Posts Tagged ‘nonfiction’

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

Flying with Orville at the Wright Brothers Memorial in Kitty Hawk, NC

Flying with Orville at the Wright Brothers Memorial in Kitty Hawk, NC

Ever since I can remember, I have wanted to fly. My earliest dreams were of flying. The first time I rode in an airplane (7th grade on a Girl Scout trip to New York City), I felt the power of the jet engines under my feet as the plane roared down the runway, and I knew I wanted to learn to fly. The airline magazine even had a full-age ad for flight school. I didn’t do it then, but when I was in college, I signed up for a ground school class and did earn my private’s pilot’s license.

I don’t fly any more, but I am still fascinated with all things related to aviation. I’ve visted the Wright Brothers’ Memorial in Kitty Hawk and even soared with a hang glider down the dunes at Jockey’s Ridge. I thought I knew the story of the two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, who proved to the world that humans could indeed control powered flight. I was wrong. I only knew the basic outline and merest beginning of the story.

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My daughter gave me a copy of David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers (Simon and Schuster 2015) for my birthday, and I was fascinated from the first page. McCullough brings the brothers and their family to life with extensive quotes from their public remarks and their private letters and journals. There is no doubt that the brothers were genious in their innovation and determined and thorough in their study of flight, but they will be the first to admit that they did not achieve flight on their own. My favorite comes from Orville in response to a friend who said the brothers stood as an example of how much Americans could accomplish “with no special advantates.” Orvile replied, “to say we had no special advantages…the greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiousity” (McCullough 18). In addition to the intellectual encouragement of their father, they also had the lifelong support of their sister Katherine. Mechanic Charlie Taylor built the engines for the powered flights.

Even though their first flight at Kitty Hawk gets all the glory, it was just one moment in a lifetime of work to advance aviation. Before they could prove flight was possible that fateful December day, they had to redo all the previously known calculations on lift and wind through creating their own wind tunnel. Through their experiements at Kitty Hawk, they realized that the know calculations were wrong. Once they proved flight was possible (and the world took little notice), they knew their real work had just begun to make flight practical. They packed everything up and went back to Dayton where they continued their experiments in a field outside of town.

After years of experimentation and modificatioins to their flyer, they finally had a craft that they could control through the air. Even so, they were aware of the dangers and Orville and Wilber would not fly together. That way if one crashed and died, the other could continue their work. Even though the people of Dayton were somewhat aware of the flying going on outside their city, the rest of the world continued to ignore them. Twice, the Wright brothers wrote the United States government about their invention. Twice the government refused to take any interest. The leading scientific journals likewise dismissed reports of their flights as impossible. The story was finally broken by Amos Root, an Ohio beekeeper, in his journal Gleanings in Bee Culture. The French government took interest, and Wilbur set off for France to win over customers (with the help of Hart Berg and his company that the Wrights hired to help with business negotations).

I had known next to nothing about the work of the Wright brothers after Kiitty Hawk, and found it to be even more impressive than the work leading up to Kitty Hawk. McCullough brings these two brothers to life across the pages. In addition, photographs illustrate their journey from childhood to international fame.

Disclosure: I participate in the Amazon Associates Program. If you decide to make a purchase by clicking on the affiliate links, Amazon will pay me a commission. This commission doesn’t cost you any extra. All opinions are my own.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

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CONFESSION: This book sat on my shelves for over twelve years before I was brave enough to open it and try to read it. I survived physics in high school thanks to the amazing teacher Mrs. Abernathy. I discovered a “physics for English majors” (no math!) to complete the last science requirements for college. While I enjoy The Big Bang Theory, I wasn’t sure I could keep up with Stephen Hawking. I bought the book as a souvenir from a class trip to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and it has taunted me ever since.

To my surprise and delight, Hawking not only understands theoretical physics more than I ever will, but he is able to explain it to English majors like me. Since my background knowledge of advanced physics is lacking, I’m sure I did not comprehend everything, but I was able to follow the general concepts–and are they fascinating.

