Archives

50+ Nonfiction Books for 50 States

I found this list of 51 adult nonfiction selections, one for each state in the union and D.C.,, interesting but rather slanted toward the liberal (Obama’s book for Hawaii and Biden’s memoir for Delaware?) and the trendy and lurid (lots of drug memoirs and true crime). Maybe “Flavorwire has dug up some of the best nonfiction about specific American locations — in this case, our 50 states — and found 50 books that will shed light on every corner of the country,” but maybe there are better nonfiction books for at least some of the states.

So I thought, why not come up with our own list? I wrote in the ones that I liked or agreed with from the Flavorwire list and added in a few of my own suggestions.

Alabama: Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake-Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington. This exploration of Alabama/Appalachia sounds fascinating. Suggested by Nancy Pearl in Book Lust To Go.
Alaska: Tisha: The Wonderful True Love Story of a Young Teacher in the Alaska Wilderness by Robert Specht and Anne Purdy. I’ve seen this one recommended by more than one person. Anyone here read it?
Or maybe A Land Gone Lonesome by Dan O’Neill, recommended in this article at Salon.
Arizona: Going Back to Bisbee by Richard Shelton. Memoir.
Arkansas: Cash by Johnny Cash with Patrick Carr. From Flavorwire. I haven’t actually read this one, but it sounds good. Any other suggestions from Arkansans?
California: Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner. I’m adding this book because it looks interesting and informative. Has anyone else read it?
Colorado: Men to Match My Mountains: The Opening of the Far West, 1840-1900 by Irving Stone. I could make this one the definitive book for California, Utah, Nevada, and Colorado, but I put it here, arbitrarily. No matter which state you focus on, this book is fantastic, readable, well researched, educational, and entertaining.
Connecticut:
Delaware:
Florida: Dream State: Eight Generations of Swamp Lawyers, Conquistadors, Confederate Daughters, Banana Republicans, and Other Florida Wildlife by Diane Roberts.
Georgia: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. From Flavorwire. I haven’t read this one either, but I’ve intended to read it. Comments anyone?
Hawaii:
Idaho: The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan.
Illinois: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson. Another book been intending to read, recommended by my sister.
Indiana:
Iowa:
Kansas:
Kentucky: The Thread That Runs So True by Jesse Stuart.
Louisiana: Huey Long by T. Harry Williams. I read this doorstop of a biography about thirty years ago, and I still remember it. For better or for worse, my conception of Louisiana politics is highly formed and colored by this book.
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life by Rod Dreher. I can’t resist providing an antidote to Mr. Long’s out-sized loudmouth life with this tribute to a small life well-lived, also in Louisiana. If you only read one of the two, read Dreher.
Maine:
Maryland: Charm City: A Walk Through Baltimore by Madison Smartt Bell.
Massachusetts: Paul Revere and the World He Lived In by Esther Forbes.
Michigan: The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America’s Dilemma by Alex Kotlowitz. Crime and racial division in southern Michigan.
Minnesota:
Mississippi:
Missouri: Truman by David McCullough. Truman was probably about the best thing that ever came out of Missouri.
Montana:
Nebraska: My Nebraska: The Good, the Bad, and the Husker by Roger Welsch.
Nevada:
New Hampshire:
New Jersey:
New Mexico: The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. From Flavorwire. Engineer Husband recommends this Pulitzer prize winning classic.
New York: The Cross and the Switchblade by David Wilkerson. An unromantic contrast to West Side Story, this book tells how God was still working among gang members in New York City in the 1950′s and 60′s.
North Carolina:
North Dakota:
Ohio:
Oklahoma: The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan. This book could be classified under “North Texas” or even Kansas, but Oklahoma seems like the center of the Dust Bowl.
Oregon:
Pennsylvania:
Rhode Island:
South Carolina: Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream by Adam Shepard. Adam Shepard went to Charleston, South Carolina with $25, a sleeping bag, and the clothes on his back. His goal was, by the end of a year, to have a car, a furnished apartment, and $2500 in the bank.
South Dakota:
Tennessee: Maybe The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan?
Texas: Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger. Texas is a big state, practically five states, but this book at least illuminates one aspect of Texas culture.
Utah:
Vermont:
Virginia: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. From Flavorwire. OK, I’ll go along with this recommendation, even though I’ve tried it and not been able to get in the mood for this nature observation journal of a modern-day pilgrim. I’m still willing to grant that it’s probably very good, and I’ll probably enjoy it very much someday.
Or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.
Washington: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.
Washington D.C.:
West Virginia:
Wisconsin:
Wyoming:

What do you think? Do any of my readers live in one of the states for which I do not yet have a book listed? I’m even willing to reconsider one I’ve already listed if you have a better choice. Help me fill out this list with books to give us a sense of each state in the union.

