Monday, December 14, 2009

The Ten Non-Fiction Books I Wish I Had Read in 2009

--by Hanje Richards

This is the time of year when lots of publications and celebrities and authors publish their lists. Top Ten Books of 2009. Top 100 Books of 2009. Top 10 Books of The Decade. You get the idea. Usually these are books that the creator of the list has read, studied, considered carefully, based on statistics, sales and marketing and so on and so forth.

I decided that my list would be a little different. My list is about the Ten Books I Wish I Had Read in 2009 (Non-Fiction edition).

You read that correctly. I didn’t read these books. I didn’t study them. I didn’t check their sales or circulation figures. I just remember looking at them and thinking, “I Would Really Like to Read That Book This Year.”

It is really hard for me to narrow my list to ten in the Non-Fiction category. I always WANT to read more Non-Fiction than I do. I always check out more Non-Fiction than I can or will possibly read. But, I am fascinated by so many things that I keep adding titles to my list, keep checking them out, keep adding them to my piles. And, sometimes I even read some of them!
The Ten Books I Wish I Had Read in 2009 (Non-Fiction)

1. Assassination Vacation (Sarah Vowell)
Sarah Vowell exposes the glorious conundrums of American history and culture with wit, probity, and an irreverent sense of humor. With Assassination Vacation, she takes us on a road trip like no other — a journey to the pit stops of American political murder and through the myriad ways they have been used for fun and profit, for political and cultural advantage.

From Buffalo to Alaska, Washington to the Dry Tortugas, Vowell visits locations immortalized and influenced by the spilling of politically important blood, reporting as she goes with her trademark blend of wisecracking humor, remarkable honesty, and thought-provoking criticism.

Other books by Sarah Vowell that I would like to read one day: The Wordy Shipmates; Take The Cannoli: Stories From The New World; and The Partly Cloudy Patriot.

2. Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction (David Sheff)
“What had happened to my beautiful boy? To our family? What did I do wrong?” Those are the wrenching questions that haunt every moment of David Sheff’s journey through his son Nic’s addiction to drugs and tentative steps toward recovery. Before Nic Sheff became addicted to crystal meth, he was a charming boy, joyous and funny, a varsity athlete and honor student adored by his two younger siblings. After meth, he was a trembling wraith who lied, stole, and lived on the streets. David Sheff traces the first subtle warning signs: the denial, the 3 A.M. phone calls (is it Nic? the police? the hospital?), the rehabs. His preoccupation with Nic became an addiction in itself, and the obsessive worry and stress took a tremendous toll. But as a journalist, he instinctively researched every avenue of treatment that might save his son and refused to give up on Nic.

3. Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America (Barbara Ehrenreich)
Americans are a “positive” people — cheerful, optimistic, and upbeat: this is our reputation as well as our self-image. But more than a temperament, being positive, we are told, is the key to success and prosperity.

With the mythbusting powers for which she is acclaimed, Ehrenreich exposes the downside of America’s penchant for positive thinking: On a personal level, it leads to self-blame and a morbid preoccupation with stamping out “negative” thoughts. On a national level, it’s brought us an era of irrational optimism resulting in disaster. This is Ehrenreich at her provocative best — poking holes in conventional wisdom and faux science, and ending with a call for existential clarity and courage.

Other books by Barbara Ehrenreich that I hope to read include Nickel And Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America and The Snarling Citizen: Essays.

4. The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart Of American Power (Jeff Sharlet) They insist they are just a group of friends, yet they funnel millions of dollars through tax-free corporations. They claim to disdain politics, but congressmen of both parties describe them as the most influential religious organization in Washington. They say they are not Christians, but simply believers.

Behind the scenes at every National Prayer Breakfast since 1953 has been the Family, an elite network dedicated to a religion of power for the powerful. Their goal is "Jesus plus nothing." Their method is backroom diplomacy. The Family is the startling story of how their faith — part free-market fundamentalism, part imperial ambition — has come to be interwoven with the affairs of nations around the world.

