Good Reads - Nonfiction
Great Nonfiction Books for Book Discussions
Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculee Ilibagiza
The Tutsi author was caught in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. She survived by hiding, along with seven other women, for 91 terrifying days in a Hutu pastor’s tiny bathroom. This memoir describes not just the evil that was perpetrated, but also the story of her faith and connection to God throughout the ordeal.
Escape by Carolyn Jessop
Born into the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints, the author was 18 years old when she was forced into an arranged marriage with a 50-year-old man who already had three wives and 30 children. She gives us a first-hand look at polygamy and what it took to finally leave her husband.
Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder
Deo fled civil war in Burundi in 1994 and arrived in New York City with little money and less English, ending up homeless while working for starvation wages. Kind New Yorkers helped him achieve his ambitions of medical school, American citizenship, and a return to his homeland to build a clinic.
Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal by Julie Metz
After the death of her husband, Metz discovered he had been involved in a number of affairs during the last years of his life. The outraged author decided to confront each woman in turn, hoping to assuage her anger and to understand the man she thought she knew. Perfection is a candid and insightful look at the emotional roller-coaster of her first year of widowhood.
Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg
Luxenberg’s mother Beth told everyone she was an only child, yet a few years before her death she suddenly admitted to having a mentally and physically disabled sister named Annie. After his mother’s death, Luxenberg started looking into why she kept Annie secret for so long. Part memoir, part investigative reporting, the book is an account of the author’s search for answers.
Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited by Elyse Schein
Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein each grew up knowing they were adopted. But at age 35 they discovered they were twins separated by adoption agency personnel as part of a clandestine nature-versus-nurture study. Their dual narratives reveal their pasts, their search for their birth mother, and the impact of their new reality with emotional honesty.
Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin
Grandin tells the story of Henry Ford’s ill-advised attempt to transform a section of the Brazilian rainforest into a rubber plantation and company town. The follies of colonialism and the testing of the belief that the Amazon could be made to produce rubber with the precision of an auto assembly line is described in this cautionary tale.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
A stroke left the author able to move only his left eyelid. As he adjusted to a body that felt weighed down like a diving bell, he realized his imagination was as free as a butterfly. He spent his days dreaming of trips to Tierra del Fuego and plates of homemade sausages. Communicating with only winks and determination, he left behind this sardonic and inspirational memoir.
Crashing Through: A True Story of Risk, Adventure, and the Man Who Dared to See by Robert Kurson
Mike May, blind since age 3, hesitated to accept surgery that might help him to see. Because his mother had raised him to live fearlessly, he had experienced more of life than many sighted people. Kurson deftly tells the eye-opening story of a curious man who decided to do what he always did: take a chance and begin a new adventure.
Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders by William R. Drennan
On the night of August 15, 1914, seven murders occurred in the summer home of Frank Lloyd Wright, culminating in a fire that would nearly burn it to the ground. Included in the dead were Wright’s mistress Mamah Cheney and her children. How did this tragedy affect Wright’s life and career? Explore the scandalous affair and the elusive details that still surround the murders.
Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations – One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson
Mortenson’s story of his efforts to repay the kindness of a remote Pakistani village has interested readers around the world. Cared for by villagers after losing his way atop K2, Mortenson pledged to return and build them a desperately needed school. This pledge became an all-consuming effort that has led him on wonderful and dangerous adventures and has altered the course of his life.
The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom by Simon Winchester
Winchester brings to life Joseph Needham, a brilliant Cambridge scientist and Sinologist who was convinced that the Chinese were responsible for many technological innovations centuries before the rest of the world. This is the retelling of Needham’s eccentric life and far-flung expeditions in search of China’s past and future.
The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson
In the summer of 1854, a terrible cholera outbreak in London spurred Dr. John Snow’s efforts to prove his contagion theory and to put an end to the epidemic. The author provides intertwined histories of the spread of diseases, the rise of cities, and the nature of scientific inquiry.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Lacks was a 31-year-old black mother of five in Baltimore when she died of a vigorous form of cervical cancer in 1951. Without her consent, doctors took tissue samples from her cervix for research, which spawned the first viable cell lines that have aided in medical breakthroughs from the polio vaccine to AIDS treatments. It is an amazing story of medical immortality contrasted with the difficult lives of her descendents.
Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa by R.A. Scotti
When the Mona Lisa disappeared from the Louvre on August 21, 1911, the art world was stunned. While French detectives used the latest methods of crime solving, including fingerprinting, to try to trace the thieves, the international media hyped the story. Even after the painting was recovered two years later, the true story of the most famous art theft in history continued to mystify.
The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music by Steve Lopez
Mesmerized by a violinist he encountered on Los Angeles’ skid row, Steve Lopez could not walk away. Once a promising music student, Nathaniel Ayers was now homeless and schizophrenic. While Lopez imagined he could help Ayers change his life, his good intentions and connections were often powerless in the face of mental illness. With unsparing honesty, Lopez tells a story of courage, heartbreak, and hope.
Hurricane Season: A Coach, His Team, and Their Triumph in the Time of Katrina by Neal Thompson
The powerful story of the John Curtis Christian School’s football team and their comeback efforts after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina is told in this inspiring account highlighting the roles played by their coach, their faith, and the surrounding community.
Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall
Mexico’s Tarahumara tribe specializes in ultramarathon runners who can run hundreds of miles without rest. This talent is matched by the uncanny health and serenity of tribe members. McDougall explores their secrets while searching for his own inner athlete.
A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler by Jason Roberts
Roberts offers a portrait of James Holman, the 19th century “Blind Traveler,” who journeyed solo around the world, triumphing over blindness, pain and poverty. His adventures, which included surviving captivity in Siberia, hunting elephants in Ceylon, and charting the Australian outback, are described in this rediscovery of an epic life.
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
A real-life Indiana Jones, Percy Fawcett disappeared in 1925 during his search for the remnants of an ancient kingdom deep in the Amazonian jungle. Grann painstakingly researched Fawcett’s incredible life and his doomed final exploration, and in the process he embarked on an unlikely adventure of his own.
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard
Looking for a challenge after losing the 1912 election, Theodore Roosevelt set off, along with son Kermit and Brazilian explorer Candido Rondon, on a journey to map an unexplored section of the Amazon basin. Perilous conditions, hardships, starvation, Indian attack, disease, drowning, and a murder all form part of this incredible adventure narrative.
The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman
Ackerman gives us the remarkable little-known World War II story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, the Warsaw Zoo’s Director and his wife. After the zoo was devastated by Nazi bombs, Antonina and her husband used it to help save the lives of over 300 people from the Nazis. It is an inspirational read about a courageous response to genocide and the role of nature in our lives.
Safe Passage: The Remarkable True Story of Two Sisters Who Rescued Jews from the Nazis by Ida Cook
In 1939 two seemingly ordinary British sisters decided to save as many people as possible from Nazi death camps with their own funds and daring undercover trips to Germany. Passionate opera lovers, they found counterbalance to the cruelty and unhappiness they witnessed in the beauty of music.
The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm by Juliet Nicolson
In this evocative portrait of English society during the summer of 1911, Nicolson imparts the sights, sounds and feelings of a society on the brink of change. A new king crowned, a trade union strike, a lavish house party – all enable us to see the beginnings of the modern world.
Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
Beah was caught up in civil war in Sierra Leone, forced into the national army when he was 12, and quickly transformed from normal boy into killer. After UN staff successfully rescued him, his anger and pain gradually subsided and he was able to come to terms with his experiences.
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa by Peter Godwin
When the author visited his Zimbabwean homeland after his father’s heart attack, he discovered that his father’s health was not the only thing failing. His parents’ once-comfortable life had been transformed by poverty and peril, while the country itself was suffering from inflation, land seizures, and violence. This is an account of a family’s tragedy set against a country’s collapse.
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
Syrian-born New Orleans businessman Zeitoun stayed in the city during and after Hurricane Katrina, using a canoe to help struggling people and abandoned animals until the day heavily armed police burst into his house and accused him of being a member of al Queda. What followed will make the reader wonder, “How can this have happened in America?”
