Book Review: Earth Day Nonfiction

garbologyThere are a lot of books to read to learn about the plant on which we live. Do your Earth Day duty and visit your local public library to borrow one that might suit you.

Yep. Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash by Edward Hume is really a book about garbage, and it not only passed the magazine article test*, but I found it really hard to put down. What happens when we throw something away? Where does it go? And at what cost? Humes is able to answer these questions and along the way you meet people who have studied trash patterns (archeologists!), people who have eliminated 99% of the trash in their lives, people who are dedicated to inventing devices to take plastic out of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and artists who fight for the opportunity to create art out of garbage from the dump. 

This isn’t a book to help you create a plan to eliminate extraneous garbage from your life and house, but it is a book to start the discussion of want, need, waste, and our impact on this world. This book is nonpartisan, and straightforward in the presentation of facts, research and options but also completely fascinating and often shocking!

And once you finish that and are ready for something maybe a little less dirty, try one about water. The Big Thirst 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 bigthirstsense for both dry places like Las Vegas and Australia should also be considered for places like Atlanta and even smaller places, or where you might live. There are pages and pages of research, calculations and notes at the end, but the book was captivating, accessible and provides ample food for thought.

This book presents major challenges to safe water use and also offers solutions that while make sense, are a big shift in thinking at the household, municipal, state wide and federal level. I’m not sure we are ready yet. This would be an easy suggestion for fans of narrative nonfiction, current events or even trivia buffs. I couldn’t put it down.

Stars (for both/each): 5

*The magazine test is a simple question I often ask at the end of a nonfiction book. “Could this story be told just as well in a 12-18 page magazine article?” When the book is bad and the author makes a bunch of unnecessary arguments or presents examples that don’t serve to further the point the answer if often yes. In this case, both Garbology and The Big Thirst passed the magazine test.

Book Review: The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani

shoemakerThe best thing about this book is that is delivered exactly what I wanted and expected. I mean not every book needs to be groundbreaking and life changing, right? On the broad spectrum of literature, this novel falls somewhere in the middle. While it isn’t award caliber literary fiction, it isn’t as trite as a typical romance book either. And let me get this straight, just because it isn’t literary fiction doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy this. I did, and this book is  immensely enjoyable from the very beginning to the last page.
The Shoemaker’s Wife is a long, historical family saga with interesting and well researched details and extremely likeable characters. You don’t have to work hard to enjoy the story of Enza and Ciro, two northern Italians who find their paths crossing and recrossing over two continents and several decades. There are details of their lives in the small town alpine region of Italy, their recent immigrant experiences in New York, their careers, World War I, and their eventual westward movement. The various settings are all richly described and while the book is long it covers so much time that the pacing doesn’t get bogged down. There are universal themes of family, love, faith, loyalty and home and are all well represented and would make this a really easy book to suggest to a wide range of fiction readers.

Stars: 4

Book Review: Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall

borntorunNarrative nonfiction isn’t necessarily a genre, but a group of books that consist of nonfiction stories that have many of the same elements of fiction books, but happen to true. The best examples of this are biographies. The reader learns things from these books, but not in the how-to sense. Auto repair manuals, cookbooks, books with instructions on how to invest your money, build a deck, or play poker are not usually narrative nonfiction.

And I think this group of books gets a bad rap for being boring or dull. And often only a handful of NF authors really make a splash. Think: Malcolm Gladwell, Bill Bryson, and John Krakauer. But there are so many other authors who don’t get the same kind of press who are also writing books that are well paced, informative, engrossing, and often wickedly funny. Excellent narrative nonfiction is out there!

For example, Born to Run is packed with all the page turning elements of a really good book: a sympathetic narrator, explorations of a unique and not well known culture (Tarahumara), rich descriptions of endurance and human strength, almost unbelievably quirky and lovable characters, layman’s science and explanations of anatomy and evolution, and a thrilling climax of a race through Mexico’s colorful Copper Canyons. I alternately gasped and laughed throughout, and am better informed at the end.
This book got a lot of good press when it came out, and many people have recommended it to me. They were all right. I don’t think you have to be into running to enjoy this either.

Stars: Five

Book Review: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

panopticonThis book made a lot of year-end best-of lists a few years ago and was generally really well reviewed. I finally got around to reading it and I dunnae get it. Anais is a lost soul – orphaned at birth and raised in various group and foster homes and for awhile by a prostitute with a heart of gold who gets murdered in their apartment. So you get it, why she is so messed up. I thought that overall the author did a good job of creating a really really troubled character who is also somewhat likeable, despite not fully believing some of the characteristics.

In the beginning, Anais is moved to a new home, The Panopticon, after being accused of putting a police officer in a coma. Anais doesn’t think she did it, but does so many drugs that she might not remember properly. Most of the book is about her time in the home and her interactions with the other troubled teens.

So much of the book is in Anais’ head that you don’t get any feel for the other characters. This intense focus on Anais was also problematic with the pacing. Her swirling thoughts (often drug addled) went on for pages and I didn’t think contributed effectively to the overall story or tone.

The storyline was gritty, ugly and rough but I knew that going in so it wasn’t a complete shock. There were occasions of dark humor, and that tempered the disturbing elements of the storyline in a really good way. The scene where the staff from the home take the kids to the park in the van and ride the boats out was a joy to read because it had the right balance of dark humor, stress, problems, and hope. But that balance is hard and this is where I think the book didn’t work for me in the end. Yes, Anais is likeable, but I found my sympathy (and ultimately, believability) for her waver too.

There are a lot of red flags: language, rape, drug use, prostitution, described violence, mental illness, and lastly Scottish accents.

Stars: 3

Book Review: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

outlanderOk, so I know that everybody read this like 10 years ago and I am the only person this year reading this for the first time. I have had very well-read friends tell me that this is their favorite book ever. I know people who have read the series several times (all 450,000 pages). And while I really really wanted to like this, I just didn’t in the end. I thought it was confusing, and some of the themes and storylines were out of place.
Claire is an English World War II nurse who is reconnecting with her soldier husband after the war in Scotland. Long story short: she visits a stone circle after a ritual and gets sent back to 18th century Scotland. In order to keep herself safe of being accused as an English spy, she ends up marrying Jamie Fraser who is a sexy kilt wearing Scottish warrior with a knack for getting maliciously injured. Claire spends a lot of time nursing him and they are always on the run from the British.
I am a sucker for a fish-out-of-water story. Travel, time travel, whatever, I like to watch a character have to quickly adapt to their new surroundings. And Claire is delightful. She is smart, funny, caring and strong. I also liked Jamie, and while their sexual relationship didn’t feel very developed, their friendship did. Jamie is struck by love-at-first-sight, which seems like a lazy way to develop lust, oh, I mean love. 
So they run around the country side from the British and especially from Claire’s first husband’s long lost relative who want to maim, love, screw, and kill Jamie (sometimes in that order). 
I thought that the story could have been shorter, but was driven by the characters and the setting, both of which I liked. But there was a considerable amount of time that was spent talking about whether or not you can beat someone you love. Children, lovers, other family members. What is the lesson in a good beating? Apparently there is one as Claire learns that in a particularly upsetting scene. And when does it cross the line into pure abuse? While I get that this was a different era, there was so much time (in an already long book) spent discussing beatings, minutely detailing the injuries, and reflecting on the hear earned lessons. Ug.
To a lesser degree, I also had trouble with the notions that homosexuality is only a weapon used for evil and that religion is the only answer for the really tough questions. These sort of conservative themes didn’t seem to match the rest of the book and felt out of place.
I don’t regret reading this (finally), but most likely not picking up the rest of the series.

Stars: 3