BEST OF MY BOOKSHELF: Nonfiction Edition

Editor’s Note:  Books chosen to review or recommend not based on endorsements.  I purchase my own books with cold, hard cash or find for FREE through my dear old local public library.  I write about books that I like and believe that others might also.  If you would like to purchase a book that I have recommended, please consider using the Amazon affiliate link provided (click picture).  Happy reading!

Let’s review, friends.  I know my role here.  I am no New York Times Review of Books.  I am a girl that likes some books and would be delighted if you tried them for yourself, if you are so inclined.  For more on this, click here.  If nonfiction is not your bag, check out the Best of My Bookshelf, Fiction Edition.

So, without further ado, I humbly offer to you


The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser

I’m a rabbit hole reader.  To understand more about this, (click here).  I love delving headlong into a topic and exploring it from all kind of angles.  After spending a couple of weeks with the fictionalized versions of the players at the court of Henry VIII, I resolved to learn the real skinny.  Fraser’s The Wives of Henry VIII provided just the ticket for my passage to OBSESSION TOWN.  She dives deeply into each of his wives’ lives and investigates how and why they were chosen by Henry.  Fraser also explores their relationships with one another and articulates each woman's worldview.  Fascinating, to say the least.  These ladies were fully realized women, some pawns in the hands of powerful men, others crafty and ambitious in their own right.  There is so much more to Catherine, Anne, Jane, Anne, Kathryn, and Catherine (methinks Henry had a THING for Catherines?) than the rhyme “divorced, beheaded, died. . . divorced, beheaded, survived” suggests.   An educational and very interesting read. . .the perfect end to the summer of Henry VIII.


Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
His name is Alexander Hamilton. 

His name is Alexander Hamilton.  There are a million things he hasn’t done.

But just you wait. 

Just you wait.

Ron Chernow’s thoughtful, thorough, compelling and LENGTHY book explores the life of the misunderstood, brilliant, prolific, self-destructive, and ultimately doomed Hamilton, America’s frequently forgotten founding father.  Spending time with Hamilton and his contemporaries was one of the highlights of my year.  We think politics is rough now? Cruel?  Lacking decorum and civility?  HA!  That’s nothing compared to what these men did to each other while designing the structure of our nation.  For all their lofty ideals, when the chips were down, these founding fathers weren’t afraid to play DIRTY.  (Except General Washington, naturally).     

Now, I knew Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rap, blues, jazz, and ballad infused musical based on Chernow’s doorstop of a biography was Tony-Award winning and a big giant deal, but I had NO REAL CLUE what a TREAT it was when my mother surprised my sister and me with tickets to see the show.  I avoided listening to the score, as I wanted to be as fresh as possible for the live event, but happily indulged in the book, as I wanted to have a sense of the story.  And what a story it is. 

The quintessential immigrant, Hamilton, brilliant, orphaned, and penniless, uses his pen and his personality to incite revolution.  He rapidly found himself serving as an aide-de-camp to General Washington, Secretary of the Treasury, creator of our modern financial system, visionary for the army, founder of the Coast Guard. . .need I go on?  Thanks to Chernow and Miranda, we can all be transfixed through words and music by Hamilton's extraordinary story.  It has everything. . . poverty, power, politics, position, passion, and premature demise.  I promise, you will love this book.  Just you wait.  Just you wait!


Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill by Gretchen Rubin

This is a gem.  Rubin organizes Churchill’s remarkable life into forty succinct chapters that examine various aspects of Churchill's life, including his view of history, the world and himself, how he transformed throughout his life, the myths surrounding him, his fitness for office, how others perceived him, and his infamous “Black Dog” of depression.  Rubin often presents contrasting views on a given topic, citing significant historical references to support both points of view (for example, Churchill as an alcoholic:  yes or no?).  This balanced construct allows the reader to form his or her own opinions from the carefully researched cases presented.  A smart, quick read, Rubin’s book paints a balanced, yet nuanced, portrait of one of history’s most colorful and influential characters.  (To explore Rubin’s groundbreaking books on happiness and habits, click here and here and here).


Hillbilly Elegy:  A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis  by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy was recommended to me by two of my favorite readers (and favorite people!), and I wholeheartedly echo their endorsements.  This first hand account of a self-proclaimed hillbilly will open your eyes, and more importantly, your heart, to a culture that tends to goes unseen by mainstream America.  The broad expanse of our geography and our different races and religions create many sub-cultures within the wider American context that, all too often, seldom interact, leading to misunderstanding at best and mistrust at worst. 

