Monday, January 2, 2012

My Best Non-Fiction Books Read in 2011

I knew my best friend Lady Chardonnay was going to post her top books read in 2011 list today so last night I took a look at what I read to see what's worth writing about. I divided my list between non-fiction and fiction and discovered that I read about 20 non-fiction books and about 30 fiction books. I thought that seemed pretty measly considering I feel I read quite a bit. Then I really paid attention and realized that I read about 50 books in 2011. That's not quite 1 per week but close! And that's pretty good!

Here are the top ten non-fiction books I no particular order. Plus these non-fiction books (with two exceptions) have really long subtitles!
  • Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories by Simon Winchester
    • This book took a few chapters to get started. I was almost ready to give up --- life's too short to waste on boring books! ---and then, BAM! Fascinating tales about Atlantic Ocean lore began in earnest. The biggest thing I took away from it is the depletion of fish stock due to overfishing in the last several centuries. I have a feeling that many kinds of fish will be VERY expensive, if even available, someday soon.
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
    • This poor woman died of cancer in the 1950s and her cancer cells, called HeLa have since been multiplied and used in so many areas of science.
  • Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History by Alan Huffman
    • Over 1800 people died in 1865 when the steamboat boilers exploded. The boat was loaded with Union soldiers who had just been released from Andersonville and other prisons and were on their way home at war's end. The structure of the book followed a few men before the explosion so you learn a LOT about the horrific conditions at the prisoner of war camps. What's amazing to me is that before I ran across this book I had never heard of this incident.
  • Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World by Dave Maraniss
    • I think almost every Olympics "changes the world" in some way but this book is pretty fascinating in it's detail about the athletes (Cassius Clay, Wilma Rudolph among them) and the IOC president Avery Brundage (anti-Semite, anti-woman athletes, etc...). All I know is I could read this kind of book on every Olympics if only someone would write them!
  • Feeding Dreams (aka 97 Orchard): An Edible History of Seven Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement by Jane Ziegelman
    • This one made me hungry as I read! German, Irish, Italian and Jewish (German & Russian) families live in the same tenement at various times and through this device we get a history of how certain foods became part of American life. Certain foods were considered ethnic or exotic, like, you know, spaghetti. It will also make you glad you have modern conveniences in the kitchen but wouldn't it be great to have a bunch of food pushcarts in your neighborhood to shop from all different cultures food traditions! (Not a big thing in suburbia but perhaps in the bigger cities?)
  • Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David von Drehle
    • The famous sweatshop fire in March 2011. By coincidence I was reading this the week of the 100th anniversary. One of the big changes in America was unionization of the workers, partly to protect the workers from poor conditions. 
  • Sword & Blossom: A British Officer's Enduring Love for a Japanese Woman by Peter Pagnamenta and Momoko Williams
    • This took place in the early years of the 20th century. "Blossom" comes off much better than "Sword" in that she suffered more ostracism for the relationship (and ensuing child) while he traveled the world on duty as a soldier. Interesting window on life in Japan in the pre-WWI years.
  • In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson
    • William Dodd becomes Ambassador to Germany in 1933 and brings his family with him: wife and two adult children. Hitler came to power in 1933 and the Dodd's witnessed the changes made featuring more brutality, not only against Jews though that was paramount, but also against Americans (several people were beaten up for not making the Nazi salute, for example). Each incremental change was expected to bring the populace to denounce Hitler's government but as we know... Interesting portrait of Berlin in those pre-war years (you can't help but think of "Cabaret" and Christopher Isherwood is quoted heavily).
  • Columbine by Dave Cullen
    • A book that needs no subtitle. Turns out the two perpetrators were a psychopath and a depressive, each with a death wish. Horrifying in all ways. This book is a very minute in its detail.
  • Poisoner's Handbook: Murder & the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum
    • I read this shortly after watching Ken Burns' documentary on Prohibition and that was perfect timing. Many poisoning deaths in those days were due to adulterated alcohol. This book also covers other murders by poison and how they were solved. LOVED this one!


  1. Hee! You're right -- we don't have much overlap. Though I'd heard of several of yours and will definitely read Henrietta Lacks and Feeding Dreams at some point. And you make most of these books sound very interesting indeed.

    But I howled at "fascinating tales about Atlantic lore." My GOD, I cannot imagine anything more boring. But that was a really funny sentence (perhaps not intentionally), and I know I'll be quoting it.

    Also, your first paragraph confused me. You read 30 of one kind and 20 of another kind and felt bad, but then you realized that you'd read 50 total and that cheered you right up? Honey, how long ago were you a math major? 30 + 20 seems...not that hard to figure out. I'm not judging.

    (You love me!)


  2. Ha! I ROUNDED for convenience. The raw numbers were like 28 and 17 (way too much work to add in my poor little female head, doncha know) and I added 5 for a nice round 50. :)

    Man, it took me a half minute to come up with "lore" --- I am here to please!