Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

Find in catalogOne of my favorite nonfiction authors, Erik Larson, makes history that is almost 100 years old seem fresh and important in this account of a British Ocean liner sailing from New York City to England and how its sinking was a main impetus for America to join World War I (the Great War then) two years after it began. One learns a lot about the horrors of submarine warfare, but human nature seems the same as we know it today, ever hopeful, striving, ambitious, sensitive, heroic at times, often naive, and completely fascinating. The author follows several families and individuals throughout the narrative, and reveals personal details of the recently widowed American President Woodrow Wilson, his pursuit of a new woman in his life, and how his personality was a super-careful one that only was forced into war after much time and deliberation and events that preceded it. I learned a lot, and here is one tidbit: One of the ‘last straws’ creating political pressure on Wilson to enter the war was that a highly placed German official sent a telegram to Mexico saying that if Mexico would work with Germany against the U.S. and the British, then Germany would help Mexico seize and retake several territories worth of the U.S….(Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico). The book is not just historical facts: there are affecting stories about many men and women, and how they reacted to the disaster, including their experiences in the open ocean after the sinking ship (it took only about 18 minutes to sink!) had to be abandoned.

: I am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World by Malala Yousafzai

Find in catalogA very familiar figure in the news from the past few years becomes even more impressive when one learns the details of her daily life in Pakistan, especially as the Taliban not only acted as terrorists against citizens but also seemed to make the government cower and accept their ultra-religious rules of life for the country’s citizens (in a supposed cease-fire agreement that the Taliban quickly broke). Not only whippings of people in the streets and bombing of schools happened frequently, even elementary schools (and not just a few but hundreds of schools), but also murders of brave Pakistanis who wanted to retain their free choice and modern lifestyles and chose to stand firm. Malala’s father, a school principal, was a courageous and caring man who kept his school running; and he never asked his daughter to stop speaking out about the right and need of every child for education. Her mother never even tried to dissuade Malala from her public activities, even after it was printed in the newspaper that the Taliban was advising that Malala “should be killed.” You may know that Malala was eventually shot at point-blank range, in the head, but without fatal results; the true story is written by Malala in partnership with a professional writer. Well worth a read to learn more about what is happening in Pakistan, and for the inspiring model of courage and integrity.

Everyone is African: How Science Explodes the Myth of Race by Daniel Fairbanks

Find in textThis is an excellent, informative, and even exciting book. Unfortunately, even though I think everyone could benefit by reading it, the author seems to have written it for at least the level of his college students. Several times I had to reread a sentence three times to feel I understood it. But please, don’t let that stop you from checking it out. Fairbanks is a respected geneticist who has written and co-written at least 5 books, and is currently a university professor.

He really explodes the myth of genetically separate races, be they 5, 20, or any named number. He explains how thousands of changes (we used to know them as mutations, but he calls them variants) in genes throughout hundreds of thousands of years have created different genetic codes in everyone. This is compounded and multiplied by historic mass movement events of people around the world, whether they moved because of Ice Age or other weather, political or economic needs, slavery and domination of peoples which added to mixing of genes, and now of course, travel and living in far reaches of the earth from where one was born, then possibly having families….all combine to mix, mix, mix…..our genes which never, by the way “age out” or “dissolve”: we (by this the author means the entire human race) still have within our codes genes from the first humans in Africa. Not only that, but some still carry a bit of Neanderthal genetics! This author has over 20 pages of notes and bibliographic references. I am very interested now in having my DNA analyzed!

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman

Find in catalogAn amazing true story of a young, 20-something, white woman who chose to transport drug money internationally and was prosecuted for the crime more than 10 years later. Her detailed accounts of the federal women’s prison she lived in for 13 months and other aspects of the legal and penitentiary system are eye-opening and rather sad at times. Humanity shines through in sometimes heart-rending, sometimes astoundingly creative, and often life-affirming ways as the women strive to survive their long sentences in degrading and confining conditions. Piper Kerman keeps it fascinating as she shares the arc of her romance with a friend, who becomes boyfriend, then fiancee who stays loyal to her throughout the years. Having not seen any of the Netflix series that is a spin-off of the book, I cannot speak to that except to say a someone told me the series has evolved into pure fiction segments since the first season.