J.D. Vance invites us into his world of colorful, loving, violent, flawed, kind, and fascinating hillbillies who shaped him into who he is now, a military veteran and Yale-educated lawyer.  His family was loving and scary in equal measure, so much so that when Vance was recruited for the Marines, the officer in charge of his case noted that boot camp would be breeze after being raised by his fearsome grandmother.  Vance reveals the lack of agency present in his culture, with the resulting lack of hope, which “is distinct from the larger economic landscape of modern America” (p. 7). Vance's careful examination of the motives, perceptions, and cultural mores are neither romanticized or patronized; rather, he simply, eloquently, and honestly tells us his tale, one that helps part the curtain on a culture that feels ignored by most of America society.


Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living by Shauna Niequist

This book was a giant, much needed exhale for a woman who didn’t even know she was holding her breath.  In a series of essays, Niequist takes us through her journey from fleeing a frantic way of life and explains how and why slowing down, saying no, and disappointing the right people can transform the hurly-burly of our modern lives into one with greater peace, connection, and joy. 

A pleaser and performer by nature, Niequist slowly was becoming someone who, in the pursuit of incredible productivity, became numb to her soul and the abundant LIFE that was to be found within her own small world.  No, she did not move to some rural enclave where there are no trappings of modern life, no hustle, no logistics, and no commitments.  From her home in the suburbs of Chicago, the belly of the beast, Niequist, like a wise friend who has emerged from the other side of the fire, implores her readers to just STOP.  Stop proving and performing.  Do what you were made to do at the speed that you were made to do it.  She reminds us that we are loved, not for what we do, but because we are children of God. Spend some time with Niequist, and you too may just stop holding your breath.   


We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

FEMINIST.  This is a loaded word in our culture, perhaps never more so than the present.  I realized I was long overdue for refresher about the notion of feminism, so I picked up this timely, slim, and eloquent treatise, an expanded version of Adiche's famous TEDx Talk.

The other day, one of my sons and I were having a discussion about a teacher’s perspective on a national issue.  My poor, hapless, unsuspecting boy stated derisively that this teacher was a “FEMINIST,” to which my husband quickly responded, “So am I.  So is Mom.  What do you think it means to be a feminist?”  Out poured a slew of misconceptions and culturally-sanctioned rhetoric that shocked me, and frankly, had nothing to do with the issue we were discussing.  Feminism can be a contentious idea that people still, despite years of cultural dialogue, have difficulty understanding.  And to be honest, so do I sometimes.  It is a LOADED concept.  Fortunately, I was armed with Adiche’s simple, and at times, very funny words to help us find some clarity. 

Adiche, the author of the award winning novels Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun, describes what it actually means to be a feminist, “a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes” (p.47).  (Unlike the rhetoric that has been bandied about recently, Adiche contends that your stance on pro-life/pro-choice policies does not include or exclude you from the feminist club.  I appreciate this position).  She also explores the misconceptions and cultural constraints surrounding the concept of feminism from the unique perspective a woman who resides both in Nigeria and the United States.  During a time when labels are thrown around in ways that are meant to divide rather than unite us, I believe it is helpful to understand the people and the stories that embody these labels.  Adiche does this brilliantly.  


How to Celebrate Everything by Jenny Rosenstrach

Jenny Rosenstrach is a DELIGHT.  Her first book, Dinner:  A Love Story  (see review here) chronicled the recipes and stories of how family dinner became the organizing principle of her marriage, family, traditions, and life.  Her most current book, How to Celebrate Everything, follows this same formula, with delicious, poignant, and heartwarming stories and recipes to take you through the whole year.  From birthdays to New Year’s Eve and everything in between, Rosenstrach inspires the reader to make both ordinary and special occasions something to celebrate. Try her chocolate pudding pie.  THE BEST.  (And the easiest, cheater-ish, most delicious pie in the entire world!  Shh. . . it involves STORE BOUGHT CRUST).


Squash, Boom, Beet:  An Alphabet for Healthy, Adventurous Eaters by Lisa Maxbauer Price

This GORGEOUS, vibrant, creative book by Price, (who has both NORTHERN MICHIGAN and SAINT MARY'S COLLEGE street cred. . .HOLLA!) has become a hit in our house.  Through striking photographs, the book introduces young children to a slew of mouthwatering vegetables, linking them with the alphabet and cleverly worded text.  It definitely has started conversations around here about what to grown in our garden this summer (Easter egg radishes, anyone?) and helps promote more adventurous eating.  (Still can't get brussels sprouts past them.  Sheesh).  Price's book is a great gift for the reluctant eaters in your life, of any age. 

HAPPY READING, friends!  What reading adventures await you?  


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