Sports writer and novelist John Feinstein follows nine minor leaguers (mostly players, but a manager and an umpire as well) over the course of a season in Triple A baseball where every day is one step closer -- or further away -- from the big leagues.
Why I picked it up: I'm a baseball junkie and have passed many lovely summer evenings watching the Lowell Spinners, the Red Sox Double A team near me. I had thought those players were all young guys, but Feinstein's book showed me the minors are filled with veterans at all levels.
Why I finished it: Confession: I couldn't always keep the different players straight from one chapter to the next. But it really didn't matter, as the rhythm of the season and each person's journey up and down the rosters rolled along smoothly under Feinstein's steady hand.
It’s perfect for: I already gave it to my baseball-loving dad for Father's Day, but it would be an equally good choice for fans of Seabiscuit and other sports-themed narrative nonfiction.
In her first work of nonfiction, Lee Smith deploys the wit, wisdom, and graceful prose for which she is beloved to conjure her early days in the small coal town of Grundy, Virginia—and beyond.
For the inimitable Lee Smith, place is paramount. For forty-five years, her fiction has lived and breathed with the rhythms and people of the Appalachian South. But never before has she written her own story. Set deep in the rugged Appalachian Mountains, the Grundy of Lee Smith’s youth was a place of coal miners, mountain music, and her daddy’s dimestore. It was in that dimestore–listening to customers and inventing life histories for the store’s dolls–that she began to learn the craft of storytelling.
Even though she adored Grundy, Smith’s formal education and travels took her far from Virginia, though her Appalachian upbringing never left her. Dimestore’s fifteen essays are crushingly honest, always wise, and superbly entertaining. Smith has created both a moving, personal portrait and a broader meditation on embracing one’s heritage. Hers is an inspiring story of the birth of a writer and a poignant look at a way of life that has all but vanished.
“You know how in Lee Smith’s fiction there’s always something so fresh, crazy, and loving? In Dimestore is the essence of Lee.” —Roy Blount Jr., author of Alphabetter Juice: or, The Joy of Text
At the beginning of WWII, Knud Pedersen and several other teenagers in Denmark took exception to the adults in their country who laid low during the German occupation. They decided to resist and formed the Churchill Club. (To show that a potential member was serious about joining, and that he was trustworthy, he had to steal a German weapon.) They started by redirecting traffic signs and cutting communications cables. They escalated to stealing guns and using grenades to blow up vehicles. After six months, seven boys were captured. The Danes imprisoned them to keep them safe from the Germans.
Why I picked it up: Phillip Hoose also wrote Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 an enjoyable, award-winning nonfiction book about a bird species that migrates unusually far distances.
Why I finished it: I loved that Danish boys stood up against occupation while the adults weighed whether resisting was wise. The adults were probably more logical, since they could not defeat the German army or even slow it down for long. The boys were more emotional and simply could not stomach being passive. In the end many adults were goaded into participating in the Danish resistance movement by the example of the brave young men of the Churchill Club.
The club members even had a plan they repeated multiple times that involved sneaking into the coat closet at a local restaurant to steal soldiers' guns as they ate. How many teens would be able to organize like them and maintain operational secrecy? The tension at the end of the book as the club members were captured by Danish police and put into prison was exquisite -- I was invested in the characters because they were brave and risking so much, and I was worried about them falling into German hands.
It’s perfect for: My entrepreneurial teenage neighbor, Jake. He is forever coming up with ideas for products, businesses, and moneymaking schemes. This book might give him the courage to stop talking and take charge. If these kids could do drive-by Molotov cocktail attacks and sabotage German army operations to the point that their capture became a priority to the local overseers, Jake can certainly start a business or bring a product to market.
Robert Miller left home after high school to become a con artist. Throughout his life he used forty-five aliases, the most well-known of which is Count Victor Lustig. He is best known for having conned Al Capone, counterfeited currency, and sold the Eiffel Tower to scrappers.
Why I picked it up: It’s the only picture book about a real life con man I’ve ever come across, and I loved the cover’s muted colors.
