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Tag Archives: nonfiction

“I Am a Man” from the One Book One Lincoln List

Over the weekend, I finished “I Am a Man: Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice” by Joe Starita.

I confess–all along it’s been my favorite for One Book One Lincoln due to its Nebraska connection, important story, and local author. Voting has closed, and we will announce the One Book One Lincoln selection in mid-September, so the suspense continues.

I was somewhat familiar with the Standing Bear story, of his role in the legal case in the late 1800’s establishing that Native Americans had rights in the sight of United States law. Starita places Standing Bear within the context of the United States of the nineteenth century and his place as a Ponca leader. The “journey for justice” referred to in the title is both literal and figurative. Starita details the Standing Bear’s route from Nebraska to Oklahoma and back, as well as the journey in court, establishing whether the United States government had the right to tell Standing Bear and his people where they could live.

There’s a strong sense of the distinct personalities of the people involved, and Starita does justice to placing them in the context of their time and place.

I’ll recommend this to people who enjoy reading about history and biography. It’s a story that all Nebraskans should know, and I’m delighted that One Book One Lincoln has placed it and its author in the limelight.

“Born to Run” from the Notables List

I’m continuing my reading of the American Library Association Notable Books List.

I’m delighted to say that “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Great Race the World Has Never Seen” by Chrisopher McDougall exemplifies why I love the Notables list–I find titles like this that I haven’t heard of, and that I enjoy immensely.

McDougall has done a good deal of writing about outdoor sports for periodicals such as “Men’s Health” and “Outside.” In this book, he tells his own story of becoming obsessed with a group of people called the Tarahumara, a tribe of people in Mexico’s Copper Canyons. He’s heard that they can run hundreds of miles, that they can chase down animals such as deer, and that (the most amazing thing) they enjoy it.

In the course of the story, he travels to Mexico in search of these people, then gets to know athletes in the United States who are ultramarathon runners, covering up to 100 miles through day and night. Eventually, this all comes together in a race in the Copper Canyons, with a mix of Tarhumara runners and US elite athletes. It’s quite a story, full of personalities, with a few interesting background sections on topics such as the effectiveness of running shoes and whether it makes any sense to think that a person could run down a deer.

I know that I’m a sucker for this kind of nonfiction that picks up the thread of a story about an interesting subculture that I know nearing nothing about, and then weaves a fabric that seems to get stronger as the story progresses. It can be a real challenge for an author to insert himself far enough into the story for interest, and to explore certain emotional aspects, without making the story about HIM. McDougall succeeds on this count.

I’ll embrace this title when I choose which books from this year’s Notable List to highlight. I’m recommending it to runners, to people who love to read about extreme behavior, and those who are happy to read a story that’s quite outside of their own experience.

Another Notable–“Zeitoun”

Over the weekend, I finished up “Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers, one of the titles on the American Library Association’s Notable Books List.

You’ll recall that Eggers has written “creative nonfiction,” including “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” and “What Is the What?” This book fits more clearly into nonfiction. It’s the story of Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun of New Orleans, and what happened to them as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

The Zeitouns’ story without Katrina would have been interesting, the marriage of a Syrian Muslim man and a white American convert to Islam.  The two built up a contracting business, with Abdulrahman taking care of the jobs while Kathy handled the office end and raised the children.

Abdulrahman was one of several children who grew up near the ocean. A poignant aspect of his upbringing was that his older brother was the best swimmer in Syria. His family and hometown were so proud, and then so distraught when the young man was killed in a car accident at age 24. Abdulrahman has always felt pressure to live up to family expectations, to measure up to high standards. It explains much of his business success. Kathy converted to Islam after her dearest friend did so. Her devotion to that faith, and to her husband, have created a sense of strength and connection.

As Katrina approached, Kathy evacuated to Baton Rouge with the children, staying in her sister’s crowded home. After a few days, she took the family to Phoenix where her dear friend took them in. Zeitoun remained in New Orleans. He had the presence of mind to get his unused canoe out of the garage while the ground was dry, and when the storm surged came through, was able to rescue some neighbors using it. He felt that he was called to stay in New Orleans for this purpose.

One of their homes continued to have a phone that worked, and he stayed in touch with Kathy. Then along with three other men, he was arrested. He was taken to a jail created out of fencing in the bus terminal. He was allowed no phone calls. They slept on bare concrete. Eventually he was taken to prison at St. Gabriel.

