Category Archives: Non-fiction

One Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and a Magical Baseball Season One Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and a Magical Baseball Season by Chris Ballard

One Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and a Magical Baseball SeasonOne Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and a Magical Baseball Season by Chris Ballard

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a great story of a small town baseball team that made an improbable run at the Illinois high school baseball championship in 1971, in the days when small schools and big schools played each other in the postseason. It’s also a story of how a young teacher/coach transformed his players, students, and, to some degree, the town of Macon, IL.

I grew up in Decatur and Champaign, so it was an added bonus for me that Macon is close to Decatur and Lynn Sweet’s family settled in Champaign. Fred Schooley, one of Sweet’s Champaign friends, taught and coached at Champaign Central when I went there. It was a pleasant surprise to find him in the story. Macon also played at Champaign Central’s McKinley Field, which is where Central’s baseball team still plays.

Highly recommended for people who like a good sports story, especially those who live in Central Illinois.

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The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War IIThe Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4.5 stars.  An interesting, engaging history of the development of the atomic bomb, told through the stories of the women who worked at the Clinton Engineering Works in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Recommended for readers interested in World War II, women’s history, and the history of science.

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Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine

Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine by George Dohrmann

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Really well researched and written. Grassroots youth basketball chews up and spits out a lot of kids. As parents, we need to think about this. Demetrius Walker’s basketball career ended in December (see http://oncampussports.com/2013/12/cau…). I keep wondering what might have been.

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October/November books

It’s mid-December, so I’ll hit the highlights for October and November. I’m also happy to report that I hit my GoodReads Challenge goal to read 100 books in 2012 on December 6. Not that my To Read shelf has any fewer books on it. No matter how fast I read, I can’t seem to make a dent in that list. There are just too many good books and not enough hours in the day.

Freeman by Leonard Pitts, Jr.
Takes place in the first few months following the Confederate surrender and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Upon learning of Lee’s surrender, Sam–a runaway slave who once worked for the Union Army–decides to leave his safe haven in Philadelphia and set out on foot to return to the war-torn South. What compels him on this almost-suicidal course is the desire to find his wife, the mother of his only child, whom he and their son left behind 15 years earlier on the Mississippi farm to which they all “belonged.” At the same time, Sam’s wife, Tilda, is being forced to walk at gunpoint with her owner and two of his other slaves from the charred remains of his Mississippi farm into Arkansas, in search of an undefined place that would still respect his entitlements as slaveowner and Confederate officer. The book’s third main character, Prudence, is a fearless, headstrong white woman of means who leaves her Boston home for Buford, Mississippi, to start a school for the former bondsmen, and thus honor her father’s dying wish. This book was heartwrenching in the best way possible. Pitts is a wonderful writer who draws you into the world of suddenly emancipated slaves in the South immediately after the Civil War and hooks you completely.

Redshirts by John Scalzi
If you’re a Star Trek fan you know about the Redshirts. They’re the unnamed crew members who go on away missions and never come back. So, what happens when the Redshirts realize that there’s a pattern? That’s the premise of the book. I’m about 175 pages into the 638 on my Nook copy and I’m loving this. Scalzi does a great job of moving things along and clearly had a lot of fun with the concept. The characters are pretty well-drawn, although they’re clearly based on the stock sci-fi Crew on a Ship stereotypes. I clearly visualize Shatner as the ship’s captain and Dwight Schultz as the hapless (and incredibly lucky) Lieutenant Kerensky. Highly recommended for Star Trek fans or anyone with a basic understanding of the Redshirt archetype. Bonus for fans of listening to books: Wil Wheaton reads the audiobook. I don’t normally do audio, but I’m seriously considering an exception here.

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow
It took me two months to finish this. It’s really interesting and well-written, but it made me so furious that I had to take breaks from it to read something less serious. Don’t let the subject matter deter you though. Rachel can write and makes a convincing argument for rethinking American foreign policy.

Live by Night by Dennis Lehane
Boston, 1926. The ’20s are roaring. Liquor is flowing, bullets are flying, and one man sets out to make his mark on the world. Joe Coughlin, last seen in Lehane’s The Given Day, the youngest son of a prominent Boston police captain, has long since turned his back on his strict and proper upbringing. Now having graduated from a childhood of petty theft to a career in the pay of the city’s most fearsome mobsters, Joe enjoys the spoils, thrills, and notoriety of being an outlaw. Lehane is a wonderful writer and this is a great story. Joe is a flawed, incredibly likeable anti-hero and a fascinating foil to his older brother Danny, who was one of the main characters in The Given Day. I highly recommend reading The Given Day, then Live by Night. They complement each other really well.

The Ten, Make That Nine, Habits of Very Organized People. Make That Ten.: The Tweets of Steve Martin by Steve Martin
Combine Steve Martin and Twitter and you get a very quick, very funny read. He’s warped, but brilliant.

M Is for Magic by Neil Gaiman
I love Neil Gaiman. These stories are weird, creepy, and well written. It was a perfect book to read in October.

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett
I came late to the Discworld bandwagon, but now I’m firmly aboard. This was really fun to read. I enjoyed the feminist twist.

