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"The Skies Belong to Us" by Brendan I. Koerner

August 19, 2014 by PatLeach
"The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking" by Brendan I. Koerner continues my trek through this year's Notable Books list.

From the nonfiction side of the list, this book uses the story of one airline hijacking event in 1972 to explore the "epidemic" of hijacking in the 1960s and 1970s, before screenings and metal detectors became part of the airport landscape.

It makes for interesting reading, how Koerner keeps the thread of the 1972 hijacking intact as he weaves in additional information. In some ways it reads like true crime, this story of Roger Holder, a black Vietnam veteran struggling with mental illness and addiction, and Cathy Kerkow, his white "hippie" girlfriend. Koerner does a fine job describing their story in the social context of the time. That story extends long after the plane they hijack lands in Algiers.

A couple of quibbles--throughout the book, Koerner refers to "stewardesses" instead of "flight attendants." That would be the vernacular of the day, but it seemed outdated when he was writing from a contemporary viewpoint. Second, Koerner often writes as if he knew what Kerkow was thinking or feeling. Because she disappears years after the events of the story, Koerner could not have interviewed her, and none of his many notes shows a written record of her thoughts or emotions during the complicated hijacking or the chaotic period that followed.

Even so, I'll recommend this to people who seek social history, and to those who are especially interested in the era of the 1960's. I could see this being a strong nonfiction choice for book groups who usually read fiction. Holder and Kerkow's story illuminates many issues of their era, a number of which remain lively and relevant.


Tagged in: Notables, nonfiction, hijacking, "The Skies Belong to Us",
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"Johnny Cash: the Life" by Robert Hilburn

July 29, 2014 by PatLeach
Working my way through the American Library Association Notable Books list, I recently finished "Johnny Cash: the Life" by Robert Hilburn.

I enjoyed it immensely, and found myself losing track of time while I read it. Hilburn crafts a compelling story. From Cash's upbringing in Dyess, Arkansas, to his drug-drenched superstardom to his final days as a national icon, HIlburn keeps the story's thread strong.

Hilburn's reliance on extensive interviews brings many voices into the narrative. The people closest to Cash testify to his artistry, his addictions, the immense physical pain in his final years, and his remarkable love for June Carter Cash. A music critic, Hilburn gives frank assessments of Cash's performances, puts them into context, and keeps the music central to the story.

I grew up in a home where we seldom missed "The Johnny Cash Show." This book looks deeply into and beyond what was seen onstage.

My late husband played a quirky mix of music, and one of his oft-performed pieces was Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" sung in French, with his own accordion accompaniment. People--all kinds of people--loved that song. I kept humming it as I read this book.

I've recommended this to several readers who are interested in popular music generally, or country music more specifically. I see it having ample appeal beyond that, because Hilburn weaves plenty of insight  into this portrait of a complicated man who become an American icon.


Tagged in: JohnnyCash, nonfiction, biography, Notables,
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"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

July 01, 2014 by PatLeach
After a break to dip into the One Book One Lincoln finalists, I've returned to the Notable Books List, and "The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics" by Daniel James Brown.

It's the story of the 1936 Olympic rowing team, essentially the team from the University of Washington. Brown extensively interviewed rower Joe Rantz not long before Rantz died a few years ago, and it is Rantz who stands at the center of this story. Around him are his crewmates, his remarkable coach, Al Ulbrickson, and George Pocock, a boatbuilder and rowing guru. As as a group they exemplified how a successful team far exceeds the sum of its parts.

Brown creates the context of America in the Great Depression, and more specifically, the lives of working class people at that time. Rantz and several teammates worked back-breaking jobs to afford their classes, and Rantz was often teased about his ratty clothes. In addition, Rantz was abandoned by his father, learning to make his own way. Brown contrasts their situation with that of teams from the Ivy League or Europe.

The strong narrative thread of "The Boys in the Boat" helps it cross over for people who typically read fiction. Brown incorporates information about rowing, history, and politics without losing the thread of the plot. He builds credible characters from interviews and contemporary articles. This book employs a rhythm typical of sport stories, with background information framing descriptions of contests.

This team became magical at crucial moments, when all nine men in the boat pulled together, worked together, and won together. Brown explores Rantz's decision to trust, truly trust, that his teammates would do what needed to be done even though his own family life taught him reasonably to trust only himself.

