Mini-Reviews: Recently Read Nonfiction

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American RightStrangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild
Published by New Press

This was a difficult read for me because much of what is discussed in the book is so opposite my own beliefs and thoughts and political ideology that it was frustrating to read. In attempting to empathize with the American Right, especially those in the Deep South (specifically Louisiana), Hochschild illuminated so many of the core beliefs that this group has and exactly why a candidate like Donald Trump became so wildly successful at this time in our nation’s history. But it’s hard because I so fundamentally disagree with so much of what the people she interviewed believe that I found it excruciatingly difficult to empathize with them. One small example – there’s this whole concept in the book about how (some) poor white people feel that minorities should be at the “back of the line” because, you know, it’s “natural”, and programs/laws/etc. that give minorities more equality give them the opportunity to “cut in line” ahead of white people … like what? Hi, this is racism. How can I possibly empathize with that? On the one hand, I appreciate what Hochschild was trying to do here, and I also believe that we can’t possibly work together as a country if we don’t even attempt to empathize with each other, but on the other hand I just CANNOT with the racism, sexism, etc. that is so prevalent in the beliefs of the people she talks to in the book. So, overall, good read, but if you’re anything like me, you may find yourself frustrated and outraged by a lot of the book’s contents.

The Bible: A BiographyThe Bible: A Biography by Karen Armstrong
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press

I was inspired to read this book because I was having a discussion with my boyfriend about something in the Bible (he grew up Catholic, I grew up lightly Methodist but ventured into Bible-based Christianity when I was married, we are both agnostic at best now) and I remembered that I had this book on my shelves and perhaps I could read it and settle whatever discussion/argument we were having. Ha! Anyway, Karen Armstrong does this thing where she’s thorough but succinct at the same time and I am not sure how it’s possible but it makes a topic that might otherwise be dry and difficult to get through much, much easier to read about. I didn’t love this book, because I only half care about the subject matter (I am more interested in the history than the faith itself), but I did learn quite a bit and was overall really impressed with Armstrong’s research and writing style. I think I’ll read another one of her books – where should I start?

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining WomenThe Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore
Published by Sourcebooks

Holy crap, this book is insane. If you haven’t heard about The Radium Girls, it is about women in two factories, one in New Jersey and one in Illinois, who painted radium on watches during and after World War One. Radium is basically the most toxic substance that exists and these girls were surrounded by it twelve hours a day, six days a week, for years. They were instructed by the owners of the companies they worked for to put the radium brushes IN THEIR MOUTHS to get a better look when painting the watches. So, you know, their teeth began to fall out, then their jaws and bones rotted from the inside out, they got all kinds of unheard of cancers, and most of them died by their twenties or early thirties. But before they all died, they sued the companies and set a major precedent for workers rights and all kinds of other important regulations we have today. Not to mention the fact that they proved that this radium shit is insanely poisonous and probably saved millions of lives. Anyway, this was a fantastic book. Moore did meticulous research, spent tons of time with the living relatives of these women, unearthed the actual journals of the women themselves, and just overall killed it with this book. It is so good and absolutely a must read.

Advertisements

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much MoreRedefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock
Published by Atria Books

A couple of years ago, this was recommended to me as one of those books that you just “have” to read. I didn’t know who Janet Mock was at that time, but now that I’ve read her story I’m the next person that will tell everyone else – this is a HAVE to read book! If you don’t know anything about Janet Mock, she was an editor on People.com when she was featured in an article in Marie Claire magazine in which she told the world that she is a trans woman. Redefining Realness is her story of growing up as a boy who knew he was different from other boys and was determined, from a young age, to be exactly the person he was born to be and not whoever those around him expected him to be. Most of Mock’s memoir is about her years growing up as her parents’ firstborn son and how turbulent and difficult her family life was as a child, but a good portion of the book is about her coming into her own as female and transitioning during her teen years.

For so many reasons, I highly recommend Redefining Realness. Mock writes with an intensity and honesty that is so raw it drew out so many emotions as I was reading her story. She had a very difficult childhood, living in several different cities and states with her mother, then her father, and usually those living arrangements were accompanied by whichever person either parent happened to be dating at the time. Neither parent gave Mock and her siblings the love and support that children deserve; yet she decided to become who she knew she was born to be regardless of what they thought. Despite her tough childhood, Mock talks about her parents and siblings with such love and adoration – she acknowledges their faults but loves them deeply and forgives them for what they weren’t capable of when she was a child. It’s beyond inspiring to see how she has decided to move past things that could have derailed her life and instead see things from an extremely positive lens.

