Notes from Neil

By Neil Rajala

Best of (Semi)2013: Nonfiction

Thursday, Dec. 12 — I certainly don't mind the idea of cold, snowy weather in Michigan in December. It's what's supposed to happen, and I'll always believe that a white Christmas is better than a green one. What I do mind is leaving earlier for work and getting home later after. Less time for the books. Here's what we're reading:

BEST OF 2013: Nonfiction
Continuing with the year-end wrap-up this week. The first half of the year was covered here, so let's dive into my second half Nonfiction favorites. Again, in no particular order:

Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City - Russell Shorto.
I love a book that keeps me compulsively turning pages. I also love a book that teaches me something fascinating that I didn't know. When the two combine, you get exemplary works like this one. From its initial carved-out-of-the-sea beginning to its modern (and too-simplistic) perception of permissiveness, every new chapter of the city has been more intriguing than the last.

The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud - Bob Drury & Tom Clavin.
Perhaps the most significant unknown figure in American history, Red Cloud of the Sioux at one point controlled one-fifth of the contiguous United States and remains the only opposing commander to defeat the U.S. Army on American soil. Late in his life he was honored by the same U.S. government that took away his land and livelihood. He left behind a remarkably frank memoir that was recently discovered and helped the authors create a vivid portrait of a powerful man, fighting to save "everything that is."

Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life - Graham Nash.
Is Mr. Nash really the nice rock and roll guy his public persona has always suggested? He certainly seems to be. Does he write well enough to pull off a memoir without a co-writer? Absolutely. Is it odd to read a tale steeped in the sex-and-drug excesses of the music business told in such an "aw shucks" voice? It really is, and that underlying paradox is what put Wild Tales on the top shelf of celebrity memoirs for me. The sustained tension between the story and the storyteller was mesmerizing throughout.

Wilson - A. Scott Berg.
An ambitious book that does a great job of humanizing an inscrutable President and lifting the shroud of mystery from his second term, when he was recovering from a stroke. His was a presidency of monumental achievements and crushing defeats, both personal and political. The tail end of Reconstruction, the horror of World War I, women's suffrage, a civil rights movement just beginning to find its voice(s) - all part of the background of the political life of a brilliant but flawed and complex man.

Double Down: Game Change 2012 - Mark Halperin & John Heilemann.
Sure, it's history and we know the ending; and sure, many of you want to put the memory of last year's presidential election behind you, but this book isn't the tabloid-level re-enactment advance glimpses made it out to be. It's keep-the-pages-turning modern political history; well researched and expertly told. The chapters on the Republican primary season alone are worth the price of admission.

Fouth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football - John U. Bacon.
Serious Big 10 football fans are already familiar with Mr. Bacon from his previous books. His latest widens the scope from the programs in our own state to the conference as a whole. He takes an unflinching look at the many issues threatening to change college football forever - television revenues, NCAA sanctions, Athletic Directors with agendas, ticket prices and availability, the ongoing dissolution of key rivalries - all examined with the honesty and genuine concern of a passionate fan.

Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him - Joe & David Henry.
When I finished this book, all I wanted to do for the next couple of evenings was to listen to Pryor's groundbreaking comedy albums, one after another. The story the Henry brothers tell is a troubling and complex one - to say the subject was a difficult person to be around is to put it very mildly - but in the end what makes this a memorable biography is the much deeper appreciation of his unique, brave art that stays with you long after the last page.

Honorable Mentions:
Still more great titles that will entertain and educate:

Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington - Terry Teachout.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking - Anya Von Bremzen.

Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones - Bill Janovitz.

From Scratch: Inside the Food Network - Allen Salkin.

Strat in the Attic: Thrilling Stories of Guitar Archaeology - Deke Dickerson.

I know I must have missed many of your favorites. Despite my best efforts I can't read (or like) everything. Let me know what 2013 favorites of yours I missed, fiction or non, and if I get enough responses, I'll be happy to send out a Reader's Choice list in the near future.

Until next week,


NeilNeil Rajala is Currently Director of Community & Business Services for Schuler Books, Neil's decade with the company has included the wearing of many different hats - and lots and lots of reading.