Ocean of Fire by T. Neill Anderson

Ocean of Fire: The Burning of Columbia, 1865 by T. Neill Anderson.

If you’re a Civil War buff, even a little inclined in that direction, you must read this somewhat fictionalized story of General Sherman’s capture of the city of Columbia, South Carolina during his “March to the Sea” and the subsequent conflagration that burned the city to the ground. I say “fictionalized” because the author has filled in dialogue and even thoughts that he could not be privy to but could reasonably assume from the available sources. However, the events and characters in the book are real, and their actions are as verified as possible.

Mr. Anderson says that he “relied heavily on the moving, haunting, and tragic first-person accounts of Emma LeConte, Joseph Le Conte, and the Reverend Anthony Toomer Porter.” Indeed, the book basically focuses on the stories of Emma, her father Joseph, and the Rev. Porter. And their stories were moving, haunting, and tragic. I kept picturing the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind as I read about how Columbia burned in much the same way as her Georgia counterpart.

General Sherman, who famously said “war is hell” and who determined to make sure it truly was for the areas of the South that he conquered, has a lot to answer for in the hereafter. He and General Ulysses S. Grant “believed that the Civil War would end only if the Confederacy’s strategic, economic, and psychological capacity for warfare were decisively broken.” (Wikipedia, Sherman’s March to the Sea) Perhaps they were right. The girl, Emma, is pictured in this book as harboring a “white-hot hatred” for the Yankees,and none of the Southerners whose stories are featured are ready to surrender, either before or after the burning of their city which they, of course, blame on the drunken Yankee army. There is some possibility that the Confederates themselves were responsible for starting the fire. No one really knows, and the book doesn’t settle the question.

Another mystery is left unsettled, and I would really like to know the answer: who was the mysterious soldier named Charles Davis? Was he possibly a Confederate spy or did he work for the Yankees? After the city’s collapse he seems to have mysteriously disappeared. Where did he go?

Ocean of Fire is T. Neill Anderson’s second book of his Horrors of History series. The first book in the series, which I have not read but should, is City of the Dead: Galveston Hurricane, 1900.

The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Sheve Sheinkin, National Book Award Finalist and Newbery Honor Winner for Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon.

I’ve never heard of Port Chicago or the Port Chicago 50. So Mr. Sheinkin’s tale of 50 black seamen who defied orders to load dangerous munitions onto ships during World War II and who were subsequently tried and convicted of mutiny was a revelation to me. It’s a story of the civil rights movement before there really was a civil rights movement, or at least before the part I knew about.

I knew about Truman’s order to integrate the U.S. armed forces. I knew about Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights struggles of the 1960′s. But way back in 1944, at the height of World War II, when the outcome of the war was still in question, a massive explosion on the docks at Port Chicago in San Francisco killed 320 servicemen, many of them black Navy men who were segregated and assigned the dangerous job of loading bombs and ammunition onto ships for the war effort in the Pacific. These men, both the ones who died and the ones who escaped, were never trained to handle explosives. They were ordered to load and load fast, and their white officers made bets on which division or work group could load the most cargo in a day. Almost all of the stevedores who were handling this ammunition under very unsafe conditions were black.

A few weeks after the explosion, the men were ordered to go back to the very same work of loading ammunition under the very same conditions. When they refused the order, they were tried for mutiny, a crime which in the naval code carried a possible death sentence. Most of the men who were “on strike” backed down when they were threatened with the firing squad, but fifty of them did not.

The author’s sympathies are completely on the side of the alleged mutineers, with good reason. They do seem have been mistreated and subjected to unnecessarily dangerous working conditions. Their crime, disobeying a direct order, didn’t really rise to the level of mutiny. (Mutiny: “an unlawful opposition or resistance to or defiance of superior military authority, with a deliberate purpose to usurp, subvert, or override such authority.”) The defense argument when the men came to trial was that there was no plan to subvert or override authority, just a refusal by a bunch of traumatized men to return to loading ammunition under the very same conditions that caused the original explosion.

