The 2021 Nonfiction Challenge Part I: Prizewinners & Nominees

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The 2021 Nonfiction Challenge Part I: Prizewinners & Nominees

Dic 30, 2020, 9:17pm

Welcome -- or welcome back -- to the non-fiction challenge, designed to remind us that amidst the flood of books arriving on our TBR lists almost daily, there are some great non-fiction offerings, and give us the push we need to read some of 'em sooner rather than later!

Each month, we'll have the chance to read books tied to some kind of theme: occasionally these will be thematic (an era, a geographic location, a topic of interest) and other months will be devoted to a specific category of non-fiction, such as biography, history, nature or science. If you don't see a topic you love on the calendar for this year, don't worry. Just let me know and it will go on the shortlist for 2022. Also, remember that you can be tremendously creative (within some limits...) in what you select to fit into each category. And we traditionally reserve December for a kind of free-for-all reading month.

For the fourth year in a row, we will kick off the reading year exploring books that have been nominated for or won some kind of literary award or distinction. This could have happened in any year, and the book(s) you choose could have been on a shortlist or longlist. The award can be based in any country, and include books written in any language. The only conditions are that it be a work of non-fiction published in book form (so, no non-fiction magazine articles that won Pulitzers; no novels) and that it have been listed as being nominated for or winning an award. (In other words, those long lists of "best books of 2020/2019/2018" that newspapers publish don't count: there's no jury process determining eventual "winners" in these roundups.)

I hope we'll all enjoy a much better 2021 than 2020 proved to be, and that even those of us still needing to socially distance ourselves will find the bandwidth to plunge in and read along! Here's hoping you are hit by lots of book bullets....

Editado: Ene 5, 9:29pm

What we're reading this month:

Editado: Dic 30, 2020, 9:18pm

Planning your 2021 nonfiction reading:

The challenges for the coming months:

A new category. Martin Luther King Day is celebrated in January and Black History Month is in February, and with the increasingly intensive push for social justice, this clearly is an overdue subject for a deep dive. Read about anything involving social justice and minorities of any kind, from Black Americans or indigenous peoples, to the LGBTQ community or the Rohingya in Myanmar.

Kinda self-explanatory. We all need a place of refuge, especially these days. Dial down the intensity. Read a book about walking, about philosophy, about cooking, about gardening. Whatever helps you cope with the stress.

A new category. Read a book about any ancient civilization. Now, ancient will come up for debate. In Western Europe, I'll set this as the year of Rome's sacking by the Ostrogoths in 546 A.D. In the Americas, any pre-Colombian civilization, from the Incas to the Iroquois (in the historical context, not looking at their lives today...) In China -- well, I'm open for ideas? Before 1000 CE? You can read biographies, history, sweeping looks at civilizations and so on.


A repeat category. Your choice of reading material has to fall into one of these categories. You can read a book by Gerald Durrell about his animal collecting adventures (animal) or a book about the energy industry (mineral). You can read that book about the history of the tomato (vegetable).

New for 2021. People make all kinds of discoveries all the time. Some are scientific. Some are philosophical. Others (the most contested kind, historically speaking) are geographic. Did Europeans "discover" the Americas? The continent was new to them but obviously not to its prior inhabitants. You can read a book about what geographic discoveries shouldn't carry that label, or about Captain Cook's voyages of exploration. Because discoveries can be personal journeys, as well.

Another new category. Read a book about any specific city, large or small (eg Maximum City, about Mumbai) by Suketu Mehta, or read a book about a group of cities or about city life in general, in history or in the present. There's a new book by James and Deborah Fallows called Our Towns, for instance.

Yet another new entrant! As suggested by Benita. Planes, trains, automobiles, boats, on foot. How do we get from point A to point B and why? You can read a book by someone walking the length of Scotland and England, or a book about flying planes (like Beryl Markham's tome) or something about how self-driving cars will change the world. Or about shipping routes and trade.

Coming back in 2021... Focus on anything that involves creativity or creators. Read about Shakespeare's plays and how they have been performed worldwide. Read about how novelists get their ideas or musicians are inspired.

Another comeback category, and it's really a closeted biography category. Instead of just reading any bio, though, read a bio or memoir about someone who inspires you (RBG?) or someone you loathe (Hitler? Stalin?) Or someone you think you know about but want to be sure they qualify for your pantheon of heroes or your list of villains.

Kind of a catch-all category. By this point in 2021, we should have some idea of what the post-pandemic economy will look like. So, read any book about economic or business issues, and the policy questions that they create for politicians and citizens. From data security to minimum living wages, to the stock market.

A perennial. And a great place for that quirky, one-of-a-kind nonfiction book that simply doesn't fit anywhere else.

Editado: Dic 30, 2020, 9:25pm

Where to look for prizewinning books:

I've pretty much just cut and pasted the list I posted last year. If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know, but this should be a great place to start.

U.S. National Book Awards

Baillie Gifford Prize, formerly Samuel Johnson Prize
An Odyssey: A Father, a Son and An Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn; The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre; Negroland by Margo Jefferson

Pulitzer Prizes -- general nonfiction
Random titles: An American Abroad in a Post-American World by Suzy Hansen; Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.

PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award

Wellcome Book Prize -- mixed fiction/nonfiction

The Orwell Prize -- 2017 longlist -- includes some fiction
Recent nominees include What You Did Not Tell by Mark Mazower and Islamic Enlightenment by Christophe de Bellaigue

Andrew Carnegie Medals of Excellence
Educated by Tara Westover; The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú, The Poisoned City by Anna Clark (about Flint, Mich.), The Feather Thief by Kirk Johnson Wallace, Dopesick by Beth Macy

Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards
(Where the Wild Winds Are by Nick Hunt; also Border by Kapka Kassabova. The Epic City, about Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury.

Los Angeles Times book prizes -- any non-fiction category
The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan, Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean

Royal Society prize
Testosterone Rex by Cordelia Fine

And there's a bio category for the Costa prize (used to be Whitbread).
In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott; H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald; Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

the Wainwright Prize
Books (with a focus on England) about nature, the outdoors, and English-focused travel.
The Seabird's Cry by Adam Nicolson

The J. Anthony Lukas Prize Project
The Nieman School at Harvard and the Columbia Journalism School award two book prizes each year to published works and one to works in progress.

The Frederick Douglass Prize
Awarded to books writing about the themes of slavery, abolition, resistance, etc.

The Phi Beta Kappa Society Awards
Rather academic in nature; includes books like Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder or Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan (winners of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award, one of the categories). Siddhartha Mukherjee won their science award for his book on the gene; there's also an award for literary criticism.

The Chatauqua Prize
NOTE: The nominees include both fiction and non-fiction, so do your due diligence!! The prize goes to "a book of fiction or literary/narrative nonfiction that provides a richly rewarding reading experience and honors the author for a significant contribution to the literary arts."
(examples, Why Read Moby Dick by Nathaniel Philbrick; In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King, It's What I Do by Lynsey Addorio.)

Hilary Weston Writers Trust Prize for Non-Fiction
Awarded to a top work of non-fiction by a Canadian author -- All Things Consoled by Elizabeth Hay, a memoir, by a great Canadian novelist. Nominees in recent past include Mad Enchantment by Ross King, about Monet and his water lily paintings, Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga, an indigenous writer, about racism; Pumpkinflowers by Matti Friedman, A Disappearance in Damascus by Deborah Campbell and a book about the Arctic by novelist Kathleen Winter, Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage.

The Financial Times & McKinsey Business Book of the Year
Formerly the Financial Times & Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year. Titles like Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb; Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg; McMafia by Misha Glenny, Dragnet Nation by Julia Angwin and More Money Than God by Sebastian Mallaby.

Dic 30, 2020, 9:43pm

What I'll (hopefully) be reading:

Elderhood by Louise Aronson (multiple award nominations for 2020)

Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked their lives to Defy the Nazis by Jeffrey Jackson (longlist, Andrew Carnegie Medal)

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson (ditto)

The King of Confidence by Miles Harvey (ditto)

The Bells of Old Tokyo by Anna Sherman (Stanford travel prize, longlist
Dark Salt Clear by Larmona Ash (Wainwright nature writing prize, shortlist)

Dic 30, 2020, 9:58pm

I need to read They Were Her Property for a book club meeting in early February, so I'll plan to read it this month. It won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History and the Merle Curti Award.

Dic 30, 2020, 9:58pm

I love this category. I use it to read one of the winners of the American Bar Associations Silver Gavel Award. I have read some really good books that I would not have if I hadn't stubbled across the Silver Gavel Award. Last year's book that I read for this category was Black in Selma: The Uncommon Life of J. L. Chestnut, Jr. by J. L. Chestnut, Jr. and this book made my personal list top books of the year. The year before I read Minnesota Rag about the Supreme Court case regarding freedom of the press. It was not the easiest reading book ever, but I learned from it. In 2018 I read American Insurrection and that was another winner. I would have not read any of these books without the prompting from this category.

Dic 30, 2020, 10:17pm

I am going to start the year by reading Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices by Noah Feldman. It was the winner of several awards when it was published back in 2011. It won the Silver Gavel Award and the SCRIBES Book Award in 2011. Both awards given for legal works. It was also a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and it made the New York Times Notable Nonfiction Book of the Year list in 2010.

This is a long book - 528 pages, so I think it will be the only one I will read for this month. It will be the only one I commit to reading. Scorpions is a book about FDR's struggles with the Supreme Court when he came into office and how and who he appointed judges. It is also about the judges themselves and how they evolved during the 12 years FDR was in office.

If I get time I will read Jury: Trial and Error in the American Courtroom by Stephen J. Adler. This book is also a Silver Gavel Award winner in 1995. This book is 285 pages. This is also a book I can hang over to next month's category if I have to as it is about the need for jury reform. This is a title I ran across when I was reading Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko. When I researched the title, I was surprised to find that it had won the Silver Gavel Award, so immediately put it on the list to read for this category.

Dic 30, 2020, 10:44pm

Excellent mix of categories this year!

I recently ordered The Seabird's Cry, so I'll try to read that in January. I'd like to read more of my own books and more nonfiction in 2021, so this will be a great way to start on both of those projects.