Mock talks a lot about her transition but doesn’t make it the focus of her story. Yes, it was an important aspect of her life and a thing that truly changed her life in a lot of ways. But at the same time, she treats it as it is – something that matters, but is not by any means her entire existence nor something she wants to be defined by. There’s a lot she has to say on this topic and I’m sure I am not explaining it properly, but I found it super illuminating.

I personally got a lot out of this book in regards to how trans people are discriminated against – not the overt discrimination that is sadly “normal” for trans people to have to live with – but the subtle ways culture discriminates against people who do not subscribe to the gender norms of the body parts they were assigned at birth. There’s a lot to unpack on this and I can’t begin to do it justice, but I really took a lot away from what Mock has to say here. For that reason alone, I cannot more highly recommend this book.

Redefining Realness is FANTASTIC on audio as Janet Mock narrates herself. She has a calming, tranquil voice that tells her own story in such a way that it’s impossible to stop listening. I truly loved this book and I so very highly recommend it.

In the Country We Love: My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero

In the Country We Love: My Family DividedIn the Country We Love: My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero
Published by Henry Holt and Co.

When Diane Guerrero was just fourteen years old, her parents and brother were arrested and deported to Columbia. As Diane herself was born in the US, she was able to stay, finish her education, and pursue her dreams of becoming an actor, eventually landing a roles in the popular TV shows Jane the Virgin and Orange is the New Black. But living apart from her family during her teen years and navigating the world as a teenager by herself changed the trajectory of Guerrero’s life and her relationship to her family.

In the Country We Love is fascinating, horrifying and inspiring all at once and I think it was so brave for Guerrero to put her story out there and share some of the most difficult things she’s ever experienced with the world. This is one of those books that I just want to say “read it” and leave it at that, but there were a few specific things about Guerrero’s story that really stood out to me that I think are worth pointing out.

First of all, when Guerrero’s parents were arrested and removed from their home, not one person from the government reached out to her, checked on her, found her a foster family, took her to see her parents when they were in jail in the US before being deported, NOTHING. She was a child, a United States citizen, who was without any parental support or legal guardian in the country and not one person from immigration, local law enforcement, or the FBI even thought to make sure she was going to survive on her own at fourteen years old. Luckily, her friend’s mother took her in for a few years and then she transitioned to another friend’s family, but I am sure there are plenty of children in a similar situation who don’t have the kind of close friendship network that Guerrero had. It is shocking to me that a child who should be considered a ward of the state by any rational definition wouldn’t be so much as checked on by a representative of the government at any point throughout this process or in the years as she was growing up in the US without a parent or guardian.

Secondly, the degree to which this situation destroyed her family cannot be overstated and I honestly felt that Guerrero glossed over some of the ways in which this negatively affected just about every area of her life, but man was this rough on them. She lost touch with her brother, her brother’s ex-girlfriend, and her niece, she spent years estranged from her mother, not just physically but emotionally as well, her parents eventually divorced (which of course could have happened anyway but the stress of what they went through certainly didn’t help their relationship), and her parents had no significant part of her adolescence and early adulthood. She figured things out on her own and navigated the world in her own way, but the impact that this had on her life is staggering and this is just one person, one story. I can only imagine how many similar stories are out there that are equally or even more devastating.

Guerrero’s story is not all sadness, though, and that is what makes this book so fantastic. She is a very positive person who took a terrifying and sad situation and turned her life into something to be extremely proud of. It’s not just the acting – she became an advocate for other undocumented people and hard for that cause in many ways. She is an inspiring person and the fact that she was able to make her own dreams come true despite the difficulties in her life is inspiring.

The last thing I will say about this book is that the audio is amazing. I typically find that when actors narrate their own books the results are nothing short of great, and that is definitely the case here. She is telling her own story, in her own voice, and that adds so much to this book. If you choose to read In the Country We Love – and you absolutely should – definitely go with the audiobook.

So super highly recommended! If you never read celebrity memoirs, read this one. It shouldn’t even be classified that way, it is so much more than that.

Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges by Amy Cuddy

Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest ChallengesPresence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges by Amy Cuddy
Published by Little, Brown and Company

Amy Cuddy is best known for her TED talk about “power poses” – the idea that standing like Superman or Superwoman for two minutes before facing a challenge (giving a speech, having a difficult conversation, going to an interview, etc.) increases confidence and improves performance. In Presence, she delves deep into that concept and so many more. She details meticulous research that shows, in many different ways, how we can impact the way we feel about certain things and become stronger, more present versions of ourselves in just about any circumstance.