I knew that our understanding of the universe had grown tremendously since my last science classes. Now Hawking has put those discoveries in order and given them context. From the discoveries of the earliest astronomers and scientists such as Galileo and Sir Isaac Newton to the advances of later scientists such as Einstein and Oppenheimer to his own work today, Hawking shows how science both builds on the work of those who came before and changes what we thought we knew.

He is able to choose just the right analogy to explain concepts that stretch my understanding of time and space in spaces smaller than an atom and further than we can see. I suspect that I will now be more interested in the latest discoveries from physics and look forward to the day when the broad principles of physics will be commonly understood by nearly everyone, not just a few scientists who specialize in the field.

Disclosure: I participate in the Amazon Associates Program. If you decide to make a purchase by clicking on the affiliate links, Amazon will pay me a commission. This commission doesn’t cost you any extra. All opinions are my own.

Chicken Soup for the Soul: Miracles Happen

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I can still remember reading one of the first Chicken Soup for the Soul books back when they first came out. I thought it was the greatest idea, and I’m glad that the series has continued even if I don’t read them all. (That would be difficult since there are now over 250 of them.)

I was tickled, though, when my daughter gave me Chicken Soup for the Soul: Miracles Happen for Mother’s Day. Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen and Amy Newmark collected 101 stories that defy explanation. I don’t know why some people are given the gift of miraculous healings or divine encounters, but I rejoice in sharing their stories and wonder along with the writers at the providence provided.

Now that I am finished, I’m trying to decide where to keep the copy of the book. Should I put it in our Little Free Library to spread the stories even further? Should I leave it lying around in an easy to get to location so I can pick it up and read a story when I need a reminder that miracles do happen?

Even more I am inspired to write some stories of my own. While I have not been rescured from near death or received messages from beyond the grave, I have experienced my own moments with the divine.

What about you? What stories from your life remind you that miracles can happen?

A Praying Life by Paul Miller

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It seems like I have always struggled with prayer. I know I should do it. I try to do it, but often feel like I’m talking to empty space. I know about prayer because I read books and articles about prayer. I’m still searching, but Paul Miller’s A Praying Life has given some direction.

I found much to think about and to try out as I read. I was struck by the beginning section on Praying Like a Child. I don’t have to have it all together and know how to pray before I start, Instead, prayer becomes my response when I can’t do life on my own. I’ve found myself letting go more often instead of trying to control things I can’t control. I can come with my temper tantrums and questions and requests.

Throughout the book, Miller shares the stories God is working in his life and through his family as he prays. I found these stories to be the most powerful aspect of the book. Here is someone who doesn’t just know about prayer from studying, but someone who can share first person experience. As someone who knows the power of stories, I related strongly to the idea that God is weaving stories in our lives if only we look for them.

While I didn’t agree with everything Miller writes, (I’m not sure about his take on the Enlightenment, for example), I found more that was helpful than not. Flipping back through the book, I find underlined sentences scattered liberally throughout. I also found myself sharing quotes across social networks.

The first part of the book explains Miller’s thoughts about prayers and gives examples–stories–from his own prayer life (and prayer life is an integral part of the nitty gritty of life). The last section gives some tools that Miller uses to focus his prayers and keep track of God’s story in his life.

I am trying some of the tools and still thinking about much from this book–even when it feels awkward. As Miller points out, learning something new will feel awkward before it feels natural. I am excited to to see what stories God writes in my life.

What is your experience with prayer?

One to the Wolves by Lois Duncan

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When I taught middle school, Lois Duncan’s suspense books were ones I went to frequently to hook those students who hadn’t yet met a book they liked. More times than not those students would become readers after being drawn in by relatable teenage characters facing danger and intrigue. Duncan packed in more drama and suspense to keep my students turning pages.