I found myself in sympathy with the Port Chicago 50, too, even as I could see the reasons that impelled the Navy authorities to bring the men to trial. The United States was at war. The military was a segregated force, wrong but true. Even though the black seamen who were loading the ammunition were treated abominably and the working conditions were hazardous, their work was a necessary part of the war effort. No member of the armed forces can be allowed to disobey orders from a superior officer with impunity. However, the Port Chicago 50 were right about the stand they took, and they were brave to take it. So, I stand conflicted and confused as to what I think about the entire episode.

Joe Small, unofficial leader of the group called the Port Chicago 50: “I realized that I had to work. I wasn’t trying to shirk work. But to go back to work under the same conditions with no improvements, no changes, the same group of officers that we had. . . . Improve working conditions this is what I, personally, was after. And desegregation of the base.”

Steve Sheinkin also wrote Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, a book I reviewed last year when I was reading and reviewing Cybils nominees for YA nonfiction.

QOTD: Who is a person from history that you respect? Why? Is there any historical figure that you admire while at the same time you acknowledge the person’s faults?

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child by Donalyn Miller, sixth grade language arts and social studies teacher at Trinity Meadows Intermediate School in Keller, Texas.

Ms. Keller’s thesis can be summarized in two sentences: To make children into lifelong readers, surround them with books and let them read whatever they want to read. Treat them like readers, and they will become readers.

I’ve been following this plan in our homeschool for about twenty-five years now, with mixed results. Most of my eight children are readers. Several of them are voracious readers, the kind I am and the sort Ms. Miller describes herself as:

“I am a reader, a flashlight-under-the-covers, carries-a-book-everywhere-I-go, don’t-look-at-my-Amazon-bill reader. I choose purses based on whether I can cram a paperback into them, and my books are the first items I pack into a suitcase. I am the person whom family and friends call when they need a book recommendation or cannot remember who wrote Heidi. (It was Johanna Spyri.)”

However, even with all this reading environment and encouragement and, yes, pressure, I have one child who does not see herself as a reader (she reads, just says she hates to read) and another who has quit reading for pleasure for the last two or three years at least. Unfortunately, Ms. Miller’s book gave me very few ideas about how to re-awaken the love of reading in my son or how to instill a love for reading in my daughter. I already let them read pretty much anything they want to read. I already suggest books for them, buy books for them, borrow books for them, encourage them to read about subjects they love, and show them daily how much reading means to me by reading as much as I can, anywhere I can. Our house is full of good books.

The Book Whisperer is a very public school, teacher-ish, kind of book, but it is a good resource for teachers of reading in school settings. It did spark a couple of ideas in this homeschool mom mind of mine: I could have a time (half an hour? an hour?) each day when we participate in ye olde public school D.E.A.R (Drop Everything and READ). I could require them to read 40 books for the school year (a requirement Ms. Miller has for her sixth graders) and see what happens. I could keep giving my daughter piles of books that I think she might like until she finds one she loves. It hasn’t worked yet, but it might still click one day.

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.

With the (winter) Olympics coming up and my aforementioned current interest in the 1930′s, The Boys in the Boat was just the ticket for reading on a very cold day in January. The nine Americans in the title were: Don Hume, Bobby Moch, Stub McMillin, Johnny White, Gordy Adam, Shorty Hunt, Roger Morris, Chuck Day, and Joe Rantz. They were the crew of an eight-man shell for the University of Washington. Their coach was Al Ulbrickson, and George Pocock, famous for building racing boats for Washington and for many other championship rowing teams, was their mentor and the builder of their shell, the Husky Clipper.

The story focuses on crew member Joe Rantz, since he was the member of the Olympic team that the author first met and from whom he heard the story of the “boys’” journey to the Berlin Olympics. I put “boys” in quotation marks because by the time their story was published last year (2013), the boys in the boat had all passed on. But Mr. Brown got to interview some of them before they died, and he spent a great deal of time researching the backgrounds of the boys, talking to family members, reading journals that some of the boys kept, and preparing to write an inspiring and flowing account of their rise to glory at the Olympics.

One of things that the book emphasizes is that rowing is not easy:

“Competitive rowing is an undertaking of extraordinary beauty preceded by brutal punishment. Unlike most sports, which draw primarily on particular muscle groups, rowing makes heavy and repeated use of virtually every muscle in the body. . . And rowing makes these muscular demands not a odd intervals but in rapid sequence, over a protracted period of time, repeatedly and without respite. . . The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Royal Brougham marveled at the relentlessness of the sport: ‘Nobody ever took time out in a boat race,’ he noted ‘There’s no place to stop and get a satisfying drink of water or a lungful of cool, invigorating air. You just keep your eyes glued on the red, perspiring neck of the fellow ahead of you and row until they tell you it’s all over. . . Neighbor, it’s no game for a softy.’”

