Nonfiction Roundup, July 2018

As we approach the beginning of another school year, I’m still catching up on reviews for books I read on my lunch breaks during the last school year. How will I keep up during the school year? —We’ll see how that goes. Until then, enjoy this (long overdue) roundup of the nonfiction books I’ve been reading! (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Year of Yes

With three hit shows on television and three children at home, Shonda Rhimes had lots of good reasons to say no when invitations arrived. Hollywood party? No. Speaking engagement? No. Media appearances? No. And to an introvert like Shonda, who describes herself as ‘hugging the walls’ at social events and experiencing panic attacks before press interviews, there was a particular benefit to saying no: nothing new to fear. Then came Thanksgiving 2013, when Shonda’s sister Delorse muttered six little words at her: You never say yes to anything. Profound, impassioned and laugh-out-loud funny, in Year of Yes Shonda Rhimes reveals how saying YES changed – and saved – her life. And inspires readers everywhere to change their own lives with one little word: Yes.

Although I haven’t ever followed Rhimes’s TV shows (shocking, I know!), I loved reading about her journey from being anxious and closed off to loving life and saying yes to everything. As Rhimes progresses through the year (and beyond), she becomes more open to trying new things, but she also understands how she really wants to live her life. What a fun and inspiring memoir this was, even for those who don’t know anything about Shonda Rhimes.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Know-It-All

To fill the ever-widening gaps in his Ivy League education, A.J. Jacobs sets for himself the daunting task of reading all thirty-two volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. His wife, Julie, tells him it’s a waste of time, his friends believe he is losing his mind, and his father, a brilliant attorney who had once attempted the same feat and quit somewhere around Borneo, is encouraging but unconvinced.

With self-deprecating wit and a disarming frankness, The Know-It-All recounts the unexpected and comically disruptive effects Operation Encyclopedia has on every part of Jacobs’s life — from his newly minted marriage to his complicated relationship with his father and the rest of his charmingly eccentric New York family to his day job as an editor at Esquire. Jacobs’s project tests the outer limits of his stamina and forces him to explore the real meaning of intelligence as he endeavors to join Mensa, win a spot on Jeopardy!, and absorb 33,000 pages of learning. On his journey he stumbles upon some of the strangest, funniest, and most profound facts about every topic under the sun, all while battling fatigue, ridicule, and the paralyzing fear that attends his first real-life responsibility — the impending birth of his first child.

I’ve read some of Jacobs’ books before (see the reviews here and here); he has written several books about his life experiments and their results. In The Know-It-All, Jacobs does another life experiment in which he reads the entire encyclopedia and tries to increase his intelligence and knowledge. As always, Jacobs mixes silliness with seriousness in his quest, something which comes off as fun in some sections and eyeroll-inducing in others. This wasn’t my favorite of Jacobs’ books, but I enjoyed it enough to finish it.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Hamilton: The Revolution

Hamilton: The Revolution gives readers an unprecedented view of both revolutions, from the only two writers able to provide it. Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, a cultural critic and theater artist who was involved in the project from its earliest stages–“since before this was even a show,” according to Miranda–trace its development from an improbable perfor­mance at the White House to its landmark opening night on Broadway six years later. In addition, Miranda has written more than 200 funny, revealing footnotes for his award-winning libretto, the full text of which is published here.

This book is full of wonderful behind-the-scenes essays about the making of Hamilton, along with the complete lyrics (including some that were cut from the final show) and Miranda’s footnotes about their allusions or origins. It’s packed with photos of the cast, crew, and set as well. Fascinating for fans of the musical!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

SuperBetter

In 2009, game designer and author Jane McGonigal suffered a severe concussion that wouldn’t heal. Unable to think clearly, or work, or even get out of bed, she became anxious and depressed, even suicidal—a common symptom for concussion sufferers. But rather than let herself sink further, she decided to get better by doing what she does best: she turned her recovery process into a game. What started as a simple motivational exercise became a set of rules she shared on her blog. These rules became a digital game, then an online portal and a major research study with the National Institutes of Health. Today more than 400,000 people have played SuperBetter to get happier and healthier.

