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Tag Archives: good reads

Love that nonfiction!

I’ve heard a few comments from readers who are SO EXCITED that our list of One Book One Lincoln nominees includes nonfiction titles, “The Color of Water” by James McBride, and “River of Doubt” by Candice Millard.

My annual reading of the Notable Books list over the years has shifted my preference toward nonfiction. Every year the nonfiction section of that list includes  titles that are true pleasures to read, with the added bonus of imparting information. I’ve re-structured my former reading groove of choosing fiction almost exclusively. I appreciate the way that nonfiction sometimes reads differently. I so admire writers who take technical information and make it available and meaningful to non-experts.

In the arena of youth reading, some experts have pointed out that many boys prefer nonfiction, and yet many classroom book collections emphasize fiction for recreational reading. Michael Sullivan refers to this issue in “Connecting Boys with Books 2.” We need to recognize the diversity of reading tastes in young people as well as adults. School Library Journal devotes a monthly blog and column (discontinued in the years since this blog post) to highlighting nonfiction reading for children.

What’s your preference? Do you lean strongly one direction or the other? What have you learned from going outside of your usual reading groove? And what inspired you to do so?

What a Notable Book! City of Thieves

Several months ago, I read “City of Thieves” by David Benioff, one of this year’s Notable Books. And I LOVED it.

Briefly, it’s a novel set during the siege of Leningrad, of two men who meet when they share a jail cell one night. Instead of being executed the next morning as they expect, they receive a chance to live, IF they bring the colonel a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake. This in a city where people are cooking down the glue in book bindings to have something to eat.  What an idea.

As I read this, I was reminded of a pattern that I’ve noted in some of the fiction I read. The set-up of the plot holds great promise, but the follow-through disappoints. “City of Thieves” lived up to its potential, and grandly.

The two men, Lev and Kolya, set out on their way. The banter between the two of them stays lively. Their quest is absurd. On the one hand is this silliness, but in the other is the drop-dead seriousness of the time.  Starvation visits every home. Nazis kill and torture on a whim.

When I read these Notable books, I try to find excerpts that I can share later with a wide range of audiences. I had a hard time finding good excerpts that weren’t full of coarse language, but I hadn’t been aware of that as I read.  Instead, I was aware of the growing friendship and respect between Lev and Kolya. I tend to want to get books finished and marked off of my list. I was sorry when I got to the end of City of Thieves.

This book was also on this year’s Alex List of adult books that would have interest for older teens. I think “City of Thieves” would also satisfy readers interested in the historical time period, in books about buddies, and in the yin and yang of funny and serious.

I know that the people in the wonderful Friday morning Bethany Library book group have had lively discussions of this one. I’m going to suggest it as a great title for book groups.

Have you read it?  What did you think?

Another Notable Book–The Bin Ladens

I just finished another book from the American Library Association Notable Books list, “The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century” by Steve Coll.

I enjoyed reading it (which surprised me a little), and learned a lot about the recent history of Saudi Arabia.

Coll describes Osama Bin Laden’s story, but takes pains to provide a broad picture of the family. He begins by tracing Mohamed Bin Laden’s beginnings as a humble Yemeni, growing a remarkable fortune due to his savvy leadership of his construction firm. Mohamed’s children include Osama, but Coll spends possibly more time describing the older “first among equals” of that generation who were expected to take leadership of the family business and fortune. The family remains closely allied to the Saudi royal family. The modern history of Saudi Arabia shapes the fortune of the Bin Ladens.

I enjoyed Coll’s skill at describing the various personalities, and placing them into context. He explores the differences between male and female roles, as well as the range of experiences that people have with the West. Many Bin Laden sons and daughters were educated in America and Europe, and many live at least part of the time outside of Saudi Arabia.

I redrew the mental picture that I had of Osama Bin Laden going into this book. Coll shows how the prominent Bin Laden family distanced itself from Osama, essentially disowning him, using the courts to demonstrate their lack of financial support for him and his work.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it because I expected that it might be a little dry.  Coll’s storytelling ability kept me engaged.

I’d recommend this to people interested in the current situation in the Middle East, to those interested in other cultures, and to people who enjoy well-written and researched exploration of contemporary issues.

Discuss this….

The five finalists for this year’s One Book One Lincoln program will be announced Monday.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the selection committee, this year chaired by Donna Marvin and Mary Jane Humphreys.

In addition to reading many nominated titles, the committee discusses whether particular books offer enough in “meat” for discussion and consideration for the whole community.

This leads to an ongoing question about book groups–why are some books so great for promoting discussion, when other perfectly good books fall flat? I ran into my friend, Barb, at Leon’s this week, and this was the question on her mind, too.

A few years ago, as part of my Notable Books reading, I read Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air.”  I loved the story, but put it down and didn’t think much more about it. Then, as I ran into more and more people who’d read the book, I couldn’t believe all of the different ways in which people thought about it, and wanted to talk about it.  And then I had plenty to talk about, too!  My theory is that the people in that book inspired opinion after opinion, and their intense interactions during the blizzard on the mountain kept us talking, and talking, and talking.

So…what books have you found to be great at promoting discussion?  Any books that YOU loved that fizzled when it came to kindling a conversation?

Another Notable–Olive Kitteridge

So far, “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout may be my favorite from this year’s Notable Books List.  It also won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Olive Kitteridge is a character in each of these short stories, set in a small town in Maine during the late twentieth century.  Olive stars in some of the stories, but barely walks through other ones.  She’s a teacher, and so in a position to know many people.  Strout describes her as physically large and awkward.  Socially, she often says the wrong thing and finds herself stoking her own resentment when people disappoint her.

Strout makes the most of the short story.  Each one seems to answer a “what if” question.  What if the mother of the groom hears the bride laughing at her?  What if a man on his way to commit suicide is called on to save a drowning woman?  What if a little girl must keep her older sister’s secret about running away?  She turns a sharp eye to social interactions, not looking away when cruelty enters where kindness would help.  And yet, people figure out how to connect with each other and get on with life.  In some ways, Strout reminds me here of my favorite short story writer, Alice Munro.

I read this book more like a novel, straight through.  I usually find, though, that I enjoy short stories more when I take some time to savor one before moving on to the next.

To whom would I recommend this?  To people who like short stories, and to some who say that they don’t.  To people who find small town life interesting, and to people who love everyday life described well.

Have you read this?  What did you think?