I didn’t really begin working on my thesis until June, or maybe even July. The proposal asked for fifteen starting references. By fall semester’s end I was up to over thirty. The title of my thesis is Inventing America’s History: The Myths That Make for Better Storytelling. The entire project consisted of arguments over the textbook wars and history education’s common core standards, American folklore, and, my favorite topic of discussion, the building of America’s history from the white man’s perspective. I believe that America’s narrative is missing multiple points of view. I also believe that future generations will happily fill in the gaps. Good on them.
So, needless to say, most of my reading over the last six months has been very centered on history and historic events. All reading before that was…well, mostly centered on history and historical events. As a matter of fact, I’m currently reading Off The Map: Tales of Endurance and Exploration, which includes stories of global and seafaring adventuring gone wrong (oh, that Christopher Columbus guy was such a wanker). And after that? A Brief History of the Vikings. I just can’t stay away from that history stuff.
I want to make it clear to you all, though, that as much as some people might be bored to tears by historical accounts (or, even, nonfiction in general), I am, too. I’m quite picky about my reading material. If something hasn’t grabbed my attention by the second or third chapter, it gets shelved and I move on to something else. To me, nothing is a bigger waste of time than reading a book that doesn’t interest me. So…
As promised, here is my list of favorite nonfiction that I read in 2013.
1. Here is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History by Andrew Carroll – I was reading this book and feeling very overwhelmed by all the possible topics on which I could write my thesis. Within a few pages, Carroll mentioned the Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin and my paper practically wrote itself right then. Even if you’re not a fan of history, Carroll’s stories cover everything from inventions and government cover-ups to medical breakthroughs, and he manages to connect seemingly minor details from the past to our own recent history. Case in point: Skinner V Oklahoma in 1942, eugenics, Nazis, Tim McVeigh, Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, back to Skinner’s armed robbery case…there’s a thread that connects each event and brings it all full circle. I’m not telling you how it goes. You should read it for yourself.
2. Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin – At first, I couldn’t stop thinking about that movie Soul Man, but the author obviously had better intentions than those of C. Thomas Howell’s character. This is the story of a white man who successfully passed as a black man in the 1950s South. Remember my earlier mention of perspectives and how I believe some of them are missing in America’s story? When a white man pretends to be a black man in the South and then comes home to his white-man life to tell about it, people tend to listen.
3. Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality by Jacob Tomsky – Let me start this off by saying I spent nearly 15 years in the hotel industry. I’ve worked the front desk, in the sales office, and mid-level management, and I cross-trained in housekeeping, maintenance, and food & beverage. I was a little unnerved by Tomsky’s descriptions of his grossly irresponsible behavior while on the job (sleeping with hotel guests, destroying guests’ luggage, and snorting coke with the bellman), but then it hit me: THIS SHIT HAPPENS. Oh my gawwwd, does it ever happen! Ha! So if you want some insight on how things operate in a hotel (and what we’re really saying about you as a hotel guest), read this book and keep in mind that we, the hotel staff, know more about you than you think we do. Rule #1: the walls are thin so keep your sex noises down. Rule #2: tip your housekeepers and bellmen graciously.
4. The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History by Molly Caldwell Crosby – While we were sitting in the Jerry Lee Lewis restaurant in downtown Memphis this summer, my husband bit into his barbecue sandwich and proclaimed it to be one of the best he’s ever had. I then subjected him and my daughter to an informative rant about why we have Yellow Fever to thank for such delicious Memphis barbecue. And Elvis. And rock and roll in general. I also finally learned who Walter Reed really was and why he’s so worthy of a military hospital bearing his name. This book will teach you a lot.
5. Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray – If you have been reading this blog from the beginning, then you know of my struggles with missing North Florida, of missing home. What you don’t know is that this blog was almost named Cracker Horse. The term cracker is culturally significant to the ever evolving stories of South Georgia and North Florida. Ray’s memoirs took me home for a little while, where trailer parks are plentiful and the gopher tortoise population determines the region’s ecological health. She spends a lot of time talking about longleaf and loblolly pines. I miss them. I miss it all.
6. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott – This was my first Lamott novel and it certainly won’t be my last. Bird by Bird was a quick read, but her tips on writing (and on life) come from a seasoned veteran. She is both the writer and the student, all at once. Her biggest piece of advice, a theme that replays constantly, is to make it your goal to write well, not to be published. Sure, being published feels great, but the truth is that most writers will never be published. Get over it, then get back to writing.
7. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathanial Philbrick – I read this book in two days, but then again I’ve always been into reading about disasters at sea and what leads people to be cannibalistic. Philbrick’s writing style is phenomenal (I have his Mayflower on my bookshelf waiting to be read), which just makes me believe that his retelling of Bunker Hill will simply be more of the same brand of awesome. There is a lot of fascinating history of the whaling industry and of the ports that boomed during the industry’s heyday. In the Heart of the Sea is one of my favorite books of all-time.
8. The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time by Jonathan Weiner – An assignment for a biology course and, strangely, my professor had us read it out of sequence. Chapter 7, then chapter 3, then on to chapter 14. One doesn’t have to read it in chapter order, though, because I genuinely became interested in learning more about the finches’ beaks. This book is not boring at all! Had it not been forced upon me by my professor, I may never have read it. Until then, I’d never even heard of it and that’s a shame. The best way to read this book is to read it outdoors. I read it while camping, just before I saw my first bison and hiked around a beautiful blue lake in the Wichita Mountains. Being out in nature lends to the thrill of the read.
9. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed – You’ll come away from this book wanting one of two things (or maybe even both): 1. To call you mom just to say hi. 2. To load up a pack and hit the trails. I’m too afraid of wildlife and strangers who are at home in the woods, so I will never do a solo hike. But I have convinced my husband that we should, at some point, hit the Appalachian Trail and do an overnight together. There were some complaints from other readers about a scene involving her mother’s horse. Some felt it was unnecessary while others felt her narrative was too graphic. I was too busy crying through the whole damn scene, so I think she made her point quite clear and it’s very well-written. Seriously, don’t go into this book thinking it’s anything like Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. It’s not.
10. Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King – Okay. So I’m cheating a little bit with this one. I read King’s book last year (late) but it did receive the Pulitzer recently. If you have any interest in the Civil Rights era, race relations, the justice system, or the culture of the Old South versus New South, this book will blow you away. These events took place near where I once lived in Florida, yet most Floridians are either unaware of the story or unwilling to speak of it. Did you know that in all of the South, Florida carried out the most recorded lynchings? There is no telling how many went unrecorded or were simply murders written off as accidents or a white man’s self-defense. Florida’s history is being rewritten with the retellings of events from new perspectives. I find it all very exciting.
(For my favorite fiction of 2013, click here)