Jeff Sharlet is a visiting research scholar at New York University's Center for Religion and Media. He is a contributing editor for "Harper's" and "Rolling Stone" and the editor of ""

5. Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How It Can Renew America (Thomas L. Friedman)
Friedman explains how global warming, rapidly growing populations, and the astonishing expansion of the world’s middle class through globalization have produced a planet that is “hot, flat, and crowded.” In this Release 2.0 edition, he also shows how the very habits that led us to ravage the natural world led to the meltdown of the financial markets and the Great Recession. The challenge of a sustainable way of life presents the United States with an opportunity not only to rebuild its economy, but to lead the world in radically innovating toward cleaner energy. And, it could inspire Americans to something we haven't seen in a long time — nation-building — by summoning the intelligence, creativity, and concern for the common good that are our greatest national resources.

6. How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors (Dan Crowe)
Have you ever wondered about the creative process of your favorite authors? Ever wondered who loves money more than life? What doors the secret keys unlock? What old lady wears fur jackets? Who needs to punch a boxing ball before work?

With primary evidence from the very private lives of those contemporary authors that are lingering on the doorstep of the literary canon, How I Write is an editorial powerhouse of more than sixty original features by Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Joyce Carol Oates, Rick Moody, Will Self, Nicole Krauss, and many others. Letters, photographs, drawings, even candy wrappers, phone bills, and other scattered mementos are strikingly presented in this smartly designed volume. Using the same research team that previously published the unknown letters of Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Dickens's notebook, Harold Pinter's blues lyrics, and a nude shot of Alan Ginsberg, How I Write offers unpublished and unseen material illuminating the secret lives of authors.

7. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (Michael Pollan)
Pollan shows us how to change the American way of eating, one meal at a time. Pollan proposes a new answer to the question of what we should eat that comes down to seven simple but liberating words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Pollan's bracing and eloquent manifesto shows us how we can start making thoughtful food choices that will enrich our lives, enlarge our sense of what it means to be healthy, and bring pleasure back to eating.

Other books by Michael Pollan that I wish I had read in 2009 are: Botany of Desire; Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals; Place Of My Own: The Architecture Of Daydreams; and Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education.

8. My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey (Jill Bolte Taylor)
On December 10, 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor, a thirty-seven- year-old Harvard-trained brain scientist, experienced a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. As she observed her mind deteriorate to the point that she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life — all within four hours — Taylor alternated between the euphoria of the intuitive and kinesthetic right brain, in which she felt a sense of complete well-being and peace, and the logical, sequential left brain, which recognized she was having a stroke and enabled her to seek help before she was completely lost. It would take her eight years to fully recover.

For Taylor, her stroke was a blessing and a revelation. It taught her that by "stepping to the right" of our left brains, we can uncover feelings of well-being that are often sidelined by "brain chatter." Taylor provides a valuable recovery guide for those touched by brain injury and an inspiring testimony that inner peace is accessible to anyone.

9. Truth & Beauty: A Friendship (Ann Patchett)
Ann Patchett and the late Lucy Grealy met in college in 1981 and, after enrolling in the Iowa Writer's Workshop, began a friendship that would be as defining to both of their lives as their work. In Grealy's critically acclaimed memoir, Autobiography of a Face, she wrote about losing part of her jaw to childhood cancer, years of chemotherapy and radiation, and endless reconstructive surgeries. In Truth & Beauty, the story isn't Lucy's life or Ann's life, but the parts of their lives they shared. This is a portrait of unwavering commitment that spans twenty years, from the long winters of the Midwest, to surgical wards, to book parties in New York. Through love, fame, drugs, and despair, this is what it means to be part of two lives that are intertwined ... and what happens when one is left behind.

This is a tender, brutal book about loving the person we cannot save. It is about loyalty, and being lifted up by the sheer effervescence of someone who knew how to live life to the fullest.

10. What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures (Malcolm Gladwell)
In What the Dog Saw, Gladwell brings together, for the first time, the best of his writing from "The New Yorker" over the past decade.

Here is the bittersweet tale of the inventor of the birth control pill and the dazzling inventions of the pasta sauce pioneer Howard Moscowitz. Gladwell sits with Ron Popeil, the king of the American kitchen, as he sells rotisserie ovens, and divines the secrets of Cesar Millan, the "dog whisperer" who can calm savage animals with the touch of his hand. He explores intelligence tests and ethnic profiling and "hindsight bias" and why it was that everyone in Silicon Valley once tripped over themselves to hire the same college graduate.

I have actually read these books by Malcolm Gladwell: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference; Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking; and Outliers : The Story of Success.

If any (or all!) of these titles sound interesting to you, too, you can find them at the Copper Queen Library.