Thursday, May 12, 2011

Must Reads: Non-Fiction

Charlotte Canelli is library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood. Read her column in the Norwood Transcript & Bulletin.

Every year in late December boxes and boxes of books arrive on the doorsteps of twelve dedicated (and perhaps masochistic) readers. They are the judges for the annual Massachusetts Center for the Book awards. There are three judges in each of four categories: fiction, non-fiction, poetry and children’s.

The criteria are simple for a book to be judged in one of those categories. It must be written about a Massachusetts topic and/or be written by a Massachusetts author during the previous year (in this case, 2010.)

It is amazing how many books each year center on a topic that relates to Massachusetts. It is equally amazing how many wonderful authors call Massachusetts home. Many of our colleges and universities boast scholars and professors who find a home base in our state. In addition, the lure of our coastline inspires many authors to nestle into a prolific existence and spend their days and nights writing fine literature and memoirs.

Over eighty non-fiction books were entered into consideration this year. A grueling process began as the books arrived, were read, discussed and compared. By the beginning of April only twelve could remain to make up the list of ‘Must Reads Non-Fiction 2011.’ These twelve books were announced at a reception at the annual Massachusetts Library Association conference in Danvers on April 26.

The books on the list include some impressive books of national acclaim. Perhaps the most highly reviewed is “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migrationby Pulitzer-Prize winner author Isabel Wilkerson. This is a narrative of the Great Migration, the journey of African Americans from the United States south to cities in the North and West in the early half of the twentieth century as told by three individual lives, those of Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling and Robert Foster.

Bruce Watson’sFreedom Summer: The Savage Season that Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy” tells the story of hundreds of courageous black and white American citizens who struggled for the rights of the black voter in the South. The book creates a new face for the historical events of the summer of 1964.

Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre” by University of Massachusetts professor Heather Cox Richardson also visits historical familiar territory. The 1890 massacre of 300 Lakota Sioux by United States soldiers is a series of events tragically affected by politics, unwise decisions, extreme rhetoric and yellow journalism.

First Family: Abigail and John Adams” by Joseph Ellis is an historical and romantic narrative of a marriage and a family. Abigail Adams is not only the mother who raises John Adam’s children, but also the wife who longs for her husband. She was a woman who truly supported from afar this brilliant man who was devoted to the founding of the American nation.

Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America” by Benjamin Carp examines relevant issues for both the English and the Colonists in the lead-up to the Boston Tea Party and the onset of the Revolutionary War. It is a well-known story told in new detail.

In 2007-2008 local author Sebastian Junger embedded himself with American soldiers in Afghanistan for 15 months. His book “War” is a powerful account of war as a conflict and personal experience.

Several memoirs were included in the final cut of Must Reads 2011. Motherhood sometimes includes grief with the joy, and trials with the pride. Marianne Leone’s Jesse: A Mother’s Story of Grief, Grace and Everyday Bliss describes the “challenges faced in a family raising an honor-roll student trapped by Cerebral Palsy in a quadriplegic body.

Normal Mailer made his home in Provincetown during the last years of his life. Author Dwayne Raymond chronicles that story in a very intimate and loving view and he invites all of us to share in some of those tender moments at the end of the life of this man of great genius and intellect in “Mornings with Mailer".

My personal favorites included two books. “The Great Penguin Rescue: 40,000 Penguins, a Devastating Oil Spill, and the Inspiring Story of the World’s Largest Animal Rescue” was written by Dyan deNapoli who chronicles the amazing story of 75,000 dedicated volunteers. They not only rescued 19,000 oiled penguins but they also saved 20,000 more from sharing a similar fate after a tragic oil spill off the coast of Africa. Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things” by Randy Frost and Gail Steketee is a fascinating account of the mental illness that affects “hoarders,” those unfortunate souls who lose their health, their families, their marriages and their lives to an obsession with collecting and storing things, no matter what the cost to quality of life.

The question at the center of “Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age” by William Powers is whether or not technology helps or “destroys civilization.” Included in this account are examinations of the Gutenberg printing press and present-day personal devices such as computers and smart phones.

The most beautiful book included on the list is “Schooner: Building a Wooden Boat on Martha's Vineyard.” In text by Tom Dunlop and photos by Alison Shaw, Schooner “introduces us to a small Massachusetts shipyard which builds boats in the traditional way.

Later this summer after more circumspection and discussion, debate and argument only one of those 12 will be chosen as best of the Massachusetts Center for the Book Non Fiction

For help searching in the Minuteman catalog for these titles or for placing requests for all library materials please visit the Morrill Memorial Library, call the Reference librarians (781-769-0200) or visit the Minuteman Library Catalog on our website,