Just the Facts, Ma’am

Warmth of Other Suns coverThe other day I was walking out with an armload of books on CD, and Richard our audio book selector got all excited because he thought I was getting non-fiction (something he’d like to see checked out more). Shamefacedly I had to admit that it was all fiction, and that I had been slacking a bit on listening to anything factual. His enthusiasm for promoting our non-fiction audio books inspired me to put some of my selections back and browse the other shelves.

I’ve always been a big non-fiction reader, but for some reason this passion hasn’t translated well to audio books. I have a long commute and like to pass the time listening to stories. I’ve found them to be easier to listen to in the little 35 minute drives I have to do throughout the week because I don’t have to pay too close attention to make sure I’m not missing any important points. It’s also easier to pick up where I left off if I haven’t listened in a while because we’ve been using the other car; often with non-fiction audio books I have to rewind a bit to refresh my memory. The only things that combat these issues for me when listening to non-fiction books is to find ones that are written in a very narrative style and have great readers.

With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of non-fiction audio books that I’ve listened to recently that have kept me enthralled from start to finish.

The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson (read by Robin Miles). I guess if you need a place to start, choosing a Pulitzer Prize winning book generally isn’t a bad idea. Wilkerson tells the story of the Great Migration by tracing the paths of four African-Americans who migrated north and west to escape the Jim Crow world of the South. Because the author interviewed all four individuals, the book is rich with dialogue and personal stories. Miles does an excellent job of reading Wilkerson’s work, making each individual’s personality shine through, and adding appropriate emphasis and emotion to some of the more difficult passages.

Mushroom Hunters coverThe Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, by Langdon Cook (read by Kevin R. Free). Foodie, traveler, hiker, lover of the Pacific Northwest – no matter what you consider yourself to be, you’ll probably find something to enjoy about this title. Mushroom Hunters reads like investigative journalism mixed with Food Network programming (in the best way possible). Cook tells the story of his quest to learn about the secret not-always-legal world of commercial mushroom harvesting in the Pacific Northwest. I really enjoyed driving back and forth on Highway 2 as Free described the kinds of lush rainy mountains that surrounded me, and all the secret things that may be happening in them.

Detroit cover imageDetroit: an American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff (read by Eric Martin). This is a book that I would have loved even if Mickey Mouse was reading it, but Eric Martin’s narration took it from good to perfection for me.  Martin’s gravelly no-nonsense delivery perfectly matches the tone of LeDuff’s vignettes of the rough, hard-working, beautiful, disturbing, hopeful, and troubled City of Detroit. This book isn’t another work of ruin porn aimed at exploiting what befell Detroit after the decline of its industrial might. It’s the honest collected experiences of a journalist who has spent his entire career covering every side of a city that seems to be almost universally hated and feared by the rest of America. No predictions are made about the future. No excuses are made for the past. It’s just the facts as he saw them happen, and it’s dark, light, and magnificent.

Naked coverNaked, by David Sedaris (read by the author and his sister, comedian/actress Amy Sedaris). Ending on a lighter note, I just have to say I’m a sucker for David Sedaris in any format, but I think experiencing his writing performed by himself is always the best. Whether it be appearances on This American Life, or full-length readings of one of his many titles, you’d be hard-pressed to not be entertained. Well, at least you would be if you and I share a similar sense of humor. In Naked, Sedaris tells stories about his upbringing; considering that his family spawned two comedians, you know things had to be unorthodox.  Even though he may be describing something completely ridiculous, his sense of humor remains dry and ironic. This tone is amplified when you hear him perform his work. His readings are so well-timed and pitch perfect that it’s almost impossible to later read something of his without hearing his voice in your head.

I hope some of these recommendations inspire you to treat yourself to some of the many excellent non-fiction audio titles we have in our collections. I know I’ll continue exploring!

Magical Realism

Magical realism is one of my favorite reading genres. If you’re not familiar with this style of writing, it is not fantasy, science fiction, or escapist fiction. Rather, magical realist stories typically portray the world in ways beyond the objective – life described richly with delight, passion, and wonder.