Editado: Dic 30, 2020, 11:15pm

>8 benitastrnad: Steve Adler! My former WSJ colleague and a lovely guy. Hope you get around to reading that one...

>9 libraryperilous: I really, really loved The Seabird's Cry. I have the latest book by Adam Nicolson, about the Romantic poets, on hand to read early in 2021.

Dic 31, 2020, 4:30am

I’m currently reading Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns by Kerry Hudson. In 2019 it was shortlisted for the Saltire Society Scottish Non-Fiction Book of the Year and was long listed for the Portico Prize (a prize which goes to books which evoke the spirit of the North of England). Not the biggest prizes I know, but still ...

I may also read Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty which won the 2020 Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing, the Hay Festival Book of the Year 2020, the An Post Irish Book, and been shortlisted for pretty much everything it qualifies for.

Editado: Dic 31, 2020, 4:32am

Este mensaje fue borrado por su autor.

Dic 31, 2020, 1:29pm

I've got two I'm hoping to read this month: Toms River by Dan Fagin, which won the Pulitzer in 2014, and Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J Lee, which won the Hilary West Writers Trust Prize for Non-Fiction in 2020.

Dic 31, 2020, 2:50pm

>13 Jackie_K: - I had not heard of the Jessica Lee book until I saw a wonderful interview with her on our local tv. I will see if my library has a copy as I, too, really want to read her book. If I can find the link, I will post the interview for you. I really enjoyed it.

Ok, my library has it but there are over 100 holds ahead of me. So, it won't be my January read. ;-)

Dic 31, 2020, 3:22pm

Book bullet with the Jessica Lee tome. I was able to add it to my UK Kindle for an affordable price! I recall that her previous book, about swimming Berlin's lakes, was deemed underwhelming by a lot of people, but this is one award list that I find persuasive.

Dic 31, 2020, 4:33pm

>13 Jackie_K: - Tom's River was on my short list to read this month. It may still make the cut.

I am planning to read Triangle: The Fire that Changed America by David Von Drehle, which won the New York City Book Award in 2003.

Dic 31, 2020, 4:39pm

>14 jessibud2: >15 Chatterbox: I follow Jessica J Lee on Twitter, she is very active in 'writing twitter', and very much championing diversity and accessibility in nature writing. She's also written a PhD thesis based on Hampstead Heath, which I'm keen to read.

>16 katiekrug: Toms River has been on my short list the last 2 or 3 years - I thought this year was finally its time!

Editado: Dic 31, 2020, 5:08pm

I’ll be trying to complete Will in the World and Behind the Beautiful Forevers this month.

When Breath Becomes Air is a third volume I hope to get to.

Pretty sure about the first and third, truly hoping to finish the second.

Dic 31, 2020, 5:29pm

I'll be reading Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence which won the American Book Award in 2013.

Dic 31, 2020, 6:21pm

I’m starting In the Garden of Beasts today shortlisted for the 2012 Chatauqua Prize - and on my Overdrive wishlist for far too long.

Dic 31, 2020, 6:37pm

>20 drneutron: I liked that one, Jim. I imagine it will seem especially relevant these days.

Ene 1, 12:54am

>20 drneutron: I thought that was excellent -- I'd love to re-read it at some point soonish.

Ene 1, 11:10am

I'm going to see if I'm more successful this year. The Bells of Old Tokyo is on the top of the pile, so I will go with that.

Great list, thanks for running this again.

Ene 1, 11:29am

One look at the titles that everyone is going to read and I took several book bullets.

>13 Jackie_K:
I like to read nature writing so added Two Trees Make a Forest and Tom's River to my growing TBR list.

>23 Caroline_McElwee:
I added Bells of Old Tokyo also.

Ene 1, 1:45pm

Happy 2021 Reading!

I've just completed Pulitzer winner
FOUNDING BROTHERS: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph Ellis.

Ene 1, 2:27pm

Excited to jump back into this challenge in 2021. I will be finishing up Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which won the Pulitzer and the Lincoln Prize.

I will undoubtedly find some other books to add as well.

Editado: Ene 2, 3:40am

>25 m.belljackson: I am currently reading His Excellency: George Washington by Ellis, and am enjoying it. Library of Virginia Literary Award Finalist, 2005, so should fit in this challenge.

Ene 1, 11:21pm

I'm going to try to finish a non-fiction book from 2020, Gateway to Freedom by Eric Foner. It won the New York Historical Society American History Book Prize in 2015, and I'm not surprised. It's about the Underground Railroad and efforts to rescue fugitive slaves, mainly in New York so far but more generally in the northeast. I wanted to read Foner's Reconstruction but this one was sitting in the library.

Am seeing lots of other great American history recs in this thread already.

>20 drneutron: Jim - I bought In the Garden of Beasts 9 years ago when we were living in Switzerland - still remember the Berlin bookshop where I got it too - and I haven't read it yet! Might have to move it from the bookshelf to the pile by the bed...

Ene 2, 8:53am

>20 drneutron: - In the Garden of Beasts was pretty good, but it's my least favorite of the Larsons that I've read. I found it got a bit repetitive. Still, it was fascinating in parts.

