My Favorite Narrative Nonfiction

Fiction will always be my first love, but for the last several years I’ve been reading more and more creative nonfiction: stories so gripping you can’t put them down, that are completely true and impeccably researched. I admire the tremendous talent of the storymakers behind these books, who must be at once sensitive interviewers, painstaking researchers, and masterful writers who can bring the past to life and tell it with speed and suspense without losing any subtlety. Here are some of my favorites (and I hope you’ll tell me yours).

enduranceEndurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing

This is the book that started my love affair with historical adventure books. The story of how Ernest Shackleton and his entire crew of twenty-seven men survived eighteen months marooned in Antarctica is so unbelievable, it should be fiction. I promise Endurance will blow your mind with its account of the resourcefulness and determination of the human spirit.

wediealoneWe Die Alone: A WWII Epic of Escape and Endurance
by David Howarth

When a team of commandos landed in occupied Norway to organize the Norwegian resistance, they were betrayed and ambushed by the Nazis. Only one man survived, badly wounded. This is the story of Jan Baalsrud, who trekked through the arctic to safety, and of the villagers who risked their lives to save him.

thesmallwomanThe Small Woman by Alan Burgess

This is the sweeping epic of the bold, unstoppable Gladys Aylward, who ventured to China as a Christian missionary and who changed the lives of everyone she met, including the hundred homeless children she shepherded on a twelve-day journey over the mountains to safety when the Japanese invaded in 1938.

theboysintheboatThe Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown

I’m cajoling everyone I know to read this book. Joe Rantz is the truest kind of hero; a virtual orphan, growing up on the edge of starvation, he became part of the extraordinary crew rowing team who went to Berlin in 1936 to show the world what the American West was made of.

Honorable Mentions: Unbroken: A WWII Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

What narrative nonfiction books are on your to-read list, or which ones have you read and loved? Let me know so I can add them to my list!



Iron-Willed Isabel

isabel_i_of_castile-2I just finished another Isabel I biography: Isabella of Castile: The First Renaissance Queen by Nancy Rubin. What a fantastic, fast-paced work! This painstakingly researched 400-page historical biography of a five hundred-years-dead queen is as difficult to put down as The Hunger Games (but unlike Katniss Everdeen, this tough-as-nails female protagonist is completely real).

No time for blogging right now, but I wanted to share a quick anecdote that illustrates the bravery, tenacity, and determined decision-making that characterized Isabel’s reign. The following is summarized from Nancy Rubin:

During the Portuguese War Queen Isabel placed her daughter, Princess Isabel, in the safe keeping of her trusted friend Beatriz de Bobadilla. Beatriz was the wife of Andrés de Cabrera, the converso governor of Segovia, under whose rule the city was growing restless during the war.

On 1 August 1476 Isabel was awakened by a messenger from Cabrera. Segovia had revolted, and the life of the young princess was threatened. Fearing for her daughter’s life, the queen reacted “with much spirit” and determined to leave for Segovia at once. Without waiting for the royal army, Isabel set out for Segovia accompanied only by Cardinal Mendoza, the Count of Benavente, and Beatriz. Isabel and her three companions rode twenty-four hours without stopping, a long sixty-mile ride over mountainous terrain, and arrived at dawn.

Outside the city the prelate warned Isabel not to enter. The gate was barricaded by hostile Segovians who, he warned, would surely resort to new violence. Isabel coolly replied, “Tell those caballeros and citizens of Segovia that I am Queen of Castile and this city is mine for my father left it to me and I do not need any laws of conditions set for me to enter what is mine. I shall enter by the gate I want.”

The queen and her companions entered the city, and despite their hostility the angry crowds did not hurt them as they rode into the square of the alcazár. They crossed the drawbridge and entered the courtyard beneath the tower where the young princess was imprisoned. Her companions begged her to close the gates against the angry mob, but Isabel loudly announced that all who wanted should enter the castle.

