Wednesday, March 18, 2009

learn something new: nonfiction!

I was a CA (same as an RA) in college for a year and a half. I liked it. Not the roommates stealing from each other or finding the occasional co-ed passed out in the bathroom or the puke on the stairs or the cranky three a.m. calls about noise. No, what I liked about residential living (we weren't supposed to even whisper "dorm") was the hall barbecues and the organized trips to the skating rink and making everyone who walked by the front desk play Jenga. I also liked making bulletin boards. Our hall director checked to make sure we changed our boards once a month and she always complimented me. I think I even got nominated for a Best Board award or something. Of course, I also won the Door Knob award, but that's another story.

Anyway. Oh, think if I'd just spent those hours tacking on a second major instead! One of my favorite boards was Learn Something New, a sort of command to my freshman residents. I posted quirky magazine articles and lists of odd statistics. I'm a sucker for things like that. I love learning new things. Well, most of the time.

Five or six years ago, I asked my students to set a reading goal for themselves. I set one for myself: to read more nonfiction books. Outside of magazine and newspaper articles, I didn't touch much nonfiction. Since then, I've been hooked. Here are a few of my favorites:

Jon Krakauer. I first read his chronicle of Chris McCandless' life Into the Wild. It remains one of my favorite books. I first started it in college when a friend named James loaned me a copy (which I kept). I didn't finish it then but revisited it a few years later. Since then I've reread it three or four times. The movie is a good adaptation, keeping the spirit of the book but, of course, the book is better.

Since I taught an excerpt of Krakauer's Into Thin Air, I decided to read the entire book. Into Thin Air is an personal account of one of the most disastrous days on Mt. Everest in May 1996, and adeptly challenges the value of crowding the summit with adventure tourists.

His Under the Banner of Heaven is an entirely different subject matter from his previous books. This book begins with the 1984 murders of a mother and her toddler committed in the tight, closed community of fundamentalist Mormons. From there, Krakauer details the history of the Mormon church, including its fundamentalist sects, ultimately seeking to understand what motivated the killers.

I haven't read his most recent books but I'll be checking them out when I'm back in the States this summer. I think Krakauer is a careful, precise writer. He wants his facts to be accurate and he delivers them eloquently.

Mary Roach. I read Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers first and still like that one best. I'm a little nervous that she's locked herself into a Sue Grafton type title deal: Stiff was followed by Spook was followed by Bonk. Oh well. Spook was okay and parts of Bonk were hilarious while other parts were just a little too uncomfortable. Perhaps we don't all need to be so informed. So read Stiff and take or leave the other two. I'll still check out her next book. And, yes, I'll be irritated if she passes on the single word title.

Michael D'Orso. I finished reading Eagle Blue: A Team, a Tribe, and a High School Basketball Season in Arctic Alaska and immediately looked up other titles by the author. Eagle Blue is one of the best nonfiction books I've read, following a high school boys' basketball team through their season. You read the book and get to know the boys, their families and teachers and coaches; you develop a sense of the community. D'Orso gives the background knowledge you need to appreciate the tribal life and explains the current challenges to that same way of life.

I loaned the book to a coworker who taught in Alaska for a number of years. She told me that she recognized the names of the little towns in the interior and that the descriptions made her nostalgic. Her husband, in fact, coached basketball and remembered some of the teams.

It's a tough life that far north and I finished the book with a greater respect for the men, women, and children who live in the interior. Part of me wishes I were brave enough to learn that culture. A bigger part of me doesn't want to have to defrost the house every morning.

Lillian Schlissel. I have this thing about pioneer women. I love pioneer women. I began reading their diaries and about their life on the trail and out west when I was in college. I think it started in a history (my minor) class and carried over into an independent writing project for creative writing (my other minor). Lillian Schlissel wrote one of my favorite pioneer women books, Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey. I've read it a couple of times now and am always amazed by the women's endurance. Women's Diaries is honest about the hardships women faced on the trail. The entries are exciting, mundane, complaining, anticipatory, worried, depressed, content.

Schlissel teamed up with Byrd Gibbens and Elizabeth Hampsten to write Far From Home: Families of the Westward Journey. I actually taught an excerpt of this book which is divided into three parts, each focusing on a different family. The three families' experiences give a broad view of what it was like for families to make the decision to head west. For one family, the Malicks, it was a way of life. They'd moved before. Another family, the Browns, thought it'd be a chance to start over, make some money. And the Nehers, just arrived from Eastern Europe, saw a shot at the American Dream.

Post your own nonfiction recommendations if you have them. I'm starting a book list for summer.


Angela and David Kidd said...

I am going to have to check out Eagle Blue: A Team, a Tribe, and a High School Basketball Season in Arctic Alaska. Sounds like something I would love.

I love non-fiction and I really love memoirs. Julia Childs' is my favorite.

Sergio en Colombia said...

"they poured fire on us from the sky" about the lost boys of sudan
"a long way gone" about a boy soldier in sierra leone
"a mighty heart" about the death of daniel pearl written by his wife. (i cried)