Why I finished it: The art is great. It’s a pleasing, computer-created collage full of two-dimensional shapes and flat colors, reminiscent of 60s children’s books. My favorite touch is that André Poisson, the man who buys the Eiffel Tower, is pictured as having a fish’s head. (“Poisson” means fish, and Vic certainly fished him in.)
The contextual information needed to understand Tricky Vic’s story is here, but it’s bizarre to see it in a picture book: asides about prohibition, conterfeiting, and Alcatraz. There’s also detailed information on several cons including Vic’s money-printing machine scam. (I can’t wait to hear about inspired fifth graders pulling this and other tricks on their schoolmates.)
It’s perfect for: Nathan, who loves films about con men like The Grifters, Heist, and Ocean’s Eleven. He’d love reading this to his young son, and it might be the perfect bridge to getting him to watch movies with his dad.
A house named St. John's was built in newly settled Maryland in 1638. Hundreds of years later, there was almost no trace of it left. But archaeologists carefully excavated every tiny artifact and found changes in soil color that indicated where, long ago, rotted-away wooden beams had been. Together with research into documents by historians, the story of this house was brought back to life.
Why I picked it up: I loved Walker's book Written in Bone about gathering long-forgotten historical data from the skeletal remains of early U.S. settlers.
Why I finished it: The house wasn't just a home. It was also a place where legal cases were tried and government meetings were held. Those stories were discovered in documents recording the verdicts and decisions. Details about daily life that would never be thought important enough to write down, like how cheese was made and what meat was cooked for dinner, were discovered by analyzing the home’s layout from year to year and sifting through its garbage pit.
It’s perfect for: John, to use with his middle school class. He has students do original historical research on graves in their hometowns. I think he'd love the hands-on history discovered in the dig, and how theories about the house and the people who lived there were revised as scientists figured out new ways to analyze what had been found. For example, soil excavated in 2001 was later examined by a scientist who found plant seeds that may show what crops were planted and eaten at different points in the house's history.
In 1842, Asa Whitney petitioned Congress to build a railroad linking the East Coast and West Coast. Surveying of the feasibility of the project focused on the mountain ranges that would need to be crossed; many men thought it impossible to create track across the snowy wastes. Construction did not start until Abraham Lincoln authorized it in the middle of the Civil War -- because he did not know how long the war would go, Lincoln thought it might be needed to bring supplies to the army. Competing companies (the Union Pacific Railroad (UP) and the Central Pacific Railroad (CP)) raced to lay the most track and claim the federal dollars -- they were paid $16,000 per mile on the flats, and $32,000 per mile in the mountains. Thousands of workers from China and Ireland braved overheated deserts, blizzards, avalanches, and Native American attacks to lay Stephenson gauge track from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California.
Why I picked it up: I’m always looking for good nonfiction that can be read for pleasure and also can be used for research.
Why I finished it: Details about the construction fascinated me, like that black blasting powder was exploded in kegs, and that sometimes up to 400 a day were used to blast through granite mountains. Once Central Pacific heard about a new, powerful explosive, nitroglycerin, they tried to use it, but so many men died in blasting accidents that they had to stop. I had heard, of course, about the ceremonial Golden Spike that was pounded in at Promontory Summit, Utah, but I enjoyed seeing pictures of it and learning of how it was removed afterward to prevent theft.
The men working for the UP and CP disliked each other. Most of the time, this was okay, as they were hundreds of miles apart. But as the lines got closer, there were fights and people were killed. Central Pacific's men were upset that Union Pacific's men were getting press coverage for doing eight miles of track in one day, so near Promontory Summit there was a $10,000 bet on whether CP could lay ten miles of track in one day, an unheard of feat. Somehow they "positioned 25,800 ties, laid 3,250 rails, hammered 28,160 spikes and turned 14,080 bolts ... laying 240 feet of track every minute” and winning the bet.
