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.

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Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Alexander HamiltonAlexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Published by Penguin Books

Along with just about everyone else in the world, the first time I listened to the musical Hamilton, I was hooked instantly. When I learned that not only was it based on the real story of Alexander Hamilton’s life and career, but that Lin Manuel-Miranda received the inspiration for the musical from this biography, I knew I had to read it. I had to know more about this particular founding father and what exactly in the musical was real and what liberties Manuel-Miranda took with Hamilton’s story. I like nonfiction a lot, but biographies are not usually my thing, and any book that is 700 pages is intimidating in and of itself. So I was a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy this reading experience, even though I was interested in the information within.

I’m happy to say that I definitely did enjoy reading Alexander Hamilton even though it was, as expected, quite a project. I’m not going to pretend it was the easiest read ever, and man was it LONG, but I was impressed by how readable the book really was. It was not dry at all – Hamilton’s life certainly was interesting, and Chernow managed to make even the boring stuff (to me) like battle scenes and military strategy intriguing enough to hold my interest.

This biography is incredibly thorough, full of just about every detail imaginable about Hamilton’s life. As I said earlier, I don’t read many biographies so I am not a good judge of how this one stacks up, but I personally was very impressed by what Chernow did with the story. It had to have taken an incredible amount of research to uncover some of the things he did about Hamilton, his political friends and foes, and his family. I have to say that overall, the book was extremely impressive in that way.

Reading Alexander Hamilton did take me quite a while, but I’m glad I read it. This is an extremely well-researched and well-written book about one of the more overlooked (until the musical!) founding fathers. It also helped me even further appreciate the genius of Lin Manuel-Miranda for creating such an incredible musical based on this book. AND reading it got me even more excited to see Hamilton in Chicago next month!

Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright

Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought ThemGet Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright
Published by Henry Holt and Co.

This book is the most fun example of why book clubs are great. I would never have heard of Get Well Soon if it hadn’t been selected for book club and I absolutely loved it – yay for book clubs! Each chapter in this book discusses one plague Wright highlights – from leprosy to syphilis to Spanish flu to polio, and many others – and the book was so incredibly entertaining as well as informative.

Wright delves deep into each plague and discusses the causes, the missteps, the failed treatments, and eventual cures. She does a thing where she highlights the heroes in each story as well as call attention to those who were less than heroic. She sheds light on how certain diseases could have been prevented, or at least the massive spread of said diseases could have been stopped, and goes into the implications of cures for future potential plagues down the road. She does all of this with the most hilarious, snarky, witty sense of humor and I absolutely LOVED it. Think Mary Roach or Sarah Vowell – Jennifer Wright is doing a similar thing here to what those equally hilarious women do in their books.

There are plenty of serious moments in the midst of the jokes, in addition to the straight up information that Wright provides. She talks a little about autism and the incredibly damaging belief that vaccines have a hand in causing it – she goes into explicit detail about why that theory came to be and dispels it swiftly and with force. It’s pretty awesome. She also discusses polio and how incredible it was that Salk came up with the vaccine he did, and how others were trying to do the same thing but were looking to profit from it, whereas Salk only wanted to cure a disease (which he did) and spread the cure to as many people, no matter their socioeconomic background, as humanly possible (which he did). There’s also a discussion about AIDS and how the initial treatment of AIDS victims in this country was not unlike the abhorrent ways in which people with diseases hundreds of years ago were treated and wow, does she go there. It is smart and effective and she makes some really great points. I love when an author can be this informative, interesting, make you think, AND entertaining all at the same time.

Get Well Soon is a total keeper. I loved it.

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS EpidemicAnd the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts
Published by Stonewall Inn Editions

From the publisher:

By the time Rock Hudson’s death in 1985 alerted all America to the danger of the AIDS epidemic, the disease had spread across the nation, killing thousands of people and emerging as the greatest health crisis of the 20th century. America faced a troubling question: What happened? How was this epidemic allowed to spread so far before it was taken seriously? In answering these questions, Shilts weaves the disparate threads into a coherent story, pinning down every evasion and contradiction at the highest levels of the medical, political, and media establishments.

