Top Ten Tuesday: Book Club Picks

This week’s theme is a lot of fun – top ten book club picks! One of my favourite genres, and one that I think is woefully under-appreciated, is nonfiction. And so, here are ten nonfiction titles to try out with your book club. I’ve tried to pick titles with broad appeal that will encourage discussion and conversation.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Science, race, family, ethics, economics and politics collide in the fascinating story of Henrietta Lacks and her incredible cells.

The Devil in the White City – The stories of two men, one a sinister murderer and the other the architect behind the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, collide in this gripping true tale of crime and commerce.

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Into Thin Air – A thrilling account of the disastrous 1996 Everest season, in which 11 climbers lost their lives.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – Neurologist Oliver Sacks beautifully and sympathetically recounts some of the strangest and most fascinating cases he encountered during his long career.

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In a Sunburned Country – Pretty much any books by Brill Bryson is a good choice for a book club, but this exploration of Australia is one of Bryson’s laugh out loud funniest.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void – Mary Roach always manages to make hard science accessible and often hilarious. This look at space exploration is fascinating, cheeky and highly informative.

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Working in the Shadows – A journalist spends a year undercover working the jobs “most Americans won’t do”, revealing the plight of undocumented migrants and poor Americans in this fascinating, at times heartbreaking account of life in the shadows.

52 Loaves – This hilarious account follows one man’s obsession to bake the perfect loaf of bread.

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The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Explore the natural history of cooking and food and take a hard look at the modern Western diet and what it means for the future of our society as a whole.

Orange is the New Black – When a successful young woman is sent to prison for a crime she committed years before, she discovers an entirely new world behind bars. An eye-opening, compassionate look at prison life.

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Top Ten Tuesday – Nonfiction for People Who (Think They) Don’t Enjoy Nonfiction

Top Ten Tuesday is an original meme from the awesome team at The Broke and The Bookish. 

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love nonfiction. As a former history student I know that truth is all too often stranger than fiction. Unfortunately the genre is sometimes seen as boring and dry. This is a real shame, because in the hands of a skilled writer, nonfiction can be as thrilling, exciting and rewarding as any novel.

Here are my picks for 10 nonfiction titles that are perfect entries into this fascinating genre. I’ve tried to include a variety of different styles and subject matters – there truly is a nonfiction title out there for everyone.

1. In the Heart of the Sea / Nathaniel Philbrick : Rampaging whales hellbent on revenge, shipwrecks, cannibalism, madness, survival, and adventure – this gripping account of the event that inspired Moby Dick is history at its most intense. It’s about to be released as a movie, too, so make sure to read the book before heading to the theaters.

2. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks / Rebecca Skloot : A skillful, sensitive study of the complicated intersections between science, ethics, race, economics, family relationships, and politics in recent American history, focusing on the story of Henrietta Lacks and her unique cells.

3. 52 Loaves / William Alexander : The humorous, eye-opening and at times quite touching account of one man’s obsessive quest to bake the perfect loaf of bread.

4. Into Thin Air / Jon Krakauer: This personal account of an ill-fated Everest expedition is nonfiction at its most gripping. Hold on, because things are about to get intense.

5. Thunderstruck / Erik Larson: Larson is one of the true masters of narrative nonfiction, creating thrilling, awe-inspiring works that skillfully weave multiple story lines together that build to a satisfying conclusion. Any of his recent works would be fine choices, but Thunderstruck is particularly engaging – a cops-and-robbers story of detectives, scientists and murderers caught up in a desperate race to the finish.

6. One Summer / Bill Bryson: Bryson is another established nonfiction master who likely needs little introduction, and whose signature style blends quality research, witty writing and wry humour. Selecting just one of Bryson’s many excellent titles is a challenge, but I have to recommend this brilliant account of a pivotal year in American history. This is history as it should be written – engaging, inspiring, thought-provoking, and absolutely fascinating.

7. The Disappearing Spoon / Sam Kean : Passion, obsession, betrayal, adventure, murder and madness abound in this study of the history behind the development of the periodic table. Think science is boring? Think again.

8. Still Life / Melissa Milgrom : Ready for something a bit off the beaten track? Take a peak inside the weird, wacky and wonderful world of taxidermy.

9. Packing for Mars / Mary Roach : So….how does one use the toilet in space? The wonderfully irreverent Mary Roach tackles this and other fascinating, if not entirely polite, questions about space travel in this hilarious yet informative account. Definitely not for the faint of heart.

10.What If? / Randall Munroe : Brought to you by the mind behind the nerd-favourite web comic XKCD, this collection of short essays uses hard science and a bit of imagination to tackle outlandish theoretical questions, like : what would happen if every human on Earth jumped at the same time? Real science, real humour, real entertainment.

And there you have it – ten nonfiction titles that prove that this genre is anything but boring. Let me know what you think! Did I miss any of your favourites?

What I’ve Been Reading Lately

Still sick but slowly on the mend…this has been one doozy of a month, complete with missing a heart-breaking amount of work. No story times = very unhappy Jane. But at this point there’s nothing I can do but rest, take my medicine, and focus on getting better.

While I love Netflix as much as the next housebound invalid, reading has been what’s truly kept me from losing my mind these past few weeks. Here’s another short list of a few of the books I’ve been devouring on the couch.

52 Loaves / William Alexander

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I have a soft spot for people who dedicate themselves whole-heartedly to inconsequential quests, particularly when those quests are just a little bit ridiculous. In 52 Loaves, William Alexander commits himself to the task of baking the perfect loaf of bread. Much to the bemusement of his family, he decides to bake a loaf of peasant bread every week for an entire yea, hence the 52 loaves. In between baking experiments, Alexander travels to Morocco to bake his dough in a traditional communal oven, makes his own starter using wild yeast, teaches the monks of a French monastery how to bake peasant bread, attends cooking school in Paris, builds his own backyard brick oven, and more, all in the pursuit of perfection. Madcap, hilarious and more than a little bit zany, this light-hearted romp really picked me up when I was feeling pretty sorry for myself sitting in a hospital bed.

The King of Vodka / Linda Himelstein

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Worthy of a film adaptation, this sweeping saga tells the larger-than-life story of Piotr Smirnov, founder of the Smirnov vodka dynasty. Rising from the humblest of origins as a serf in the Russian countryside, Smirnov built an empire in a true rags-to-riches epic. Interspersed with some of the most famous names in Russian history, from Lenin to Tolstoy to Chekhov, and ranging in period from the 1860s to the 20th century, The King of Vodka reveals the incredible story behind this household name.

A Walk in the Woods / Bill Bryson

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There are times, when you’re wallowing in self-pity and blankets, when all you want to do is escape. Somewhere. Anywhere. And ideally have a good laugh while you’re at it. At those times, few authors will serve you better than Bill Bryson. Not only will you get to vicariously travel somewhere new, you’ll have a hilarious time doing so, and you’ll learn a thing or too as well, and feel smarter for having had the experience. In this madcap yet thoughtful memoir, Bryson decides to tackle the 2,000+ mile (estimates vary, as you’ll see in the book) Appalachian Trail, running from Georgia to Maine. Out of shape, middle-aged and neurotic (in the best possible way), Bryson isn’t exactly hiking material, which makes him just the sort of guide most of us can readily relate to. Bryson’s feelings about bears in particular made me laugh out loud, having had a similar close encounter of my own in Yellowstone National Park. Escapist literature at its very best.