She says: We’ve talked about how you pick nonfiction books in previous years, but this week I’m excited to talk about what makes a book you’ve read one of your favorites. Is the topic pretty much all that matters? Are there particular ways a story can be told or particular writing styles that you love? Do you look for a light, humorous approach or do you prefer a more serious tone? Let us know what qualities make you add a nonfiction book to your list of favorites.
First, can I say I love this question?
Especially since I was recently pondering this very topic. A few weeks ago, while talking about books with the Dear Man, I said something and then realized it was abundantly true: I think narrative voice is the most important element for me as a reader.
It stopped me in my tracks, that’s how true it was.
If I enjoy the writer’s voice, I’ll read nearly anything. Here’s proof:
I’ve read and loved these books, which are about topics I wouldn’t say I enjoy reading about:
The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse by Tom Verducci
3 words: personal, detailed, inside baseball
Oh my goodness. Such a good book!
If you’re a Cubs fan, then: of course.
If you’re not a Cubs fan, but you are a reader who likes learning the inside story of building a culture of teamwork and success, then this book is also for you.
There’s so much to love here.
First: The people. Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon were of one mind when it came to assembling the perfect team. They agreed that the character of the players mattered as much as their athletic talents. So this team is made up of strong people who are devoted to the group, rather than to themselves. And they’re darn tough guys who have faced and overcome tough times with grace.
And Maddon himself. The guy’s fascinating. (I’m kind of thinking I need a “Try Not to Suck” t-shirt to add to my fleet of Cubs shirts.)
Maddon: a reader’s gotta love him. To draw out Addison Russell, he assigned him to read Stephen King’s 11/22/63 and talk to him about the book every 50 to 100 pages.
I adore this!
Second: The behind-the-scenes stuff is fantastic. For example, that whole story about Rizzo borrowing Szczur’s identical bat and having immense good luck with it during the World Series? Partly fiction!
(with that stance… Bryant)
Third: Even though we obviously know the outcome (spoiler alert: Cubs win the World Series), this book is a page turner. The chapters alternate between each World Series game and the back story that brought the team together from 2012 to 2016.
Fourth: All that psychology. Here’s Maddon: “Too many times in the past, in the postseason, I know we’ve got the other team by the look in the other team’s eyes. There’s a distant look. They’re anticipating bad. It’s almost like a concession look. I never want us to be that team. So know that something bad is going to happen. Know it is. Expect it to happen. And when it happens, we have to keep our heads and fight through it.” (p. 283)
I mean seriously: Isn’t that good?
And then there’s this scene from the rain delay in Game 7, when Epstein eavesdropped on the players-only meeting. “‘I saw our guys meeting and it snapped me back,’ he said. ‘It reminded me of how much I admired them and how tough they are, how connected they’ve stayed with each other, and the great things human beings can accomplish when they set out to achieve for other people, not for themselves.’” (p. 347)
Verklempt! I read this section at Panera and got all verklempt (in public). I try to avoid displays of readerly overwhelm, but sometimes it does a sneak attack. This book got to me.
We might need a short musical break here…
Give this book a whirl if you like… baseball, stories of Overcoming, workplace narratives, the behind-the-scenes story, camaraderie, building an organizational culture Anyone else read any great sports books lately?
Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Coming Home by Amy Dickinson
3 words: sprightly, romantic, domestic
Sometimes life offers you a Perfect Book, and all you want to do is read it and read it and read it.
This is one of those.
I just kept flagging quotes (with these adorable little arrow sticky notes I picked up at Le Target) because Amy Dickinson’s sentences kept delighting me. Here’s a paragraph of good ones:
“I would lie in bed at night in our farmhouse and listen to my mother power up the pump organ by stomping on its wooden pedals until its bellows filled with air. Then she’d start to play the chords to Burt Bacharach’s ‘This Guy’s in Love with You.’ Given the organ’s overall creepy pipe tones and asthmatic volume changes as my mother pedaled faster or slower, it sounded like a lounge act in a horror movie.” (p. 16)
So this book is funny and romantic and light-hearted in parts, and then sad and overwhelmed and dealing with wrenching loss. It’s just like life!
I loved Dickinson’s first memoir, The Mighty Queens of Freeville, which was the full story of her return to her small upstate New York town, to live among her extended family of women.
In this new book, she finds love mid-life (so romantic! so right!) and loses her mother (so sad and so stinkin’ difficult).