The Green Smoothie Prescription: A Complete Guide to Total Health by Victoria Boutenko

Find in catalogI found some delicious recipes in this book featuring green or vegetable-based with fruit smoothies. They are easily modifiable by substituting ingredients of your own choosing. I used a regular blender and no juicer. The smoothies blended just fine to a drinkable texture, despite being created of things like lettuce leaves, beet greens, or spinach mixed with fruit, etc. Each recipe made enough for at least 2 good smoothies, which might be extended by adding water. What I found rather amusing about the book was that each recipe is titled with an almost medical-sounding ‘prescription’ such as: 20/20 Vision, Brain Health, Memory Booster, Sweet Love Cocktail, Aging Gracefully, Lovely Legs, etc. Well, more power to her: she sold her book. You can be the judge whether the ‘promises’ are true, but they are tasty and healthy, that is for sure.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

Find in catalogWow! This is an amazing and quite detailed accounting of the two brothers, Orville and Wilbur, who dedicated many decades of their lives to creating a ‘flying machine’. It was an obsession with many around the world, notably in France, Germany, England, and other places. The brothers were raised by a minister and his wife, who were remarkably encouraging of their natural curiosities…..for instance, they lived in a book-filled home, and if they felt like staying home from school to pursue something more interesting to them, some project, or other pursuit, they had their father’s blessing on that. The brothers kept each other going with ideas and patience, true grit, alternate abilities, etc., which probably had much to do with their being the first to successfully fly.

I did not know they started out with a hang-glider type of apparatus over the sand dunes in North Carolina; and their machinist friend had to actually invent tools and a motor for an airplane, of course, since they did not exist yet! (Remember, they had no safety helmets, either, as they had not been invented yet, either!) The amazement goes on and on…including the fact that the US government and War Department ignored and refused to meet with them for many, many years….so they were forced, as it were, to seek interest in France. It was in Le Mans where after 5 full years of flying (and able to fly for hours and miles) that they were finally able to draw crowds and press corps and enough attention to obtain the recognition that amongst all the others’ failed flying machines, they actually had a real one! The U.S. really failed on this one. This is a remarkable family story (the adult unmarried daughter stays home and cooks for the widowed father as the 2 men are off for months doing experiments and developing their machine), and it shows how a small group can succeed where it might be nearly impossible for those trying to go it alone. Amazing story, readable if one likes lots of detail. David McCullough kept it interesting for me, in a ‘human interest’ way rather than a ‘technical’ way.


Heart Steps: Prayers and Declarations for a Creative Life by Julia Cameron

Find in catalogA gifted author and artist with a gift for words, Julia Cameron writes declarations of faith for reminding oneself of all the blessings available to each of us. So, as she explains in her introduction, the statements are not directed to any higher power. Each declaration is titled with a short encapsulation: for example, “My Dignity is Sacred and Self-Contained”. This is a beautiful small paperback, and the meditations are compact enough for the busy, and rich enough to keep in mind at least for a full day, before going on to the next declaration.

The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls

silver starBy the author of Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses, this is a novel of two sisters with a here-today, gone-for-a-few-months mother….sound familiar? The lead characters are scrappy, independent, emotional, and smart like the kids in Walls’ other books; but they need a parent, nonetheless. Set in Virginia, I think, a mill-town, where the sisters land to live for a while with their father’s side of the family–people they’ve never  met. Lots happens here; I enjoyed it, but only to pass the time. It didn’t grab me like Walls’ memoir, or her novel based on her grandmother’s event-filled life, the Half-broke Horses. It may have been a bit too sad for me right now.

The Book of Joan: Tales of Mirth, Mischief, and Manipulation by Melissa Rivers

book joanI enjoyed reading Melissa Rivers’ good writing. She has a witty sense of humor, herself. Of course, the book is her tribute to her recently deceased comedienne mother, Joan Rivers.

Theirs was a truly loving relationship, which comes across clearly, despite Joan’s very biting and in-your-face style of humor. She draws an honest picture of her mother, not lionizing her at all….but accurately detailing how she did pave the way for women comediennes in our country.

One of the last chapters includes the entire Commencement Address Joan gave to the University of Pennsylvania the day her daughter graduated there. It showed both the comedic and the very serious and values-oriented sides of Joan Rivers, and I was favorably impressed.

I liked the book.

The Residence: inside the private world of The White House by Kate Anderson Brower

residenceI came away from reading this book extremely impressed by the residence staff in the White House: their loyalty, love, trustworthiness as in keeping confidences, work ethic as in hours that require the commitment to be there until you are no longer needed–which in some cases could be days on end…..and other great qualities of these great people. Many of the employees stay for decades, and many have many relatives that have worked inside the White House, as well.

One enjoyable part of this book is sort of gossip about the personalities of the presidents and their wives: who was easy and who was hard to work with and why. One disappointing fact I learned is how long the African American workers were paid a different scale than the whites, and that even now, considering the work and hours and commitment required by the job, the pay seems low. It is certainly lower than what they could earn in the private sector. They are considered as heroes by many, and even by the First Families, as well, often providing emotional support, witness, or companionship in some very lonely circumstances.

Some additional news-worthy material about circumstances around significant events such as the Kennedy assassination, and “9-11” are also included.