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!



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.

Summer Reading 2014


There is something so decadent about summer reading. For all the years I was a student, summer was the only time I could read whatever I wanted without the guilt of homework and textbook reading hanging over me. (I still devoured books all during the school year, just in stolen hours in the middle of the night and with a lot more guilt.)

Here is some of the fun stuff I’ve read this summer:


The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas. Thank you, Samantha, for this excellent recommendation. The Mediterranean world in Roman times really comes alive in this book. It made me see the lives of the early Christians in ways I had never considered.


The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Who hasn’t read TFiOS this summer? If you haven’t, you really should. It’s a quick read; I finished it in about two hours from the time I cracked open the cover. Not at all sappy or sentimental, the voice is sarcastic and canny and spot-on. I can promise that you will laugh out loud (like a hyena) and you will cry (violently, like a crazy person).


The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. I gave this Pulitzer Prize winner my endorsement here.

thewhippingboy shadowofabull

The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman and Shadow of a Bull by Maia Wojciechowska. Somehow I missed these two Newbery Medal-winners growing up. The whole time I was reading The Whipping Boy I kept thinking about how it would be the perfect entertaining read-aloud for my younger siblings (I think I’ll do that soon). And Shadow of a Bull reminded me of the summer I was working in Spain and got to see a bullfight in the Plaza de Toros in Madrid.

thelastolympian thelosthero theredpyramid

The Last Olympian, The Lost Hero, and The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan. My little brother, who just turned ten, introduced me to Rick Riordan’s books, including the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series, The Heroes of Olympus Series, and the Kane Chronicles. He and I have been having so much fun reading all of them and getting geeked out on them together. The adventures are epic and the writing style is casual, conversational, and funny. Most of all I love how they’re getting kids excited about Greek and Egyptian mythology. (When I was a kid I read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and any other mythology book I could get my hands on over and over again, so that is a cause I can get on board with!)


The Green Smoothies Diet by Robyn Openshaw. I read six or seven books on green smoothies while I was doing research for an eBook I wrote for a client, and this one stands out as the best. I learned lots of cool stuff about the nutritional contents of greens.

isabelthequeen adrizzleofhoney bestlovedfairytales

Isabel the Queen: Life and Times by Peggy K. Liss and A Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews by David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson and Best-Loved Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen. More research for my secret project! The more Isabel biographies I read, the more I am impressed with her strength. She commanded a nation, generaled a war, and founded an empire. She endured the infidelity of her husband, the stillbirths of two of her seven children, and the deaths of her heirs and children Juan and Isabella, and still retained her dignity and a sincere, devout faith in God.


Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver. This book (along with The Poisonwood Bible) should be required reading for everyone who lives, eats food, and breathes air on planet Earth. One of these times I’ll have to dedicate an entire post to it; she articulates so engagingly and passionately the beliefs I share about food and the way it should be grown, harvested, distributed, eaten, and loved.


Life of Pi by Yann Martel has been on my reading list for a decade and I’m finally getting around to it! I’ll let you know what my verdict is when I finish.

Have you guys read any of these books? Did you like them? Dislike them?

What books are on your summer reading list? What books have you read and enjoyed lately?

Does anyone beside me keep a “to-read” list to keep track of book recommendations and books you’re meaning to read? What books are on your to-read list? And does anyone have any recommendations for me?

A Lovely Gift from a Lovely Friend

My friendship with Samantha goes back to eighth grade, when we played night games with other neighborhood kids every summer night and did not maim ourselves jumping from the tree house onto the trampoline in her backyard. In high school we survived dominated AP Language, AP Literature, AP European History, AP US History, and AP US Government together. Later we attended different universities, but we corresponded and kept up through college craziness, summer study abroads, and dating drama. Now we both have husbands and she has a baby, and we’re still the best of friends.


Samantha just stitched this lovely gift for me! (How she found the time to do that with a new baby, I have no idea.) These sweet little birds are the perfect addition to our built-in bookshelves. They make their nest with the gorgeously illustrated old copies of Oliver Twist and Journeys Through OZ that Samantha gave to me. And see that book of Portuguese love sonnets? That was a wedding present from Samantha and her husband. I think Mark and I will take a leaf out of their book and start reading love poems together for date nights sometimes. John Donne, here we come!

A friend who shares your obsession with old books, who has read everything under the sun and always has great reading recommendations? A friend who hand-stitches a thoughtful gift for you just because? A friend whose constant friendship has endured more than a dozen years? Very lovely indeed! Thank you, Samantha!