Non-Fiction Book Discussion Titles For Essays

Looking to mix things up with your book club? Choosing a nonfiction read not only provides a change of pace, but can inspire thought-provoking conversations based on real-life events. From medical mysteries to family memoirs, these recent nonfiction book club books are sure to satisfy any fiction fan. Check out these recent releases below, complete with publishers’ descriptions.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as human computers used pencils, slide rules and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space. Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the Souths segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had a shot at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

Even as Virginias Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley’s all-black West Computing group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and complete domination of the heavens.

Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASAs greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades they faced challenges, forged alliances and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country’s future.

The Spider and the Fly by Claudia Rowe

In this superb work of literary true crime — a spellbinding combination of memoir and psychological suspense — a female journalist chronicles her unusual connection with a convicted serial killer and her search to understand the darkness inside us.

“Well, well, Claudia. Can I call you Claudia? I’ll have to give it to you, when confronted at least you’re honest, as honest as any reporter… You want to go into the depths of my mind and into my past. I want a peek into yours. It is only fair, isn’t it?”—Kendall Francois

In September 1998, young reporter Claudia Rowe was working as a stringer for the New York Times in Poughkeepsie, New York, when local police discovered the bodies of eight women stashed in the attic and basement of the small colonial home that Kendall Francois, a painfully polite 27-year-old community college student, shared with his parents and sister.

Growing up amid the safe, bourgeois affluence of New York City, Rowe had always been secretly fascinated by the darkness, and soon became obsessed with the story and with Francois. She was consumed with the desire to understand just how a man could abduct and strangle eight women — and how a family could live for two years, seemingly unaware, in a house with the victims’ rotting corpses. She also hoped to uncover what humanity, if any, a murderer could maintain in the wake of such monstrous evil.

Reaching out after Francois was arrested, Rowe and the serial killer began a dizzying four-year conversation about cruelty, compassion, and control; an unusual and provocative relationship that would eventually lead her to the abyss, forcing her to clearly see herself and her own past — and why she was drawn to danger.

Patient H.M. by Luke Dittrich

In 1953, a 27-year-old factory worker named Henry Molaison — who suffered from severe epilepsy — received a radical new version of the then-common lobotomy, targeting the most mysterious structures in the brain. The operation failed to eliminate Henry’s seizures, but it did have an unintended effect: Henry was left profoundly amnesic, unable to create long-term memories. Over the next 60 years, Patient H.M., as Henry was known, became the most studied individual in the history of neuroscience, a human guinea pig who would teach us much of what we know about memory today.

Patient H.M. is, at times, a deeply personal journey. Dittrich’s grandfather was the brilliant, morally complex surgeon who operated on Molaison — and thousands of other patients. The author’s investigation into the dark roots of modern memory science ultimately forces him to confront unsettling secrets in his own family history, and to reveal the tragedy that fueled his grandfather’s relentless experimentation — experimentation that would revolutionize our understanding of ourselves.

Dittrich uses the case of Patient H.M. as a starting point for a kaleidoscopic journey, one that moves from the first recorded brain surgeries in ancient Egypt to the cutting-edge laboratories of MIT. He takes readers inside the old asylums and operating theaters where psychosurgeons, as they called themselves, conducted their human experiments, and behind the scenes of a bitter custody battle over the ownership of the most important brain in the world.

Patient H.M. combines the best of biography, memoir, and science journalism to create a haunting, endlessly fascinating story, one that reveals the wondrous and devastating things that can happen when hubris, ambition, and human imperfection collide.

Mrs. Sherlock Holmes by Brad Ricca

Mrs. Sherlock Holmes tells the incredible true life story of Mrs. Grace Humiston, the New York lawyer and detective who solved the famous cold case of Ruth Cruger, an 18-year-old girl who disappeared in 1917. Grace was an amazing lawyer and traveling detective during a time when no women were practicing these professions. She focused on solving cases no one else wanted and advocating for innocents. Grace became the first female U.S. District Attorney and made ground-breaking investigations into modern slavery.

One of Grace’s greatest accomplishments was solving the Cruger case after following a trail of corruption that lead from New York to Italy. Her work changed how the country viewed the problem of missing girls. But the victory came with a price when she learned all too well what happens when one woman upstages the entire NYPD.

