Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Yes, I Read Nonfiction...My Top Ten of 2014

These blogs are inspired by my friend and reading buddy, Nancy Flanagan. I learn so much from her, and we often appreciate the same books. We share our reading and keep each other honest. She is a treasure in my life. She posted a blog about education books she’d read this year, and I saw some books we read in common. Love her take on books.

My husband and I are both librarians…I’ve worked in schools and he’s taught in Universities. We both love to read. We literally have books in every room of our house…the laundry room is the last stop for books to be donated. We love to read and have sat together happily reading…completely different kinds of books…for nearly 50 years.

Bob teases me about my love of fiction, and I shake my head at the strange nonfiction turns his reading takes. We have read and enjoyed books together: Twain’s Letters from the Earth (as college students we actually bought two copies because the current reader would giggle too much and the partner could not stand to be left out), Killing Mr. Watson, by Peter Mathiesson, a wonderful crossover of fiction based on the life of Belle Starr. I also think we read The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance together years ago.

So, Bob expects me to read nothing but fiction and last year was surprised that I actually included nonfiction on my Top Ten.

This year I’ve done one better…a Top Ten Nonfiction list! Drum roll, please. Now, in all honesty, my new-found love of audible books really helped my nonfiction reading, as did a couple of research projects related to fiction reading, but Look at Me! I read nonfiction.

I will always read books on education, and four made my list…nearly half of my total

The Educator and the Oligarch, by Anthony Cody, is a fierce look at Bill Gates and his Foundation. Cody took on the education reformer early, and had several exchanges with folks from the Foundation. This book is a masterful compilation of these conversations, as well as a deep history of Gates’ work dismantling education. I said when I reviewed it that my favorite part was his evaluation rubric of Gates’ work in education reform. Still makes me giggle. I wrote a blog post here, with some background on Cody and his influences on my own education life.

The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein was enlightening. I remember stumbling into my History of Education course at Indiana University and finding out my instructor had the reputation of blowing off the history of education. So, my background was especially weak.  I learned a ton reading this book, and Goldstein put it into context for me. The research is top-notch; the writing is elegant.  I realized I didn’t review it because I was too busy collecting 10+ pages of quotes to reflect on.  Oops.

50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education by David Berliner and Gene Glass blew me away. I haven’t felt like such a book groupie about an education book since The Myths of Standardized Tests by Harris…maybe it’s the word ‘myth’. Seriously. My copy is marked and sticky-noted. What do you say when your State Representative absolutely believes voucher will save our schools? You turn to page 41 and read the research. Not opinions. Research. Everyone who cares
about public education needs to own this book.

Bad Teacher!: How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture by Kevin Kumashiro. Like Anthony’s book, I had read some of this, or had learned it. But it was put into context here…He organizes his book through questions and then investigates each.  Kumashiro is from Chicago, and he describes their efforts to build a real consensus around the schools around four visions. That was so inspiring…I wonder how it played out under the current mayor. I don’t have the heart to check right now.

So much for my professional reading…now onto nonfiction reading for pleasure.

One of my last audible ‘books’ was actually a Great Courses lecture series: Beethoven – His Life and Music, by Robert Greenberg. When I tweeted about the ‘book’, Greenberg retweeted! Fan girl moment.! Greenberg is knowledgeable and passionate about his subject. His lectures oozed with all the little details that made this so wonderful. He showed the composer with all his shortcomings, and there were plenty. He analyzed (and even played excerpts from) some of the pieces. What a sad man Ludwig was. Talented, driven,innovative, toxic, and  self-destructive.

Another audible book was Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. My first line of the review: “If a novelist had written this story, editors would reject it as totally unbelievable, unrealistic.” The book begins with Endurance being torn to bits by the ice that trapped the expedition. From that moment, Shackleton and his crew are forced to abandon the ship and make their way across open water, ice floes, solid ice. I listened to it as I walked and as I drove. There were times I groaned out loud at the extreme conditions the men faced.  And yet they endured.

A Path Appears by Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn, troubled me at times. Educators are victims of data-driven education, and this book explores data-driven philanthropy…how to get the best bang for your giving buck. It’s a combination of stories of successes and failures. It’s full of advice for people who want to give their money or their time to causes. The authors encourage us to follow our passions, but make sure our money will actually help.  I found a couple of literacy charities I want to share with my book club. It sounds like a great way to
read and help children here and overseas to read as well.

Two books were part of my research on OTHER books…This summer my friend and I went on a F. Scott Fitzgerald binge, reading novels by him and about him, memoirs, good and dreadful. We found a gem called The Romantic Egoists: A Pictorial Autobiography of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. This book  is pages from his scrapbooks (he loved scrapbooking!) and photos and newspaper clippings, copied in black-and-white as perfect facsimiles of the original. The book is coffee-table book sized and I felt like I was actually turning the pages of a real scrapbook, peeking into the lives of these beautiful, doomed people. This added such depth to my understanding of them both as lovers and parents and friends. Breathtaking.

My book club read a historical fiction called Mary Coin, which fictionalized the photographer Dorothea Lange and the woman who posed for her iconic “Migrant Mother” photograph. I’d read other books about the Dust Bowl, and Depression, but a former student suggested The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, by Timothy Egan . So, I read it to help me compare and contrast, to check the novelist’s research. I am a reading nerd that way. Farmers plowed, overplanted.  They tore up the land, and then they watched it blow away. Egan told stories of the survivors…those who stayed and watched everything change, watched crops die, livestock die, children die. This book  was a revelation, and so much more powerful than the novel. I wept at humanity's stupidity and courage.

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea, was one of those books that was on my ‘to-read’ stack for a year. Not knowing much about it, I dived in. Fourteen men are saved from the desert close to the Arizona-Mexico border…fourteen.  What we learn is that thirty started out from Mexico to America. This is the story of the survivors, and then men who perished in their quest to make a better life for themselves. It’s the story of the men who try to get rich off the desperation of others. It’s the story of doomed me moving forward, despite the odds.  It is a true story. Thirty men walked into the desert. Fourteen walked out.

Any list of my reading once again shows I'm omnivorous. I want to know more, and the librarian in me knows books are how I can learn. I’m pretty proud of my nonfiction reading this year…believe me, I read more than these ten…they truly were my favorites. The ones that took me to different places and times, and allowed me to learn and grow.


  1. I've read the first two you listed, and the third one is in the queue for reading after I'm done with a murder mystery. The first two, I know for sure, should be on every teacher's to-read list.

    1. 50 MYTHS is a must-read. It answers all the reformers' bogus arguments with research. I thought I'd lost it for a couple of weeks and was hyperventilating...I may carry it with me to the Capitol this Session! :)