5 Nonfiction Big Books I Loved

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Since I read a lot more fiction than nonfiction, it’s not surprising that all of my earlier Big Books lists have included only novels. However, in looking over my reading lists of the past several years, I discovered five nonfiction works that qualify as Big Books.

I thought I’d find more, but many of the potential candidates I looked at checked in at around 450 pages. I even found one of 497 pages that I was tempted to include, but I finally decided that, since “500 pages or more” is my working definition of the term Big Book, I should stick to that definition here as well.


Truman by David McCullough
Hardcover, 1116 pages

trumanHow could I not love a man who taught himself Latin while driving a horse-drawn plow back and forth across the fields of his family’s farm?

The best writers of creative nonfiction use novelistic techniques to develop characters, create settings, interject background material, and pace action in service to telling a compelling story. David McCullough is one of those writers. I’ve loved every one of his books that I’ve read, but he is at his outstanding best in this biography of the simple man from Missouri who lead the United States through one of its most crucial periods. Here’s how Goodreads describes the subject of this biography:

The last president to serve as a living link between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, Truman’s story spans the raw world of the Missouri frontier, World War I, the powerful Pendergast machine of Kansas City, the legendary Whistle-Stop Campaign of 1948, and the decisions to drop the atomic bomb, confront Stalin at Potsdam, send troops to Korea, and fire General MacArthur.

Truman is both an outstanding historical document and a literary masterpiece.


Lindbergh by A. Scott Berg
Hardcover, 640 pages

lindberghLike McCullough, Berg tells a masterful story of his subject’s life.

However, Charles Lindbergh isn’t as easy a subject to portray as Harry Truman. The same qualities that made Lindbergh a brilliant, dedicated, and persevering achiever also made him difficult to live with. For example, when he tried to play with his children, he developed games with such arduous and fussy rules that they were not games at all, but rather overwhelming tasks that the children dreaded and resented.

Nonetheless, Berg compellingly portrays what Goodreads calls “the life of one of the nation’s most legendary, controversial, and enigmatic figures.”


Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
Paperback, 500 pages

unbrokenHere’s yet another brilliant biography compellingly told. Laura Hillenbrand, whose earlier book Seabiscuit does not quite qualify as a Big Book, recounts the life of Louis Zamperini.

As a boy, Zamperini was a delinquent whose activities included breaking into houses, getting into fights, and running away from home to ride the freight rails. As a teenager, he channeled his rebellion into running and became successful enough to participate in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he placed eighth in the 5000 m race.

When World War II arrived, Zamperini went off to fight. In 1943 he was the bombardier on a plane that crashed into the Pacific Ocean. He managed to survive in thousands of miles of open ocean by clinging to a tiny life raft. Later he bacame a prisoner of war, where he inspired his fellow prisoners with his refusal to give in to the brutal conditions and torture imposed by their captors.

Zamperini died in 2014 at the age of 97.


Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon – and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller
Hardcover, 584 pages

girls like usI grew up with the music of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon. Although—or perhaps because—I never knew much about their lives, I was drawn to Weller’s book.

Here’s Goodreads’ description of the book’s content:

Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon remain among the most enduring and important women in popular music. Each woman is distinct. Carole King is the product of outer-borough, middle-class New York City; Joni Mitchell is a granddaughter of Canadian farmers; and Carly Simon is a child of the Manhattan intellectual upper crust. They collectively represent, in their lives and their songs, a great swath of American girls who came of age in the late 1960s. Their stories trace the arc of the now mythic sixties generation – female version – but in a bracingly specific and deeply recalled way, far from cliche. The history of the women of that generation has never been written – until now, through their resonant lives and emblematic songs.

This eminently readable book helped me understand that pivotol decade, the 1960s, much better than I had while living through it.


The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
Paperback, 592 pages

feminine mystiquePublished in 1963, this ground-breaking work described “the problem that has no name.” Without knowing exactly what to call it, Friedan had discovered that smothered feeling women felt because of unquestioned social beliefs that urged them to be content with home and family, and of institutions of higher learning that minimized their intellectual potential by turning homemaking into a glorified academic discipline.

 

Writing in a time when the average woman first married in her teens and 60 percent of women students dropped out of college to marry, Betty Friedan captured the frustrations and thwarted ambitions of a generation and showed women how they could reclaim their lives.

Source: Goodreads

I read this book back in college in the late 1960s, but I appreciated it much more when I reread it just a few years ago.


© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

I am a feminist and I’ve never read ‘The Feminine Mystique’ till now (Emily Bazelon, Slate) | syracuse.com

I am a feminist and I’ve never read ‘The Feminine Mystique’ till now (Emily Bazelon, Slate) | syracuse.com.

Here’s another article that I missed when compiling today’s Monday Miscellany.

Monday Miscellany

50 Years of The Feminine Mystique

Photo of Betty Friedan
AP photo

This week’s 50th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s ground-breaking work The Feminine Mystique has generated lots of commentary. Here’s a sampling.

The Skeptical Early Reviews of Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’

In truth, The Feminine Mystique‘s 50-year shelf life got off to a somewhat rocky start. While many book critics immediately recognized the potential in Friedan’s book when it was released in 1963, some remained skeptical. Some detractors said it was too alarmist, others said it was too complacent—and one even complained that Friedan went too far in asserting that average girl wouldn’t rather be at home putting cream on her face. That last guy probably has a few regrets.

As these examples illustrate, pioneering work is usually recognized only in retrospect.

‘Anger Boiled Up, and Betty Friedan Was There’: ‘Feminine Mystique’ at 50

Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which turns 50 next month, transformed the lives of women across America. In the early ’60s, Friedan, a self-identified homemaker, interviewed fellow Smith graduates for an alumni survey. She noticed an alarming pattern of dissatisfaction. Despite the fact that many of these women had achieved the domestic life they’d wished for—a home in the suburbs complete with modern appliances, children, and a bread-winning husband—they were miserable. It was a “silent problem,” Friedan wrote. “Why should women accept this picture of a half-life, instead of a share in the whole of human destiny?”

Why Gender Equality Stalled

In this opinion piece in The New York Times Stephanie Coontz argues that The Feminine Mystique “had the impact it did because it focused on transforming women’s personal consciousness”:

Friedan set out to transform the attitudes of women. Arguing that “the personal is political,” feminists urged women to challenge the assumption, at work and at home, that women should always be the ones who make the coffee, watch over the children, pick up after men and serve the meals.

Over the next 30 years this emphasis on equalizing gender roles at home as well as at work produced a revolutionary transformation in Americans’ attitudes.

Why ‘The Feminine Mystique’ is Still Worth Reading in 2013

Nanette Fondas asserts:

Today, reading this classic feels like sitting down for a long talk with your wise, feminist grandmother to learn her generation’s ideas on how to compose a life that’s meaningful and fruitful. But revisiting the book to understand what Friedan was saying—what exactly she meant by a “feminine mystique”—reveals a logical and passionate argument that’s still relevant today: All people, including women with children, deserve to pursue work that helps fulfill their human potential.