Amazing Audiobooks Part Three: Enthralling Nonfiction

These true tales range from the funny and flippant to the gritty and gruesome. Give nonfiction audio a try! You may find that nonfiction (which doesn’t always have a strong narrative thread you need to follow) is ideal for listening in stops and starts.

  • Devil in the White City by Erik Larson; this gripping tale of a serial killer at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago is so spellbinding, you’ll want to extend your commute to hear more!
  • Bossypants by Tina Fey, read by the author: this book is shriekingly funny. Truly one of the best audio books around – Fey is witty and direct, never sappy, and always gut-bustingly hilarious.
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot; a universally praised book that mixes science with history and family drama.
  • Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns by Mindy Kaling Lexie reviewed the book, and I agree with her: this book is FUNNY. You’ll want to be best friends with Mindy by the end.
  • I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron: Ephron’s candid observations on life and getting older are enjoyable and crisply humorous.
  • Zeitoun by Dave Eggers: The gritty true story of the tribulations of Abduhlraman Zeitoun and his family in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
  • At Home by Bill Bryson, read by the author: see my review for a longer rant on the excellence of this very excellent book.
  • The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell, read by the author: You know Sarah Vowell’s voice already – she vocalized for Violet in Pixar’s The Incredibles. You’ll also recognize the many luminaries/musicians/comedians/TV personalities who make cameos in her delectable book – Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert, for example. Oh, and it’s full of intelligent and interesting essays about history and American culture, too.

Read This, Not That: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

Though first published in 1996, A Game of Thrones and its four sequels (collectively known as A Song of Ice and Fire) have become a phenomenon in library hold queues of late thanks to HBO’s serial adaptation (season 2 premieres on April 1) and the summer ’11 release of the bestselling A Dance With Dragons. If you’re interested in the series but were turned off by the verbose visuals and relentless attention to detail, you are not alone. Try these titles for an alternative jaunt into gritty, political, and subtly-fantastical realms.

If you are intrigued by the era of Martin’s inspiration, England’s Wars of the Roses, try The White Queen by Philippa Gregory, or any of her rich historical novels set in a similar time period, including The Red Queen (a direct sequel), The Other Boleyn Girl, and The Other Queen. For a factual (but nonetheless exciting) version of the story, try Alison Weir’s The Wars of the Roses.

Part of the appeal of Martin’s work is the very small part that magic and fantasy play in the narrative. If you appreciate that ratio, consider The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, in which a modern woman is embroiled in the continuing high-stakes mystery of Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula). Another tale of subtle magic is Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen, which explores the lives a Southern family with a unique talent for growing (and using) magical plants in a successful catering business.

If the gripping political drama of a royal family pulls you in, but the fantasy elements are off putting, you’ll love Bernard Cornwell, whose Arthur books (beginning with The Winter King) make the mythic saga fresh, exciting, and utterly believable.

If you enjoy gritty fantasy but not a lot of length, consider The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch or The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. Both are #1 in their respective serials, but can be enjoyed individually. Additionally, they each still come in very far below the page count Martin sets. In hardcover, A Song of Ice and Fire numbers 4,223 pages in total – a truly intimidating figure. By contrast, Abercrombie’s entire trilogy numbers only 1,810, and Lynch’s tale wraps up in a snappy 752.

At Home by Bill Bryson

Hearty praise for Bill Bryson isn’t new to the Info Cafe blog (both Lynn and Ann have gushed about him in the past), but he is new to me! The audiobook of At Home: A Short History of Private Life, read by the author, was the first Bryson book I’ve read, and one of the most entertaining nonfiction books I’ve ever encountered on any subject. Part of the appeal comes from the irresistible subject matter: Bryson deals with the everyday, but elevates it beyond the mundane into something fascinating. The greater part of the book’s success is Bryson himself – dry wit that had me laughing and quoting passages to friends, great writing that’s both intelligent and accessible, and (crucially) excellent narration.

No matter what you’re interested in, there is something for you in At Home: architecture, cooking, engineering, etymology, inventing, transportation, medicine, sanitation and hygiene, social history, entertainment, a dash of politics, and mostly, British and American history. If history isn’t your thing, don’t be intimidated – though much of the book deals with historical matters, it never feels stuffy or boring (with the possible, arguable exception of a lengthy chapter on British architecture that suffers from a lack of the visual aids present in the printed book). The comforts we’re accustomed to – bright lights, running water, soap, sturdy clothing, efficient laundry, regular bathing, doctors who wash their hands, and a reasonable expectation that rats will NOT nest inside your mattress even as you sleep above them – these things are all shockingly new.

I particularly recommend this to anyone who’s a fan of historical novels, from Jane Austen through Diana Gabaldon; once you learn about the privy fixtures and habits of cleanliness in the pre-modern era, your reading of Emma will never be the same!

Super-duper seal of approval: after hearing a snippet while riding in my car, my book-phobic husband insisted on taking it off my hands to listen himself!