Shilts shows that the epidemic spread wildly because the federal government put budget ahead of the nation’s welfare; health authorities placed political expediency before the public health; and scientists were often more concerned with international prestige than saving lives. Against this backdrop, Shilts tells the heroic stories of individuals in science and politics, public health and the gay community, who struggled to alert the nation to the enormity of the danger it faced. And the Band Played On is both a tribute to these heroic people and a stinging indictment of the institutions that failed the nation so badly.

I don’t even know what to say about this incredible, devastating, marvel of a book. I feel like I have nothing whatsoever to add to what was I’m sure an intensely interesting conversation when the book was first published, nor do I have anything to add to these three words: incredibly important read.

I just can’t with this. The insanity of a government, of the very people elected to serve and protect the citizens of a country, making the conscious decision NOT to spread awareness and educate the very group of people most at-risk for a deadly disease is just unconscionable to me. And yet. This is what happened, not many years ago, in the United States, with the AIDS virus. There is so much more to this book than that, but much of the trajectory of the spread of AIDS resulted from that one simple fact. And it is just bananas to me.

This book is really, heartbreakingly sad. Shilts gives the reader an up close and personal look at the lives of many of the people who were some of the first to be diagnosed with AIDS, and of the people who were fighting for education and preventative measures, and you fall in love with these men and root for them, and then almost all of them die. And then if you’re like me, when you finish the book, you research the author to learn that he also died of AIDS. It’s sad in the saddest of sad ways. But it is also fascinating and SO well-written and unbelievably compelling and really, this book produced so many emotions in me I can’t even begin to explain it.

So here is what I will leave you with – yes, this book is long, and complicated, and really freaking sad, but how important it is outweighs all of that. To me, And the Band Played On falls in the must-read category, one hundred percent. As difficult and heartbreaking and infuriating as the book is, it is so incredibly great. And so, so important.

 

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat TillmanWhere Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer
Published by Doubleday

From the publisher:

Like the men whose epic stories Jon Krakauer has told in his previous bestsellers, Pat Tillman was an irrepressible individualist and iconoclast. In May 2002, Tillman walked away from his $3.6 million NFL contract to enlist in the United States Army. He was deeply troubled by 9/11, and he felt a strong moral obligation to join the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Two years later, he died on a desolate hillside in southeastern Afghanistan.

Though obvious to most of the two dozen soldiers on the scene that a ranger in Tillman’s own platoon had fired the fatal shots, the Army aggressively maneuvered to keep this information from Tillman’s wife, other family members, and the American public for five weeks following his death. During this time, President Bush repeatedly invoked Tillman’s name to promote his administration’s foreign policy. Long after Tillman’s nationally televised memorial service, the Army grudgingly notified his closest relatives that he had “probably” been killed by friendly fire while it continued to dissemble about the details of his death and who was responsible.

In Where Men Win Glory, Jon Krakauer draws on Tillman’s journals and letters, interviews with his wife and friends, conversations with the soldiers who served alongside him, and extensive research on the ground in Afghanistan to render an intricate mosaic of this driven, complex, and uncommonly compelling figure as well as the definitive account of the events and actions that led to his death. Before he enlisted in the army, Tillman was familiar to sports aficionados as an undersized, overachieving Arizona Cardinals safety whose virtuosity in the defensive backfield was spellbinding. With his shoulder-length hair, outspoken views, and boundless intellectual curiosity, Tillman was considered a maverick. America was fascinated when he traded the bright lights and riches of the NFL for boot camp and a buzz cut. Sent first to Iraq—a war he would openly declare was “illegal as hell”—and eventually to Afghanistan, Tillman was driven by complicated, emotionally charged, sometimes contradictory notions of duty, honor, justice, patriotism, and masculine pride, and he was determined to serve his entire three-year commitment. But on April 22, 2004, his life would end in a barrage of bullets fired by his fellow soldiers.

Krakauer chronicles Tillman’s riveting, tragic odyssey in engrossing detail highlighting his remarkable character and personality while closely examining the murky, heartbreaking circumstances of his death. Infused with the power and authenticity readers have come to expect from Krakauer’s storytelling, Where Men Win Glory exposes shattering truths about men and war.