The sociology and psychology nerd in me completely geeked out over this book. I loved all of the social psychology research studies that Cuddy went over and found so many of them to be insightful, interesting, and applicable to my own life. I am not sure how many of the things she recommended are actions I will actually take in real life situations, but I certainly found them to be things I should consider doing.

Something else I enjoyed was that Cuddy relates her own personal experience to a lot of what she discusses in the book. She experienced a traumatic brain injury as a college student, and that situation dramatically changed the way she thought of herself and fundamentally changed the way her brain worked. Through years of hard work and using many different techniques, Cuddy was able to recover from her injury and find a way of learning that worked for her and allowed her to accomplish all of the things she’d hoped to do prior to the accident. Her personal experience really added an extra touch to the book and I liked having that narrative alongside the research.

I listened to the audio of Presence and really enjoyed the listening experience. Cuddy narrates herself and has a very peaceful, soothing voice. She does a really good job explaining everything in a way that is easy to comprehend. I have to say that I do wish that I had the physical book, though, because this is the kind of book I would want to revisit and it’s not easy to revisit an audio when searching for a specific part of the book to reread. Still, I recommend the audio because it was a good listening experience.

Overall I really enjoyed Presence and can recommend it for those who enjoy these types of psychological, self-helpish books. I hesitate to call it self-help but truthfully, that’s the kind of book it is, and it has truly applicable tips and techniques that can really help a lot of people.

Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming

Not My Father's SonNot My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming
Published by Dey Street Books

This was an audible recommended book to me based on several others I’ve listened to recently (I’m super into celebrity memoirs if you haven’t noticed), so I chose to listen to it even though I had no idea who Alan Cumming was. Turns out, he’s an actor, who was approached to do a reality TV show about his family’s genealogy, and decided to do the show in the hopes of uncovering the mystery surrounding the disappearance of his maternal grandfather many years ago. This experienced dredged up another long-buried secret that his father, from whom he was long estranged after years of abuse, decided to reveal to Alan. This secret would change the course of Alan’s personal narrative about his own life.

Alan Cumming’s story is one that absolutely needed to be told, and it’s fascinating both as a story itself and in the ways in which his father’s abuse and subsequent “confession” shaped his entire life and perception of himself. The abuse he suffered was really awful, and not just the physical aspect of it, but the way that his father indicated throughout Cumming’s life, in no uncertain terms, that he truly detested Cumming’s very existence. The fact that Cumming had to interpret this in some way as a very young child, and essentially had to tell himself that there must have been something he did wrong, something inherently wrong with him, for his father to hate him this much, is just devastating to think about.

I was less interested in learning about Cumming’s grandfather than I was about the situation with his father, which is a shame because I think that’s the part of the story that he was most happy to be sharing. I just felt that it paled in its poignancy in comparison to the issues with his father, so every time he started talking about the research he was doing about his grandfather I grew bored and restless and wanted him to go back to the other stuff.

I listened to the audio of this one and I really enjoyed hearing Cumming’s story told in his own voice. If you’re looking to pick this up I highly recommend the audio. I’m happy that I chose to listen to this book even though I didn’t have a clue who Alan Cumming was before picking it up. This is a perfect example of the fact that a well-written and interesting story is always a great choice, no matter who or what it’s about. Recommended.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African ChildhoodBorn a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
Published by Doubleday Canada

The reason that Trevor Noah’s memoir is called Born a Crime is because he was born during apartheid to a white father and black mother, at a time when it was illegal for whites and blacks to be in relationships with each other. So his birth, the proof of his parents’ relationship, was literally a crime in and of itself.

Personally I didn’t know much about Trevor Noah before reading this book. I am not a huge TV watcher and have never seen a full episode of The Daily Show, but I knew that Noah was smart and funny, and I also knew that his book would provide some insight on life in apartheid South Africa, a part of history that I’m just getting to learn more about (my lack of knowledge on this is embarrassing). Now that I’ve read the book, I’m even more interested in South Africa and find Noah’s upbringing and accomplishments fascinating.