It’s perfect for: I have a student in my library that comes and plays with Legos every day during his lunch period. I am going to approach him with the book on the premise that the feats of engineering he would read about would engage with his love of Legos. He will be fascinated with the details (and photos) of blasting, grading, logging, and laying of rail.
Memoirist and writing teacher Abigail Thomas (A Three Dog Life) opens up about family, mortality, friendship, pain, and dogs in this loosely connected collection of essays, alternately hilarious and poignant, and none more than five pages long.
Why I picked it up: I found it on the new nonfiction shelf at my library and remembered reading about it in some book-y newsletter. Plus Anne Lamott blurbed it, which I consider a good recommendation.
Why I finished it: This is a weird and uncomfortable book. It is also marvelous and touching. Thomas pulls no punches regarding her own faults and mistakes, and those of the ones she loves. The scandal at the heart of this collection (and I’m spoiling nothing, since it’s revealed twenty pages in) is the brief but wounding love affair between Thomas’s daughter, Catherine, and Thomas’s best, mostly platonic friend, Chuck. The fallout from that coupling recurs in honest and painful ways, over years and marriages and divorces and illnesses, and plainly shows the complexity and capaciousness of love. Even when my Ick Meter was turned way up (she was twentysomething! he was FIFTYsomething!), I felt sympathy and compassion for these broken, loving people.
It’s perfect for: My cousin Angie, a single mom who’s gone through a ton of horrible stuff and come out the other side with her sense of humor and caring nature intact. She’d find Thomas a kindred spirit.
Josh, a 6'7" tall librarian with Tourette syndrome tells us about everything from falling in love with Fern from Charlotte's Web to discovering how literature can help in overcoming life's obstacles.
Why I picked it up: Josh was the keynote speaker at the 2015 Pacific Northwest Library Association conference. His speech was funny and moving, and our shared interest in Scottish Highland games and Stephen King convinced me to read his memoir. I was not disappointed.
Why I finished it: Take the two most opposite things and put them together: library work strives to be orderly, predictable, and controlled; Tourette syndrome is unpredictable and seems to defy all rules and especially the library’s code of conduct. Josh's description of his experience with his tics and related health issues drew me in, including physical ailments like a hernia and wounds from hitting himself. Even at the most heartbreaking moments, he would come up with a funny line that would make me laugh. I especially loved the part about him losing his kilt during the Highland games -- when he spun around during a weight for distance throw, the weight tore off his kilt and dragged him three feet. (I once saw a man lose his kilt during the caber toss and have never forgotten it.) Thankfully Josh wasn't “traditional," which is really a fancy way of saying "not wearing anything under his kilt."
It’s perfect for: My friend Christie from my writing group. She loves witty one liners, and I know she will love Hanagarne's description of a class he and his wife had to take when they decided to adopt a baby. In a room filled with strangers, ”someone made a Family Circus reference and everyone in the room laughed. When someone makes a Family Circus reference and everyone in the room laughs, I'm in the wrong room."
Colleen Frakes spent ten years of her childhood living on McNeil Island, an island in the Puget Sound that was the site of the McNeil Island Corrections Center which is only accessible by air and sea. (Because her parents worked at the prison, their family was allowed to live there.)
Why I picked it up: I’m a huge fan of Frakes’s comics, and I’ve read parts of this story in minicomics she’s published over the last few years.
Why I finished it: The details about life on the island. There were strict rules -- kids weren’t allowed to talk to prisoners who did a lot of work around the island, and had to go inside when they were around. Pool toys had to be locked up so that prisoners couldn't use them to escape. Frakes and a friend had to go to extreme lengths to get a pizza delivered, and her sixteenth birthday was almost ruined by an escape attempt.
It’s perfect for: My cousin, Linda. She took me and my family on a Texas wildflower tour last year, and she has a huge interest in local history wherever she travels. She’d love the fact that, in the spring, daffodils planted by early settlers on McNeil Island grow, hinting at where houses were once built. The island is now mostly a nature preserve that belongs to the Department of Natural Resources. I’m not sure how hard it is to visit, but I know that once Linda finds out about the flowers, she’ll be determined to go there for a hike.