I was filled with admiration for these college boys who practiced in rain, sleet, wind and snow to go to a total of two races: one in their own Washington waters against arch rival, the University of California, and the other in Poughkeepsie, competing against California again and against all of the East Coast teams who saw the westerners as country cousins who were out of their league in the East. The persistence and fine-tuning of the team and its precise movements required all that the nine member team could give, mentally and physically–and then, a little more.

The book also made much of the contrast between Depression-era country boys struggling in Washington State to get an education and make the Olympic team at the same time, and Hitler’s desire to make the Berlin Olympics into a showcase for the Nazi regime in Germany and the Aryan youth of Germany who would be competing for the glory of the Reich. The impending war serves as a focus and a frame for the story, even though the boys in the boat were completely unaware of the imminent approach of a world war that would change all of their lives.

Some interesting mentions in the book:

Actor Hugh Laurie’s father, Ran Laurie, was member of the British eight-man crew at the 1936 Olympics.

Louis Zamperini (Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand) is mentioned once in this book, as possibly the only athlete on the boat to Europe for the Olympics who had a bigger appetite than rower Joe Rantz.

Swimmer Eleanor Holm was expelled from the U.S. Olympic team for drunkenness on the boat over, after an all-night party with some journalists, who then proceeded to make headlines with The Eleanor Holm Story in newspapers all over the United States.

The coxswain for the team, Bobby Moch, found out for the first time in a letter from his father just before he left to go to the Olympics, that his relatives in Europe, whom he had never met, were Jewish, and therefore that he was of Jewish heritage.

Hitler’s pet filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, made a well-regarded propaganda film about the 1936 Olympics, called Olympia. The film was secretly funded by the Nazi government, and it was shown all over the world to great acclaim.

All in all, The Boys in the Boat is a great book for anyone interested in sports stories in general, rowing in particular, the rise of Nazism, the 1930′s, Olympic history, and just plain inspirational stories of perseverance and courage. If there were a few extraneous details, they were details that I enjoyed learning. And the prose was well above average.

House-Dreams by Hugh Howard

House-Dreams: The story of an amateur builder and two novice apprentices and how they turned an overgrown blackberry patch, ten truckloads of lumber, a keg of cut nails, and an antique staircase into a real home by Hugh Howard.

I’m not a home builder or a designer, so I’ll admit I skimmed through a lot of the more technical passages in this story of a man and his quest to design and build his own house. I’m also not an architectural elitist, so I sniffed and rolled my eyes at some of the author’s more pretentious statements about building a house designed to fit into a milieu of nineteenth century American architecture. However, since I’m in the beginning stages of own home remodeling project, a lot of the commentary and advice here was quite pertinent to my own situation.

Because we had a house fire in December, we’re going to have to replace the roof, the attic, and the kitchen in our house. We’ll also be getting new flooring throughout the house, and we may remodel one of the bathrooms while we’re at it. Any advice?

Mr. Howard’s house with its solid maple wood floors, antique staircase, Rumford fireplace, grubka stove, and marble countertops is way out of my league, but I did pick up a few tips:

1. Watch, learn and ask questions. Mr. Howard is a self-taught builder and designer. He asked a lot of questions at hardware stores.

2. Expect the job to take longer than you expected and to cost more than you budgeted. I sort of already knew this bit of house-building/remodeling wisdom.

3. Enjoy your home. I am totally overwhelmed with the thought of even as small a home-rebuilding project as we will be doing. However, I am determined to enjoy re-making our forty year old house to suit our current and anticipated needs. I’ll try to update you on our progress here on the blog.

In the meantime, I’ll take any advice you have on kitchen flooring, countertops, cabinets, bathroom flooring and other fixtures, roofing, and living room walls and ceilings. I might as well cast a wide net.

Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal by Ben Macintyre

“Eddie Chapman was a charming criminal, a con man, and a philanderer. He was also one of the most remarkable double agents Britain has ever produced.”

I like spy stories, especially true spy stories. Author Ben MacIntyre’s story of Eddie Chapman and his activities as the consummate double agent for Britain during World War II is particularly fascinating because it’s well-researched and full of details that were gleaned from recently declassified MI5 files.

