Non-Fiction that Reads Like Fiction (2017)

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in  Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

Along Airport Road, running adjacent to the international terminal of the Sahar Airport in Mumbai, India, stands a concrete wall advertising Italianate floor tiles that promise to remain “beautiful forever.” On the other side of the “beautiful forever” wall lies the slum of Annawadi, where, in the shadows of luxury and opulence, residents live in cramped, ramshackle huts next to a sewage lake.

Katherine Boo, Pulitzer Prize winner, former reporter and editor for The Washington Post and staff writer at The New Yorker, spent nearly four years learning the stories the residents of Annawadi. Through interviews, notes, video recordings, audiotapes, photographs and public records, Boo presents an honest, detailed account of India’s urban poor living in a time of economic growth. Her work won Behind the Beautiful Forevers the National Book Award in 2012.

Boo’s chapters alternate between the different residents of Annawadi. As their stories unfold throughout the book, the reader comes to know and care for each of them. We first meet Abdul Husain, a quiet teenager with a successful business buying and sorting waste gathered by scavengers and selling it in bulk to a recycling center. His neighbor, Fatima, known as the “One Leg” to the slum dwellers because of a physical deformity, alters the course of the Husain’s lives after she lights herself on fire and accuses Abdul and his family. There’s also Asha, a woman eager for power, who manipulates political connections and depends on corruption as she aligns herself for the position as the first female slumlord. She is most proud of her daughter, Manju, the first female college student in the slum and its greatest hope. In Kalu, we meet a young thief who suffers an untimely demise, while Sunil, another young scavenger, hopes to make enough money so he can buy food and grow. Other residents of Annawadi, spouses, siblings, parents and friends round out the stories of those we come to know most intimately.

The tone of this work is sobering. The residents of Annawadi struggle with extreme socioeconomic inequality, poverty, hunger, religious differences, corruption, gender inequality, and caste differences. Yet underlying these challenges, an acknowledgement of hope is also conveyed to the reader in the way the residents maintain a belief that opportunity is always possible.

This book would appeal to fans of narrative nonfiction and readers who enjoy a well-written newspaper article, as Boo’s journalistic background is clear in her writing. Readers who have an interest in economics, globalization, or travel would enjoy this book as well. It could also serve as an adult to young adult crossover, especially for older teens.

Dancing with the Devil in the City of God by Juliana Barbassa
Calcutta: Two Years in the City by Amit Chaudhuri

Jill Wylie, Hauppauge Public Library

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown

A rich history of the United States during the Great Depression particularly in the Western United States. It is the personal history of eight boys of the rowing team at the University of Washington, who went to Berlin in 1936 and against all odds, took a Gold Medal, beating Italy by six-tenths of a second and the German team by one full second. 

This is the story of how the eight sons of loggers, shipyard workers and farmers, defeated the elite East Coast teams at Poughkeepsie where the annual intercollegiate rowing regatta had been held since 1852, and went on to shock the world by challenging the German boat rowing for Adolph Hitler.

It is also the story of George Pocock, a British ex-patriot who designed and built the winning shell, the Husky Clipper. He also counseled the boys about achieving an almost mythical state called the swing, which some teams never find. "It only happens when all eight oarsmen row in such perfect unison that no single action by any one of them is out of sync with those of all the others. If they can find their swing, it allows a crew to conserve energy, to move through the water as efficiently as possible, and often more rapidly than another crew that appears to be working much harder." 

Shaped by the social, economic and political challenges of the Depression and the simmering hostilities in Europe, these young men developed the "harmony, balance and rhythm" necessary not only to triumph in Berlin but to thrive in life. This would be a good read for men, women, boys and girls.

The Red Rose Crew: A True Story of Women, Winning and Water by Daniel J. Boyne
The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon by Kevin Fedarko
The Vast Unknown: America's First Ascent of Everest by Broughton Coburn 

Grace O'Connor, West Islip Public Library, Retired

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

As of January 2017, Between the World and Me has spent 68 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List. The author's stated purpose for writing the book was to educate his teen-aged son about what it is like in America to be a black man and to tell him how to survive. Coates shares with his son - and readers - the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in American culture through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields; from the South Side of Chicago to Paris; from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children's lives were taken far too soon. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, re-imagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past and bracingly confronts our present. 