Ene 2, 3:57pm

>29 katiekrug: have you read his book about the Lusitania? I think that's one of my favorites.

Ene 2, 4:44pm

>30 Chatterbox: - Yes! I liked that I e, too,though so far Isaac's Storm is my favorite.

Ene 2, 6:33pm

I'm going to try to finally get to The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold which won the Baillie Gifford Prize a few years ago.

Ene 3, 9:09am

I started 1493 It seems to have been named as a Time Magazine book of the year. But is this an official award?

Ene 4, 2:29pm

I've already started reading Caste so I'll count it towards this month's challenge. It's very readable.

Ene 4, 2:56pm

In addition to Team of Rivals I'm also going to try to read:
When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi (Pulitzer finalist and Wellcome Trust shortlist 2017) and The Hemingses of Monticello - Annette Gordon-Brown (National Book Award, 2008, Pultizer (History) 2009)

Ene 4, 7:41pm

I am loving Elderhood. Big, big shout out to that book, which is on track to be my first five-star read of 2021...

Ene 4, 8:34pm

I’m really enjoying Stuff Matters, written by a materials engineer. It won the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books.

Ene 5, 5:28pm

>37 karspeak: oh, I loved that one; it got a rare 4 1/2 stars from me.

Ene 5, 5:35pm

>That sounds really good, must look into it...

Ene 5, 9:35pm

>33 EllaTim: I'm really sorry, but "best books" lists, as I noted in the intro, don't count toward this month's challenge. Basically, these are lists compiled by reviewers and book editors, rather than books selected by juries. Sure, there's a lot of overlap both in terms of concept and in terms of the reality of which books are included on both, but a title like 1493 wouldn't qualify for this month, as best as I can tell. It would work for June (Discoveries) or possibly the Animal, Vegetable, Mineral challenge -- but don't let this consideration stop you from reading it this month if it's sitting there begging to be read!!

Ene 5, 9:58pm

>40 Chatterbox: His first book 1491 did win an award— the National Academies Communication Award. But I don’t believe 1493 did. I really liked 1491 but was disappointed by 1493. I still plan to read, or at least skim, his later book The Wizard and the Prophet at some point.

Ene 7, 12:24am

I finally got a good start on my book for this month. Noah Feldman the author of Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices is a good storyteller. I am enjoying reading about Felix Frankfurter. Right now he is defending the Communist's and Anarchist's during the Red Scare after WWI. I had forgotten all about the attempted bombing of one of the U. S. Attorney General Palmer's home in Washington, D. C. back in 1919.

Editado: Ene 7, 9:02am

>40 Chatterbox: Thanks, Suzanne. I am still reading, and finding it interesting. As it is a big tome, it is very possible that it will take time to finish it.

Finding something new to read for this month won't be easy though. Library is closed. Must have a look-around.

>41 karspeak: I just finished the chapter on Columbus, very early in the book. Did you write a review?

Editado: Ene 7, 10:11pm

>43 EllaTim: Here is my review of 1493, from waaay back in 2012.

I really enjoyed 1491, the author's previous book, but this one dragged on and on for me without offering up much new information. So, I gave up around page 250 then skimmed the rest.

Some of the author's main points:
1. Slavery from Africa became popular in the Americas because the American Indians and Europeans were dropping like flies from malaria. Most Africans were already resistant to most malaria strains, so they could withstand it.
2. The silver from the Potosi mine in South America fueled international trade. China wanted silver to bolster their currency, and Europe wanted their silks and porcelain. Spain controlled the silver mine. Voila, global trade is born.
3. Tobacco, rubber, and sugar cane also become important exports from the Americas.
4. China started growing sweet potatoes and corn (imported from the Americas) like crazy. They could be grown in poor soil, which eventually led to deforestation then erosion, which, combined with currency inflation because of too much silver, contributed to the destabilization of the government at that time.
5. The cultivation of potatoes (from America) led to Europe not going through cycles of starvation, for the first time. Except for the Irish potato famine, of course. But overall it led to population increases across Europe.

The author's historical research is excellent, but I was hoping for more new theories or concepts. If you love detailed history books, this might be for you, but I felt that the author never delivered on his premise that the the sudden intersection of the people, other fauna, and flora of the inhabited continents shaped history as we know it.

Ene 8, 8:20am

>44 karspeak: Thanks! I've just read this part that you are referring to. For me it was nearly all new and interesting. It probably matters a lot where you are coming from. I dropped history in high school because I found it boring. We heard a lot from the Dutch perspective (I'm Dutch). So for instance the Spanish silver was covered, but only as part of the ongoing warfare. The Spanish Armada. This global perspective is new to me, and I'm finding it very interesting. It's like I have seen small parts of a puzzle, and he's filling it out for me. I guess you have more background than I did.

Ene 8, 9:31am

Finished In the Garden of Beasts yesterday. Mostly, I think it was a good read, and one that offered a unique perspective of the event in Germany during 1933-1934, when Hitler was consolidating power. It was astonishing to me how much events in real life over the last few days and weeks paralleled what Larson was writing about.

My main criticism is that the book was so focused on the 1933-34 years, then in the last few chapters just kind of glossed over the remaining few years of Dodd's ambassadorship. It seemed a bit of a letdown after the buildup. Still, this one's worth reading.

