Category Archives: non-fiction

there but for WR Grace go we

Libby, Montana: Asbestos and the Deadly Silence of an American Corporation  by Andrea Peacock (244 pgs) 2003

A great author can make you not just care about the people they introduce, but actually feel like you know them, make it feel a personal loss when they are gone.  It’s an expecially rare talent for non-fiction. 

With this book, I felt like I was sitting around my Grandpa’s kitchen table sharing stories of “I remember when…”.   A judicious use of direct quotes, placed in their larger context enables the story to resonate in a particularly immediate way.  And the personal family experiences make the story of the decades-long poisoning of a small Montana town by the W.R. Grace Asbestos company that much more tragic. 

I was reminded of a photo-essay book I stumbled across and fell in love with, The Alpine Tavern by James Cloutier.  It contains photos of folks in a small Oregon town.  Genuine, down-home folks, whose lives are etched in the lines on their faces.  You feel like you know, and like, these people.  In Libby, Montana  it’s the same.  You can’t turn away from the fact that these are real families whose lifes were destoyed for generations.  And the loss feels personal.

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diamonds are a girl’s best friend

Summer at Tiffany  by Marjorie Hart (258 pgs) 2007

Another NPR gem, this slender bio was penned by a 83-yr-old remembering the best summer of her life.  Bursting with wide-eyed exuberance, small-town Marjorie recalls the summer of 1945 that she and a college friend spent in New York City.  To their amazement they gained employ as pages at Tiffany & Co, becoming the first women ever on the sales floor.

Marjorie takes as much joy from the simple pleasures as she does from her brushes with history.  She sparkles with wonder as she recounts glimpses of the stars and social elite who graced the doors of Tiffany.  And she blissfully recalls heading downtown to get a glimpse of the small plane that struck the Empire State Building, and joining 50,000 other celebrants in Times Square on V-day.  Yet even simple anecdotes like going for desert at a prestigious restuarant or dropping a box of pearls in the elevator become grand adventures through Marjorie’s eyes. 

and justice for some

Bronx D. A.: True Stories from the Sex Crimes and Domestic Violence Unit  by Sarena Straus (320 pgs/read 130) 2006

The Bronx District is one of the highest crime areas of the country, with one of the lowest conviction rates.  Maximum burn-out time for a D.A. is 5 years.  Straus shares her experiences during her 3 years.

Not particularly gripping.

talking trash

Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion  (56 pgs) by Loree Griffin Burns 2007

I’m in love with NPR.  Every author they have on their programs is infinitely interesting.  This one was no different.  This slim kid’s book on the past and current experiments tracking the ocean’s surface currents was engaging.  More a call to arms against ocean pollution than anything else, it was nonetheless interesting to see how oceanographers have learned what they have.  Write-ups of studies tracking massive spills of tennis shoes and bath tub toys lead to discussions of the way ocean currents create massive garbage patches and how ghostnets are damaging reefs.  My favorite imagery: one of the scientists, when asked why we can’t just go to the garbage patches and pick up the plastic piece by piece said “it would be like mowing the state of Texas- twice.”  Bonus: I now know the difference between flotsam and jetsam, and yes there really is one.

zombie jamboree

I just joined a book club where the focus is on getting together and having fun rather than stodgily disecting the literary value of a book.  We decided to go thematic.  We’ll pick a officially-sponsered book.  If you wanna read it, fine.  If not- pick something else on the topic, or watch a movie, read a magazine article- whatever.  Very low-key.  This month: zombies.

World War Z  by Max Brooks (342 pgs) 2006

The official pick, I ripped through this book in 2 days.  The structure was genius.  It purports to be an “oral history of the zombie war.”  It’s told in interviews with survivors scattered around the world, with a blurb of historical context before each section.  I loved that it didn’t just focus on the “aah, zombies are coming to eat our brains” aspect.  There was plenty of that, but what I really enjoyed was that it focused more on how nations and individuals fell apart. 

I also tried to read Monster Island  by David Wellington.  Booooring.  Stodgy writing, lackluster plot, flat characters.  I flipped through trying to find where the action started and could never get grabbed enough to make it worth the effort. 

I also gave The Magic Island  by William Seabrook a look.  Written in 1929, it was the first book about encounters with real-life zombies in Haiti.  Couldn’t get interested.  It did have some astonishingly racist woodcut illustrations. 

My last try was The Serpent and the Rainbow  by Wade Davis.  He was an ethnobotanist who went searching in Haiti for the chemical compounds that a Bhokor (sorcerer) uses to create zombies.  It was interesting, and read like an adventure book, but I ran out of time.  This is one I might pick up again later.

I am woman, hear me bitch

BITCHfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine  edited by Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler  (372 pgs/read 300ish)  2006

Just what it says- a collection of articles from the feminist magazine.  Every one intriguing.  This book got me into trouble.  I’d start it just before bed, planning to read an article or two.  Suddenly it would be 2:00 in the morning, and I’d force myself to put it down.  Every article is compelling and well-written, and it’s a fun book to flip around in.  The topics range from the political intelligence t-shifts with abortion right slogans to horror films as a metaphor for menses.  On the strength of the book my sister got a subscription to the mag, so I’ll be getting a quarterly dose.

now for something serious

The Daughters of Juarez: A True Story of Serial Murder South of the Border by Teresa Rodriguez with Diane Montane and Lisa Pulitzer (316 pgs/read 25) 2007

I saw a documentary on Juarez several years ago, but until this book came out last month, I’d had no idea the atrocities were still going on.  Over 400 women have been murdered in Juarez in the past 12 years, and hundreds of women are missing.  Of bodies recovered, at least 90 have been tortured and mutilated in a manner that indicates the same killer or killers.

Amnesty International and FBI profilers as well as U.S. and Mexican police have investigated.  Suspects have been arrested over the years, several of them dying in custody.  But the murders continue.

It’s an important topic that deserves more international attention.  Which is why this book is so disappointing.  It offers a soft-focus, human-interest perspective, relying too much on family testimonials.  It resembles a book report more than a solid journalistic investigation, surprising given that the three authors are journalists.  I found I was better off getting an update through newspaper and journal articles.