When I try to talk about this book to people, I get tongue-tied and I can’t figure out what to say to properly convey how incredible an investigator and writer Jon Krakauer is. The story of Pat Tillman is a complicated, inspiring, infuriating, disturbing, and shocking one and Krakauer made this man, his personal history, and the military in general come to life. I learned so much about not only Pat Tillman but about the military in general and about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in particular just from this one book, it was absolutely fascinating.

I didn’t know much about Pat Tillman before picking up this book. I do remember when his death was all over the news, but I had no idea how murky the circumstances of his death were, nor did I know that there was an attempt to cover up the fact that he was shot by friendly fire. There is so much information in this book – about Tillman’s life growing up, his family, his relationship with his wife, his football career, his reasons for joining the military, his military career, military history, details about two wars, a play-by-play of how Tillman actually died, the attempted cover-up after, and finally how the family dealt with his death and continued with their lives afterword – see, that’s a ton of information! Yet it never felt overwhelming, and Krakauer laid everything out in such a way that really gave the reader a solid understanding of every single element of the book.

I listened to the audio of Where Men Win Glory, narrated by Scott Brick, and it was fantastic. His voice in general is captivating, but the way he is able to use his voice to properly pace out the book, to draw the listeners’ attention to certain things, is pretty incredible to me. This is the perfect example of the best kind of audiobook.

I HIGHLY recommend both the book and the audio experience. Krakauer is truly fantastic and I need to read the rest of his books as soon as possible.

Mini-Reviews

Into the ForestInto the Forest by Jean Heglund
Published by Dial Press

This novel is about two teenage sisters, Nell and Eva, who are struggling to survive in their Northern California home as the world quietly collapses around them. They are 30 miles from the nearest town so as an overseas war and issues in the US government cause massive issues in society, they don’t notice much difference until suddenly their electricity goes out and there’s no gas to be found. As they rely on one another for everything, their bond is tested time and time again, and they both must figure out how to grow into women in this new world they are facing.

I liked the first third of this book a lot. I found it fascinating, and horrifyingly believable, how the world as these characters knew it slowly disintegrated without their really noticing it. I loved getting to know the two of them and how each played a different role in their family structure. But as the book went on, one sister just read all the time and the other danced all the time – it almost got boring to me. And there’s a point in the book where something happens between the two of them that I thought was completely unnecessary and actually took away from what I did like about the book. At that point, I kind of hated it. So, not a personal recommendation but I do like some of the ideas presented here and I’d be open to picking up another book by this author.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin OlympicsThe Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
Published by Viking

This is the story of the University of Washington’s crew team and their fight to win gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Daniel James Brown traces the history of Nazi Germany leading up to and just past 1936 alongside the story of how this incredible crew team was put together, including helping the reader get to know each of the eight men on the team as well as their coaches.

I really REALLY liked this one! I was impressed with how the author managed to tell such a compelling story about this sport that I knew nothing about beforehand – and frankly didn’t care about beforehand. I loved getting to know these men, their back stories and childhoods and learning what made them tick, what made them successful, and most importantly, why these specific eight men, as a team, had to be the guys in this Olympic-caliber boat. It was fascinating to me how this sport is such an incredible illustration of teamwork, how a crew team is more about the team itself than its individual members. Further, this was an incredibly fascinating look at Nazi Germany just before Hitler began showing the world his true colors. I don’t think I’ve read a book before that illustrates the build-up to World War Two from this angle and it was so interesting to me, I need to find more books that do this. The Boys in the Boat is super great and I think it’s an easy recommendation to make to almost anyone.

Mini-reviews on Monday

The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in IranThe Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran by Hooman Majd
Published by Doubleday

Brief publisher’s summary:

With U.S.–Iran relations at a thirty-year low, Iranian-American writer Hooman Majd dared to take his young family on a year-long sojourn in Tehran. The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay traces their domestic adventures and closely tracks the political drama of a terrible year for Iran’s government.