The stories that Noah tells in his memoir run the gamut of explaining how apartheid worked, what the restrictions were on black people and “colored” people, what the social structure was like during that time, in addition to a lot of personal stories about how he personally grew up with his mother, distant father, eventual stepfather and younger brother, and a huge network of aunts, uncles, cousins, and other family members who helped raise him. Because he gives the reader a mini-education on apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa in addition to talking about his own life, his memoir is not only engaging and interesting but has a dose of educational as well. While some of what he says in regards to the history of South Africa is based on his own opinions, and other things are clearly tinged with his personal beliefs, the facts that he lays out for the reader about how society worked at that time are undisputed facts. I really appreciated learning not only the facts about this time in South Africa’s history, but about how growing up in this time affected and influenced Noah’s life – he had a lot of unique experiences being what he calls “colored” (not quite black, not quite white).

I listened to Born A Crime on audio and it was the perfect choice. Trevor Noah narrates himself, and he has the perfect inflection in his voice as he tells his own stories. There’s nothing better than having a memoir author read their own memoir to you, and this was the perfect example of how great it can be.

I highly recommend Born A Crime for those both familiar and unfamiliar with Trevor Noah’s work. His story is fascinating and inspiring, and it’s always good to learn more about life in other countries – especially when much should be learned from the history of that country. I absolutely loved this book.

From Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars by Virginia Hanlon Grohl

From Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock StarsFrom Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars by Virginia Hanlon Grohl
Published by Seal Press

Virginia Grohl, mother of Dave Grohl, frontman for the Foo Fighters and former drummer for Nirvana, decided to interview mothers of many famous musicians to see what similarities they all shared and what it was like to raise a rock star child.

I am a big fan of the Foo Fighters, and my boyfriend is a drummer, so when I heard about this book from a friend of mine I decided to give it a try. I actually recommended it to my boyfriend first, and he liked it so I definitely wanted to read it, too. So many of the women Grohl interviews led extremely interesting lives, and it was really fun to hear their stories. I liked that she gave a background on each mother before talking to the women about their sons and daughters – it helped to get a good picture of each musician through their mother’s eyes. It was striking how many similar experiences these women had with one another – most of their children were high-energy, super creative, incredibly smart, talented, even as very young children, and most of the mothers saw something special in them from an extremely young age. So many of the musicians had a moment when they told their mothers that they wanted to pursue music instead of being a doctor, lawyer, teacher, or any other dreams their parents had for them, and it was interesting to see the varied responses the mothers had to their kids’ decision.

One thing that was disappointing about the book was that I listened to the audio and while I thought it was admirable for Grohl to narrate it herself, I wish she would have had someone else do it. She has a nice voice but it is sort of monotone and it was way too easy for me to zone out while she was speaking.

I definitely think mothers of rockstars or rockstar hopefuls should read this book; if nothing else, I’m sure there is a feeling of solidarity that would be inspired by the contents here. I definitely enjoyed the book and it was a unique experience that I wouldn’t have picked up had my friend not recommended it to me. Also, if you listen to the audio there is a conversation between Dave Grohl and his mom at the end that is really cute and interesting to listen to.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
Published by Harper

Hillbilly Elegy is J.D. Vance’s memoir of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, a book which details his personal experiences growing up and how he escaped the poverty that was a fixture of his childhood. He also muses quite a bit about why he believes people from this area of the country have such a hard time turning their circumstances around and the ways in which politics and inherent beliefs of the area are a detriment to the people from this area.

I hold two separate opinions about this book and while they are at odds with each other, I think it makes sense to feel conflicted about Vance’s memoir. On the one hand, his story is an interesting one and should absolutely be seen as inspirational. He grew up in a poor, rural community with no support from his father, very little support from his sometimes drug-addicted mother, and all odds pointed to the probability that he would skip college, find a dead-end job, and end up in a similar situation for himself as an adult. This did not happen, and Vance credits his own perseverance as well as the emotional, physical, and monetary support he received from his maternal grandparents as the primary reasons he was able to go to college, move to a town with better opportunities, marry a person he truly loved and respected, and find a well-respected, well-paying job. So on the one hand, I liked hearing Vance’s story and it reminded me a bit of my own personal story – I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, not Appalachia, but I, too, grew up without much money and managed to work my own way through college, subsisting on grants and loans and three part-time jobs at the same time, earning a degree and finding a great career. So I related to his struggles in some ways and understood the determination he felt to get himself to a different situation than what his parents were able to provide for him growing up.

On the other hand, he makes a lot of sweeping generalizations about the people in Appalachia that I’m just not sure his personal story gives him the right to make. Yes, he experienced this culture first-hand, so of course he has a unique view and understanding of some elements of it that outsiders can’t possibly understand. However, his experiences are his own, and the links he creates from his own experiences to those of others living in the same part of the country are weak in some places. I’m not saying that he doesn’t have the right to make observations and even draw conclusions about the culture that he grew up in; just that I think some of his generalizations are a bit too general, if that makes sense. What’s true for his family and his life isn’t necessarily true for everyone else around him.

