Thursday, January 17, 2013

General Nonfiction Reads of 2012

To close out my 2012 book reviews, here's the rest of the nonfiction I read last year. I love memoirs and history and narrative nonfiction, so I read a lot of nonfiction for pleasure, besides the nonfiction I read about parenting, education, food, etc. But this was a year for duds. I am usually generous with my ratings, so it's saying something that it took six general nonfiction books before I awarded five stars--and that was to a book I'd read before!

Rick Bragg (a favorite author of mine) was the big winner this year; his books are two of the only three five-star picks. And this list doesn't even include the handful of books I abandoned for their mediocrity. Here's to better selections in 2013...

My rating system:
***** Loved it, would read again
**** Liked it, would recommend
*** It was OK
** Didn't really like it
* Hated it

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier – Ishmael Beah***
I think it’s important to hear and think about stories like this—the author was a child soldier in Sierra Leone—but the telling of the story didn’t do much for me. The ending left me dissatisfied, with a lot of unanswered questions. He didn't fully explain *how* the rehabilitation worked for him, and I would have liked to hear more about how he got out of Sierra Leone and settled into life in America.

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa – Adam Hochschild***
My interest in nonfiction about the Congo was piqued after reading The Poisonwood Bible last year. This information is important—Westerners need to hear and grieve the dark history of our ancestors’ sins in Africa—but the book wasn’t particularly great. It was a bit dry to plow through; just felt like a pile-on of data rather than a story with a plot and a climax.

Road Map to Holland: How I Found My Way Through My Son’s First Two Years with Down Syndrome – Jennifer Graf Groneberg***
Groneberg’s story of adjusting to life as the mother of a child with Down syndrome was thoughtful and honest, at times beautiful, but overall not spectacular.

Terrify No More – Gary Haugen & Gregg Hunter****
I’m glad I took the time to read about modern-day sex slavery (an issue I’ve heard of over the last few years, but knew nothing about). I came away amazed by the work of International Justice Mission in liberating and caring for oppressed, enslaved young girls in Asia. The book also touches on IJM’s other work around the world—very inspiring.

Your Four Year Old – Ames & Ilg**
I found this almost totally worthless. The series is widely recommended by friends of mine, and I’ve found other years helpful for understanding and gaining perspective on developmental phases. But this one was all stereotypes and generalizations—so even though they kept saying “not all four-year-olds do this, they all develop at different paces and have different strengths, normal for your child may not look like this, etc.”—I felt like, what is the point? A lot of it didn’t seem to apply to Elijah at all, and if you have to make a million disclaimers, is it really all that helpful or even true? Ugh.

All Over But the Shoutin’ – Rick Bragg*****
With so many books in the world, I don't reread often, but this memoir was just as wonderful the second time through—Bragg’s journey from dirt-poor rural Alabama to a Pulitzer Prize at the New York Times is masterfully told, heartfelt and honest.

Your One Year Old – Ames & Ilg***
This one is a lot more helpful than the four-year-old edition. Part “what to expect,” part “your kid is totally normal,” it’s a quick read on developmental stages that helps put your toddler’s behavior in perspective. Generally speaking, I think Christian parents are a little too quick to label everything a one-year-old does as “defiance” and “rebelliousness” and “disobedient sin.” While I do believe children are afflicted with the same sinful nature that plagues us all, I think it would do us, and them, a lot of good to extend a lot more grace by giving a lot more consideration to child development and the reality of their limited abilities and understanding. This book helps me do that.

Adoption Nation – Adam Pertman***
Pertman really burst my bubble in terms of the romanticized, idealistic view of adoption I’ve had. Which was probably a good thing, but his forceful emphasis on open adoption challenged my thinking and left me, sadly, feeling less eager to adopt. I’d really like to spend some time processing this with other adoptive parents for a balanced perspective.

A Night to Remember – Walter Lord****
I've been fascinated by the Titanic ever since my grandmother took me to a Titanic museum when I was young. Given that 2012 was the 100th anniversary of the sinking, I was drawn to read about it, and this classic 1950s account was chilling. The senselessness of this epic, avoidable tragedy strangely captivates me. Hard to follow with all the names, and left me wanting more, but I enjoyed it.

The Night Lives On – Walter Lord***
I was on a Titanic kick after finishing A Night to Remember. This follow-up from the same author explored various myths, questions and details that have arisen since the sinking of Titanic—not spectacular, but intriguing.

Ava’s Man – Rick Bragg*****
Some people can tell a good story—the kind that makes you crazy to find out what happens, and then brokenhearted when it’s over. Some people can string words and sentences together in a way that makes the English language sing, and makes you marvel at the craft of writing. Rick Bragg is both, brilliantly. This follow-up memoir to All Over But the Shoutin’ is every bit as poignant and stirring.

