BOOK NOTES - Readers recommend nonfiction book favorites


Cleaning out my column's mail bag continues this month with nonfiction recommendations I've collected over the year.

If you were fascinated by the rescue of the Chilean miners, Keith Ekblaw recommends "33 Men: Inside the Miraculous Survival and Dramatic Rescue of the Chilean Miners" by Jonathan Franklin (2011).

This is a remarkable 21st century saga of human trial and survival with just enough cultural context and technical information to make it a book that also teaches something about what's possible in this global hi-tech world we live in.

Bruce Reichert found "What is Your Dangerous Idea? Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable" by John Brockman (2007) an interesting read. What do the world's leading scientists and thinkers consider to be their most dangerous idea? Through the leading online forum Edge (, the call went out, and this collection of short essays about dangerous ideas with their positive and negative consequences gives the answers.

"Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America" by Paul Tough (2008) was recommended by Sue Osterman. Three questions lie at the heart of Paul Tough's important new book. Why are poor people poor? Why do they stay poor? What would it take to get them out of poverty? These questions led Geoffrey Canada to create the Harlem Children's Zone, a 97-block laboratory in Harlem where he is testing new and sometimes controversial ideas about poverty in America.

Another favorite of Sue Osterman's was "The Mapmaker's Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder and Survival in the Amazon" by Robert Whitaker (2004). A scientific expedition was organized in Paris and sent to Peru in 1735. After 10 years of incredible hardships and setbacks, the expedition accomplished its mission -- including finding the cure for malaria from a native plant.

Roxann Jensen reports that she found "The Lost City of Z: A Deadly Obsession in the Amazon" by David Grann (2010) interesting and well written. In 1925, the legendary British explorer Percy Fawcett ventured into the Amazon jungle, in search of a fabled civilization. He never returned.

Journalist David Grann weaves the stories of Fawcett's quest for "Z" and his own journey into the deadly jungle, as he attempts to unravel one of the greatest exploration mysteries of the 20th century.

Sue McGowan recommends "River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey" by Candice Millard (2006). The book chronicles the expedition of Theodore Roosevelt down one of Amazon's last unexplored tributaries in 1914 -- the River of Doubt. The 400-mile river trip tested every ounce of the ex-president's intellect, courage, and physical stamina. Roosevelt and his companions were woefully unprepared for their journey. Millard's book is more a tale of survival than adventure.

Dana Ryan recommends "Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy" by Carlos Eire (2003). At the start of the 1960s, an operation called Pedro Pan flew more than 14,000 Cuban children out of the country without their parents, and deposited them in Miami. Eire, now a professor of history and religion at Yale, was one. His deeply moving memoir describes his life before Fidel Castro among the aristocracy of old Cuba, and later, in America where he went from a child of privilege to a lost boy.

Norm Osterman notes that if you were wondering where the current craze of running with "minimal" shoes or even barefoot got started be sure to read "Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen" by Christopher McDougall (2011). The book beings with the author's lament: "Why does my foot hurt?" In search of an answer, McDougall sets off to find a tribe of the world's greatest distance runners and learn their secrets.

Robertta Hunt recommends "An Invisible Thread: The True Story of an 11-Year-Old Panhandler, a Busy Sales Executive, and an Unlikely Meeting with Destiny" by Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski (2011). This book is about the friendship Laura, the sales exec, and an 11-year-old panhandler developed. Another favorite of Robertta's on the same subject is "Breakfast at Sally's: One Homeless Man's Incredible Journey" by Richard LeMieux (2009), a once a happily married businessman who saw his fortune change almost overnight. His memoir describes his descent into homelessness and struggle to survive personal and economic disaster.

Our book club read a delightful memoir by Heather Lende, a columnist for the Anchorage Daily News who lives in Haines, Alaska. "Take Good Care of the Garden and The Dogs: A True Story of Bad Breaks and Small Miracles" (2011) describes life in small-town Alaska with all its characters and life's ups and downs. If you've ever lived in a small town or had a bad accident you can identify with this book.

Kristen Harvey writes that her favorite book this year was "Mao's Last Dancer" by Cunxin Li (2008). At age 11, Cunxin was taken from a peasant's life in the country to study in ballet in the city as part of Mao's Cultural Revolution. This memoir of his life tells the amazing journey he took.

Marilee Fuller enjoyed " Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India" by Miranda Kennedy (2011). Kennedy is a reporter for NPR who moved to India. Her description of her life there and especially her women friends is lively and insightful.

Another favorite of Marilee's was "A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother" by Janny Scott (2011). Marilee comments that the writing style leaves something to be desired, but the well-researched story of Ann Dunham and her life as a very successful anthropologist in Indonesia is fascinating. You may notice many of Ann's traits in President Obama.

I hope you found some interesting books in this potpourri of recommendations to add to your "to read" list.

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