Facing the angry crowd Isabel said, “My vassals and servants, tell me what you desire for if it is for the good of my city and my kingdom, I want it too.” The mob was surprised. They had expected a fight, not for the queen to entertain their complaints. Hearing their grievances against Cabrera, Isabel announced that she would act as governor herself until she appointed someone new. “What you want I want,” Isabel said. “Therefore climb now those towers and those walls and push off all [Cabrera’s] men. Because I want to deliver it [the castle] to the custody of one of my servants, one who keeps my alleigance and who keeps the honor of you all.”

“Viva la Reina!” the crowd shouted. The queen restored the castle to her command, and with five-year-old Princess Isabel in her arms rode to the palace.There she assured the Segovians that they “would no longer be troubled by [Cabrera]” because she was going to thoroughly investigate him. She then asked the citizens to send representatives to discuss their grievances.

A case was presented, but the pacified Segovians conceded that abuses had really been “committed by his officials.” As a converso, hated for his wealth and influence, Cabrera had been a scapegoat for those who lusted after his position. Isabel knew “that this scandal had been incited by some nobles and rich citizens” and that Cabrera was actually a very shrewd administrator and fair governor. She thus commanded Cabrera be restored to his authority as governor of the city and the castle, and this time the Segovians did not protest. She left the city in peace and her daughter in safety, and returned to her duties at the war front.

From Rubin, Nancy. Isabella of Castile: The First Renaissance Queen (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), 152-153.


Four Excellent Podcasts

I’m dedicating a post to my favorite podcasts, which make it possible for me to clean my house and wash dishes each night after my baby is in bed. (Wait, you say it is possible to do household chores without listening to podcasts? That humans have been doing it for generations? Nonsense!) If you have a favorite podcast (or anything else you love listening to), please share it in a comment.


History of English  My brilliant brother Logan introduced me to this podcast (and podcast-listening in general). Each hour-long episode is a lesson in linguistics, history, anthropology, and literature all at once. (Oh, and it’s completely ad-free!) Attorney and English language scholar Kevin Stroud reveals mind-boggling etymologies, takes you back to the herds and movements of the Proto Indo-Europeans, examines the contributions of Greek and Roman to English, illuminates Beowulf, and introduces you to the earliest bards and Catholic kings of the British Isles.

There are 81 episodes and counting (I’m currently on episode 49). Some good ones to try: Who Were the Indo-Europeans?Sounds Like Old English, and Not Lost in Translation. But to really enjoy this podcast you should start at the beginning and listen to it all the way through.

My whole family has gotten geeked out on History of English; with each week’s new episode we hash out the historical tidbits and new etymologies we’ve learned. Prepare to have your mind blown.


Revisionist History  To quote a fan on Twitter, “If you’re not listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s, podcast, Revisionist History, I don’t know what you’re doing with your life.”

Revisionist History is everything you love about Gladwell’s books–fascinating behavioral economics, social science turned on its head–in podcast form. Gladwell’s voice virtually sings with energy and passion as he examines historical events through a new lens and tackles compelling and controversial contemporary issues. (His podcast is having a moment as he takes on the problem of educational inequity in America.)

Great episodes to try: Saigon, 1965, examining cultural bias in the Vietnam war and in current conflicts with groups like ISIS, and My Little Hundred Million, in which he audits the moral bankruptcy of billionaire elite universities. The only downside I can see to Revisionist History is that, for the present time, it’s slated for only ten episodes. Malcolm Gladwell is brilliant; to say that America has an intellectual crush on this skinny Canadian would be an understatement.


The Art of Manliness  If you’re a reader of The Art of Manliness, you know that husband and wife team Brett and Kate McKay cover every topic imaginable: not just on recovering the lost art of manliness, but on how to be a good human on planet earth. In an internet world filled with lame clickbait and SEO-laden recycled content, Art of Manliness stands apart as an encyclopedia of impeccably-researched articles on everything you could ever want to know.

The podcast is as good as the blog, mainly because of Brett’s professional interviewing style and the wide array of authors and social scientists featured. Two episodes to try are Love Factually with Dr. Duana Welch for a fun and fascinating look at the science of dating and relationships, and C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings Mastermind Group on the literary club and men’s group called the Inklings and the influence they had on The Lord of the Rings, and western literature and society. I’ve barely scratched the surface of this one, but I love how Art of Manliness podcast comes out biweekly so you don’t have to wait a full week to be enlightened by the guru of manliness.