So, first, I had to get straight the difference between MI5 and MI6:

“The Security Service (MI5) is the UK’s security intelligence agency. It is responsible for protecting the UK, its citizens and interests, against the major threats to national security. The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI6) operates world-wide and is responsible for gathering secret intelligence outside the UK in support of the government’s security, defence and foreign and economic policies.”

Well, that’s clear, but I can see how during a war like WW II when the outside threats (of German infiltration and even invasion) were quickly becoming inside threats, the lines would get a little blurred. Anyway, Eddie Chapman worked for MI5 because he came to England as a Nazi spy and saboteur. When he reached Britain, parachuted in by his German employers, he immediately reported to MI5 about what the Germans had taught him and what they wanted him to do while he was “in the field.” (The Nazi wanted him to sabotage and blow up a factory where British warplanes called Mosquitos were being manufactured.)

Mr. Chapman is an interesting character, a very flawed hero. He was “a man who kept every option open, who seemed congenitally incapable of taking a bet without hedging it.” Terence young, the filmmaker, who had known Chapman before the war, wrote to MI5 officials about Chapman,”One could give him the most difficult of missions knowing that he would carry it out and that he would never betray the official who sent him, but that it was highly probable that he would, incidentally, rob the official who sent him out. . . . He would then carry out his [mission] and return to the official whom he had robbed to report.” Chapman had a girl in every port, or country, and he seduced each of them into thinking that she was the only one. But when none of his long-term partners was available, he found it necessary to visit prostitutes or find a new paramour. He performed some incredibly valuable missions of misinformation and spying for the British, but he was paid mostly by the Germans who believed that he had done great things for their side.

If you’re interested in World War II, British intelligence services, James Bond and the like, espionage, or just morally ambivalent characters, Agent Zigzag is a good read. MacIntyre does tell what happened to the major players in this episode of double and even triple cross after the war was over, and the index is useful for finding specific incidents and information if you’re studying the era and the subject.

12 Books about Books that I Still Want to Read

By the Book: A Reader’s Guide to Life by Ramona Koval. Reviewed by kimbofo at Reading Matters.

Bequest of Wings: A Family’s Pleasure with Books by Annis Duff.

Phantoms on the Bookshelves by jacques Bonnet, reviewed at Stuck in a Book.

Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home by Susan Hill. Recommended by Beth at Weavings.

Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passions by Leona Rostenberg & Madeleine Stern. Recommended at Book Psmith.

A Passion for Books by Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan. Recommended by FatalisFortuna.

Reading the OED by Ammon Shea. Recommended at The Book Lady’s Blog.

Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point by Elizabeth D. Samet. Also recommended at Random Wonder.

Walking a Literary Labyrinth by Nancy Malone. Recommended at Indextrious Reader.

When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson.

A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books by Nicholas A. Basbanes.

Buried in Books: A Reader’s Anthology by Julie Rugg, reviewed at A Bookish Affair.

Don’t all of these sound delicious? What are your favorite books about books?

12 Best Nonfiction Books I Read in 2013

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo. Recommended at Book Diary.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard.

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life by Rod Dreher.

Letters from a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with his Father’s Questions about Christianity by Dr. Gregory A. Boyd and Edward K. Boyd.

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield.

Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton by Joseph Pearce.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright, reviewed at Semicolon.

Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent by N.D. Wilson.

The Girl in the Picture by Denise Chong, featured at Semicolon.

C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath.

Saving a Life: How We Found Courage When Death Rescued our Son by Charles and Janet Morris.

Beautiful Nate: A Memoir of a Family’s Love, a Life Lost, and Heaven’s Promises by Dennis Mansfield.

Two biographies (Chesterton and Lewis), two autobiographies/conversion stories (Denise Chong and Rosaria Champagne Butterfield), two memoirs of the loss of a son (the last two on the list), a couple of inspirational apologetics titles (Boyd and Wilson), exposes of Scientology and of poverty in Mumbai, a narrative history of the assassination and death of President James Garfield, and a memoir of Rod Dreher’s encounter with death and community in small-town Louisiana: those were my favorite nonfiction reads this year. I recommend any or all of them, if you’re at all interested in the subject matter. Ms. Butterfield’s conversion story and Mr. Wright’s book about the history and inner workings of the Scientology movement were particularly thought-provoking.