She writes things like this, which made me miss her mom (and mostly miss my own mom):
“There was a special quality and depth to her attentiveness. I often felt she paid better attention–or a better kind of attention–to me than I did to myself.” (p. 182)
And she writes all these things with candor and humor. Yes, she’s the nationally recognized “Ask Amy,” but she’s actually just living her complicated and beautiful and sometimes painful life just like the rest of us. Only she’s got the way of stringing together the words that makes her story absolutely entertaining and real and heartfelt.
And even though I’m kind of small-town-phobic (so many eyes watching a person’s every move), Amy (see how we’re already on first-name terms here? It’s that kind of book) loves small town living and it suits her well. She writes of her town with love and delight, and it almost makes me want to live there, too.
And that’s largely because of the people in this book, who obviously are real people, but the wonderful thing is the way Amy presents them to us, so we actually feel like we know them.
Give this book a whirl if you like… midlife romance, blending families, returning home, books that celebrate small towns and houses, and a mix of laughter and tears
Citizen and I share a fondness for the workplace narrative, and here, she guided me to an amazing example of the stuff.
The first thing to know about this book is that the writing is darn lively. Laskas is a professor of journalism, and she writes in a terrifically engaging journalistic style.
And I kept thinking of how this book would appeal to readers of Mary Roach. The writing style and the in-depth nature of the reporting felt similar to me. While this book doesn’t have the laugh-out-loud thing going on (the way Roach’s books often do), there’s still humor here –– it’s just more muted and contextual.
Laskas hangs out with people who do jobs we often overlook — coal miners, cowboys, oil rig workers, air traffic controllers, landfill workers, truck drivers — and gives a really in-depth look at their work and their personalities.
She starts off with the coal miners, and I just keep thinking about that chapter. It’s pretty stunning writing, about staggeringly difficult work done by tough, stoic guys. It got me.
The whole book is this way — a remarkably deep dive into a whole bunch of work lives that I confess I otherwise wouldn’t really think about (except for the landfill workers, cuz I know some of those guys from my growing-up years, cuz I’m lucky like that).
And as each chapter ended, I was sad to let it go. But then there was another narrative beginning, and it was only a matter of moments before I wondered where this one was gonna go.
When I saw the subtitle of the book, I was worried that it was going to be over-earnest in tone, but Laskas keeps it real and she doesn’t sentimentalize things and she doesn’t make points. She just tells the people’s stories, and that’s just right.
A book that lets you meet people who do all kinds of tough and interesting work, because Laskas asked the good questions and made the insightful observations and let the people be who they are.
That 2008 election
was probably the best I’ll ever see, and Heilemann’s and Halperin’s take on it
was so blasted fun to read.
So Collision 2012 had its work cut out for
it. And, given the material offered by 2012, it was unlikely to reach the level
of bliss-inducement offered by Game
Change. And, sure enough, it just didn’t get there. But it wasn’t the fault
of the author; the 2012 election just didn’t get as thrilling as 2008, and the
cast of characters was way less quirky. We can blame history, guys.
There were moments
when this book almost seemed dry. But then, I was glad about its serious
approach to the topic, once I began reading Mark Leibovich’s This Town—because I needed to cut his
snark with some solemnity. I craved hard data about election returns, and Collision 2012 offered it up.
books actually pair quite well, if you’re into this kind of thing.
Not that Collision 2012
is all seriousness. Call me shallow, but the thing I’ll most remember is this:
On the morning of election day, Mitt Romney cleaned out the refrigerator
because it was trash day. I find that completely endearing.
This book offered some great behind-the-scenes coverage of the campaigns, but I just kept thinking:
2012 was no 2008. And without the zippy material, the story just kind of loses its oomph.
There you have it: the technical analysis from a poli sci major — that election cycle lacked oomph.
Nevertheless, I’m on the waiting list for Halperin and Heilemann’s Double Down: Game Change 2012. (Due out November 5! [I confess: my stomach just did a little flip of anticipatory joy. I know: sick.])
This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus,
Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s
Gilded Capital by Mark
Yeah, I know we’re all ticked off about the government shut-down, but even as it raged on, I was reading delightedly about Washington, D.C.
Real-life motorcade I saw with my own eyes as it
rolled through Georgetown; I almost passed out from joy.
When I started
reading this book, I was completely blissed out. Even though it starts at a
funeral. Turns out, Tim Russert’s funeral was the social event of the year.
