Category Archives: Non-Fiction

The Wonder Years by Richard Holmes


The subtitle of this book is the abstract as well: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. The book consists of twelve chapters, and delineates the exploits of 8 different people or group of people–Humphry Davy and William and Carol Herschel each rate two chapters. the book begins with Joseph Banks and his journey with Captain Cook to the South Pacific. It tells stories of how he interacted with natives there, and the telling things abou this character as it related to scientific discovery. Banks presided over the scientific society in England for the entire duration of the period between the late 1700’s and the early 1800’s, so this intorduction sets the stage upon which other scientists and writers performed.

The discovery of the mysteries of the stars and moon, the invention of things that helped to save lives by pre-eminent scientists, and the increasing knowldge of chemistry and human physiology are all intermixed with the well known philosophers and writers of the time. Keats was learning about science while he was becoming the Romantic Generation’s poet (and then promptly dying at much too young an age). Wordsworth and Cooleridge were similarly invovled with the prominent scientists of their time, and the relationships they developed, and how that led to further discovery and change is well described in this wonderful book of a golden time.

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Lit by Mary Karr

Lit by Mary Karr Mary Karr, who is impossibly thin and good looking despite her despotic lifestyle of yore, has written a book where it is possible to laugh out loud at some of the saddest revelations about a life revolving around alcohol until it is almost too late to rescue the good parts of it. In her defense, her parents saddles her with addictive genes and a childhood where she never once managed to feature in their top ten most important things in their lives. Her mother is the very picture of narcissism, wrapped in an alcoholic stupor with the bow of entitlement to finish off the package. Her father is going going gone, leaving his off spring to pick up the pieces of their lives and then to cope with their mother. That said, the author started in a hole and kept on digging. For quite awhile. And she was an excellent digger. As noted above, she was born with good genes in the natural beauty arena, which she does not dwell on, but she also was bright enough and charming enough to have a good education, a good job, and a good man. She didn’t spend enough time working on herself in a serious way–despite lots of therapy, which really entailed her running the show rather than the therapist. It is not until she has a child and is getting up and drinking one to nine drinks to get up and out that she begins to call it a problem. From start to finish this is a gritty, ribald, hilarious, heart-breaking, hopeful tale of crawling out of that hole and back into the world of those who think life is worth living. Don’t miss it. Ignore the swearin, or get into it, but this is a good one.

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Methland by Nick Reding


This was a really hard book for me to start. I have lived in Iowa throughout the methamphetamine epidemic. We are third in amphetamine arrests in the nation–by total number, not per capita. I have taken care of countless addicts. I have had repair people in my house obviously tweaking while trouble-shooting the problem they were called to fix–often not successfully. I get it. But I am very thankful that I picked this book up and read it rather than assuming that I knew it’s contents before I started. In many ways, I had not given the roots of the problem much thought, so I missed some of the complexity within. But start it I did, and I got rapidly caught up in the story, thinking about the interconnectedness of problems we face, both as a rural state, and as a country. I smile when people start off the conversation “the problem is….” because of course that isn’t the whole problem at all, it is only part of the problem. Poverty, opportunity, education, class divisions and difference, these all play a role in what happened. There is a bigger picture to look at as well, and Reding tries to get us to look at it all–the close up as well as the 30,000 foot view.

The book focuses on methamphetamine in Iowa in general and in Oelwein, IA specifically, but there is a message that we should all take to heart and think about the responsibility we bear in the overall problem. The contributions to drugs in general and meth in particular being an attractive nuisance are in many communities–but why did this take place in rural America? The role of Big Agra and Big Pharma, mixed with illegal immigrants in rural America and smuggling through the southern border, are real. They are not overblown in the telling, and they each have a role. The recession is another factor–economic hard times seem to hit farm economies first.
Reding does a great job of sympathetically portraying the people who have been personally devestated by methamphetamine addiction, juxtaposed against those who face just the realities of rural Iowa life. The best in Oelwein is pretty hard. The worst is hideous. Reding does a masterful job of portraying people who have robbed their parents, poisoned their kids, and blown up their homes not as monsters, but as people. Mistakes were made. There is someone for everyone to relate to in the story. We do not pull back to an entirely moral stance, but rather have more of a “but for the grace of God go I” reaction to at least someone in the story. There are no real solutions put forward, but there is some hope offered–mixed with caution that we really need to think in a bigger and better and more connected way. The author demonstrates the value in carefully unfolding the factors that got us here and studying them. The book encourages us to look for the places that share these risk factors because it is unlikely to have gone away.