Happier  I’ve been a fan of Gretchen Rubin‘s work since I first read The Happiness Project on my honeymoon three years ago. Since that time she’s released another book and launched a wildly successful podcast with her sister, TV writer and producer Elizabeth Craft.

Gretchen and Elizabeth compare life in New York City and Los Angeles and discuss habit formation, family, healthy living, and happiness research. I wish this podcast had fewer ad breaks, and sometimes the issues addressed are, irrefutably, “first-world problems”; yet I like the overall message of choosing to act intentionally in creating a happy life. And when you’re loading the dishwasher at 10 pm and want to listen to something fun and light, Happier is just the thing. Episodes to try: Holiday Episode: Cornucopia of Try-this-at-Homes from Listeners, and Thoughts on Decorations and Enjoy Your Home’s Special Features, Arianna Huffington Talks About Sleep, and the Pleasure of Children’s Literature .

99piUpdate, January 2017: Since posting this, I’ve unsubscribed to Happier but I’ve found a new favorite podcast: 99 Percent Invisible, in which the witty and original Roman Mars scours the world for fascinating stories about the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world. The episodes are pithy and compelling and will make you see the world around you in an entirely new way.

Farewell, Ventura.

Well, it’s official. My in-laws no longer live in California. It will be wonderful having them closer; and, like so many big changes, it’s bittersweet.

We took full advantage of their hospitality: from September 2012 to March 2015 we visited them in California ten times! 2013 was the record-setting year with five road trips to Ventura. It’s a place of many special memories for Mark and me: our first road trip together, the first time I met his parents and felt the warmth of their love and their welcome, the first time he gave me flowers and officially asked me to be his girlfriend.


(Spoiler alert: I said yes.)

I’m not going to miss the grueling twelve-hour drive across the hot desert. But I am going to miss arriving, climbing out of the car, and heading straight for the backyard hammock.

I’m going to miss the times that Mark’s little sister and I snuck out her second-story window, climbed onto the roof, and lay there on our backs watching for shooting stars.

(I’m not going to miss the old-fashioned pull-chain toilet and the thundering roar it made when flushed, so terrifying on middle-of-the-night trips to the bathroom.)

I’m going to miss hikes and bike rides high up in the hills, where mountains stretch as far as you can see in one direction and the glimmering blue expanse of the ocean in the other. From up there you can see oil tankers and cargo ships moving off the coast, and the Channel Islands look like just another ridge of mountains peeking through the haze.

2013-01-19 12.41.52

I’m going to the times Mark and I borrowed my father-in-law’s Boulevard (comfiest bike ever!) to drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to Carpinteria, or to forbidden hot springs and secret swimming holes near Ojai.

2013-01-19 13.09.20

I’m going to miss the old yellow house, the one built in 1880 and lovingly maintained by Mark’s grandparents, where Mark’s parents and aunts and uncles had their wedding receptions, and we had ours.

I’m going to miss walking the few blocks from the yellow house down to the Jelly Bowl Beach, where we spent hours spotting storks and anemones and iridescent-colored fish and crabs in the tidepools.

2013-01-19 14.32.52

I’m going to miss my favorite bike ride in the world, the one that winds through the verdant hills and barrancas of Ojai, past oil derricks and graffitied industrial yards, ending on the beach and the Ventura Promenade.



I’m going to miss beach days, and exploring the old Spanish missions of Santa Barbara and San Buenaventura.

I’m going to miss the Ventura Harbor.

photo 1-30

(Above and below: when I was six months pregnant!)


It’s the end of an era, for sure.

Someday we’ll take our son there, to show him all the old haunts. We’ll tell him, “This is the house that belonged to your great-grandma Madelyn, who never got to hold you. This is where your grandpa lived and went to school and surfed those big waves.

