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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I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sanchez

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican DaughterI Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sanchez
Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

When Julia’s older sister, Olga, is killed in a freak accident, her world is shattered and her parents can barely hold it together. What her parents don’t seem to understand is that Julia is just as devastated as they are, and doesn’t know how she will possibly live the rest of her life without her sister. Unfortunately for Julia, Olga had always been the perfect, well-behaved daughter, so now that she’s gone, Julia’s mother has even more time to focus on Julia’s faults and imperfections. When Julia starts learning things about Olga that contradict the “perfection” she’s always believed her sister to be, she can’t help investigating and gets the opportunity to get to know her sister better than she did when she was alive.

When a book is centered around one character, and that character has a confrontational, prickly, adversarial type of personality, it can be really difficult to like the book. What Sanchez succeeds so well at in this novel is making the reader care about and root for exactly this kind of person in the character of Julia. Julia is not easy to like or even understand. True, most anyone can sympathize and maybe even empathize with the death of a close family member. But Julia had a rough-around-the-edges way about her long before her sister passed away, and it’s clear to the reader throughout the book that she is not the easiest person for others to get along with.

I personally wasn’t irritated by her, because I did sympathize with her situation and I did feel that her parents (especially her mother) put a lot of pressure on her. But there was no question in my mind that she had an obnoxious, over-the-top way about her that made me cringe more than a few times as I read her interactions with others in her life. However – and this is what’s great about how Erika Sanchez wrote this novel – I became deeply invested in her story and truly wanted her life to take a turn for the better. I hoped desperately that she’d start getting along better with her parents, begin understanding the sacrifices they’d made for her and Olga, and become a slightly more mature, level-headed older teen. It was easy to hope for these things because she showed tremendous growth over the course of the novel and in the character of Julia, Sanchez really created a person who comes into her own as the novel progresses. I loved that.

There is a lot of stuff in the book about Mexican culture and immigration and all of the issues that the Mexican community in America has to deal with on a daily basis, but that was a sidebar to Julia’s story. I liked that Sanchez taught the reader a few things as she was teaching those same things to Julia, but the “lessons” didn’t feel heavy-handed or like teaching moments. They felt organic, like I was getting to know this family and their community and their struggles at the same time Julia was growing up and becoming more aware of the world outside of her small personal bubble. It was very well done, in my opinion.

Ultimately I really did enjoy this book. I do have to say that there was a lot of build-up to the big secrets that Olga had been keeping from her family, and the big reveal was less shocking than I was expecting it to be, but truly Olga’s life and death serves as a background for Julia’s story. This book is about Julia growing up and dealing with adult circumstances when she’s just on the verge of being emotionally mature enough to do so. I loved the growth that Julia shows in the book and overall I really enjoyed reading it.

 

Mini-reviews: Books that were not my favorite

The Toughest Indian in the WorldThe Toughest Indian in the World by Sherman Alexie
Published by Grove Press

I didn’t dislike this book because I am not a fan of Alexie as a person (a fact I learned while reading this book). I disliked the book because the stories were just okay to me. There were a few I enjoyed, and even cared about the characters, but overall I had to slog through it. Most of the stories kept repeating the same themes and I found myself uninterested in the majority of what Alexie had to say. His writing is good, I will give him that, but the way women are treated in some of his stories was a major turnoff for me. It was a bit much overall. This book, and I believe Alexie in general as a writer, is just not for me.

On Chesil BeachOn Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Published by Jonathan Cape

This entire novel is based on the wedding night of two people, Florence and Edward, who wed in 1962. On their wedding night, they both have anxieties about consummating their marriage, and things go horribly awry. I just did not get this book. One bad night and these two people can’t get over it? I suppose the overall theme is more about how a misunderstanding can have huge consequences; how not setting up proper expectations or, god forbid, TALKING about stuff, can really ruin relationships, and things like that. But wow were these people so silly to me. JUST TALK IT OVER. I don’t get it. The book annoyed me and I will not be seeing the movie.

Wives of WarWives of War by Soraya M. Lane
Published by Lake Union Publishing

This is a novel about two young women, Scarlet and Ellie, working as nurses during World War 2. Scarlet is hoping to find her fiancé, who has been missing for months, and Ellie is single and hoping to do her part for the war effort. I didn’t hate this book but thought it was just okay. I liked both Scarlet and Ellie as characters, but I did think they were both one-dimensional and didn’t seem to have much depth to their personalities. They also fell into this insta-friendship that was a little strange; but I suppose somewhat realistic given the intensity of the situation they were thrown into. Towards the end the story picked up for me and I did like how things were resolved with both women, but overall it was just okay. There are tons of other books about this time in history that are MUCH better so I would recommend skipping this one.

