BCC recommendations: Nonfiction highlights

If you’re searching for a book that will be a hit with your book club, look no further. We have the inside scoop on must-reads that are sure to please.

Over the past few weeks, dozens of BCC book clubs have sent in reading recommendations in the genres of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and drama.

Here are synopses — culled from publishers’ descriptions, awards citations and the like — of the most-recommended nonfiction titles. For a longer list of nonfiction recommendations, go here.

1. “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,” Anne Fadiman (1997, Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction, “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” examines the conflict between Western and Eastern medicine in contemporary America, and its effects on Lia Lee, a young Hmong girl suffering from epileptic seizures.

Lia’s family — recent immigrants from Laos living in Merced, Calif., — disagreed with American doctors about both her diagnosis and treatment.

The two parties each wanted the best treatment for Lia, but their miscommunications and disparate belief systems created a power struggle with tragic results.

2. “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa,” Adam Hochschild (1998, First Mariner/Houghton Mifflin)

In this multiple-award winner, Hochschild details the ghastly history of the colonization of the vast and largely unexplored territory surrounding the Congo River in the 1880s.

When King Leopold II of Belgium seized what would become the Belgian Congo (later Zaire, currently the Democratic Republic of the Congo), he ruthlessly exploited the land and indigenous people — amassing for himself a fortune worth billions of dollars, and ultimately decimating the population by 10 million.

Employing his mercenary army to force slaves to mine ore and harvest natural rubber, Leopold’s rule of terror entailed burning villages to the ground, meting out sadistic punishments such as dismemberment, and committing mass murder.

The rape of the Congo by the Belgian king continued until 1909, when heroic efforts by Liverpool shipping agent Edmund Morel and others exposed the crimes and launched an international Congo reform movement.

3.  “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America Erik Larson (2003, Crown/Random House)

Winner of the 2004 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime writing, “The Devil in the White City” interweaves the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, chief architect in charge of construction for the 1983 World’s Fair in Chicago, and H.H. Holmes, one of America’s first documented serial killers.

The Columbian Exposition — constructed around a majestic set of brightly illuminated white stucco buildings nicknamed the “White City” — provides the link between Burnham and Holmes.

The planning and staging of the fair by the brilliant and energetic Burnham is juxtaposed with Holmes’ sinister exploitation of the event to commit mass murder at his World’s Fair Hotel — a massive structure he built himself, complete with hidden gas chambers and a crematorium.

4.  “The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court,” Jeffrey Toobin (2007, Anchor/Random House)

Winner of the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, “The Nine” is underpinned by the belief that the general public should understand the inner workings of the most important legal body in the nation.

These life-tenured justices are entrusted with final authority to interpret the Constitution and all federal law, yet their deliberations are private and their alliances, personal squabbling and power struggles are mostly secret from the public.

Through exclusive interviews with the justices themselves and dozens of former law clerks, Toobin links the justices’ backgrounds to their legal opinions on abortion, affirmative action, the death penalty, gay rights and the separation of church and state.

Toobin reminds readers that justices are chosen through a political process for political reasons, and the decisions they reach are inevitably influenced by their ideological commitments and personal experiences.

5.  “The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, Kao Kalia Yang (2008, Coffee House)

An important chronicle of the Hmong immigrant experience, Yang’s memoir recounts her family’s journey from war-torn Laos to an overcrowded refugee camp in Thailand to the United States.

Eventually settling in St. Paul, Minn., Yang’s family struggled to adapt to a new language and a community that was often uninformed and unwelcoming. Coming from a non-Christian rainforest culture, the Hmong immigrants faced difficulties that were only compounded by their lack of a written language.

After the death of her grandmother, whose spirit held the family together, Yang was inspired to record and share her family history. This book is, in many ways, an homage to her.

Monday: BCC members share their poetry and drama recommendations.

To share your book club reads — good or bad — email aotto[at]minnpost[dot]com.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Sue Halligan on 08/10/2010 - 06:04 am.

    This is fun! My book club, which has been existence about 20 years now (we all went to high school together), has read #s 1, 3, & 5. (I personally have read the other two, but would probably not have gotten the rest of the book club to agree to them as choices.) This month we are reading Oliver Sacks’ latest, MUSICOPHILIA; he’s a favorite of ours.

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