Ene 8, 11:01am

>46 drneutron: If you'd like to read a short historical novel about the consolidation of Hitler's power, I can't recommend The Order of the Day too highly.

A quote with particular relevance to this week:

"This great jumble of misery, in which horrific events are already taking shape, is dominated by a mysterious respect for lies. Political maneuvering tramples facts." (116)

Ene 8, 3:53pm

>45 EllaTim: That makes sense, I’m glad you are enjoying it! I have an odd fascination with the history of various foods, and I’m guessing my previous reading on that topic is what had actually taught me a lot of the material in 1493.

Ene 8, 4:36pm

>47 libraryperilous: On the list it goes!

Ene 8, 8:26pm

>48 karspeak: I can understand that kind of fascination!

Ene 9, 10:18pm

Stuff Matters (LT rec)
This was written by a materials scientist about some of the common substances in our world such as concrete, chocolate, paper, graphite, and porcelain. I am completely amazed that he made this book so interesting and enjoyable while simultaneously deftly explaining complex scientific concepts. This was one of those rare books that takes a topic that usually wouldn't interest me and keeps me absorbed cover to cover.

Ene 10, 8:17pm

>51 karspeak: That sounds like a good one! Will see if I can find it, for this month's reading.

Ene 10, 10:47pm

Editado: Ene 11, 6:19pm

Este mensaje fue borrado por su autor.

Ene 11, 12:19pm

>51 karspeak: I agree Mark Miodownik managed to make a rather mundane subject quite interesting. That was a fun read for me. Glad to hear you liked it, too.

Editado: Ene 12, 12:32pm

A bit late to this month's challenge but I just started Mordecai & Me: An Appreciation of a Kind, by Montrealer Joel Yanofsky. It was published in 2004, and won the Canadian Jewish Book Award and the Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-Fiction. Part literary appreciation/biography, part memoir, it is quite engaging so far. I recently found out that the author, Yanofsky, died a few weeks ago of cancer. He was 2 years younger than me, 2 years older than my brother, so we never knew him personally, but he was a neighbour of a close friend of mine, growing up, so I knew his name. I hadn't not known that he grew up to have such a wonderful career as a writer, reviewer and teacher. It was only after reading his obit, than I sought out 2 of his books from my local library. Review to follow once I'm done.

Ene 13, 4:42pm

I'm new to this challenge, although I've been around LT off and on for many years. My book for this month is Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup which won the Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for 2018. It was an interesting look at the world of high-tech startups and the people involved. Basically, it's the story of Theranos, a company that claimed to be developing a product to perform numerous blood tests from a single drop of blood. After raising $9 billion dollars of investor funding over a period of several years, the company was exposed as a fraud by the author working for the WSJ. CEO Elizabeth Holmes is scheduled for trial in March 2021.

The book was well-researched and well-written. It is compelling reading if you are interested in the high-tech, startup culture.

Editado: Ene 13, 10:25pm

I finished His Excellency: George Washington, by Joseph Ellis, which was a 2005 nonfiction finalist for the Library of Virginia Literary Award. Ellis has won awards for other books, including the Pulitzer Prize for Founding Brothers.

This was a concise volume on Washington's life, work and legacy, without getting into a lot of details, which Ellis notes has been done many times over. Ellis sets up the purpose of his book in the preface:
It seemed to me that Benjamin Franklin was wiser than Washington; Alexander Hamilton was more brilliant; John Adams was better read; Thomas Jefferson was more intellectually sophisticated; James Madison was more politically astute. Yet each and all of these prominent figures acknowledged that Washington was their unquestioned superior....Why was that?
Suffice to say that Ellis does an excellent job in under 300 pages answering this question. This was the right book to read at this time: to get back to the founding principles of these United States. Most prescient for our recent troubles was this passage from Washington's Farewell Address, which he gave to explain why he would not run for a third term, and to defend his Presidency after much "fake news" had been spread by his former colleague, Thomas Jefferson:
Respect for its (government) authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and right of the People to establish Government presupposes the duty of every Individual to obey the established government.
(emphasis mine)

Great book and a great read about a great man.

Ene 14, 1:12am

>6 cbl_tn:
Good luck with They Were Her Property. An important book, surely, but drily academic, and reads very much like a Master’s Thesis.

Ene 14, 8:18am

>59 jlbattis: We are reading that for a book club. I may get to it around the end of the month, but it may be early next month.

Editado: Ene 14, 8:40am

>58 kac522: Thanks for that well-written and timely review.

Editado: Ene 14, 6:17pm

>61 karspeak: Thanks. Ellis admires Washington, but is quite frank about his flaws (and they don't include chopping down a cherry tree). In a way, this was more of a comfort read at this time, just to re-affirm the values of the founding fathers.

Ene 15, 2:54pm

I’ve finished Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns which I found a little disappointing to be honest. A memoir of a frankly appalling childhood from someone who escaped from the grinding poverty in which she grew up. I had high hopes for this, and thought it had real potential when I started it (it has been very well reviewed) but it didn’t quite work for me.