North HavenNorth Haven by Sarah Moriarty
Published by Little A

Four siblings come together for the summer after their mother has just died, leaving their family beach house for them to figure out whether to keep or sell. This is one of those books that follows a premise we’ve all seen a million times, but unfortunately in this case it doesn’t have anything unique to add to the chorus of these kinds of novels. I didn’t dislike the characters, but I didn’t particularly enjoy any of them either. They each had their set personalities and specific back stories from childhood that nobody really seemed to grow out of. The book exhausted me – I just wanted them to figure out what they were going to do, get past their family issues and call it a day so that I could finish the book. North Haven was ultimately a book that I will forget very soon.

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

Sleeping Giants (Themis Files, #1)Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
Published by Del Rey

When Rose Franklin is a young girl, she falls while riding her bike and is found in the palm of a giant, metal hand. Seventeen years later, she is a physicist leading a team to try to understand what this hand is and where it came from. She is working alongside a powerful group of people, including several former members of the military, and what they will uncover about this mystery has the potential to change the world.

This book was SO MUCH FUN. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I absolutely loved taking the journey that Neuvel presents in Sleeping Giants. The book’s synopsis doesn’t do this story justice, which is a good thing, because I went in not knowing what to expect and that paid off tremendously. I was delightfully surprised by the characters, the mysteries within the book, the overarching purpose of what was really going on, and the way that Neuvel told this story.

I love how this book tells its story through a series of interviews by an unnamed and highly mysterious narrator. I loved how Neuvel managed to get at the heart of the personalities of these characters through this method alone – it was so creative and speaks to such a talent as a writer. The reader is kept in the dark about so much of what is going on in this book, including the identity and purpose of this interviewer, and that suspense was SO much fun for me. Once I learned it was a series, I got even more excited, knowing that at some point things would make sense and I could just relax and enjoy the ride.

I absolutely loved this book and can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

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.

The Breakdown by B.A. Paris

The BreakdownThe Breakdown by B.A. Paris
Published by St. Martin’s Press

I picked up The Breakdown because I was really impressed with Paris’s debut novel, Behind Closed Doors, and I was hoping for a second helping of the same kind of thing. Unfortunately, I didn’t love her second novel – while I found it entertaining, I also found it predictable and the main character was obnoxious to the point of being distracting from the story itself.

The premise here is that we have Cass, who decides to take a “shortcut” home from a party one night through the woods during a bad thunderstorm. On her drive, she passes a car that looks stranded in the woods, and for a variety of reasons, she decides not to stop and help the woman who is inside the car. The next morning, she learns that the woman who was in the car was later found dead, and Cass totally freaks out about this. Unfortunately, she can’t tell anyone what she saw because her boyfriend expressly warned her not to drive through the woods, so she doesn’t want him to know that she didn’t listen, and she also doesn’t want people to know that she saw this woman stranded and chose not to help her. So she spirals into an anxious mess, thinking whoever killed this woman is out to get her, thinking the police will be after her, all kinds of crazy stuff. But when she starts getting threatening phone calls she really goes off the deep end and is convinced she’s going to be killed, too.

What I did like about the book was the pacing and structure and how it had that creepy thriller feel that kept me at the edge of my seat. And it was a super quick read. What I did not like was the character of Cass – one of the most annoying characters I’ve read in fiction in quite some time – and the fact that I had the whole thing figured out from VERY early on. In fact, I thought it was so obvious what was happening that I couldn’t understand how Cass didn’t see it, making me even more annoyed with her character.

I can kind of see why people liked this novel but it just was not for me. I would read more by this author because I like how she creates the atmospheric creepiness that I’ve seen in both of her books. But plot-wise and character-wise, for me, The Breakdown was a miss.

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.

Smoke by Catherine McKenzie

SmokeSmoke by Catherine McKenzie
Published by Lake Union

This is the third book by Catherine McKenzie that I’ve read in a relatively short period of time, and by now I can completely see why people like her books but I feel that they are very formulaic, and at this point, a little boring to me. This novel features a woman named Elizabeth who works as a fire investigator, and on the same night she and her husband decide to divorce, massive wildfires break out in their area and they are forced to evacuate their home. While Elizabeth works on investigating the fire and repairing her marriage at the same time, her ex-friend Mindy has decided to help the local man whose home was destroyed in the fire. As Mindy is working with the local humanitarian groups to find shelter and other necessities for this man, the fire becomes a fixture in her own home as her teenage son stands accused of having something to do with starting it.

