Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Best Nonfiction of 2014

Some readers think of nonfiction as “what you should read” not what you enjoy. The best nonfiction books I read in the last year dispel that notion. Forget the old adage that you need to read a particular book just as you need to eat your vegetables. Vegetables are no longer grayish green, limp morsels with no taste. They’re tasty treats like roasted Brussels sprouts, grilled asparagus, and scrumptious kale chips.The best nonfiction titles offer delectable tales that combine information about history, war, survival, health, adventure, religion, and more with writing that places the reader in the story. These page-turning tales will inform, amuse, enlighten, frighten, and maybe even enrage you. Other fine nonfiction titles I read this year are on the annual listThe best of 2014 are:
·         In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides
·         Being Mortal by Atun Gawande
·         Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War by Helen Thorpe
·       Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods by Christine Byl (published in 2013)  After the Wind by Lou Kasischke
·         Faith Unraveled by Rachel Held Evans (Originally titled: Evolving in Monkeytown in 2012, reissued in 2014)
·    The Twible: All the Chapters of the Bible in 140 Characters or Less by Jana Riess (published in 2013)     

The Best Nonfiction Book of 2014 - It's a tie:

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides is a page-turning tale of the 1879 voyage of the SS. Jeannette in the Arctic waters north of the Bering Strait where the crew searched for a sea passage to the North Pole.  It puts you on the ship, in the frozen ice, and deep in the darkness of the Arctic winter during the years the voyagers were at sea. Sides shows the remarkable courage and thought that the exhibition commander and his crew demonstrated. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying this adventure. Read the full review.

Being Mortal by Atun Gawande is a book everyone needs to read yet the stories Gawande tells make it engaging and filled with hope. This book will make you think honestly about medical choices and help you ask good questions about independence and what’s truly important to you or someone you love. Start by watching Gawande’s interview on The John Stewart Show or listen to his NPR interview with Diane Rehm.  Listening to his story about his daughter’s piano teacher’s choices made me stop the car to grab a tissue then immediately rush to the nearest bookstore to buy the book. The research that people tend to live longer with palliative care than with many interventions will make you think and ask good questions. Promise yourself that you'll read this even if you have to make it a New Year's resolution. 

The Runners-Up:

The Best Book that Explains War, Poverty, and Human Capital:
Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War by Helen Thorpe tells the compelling stories of three Indiana women joining the National Guard before 9/11 then of their unexpected service in Iraq. The upheaval in their lives and their adjustment after will cause you to ponder. This is a fine piece of reporting that reads like a great novel. Poverty and the increasing cost of higher education means that our military is changing. Seeing that through these three women’s lives brings it home to those of us who don’t think about what we ask of our troops.
One slight quibble: I’m from Indiana so the inconsistent editing of Indiana details bothered me. Louisville, KY is NOT south of Evansville, IN, nor is the college in Bloomington called the University of Indiana (She gets it right twice, wrong once). I’m hoping future editions correct these minor errors that detract from this phenomenal book.

The Best Nature Memoir that Will Make You Appreciate Work and Words:
Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods by Christine Byl is a straight-talking, poetic, humorous look at the work of a seasonal “traildog,” a person who clears and maintains trails in remote areas of National Parks.  Byl tells of digging holes, dropping trees, building stairs, moving boulders,  hauling chainsaws on her shoulders, wearing out countless pairs of boots, drinking lots of Pabst Blue Ribbon, consuming 1000s of calories, and crossing streams by slithering along logs on her butt.  Byl, traildog extraordinaire, honors her idols – Willa Cather, Jim Harrison and Thoreau - as she weaves this authentic, gritty, gripping tale. This woman can flat out write. (published in 2013)

The Best Book about What Happened on Mount Everest in 1996:
After the Wind by Lou Kasischke tells the story of what really happened on May 10, 1995 on Mount Everest. Learn why Kasischke survived when many others didn’t.  I edited this book so I’m biased but even Kirkus Reviews named it one of the best of the year. Read the full review

The Best Book about Surviving Religion and Keeping the Faith:
Faith Unraveled by Rachel Held Evans (Originally titled: Evolving in Monkeytown in 2012, reissued in 2014) I love, love, love the preface in which Evans lists several things about herself. “People tell me I exaggerate. I’ve been hurt by Christians. As a Christian, I’ve been hurtful. I’m judgmental of people I think are judgmental. At twenty-seven, I almost always root for the underdog, and sometimes I get the feeling that God does too.” With that I fell down the rabbit hole and adored every minute of her journey.  Read this book!

The Most Reverent, Irreverent Book that Will Make You Want to Read the Bible:
The Twible: All the Chapters of the Bible in 140 Characters or Less by Jana Riess When a kid said “The Emperor has no clothes,” everyone’s eyes opened.  When Riess reverently applies irreverence to her shortened chapters of the Bible she illuminates them in a way that’s difficult to ignore. Only someone with her knowledge could hone in so clearly on what each chapter says in so few words. Deuteronomy 18: “Don’t fry up your kids, cast spells, visit astrologers, or talk to the dead.  You’re special, Israel, so straighten up and fly right.”  Pithy summations make the reader ponder and then perhaps even consult the big book itself. (published in 2013)

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