My Father, Maker of the Trees: How I Survived the Rwandan Genocide – Eric Irivuzumugabe***
The author’s testimony is powerful, and he points to the God of reconciliation so beautifully, but for whatever reason I just didn’t find the book overall as compelling as other books I’ve read about Rwanda (and I’ve read several).

Designated Daughter: The Bonus Years with Mom – D.G. Fulford and Phyllis Greene***
I can’t really decide what I thought of this. It was an interesting look at the deep and beautiful bond as a daughter becomes caretaker to her aging mother, but the daughter isn’t a particularly lovable character. I did like hearing the mother’s voice at the end of each chapter. In the end, though, the book’s lack of spiritual truth left me feeling a bit empty—watching people approach death (the authors are very candid about its inevitability, the “elephant” following them) without Christ is disconcerting at the very least, and difficult to read.

Bloom: Finding Beauty in the Unexpected. – Kelle Hampton***
After sitting at my computer in tears reading Kelle Hampton’s account of her daughter’s birth a couple of years ago, I was thrilled to find out that she had published a book. Nella Cordelia was born in January 2010, and she unexpectedly had Down syndrome. Bloom is Kelle’s memoir of the first year of Nella’s life, as she adjusted to a very different mothering experience than she anticipated and learned to delight in her new daughter and her new normal. The book features full-color photos throughout, and there was much beauty in the photos and the words, much to find inspiring. Yet ultimately I was disappointed for what I didn’t find in this book: God (or at least the God of the Bible). Instead Kelle refers in passing a few times to a God created in her image, an impotent God who doesn’t do anything Kelle doesn’t like or understand. The book is peppered with profanity and bad theology, and the real heroes of the story are beer and her incredibly enormous posse of girlfriends. I think this quote from page 163 captures the spirit of the book and my disappointment with it:
 “I could question it, fight it, and surrender to the flag of It’s not fair, or I could learn from it. And I wanted to learn from it. I realized I was the only one who had the power to move on and turn our curveball into a home run, so I did my best to choose my perspective…I wanted to change. I wanted to be better. I wanted to begin a journey of gratitude and growth, and this was the perfect opportunity.” 
–So far, so good. I can learn from this! I want to be more like this! But then she continues: “And so I pictured myself, on a hill, fist raised to thundering skies shouting to it all—to God, to the Universe, to Coincidence, to Science—‘I see your challenge. I accept. I accept. I’ll show you how I can do it. You have no idea just how I’m gonna rock this out.’” 
Ouch. To Kelle, God is not the source of strength and hope, an “ever-present help in time of trouble,” but instead an impersonal force, akin to the generic “Universe,” to whom you shake your fist and prove how great you are.

Turn Right at the Next Corner – Pat Vivo**
I vaguely remember loving Pat Vivo when she came to speak at Buckeye Girls’ State in 1999—apparently, enough to buy her book. I found it on my shelf when reorganizing and decided to reread it to figure out if it was really a keeper (bookshelf space is at a premium at our house). Answer: No. She may have been a great speaker, but her book is nothing spectacular. It reads like a random grandmother’s life story, a collection of memories without a cohesive purpose—perhaps interesting if you know and love the woman; otherwise, not particularly compelling.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America ¬– Erik Larson*****
A chilling and fascinating contribution to the “narrative nonfiction history” genre I’ve grown to love. This thriller is about two men and the Chicago World's Fair of 1893—H.H. Holmes, the serial killer who committed unimaginable horrors, but also (more than I realized) Daniel Burnham, the architect who pulled off unimaginable wonders. Besides captivating my attention, the book also fed my growing fascination with the Gilded Age and Beaux-Arts architecture.

The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White  – Daniel Sharfstein (audiobook)***
I'd recommend this book--but I would emphatically NOT recommend the audio version. First, the narrator is awful. I'm pretty sure his voice is one used for automated recordings--the way he reads is so disjointed (and over-enunciated) that all I could think about is that automated voice, like every word had been recorded separately. I got used to it by the end (or maybe he improved), but it was incredibly distracting. Second, I don't think the subject matter lends itself well to an audiobook. I wanted to see photos of the main characters, which I think are included in the print version, and there are so many generations of the three families that it's hard to remember who's who--it would have been helpful to be able to flip back and forth and even reference family trees (I don't know if those are included in the print version, but they should be).