That being said, however, I did really enjoy this memoir and it gave me a lot of food for thought. I would resist drawing too many political or socioeconomic conclusions from its content; however, as I said, this is a book about one person’s experiences and may not translate to everyone who is from the same part of the country.

I listened to the audiobook of Hillbilly Elegy, which is narrated by the author. It was really well done and definitely gave a feel for the author’s thoughts and feelings – as though he was telling the reader his own story, with his own voice and inflections. I would definitely recommend the audio.

Overall, I liked this one a lot but found it had a few problems. Still I would recommend for those who like memoirs.

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

The Year of Living Danishly: My Twelve Months Unearthing the Secrets of the World's Happiest CountryThe Year of Living Danishly: My Twelve Months Unearthing the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country by Helen Russell
Published by Icon Books

Helen Russell and her husband decide to move from their home in London, England to Denmark for one year in order for Russell’s husband to take a temporary job at Lego. While there, Helen spends the year trying to figure out what exactly makes the Danish people rank consistently among the happiest people on earth. She makes friends with many Danish people, meets with experts on happiness and well-being, and experiences everything Denmark has to offer in order to get a clear understanding of what exactly makes the Danish so darn happy.

I thought this book was a fun read and found it enjoyable overall. Some of the major things I learned was that the Danish are happy primarily because they spend a lot of time with family, they have very close social ties, their government provides a huge safety net against poverty, food insecurity, etc., and the culture is one in which trust is a tenant of any relationship, business or personal. That’s a very quick summary of what Russell learned but it covers the basics.

There is a lot of discussion in the book about taxes and about the balance between paying more in taxes and being happier. Denmark has one of the highest tax rates in the world with some Danes paying over 50% of their gross income in taxes, yet the Danish people see real impacts on their lives in exchange for the money they pay the government. Here in the US we are not exactly used to trusting the government to do the “right thing” with our tax dollars and most Americans typically want to pay less money in taxes, but the Danish welcome the high tax bill as they expect a safety net and other social programs in exchange for their tax dollars. It is a different way of thinking than what I am personally used to, and I am not sure this model could work in a country as large as the US (Denmark has just over 5 million people, about two-thirds the size of the population of New York City), but it is certainly something to think about.

I listened to the audio of the book, narrated by Lucy Price-Lewis, a new voice to me. She did a nice job with the narration – her light British accent was pleasant to listen to and she had the right inflections in her voice to match the tone of Russell’s writing. I would recommend the audiobook.

The Year of Living Danishly was an enjoyable experience and I thought it was pretty good overall. I’m not sure that the Danish lifestyle is for me – the dark, freezing cold winters alone make me lose interst – but there were certainly a few things I took from the book and I think everyone can learn a little something from a culture that values family and social ties so highly. At the very least, the book made me put a visit to Denmark on my bucket list.

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You AreThe Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown
Published by Hazeldon Publishing

I’d long heard Brene Brown’s name mentioned as a writer similar to Cheryl Strayed or Elizabeth Gilbert (two of my favorites), so I was excited to pick up my first book by Brown and experience her thoughts for myself. Unfortunately, this book wasn’t quite what I was hoping for and I’m sure that’s the fault of my own and not of the writer, for a few reasons.

It’s funny that at the end of the book Brown explains that this wasn’t meant to be a self-help book in the traditional sense, but for me I found that it was a bit too self-help-y, so I almost laughed out loud when I got to the end of the book and heard that part (I listened to the audio, so yes I actually did “hear” it). The basic idea of the book is to give the reader a set of guideposts to learn how to embrace the idea that perfection is not possible or even ideal, and that we should be looking to embrace our true selves instead of being ashamed of our mistakes and shortcomings. This is something I truly need in my life, as I am guilty of trying to please everyone and being extremely hard on myself in just about every scenario one can dream up. However, I just found the book relatively dry and it didn’t do much to enhance my life or my attitude about myself.

Part of the issue, I think, was that I listened to the audio, and it may have been a combination of not loving the narrator and needing to actually see the words on the page, but I don’t think I absorbed much of the guidance Brown was trying to provide here.

Ultimately I’m still interested in reading more from Brene Brown, as I think there were some nuggets of truth within the book, and a few things that I will take away, but unfortunately this one just didn’t work for me.