Eggers largely allows Kathy and Abduhrahman to speak for themselves. His preface explains that this story is told from their view–he isn’t trying to give the whole story of Katrina, just the story of the Zeitoun family. He uses a chronological ordering that allows them to walk the reader through confusion, through snippets of information, through decision points. In many ways, this book is completely plot-driven, yet in others, we get to know these people very well.

I was struck by the international aspects of their life, with Zeitoun’s family checking in via cell phone and the Internet from Spain, Syria, and elsewhere.

In the end, I had a sense for the chaotic aftermath of the storm. The Zeitouns worked hard to figure out what exactly happened. They weren’t vindictive about it, they just wanted to understand.

This book is written in a very straightforward style and reads quickly. I recommend it to people who want “the story behind the story,” to those who are interested in New Orleans, or in the experiences of immigrants to the U.S., and those who like to read about people who overcome suffering.

“The Photographer,” another from the Notables List

What an interesting Notable book–“The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders” by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefevre, and Frederic Lemercier.

It’s written in graphic novel format, with panels of pictures and captions. What’s different here is that Didier Lefevre was a photographer, and so photographs are included as well as drawings. This book describes a trip that Lefevre took in 1986 to Afghanistan with a French Doctors Without Borders group that was to treat people caught up in the war there. As a photographer, Lefevre isn’t really part of the group. But photography became the skill that he offered to this intense work, his ability to document what happened.

There’s so much to say about this book.

Lefevre’s emotional upset at what he witnessed was intensified by his ability to DO nothing for the people, beyond documenting their situation. His keen visual sense increased that intensity, including is respect for the doctors’ work.

The landscape of Afghanistan is almost a character in itself–both the remarkable scenes of mountains and dark interiors.

The newness of the experiences leads Lefevre to take it all in, and to try to explain. The group’s encounters with local people, especially with warlords and other leaders, demonstrate how different this place, this culture, and this situation are from what he’s known. The brevity that captions enforce keep him from philosophizing much. Instead, he describes what he sees, what he learns.

He does a crazy thing at the end of the trip, taking off on his own to go back to Pakistan. He nearly dies, is taken advantage of by some people, and then kindly rescued by others.

Some of the photographs, such as those on page 258 just before his return to Paris, are just drop-dead fascinating.

One quibble I’d make is that my 50-year-old eyes required an awful lot of light to get full advantage of the small photographs. Read this book at a table with a good lamp.

Didier Lefevre died in 2007 of a heart attack. He lived to see this book in its original French edition. The book is a collaboration between Lefevre, Emmanual Guibert, who drew the pictures, and Frederic Lemercier, who was the designer.

I recommend this to people interested in Afghanistan, to those who like to read about heroes and people who take big chances, and to people who love photography. And to everyone who chooses to think about some of the big “whys” of the world, like…why is there war?

Another Notable–“Columbine”

This morning, I finished “Columbine” by Dave Cullen.

Here’s what I wrote as a review in Visual Bookshelf:

“I read this because it’s on the American Library Association Notable Books list.

It’s tough to read–I had a nightmare or two reading it.

But here’s what I appreciate about this…so much came out in the hours, days and weeks following the Columbine massacre that was later shown to be not true. It wasn’t that people were intentionally putting out inaccuracies, but that the craziness of the attack made it hard to sort out quickly.

Cullen was able to make use of many sources and to pull together information that was finally released by law enforcement to make timelines, go back and correct reports, and try to pull pieces together. He gave people reasonable benefit of the doubt, and largely let people speak for themselves.

I was irritated by the way that Cullen sometimes very awkwardly drove home his point. He would present very reasonable evidence, and then conclude by stating what he’d made obvious. Other than that, I learned an awful lot reading this, and will recommend it to others.”

What I’d add to that is that he seemed to work hard at presenting Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who orchestrated the attack, and who killed themselves in the process, in as complete and fair a way as possible. He eventually describes Harris as a classic psychopath. Their parents come off as regular people who did their best in raising their children in loving ways, in ways that reflected their values.

I admire that Cullen did this hard work, and I’ll be suggesting this book to many, to add layers of complexity to what may have seemed like a simple story.