Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Nonfiction Finds

For some reason I find it harder to blog about most nonfiction books than fiction.  Almost like there is so much to say that I draw a blank and don't know where to start...so I thought that some mini-reviews might be in order.  I haven't read as much nonfiction this year as I have in years past, but here's some nonfiction books I've been wanting to share.

Tattoos on the Heart, Gregory Boyle
We all just want to be called by the name our mom uses
when she's not pissed off at us.

I read this for one of my book clubs.  It was a nice change of genres, and held the added interest of being local(ish) to our area.  I typically run from memoir/self-help type books, which this could technically be categorized as, but the author has such a humility and personal-improvement perspective that it is not at all what I thought it would be.  Father Boyle works with gang members in Los Angeles, and he has a very practical grasp on how to demonstrate love and emulate Jesus' ministry.  Also, he's quite a reader so there were many times he quoted authors (double fun!)

You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.

At Home, Bill Bryson
If you've ever read Bill Bryson, especially if you are a person who appreciates the odd facts and juicy tidbits he likes to throw in there, you know that if you try to write out interesting quotations you'll have filled a large notebook before the first chapter is over.  This book was no different.  Much of the book talks about architecture, although the intro where he talks about the history of home and the idea of comfort was quite interesting to me, as were the bits about servant life.  Did you know that there was one point when lobster was so plentiful that servants actually had clauses in their contracts so they wouldn't have to eat it more than twice a week?  One of my fascinations is with the structure of servants in a large household, so I enjoyed that much of this book seemed to focus on the 19th century. There's a ton of pages in this "short" history, but it is interesting, as can well be expected of Bill Bryson.

The Stolen Village, Des Ekin
I bought this book in Ireland, which is quite fitting really, since it has to do with Irish history.  I wasn't very far into this book when I became rather embarrassed about my lack of knowledge about the Barbary Pirates.  This book not only schooled me on a bit of Irish history, but also on a whole aspect of world history that I missed in my not-so-stellar education.  Before this book my mental connections went something like this:  pirates=Carribbean, slaves=Africa-->America.  Now, thanks to this book, I know to what extent the pirate/slave trade scenario was alive and well long before Sir Francis Drake and Southern plantations.  I love it when a book expands my world!  The writing could have been more polished, but it was an easy, interesting read, and I loved the topic.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
This book has been on the bestseller list for so long that I'd just decided to NOT read it (I'm rebellious like that) when it was chosen for my book club.  I was happy, since that was pretty much the only way that I'd read it.  The most fascinating part  of the book for me was the history on medical procedures, scientific study, and the evolving issue of patient privacy.  There is such a huge disparity between the enormous contribution HeLa cells have made to society, and the great difficulty the Henrietta Lacks' family has in getting proper medical care that this made a perfect platform for a discussion about ethics.  I thought the author did a good job at representing all sides in a fair, even generous, manner, and I enjoyed her writing.  She researched this case for quite some time, but I'd venture to guess that we'll be seeing more from Ms. Skloot.

The Story of Christianity Vol. 1, Justo Gonzalez
This is only the first half of the story, and it took me just about forever to get through--but that's just because I got hung up on all the details of corrupt popes about midway through.  I'm not so interested in those details, so I had a really hard time pushing through that part.  It was necessary, I understand, but still--blech.  I did enjoy all of the theological discussions of the early church, and the political climate that dictated much of those developments.  And towards the end, when it was talking about the beginning of the Reformation and the establishment of Christianity in the New World, I was also quite interested.  I have the second volume on hand, but haven't quite decided to jump into it yet.  On one hand, I'd love to finish it up by the end of the year, on the other hand, who I am kidding?


  1. I loved this Bill Bryson book and you're totally right that it's easy to fill quickly fill a notebook with interesting facts. I wouldn't have thought of stairs as interesting as he made them. Which is so nerdy.

  2. I know! I kept wondering how he was going to talk about stairs for a whole chapter. :) I quickly gave up trying to keep track of all the bits I wanted to tell my husband about...it was pretty much the whole book.

  3. Tatoos on the Heart sounds interesting. I love the quote. I needed that little reminder today. Trouble is....some people are always surly.

  4. I used to read about 50% non-fiction before blogging but that's dropped dramatically now, which is a shame. So I appreciate the recommendations!

    I love Bill Bryson, but didn't really like At Home. My favourite of his is A Short History Of Nearly Everything.

  5. Eclectic list. I love book lists. (As I pull out mine to add some of these books.)

    For me, the hard part about reviewing non-fiction is that it's harder to coherently sum up. I keep wanting to quote sections of the book.

  6. Completely agree with you that the most interesting parts of the HeLa book were the medical history and ethic dilemmas. As touching as her family's history might be, it failed to grab me after a while.

  7. Heidi, it's true (and so frustrating) that sometimes people don't change. The author actually talks about our desire to categorize people as successful or failures: "Success and failure, ultimately, have little to do with living the gospel. Jesus stood with the outcasts until they were welcomed or until he was crucified--whichever came first." It's a task I don't think I'm equal to.

    Sam, a lot of nonfiction takes a slower pace of reading for me, and this year (perhaps the influence of blogging) my pace has been more rushed. I'll have to make effort to change that, because I do enjoy NF. I think my favorite Bryson so far has been The Mother Tongue, but haven't read the one you mentioned. The middle of At Home dragged a bit for me.

    Megan, I think you're right about NF being harder to sum up. I don't really like to go through a whole book point by point in my blog posts, I prefer to talk about the overall effect and bring out a few examples...hard to do with NF.

    Alex, that was my experience...people being undervalued (or even mistreated) isn't anything new, which leaves it up to the author to make a particular story seem new or different somehow. I don't think that really happened in this book.

  8. I know, I should actually print it out and put it up somewhere. It makes me appreciate Jesus' compassion all the more. Intellectually it all makes sense, but when you think about trying to live that out it's pretty challenging. I have a hard enough time with the simple stuff!

  9. These are great reviews! I love Bill Bryson. The Barbary Pirate one sounds good too. Thanks for these reviews!!

  10. Pam, learning about the Barbary Pirates was a great experience. You should read the book, even if it's only so I can read your review! I love how you write about nonfiction--you manage to talk about the book quite a bit without diminishing my curiosity. I wish I had that talent!


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