This book goes down
easy, like a hot fudge sundae. The tone is light and funny, even though much of
the content (politicians and journalists are in bed together, and really,
they’re the only ones who benefit) is not.
Mark Leibovich is a
funny guy. He’s also a complete smart-aleck. Sometimes the irreverence is
almost a bit much. But then I’d read a sentence like this: “Romney seemed to
acquire an instant lightness after his Ryan selection—like a shy eight-year-old
transformed by a new pet turtle.” (p. 316) And then I’d be all: That’s priceless.
Along those same
lines: “It was for this reason hard to dislike Biden, a joyful campaigner
who—unlike the introverted Obamneys—was not someone you imagined reaching for
the Purell as soon as he escaped the ropeline.” (p. 296)
I savored these
But there was a
whole big long chapter about a congressional staffer who got himself fired and
re-hired, and Leibovich was involved in the situation, and I got so darn bored
by all the details. It was too much. And I didn’t care. It was a relief when
that chapter (finally) ended.
And after that, I
found myself feeling the slightest bit like the book was too much, and it
didn’t feel like it was really very good for me. It felt a bit self-indulgent
and a little flip to be reading it, and I fled back to my other
2012, for some whole wheat goodness.
In the end, reading This Town felt like eating a large
hot fudge sundae when I should’ve gone for a small. It was deliciously decadent, but there was a bit too much of it.
Crazy Salad & Scribble Scrabble: Some
Things about Women & Notes on the Media by Nora Ephron
For all of us Nora
Ephron readers, this book is good news. Even though I consider myself a big old
fan, I’d missed Scribble Scrabble (1979) earlier, so this felt like a new release, even though both books were published
I already read Crazy Salad (and loved the heck out of it), so I’m just going to be talking about Scribble
Since I’m a
journalism geek, I was pretty sure I’d be liking her essays on the media.
And of course I
they’re a 1970s extravaganza: H.R. Haldeman; Daniel Schorr and his fall from
grace (I’d always wondered what happened there); and Theodore H. White, author
of the “Making of the President” books, who eventually was as disenchanted with
his series as Agatha Christie was with Poirot. (Be careful what you invent,
It’s no surprise
that Ephron’s writing is smart and witty; the woman had perfect pitch. I mean,
listen to this, as she writes about People magazine: “My problem with the magazine is not that I think it is harmful
or dangerous or anything of the sort. It’s almost not worth getting upset
about. It’s a potato chip.” (p. 267)
At least we’ve
still got her words. And man, that lady could write.
There’ve been various theories: he was appalled at Nixon’s
flagrant snubbing of the law; he was ticked because Nixon didn’t name him
director of the FBI after Hoover’s
death; he didn’t like Nixon’s interference with FBI business; he thought it was
the right thing to do.
posits that Felt did all that leaking because he was attempting to discredit
his rivals for the top job at the FBI. He makes quite a good case for this
So, in addition to the new analysis of Felt’s motivation, here are
the facts I learned that completely blew my mind:
– Felt was leaking not only to Woodward, but also to Sandy Smith
at Time. Who knew?!
– Nixon knew Felt was the source of the leaks by late 1972. Again…
(say it with me now) Who knew?! And Nixon didn’t dare fire him, lest Felt
spill even more secrets. (Oh what a tangled web we weave, Mr. Nixon.)
– Robert Redford suggested to Woodstein the style of All the President’s Men: that the book
be the story of how they discovered
the truth, rather than simply what they
discovered. The result: a literary masterpiece.
The dauntless Unruly one, in the
*actual parking garage where
Woodward and Deep Throat met*
Each man—Woodward and Felt—was, of course, using the other for his
own purposes. But it’s never before been so baldy stated as it is in this book.
The thing I find the most haunting, though, is this:
Roger L. Depue, the former chief of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit, studied
the depiction of Deep Throat in All the
President’s Men for NBC’s Dateline program.
Depue concluded from the way Woodward wrote about Felt that he had very mixed
feelings toward the man… ‘I detected that not only was Felt an angry man,’
Depue said, ‘but that Woodward didn’t particularly like him. It seemed like
more of a utilitarian relationship…. There wasn’t much mutual respect there.’”
For some reason, this makes me feel kind of sad. The romance is
all shot to hell, you know?
I feel like I’ve finished this book, only to find myself sadder
and wiser. I’ve kinda had enough of that for a while.