American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee by Karen Abbott
Non-fiction that reads like a novel. Gypsy Rose Lee was interesting. Rose Louise Hovick (her real name) was even more so. And Mama Rose was a psychopath.

Take Big Bites: Adventures Around the World and Across the Table by Linda Ellerbee
I’ve been a Linda Ellerbee fan ever since I read And So It Goes while I was in college (at my dad’s recommendation). Nobody tells a story better and funnier. Each chapter centers on a specific place, time, and cuisine and includes a recipe at the end. I’ll read anything she writes, just because she’s so damned good at it.

The Perfect Hope (Inn Boonsboro, #3) by Nora Roberts
This is the third book in the Inn Boonsboro trilogy. I always enjoy Roberts’ books. Although I didn’t like this series as much as the Bride Quartet, it was still entertaining. I liked the ghost aspect, as well as the relationships between the women and the brothers. These books just seemed a little flatter than the ones in the Bride Quartet.

Judgment Call: A Brady Novel of Suspense by J.A. Jance
I have an approach/avoidance problem with this series. The plots are great, but I find myself editing instead of getting lost in the writing. I love J.P Beaumont, but am not as big a fan of Sheriff Brady.

The Lincoln Letter by William Martin
Wow. I loved everything about this book, especially the way the author moved back and forth between Civil War and present-day Washington, DC. That our family took a trip to DC last summer added a little extra something because I could visualize Ford’s Theater, the lockkeeper’s house, and other DC landmarks. He’s very skillful at weaving the present and the past together. It also complemented Lincoln (the film) very well. I liked it so much that I bought all of the author’s backlist (see the next title).

Harvard Yard by William Martin
Skillfully brings past and present story lines together into a fascinating history of Harvard. Historical thread was so vivid that I had dreams about Cotton Mather, which was a little disturbing. I’ll now read anything that William Martin writes.

A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell
Berlin in 1931 is a bleak place. Hannah Vogel is devastated when she sees a photograph of her brother’s body posted in the Hall of the Unnamed Dead. Ernst, a cross-dressing lounge singer at a seedy nightclub, had many secrets, a never-ending list of lovers, and plenty of opportunities to get into trouble. During her investigation into his death, she uncovers intrigue and political scandal at the top of the rising Nazi Party. She begins to fear for her own life, as well as that of Anton, a street urchin who has begun to call her “mother”.  Highly recommended for fans of the Maisie Dobbs series, which takes place in England in the same general time period.

Cold Days by Jim Butcher
Harry Dresden is back from being mostly dead and is introduced to life as the Winter Knight. His first assignment is suitably impossible: kill an immortal. Lots of twists and turns, snark, reunions, and Star Wars/Princess Bride and other popular sci-fi references. I read this in two days and can’t wait for book 15.

I’m currently reading book 5 in the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. I’ll do a separate post about that series, because I think I’ve found something that I like just as much as Harry Dresden. I’m eternally grateful to my friend Charlotte Roh for recommending these. They’re stellar.

Broke USA by Gary Rivlin

Book jacket summary:

Broke, USA is Gary Rivlin’s riveting report from the economic fringes. From the annual meeting of the national check cashers association in Las Vegas to a tour of the foreclosure-riddled neighborhoods of Dayton, Ohio, here is a subprime Fast Food Nation featuring an unforgettable cast of characters and memorable scenes. Rivlin profiles players like a former small-town Tennessee debt collector whose business offering cash advances to the working poor has earned him a net worth in the hundreds of millions, and legendary Wall Street dealmaker Sandy Weill, who rode a subprime loan business into control of the nation’s largest bank. Rivlin parallels their stories with the tale of those committed souls fighting back against the major corporations, chain franchises, and newly hatched enterprises that fleece the country’s hardworking waitresses, warehouse workers, and mall clerks.

This is an excellent, readable, and ultimately depressing story of the poverty lending business and how it helped bring about the financial meltdown. Belongs right next to Nickled and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America.

Lake Effect: Two Sisters and a Town’s Toxic Legacy by Nancy Nichols

Nancy Nichols grew up in Waugekan, IL in the 1960s and 1970s, when several factories, including Johns-Manville (asbestos) and Outboard Marine (engine manufacturing, which involved metalworking fluids that included PCBs) were dumping waste directly into Waukegan Harbor.  Waukegan is also home to the Yeoman Creek Landfill, which abutted a local farm where her family purchased vegetables. Nancy’s sister Sue died of ovarian cancer and Nancy herself is a survivor of pancreatic cancer.

This book, a combination of environmental history, epidemiology, and memoir, tells the story of Waukegan’s industrial rise and fall and Nancy’s search for answers following her sister’s death and her own battle with cancer. It’s compulsively readable and makes a compelling case for the linkage between her cancer and Waukegan’s pollution.

The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald

This is the book on which the new movie starring Matt Damon is based. I never though I’d say this, but this has been a really fun read. Eichenwald has turned a potentially dry subject into a thoroughly engrossing look at corporate and personal greed. It helps that Mark Whitacre, the ADM executive who wore the wire for the FBI, is just a bit nutty.

It probably helps that I lived in Decatur from kindergarten through sixth grade and that we still take day trips there on a semi-regular basis. When he describes driving to the Hampton Inn in Forsyth, I can visualize it clearly. This one is a keeper.