I'll recommend this to a variety of readers, both of fiction and nonfiction. Fans of strong sports stories should dig into "The Boys in the Boat," especially readers interested in the storied 1936 Olympics in Berlin. This makes an excellent book group choice, with its universal themes of history, purpose, and success against great odds.


Tagged in: Notables, nonfiction, rowing, Daniel James Brown,
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"The Faraway Nearby" by Rebecca Solnit

March 13, 2014 by PatLeach
Rebecca Solnit's "The Faraway Nearby" exemplifies my favorite thing about the American Library Association's Notable Books List--I find excellent books there that I hadn't heard about previously.

"The Faraway Nearby" begins with apricots, picked from Solnit's mother's tree. The three boxes of apricots were too many to manage, her mother too far gone with Alzheimer's to know. Solnit's preservation of the fruit via jams, liqueurs, and other devices contributes one of the first metaphors in this rich book.

I was intrigued by the title, "The Faraway Nearby." Here is what she says about that, "After years in New York  City, Georgia O'Keeffe moved to rural New Mexico, from which she would sign her letters to the people she loved, 'from the faraway nearby.'" (p. 108)

Solnit employs thirteen chapters, the first six leading to the seventh, "knot." The remaining six mirror the first, going backwards to apricots once again, ending where she began. Within this firm structure, she rambles amid her mother's story, her own cancer scare, and an artistic escape to Iceland. How she works in Che Guevara, arctic explorers, Scheherazade, Frankenstein, Buddhists, and others, is a wonder. And yet it feels like excellent conversation over coffee, how she goes from one story to another, linked by ideas. Throughout, she reflects on how we tell our stories. She considers how we work over the material in our past to create a promising future.

I found particular resonance in this excerpt, as she describes how her friends took her in hand through a serious health scare. "People gathered from all directions, and I was taken care of beautifully...Afterward, during my convalescence, I occasionally wished that life was always like this, that I was always being showered with flowers and assistance and solicitousness, but you only get it when you need it. If you're lucky, you get it when you need it. To know that it was there when I needed it changed everything a little in the long run." (p. 122) This perfectly describes my own experience when my husband died, and she's right. It has changed everything a little.

At first, I was put off by MY wanting the action to move forward more quickly. I won't recommend this to readers who want to march through a plot. It was worth slowing down to savor the extras that she brings to her story of herself. I do indeed recommend this to those who enjoy a lusciously long conversation through unexpected imagery and reflection, as if the coffee pot would never run dry.


Tagged in: nonfiction, memoirs, Notable Books, "The Faraway Nearby",
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"Devil in the Grove" by Gilbert King

November 20, 2013 by PatLeach
Over the weekend I finished "Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America" by Gilbert King. I came across this title in the list of Pultizer Prize nominees--a goldmine of reading ideas.

Before he became a Supreme Court justice, and before he brought the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case to the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall's work at the NAACP took him all over the southern United States where race was a factor in court cases. A general pattern in his work was that the goal was to set up a successful appeal of a conviction. An acquittal was an impossible dream in nearly all of his cases.

Such was his strategy in the case of the Groveland Boys--four black men accused of raping a young white woman near Groveland, Florida, in 1949. King introduces a host of characters in setting the stage for this story--from the remarkable Sheriff Willis McCall to a woman reporter for a local newspaper to the four accused black men to the governors of Florida to members of the Ku Klux Klan to members of the local NAACP. King works hard to place the actions in the context of the time, where one foot is squarely in a system that as a matter of course denies justice to black people, and the other is stepping toward landmark decisions such as Brown vs. Board of Education.

He traces a chronology of beatings, shootings, and palpable danger for the men in custody, and  for the outsider attorneys who arrive in Florida in their defense. In the end, what justice looks like seems pretty unimpressive. What does impress is King's ability to maintain the connection to context, and to weave a good deal of background information without losing the sense of story.

King's focus on Thurgood Marshall further highlights context, knowing what we do of his later Supreme Court career. In terms of how the story works, the immense scope of his personality and impact balance the intensity of what happened at Groveland. From my vantage point in 2013, continual questions arose regarding how things have changed--or not--since 1949.

I'm a nonfiction fan generally, and especially seek well-told stories of American History. I've been recommending this to others who seek such a book, and especially to people with an interest in justice. I think this could be an excellent nonfiction choice for book groups who typically choose fiction. There is much to learn, and to discuss, in "Devil in the Grove."


Tagged in: nonfiction, history, Thurgood Marshall,
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