Oh, Nora Ephron. What is this ridiculous world going to do without
Here’s the strange thing: I’d already prescribed some Nora Ephron
essays for myself, and this book was sitting on my shelf, just waiting for me
to pick it up, when I heard her name at the beginning of a news update on NPR
(never a good sign: the name being mentioned first), and I thought, “Please
don’t let her have died.” And damn it.
I’m feeling dreadfully cross that she’s gone, because I think this
world needs more of her humor and more of her humanity.
Y’all, we’re just gonna have to step up and try our darndest to disburse humor and
humanity, because this world needs it. And we can kickstart our systems by
reading Ephron’s wry, funny, occasionally scathing, always smart writing.
This collection of short essays, which begins with one about bras,
is freaking hilarious. The woman had a way with words, and it was unusual for
10 pages to go by without my laughing out loud.
The book was published in the
’70s, and lots of the essays have that First Wave Feminism thing going on—and
it’s the positive kind of feminism that needn’t be scaring the menfolk.
Seriously. In that essay about bras, she wasn’t wanting to burn hers—she was
writing about her agony in wanting to actually need one as a teenager.
She also writes about some notable Watergate personalities: Rose
Mary Woods (subject of my most favorite political cartoon ever) in an essay called “Rose Mary Woods—The Lady or the Tiger?” and Martha Mitchell (“Crazy Ladies: II”). And there’s a remarkable little thing about Julie Nixon Eisenhower being the perfect political daughter. (See: scathing, mentioned above.)
But truly, the most delightful thing in her writing is Ephron’s
own voice. That lady was funny. And
smart. And funny.
I suppose part of the reason we don’t still talk about this book
is that Timothy Crouse was overshadowed by his much more audacious colleague at Rolling Stone, Hunter S. Thompson. (Seriously:
how could you not be overshadowed
that that guy?)
But I gotta tell you: The
Boys on the Bus is a terrific piece of work. It captures the 1972
presidential campaign season and the journalists who
covered it. (Sure, go ahead: Groan if you like. But 1972 is the year that
brought us Watergate, guys. It was a zippy little year!)
And in Crouse’s hands (actually, in his words), it comes to life. It’s the story about the story, and it is excellent. (And Crouse’s language is so delightful, I’m gonna quote lots of it.)
So we hear about Richard Nixon (and his much-despised press
secretary Ron Ziegler), and we hear about George McGovern. (“Since Richard
Nixon was declining nearly all invitations to share the pleasure of his company
with the electorate, the only real Presidential campaign belonged to George
McGovern.” [p. 320])
But the journalists are really the ones in the spotlight in this
book. And they are a weird and wonderful crew.
Here’s just one example: “Every so often in the course of the fall
campaign, Jules Witcover appeared at a White House briefing in his black,
funereal raincoat, looking like a cut-rate version of the bad fairy.” (p. 243)
Or, when Crouse gives a sense of life on the press bus: “It was the
kind of bus to which most bus-fanciers would give three stars—the windows were
tinted and there was a toilet in the rear, but the seats did not recline. The
time was 7:30 A.M. and two-thirds of the seats were already filled with silent
and bleary-eyed reporters who looked as cheerful as a Georgia chain
gang on its way to a new roadbed.” (pp. 11-12)
(OK. Every time I read that last bit, I laugh.)
And shortly after the 1972 election, Crouse met Woodward and
Bernstein at the dining room of the Hay-Adams hotel and talked with them about
their Watergate reporting. That chapter of the book allows us to be a fly on
the wall during their conversation, and really: what could be better than
Well, maybe this, about the great Merriman Smith:
“His sprints to the phone booth were legendary. He trampled
anything or anyone in his way; he once slipped and dislocated a shoulder on the
way to the phone but dictated for an hour before passing out from the pain.”
I tell you: they don’t make reporters like they used to.
It’s a crying shame.
This book is an entertaining look at some one-of-a-kind old-school
* Yeah. There were very few “girls” on the bus in those days. And it was no picnic for those who were there. Here’s an example of what Sarah McClendon of the North American Newspaper Alliance had to endure:
“But the men still tittered whenever Sarah McClendon asked a question, and Ziegler still treated her as if she were a wino who had wandered in off the street (although he was always very sweet to her after the briefing, which only disgusted her more).” (p. 210) We’ve come a long way, baby.