Last week Duncan sent me a review copy of her latest book, One to the Wolves: A Desperate Mother on the Trail of a Killer (Planet Ann Rule, LLC, 2015). This nonfiction book is every bit as suspenseful as her earlier novels, but even more horrifying in that every word is true.

In July 1989, Duncan’s daughter Kaitlyn Arquette was shot and killed on a street in Albuquerque. The police classified it as a random drive-by shooting and arrested a few suspects they later let go for lack of evidence. They considered the case finished even if unresolved, but for Duncan, too many pieces did not fit together.

She began a decades long search for the truth of what happened to her daughter. She first wrote Who Killed My Daughter? in hopes that presenting the evidence she had discovered would encourage people to come forward with new information that might answer their questions and bring Kait’s killer’s to justice.

One to the Wolves tells the story of what came during the following years. People did come forward–with information about Kait’s life and death as well with information about many more suspicious deaths in and around Albuquerque. The deeper Duncan looked, the more she realized that many of the deaths were connected by people and places and events. The Real Crimes website gave families a place to share their information and get word out.

With the work of private investigators, Duncan uncovered evidence in Kait’s case that pointed toward organized crime involved in insurance fraud and drug imports. Many people hinted at involvement of VIPs in a drug ring, but no one was willing to name names. At every turn, law enforcement in Albuquerque blocked progress on the case. In more recent years, What do you do when you learn that some of the people who are supposed to serve and protect you are the ones who are thwarting justice.

Duncan and her family used every means possible to learn what really happened to Kait that night. They hired private investigators and interviewed witnesses. They consulted psychics, including Betty Muench and Robert Petro. Skeptical at first, Duncan has seen many of the details from their readings confirmed by other sources. She also shares dreams she had that felt like more than just a dream–a message from Kait after her death.

Once I started reading, I had a hard time putting down the book. I can’t imagine the pain and horror of losing and child to such violence and then learning that law enforcement was not on your side. I hope that Duncan and the other families will soon find answers and justice for their children.

Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor

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Learning to Walk in the Dark (Harper One 2014) will stay with me a long time now that I have finally finished it. Barbara Brown Taylor invites readers to join her on her journey to explore what darkness–both physical darkness and metaphysical darkness–has to teach. As I read, I kept stopping to reflect on my own experiences with darkness and wanting to learn more.

I was fascinated by sheer number of facts I didn’t know about physical darkness. Did you know there are three twilights to end each day? Did you know that humans’ sleep patterns changed with the invention of the light bulb (and not just with less time for sleep)?  Did you know that you could dine in the dark in restaurants that block all light while you eat your meal? Did you know that most people in the United States can no longer see the Milky Way or even many stars at all? I can remember seeing the Milky Way once on a Girl Scout camping trip. I have never forgotten the sight and would love to see it again. I want to share it with my daughter and hope we can find a dark enough place on a clear night with a new moon (and nowhere we have to get up and go early the next morning).

I thought even more about the aspects of spiritual darkness Brown explores. My childhood reading was filled with fantasy that pitted good against evil, often in terms of light over dark. Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace fought the Dark Thing to rescue Meg’s father on Camazotz in A Wrinkle in Time. In Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, Will joins the Old Ones in the fight of the Light against the forces of the Dark. The Biblical stories and images I grew up with also associate God with Light and evil with darkness. I had heard of St. John’s dark night of the soul (and knew it was an experience I did not want to spend time with), but I didn’t know much of the history of or John’s thinking about the experience. Now I’m not so sure. It still sounds like a difficult experience, but maybe one I could learn from.

I am already seeing changes in myself as a result of reading. I find myself paying more attention to the darkness rather than trying to shine a light through it to shut it out. I’ve always been fascinated with watching sunrises. I took a couple of evenings to watch the sunset. The changing play of light is beautiful–and darkness takes a long time to fall. I’ve also resisted turning on lights in the house after I’ve gone to bed. Once I paid attention (and didn’t flip the light switch), I was amazed at how many lights glow from buttons and dials and even reflect off the clouds from town.

