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Five Books to Prepare for Nonfiction November

Cindy Burnett
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Buses Are a Comin’

Buses Are a Comin’: Memoir of a Freedom Rider by Charles Person and Richard Rooker provides the context for and the build up to the Freedom Rides and the clever strategies the riders eventually used to prevail in their mission to desegregate interstate buses.

In the reading community, November is frequently known as #NonfictionNovember, and readers gear up ahead of time with lots of nonfiction titles that they want to read during that month. I rounded up five narrative nonfiction books from previous years that I really enjoyed to help people prepare for joining in and reading some true stories in November:

Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angels by Paul Pringle – Bad City is a riveting and horrifying look at the way USC’s administration prioritized the school’s reputation over its students and the surrounding community. In 2016, an LA Times reporter received a tip about a woman who overdosed at a local hotel and the role that Dr. Carmen Puliafito, the dean of USC’s Keck School of Medicine, played in the overdose. Not aware yet of the can of worms he would ultimately open, Paul Pringle began looking into the event. By the time he was finished several years later, he had exposed corruption at the highest levels at USC and at the LA Times. The dean not only did meth and other drugs regularly himself (and was so sure he would not be punished he videoed and photographed himself doing so), but he befriended women in their 20s and provided them drugs and money.

Repeated complaints to USC’s Provost C.L. Max Nikias yielded not even one response except to the editor of the LA Times who then scolded the reporters. Subsequently, Paul and his group learned about a male gynecologist who worked at the student clinic and had been molesting students for decades with no punishment. The reporters then proved that the administration was aware of this behavior as well. After the stories ran, the group ended up winning a Pulitzer Prize for bringing the second story to light. While it is a tough read at times, Bad City vividly demonstrates the continued importance of investigative journalism. 

The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free by Paulina Bren – After World War I, women flocked to New York City to follow their dreams and sought safe, female-only places to live. While residential hotels for men existed, no such thing was available for women at the time. The Barbizon Hotel for Women was built to fill this void, housing such well-knowns as Grace Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Ali McGraw, Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Phylicia Rashad, and many more, and was so successful that it remains the most famous of the women-only residences erected in the first half of the 20th century. In The Barbizon, Paulina Bren captures not only the story of the legendary hotel but also important moments in women’s history from that time period.

Buses Are a Comin’: Memoir of a Freedom Rider by Charles Person and Richard Rooker Buses Are a Comin’ should be required reading in the U.S. because this personal history of the Freedom Rides of 1961 is quite an amazing story. The bravery and strength of the individuals who participated in these rides to secure equal rights for all in the face of incredible opposition is awe inspiring. The fact that some people were so upset by integration that they would wait for buses to arrive just to torment and attack the riders is hard to fathom for most people today. The book provides the context for and the build up to the Freedom Rides and the clever strategies the riders eventually used to prevail in their mission to desegregate interstate buses. I partly read, partly listened to this one, and I highly recommend both. The audiobook is fantastic, and the book includes some amazing photos from the Freedom Rides.

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson – 2020 Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna’s contributions to the world will not be fully known for years and possibly decades, but her development with collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier of CRISPR, an easy-to-use gene-editing technology, is revolutionizing modern science and medicine. Following this life-changing creation dubbed “the most important biological advance since … the discovery of the structure of DNA”, Doudna, a biochemist and genescientist, has worked to tackle the moral issues associated with the invention, balancing the ability to better fight off new viruses such as the coronavirus and help prevent depression with allowing parents to choose a child’s gender, intelligence, or eye color. In this exhaustively researched book, Isaacson chronicles the advent of an amazing new technology and what it will mean for science and the world at large.

The Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People by Rick Bragg – In The Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People, Bragg chronicles how his life was forever changed by the arrival of a half-blind and poorly behaved stray dog he eventually names Speck. At age 60, he finds himself recovering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and heart and kidney failure and having to live in his mother’s basement. When Speck arrives, Bragg doesn’t know what to make of him but eventually realizes he has been granted the gift of an unruly and hilariously poor behaved dog that loves him unconditionally. From a chapter about the perfect dog he wanted (“The Dog I Had in Mind”) to one about how the dog kept tripping him up (“Tumbling, Tumbling Down”), Bragg brings to life his adventures with Speck and how the rescuer ultimately becomes the rescued. We can all learn from Speck about how to live a life of unbridled joy and to love with abandon even when life has knocked us down. And thankfully, unlike many dog books, Speck is still alive and terrorizing people (and other animals) in Alabama.

For more book recommendations and bookish thoughts, see Cindy’s monthly Buzz Reads column, her Thoughts from a Page Podcast or follow @ThoughtsFromaPage on Instagram. Find upcoming Conversations from a Page events here.

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