My review is here:

Ene 17, 9:57am

Jessica J. Lee's Two Trees Make a Forest is a memoir of discovering her family's roots in Taiwan. She herself has Canadian and British citizenship, her father is Welsh and mother is Chinese-Taiwanese; it was her mother's parents who had to flee to Taiwan from China in 1947. In this book she returns to Taiwan to discover the place and to try and make sense of her family history, helped by recordings she made with her grandmother before she died talking about her life, and also by a letter written by her grandfather, already starting to feel the effects of the Alzheimer's that would eventually kill him, about his life in China and Taiwan. The book includes lush descriptions of the Taiwanese countryside and mountains and nature that she explores, and meditations on identity, belonging and language.

The first couple of chapters I was a bit unsure about the book - the prose did feel like it was veering towards the purple a bit, and there were some words that I just didn't know (she's particularly fond in the early chapters of the word 'lithic'). But it was so worth persevering - as I got a few chapters in, and got more used to the rhythm of her prose, and got more fascinated by both her family history and the nature of Taiwan, I was drawn in and felt fully immersed in her journey. I also found the chapter where she discussed Taiwanese nature writing fascinating.

Ene 17, 11:20am

>64 Jackie_K: - I saw a wonderful interview with this author on tv a couple of weeks ago and have the book on request from the library. There is a long line ahead of me so I don't know when my turn will come up but I am looking forward to reading it.

Ene 17, 11:31am

>65 jessibud2: Cool! I took part in a twitter book club she formed over last summer for a couple of months, looking at writers of colour writing about nature. She also she edits The Willowherb Review which is well worth a look, it's an online magazine of nature writing specifically by writers of colour.

Ene 17, 11:43am

>66 Jackie_K: - That sounds interesting. Here is a link to the interview I saw. Hope it works, for you:

Ene 17, 11:46am

>67 jessibud2: Thank you very much! I haven't got any kind of 'you're not allowed to watch this your side of the Pond' message, so I'll save that for later!

Ene 19, 10:12pm

First time posting here. Finished Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup today. I could not put it down and am quite shocked about the amount of dishonesty that occurred.

Ene 20, 8:29am

Finished Will in the World which is wonderful. Not precisely a biography (impossible because of a lack of personal information on WS), instead it follows up its subtitle and give a complete but not boring picture of what life was like in WS’s England, how that influenced his plays, and how it would have influenced his life.

This is an excellent, well-researched book and a pleasant read. The only caveat I have is that author Greenblatt draws too many inferences from WS’s works. They’re well-reasoned and some are convincing, but I think it’s a mistake to think that any author’s life is simply translated to his work.

Ene 21, 8:44pm

Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent with its thoughtful analysis of American history as a caste system was well written. It felt like an important book and well deserving of a prize.

Ene 22, 12:55pm

>69 annushka: I agree about the dishonesty and was also amazed that so many well-known, wealthy people were large investors.

Ene 22, 4:42pm

>72 LoisB: It seems to me many people did not do their own fact-checking once they heard a famous person was a large investor.

Ene 23, 7:49pm

Glad that someone read Bad Blood -- it's a marvellous book and will go down in history as one of the best books about business around. It provides great insight into "the will to believe" that entices so many people into Ponzi schemes and other frauds.

I loved Eric Vuillard's The Order of the Day. I read his second novel to be translated, but found it less compelling. The first title, as mentioned above, is a fictional narrative that kind of straddles the gap between a novel and non-fiction, about Hitler's rise to power.

Touchstones not working...

I'm going to tackle the book about Cornwall soon, and hope to finish up "Caste" by month's end.

Ene 23, 11:31pm

>74 Chatterbox: Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup has been on my TBR list for some time but other books kept getting ahead. I'm glad I joined this reading challenge because it prompted me to read this book sooner.

Ene 24, 3:50am

Currently reading: Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns by Kerry Hudson, seeing as I saw the cover image in the top post :) (and now, also, below)

It is difficult to put down, that is for sure.

Ene 24, 3:54am

Currently reading: Lowborn, by Kerry Hudson. I saw the image of the cover in >2 Chatterbox:, and saw that it was available at my local library so went down and grabbed it.

It is seriously difficult to put down.

>69 annushka: I saw a fab documentary about that. It is a fascinating story, the footage of the woman in charge was very revealing of her determination that this project *would simply work*, in spite of scientific (and eventually, police) evidence to the contrary.

Ene 24, 5:06pm

>75 annushka: >77 LovingLit: The author of the book is a former WSJ colleague of mine. Like a lot of us who got our journalistic training in that newsroom, he learned to examine company statements critically, and to always question when something seemed too good to be true. I remember my first month working for the WSJ, and I had the responsibility for writing up the earnings report of some minor mining company -- I looked at the numbers, they didn't make sense and I had to call the company and get them to walk me through it. The way they represented the figures in their press release transformed a loss into an earnings per share gain, since they didn't mention a bunch of charges/restatements, etc. Everyone else reported the press release numbers; we ran a story about misleading press releases and gave the real numbers and the stock price crashed. John did something similar with Theranos. He started looking at the stuff that most people overlook, aren't likely to understand (it's nitty gritty science, right) and evaluated claims skeptically. I don't think even he imagined where it would lead. But it's a brilliant piece of reportage.