I’m always interested in learning more about Iran because I have an uncle who is from there, in fact he came to the US in the late ’70’s for college and ended up staying here, building a career, becoming a citizen, marrying my aunt, etc. However, if I’m being honest, books that are solidly in the history section of nonfiction are sometimes intimidating and oftentimes can bore me. So a book like this, a memoir of a family’s time spent in Iran, with snippets of history peppered throughout, is a perfect balance for me. I learned a LOT about Iranian history, politics, and society in general while also getting to know this courageous and interesting family.

What I most loved about this book is that while Majd was open with the reader and explained much of what was scary and nonsensical about Iranian society and the political structure, much more of his narrative was focused on what he loves about his country of origin. There is so much to love about the Iranians we meet in this book, so much positivity and light and love and it made me so happy to see Majd choose to spend more time on those things than on the negatives. His portrayal of life there and observations of how the country really operates was such a balanced, honest picture of things that it made me immediately close the book and do more research on Iran and the country’s history. I enjoy nonfiction books the most when I learn something while being entertained, and The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay was the perfect mix of both.

Grin and Bear It: How to Be Happy No Matter What Reality Throws Your WayGrin and Bear It: How to be Happy No Matter What Reality Throws Your Way by Jenni Pulos with Laura Morton
Published by St. Martin’s Press

If you don’t watch the Bravo TV show Flipping Out, you probably have no idea who Jenni Pulos is. But if you DO watch the show, like me, you probably love Jenni Pulos (like me). So honestly, this book is only for that second group (in my opinion, of course).

If you are already a Pulos fan, this is a fun, quick romp through her life experiences, disappointments, drama, and lessons she’s learned along the way. It’s also a tiny peek into the real truth about her relationship with Jeff Lewis (hint: it’s a true friendship). I mostly read the book because I was interested in hearing from her point of view what really happened with her very public breakup from her ex-husband, and I was treated to a play-by-play of the drama in her own words. So that was fun. I felt for her deeply, of course, but it was nice to hear how she’d gotten through that heartache and moved on to bigger and better things.

Other than that, the advice she shares is kind of obvious stuff – at least to me – and the book overall is kind of silly. But I’m not going to lie, I enjoyed it, and I think if you love Jenni Pulos, you will too.

A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheers

A Thousand LivesA Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheers
Published by Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
Review copy provided by the publisher

A Thousand Lives is an extremely thorough, well-researched account of what really happened at the Peoples Temple church that caused so many people to follow Jim Jones into Jonestown and to murder their children and kill themselves all because of this one man.

I was born in 1983, so I grew up with only a vague understanding/knowledge of Jonestown. I can remember seeing images of all those people dead at Jonestown on TV after some other (much smaller) mass murder/suicide, and just like everyone else of my generation I have used the phrase “drink the Kool-aid” without really thinking about what it really means. I read Scheers’ memoir, Jesus Land, a few years ago and it was definitely interesting.

Anyway, A Thousand Lives is fascinating. Fascinating in that car crash kind of way – you don’t want to look but you just can’t help it. I’m sure that anyone who is familiar with the tragedy at Jonestown wonders how on earth these people could be so brainwashed as to kill themselves for a “cause”. Well, the story is not anywhere near as simple as one would imagine. As Scheers carefully uncovers, the people who followed Jim Jones were originally following a man who believed in social justice, equality, and love for all people. By the time his “church” morphed into something else, many of these people had given everything to Jones and his church – their homes, their cars, all of their money, and no longer had anything else BUT the church. And at Jonestown it gets even scarier – their passports were taken from them, they were literally not allowed to leave Jonestown or have contact with anyone from the US, they couldn’t escape even if they wanted to, and many did want to. And as for the mass suicide, well it becomes obvious when reading A Thousand Lives that for many of these people it wasn’t suicide but murder. The whole thing is just so very devastating.

If you have even the slightest curiosity about Jonestown, I would highly recommend reading A Thousand Lives. Scheers expertly gives the reader a complete picture of this tragedy from beginning to disastrous end.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

From the Hardcover editionUnbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
Published by Random House

In 1943, right in the heart of World War Two, an Army Air Forces plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean and disappeared. Louis Zamperini was a lieutenant on that plane and somehow, miraculously, he survived the crash and ended up on a life raft, fighting the elements for his survival. Unbroken is the story of his  miraculous journey.

