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My Year in Books: Nonfiction

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

It had to happen sooner or later—with the start of the school year, our wonderful sabbatical is now officially over. As you can no doubt imagine, I've had the chance to do a lot of reading over the past year, delving into a variety of fiction and nonfiction that had been on my to-read list for a while.

In the next few blog entries, I will post minireviews of the best of these books. You just might find some new titles for your classrooms or for your own personal enjoyment. This first post highlights some interesting nonfiction titles that may be useful in your AP® Language course.

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
I had already read The Omnivore's Dilemma, a heftier volume with much the same message: our food system has some seriously bizarre quirks born of our desire to tweak everything with science. This slimmer book has a tighter focus, summed up nicely in Pollan's core mantra: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. I find Pollan highly readable and informative, without overloading us with too much technical data. I also found In Defense of Food more streamlined than Omnivore, and therefore a better fit for the classroom or for independent assignments. I mentioned this book in an earlier post in relation to other books about food and how they might be used for synthesis/argument work.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver
Another food book, this one by the gifted writer Kingsolver, who is more lyrical, in many ways, than Pollan. The book is a personal account, tracing her family's efforts over the course of a year to live off the fruits of her family farm and other local sources of nonindustrial foods. Thus, while still containing strong arguments about agriculture, food politics, and food as it relates to health, family, and societal well-being, this book is as much memoir as manifesto. Plus it has recipes! I spent a good chunk of my reading salivating from one page to the next.

Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe by Bill Bryson
I read this book in anticipation of our own five-month travel experience. Bryson's work is perennially entertaining, and in this pseudo-memoir he retraces the steps of a youthful jaunt through Europe, reflecting on his earlier experiences and on the vagaries of European travel.  While I recognized many of the scenes and experiences Bryson recounts, I have to admit that I didn't feel especially enlightened by the end of the book. Perhaps not surprising: Bryson is aiming more for comic effect than travelogue evocativeness. Excerpts from this slim volume could no doubt make for some fun analysis of the comic voice in class.

Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris
This book is a mixed bag of essays and short fiction pieces, but I'm putting it under nonfiction because Sedaris's best work, in my opinion, is embodied by the vignettes based on his childhood experiences. For example, one of the more poignant and memorable pieces in this slim collection is “Dinah, the Christmas Whore,” which isn't quite as racy as it sounds, and falls under the “true spirit of Christmas” rubric without being saccharine. You can always rely on Sedaris for a good laugh, and several other pieces, especially the slightly not-safe-for-school (and also nominally nonfictional) “Santaland Diaries,” definitely got belly-laughs from me (and my husband, when I read it aloud to him). Every unit on humor should include a little bit of Sedaris.

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson
I wrote about this book last September, and while I have a few issues with its somewhat limited scope and hero-worshipping tone, it's still a compelling read for students who may not have encountered this perspective on Afghanistan. As a starting point or a source to a research project about world issues, it provides some interesting arguments about grassroots efforts to promote peace, understanding, and international cooperation in areas perceived as threatening to Western ways of life. It's accessible and relevant; a quick read for most AP® students.

The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank by Willy Lindwer
While visiting the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, I picked up this short collection of personal narratives by six women who knew Anne or the Frank family before, during, and after their period in hiding. Most of the narratives provide detailed information that we do not get from reading Anne's well-known diary; for example, what life was like before the occupation and in its early stages, how the family was perceived by others, how the Resistance functioned in and around Amsterdam, what life was like in the camps to which the family and the narrators themselves were sent, and a portrait of Margot's and Anne's last days. The accounts are frank, first-person narratives based on interviews. Because they are translated, there is little in the way of potential style analysis, but they might fit in with a memoir unit, or could be paired with excerpts from Anne's diary to discern differences in point of view.

Ambivalence: Crossing the Israel Palestine Divide by Jonathan Garfinkel
I read this memoir because (1) I went to grade school with the author and (2) I saw his play based on the experience it dramatizes, which was excellent. So I'm a bit biased in my appreciation of his depiction of the Hebrew day school and the Zionist summer camp that we both attended (as far as I'm concerned, he is hilariously spot-on, even in the lengths to which he takes his caricatures). But the real meat of this memoir is the provocative arguments it raises about Israeli-Palestinian relations. While Garfinkel's very definite Zionist upbringing can't help but color his initial perspectives, his quest for identity and his determination to root out the story (which drives him to visit Israel and the West Bank) allow him to keep an open mind, and to draw us along with him through the revelations and perspectives he encounters. If you have students whose minds are made up about this topic, you might want to hand them this “food for thought” book.

The Tipping Point and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Many people are at least somewhat familiar with Gladwell and his pop-research books, and I know many teachers have assigned Outliers to illustrate to students what it takes to succeed in school and in other endeavors. Gladwell's straight-talking, anecdotal style is very readable, though I found Outliers more repetitive than The Tipping Point. I also found it far too easy to take from both of them pat, sometimes simplistic answers to questions about the complex interactions between cause and effect (or, in some cases, mere correlation). Still, could provide some interesting starting points for students looking for unusual research topics about societal phenomena.

A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel Pink
See the full post I wrote about this book—it says all I would say here, and more.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman
My friend, a doctor and avid reader, loaned me this book while I was visiting her. At first glance it didn't appeal to me, but since we have similar reading tastes, I gave it a try. It turned out to be quite interesting, though repetitive in places and therefore probably longer than necessary. Equal parts a study of cultural conflict, an anthropological history of a little-known society, and a medical drama, it argues, through this one case, for reforms in hospital protocols and doctor-patient interactions, especially where cultural norms and expectations interfere with communication. Students with interests in any of these areas will find it to be a compelling story, though they might skim over certain chapters.

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan
Yes, another Pollan book. Predating his work on food politics, this book examines how four different plants (apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes) have interacted with human history and science to embody and illustrate four different “desires” (for sweetness, beauty, transcendence, and control, respectively). His nominal argument is that plants use us as much as we use plants, and that their adaptation throughout their own evolutionary histories is as much a product of that symbiosis as it is of any efforts on our parts. But that argument aside, it's just a really good read. Each section builds on the last, in particular his focus on the competing drives of wildness and domestication. Finding passages for style analysis in this book is easy; many elements could be used for synthesis work or as starting points for research. I had this book on a summer reading list, but no student chose it, which is a shame. I'm glad I added it to my personal list regardless.

That's it for now! I am lucky enough to be entering another year’s leave of absence--this time a maternity leave! I have a little time left to do some more personal reading, after which I’ll be lucky to fit in some brain candy, and then a hefty supply of storybooks!

Next time: Fiction for you and your students.

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