>75 annushka: Welcome to the "challenge"!

Ene 25, 10:42am

I finished reading Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices by Noah Feldman. I picked this book to read for this month because it won the American Bar Associations Silver Gavel Media Awards back in 2010. This is an award that is given to honor outstanding work by those who help improve comprehension of jurisprudence in the United States. Awards are given to books, news broadcasts, newspaper stories, movies, blogs, etc.

I had heard about this book when it was published but the length of it, 513 pages, kept me from reading it. However, the events of the last years and the importance that conservatives have put on getting conservative judges appointed to fill court vacancies made me think that I should do more reading about how the system works and why so many people think it is failing. In short, I wanted to know how we got to now. That led me to this book.

Basically, this book is a history of the US Supreme Court from 1930 to 1960. It is about the judicial philosophies of four Supreme Court Justices. All were appointed by FDR because FDR wanted judges on the court who would advance his political aims. Each of the four men were selected because they had proved themselves valuable to FDR in political ways by finding legal arguments that would advance FDR's New Deal laws. The four justices were, William O. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, Hugo Black, and Robert Jackson. Two of the three were Solicitor Generals and then Attorney Generals of the U.S. before they were appointed. Black was a senator from Alabama who was a progressive and had voted to advance New Deal policies while in the Senate. Only one, Frankfurter, was an academic, but he was also heavily entwined in New Deal legislation and in the political inner circle in Washington, D. C. Three of the four men had political aspirations. By that, I mean that three of them wanted to run for President.

Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned was that people serving on the Supreme Court did not see themselves as holding a lifetime appointment. They saw it as a stepping stone to higher office, whereas, we now, tend to see appointment to the Supreme Court as the highest job in the land. For instance, Chief Justice Charles Evens Hughes, was appointed to the Supreme Court twice. Twice. He resigned the first time so that he could run for President in 1916. He was then appointed as Chief Justice in 1930. Also surprising was that, while all of them started out as "liberal" - meaning that they supported New Deal ideas, laws, and initiatives, two of them ended up being judicial conservatives, while two of them became judicial liberals, with one, Douglas becoming more and more liberal due to his emphasis on individual rights over those of the states. Douglas was the only one of the four who was not trained in Eastern establishment law schools. He was from Yakima, Washington, and he laid much of the ground work for environmental laws, even going so far as to say that inanimate objects such as rock and rivers have a right to exist and that these rights shouldn't be ignored.

Lastly, all four of these judges believed that all Supreme Court decisions are political. Politics, for them was inseparable from the interpretation of the law. Justice was a different matter. Politics is personal, and while all four of these men came onto the court with different goals and objectives, they all ended up as judicial enemies. (scorpions, in a bottle - hence the title.). Only Black and Douglas remained on personal speaking terms by the 1950's and even that was tenuious.

I also learned that appointment to the Supreme Court was always a political matter. No president took selecting a judge lightly and always considered their political aims when making a selection. What has changed, is Congress. Congress now is so closely divided that it slows down appointment to judgeships to the extent that it now impedes the ability of the courts to implement and interpret laws. This is why the down ballot elections are as important as is the vote for president. That seems to be something that the present day electorate doesn't seem to understand.

This book was a very accessible academic book. It had extensive notes and indexing, but it read like a story. I would class this book as narrative nonfiction - whatever that is. Anybody who has an interest in history or what's to know how we got to now, should read this book. At times it was engrossing and at times infuriating, but it was always informative, instructive, and, I believe, important and timely.

Ene 25, 7:59pm

>77 LovingLit: Working at a startup is often challenging since there is always pressure from investors to deliver the product faster and there are never enough people to get work done. Cutting corners and basically fabricating lies is never acceptable no matter what the driver is. In order to make a startup successful, it needs to be lead by an emotionally strong person.

>78 Chatterbox: Thank you! I always had huge respect for journalists who stay firm on their course and don't give in when intimidated.

Ene 25, 10:54pm

Since I finished the book I had picked for the Awards and Prizewinners category I will go ahead and start my second book for the month. This one is Jury: Trial and Error in the American Courtroom by Stephen J. Adler. This one also won the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award back in 1995. I won't finish it in the next week - but I will get a good start on it and it will fit into next month's category as well.

Ene 26, 8:16am

Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle
(Winner of the New York City Book Award in 2003)

In 1911, a fire at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City killed 146 people, mostly young immigrant women who were unable to escape the 8th and 9th floors. Some of them jumped from the factory's windows; some jumped down the elevator shaft; some burned a few feet from a door that was likely locked. I'd heard about this disaster and how it led to major labor reforms in the United States, but I knew little of the specifics. Von Drehle has written a solid history, which covers a major strike at the factory in 1909, conditions under which so many Eastern European immigrants came to the US, reform efforts before and after the fire, and the influence of the fire on American politics through the New Deal. Parts of the book are a bit dry, but the background stories of some of the major figures involved and of the victims is interesting, and the description of the fire itself is harrowing.