In the literary tradition of In Cold Blood and The Devil in the White City, Brad Ricca’s Mrs. Sherlock Holmes is a true crime tale told in spine-tingling fashion. This story is about a woman whose work was so impressive that the papers gave her the nickname of fiction’s greatest sleuth. With important repercussions in the present about kidnapping, the role of the media, and the truth of crime stories, the great mystery of the book — and its haunting twist ending — is how one woman can become so famous only to disappear completely.

Eleanor and Hick by Susan Quinn

In 1932, as her husband assumed the presidency, Eleanor Roosevelt entered the claustrophobic, duty-bound existence of the First Lady with dread. By that time, she had put her deep disappointment in her marriage behind her and developed an independent life — now threatened by the public role she would be forced to play. A lifeline came to her in the form of a feisty campaign reporter for the Associated Press: Lorena Hickok. Over the next 30 years, until Eleanor’s death, the two women carried on an extraordinary relationship: They were, at different points, lovers, confidantes, professional advisors, and caring friends.

They couldn’t have been more different. Eleanor had been raised in one of the nation’s most powerful political families and was introduced to society as a debutante before marrying her distant cousin, Franklin. Hick, as she was known, had grown up poor in rural South Dakota and worked as a servant girl after she escaped an abusive home, eventually becoming one of the most respected reporters at the AP. Her admiration drew the buttoned-up Eleanor out of her shell, and the two quickly fell in love. For the next 13 years, Hick had her own room at the White House, next door to the First Lady.

These fiercely compassionate women inspired each other to right the wrongs of the turbulent era in which they lived. During the Depression, Hick reported from the nation’s poorest areas for the WPA, and Eleanor used these reports to lobby her husband for New Deal programs. Hick encouraged Eleanor to turn their frequent letters into her popular and long-lasting syndicated column “My Day,” and to befriend the female journalists who became her champions. When Eleanor’s tenure as First Lady ended with FDR’s death, Hick pushed her to continue to use her popularity for good — advice Eleanor took by leading the UN’s postwar Human Rights Commission. At every turn, the bond these women shared was grounded in their determination to better their troubled world.

Deeply researched and told with great warmth, Eleanor and Hick is a vivid portrait of love and a revealing look at how an unlikely romance influenced some of the most consequential years in American history.

Truevine by Beth Macy

The year was 1899 and the place a sweltering tobacco farm in the Jim Crow South town of Truevine, Virginia. George and Willie Muse were two little boys born to a sharecropper family. One day a white man offered them a piece of candy, setting off events that would take them around the world and change their lives forever.
Captured into the circus, the Muse brothers performed for royalty at Buckingham Palace and headlined over a dozen sold-out shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden. They were global superstars in a pre-broadcast era. But the very root of their success was in the color of their skin and in the outrageous caricatures they were forced to assume: supposed cannibals, sheep-headed freaks, even “Ambassadors from Mars.” Back home, their mother never accepted that they were “gone” and spent 28 years trying to get them back.

Through hundreds of interviews and decades of research, Beth Macy expertly explores a central and difficult question: Where were the brothers better off? On the world stage as stars or in poverty at home? Truevine is a compelling narrative rich in historical detail and rife with implications to race relations today.

The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel

In the mid-19th century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as calculators, or “human computers,” to interpret the observations their male counterparts made via telescope each night. At the outset this group included the wives, sisters, and daughters of the resident astronomers, but soon the female corps included graduates of the new women’s colleges — Vassar, Wellesley, and Smith. As photography transformed the practice of astronomy, the ladies turned from computation to studying the stars captured nightly on glass photographic plates.

The “glass universe” of half a million plates that Harvard amassed over the ensuing decades — through the generous support of Mrs. Anna Palmer Draper, the widow of a pioneer in stellar photography — enabled the women to make extraordinary discoveries that attracted worldwide acclaim. They helped discern what stars were made of, divided the stars into meaningful categories for further research, and found a way to measure distances across space by starlight. Their ranks included Williamina Fleming, a Scottish woman originally hired as a maid who went on to identify ten novae and more than three hundred variable stars; Annie Jump Cannon, who designed a stellar classification system that was adopted by astronomers the world over and is still in use; and Dr. Cecilia Helena Payne, who in 1956 became the first ever woman professor of astronomy at Harvard — and Harvard’s first female department chair.