I don’t think I would have decided to read Unbroken if it weren’t for book club. And I have to be honest and say that I didn’t love this book, although it seems that I am in quite the minority with this opinion. To be fair, there were things I liked about the book and once it got going, I couldn’t put it down. But the beginning was such that had it not been a book club selection, I wouldn’t have made it past the first 100 pages.

The reason I say this is because I simply couldn’t bring myself to care about Zamperini as a person for the entire first section of the book. Hillenbrand recounts his childhood in exquisite detail, and to be honest, he was not a very good kid. He wasn’t just a misbehaving child, he was a juvenile delinquent! And while reading about his time in the Olympics was mildly interesting, it didn’t add enough to his personality for me to care about him. At our book club meeting, some of the ladies were saying that after finishing Unbroken, it’s clear why Hillenbrand spent so much time detailing Zamperini’s childhood, and while I’d agree with that statement, the fact of the matter is that as I was reading it I wasn’t interested. So for me, that was a problem.

But once the action really got going – when the plane crashed and Zamperini and two others were stranded in the middle of the ocean – I couldn’t put the book down. This story is absolutely astonishing as these men survived impossible odds and lived through situations that I cannot even fathom. Their story is beyond remarkable and kudos to Hillenbrand for telling it. I think she told it in a fascinating and compelling way and I was hanging on her every word. It was heartbreaking to read, because every time I would think their journey through hell and back was over, something even worse would happen. It was excruciating! But this is truly a story of courage and of surviving the absolute worst odds one can imagine. It’s inspiring.

While I enjoyed the majority of Unbroken and would still recommend it, I have to be honest about my reservations with the beginning of the book. I personally would have stopped reading this book after fifty or so pages had it not been for book club, which is a shame. This is an engaging and important read about a truly amazing man, and even though I had some trouble with it, I would still recommend Unbroken.

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

The Wordy ShipmatesThe Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell
Published by Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin

The Wordy Shipmates takes a different approach to America’s Puritan history. Instead of being dry or boring, a list of facts and information about that period of time, Vowell uses humor and sarcasm to detail the 1600’s journey of the Massachusetts Bay colonists.  She explains the differences between the Plymouth Puritans and the Massachusetts Puritans in a way that helps the reader see how crucial these differences really were. While this book isn’t a traditional history book by any means, the history is very clear even through the wittiness that Vowell brings to the table.

It feels like I’ve been wanting to read one of Sarah Vowell’s books forever. I’d also heard that she is great in audio, so when I realized that The Wordy Shipmates is available in that format, I decided to listen to it in my car. Listening to this book was an interesting experience because I’m still not sure quite how I felt about it. There were aspects of the book I liked, others not so much.

I definitely enjoyed the fact that Sarah Vowell has moments of hilarity. Several times while listening to the book, I caught myself laughing out loud. The way she connects history with jokes is something I’ve never really seen before and it definitely kept me entertained. In addition, I did learn quite a bit about the Puritans. In school, I really only remember studying Christopher Columbus and all of that (which of course, you later learn is mostly BS) and I had only a vague understanding of the Puritans, especially the fact that there were two distinct groups of them with very different ideals. So that was interesting.

I hate to admit this, but one thing I didn’t like was the fact that Vowell narrates the book herself. Something about her voice really grated on my nerves, and while I appreciate the fact that I felt more connected to her since she was reading it to me, I honestly just didn’t take to her voice. The other issue I had was that occasionally my mind would wander while listening, and I can only attribute this to the fact that The Wordy Shipmates just didn’t keep me riveted enough to hold my attention. Usually I enjoy nonfiction in audiobook format, but this was one of those cases where it didn’t keep me interested enough. This could very well be my own fault, but either way it hampered my enjoyment of the book.

So, overall what did I think of The Wordy Shipmates? Even though I listened to the audiobook, I would probably recommend reading it in print. The book is funny and does a good job explaining this part of history in an entertaining way, but there were aspects of the book I didn’t love. So read it, but with caution.