One idea that I am drawn to is that of practicing courage. Yes, there can be things in the darkness that are harmful, but often we let our fears overwhelm us when there is not anything to be afraid of. Even more, we often shield our children from the opportunity to practice being brave by rushing in to turn on physical (or metaphysical) lights for them and for ourselves. I am trying to practice more courage in my life and allow my daughter the opportunity to practice as well. (She is not thrilled with this idea at all.) For me, I would like to experience the “Green Meditaiton” Brown describes from an article she read by Clark Strand. The experiment is to find a place like a shallow cave (or even an apartment building) where you can let natural light and darkness determine your sleep and rest. Maybe as you do, the darkness will listen to you. We have a campsite that is in the woods that I could spend the night at. It would be a good chance to practice courage and meet the dark.

Now that I have read Learning to Walk in the Dark, I want to catch up on Brown’s earlier two books–Leaving Church and The Altar in the World.

What are your experiences with dark?

Disclosure: I participate in the Amazon Associates Program. If you decide to make a purchase by clicking on the affiliate links, Amazon will pay me a commission. This commission doesn’t cost you any extra. All opinions are my own.

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

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My mom passed on her copy of I Am Malala (Little, Brown and Company 2013) to me over the Christmas holidays. I have been thinking about Malala’s story ever since. I had heard on the news about the Taliban shooting her and two of her classmates. I had heard about her being awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace this past year. Those brief accounts on the news don’t do justice to Malala’s story as told by herself.

I have to confess that I know very little of Pakistan, much less the region of Swat, where Malala lived. She opened my eyes to a country and culture that is filled with beauty and wonder, yet also suffers under poverty and oppression. Malala was blessed that her father rejoiced in her birth (in a land where sons are usually celebrated much more) and encouraged her education.

Encouraged by her father, who spoke out against the Taliban, Malala found her voice and spoke out as well. For years before she was attacked, she found ways to speak out on behalf of peace and education–especially for girls. She wrote (under the pen name of Gul Makai) of her experiences living and going to school under Taliban rule for the BBC Urdue website. She and her father gave interviews about the need for all children–including girls–to have an education. Woven in with the accounts of her political actions are descriptions of daily life with her family and friends under the most trying of circumstances: an earthquake, Taliban executions in the town square, curfews imposed by the army, the sounds of battle and explosions, even travel as displaced persons.

I am most impressed with Malala’s attitude of peace and joy throughouth. Even though she at times lived in fear, she doesn’t let the fear control her life or limit her opportunities. She wants peace for her homeland and is willing to work to help bring it about. I am inspired by her courage and determination.

I wish the students I had–those who complained about school and thought it a waste of their time–could listen to Malala’s story and see how valuable education is. It is not a surprise that groups who want to oppress people go after schools first. Without education, people can easily be misled and controlled. Education–the ability to read, write, think, and understand the world–is the first step in creating a better life. I am glad Malala is speaking out for education for all, and I hope she is one day able to return to her homeland to bring that dream to reality.

Disclosure: I participate in the Amazon Associates Program. If you decide to make a purchase by clicking on the affiliate links, Amazon will pay me a commission. This commission doesn’t cost you any extra. All opinions are my own.

In My Hands by Irene Gut Opdyke

in my handsI have always been drawn to read literature from the Holocaust, both fiction and nonfiction, but especially memoirs of people who lived through it. I sometimes wonder at my fascination. Why do I enjoy reading about such a dark period of history? I think reading these stories forces me to ask the question, “What would I do?” Would I have been able to cling to the best of my humanity–hope and kindness and love–as did many survivors of the ghettos and concentration camps? Would I have had the courage to help my neighbors by hiding them or sharing food? I like to think that I would, but I honestly don’t know since I have never been confronted with such choices.