As I was saying, McKenzie’s books can be formulaic but they are enjoyable. Smoke definitely fit that description – these women are similar to many others I’ve seen in stories like this, both from McKenzie and other authors like her, the conflicts are resolved in an appropriately happy(ish) way, and nothing super tragic happens within the novel. I found myself frustrated with both main characters in different ways, while at the same time I ended up liking them both despite their faults. Elizabeth frustrated me because she and her husband do that thing that so many couples do in books where they dance around problems and refuse to tell each other the truth, so they end up mad at each other for absolutely no reason. The most annoying kind of miscommunication, in my opinion. And Mindy was frustrating because she couldn’t see what was right in front of her face – her son was in trouble and needed her support in a major way, yet she was spending all of her time and emotional energy trying to help this random guy who she had never met before. It was kind of her to care about this man, sure, but her own son desperately needed her and she was ignoring his issues.

All of that being said, I did find the book enjoyable and it held my interest. Things were resolved essentially as I expected them to be, the world didn’t collapse, and the characters were essentially fine with things when the book ended. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that because that’s the way a lot of these kinds of books end. I don’t have any other McKenzie books on my kindle so I will likely be done reading her for now. Overall I can recommend Smoke, as I have with her other books, for those looking for something mild and entertaining.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Exit WestExit West by Mohsin Hamid
Published by Riverhead

Nadia and Sayed meet just as their country is fracturing into a terrifying civil war, and as their love grows, their city becomes a war zone right before their eyes. When they hear rumors about doors that take people away, to somewhere far away from the chaos around them, they decide to learn more. This is the beginning of the adventure the two of them journey on together as they escape from the terrors in their hometown and find themselves in a new place every couple of months.

There is no doubt that the premise of Exit West is extremely compelling and unique; in fact the interesting premise is the exact reason I decided to pick up the book. While I enjoyed a few things about this novel, overall I was more in the camp of finding it unsuccessful than many other readers.

What I really liked about the book was the writing – it was a really cool mix of poetic and concise, telling the reader exactly what he/she needed to understand while at the same time telling the story in a beautiful way. Honestly I may have been more annoyed with the book overall if the writing hadn’t been so gorgeous. I also liked the relationship between Nadia and Sayed, especially in the beginning – I loved reading as they got to know each other, as their relationship developed from friends to dating to something much more serious. I found it fascinating how they managed to navigate their lives and their relationship despite the fact that it felt as though the world was collapsing all around them.

Ultimately my issue with the book was that I felt it was almost two separate books – did the author want to write a book about war, or did the author want to write a science fiction-y book about doors that take people to new places? I had hoped that these two concepts would come together in a way that I found cohesive, but unfortunately I didn’t personally find that to be the case. There were also some issues that I had with the later parts of Nadia and Sayed’s relationship, but I feel that these details are a bit spoiler-y so I’ll avoid the specifics.

I have to say that despite my issues with the book, I did enjoy the experience of reading it. But since the main thing I didn’t like about the book is pretty much the core of the entire thing, I find that to be pretty important. A lot of readers have loved this one, so don’t take my word for it – try it for yourself and come back to tell me what you think.

Should an author’s personal life and misconduct be considered when deciding whether or not to read their books?

I know this is not a question that is new, by any means. But I have been thinking about it right now because I am in the middle of reading Sherman Alexie’s short story collection, The Toughest Indian in the World. I got this book as a Kindle daily deal quite a while back, and having read and enjoyed his novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian years ago, I decided to pick it up. I had heard vaguely about some of the allegations against him recently but hadn’t paid too much attention to the details until Jenny linked to this article this week. Reading the article really opened my eyes to not just the sexual assault allegations against Alexie, but how he has been unsupportive of other Native American authors for years, has inflated and played into Native American stereotypes through his writing and public interviews, and all kinds of other pretty awful things.

My boyfriend and I have had this conversation before as it relates to other kinds of famous people – actors and musicians most frequently – as he finds it difficult to separate these people’s performances from their personal choices and beliefs, making it more difficult for him to enjoy a movie, TV show, or musical performance if he disagrees with something the person publicly did or said. I have a much easier time separating the two when it comes to actors and musicians, but authors for some reason feel different to me. Perhaps it is because an actor is usually portraying a character, something that someone else created for them, and to me it is not indicative or even related to their actual personality and personal choices and beliefs. But an author creates their product and produces it for the public – I have a hard time separating who they are personally with the work that they produce and what they are trying to say through that work.

I plan to finish reading the short story collection of Alexie’s that I’m reading now but will likely not pick up any more of his books. And I can’t help but feel that my bias towards his terrible choices and treatment of others makes me enjoy the experience of reading his book less than I would otherwise. To be fair, I wasn’t super into the book before I read that above-mentioned article, but still – it has to be affecting me.

What do you think? Can you separate a famous person’s personal choices, beliefs, and in some cases really awful conduct from their professional work? Is there a difference, in your opinion, between a person like an actor or a musician and an author? And what do you do if you can’t get that other “stuff” out of your head but you want to enjoy their work anyway?