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
The Education of Kevin Powell by Kevin Powell
Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching by Mychal Denzel Smith
Multiply/Divide by Wendy S. Walters
The Fire this Time by Jesmym Ward (editor)

Kathy Carter, Mastics-Moriches-Shirly Community Library, Retired

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air is the story of Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer and how he deals with not only his mortality, but also with not being able to see his medical career through to the end and become the promising neurosurgeon he was on his way to becoming. It is also the story of dying gracefully and finding meaning in all things and the humanity in both yourself and others.

From the beginning of the book, the reader knows that Kalanithi succumbed to cancer and that the publishing of this book is posthumous. What the reader gets instead is a feel for who Kalanithi was as both a person and a doctor. Beginning with his childhood and his love of literature and thirst for knowledge, Kalanithi is ever the scholar torn between wanting to be a writer and wanting to do good things in the world and help people. As he ages, his quest becomes stronger until, after completing dual degrees in literature in biology and a master’s in literature, he decides to become a doctor and not just an ordinary doctor but a neurosurgeon. After years of being on the fast track to be one of the world’s best neurosurgeons comes his cancer diagnosis at the age of 36 in the prime of both his life and medical career. Separated into two parts, When Breath Becomes Air, divides Kalanithi’s life into the before and after of his diagnosis and sees the doctor become the patient and try to deal with all of the changes that are thrown at him and his family – How long will I live? Should we have a child? Can I still perform medicine or should I spend my time in other pursuits? With no definitive answers, Kalanithi does his best to navigate his new life and make the most of the time he has. In an afterward by Kalanithi’s wife Lucy, the reader sees is death from her point of view and the time they spent together with their new daughter.

Although sad in subject matter, this book is a quick read flowing between life and death as Kalanithi experiences it from both his literary and medical perspectives. It’s not overly academic with medical jargon, although it does appear in places, and it’s not overly philosophical, although there is that too. What the reader finds is a blend of the two worlds and a man dying with dignity. Give to readers who are looking for depth and insight on what it’s like to die leaving things unfinished but knowing the unfinished life was worth living.

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
Gratitude by Oliver Sachs

Azuree Agnello, West Babylon Public Library

The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the 20th Century by David Laskin

David Laskin’s research into his family’s history uncovers so much more than he expected. As he delves into the story, Laskin is quickly fascinated, compelled to follow the descendents of his great- great-grandfather Shimon Dov HaKohen, a Torah scribe who lived in any area that belonged to the nineteenth century Russian Empire. Three branches of that family are described: one branch becomes pioneers in the establishment of Israel, one branch remains in Russian ghettos where they fall prey to Stalin and Hitler, and the other immigrates to the United States where one descendent founds the fabulously successful Maidenform Company.

It is a tremendous story, well told and fast paced. It will interest readers of history, especially Jewish history. There is further interest in the sub-plot involving Laskin making connections with new found relatives in the United States, Canada and Israel. Also, the author expresses how influential this knowledge of his family roots has been to his own sense of identity and spirituality as he’d been raised a secular Jew. Of even greater import are the many ethical and moral questions raised.

My Mother's Wars by Lillian Faderman
A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry by Sheila Isenberg
The Story of the Jews by Simon Schama

Suzanne McGuire, Commack Public Library

Jewels and Jackboots: Hitler's British Channel Islands [The German Occupation of the Channel Islands 1940-1945] by John Nettles

The Channel Islands are a cluster of islands in the English Channel, off the French coast of Normandy. It consists of two Crown dependencies: The Bailiwick of Jersey, containing Jersey, the largest of the islands; and the Bailiwick of Guernsey, which contains Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and some smaller islands. (Wikipedia)

On June 19, 1940, the Islands’ governments were told that the Islands are to be demilitarized. They were also warned to keep quiet about this due to security reasons. It worked so well that even the Germans didn’t know anything about it! “The Channel Islands were the only British soil to be occupied in the War, the islanders the only British citizens to fall under German rule.” 

Using a time line to guide readers through the occupation, Nettles explores how the islanders dealt with the German invasion, beginning just prior to the bombing raids on St. Helier and St. Peter Port on June 28, 1940 to the final liberation on May 9, 1945. Some saw the occupation to be “unpleasant but not unendurable” and therefore a model occupation but as he shows us, it was far from that. After five long years of German occupation, “what was the damage, what was the loss?” Nettles tells of the outstanding courage and the hardship of a group of people who were thrust into a disastrous situation, deserted, and left to survive the best they could by their own government.