Elegantly written and enriched by excerpts from letters, diaries, and memoirs, The Glass Universe is the hidden history of the women whose contributions to the burgeoning field of astronomy forever changed our understanding of the stars and our place in the universe.

Rise by Cara Brookins

After escaping an abusive marriage, Cara Brookins had four children to provide for and no one to turn to but herself. In desperate need of a home but without the means to buy one, she did something incredible.

Equipped only with YouTube instructional videos, a small bank loan and a mile-wide stubborn streak, Cara built her own house from the foundation up with a work crew made up of her four children.

It would be the hardest thing she had ever done. With no experience nailing together anything bigger than a bookshelf, she and her kids poured concrete, framed the walls and laid bricks for their two story, five bedroom house. She had convinced herself that if they could build a house, they could rebuild their broken family.

This must-read memoir traces one family’s rise from battered victims to stronger, better versions of themselves, all through one extraordinary do-it-yourself project.

Dust Bowl Girls by Lydia Reeder

In the early 1930s, during the worst drought and financial depression in American history, Sam Babb began to dream. Like so many others, this charismatic Midwestern basketball coach wanted a reason to have hope. Traveling from farm to farm near the tiny Oklahoma college where he coached, Babb recruited talented, hardworking young women and offered them a chance at a better life: a free college education in exchange for playing on his basketball team, the Cardinals.

Despite their fears of leaving home and the sacrifices that their families would face, the women joined the team. And as Babb coached the Cardinals, something extraordinary happened. These remarkable athletes found a passion for the game and a heartfelt loyalty to one another and their coach — and they began to win.

Combining exhilarating sports writing and exceptional storytelling, Dust Bowl Girls takes readers on the Cardinals’ intense, improbable journey all the way to an epic showdown with the prevailing national champions, helmed by the legendary Babe Didrikson. Lydia Reeder captures a moment in history when female athletes faced intense scrutiny from influential figures in politics, education, and medicine who denounced women’s sports as unhealthy and unladylike. At a time when a struggling nation was hungry for inspiration, this unlikely group of trailblazers achieved much more than a championship season.

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, they rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.

Then, one by one, the Osage began to be killed off. The family of an Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, became a prime target. Her relatives were shot and poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more and more members of the tribe began to die under mysterious circumstances.

In this last remnant of the Wild West — where oilmen like J. P. Getty made their fortunes and where desperadoes like Al Spencer, the “Phantom Terror,” roamed — many of those who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll climbed to more than twenty-four, the FBI took up the case. It was one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations and the bureau badly bungled the case. In desperation, the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including one of the only American Indian agents in the bureau. The agents infiltrated the region, struggling to adopt the latest techniques of detection. Together with the Osage they began to expose one of the most chilling conspiracies in American history.

In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann revisits a shocking series of crimes in which dozens of people were murdered in cold blood. Based on years of research and startling new evidence, the book is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction, as each step in the investigation reveals a series of sinister secrets and reversals. But more than that, it is a searing indictment of the callousness and prejudice toward American Indians that allowed the murderers to operate with impunity for so long. Killers of the Flower Moon is utterly compelling, but also emotionally devastating.

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

The Curies’ newly discovered element of radium makes gleaming headlines across the nation as the fresh face of beauty, and wonder drug of the medical community. From body lotion to tonic water, the popular new element shines bright in the otherwise dark years of the First World War.

Meanwhile, hundreds of girls toil amidst the glowing dust of the radium-dial factories. The glittering chemical covers their bodies from head to toe; they light up the night like industrious fireflies. With such a coveted job, these “shining girls” are the luckiest alive — until they begin to fall mysteriously ill.

But the factories that once offered golden opportunities are now ignoring all claims of the gruesome side effects, and the women’s cries of corruption. And as the fatal poison of the radium takes hold, the brave shining girls find themselves embroiled in one of the biggest scandals of America’s early 20th century, and in a groundbreaking battle for workers’ rights that will echo for centuries to come.