The House of the SpiritsNancy Pearl describes magical realism as “a style of writing that allows authors to look at our own world through the lens of another world, an imagined yet very familiar one in which past, present, and future are often intertwined.”

Some of the best-known writers of magical realism are Isabel Allende, Jorge Luis Borges, and Gabriel García Márquez

A few of my all-time favorites include Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, Aphrodite, and My Invented Country, as well as Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel.The Lady, The Chef, and The Courtesan

The Lady, the Chef, and the Courtesan by Marisol and Hot House Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire by Margot Berwin are a few you may have missed.Volver

And, of course, Pedro Almodóvar movies are a wonderful accompaniment to these books, especially Volver.


Heavenly Hamburgers and Baked Peanut Pie

Hamburgers are a great American invention. I try to be a healthy eater, but occasionally I give in to the urge to devour a delicious combination of bun, meat, cheese, veggies and the special sauce that drips down your shirt.

So where was this wondrous concoction invented? There are several claims to the creation of the hamburger. One is made by the restaurant Louis’ Lunch of New Haven, Conn., which happens to be one of 100 burger joints covered in George Motz’s excellent book Hamburger America.

Louis’ Lunch is the oldest continuously operating hamburger restaurant in the United States. It has been owned and operated by the Lassen family since 1885. According to the Lassen family, the hamburger sandwich was invented by Louis Lassen in 1900 by placing a hamburger patty between two pieces of white bread. The specially made hamburger bun didn’t come around for another 25 years.

None of the big chains are covered in Hamburger America, just locally owned restaurants serving good burgers. One of the examples is Seattle’s own Dick’s Drive In. An approximation of the recipe for the secret sauce on Dick’s burgers is included as well.

If you like your food to go, definitely check our Roadfood by Jane and Michael Stern, which covers 700 eateries. All types of food establishments are covered including barbecue, seafood, ice cream parlors, roadside diners, and more.

One of the notable restaurants is Wiles-Smith Drugs in Memphis, Tenn., where you can sit at a boomerang-pattern counter, order a sandwich or a big helping of chili and know you are only steps away from Sun Records where Elvis Presley recorded many of his songs.

Continuing on the road, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives by Guy Fieri covers 60 eateries from coast to coast. Highlights include The Virginia Diner of Wakefield, Va., which is just down the street from the site where the first peanut crop in the U.S. was planted. More than a half-million pounds of peanuts are cooked and packed at the diner each year. A specialty of Virginia Diner is Peanut Pie. It is described as “a cross between a peanut cookie, peanut brittle, and pie.” The recipe is printed in the book.


Thought for Food

I read cookbooks like I read novels. Start to finish, savoring every word. Although a lighter fare, cookbooks make up a complete and beautiful story in their own way and can be a nice reprieve from the full depths of a novel.

Three cookbooks that I have read recently, and which I whole-heartedly recommend, include The Fat Duck Cookbook by Heston Blumenthal, Get Cooking by Mollie Katzen, and Cooking with My Sisters by Adriana Trigiani. 

Fat Duck is a visual delight, almost more of an art book than a cookbook. Whether for art or recipes, foodies will adore the gastronomic wonders in this book.

Get Cooking cookbookGet Cooking is by Mollie Katzen, author of the perennially popular Moosewood Cookbook. Touted as a book for beginners who want to ‘eat really well all the time,’ this concise and creative cookbook is for novice and seasoned chefs alike. Chock full of everyday recipes, it includes several photographs of the end result, such as the beautiful (and very easy!) roast chicken.

The popular novelist, Adriana Trigiani, who is mostly known for her delightful stories of shoe designers, Italian Americans, and chick-lit romance, also wrote a memoir-cum-cookbook about her family in the kitchen. As Trigiani describes in Cooking with My Sisters, cooking was the centerpiece of their lives — Cooking With My Sistersfor food, conversation, laughter, stories, and the weaving together of generations. With tips from her sisters, letters, irresistible photographs, and the sweetest recipes, such as “Grandmom’s Buttermilk Cake,” you cannot go wrong with this book either in the kitchen or on the couch.

Readers of M.F.K. Fisher, Ruth Reichl, anyone who loves stories about food and life, and those curious to try a new recipe, are sure to enjoy these tasty books!