4 stars

Ene 26, 1:32pm

Mordecai and Me by Joel Yanofsky

Though I'm not a big fan of Richler, this was a really interesting and fun read. As the cover blurb describes it, it *starts out as a literary appreciation and turns into a literary stalking, propelled as much by envy as admiration, irreverence as affection, confession as critical's a funny, intimate, gossipy book about the writing life, writers, and one great writer in particular."

Author Joel Yanofsky is indeed funny, witty and at times, irreverent but this isn't just a fluff book. He is smart and quite insightful. He is also candid about himself, on many levels and that comes through, interspersed throughout the narrative. I quite enjoyed this book.

And why and how did I come to read this? One of those *six degrees of separation* incidents. A little background: I subscribe to the Montreal Gazette, the English language daily newspaper, for my mother, hard copy delivered to her. The subscription entitles me to the online edition as well so I get a daily email from the Gazette. A few weeks ago, I noticed a long, lovely obit for author Joel Yanofsky. He grew up a couple of streets over from where I grew up and although I didn't know him personally at the time (he was 2 years younger than me and 2 years older than my brother and you know how those age differences matter when you are in school), he was a neighbour of a close friend of mine, so I knew who he was. He was known back then as Joey. It was good to see that he grew up to become quite a success in his chosen career. He was a book reviewer, literary journalist, author and he taught writing at Concordia University. On a whim, I checked my local library to see if they had any of his books and I found 2, this one and a memoir about his life as a father of an autistic son. That's the next one up in the pile of library books on my kitchen table. He died at the end of December, age 65, far too young.

Edited to say that it was also fun to see the occasional mention of places familiar to me from childhood. The name of our suburb, school, and even a small encounter involving a local opthamologist and Richler (Yanofsky and I shared the same opthamologist! The good doctor also passed away not too long ago so it was lovely to see him mentioned here). It was like the literary equivalent of recognizing familiar landmarks in a movie filmed in your home town.

Editado: Ene 29, 7:57pm

Este mensaje fue borrado por su autor.

Ene 30, 7:30am

I've not managed to finish Toms River but am getting there - I hadn't realised it was such a chunkster (the joy of ebooks - my wrist is happy anyway). I can't say I'm 'enjoying' it exactly - it's really well-written and compelling, but the actual circumstances are just too anger-inducing.

Ene 30, 8:32am

It took me quite a while to finish Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Marilyn Boo; although in my opinion excellent, this is harrowing to read.

Directly outside, and within view of, the Mumbai airport are a series of horrific slums. Author Boo explores life in just one of them. She’s a journalist by trade; this work is clear, direct, and complete nonjudgmental.

But the facts speak for themselves. The poverty and living conditions are horrific. Government corruption cripples the society.

And yet the people aren’t without hope. Like most people, they try to better their lives, and more importantly their children’s lives, step by tiny step. Of course many of them fail, and fail again and again. Some give up, stop trying, and step out of life. But some succeed.

This is the most difficult book I’ve read in a long time.

Ene 31, 7:50pm

I had hoped to finish They Were Her Property this weekend but life had other plans for me. I ended up in an impromptu Zoom gathering Friday night, and I spent a good part of what I thought would be reading time working this weekend due to technical problems. I'll post here as soon as I finish it. I have 3 chapters to go.

Ene 31, 9:43pm

No, I have not forgotten about you all! Am about to post the February challenge...

Ene 31, 9:49pm

OK, it's ready to roll! Please remember to put a star on the February page, as we didn't reach the 150 post limit required for your star automatically to transfer to the new page.

Ene 31, 10:17pm

I finished When Breath Becomes Air this week. A brilliant young man, a true polymath, is preparing to graduate and begin his practice as a neurosurgeon.

Then he’s diagnosed with brain cancer.

This is a harrowing yet somehow rewarding look at what happens. I was moved by it. Highly recommended.

Feb 2, 9:18am

>90 bohemima: I agree Gail, a very moving book.

Feb 4, 1:02pm

>90 bohemima: Very good book!

Feb 4, 10:57pm

Is there a Wiki for this challenge? I can't seem to find it.

Feb 5, 2:39pm

>93 LoisB: I have a section on the group wiki with links to each month's thread. But I don't think there's a wiki beyond that.

Feb 5, 5:06pm

Feb 9, 3:27pm

Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 2014, deservedly so. This chunkster of a book details the story of the town of Toms River, New Jersey, and the growing realisation of the impact of industrial pollution on the town. As well as meticulously detailing the various players: there was a big Ciba-Geigy chemical plant there from the 1950s, the town's biggest employer until it was eventually closed in the 1990s; also Union Carbide used a local farm to dump waste; the local water company neglected to add filters or report about known pollution in some of their wells; local and federal government neglected to order or follow up on studies, and brushed rumours of pollution hazardous to health under the carpet; and meanwhile families throughout the town were unwittingly drinking water polluted with industrial waste, or working with minimal protection with highly hazardous waste. Over the years there seemed to be more and more cases of both adult and childhood cancers, and this book looks at each study which eventually built up a bigger picture of what was happening. At times it read like a detective story, at others like an epic family tragedy. I was absolutely gripped - with admiration for the investigative writing, rage at the incompetence, indifference and focus on profit over health and environment, and sorrow for the families affected.