Written with a sparkling voice and breakneck pace, The Radium Girls fully illuminates the inspiring young women exposed to the “wonder” substance of radium, and their awe-inspiring strength in the face of almost impossible circumstances. Their courage and tenacity led to life-changing regulations, research into nuclear bombing, and ultimately saved hundreds of thousands of lives…

The Black Hand by Stephan Talty

Beginning in the summer of 1903, an insidious crime wave filled New York City, and then the entire country, with fear. The children of Italian immigrants were kidnapped, and dozens of innocent victims were gunned down. Bombs tore apart tenement buildings. Judges, senators, Rockefellers, and society matrons were threatened with gruesome deaths. The perpetrators seemed both omnipresent and invisible. Their only calling card: the symbol of a black hand. The crimes whipped up the slavering tabloid press and heated ethnic tensions to the boiling point. Standing between the American public and the Black Hand’s lawlessness was Joseph Petrosino. Dubbed the “Italian Sherlock Holmes,” he was a famously dogged and ingenious detective, and a master of disguise. As the crimes grew ever more bizarre and the Black Hand’s activities spread far beyond New York’s borders, Petrosino and the all-Italian police squad he assembled raced to capture members of the secret criminal society before the country’s anti-immigrant tremors exploded into catastrophe. Petrosino’s quest to root out the source of the Black Hand’s power would take him all the way to Sicily — but at a terrible cost.

Unfolding a story rich with resonance in our own era, The Black Hand is fast-paced narrative history at its very best.

The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Before Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich begins a summer job at a law firm in Louisiana, working to help defend men accused of murder, she thinks her position is clear. The child of two lawyers, she is staunchly anti-death penalty. But the moment convicted murderer Ricky Langley’s face flashes on the screen as she reviews old tapes — the moment she hears him speak of his crimes — she is overcome with the feeling of wanting him to die. Shocked by her reaction, she digs deeper and deeper into the case. Despite their vastly different circumstances, something in his story is unsettlingly, uncannily familiar.

Crime, even the darkest and most unsayable acts, can happen to any one of us. As Alexandria pores over the facts of the murder, she finds herself thrust into the complicated narrative of Ricky’s childhood. And by examining the details of Ricky’s case, she is forced to face her own story, to unearth long-buried family secrets, and reckon with a past that colors her view of Ricky’s crime.

But another surprise awaits: She wasn’t the only one who saw her life in Ricky’s.

An intellectual and emotional thriller that is also a different kind of murder mystery, The Fact of a Body is a book not only about how the story of one crime was constructed — but about how we grapple with our own personal histories. Along the way it tackles questions about the nature of forgiveness, and if a single narrative can ever really contain something as definitive as the truth. This groundbreaking, heart-stopping work, ten years in the making, shows how the law is more personal than we would like to believe — and the truth more complicated, and powerful, than we could ever imagine.

What is your book club currently reading? Let us know in the comments!

TIP Sheet
WRITING ABOUT NON-FICTION BOOKS

At some point in your college career you may be asked to review a non-fiction book to enable you to learn more about some aspect of your course work. The assignment is demanding because you are required to describe and evaluate an author's contribution to a subject that you may know little about. How should you proceed?

Your instructor will usually offer some guidance, such as a suggested list of books or some guidelines to follow in selecting a work. Generally, you should try to find a relatively recent work of about 200-350 pages on some aspect of the course that particularly interests you.

Describe and evaluate
You are expected to describe the book, that is, to summarize some major points of interest, and to evaluate it, that is, to make judgments about it. The areas to address include the following:

Description

  • Information about the author
  • Background information about the book
  • Author's purpose-to inform? Entertain? Persuade?
  • Author's thesis
  • Organization
  • Summary

Evaluation

  • Other reviews
  • Scholarship
  • Strengths and weaknesses

Later you may decide to omit some of these points. Their order may be changed, with more important or striking matters appearing first. Usually the descriptive section appears first in non-fiction reviews, especially in scholarly journals. All these organizational decisions are subjective and can be revised as needed.

While reading the book, take notes of the passages and their page numbers that relate to how you can describe and evaluate the work. In particular, be on the lookout for thesis statements, chapter summaries, striking quotations, discussions of methodology, conclusions, and author's recommendations. If you question whether or not to take a particular note, remember that it would be wiser to err on the side of having too many, rather than too few. You can always eliminate notes that appear unnecessary.

Points of description
Information about the author may appear on the book jacket or may be obtained or inferred from what is written in the preface. In order to determine to what extent the author is an authority on the subject, you should do some library research into the author's present position, background, experience, and qualifications. Biographical sources such as the Biography Center in the GaleNet database will help you find this information. It need not be much, perhaps just a sentence; at most, it might consist of a short paragraph.

