Top 10 Most Popular Nonfiction Books, Spring 2012  

Judith Stokes
Electronic Resources/
Serials Librarian and
Associate Professor

Continuing a series that began in 2008, Judith Stokes reviews selected books from Adams Library’s Browsing Collection. In April, she reviewed the 10 books of fiction that have been borrowed most frequently (as of spring 2012). In May, she examines the 10 most popular nonfiction books, and in June, she will assess 10 of her favorites.

We hope you enjoy reading these informative descriptions, and perhaps some of these titles will find their way onto your personal reading list.

Top 10 Most Popular Nonfiction Books, Spring 2012

1. “Decision Points” by George W. Bush was bound to echo the same confident, folksy tone that became so familiar to Americans from 2001 through 2008 when he was President. Although inaccurate intelligence and communication problems are invoked now and then to explain some awkward moments, the former president has no regrets, none at all. Decisions were taken to “hold accountable” leaders of other nations, and thus the Iraq War succeeded because we "took out Sadaam Hussein." American casualties are genuinely regretted, and relations with other world leaders are carefully considered, but the lives and livelihoods of ordinary Iraqis are never mentioned. Afghan citizens are occasionally acknowledged as “collateral damage,” but not as people. This record of the 43rd President's experience in office is witness to his faith and ideals, as expressed when he was in office. The book is well organized and more carefully edited than many similar works.

2. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot was on our recommended list last year and has recently been selected to be the RIC Open Books – Open Minds common book for 2012/2013. Its unique mix of medical science, ethics, history and human suffering appeals to readers from every walk of life. It is a well-researched, yet sensitive, history of the HeLa cell line – biological material that enabled tremendous 20th century medical advances. The persistent growth of the cancer that killed Henrietta Lacks was the key to its ability to survive in laboratory cultures, but Skloot wanted to know more, much more, of the human story of its origins. When the poor African American mother of five died of that cancer in 1951, doctors thought nothing of using a patient's tissue for medical research. Neither her knowledge nor her consent would have been an issue then, and had her identity been protected, it might never have been. But, 20 years later, when researchers at Johns Hopkins wanted tissue samples from her family, they revealed her identity and antagonized her family. By the time Skloot began her research, the family had long been painfully aware that their mother’s remains had been taken from them and made the object of millions of dollars of medical commerce, without compensation of any kind.

3. “Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People who Cook” by Anthony Bourdain follows up his fabulously popular “Kitchen Confidential,” the book that changed his life, 10 years ago. His downright vulgar unapologetic approach to the world of real cooks, celebrity chefs and food critics won him his own place in the TV pantheon of food and travel celebrities. Literary food porn, travel tales, and another round of frank foodie gossip make this a must-read for Bourdain’s many fans.

4. “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer combines a memoir with an investigation of industrial food production. Foer has become a father; with a child to feed, he resolved to take his own vegetarian ambivalence in hand. He investigates factory farming and the devastation wrought by high tech fishing. He finds plenty of reasons to deplore and avoid meat and meat products of every kind. At the same time, he also admires the efforts of those family farms that conscientiously practice old-fashioned animal husbandry, and he acknowledges the value of growing communities of locavores. Yet, given the realities of 21st century city life, he recoils from the complexity of a locavore's choices, as well as the limits of a vegan’s, reaffirming his vegetarianism as a practical and ethical path.

5. “A Journey: My Life in Politics” by Tony Blair tells all, beginning with the nature of Blair’s political instincts and ambitions and moving on to strategy and policy, all in the frank, earnest tones of a man who has aimed very high and worked very hard. Occasionally defensive, he struggles with the mistrust that dogged him after the intelligence scandal and the non-existent WMDs in Iraq. Having been particularly well liked during his early years in office seems to have mitigated the loss somewhat for him, understanding it is a politician’s lot to rise and to fall in the public esteem. Resenting the role of the media in trumpeting every accusation, including those with no basis, he nevertheless accepts the rudeness of the press as one of the realities of contemporary life, and concentrates on those conditions that are susceptible to government reform, taking pride in the significance of his New Labour reforms in the life of his country. In contrast to the contemporaneous “Decision Points” by George W. Bush, the willingness of the British prime minister to appreciate hindsight, listen to argument, and recognize there are two sides to a controversy gives his memoir a bit of perspective and a personal touch.

6. “Marriage Confidential” by Pamela Haag updates “the problem that has no name” described in Betty Friedan’s 1963 bestseller, “The Feminine Mystique.” By explaining the widespread dissatisfaction of successful middle class wives and mothers, Friedan opened the way for second wave feminism, leading to the 1970’s ideal of “having it all” – career and family both. Haag tracks the backlash – devoting time and energy to both career and family necessarily requires compromise, often a series of stressful compromises, hence the “workhorse wife.” When the lines are drawn more equitably, the kind of “life partnerships” she describes succeed in raising children in stable homes, while sharing both the duties of homemaking and opportunities for personal advancement, but they do not usually seem to sustain lasting romantic and sexually satisfying relationships. Exploring open marriages, marriage sabbaticals, online affairs, and other innovations, Haag gives serious consideration to alternatives.

7. “Every Day in Tuscany: Seasons of an Italian Life” by Frances Mayes, following her travel memoirs “Under the Tuscan Sun and “Bella Tuscany,” features her tour of Luca Signorelli paintings and frescos in Tuscany and Umbria, exploration of the Marche, and recipes, from ravoili ripiene di patate con zuccine e speck al pecorino to steak. Spending eight months of the year in Tuscany, the Mayes’ Italian lives are filled with the seasonal rhythms of foraging, planting, harvesting, and hunting, along with the joys of community in the piazza and the homes of friends, far from “lo stress” of American life.

8. “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” by Lori Gottlieb expands on her controversial March 2008 Atlantic Monthly article of the same title. After interviewing friends, marriage researchers, dating experts, matchmakers, scientists, and a rabbi, she finally reaches chapter 24: “Getting Over Myself.” The evidence is there right from chapter 1 that the real issue is not to settle for Mr. Good Enough, but to embrace Mr. Cool Enough because he is good – really, really good. Once Gottleib finally faces the fact that Mr. Cool is just not that into her, she begins to understand that if he was, he would not be Mr. Cool anymore.

9. “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin” by Erik Larson presents the improbable American Ambassador Dodd and his flamboyantly romantic daughter Martha in their own words, weaving tales of the Dodd family and their Berlin acquaintances into the fabric of Nazi Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. University of Chicago historian Walter Dodd was hardly qualified for the “Pretty Good Club” of independently wealthy men who largely constituted the American foreign service in Europe, but when none of their ilk accepted the German appointment, Dodd did, and despite disappointments and hardship, he worked hard to tolerate German conditions yet represent American values and interests.

10. “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You” by Eli Pariser explains how we went from surfing the net to flowing through the information tunnels built for us by Google and others. Personalization of search not only delivers us up as customers, but as consumers of news and other information. With every click, our selections are recorded, and with every search they are returned to us in kind. Via social media, we listen to the people we already know and “like” the things we already agree with. “Like the expectations of our parents and teachers, the filter bubble has a hand shaping who we become.” Pariser shows how the potential of the Internet as a force for democracy diminishes as we happily lose touch with the new, the different, and the uncomfortable worlds beyond our view.