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Lords of Finance by Liaquat Ahamed


We have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle, having blundered in the control of a delicate machine, the working of which we do not understand.”
So wrote the great economic iconoclast John Maynard Keynes, in an essay titled “The Great Slump of 1930,” published in December of that year. Thirteen months had passed since the crash of 1929; the world was living, in Keynes’s words, in “the shadow of one of the greatest economic catastrophes of modern history.” Keynes comes off well in this story, by the way.
The lords of finance who constitute the title of this book are the four central bankers who dominated that postwar era: Benjamin Strong of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Montagu Norman, the longtime head of the Bank of England, Émile Moreau of the Banque de France, and Hjalmar Schacht, who headed the Reichsbank. Ahamed says he got the idea for this book when he read a 1999 Time magazine cover story headlined “The Committee to Save the World,” about Alan Greenspan (then the Federal Reserve chairman), Robert Rubin (Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary) and Lawrence Summers (Rubin’s No. 2). He realized that in the 1920s, the four top central bankers had acquired a similar mystique and fame. They were sometimes described as “the most exclusive club in the world.” He decided to tell the story of “the descent from the roaring boom of the ’20s into the Great Depression” by “looking over the shoulders” of these four men. And so rather than bemoan our modern tragedy, Ahamed, a hedge fund manager, decided to write this cautionary tale, where we know both the beginning and the end of the story.
I am not a big fan of non-fiction books, but from a literary point of view this is a beautifully written book. Ahamed has a gift for storytelling that many a full-time author would envy — the decision to build “Lords of Finance” around these four men was brilliant, and he carried it off well. Each of them was a powerful personality, with the full range of strengths and weaknesses, insights and eccentricities. Because much of the book concerns decisions, for instance, to raise or lower interest rates, you need great characters to pull the story along, and Ahamed not only has them but also knows how to make them come alive. Strong is the domineering American; Schacht the arrogant, headstrong German; Norman and Moreau the prideful Europeans. Strong and Norman became close friends, and their letters to each other are a rich source of material.
I am no finance whiz. I probably could balance my check book but I do not. This book was remarkable in it’s ability to pull one of my ilk along with the story. I am sure there were many details in the book that I failed to understand the importance of, but this book made understandable financial concepts and the interconnectedness of the world even a century ago–the world was pretty dang flat before Thomas Freidman declared it so. If you read only one non-fiction book this year, let it be this one.

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Born Round by Frank Bruni


The subtitle of this book is The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater. Something many of us can relate to, although he does it on a grander scale than most, and began at an impressively early age (well documented by a judicious use of family photos throughout the book). I am not a big fan of non-fiction in general or of the memoir in particular, but I would recommend this book as one in which a person begins to come to terms with who he is, what is important to him, and why he is where he is. Those are not easy tasks. Many people spend years in therapy to figure out even one component of that triad. I like the author’s use of self-reflection after relating an event or a period of his life, and what his take on it is or was at the time. It gives a sense of personal growth, how the process of self-change occurred for him.

Sticking strictly with what the surface of the book depicts, it is a good tale of an immigrant Italian-Irish family, very smart and hard-working, with four offspring that go in very different but productive directions. Frank, our hero, has two things that stand out–he loves to eat and he is gay. The book doesn’t deal at all with any difficulties related to sexual orientation–maybe he didn’t have any, maybe that is the material for book two–the only thing in this book about his love life is directly related to his self-esteem, and it is very gender-neutral. Nothing objectionable for the reader who is struggling with the ever-widening swath of states that permit gay marriage. It may disappoint those who would hope for a more affirmative voice from such an articulate writer. But it is what it is. The book is repleat with stories of his various jobs, including his stints as the restaurant reviewer for the New York Times and on the campaign trail with W. They are interesting, don’t come off as bragging, and make for good transitions in his life.

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