“This is where your daddy grew up and had adventures with his brothers, who were his best friends. This is where he brought Mama to meet his parents for the first time, and she knew for certain that she wanted to be part of their family. This is where you went hiking in the mountains and paddleboarding in the ocean when you were growing in your mama’s belly.”

And we’ll make new memories, too. We’ll play on the pirate ship and the zipline at Marina Park. We’ll eat shark salad on the Ventura Pier. We’ll take a ferry out to the islands and kayak around the sea caves.

We’ll camp on the beach. When the stars have come out and our campfire is dying down, when we can no longer suppress our sleepy yawns, we’ll retire to bed, a puddle of pillows and sleeping bags and cuddly bodies squished together. Outside our tent we’ll hear the waves lapping on the sand, and we’ll fall asleep to the rhythmic lullabye of the ocean.

Halloween 2015


Better late than never!




For your edification, an excerpt from the Pokémon theme song, the lyrics of which are uncannily applicable to parenthood:

Pokémon, it’s you and me
I know it’s my destiny
Pokémon, oh, you’re my best friend
In a world we must defend

Pokémon, a heart so true
Our courage will pull us through
You teach me and I’ll teach you





We built a swing set!


A certain seven-year-old sister of mine recently outgrew the kiddie swing set in the backyard. This wasn’t just a minor inconvenience but a real calamity, since the swing set was her therapy. Whenever she was emotionally overwrought my mom would send her to the backyard; she’d sing her lungs out and swing for a couple hours and then come back inside a new creature.


Swinging wasn’t just her therapy; in her words, “Swinging is my best talent. I’m going to be a swinger when I grow up.” So there you have it. Her healing balm, her talent, and her calling and vocation.

Mark and I had drawn her name for Christmas, and I really wanted to get her a swing set big enough for her. But real backyard swing sets are ridiculously expensive. So I decided that we were going to build one.

Mark warned me that it would be a long, involved project. “No, it won’t take that long!” I told him.

He was right. It was a doozy. I guess I underestimate how long and intense things will be—like the high Uintas backpacking trip we did with 4+ feet of snow on the ground last summer, or the 500-mile camping road trip on the bullet bike the summer before. Or buying and remodeling a decrepit 60-year-old house on a shoestring student budget.

But the best feeling in the world is biting off more than you can chew and chewing it anyway, right? It was an involved project. But the wonderful man I’m married to stuck with me and didn’t complain or remind me, “I told you so.” We finished the swing set on Christmas Eve, just in time for a little sister’s Christmas present (and just before a three-day blizzard hit).

And the effort was all worth it every time we see this happy swinging face!




Nature’s first green is gold…


For a long time I’ve wanted to mount a hinged canvas on the wall in our hallway to cover the eyesore that is our crooked electrical panel.

Yes, it really is that crooked!

Yes, it really is that crooked!

But a a 16×20 canvas photo print wasn’t in our budget, so this week I painted and hung a canvas of my own. The whole project cost less than $15 and took about an hour. Here’s the rundown, in case you want to try it yourself.

16×20 canvas from Walmart, $7.97 for two
Green and gold acrylic craft paint (I already had white) from Walmart, 50¢ each
Gold leaf spray paint from Walmart, $2.77
Narrow utility hinges from Home Depot, $1.97 for a package of two (screws included)
Leaves and branches from the yard
Scotch tape
Total cost: $13.71

Painting the canvas


Paint the canvas, layering and mixing the colors for a marbled effect. Don’t worry about being too precise. The dappled, variegated look is the whole point. I chose green and gold, but any colors would  be pretty. Maybe I’ll try red and purple next?

Spray-painting the leaf design


Gather some leaves and branches. Be sure to choose ones that lay flat well. Affixing the leaves to the canvas is a must. Adhesive spray would probably be ideal, but I used Scotch tape because it’s what I had on hand. It left little tape marks where the spray paint didn’t reach, but they don’t bother me. All part of the charm. Once you’ve thoroughly spray-painted over the leaves, you can remove them. I used a paint brush to touch up the stems.

Hanging the canvas


Screw the hinges first into the wood frame of the canvas, and then into the drywall.

And that’s it! No more ugly electrical panel!