Irene Gut Opdyke (with Jennifer Armstrong) shares her journey of becoming a resistance fighter and smuggler of Jews in her memoir In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer (Laurel Leaf Books 1999). She didn’t start out to become a hero, but she is a hero. I don’t know how I could have survived the horrors that she experienced as Germany and Russia invaded her homeland of Poland. It didn’t matter which side of the border she was on, the conquering armies made life miserable for all of Poland, but she still found the compassion and courage to protect those who were being hunted down.

As I read, I kept coming back to Irene’s words: “You must understand that I did not become a resistance fighter, a smuggler of Jews, a defier of the SS and the Nazis, all at once. One’s first steps are always small: I had begun by hiding food under a fence” (143). Irene did not stop with hiding food under the fence. She listened as she served Nazi and SS officers their dinner and passed along news of raids to her friends in the ghetto. She transported Jews in a horse and buggy to hiding places in the deep forest. She hid a dozen Jewish men and women in the basement of a German officer’s house. Not bad work for someone who was “only a girl.” While the Germans may have underestimated her, the Russians considered her a dangerous Partisan resistance fighter–and she was.

I may not be faced with life or death decisions this week, but every day I am given the choice to act with kindness and love–or not. It is in making those small decisions that I can develop the habits and character that would lead to the courage to do the right thing in more desperate circumstances. I hope that I will one day show the courage that Irene did.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books, 3rd edition by Harold D. Underdown

complete idiot's guide to publishing children's booksHarold D. Underdown gives a complete peek behind the curtain of the children’s publishing industry in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books, Third Edition (Penguin 2008). I have picked up much of the information over the years from following the blogs of some of my favorite writers, but I still learned much about the process, especially what happens once the writing and editing is done.

I found some of the most valuable parts of the books to be the references to additional resources, whether book titles or websites.  My copy of the book has a rainbow of sticky notes poking out the side, marking all the places I want to go back for reference or to save as bookmarks on my computer before I have to return it to the library.

Like other books in the Complete Idiot’s series, the information is organized for easy access and packed with information. Sidebars add even more information with definitions of industry terms, “Class Rules” that explain aspects of the publishing business and secret tips.  My favorite parts are the playground stories, which share anecdotes from working writers and illustrators. Through it all, Underdown emphasizes the need for writers and illustrators to be professionals and to take their careers seriously. It is difficult to make a career out of writing and illustrating for children, but it is possible with hard work and a little bit of luck.

Even though the book has been out for just six year, the rapid changes in technology have made some sections seem outdated already. Self-publishing–especially with ebooks–is still fraught with pitfalls, but it offers a different  landscape nearly every week. The section on author visits doesn’t mention Skype, which I used in my classroom to connect my students with authors.

Even so, this is a valuable reference for anyone interested in writing or illustrating for children.

History Is So Bugged!

buggedI’ve been around long enough to learn that my history classes in school left out a lot of history. Kings and generals, battles and revolutions certainly shape history, but did you know that tiny bugs played their role as well? Nope?  Neither did I. Or at least I didn’t until I read Sarah Albee’s Bugged: How Insects Changed History (Scholastic 2014).

It is indeed “swarming with facts,” as the cover proclaims.  Not just any facts–it is packed with facts that are shocking and disgusting and gross.  There is mayhem and death and destruction on every page that is guaranteed to make you itch–if you can manage to scratch between peals of laughter. Did you know that bugs were once used as a form of execution? (Read all about it on page 100). You may even discover that your favorite red sports drink or cherry ice cream or pink blush contain dyes made from squashed bugs. (Read about it on page 20.)

Bugs have done dastardly things–devour food crops and spread deadly diseases–that have changed the course of battles and wiped out large numbers of people.  Albee digs to find the traces of bugs behind some of the most dramatic events of history, from ancient times to modern history, and from the Far East to the New World. I just wish my history textbooks in class could have been as much fun to read as this one was.

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