Biography BERNSTEIN, H.
The Invisible Wall: A Love Story That Broke Barriers by Harry Bernstein
During Bernstein’s pre-World War I childhood in England, his working-class street seemingly had an invisible wall running down it, dividing Jewish and Christian neighbors living in different worlds. When he discovered his older sister had fallen in love with a Christian boy, Harry defied his upbringing to help them keep their secret. This poignant coming-of-age story tackles universal themes of love and bigotry.
Biography WALLS, J.
The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls
Walls and her three siblings were raised on the margins of society by nomadic, often neglectful, parents. Their self-involved mother adopted the notion that each deprivation that befell them was an adventure. Jeannette navigated chaos and heartbreak, somehow arriving at adulthood with unconditional love for her dysfunctional family.
Classic Titles Sure to Please
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman
A young Hmong girl’s epilepsy is the catalyst for a heart-wrenching misunderstanding between American medical philosophy and the Hmong cultural perspective in this tale full of tragedy and hope.
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson
In the shadow of the Columbian Exposition’s lavish complex of buildings known as the “White City” lurked a devil masquerading as Dr. H.H. Holmes. Larson interweaves the story of the epic efforts to construct the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair with the sinister tale of Holmes’ murder spree.
Blind Eye: How the Medical Establishment Let a Doctor Get Away with Murder by James B. Stewart
Even though Illinois doctor Michael Swango was at the center of continued unexpected deaths, he practiced medicine – and murder – for 20 years. This true crime page-turner is an indictment of the medical industry that protected one of history’s most prolific serial killers.
Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser
Explore the unappetizing side of the fast food industry in this flavorful offering. Schlosser examines the socioeconomic damage wrought in the name of consumer convenience and offers up some savory tidbits about what we ingest on the run.
Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
Expecting a “thrill of a lifetime” climb to the top of Everest, Krakauer was instead caught up in the disastrous 1996 day that claimed the lives of 9 climbers. This first-hand account of what went wrong and why is riveting reading.
Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand
He had knobby knees and crooked forelegs. The men in his life were a down-on-his-luck jockey, a washed-up trainer, and an owner who was mourning the death of his son. How could he beat War Admiral, the best horse of his time? It’s a wonderfully inspirational story of a great horse and the three men who made him.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story by John Berendt
This true murder mystery tells of the 1981 shooting of young Danny Hansford by flamboyant antiques dealer and Savannah party-giver Jim Williams. A remarkable cast of characters appears in the telling of the tale.
To Sleep with the Angels: The Story of a Fire by David Cowan
A school was destroyed and a Chicago neighborhood devastated one afternoon in 1958 when a fire broke out at the Our Lady of the Angels school, killing 92 students and 3 nuns. This terrible tragedy is recalled through detailed research and interviews with those whose lives it forever changed.
Biography BRAGG, R.
All Over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg
This poignant biography has been variously described as a poem disguised as a memoir and as a thank you letter to the author’s mother. Bragg has written a warm remembrance of the woman who helped him escape with honor from poverty in the foothills of the Appalachians.
Biography HICKAM, H.
Rocket Boys: A Memoir by Homer H. Hickam
Fourteen-year-old Homer Hickam lived in a dying West Virginia mining town when he became enthralled with the idea of building and launching his own rockets. This memoir gives an endearing look at small town America, the early years of the space race, and the youthful thrill of aiming for the stars.
Biography MCBRIDE, J.
The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride
The author’s mother Ruth, the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, married a black man in 1942. That was enough for her family to pronounce her “dead” to them. How did she survive to bring up twelve black children, sending all to college? The author alternates chapters of his mother’s story with his own memories of growing up with a wonderful woman.
Biography MCCOURT, F.
Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir by Frank McCourt
“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived it at all,” writes McCourt on the opening page of this lyrical memoir. You’ll wonder, too, how a boy’s life in Limerick on and off the dole could result in such a moving and eloquent story. McCourt’s natural wit and graceful prose provide the satisfaction you’d expect from a fine novel.
Prepared by Bonnie Reid, Lori Sennebogen, September 2010