calling it a staggering tale of "lunacy... and medical malfeasance. " Another reviewer described it as "first-rate history, political intrigue, and a true-crime story all rolled into one."

The nonfiction book I read before that was Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness, by Alexandra Fuller. In Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (she definitely wins the award for best titles and covers), Fuller wrote about growing up in then-Rhodesia-now-Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Zambia. Her newest book revisits that same time period, but this time through the perspective of her parents, Nicola and Tim, and she interviews her them about their personal history.

Fuller was born in England in 1969. In 1972 she moved with her family to a farm in Rhodesia. After that country’s civil war in 1981, the Fullers moved first to Malawi, then to Zambia. Currently she lives in Wyoming (the setting for her nonfiction book The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, also a wonderfully moving book). I loved Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight -- but I loved Cocktail Hour even more! I highly recommend them both; read in any order.

The nonfiction book before that was the latest from the marvelous storyteller Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin. The book tells the story of William Dodd, a mild-mannered professor from Chicago, who became America's ambassador to Germany in 1933, when Hitler came to power. Dodd moved to Berlin with his wife, son, and recently divorced daughter, willing to give Hitler the benefit of the doubt. Violence, censorship, and over-the-top behavior soon opened their eyes to the true threat Hitler posed, and Dodd tried to sound the alarm back home. Both Dodd and his daughter were avid journal-keepers and letter-writers, giving Larson a trove of eyewitness accounts to draw on.

One last nonfiction book I read that I'll mention just briefly: The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, by Kim Barker. Barker, one of the Middle East's longest serving correspondents, captures the absurdities and tragedies of life in a war zone in a voice that is candid, self-deprecating, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times recently named it one of her picks for 2011. Interestingly, Barker has a Portland connection, with family living in the area.

What's next on my nonfiction reading list?? Hmmm, I'll have to see what my mood is like after the holidays. Some of the options on the table are Van Gogh: The LifeA World on Fire, Steve Jobs, and 1491. Given the frenetic pace of the past few weeks, I might have to find something a little lighter to dip into first.

The nonfiction book I am most looking forward to being published in 2012 is unquestionably Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by local writer Cheryl Strayed. I've already started reading an advanced copy of this book, and I can tell you that it's the real deal. Given how frenetic and stressed my life has been of late, and my herky-jerky opportunities for reading, I decided to put the book away until after the holidays so I can return to it at a time when I can truly savor every word. Have you ever done that? Tucked away a jewel of a book to read, and on those more-challenging days with long dark nights you flash upon the gem that awaits you and it makes you smile? That's how I feel about reading Cheryl's book. I'm also happy to share with you that you will be able to purchase signed and/or personalized copies of Cheryl's book through our website when the book publishes in March.

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