The book is well researched and contains photos and chapter notes. In addition, throughout the narrative there are numerous entries taken from letters and diaries of both Islanders’ and Germans alike.  

John Nettles is well-known to fans as DCI Tom Barnaby on Midsomer Murders and previously as Jim Bergerac on Bergerac which is set in Jersey.

The Model Occupation: The Channel Islands Under German Rule, 1940-1945 by Madeleine Bunting
The Channel Islands at War (DVD) by John Nettles
John Nettles' Jersey: A Personal History of the People and Places by John Nettles
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Sue Ketcham, B. Davis Schwartz Memorial Library

The Lovers: Afghanistan's Romeo and Juliet by Rod Norland

This is the story of Zakia and Ali, an Afghan couple that defies their religion and their families when they fall in love and elope. When a New York Times reporter writes an article profiling the lovers, they attain international notoriety—a status that both helps and hurts them. On the run, Zakia and Ali do manage to avoid being captured by the authorities, or worse, by family members that are committed to killing Zakia for tarnishing the family honor.

The Lovers knew each other from an early age. Innocent flirtation turned into romance and the couple fell in love. But the fact that she is Sunni and he is Shia prohibited them from marrying. Islamic/Afghan tenets force the couple to run away and embark on a journey that consists of seeking asylum in shelters, living in caves, and hiding in the homes of sympathetic relatives. Other young couples in a similar situation have not survived to tell their story. Zakia and Ali have.

Nordland has relayed a story, a true story, that can spark serious discussions about women’s rights, oppression, political corruption, and even the ethical boundaries of reporting a news story. This read is overwhelming disturbing, and riveting.

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
A Thousand Spendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

Deborah Formosa, Northport-East Northport Public Library

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick

Everything you never knew about the American Revolution.

Philbrick serves up a fascinating popular history which turns on the difference between a statesman and an opportunist. George Washington fights to free himself and his fellow colonists from a government which has become oppressive, while Benedict Arnold seeks to advance himself alone.

Benedict Arnold had, in his brash and abrasive way, prevented the British from taking control of the Hudson River and thus crushing the Revolution early on. Now crippled and in love with a Tory socialite, he has little hope of proper compensation from the government he had served so well. Expecting the Revolution to fail, he offers his services to the enemy, this time for a pre-arranged fee.

Philbrick manages an impressive number of secondary characters who, taken together, form a cross-section of a colonial society divided by region, social class, political sympathies, and perceived self-interest.  He does not stint on detail, including maps of battlegrounds, contemporary portraits of many of the principals, detailed notes, and a bibliography.

The book should appeal to New Yorkers with scant knowledge of the war and to anyone curious as to what made an American hero turn traitor.

The War Before Independence: 1175-1776 by Derek W. Beck
Treacherous Beauty by Mark Jacob
First Entrepreneur by Edward G. Lengel
1776 by David McCullough
The Glorious Cause: A Novel of the American Revolution by Jeff Shaara

Jackie Malone, Bellmore Public Library

Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

Preston’s account of an expedition he joined to locate an ancient city in the Honduran mountains reads like a fairy tale minus the myth. In 2012, Preston was present (as a writer for National Geographic magazine) as an expedition team attempted to use light detection and ranging technology to identify the city’s location in the uncharted wildernesses of Honduras. The effort succeeded in locating two large sites, apparently built by the civilization that once inhabited the Mosquiteria region. The discovery led to a return trip in 2015 to explore the sites on foot that resulted in remarkable archaeological finds, specifically a cache of stone sculptures.

With historical and cultural facts, Preston brings readers into the field while maintaining a sense of humor while in the jungle (with monkeys, poisonous snakes and insects, torrential downpours, and muddy campsites) and upon his return home, where he finds he (and most of the team) is infected with leishmaniosis (an incurable disease).

However, the disease does not hinder Preston and the others (all but one) from returning to the jungle in 2016 to begin excavating the site, where they find a jaguar artifact leading the president of Honduras to rename the hidden city, the City of the Jaguar.

After writing about North Americans contacting the leish virus, he ends the book on a somber note - “No civilization has survived forever….None, including ours, is exempt from the universal fate.”

Into Africa by Martin Dugard
Lost City of Z by David Grann
River of Doubt by Candice Millard
Jungleland by Christopher Stewart

Lori Ludlow, Babylon Public Library