Living in a Terrarium World

Did you know about air plants?! Sounds kinda sci-fi, doesn’t it! Also known as an epiphyte, air plants get their nutrients from the surrounding air and thus do not need roots. Cool! They kind of remind me of a miniature, land-dwelling octopus or Thing from the Addams Family. Now here did I learn about these awesome plants? From Terrarium Craft: Create 50 Magical, Miniature Worlds by Amy Bryant Aiello, Kate Bryant, & Kate Baldwin!

I always thought that Terrariums were very difficult to upkeep and required intense calculations to maintain their delicate ecosystems, but Terrarium Craft has since convinced me that Terrariums are my new super laid-back, always stylish best friends. In fact, according to Amy, Kate & Kate, I don’t even have to put living plants in my terrariums if I don’t want to–I could use pretty sands, rocks, crystals, and dried flowers to make super lovely displays. However, they make even the plant terrariums seem easy by using moss balls, air plants, succulents and other easy care plants and arranging them with sweet figurines, geodes, books and costume jewelry to create little whimsical, fairytale-like scenes. I want to live in their terrariums, but, until I find a shrinking raygun, I will just check out Terrarium Craft from the library and make one of my own. It will totally have a geode and an air plant and will be based on that classic Ringo Starr hit, Octopus’s Garden.

Dark Water: Flood and Redemption in the City of Masterpieces by Robert Clark

Dark Water by Robert ClarkLast summer, while walking home from the University of Iowa Main Library very late in the evening, I came to a stop in front of a large truck parked in front of the Museum of Art. I stood and watched as workers and museum guards struggled to manuever a very large crate into the building–a crate that looked to be the exact size of Pollock’s Mural.. The flood was coming and the museum staff was frantically trying to get the entire university’s collection to safety. This meant not only removing the artwork from flood danger, but also going forth with a complex evacuation plan that involved secretly moving the artwork out in the middle of the night and transferring it to a secure location. Working around the clock, it still took about four days to save the Museum’s artwork (now on display at the Figge Art Museum).

In Dark Water: Flood and Redemption in the City of Masterpieces, Robert Clark tells the story of the devastating flood that hit Florence, Italy on November 4, 1966. With almost no warning, the Arno River rose into the city in the early morning hours–giving the Florentines no time to save their families, their homes nor their city full of art. As soon as photos of the destruction began to surface, volunteers from around the world (nicknamed “mud angels”) rushed to Italy to help save the priceless paintings, manuscripts and architecture from the deluge of water and mud. Clark does an amazing job describing the incredible efforts to save the treasures of Florence, including works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Botticelli, but also the lack of attention given to the actual people affected by the flood. While the world pumped money into conservation efforts, the Florentines spent weeks without food, water, and electricity bringing to light difficult ethical questions of history vs. present vs. posterity.

As one of the most enjoyable nonfiction books I have ever read, I found Dark Water both fascinating and emotional with a great combination of art, history and personal stories to which we in flood country can sympathize. This is a must read for all those who enjoy art or have ever visited the amazing city of Florence.

Those who are interested might also went to watch Restoration of Books, Florence 1968, a 40 min. documentary currently viewable online from the University of Utah.

Harry, A History by Melissa Anelli

Harry, A HistorySince Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final installment in the seven-part Harry Potter series, was released two years ago this summer, I have been receiving the same question over and over again by those who know I am a Potterhead: “Sooo what will you do now that Harry Potter is over?” And my answer usually is: “Well, the same things that Star Trek fans do.” For a more descriptive answer, I recommend they read Harry, A History: The True Story of a Boy Wizard, His Fans, and Life Inside the Harry Potter Phenomenon by Melissa Anelli.

In Harry, A History, Anelli shares her experiences of how the Harry Potter fandom was born from her “front row seat” as Webmistress of the beloved Harry Potter news site The Leaky Cauldron. Over the years, Anelli’s work as a top fan journalist has resulted in her development of friendships with the key Harry Potter insiders including publishers, editors, musicians, actors, and even the grand authoress herself, J.K. Rowling, who gave Anelli an exclusive interview for the book. Anelli gives new insight into how Harry Potter was created and published, but most of the book focuses on how Harry Potter fans developed their community online, and thus, has played a significant role in the evolution of global commerce and intellectual property rights on the web.

As a die-hard fan, I was already familiar with “potterwar,” the fan-organized boycott against Warner Brothers in response to their attack on Harry Potter fansites, but I was fascinated by the section on how the organized worldwide releases of the later Harry Potter books were due to Americans buying Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second book in the series, from amazon.uk (which displeased both amazon and the U.S. publishers) before it’s release in the United States. Anelli does a wonderful job speaking to a variety of audiences and Harry, A History will appeal to both long-time and new Harry Potter fans alike, in addition to those interested in contemporary culture and the digital generation.

If you are interested in the history of Harry Potter and the Harry Potter fandom, you may also want to check out We are Wizards–a documentary focusing on several fans including Anelli. The film is currently viewable for free on hulu.com. Beware, this film does contain adult content.