Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl: “On April 14, 1935, the biggest dust storm on record descended over five states, from the Dakotas to Amarillo, Texas.” How did that happen? And how many times? To what end? Farmers were driven to extremes to meet and compete with demands. Eventually layers of topsoil floated up. When you slept at night your pillow, and you, woke up blackened. Your head left the only mark; a ghostly silhouette. Imagine what that would do to your lungs, your home, and the vegetation. Think Grapes of Wrath. Pick up the book, check out the unbelievable photographs, then, read about your not so distant history.
Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World: Dr. Paul Farmer left behind most of his life in America to diagnose and cure infectious diseases in third world countries. Building medical facilities and humanizing his patients at home and abroad, Farmer is a one-man force. His own illnesses at times put aside, Farmer keeps plugging away to make a change in countries others try not to think about. He makes you think about them, and worry, what will happen when he is gone. Thank God for his “Partners In Health” international charity organization that provides direct health care services for those living in poverty.
Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: During the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair Larson tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect in charge of the fair, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer. While one watched the first Ferris Wheel being built with cable cars, the other erected the World’s Fair Hotel, with specified rooms for unwanted guests. One built while the other methodically dismantled. Either character may interest you, or both, as Larson makes combining their stories undoubtedly more interesting than if told alone. Hardly believing it a work of non-fiction, that quality made it undeniably more engrossing.
And then there is Larson’s Thunderstruck: Another dual main character story this time combining Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of wireless telegraphy, with Hawley Crippen, a seemingly shy doctor that had talents in murder and disguise. Their stories connect on a transatlantic cruise. The new wireless being the device needed to help locate Crippen, and his female accomplice, is only half the excitement as we learn how in the heck a wireless can reach so far. Maybe not as exciting as learning the trials of how the White City was built; this book is still equally absorbing in its factualness.
Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle: Hard to resist the start of Walls’s memoir as she describes spotting her homeless mother rooting through a dumpster while she herself is dressed to the nine’s for a fancy evening. Walls’s early family life included brazenly selfish parents that used their quest for freedom, independence and art to avoid the daily necessities such as providing for their children. Alcoholism, lack of interest in employment and excuses are hardly as acceptable to their children as they age and move out. The title comes from Walls’s father’s dream house, one he wasn’t sober enough to do more than envision for his children. Remarkably, through it all, you never doubt the depth of Walls’s devotion, unwavering love and understanding. It allows the reader a more respectful view of homelessness; even where there might be a choice. This book reminded me of hippies gone bad. Its okay to live like an artist – but don’t have children along just to clean up the paint.
Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster:
Before the book and subsequent film Into The Wild, Into Thin Air was Krakuer’s personal account of the catastrophic expedition up Mount Everest in March 1996. Outside magazine originally asked the journalist to accompany the trekkers to the base camp but experienced climber Jon Krakauer held out so that he could join the expedition. Eight people died. And that was only on their side of the 29,000 foot tallest mountain in the world. Krakauer analyzes, from a climber’s view point and first-hand knowledge, what mistakes were made, his own shame and the criticism of some of the families. Krakauer couldn’t wait to turn his Outsider article into a full book. He forged into the writing while the disaster was still fresh in his mind. And he puts you there too: ice blinded, frost-bitten, brain fuzzy from empty canisters of H2O…All while learning the history of the mountain, it’s climbers and it’s deathly hypnotizing appeal.
Elie Wiesel, Night: You’re not Mel Gibson; you believe there was a Holocaust. You may have even taken your child to the Museum of Tolerance and read Anne Frank. It’s still not enough. At Night, Wiesel feels tremendous guilt at having survived the Holocaust over so many others. He questions God. This very short account is only the beginning for Wiesel as his life works try to encompass the unbearable loss done to generations.
Ann Patchett, Truth and Beauty: Patchett’s close lifelong friendship with Autobiography of a Face author Lucy Grealy made me look up Grealy’s book as well. I searched out Grealy’s thin forgotten volume buried in the Cancer section at Border’s. Patchett tells Grealy’s story, somewhat interspersed with her own rise, faithfully. Grealy, a victim to childhood cancer of the jaw, is left with battle scars that each recall differently. Patchett sees Grealy, grammar school age, being applauded when she is chosen to be the announcer for every school stage production. Grealy sees herself ridiculed by the same youngsters for missing a chin. You can read them together, or try hard not to. Their relationship seemed almost romantic at times. (Patchett carried Grealy around often when the latter was recovering from surgery and subsequent drug addictions.) Like strong female friendships that appear in our schooldays or spinsterhood, without the complications of men and marriage, it’s still love in sickness and in health.