Background information about a book consists of the historical, sociological, economic, scientific or other circumstances that may have influenced or contributed to its publication. This information may have some bearing on the book's importance or interest.

Often the author's purpose–to amuse, inform, persuade-will be apparent from the preface or introduction.

The thesis or central idea of the book will probably be stated in the introduction or the conclusion. To gain an overview of the book that will help you realize its purpose and main ideas, read the preface and the introductory and concluding chapters first.

The organization of non-fiction depends partly on what kind of non-fiction it is-philosophy? Biology?–and partly on the author's purpose. History, for example, might be organized either chronologically or around central issues. Or, if the author's purpose is to challenge a widely-held position, he may choose to refute ideas point-by-point. Look at the table of contents and, as you read, refer back to it.

Because so much depends on your audience, the summary may be one of the most difficult parts of the review to write. Are you writing only for your instructor who has probably already read, or is familiar with, the book? Are you writing for your classmates who have not read it? Or are you writing for other people who are not in the course and are therefore unfamiliar with the subject? Your instructor can tell you what audience the paper should address. Then you will be able to judge how thorough your summary should be and whether or not terms should be defined and points explained in detail.

Points of evaluation
At the same time that you gather information to describe the work, you should be thinking about your evaluation of it. Read a few other reviews of this book to inform your own opinion–what points did other reviewers address? Were professional reviewers unanimous in their evaluations, or did their opinions differ? Of course, any ideas or quotations obtained from these reviews should be attributed to their owners in your paper. To consult published reviews of the book, ask the reference librarian to help you find an appropriate index, or check an online database. Following is a partial list of the databases available to Butte College students:

  • Proquest Direct–for general disciplines including health, humanities, sciences, social sciences, arts, business, education, women's and multicultural issues.
  • SIRS Researcher–for topics including science, history, politics, and global issues.
  • Wilson Web–for biographies, obituaries, science, education, current events, and social science.
  • GaleNet–for biographies, authors, history, science, and literature.
  • Health Reference Center–for topics in health, medicine, and nursing.

Some online databases offer full text articles; others offer abstracts (summaries) and information on how to find the full text in other publications; you can quickly scan abstracts to determine which articles are most likely to be useful to you. Advanced search features allow you to search using Boolean operators (and, or, not) for either full texts or abstracts. You can also narrow your search to scholarly journals for better search results. (From the Butte College home page, http://www.butte.edu, use the library links-search For Articles and select a database from the alphabetical list.)

The print-version Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature (in the Butte College Library, 1959 to the present) may also be helpful. This index also summarizes and tells you where to find the texts. The names and dates of the publications in which they appear are listed, and you should be able to refer to your selected reviews with little effort. The different indexes are usually organized by year, but keep in mind that a work published late in the year might not be reviewed until the following year.

You may find it difficult to judge the scholarship of a work or an author's expertise because of your limited understanding of the subject. But it does not require highly specialized knowledge to note what sources the author uses (look for the notes or bibliography sections), how much and what kind of evidence he provides, or how he analyzes data and justifies his conclusions. Read carefully to identify omissions, discernible bias, or unsupported generalizations. For example, someone reviewing a work entitled War in the Falklands would have little difficulty pointing out that this account of the 1982 war between Britain and Argentina is pro-British, containing little information about the Argentine politicians, participants, and purposes.

When considering a book's strengths and weaknesses, discuss the following points:

  • The tone and style of the writing
  • The importance of the book in its field
  • The value of the book for its intended audience
  • The effectiveness of the author's argument
  • The soundness of the author's conclusions
  • The practicality of the author's recommendations.

Your discussion the book's strengths and weaknesses may overlap with your discussion of scholarship. Plan to sort this out when revising your review so that your paper concludes with your general reaction. If your overall evaluation is favorable, admit the book's few weaknesses first and conclude with its many strong areas. If unfavorable, name the book's strengths first and conclude with its numerous weaknesses.

Mention any particularly interesting or memorable points or passages, and support your opinions with references to the book, but use quotations sparingly.

In your evaluation, you might reflect on how the book relates to your course. Consider what issues, ideas, or institutions the author criticizes or defends. Note the methodology and evaluate how it shapes or restricts the topic. Also, evaluate how well the author has added to your knowledge and understanding of the subject, particularly how it supplements the ideas in the textbook and the views of your instructor.

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