That said, it was still a fascinating book. The history of race in America is sickening, maddening, unbelievable. Hearing it laid out in the personal history of families who "crossed the color line," better understanding the abuses black families suffered, was eye-opening. The irony is at times overwhelming--I so wished the racist Louisiana senator who had black ancestors would get his comeuppance at the end, but sadly, he did not seem to realize before he died how insane his views were in light of his own bloodlines. I found myself absolutely appalled as I listened, again and again--but I think the author did a great job of not sensationalizing, just bringing the characters to life. His comprehensive research and engaging storytelling illuminated the complex issues, blind and illogical thinking, and societal/cultural norms that contributed to the poisonous racial atmosphere in the 19th and 20th centuries in the United States.

American Metropolis: A History of New York City – George Lankevich**
This is primarily a political history of NYC--which is not the type of NYC history book I wanted to read. It was dense, slow and somewhat boring. There were a few interesting tidbits, but mostly it was a lengthy, detailed review of every mayor of the city, how he got elected, what he accomplished, how he failed, etc. I guess you could say the book whetted my appetite to read more about the fascinating city of New York, and it did fill in some helpful background history as well as give me a detailed framework on which to hang other knowledge about NYC, but overall I wouldn't recommend it unless you're really into politics and city government.

Downtown: My Manhattan  – Pete Hamill****
Part memoir, part NYC history, this was an engaging portrait of my favorite city. Very readable and made me want to go back to the city, even though I just visited less than a month before reading it.

Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near-Death of an American City – Jed Horne*
I have no idea why I bothered to finish this--I guess I was in denial about how long and awful it was. Horne tried the narrative nonfiction style I so loved, and failed miserably. The entire book was a pile of cumbersome, meandering sentences with so many dependent clauses that by the time I got to the end, I forgot what the subject of the sentence was and had to go back and reread it, sometimes more than once. He went out of his way to use obscure vocabulary that I actually had to look up, only to find in the dictionary a notation that the word was "archaic" or "rare" or "poetic/literary." Really? Come on. The chronology was disordered and confusing, and it was SLOW. I've never been so relieved to finish a book.

The beginning of the book was promising; it at least helped me to better understand the perspectives of the people who did not evacuate ahead of Hurricane Katrina. But it was crisscrossed with too many characters; it lacked a cohesive narrative thread; and worst of all, it failed to convince me that NOLA is indeed a "Great American City." In fact I spent a good part of the second half especially just wanting to throw my Kindle against the wall in disgust over the corruption and waste and stupidity, both at the federal and local levels of government. I think the book was written too soon; it certainly didn't need to be any longer, but it would have benefited from more distance and follow-up (it was published less than a year after the hurricane). And in the end, I was not persuaded that New Orleans should be rebuilt as it was; rather, I was left frustrated and overwhelmed by the complex rat's nest of problems, incompetence and systemic failures that led to the tragedy in the first place and hindered the city's recovery.

The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared – Alice Ozma***
I can't really decide what I thought of this. It kept me interested--a light, quick read--but it seemed overly...precious at times. I mean, I was a precocious child, but this *felt* like it had been written by a precocious child, at times almost obnoxiously so. The father was quite a character--I can't decide what I thought of him either. In the end the book is much more a mushy, sentimental tribute to the author's father than a book about reading or the books they shared (and I am totally baffled as to how/why the father will not read this book--is that even true?!). Except for one or two brief chapters, it doesn't go into much about the books themselves at all (each chapter begins with an epigraph from a book they read, but most of the time they seem random and only loosely related). Also, the sample "reading promise" at the end is cheesy and weird. So, I'm kind of ambivalent. Wouldn't give it a rave recommendation, didn't hate it.

And that concludes my book list for 2012. What nonfiction did you love last year?


Danielle said...

I'm glad you "liked" if that's the right word, "Terrify No More" and "Devil in the White City." I put "All Over But the Shoutin'" on my library book list for this year.

Amy said...

yay! I hope you love Bragg. I can't believe it took me so long to figure out that he'd written more books--there are two more memoirs besides Ava's Man, plus a compilation of his newspaper stories. I found the newspaper one at our used bookstore, and shockingly enough, our library has the other two! so I definitely plan to read more of his stuff this year.

Amy said...

that should be *after* Ava's Man.

Zoanna said...

Thanks for the recommendations and honest reviews. Since it appears that you and I share a love for memoirs and many of the same topics and writing style, I take your reviews seriously. I will put All Over But the Shoutin' on my 2013 list.

I started too few books in '12, and finished even fewer. Among them, however, is one I'm not quite finished with because I misplaced it. A Jewish woman's memoirs of LONG ago, but I can't remember the title. If you want, I'll track it down.