Born To Run

220px-born2runTitle: Born To Run

Author: Christopher McDougall

Number of Pages: 282

Nonfiction

Plot Overview: On a mission to answer the question, “Why does my foot hurt?”, McDougall journeys from his backyard to the Copper Canyons of Mexico. He’s looking for the Tarahumara (Raramuri), a legendarily secretive, indigenous tribe of super-runners. Along the way, he makes literary visits to extreme locations like Leadville, Colorado, and Death Valley, California. His adventure also moves back in time, through the evolution of distance running.

What I enjoyed: There was so much about this book to love. Every plot line was clear and concise – there was no confusion at all to be had. The novel flowed smoothly and easily between the Tarahumaras’ story and McDougall’s own, both of which felt more like cleverly drawn fiction than nonfiction. Plus, some of the conclusions drawn, like the Running Man Theory (in essence, we survived and the Neanderthals were wiped out was because we could run down our prey) are, simply put, fascinating. All of these bits, on their own, could have made for a good story, but the author wove them together in such a way that they became greater than the sum of their parts.

What I disliked: Cue the cricket noise, because there really isn’t a lot to say here. If you aren’t a nutty ultramarathon runner or even someone who goes out and jogs every other day, then some of the subject matter covered in it may seem slightly tedious, like the intense discussion about running shoes. However, it’s okay, because this book will make you want to start getting out there and running.

Other Notes: Caballo Blanco, one of the main characters, recently passed away at the age of 58.

Other Reviews: Dan Zak, of the Washington Post, gives his opinions on McDougall’s work here.

Final Verdict: As a (shorter-distance) runner, I had so much fun reading this. Even if you aren’t a runner, you’ll still enjoy it for its impeccable storytelling.

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Banana

1260005Title: Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World

Author: Dan Koeppel

Number of Pages: 260

Nonfiction

Plot Overview: Banana is a fascinating journey through the history of the banana, its cultural impact, and its current endangered status.

What I enjoyed: This book is not aggressively factual, successfully dodging the largest obstacle of non-fiction. It made an effort to include the cultural shifts that accompanied the banana, which I really liked. The language is accessible and in no way stuffy. It was also informative (as non-fiction should be), and organized in chronological format. Another thing that was appreciated was that, at the end, Koeppel offers his personal opinion on the best method for saving the banana (and, as one learns from this book, it does need saving). Whether you agree with his opinion or not, it does make for interesting discussion.

What I dislikedKoeppel opened with some anecdotes, which felt out of place in a book about fruit. I was reading to understand the banana, not to labor through explanations of how the author became interested in the banana. The quality of the writing in that opening section was also rather unimpressive, though it picked up as the book progressed.

Other notes: This book was published in 2008, so some of the information given is a little bit dated. CNN ran an article on the Cavendish banana (the kind that most consumers eat) in January 2016, featuring Koeppel. That link is here.

Other Reviews: Yale Scientific takes quite a different stance on this book. Read their review here.

Final Verdict: For a banana novice, delightful.

 

Empire of the Summer Moon

Empire Summer COVER.jpgTitle: Empire of the Summer Moon

Author: S. C. Gwynne

Number of Pages: 319

Nonfiction

Plot Overview: This book focuses on two parallel stories: the fortunes of the Comanche tribes, the most ferocious warriors to ever inhabit the North American continent, and Quanah Parker, their last and most brilliant chief.

Thoughts: This book is an exploration of the rough, brutal people that lived and died on the Texas frontier. These are not the Native Americans you remember from first-grade field trips. The Comanches were nomadic, masters of the horse, lethal with a bow or lance. They made war simply because it was what they were good at. Singlehandedly, they halted the frontier and ‘manifest destiny’ . Their most successful opponents were the Texas Rangers, scruffy, lawless, vehement, and vicious, who took on the massive task of finding and exterminating the Plains peoples in their heartlands. Clearly, this is a topic that is difficult to write about without stepping on someone’s toes, but Gwynne proves himself to be an expert in neutrality, neither glorifying the Comanches nor their foes. For that matter, he also refrains from gentrifying either side. However, it included no maps and was noticeably lacking in pictures of that area – it’s a little harder to be engaged with warfare when one can’t visualize it well. Also, sometimes the interweaving of the stories felt clumsy and forced. On a more positive note, Gwynne chooses to engage with the characters rather than focusing exclusively on the battles, which moves this book squarely from mediocre and sometimes dense to interesting and worthwhile.

Other notes: This book has fairly small print and almost no photos.

Other reviews: Tim Giago, at the Huffington Post, has a very different view of this book. Find the review here.

Final Verdict: Very interesting: though it requires a certain perseverance, in the end an illuminating read. Worth your time.

The Partly Cloudy Patriot

220px-partlycloudytTitle: The Partly Cloudy Patriot

Author: Sarah Vowell

Number of Pages: 196

Nonfiction

Plot Overview: In this send-up of various incidents in American history and her own life, Sarah Vowell discusses everything from Al Gore to the Civil War to Rosa Parks to salad dressing.

Thoughts: Vowell’s voice is inimitable: snarky, nerdy, yet oddly profound. However, she sometimes comes off as a little facetious, and her jokes might fall flat if, say, you didn’t follow the presidential election of 2000 in intense depth or have no idea what the New German Cinema is. Her profundity is often confusing and multifaceted- this is not a book you can pick up and read before you fall asleep. She does have her moments, though, particularly when she mentions her family and personal life. And when she discusses Lincoln, one’s heart might swell a little bit with patriotic pride. You might walk away from this book marginally baffled, but at least you’ll have plenty of new things to say about America’s roster of presidents.

Other Pertinent Information: Sarah Vowell is a frequent contributor to the radio show “This American Life”, on NPR.

Other Reviews: The New York Times, reviewing another Vowell book (Unfamiliar Fishes), said of Vowell, “Sometimes I loved the disruptive student in class who livened up lectures with wisecracks — it put a spin on things, added flavor, made me laugh. Other times I wished the heckler would just shut up so I could learn something.” (New York Times). This was truly how I felt about her style. Read the full review here.

Final Verdict: For presidential history buffs, a fine read. For those looking for humor or a lighter read, take this up with some caution.