American history is anything but a stodgy affair; it’s exciting, tragic, suspenseful, and horrifying. Probably even more surprising is that it can make you laugh—if you have the right teacher, that is. And Sarah Vowell, author of the new LAFAYETTE IN THE SOMEWHAT UNITED STATES and former editor of “This American Life,” is a great teacher. Her previous book, ASSASSINATION VACATION, is the perfect example of how history, especially when it is not about the victors, is fascinating, funny, and heartbreaking.
Alexander Hamilton’s life is perhaps best known for its end: he was mortally wounded in a duel with political rival Aaron Burr. But his personal life and political achievements are fascinating, impressive, and—until recently—underappreciated. Here is a man who, though featured on our ten-dollar bill, many Americans know little about. I was certainly one of them for many years.
Cleopatra: A Life, like all good nonfiction, sticks to the facts and avoids exaggeration. Yet it still reads as part drama, part farce, part tragedy, part thriller, and part romance, bringing new meaning to the old adage, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”
As a writer, I am consistently curious about how other writers live and work, how they contemplate the writing process, incorporate their artistic profession into other aspects of their lives, and how it is they continue to show up at the writing desk day after day.
After a long illness, my mother died when I was twenty. When your mother dies when you are young, every day is Mother’s Day. When someone hurts your feelings, you think of how she’d comfort you, if she were here. You fall in love, you fall out of love, you marry, you have children, you get a promotion, you are laid off, and you think of her. Unless you can’t forgive her for leaving too soon, you will idealize her love and kindness for all time to come.
It’s a rare gift to be able to accessibly present real science to the public. It’s even rarer to find someone who does so with the enthusiasm and humor that Mary Roach brings to the table. We all know that humans have evolved to survive the environment on Earth. In Packing for Mars, Mary Roach asks: What happens when we go into space—a place without air, food, water, or anything else we need? This thought fascinated Roach so much that she spent two years finding out, traveling and interviewing and researching all possible aspects of it.
Debate and finger-pointing and not-so-veiled racism over the U.S.–Mexico border question has already surfaced on the long, long road to the next presidential election. We can expect months of cringeworthy and often infuriating talk of deportation, drones, and walls. Those who have read Luis Alberto Urrea’s riveting nonfiction narrative, The Devil’s Highway, will certainly be struck by how many of the loud voices in the current debates lack any sense of the history, the all-too-frequent tragedies, and the social and political complexities of immigration. In the current political climate, reading Urrea’s masterpiece feels both urgent and necessary.
I have two confessions to make. First, my greatest aspiration is to someday be a novelist. Second, Stephen King is my favorite writer—but this is not really a confession, as I’m proud of it and everyone who knows me knows this (and probably wishes I would stop talking about him already). Given these facts, it is nonsensical that I had not read Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft until now. I dove into the book a couple of weeks ago and when I finished, I wiped a couple tears from my eyes and started again from the beginning, hoping to soak in every word. That is not exaggeration or melodrama; that is how affecting this book is.
As fall arrived in 1967, America began to rattle with unrest. The war in Vietnam was a clear failure. Stateside, an emergent counterculture revolted. The body count soared. Washington machinated. Conspiracy and paranoia entered daily life.
A few days in October of that year birthed two events representative of that era’s political and cultural maelstrom. A disastrous battle north of Saigon raged in Vietnam while the campus at the University of Wisconsin erupted in protests. In They Marched Into Sunlight, David Maraniss intertwines the stories of both.
While I was on a whale watching trip this summer, a nearly fifty-foot whale gracefully slipped out of sight under the boat. For a moment I paused in my frantic picture taking. What happens if the whale comes up under us? Thankfully, the whale moved on to feed and spout with its companions. The experience that day brought to mind In the Heart Of The Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, which tells the incredible story of the Essex, a whale ship that sailed out of Nantucket in 1819.