What has everyone been reading in 2010? Every year I save the recommendations that I've received from local readers and dedicate a column or two to "cleaning out the mail bag." Here are some non-fiction favorites that you might enjoy.
Nancy Ball recommends "The Strength of What Remains" by Tracy Kidder. (Author of "Mountains Beyond Mountains" -- one of my all-time favorites.) Kidder recounts the true story of a young Tutsi boy caught up in the killing time in Zaire and Rwanda who manages to escape, penniless and with no English, to the United States. He eventually earns a medical degree at Columbia and returns to his homeland to open a free clinic with the help of Paul Farmer's Partners in Health.
Both Nancy and Kristen Harvey liked "Zeitoun" by Dave Eggers. It is hard to believe what happened to Zeitoun, a businessman who was caught in the chaos of post-Katrina New Orleans. Everyone should read this book to learn what can occur when our infrastructure breaks down during a crisis such as Katrina. It was a treat to meet Eggers and the Zeitouns when they visited Whitman College this fall to discuss the book and their experiences.
Kristen writes that their latest family favorite is "Playing with the Enemy: A Baseball Prodigy, World War II, and the Long Journey Home" by Gary Moore and Jim Morris. This is a true story of a pro baseball player becoming a soldier and guarding captured German soldiers during World War II. Because of boredom, the guards taught the prisoners to play baseball. Kristen notes that her son started reading it because of the baseball aspect but found the history interesting as well.
Sue Osterman enjoyed "The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance" by David Herlihy. In 1892, Frank Lenz of Pittsburgh, a renowned high-wheel racer and long-distance tourist, dreamed of cycling around the world. He never made it. His mysterious disappearance in eastern Turkey sparked an outcry and compelled Outing magazine to send William Sachtleben, another famous cyclist, on Lenz's trail. Read the book to find out what happened to Lenz.
Osterman also comments that Richard Yancy's "Confessions of a Tax Collector: One Man's Tour of Duty in the IRS" had her laughing out loud and actually having empathy for the taxman. Yancy's continuous message: "If the Revenue Officers have been sent after a tax payer, it is because that person has repeatedly ignored the IRS." By the end of the book, not only was Sue rooting for him, but she was hoping he'd put away more tax protestors.
Trudi Shannon liked "Breaking Clean" by Judy Blunt, who grew upon a ranch in northern Montana After several years of marriage and three children; she abandoned her life as a ranch wife for college and began writing award-winning poetry. Blunt proves to be a skillful writer, describing how she learned to survive in what remains a man's world.
Both Alice MacDonald and Jenny Romine recommend "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot. In 1951, impoverished housewife Henrietta Lacks checked into a "colored" ward at Johns Hopkins University to be treated for cervical cancer.
Her cancer cells, without her knowledge or consent, were saved and have thrived -- they are widely distributed and have been instrumental in modern medical research. Meanwhile her descendants continue to live in poverty.
"Next of Kin" by Roger Fouts is one of the most amazing books I have read in years. This autobiography tells the intertwined story of Washoe, the first signing chimp, and Roger's search for a sanctuary for Washoe and her family -- which he found in Ellensburg, Wash. It is also a call to political action for the humane treatment of chimpanzees in captivity.
Marion Gotschall comments that she started reading a lot about food after reading Michael Pollan's "Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World" in which he focuses on the relationship between humans and four specific plants: apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes. She also enjoyed "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal" by Eric Schlosser and "The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite" by David Kessler. Our AAUW book club read Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" recently to make us even more conscious of what is sold as "healthy" food.
Bink Owen notes that if you're looking for a few laughs you should check out Mary Roach's "Packing for Mars," a book for grownups who still secretly dream of being astronauts. Roach is unfailingly inquisitive (Why is it impolite for astronauts to float upside down during conversations? Just how smelly does a spacecraft get after a two week mission?) and eagerly seeks out the stories that don't make it onto NASA's website.
If you want to learn about the dark, largely unknown story of Blackwater, the world's most secretive, powerful and fastest growing private army, Mike Holman suggested you read Jeremy Scahill's expos?©, "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army." While a correspondent for Democracy Now, Scahill reported extensively from Iraq through both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Traveling around the hurricane zone in the wake of Katrina, Scahill exposed the presence of Blackwater forces in New Orleans and his reporting sparked a Congressional inquiry and an internal Department of Homeland Security investigation.
Keith Eckblaw enjoyed "Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearl Gates Using Philosophy (and Jokes!) To Explore Life, Death, the Afterlife, and Everything in Between" by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein. This gem of a book is a must-read for anyone and everyone who ever expects to die. The authors share the wisdom of the great philosophers, theologians, psychotherapists and wise guys and offer a fearless and irreverent history of how we approach death, why we embrace life and whether there really is a hereafter.
Next month: more recommendations from local readers.