But the ideas behind SuperBetter are much bigger than just one game. In this book, McGonigal reveals a decade’s worth of scientific research into the ways all games change how we respond to stress, challenge, and pain. She explains how we can cultivate new powers of recovery and resilience in everyday life simply by adopting a gameful mind-set. Being gameful means bringing the same psychological strengths we naturally display when we play games—such as optimism, creativity, courage, and determination—to real-world situations.

SuperBetter started out with fascinating research behind the idea of living “gamefully” and how different video games and gaming strategies have been shown to help people overcome various struggles. But as I got to the end of the book, I started to get bored with the silly quests and “bad guys” suggested by the author and “players” of the SuperBetter game. Read it for the underlying concepts, not for a pattern to live your life by (in my opinion).

Rating: Good but Forgettable

We Should Hang Out Sometime

Josh Sundquist only ever had one girlfriend.
For twenty-three hours.
In eighth grade.

Why was Josh still single? To find out, he tracked down the girls he had tried to date and asked them straight up: What went wrong?

The results of Josh’s semiscientific, wholly hilarious investigation are captured here. From a disastrous Putt-Putt date involving a backward prosthetic foot, to his introduction to CFD (Close Fast Dancing), to a misguided “grand gesture” at a Miss America pageant, this story is about looking for love–or at least a girlfriend–in all the wrong places.

This memoir by Josh Sundquist, a motivational speaker, analyzes his past failed relationships and tries to figure out the flaws in all his romantic endeavors. Some parts are funny and other parts are touching as Josh meditates on his past failed almost-relationships and his relationship with his amputated leg. It’s a fun though forgettable read.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

You Can’t Touch My Hair

Phoebe Robinson is a stand-up comic, which means that, often, her everyday experiences become points of comedic fodder. And as a black woman in America, she maintains, sometimes you need to have a sense of humor to deal with the absurdity you are handed on the daily. Robinson has experienced her fair share over the years: she’s been unceremoniously relegated to the role of “the black friend,” as if she is somehow the authority on all things racial; she’s been questioned about her love of U2 and Billy Joel (“isn’t that . . . white people music?”); she’s been called “uppity” for having an opinion in the workplace; she’s been followed around stores by security guards; and yes, people do ask her whether they can touch her hair all. the. time. Now, she’s ready to take these topics to the page and she s going to make you laugh as she s doing it.

I loved that Phoebe narrated her own audio book–because she’s a podcaster, she is able to bring a lot of personality to the book. From funny pop culture references to serious topics like racism in Hollywood, this is a fun (though not always super deep) look at being black and female in today’s America. I enjoyed the book, but I’m craving a more serious look at the racism that still pervades our culture.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Pioneer Girl

Pioneer Girl follows the Ingalls family’s journey through Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, back to Minnesota, and on to Dakota Territory sixteen years of travels, unforgettable experiences, and the everyday people who became immortal through Wilder’s fiction. Using additional manuscripts, letters, photographs, newspapers, and other sources, award-winning Wilder biographer Pamela Smith Hill adds valuable context and leads readers through Wilder’s growth as a writer. Do you think you know Laura? Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography will re-introduce you to the woman who defined the pioneer experience for millions.

Pioneer Girl offers a fascinating look at Laura Ingalls Wilder and her actual adventures, as well as annotations about the history of her memoir and the history of the people, places, and things that Wilder describes in the book that inspired the fictional Little House on the Prairie series. The annotations give perspective on Wilder’s experiences, clarifying things that are unclear, correcting mistakes that Wilder made, and gently commenting on the insensitive or racist remarks that occasionally make their way into the memoir.

I don’t personally have a lot of nostalgia for the Little House series, and I was still really wrapped up in this book (long as it was–it took me a few weeks to get through this tome). I imagine if the Little House series is a favorite of yours, you would probably enjoy the book even more than I did.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Book Review: The Guinea Pig Diaries

Book Review: The Guinea Pig Diaries | Newbery and Beyond
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In The Guinea Pig Diaries, A.J. Jacobs describes several “experiments” he has done with his life, generally in terms of his own behavior.  Each experiment lasts (usually) about a month, and some are more formal than others.  He experiments with portraying a beautiful woman on a dating site (on behalf of his babysitter), following George Washington’s rules of conduct, practicing Radical Honesty, and attending the Academy Awards as a look-alike stand in for a movie star.  My favorite experiments in this book:

  • My Outsourced Life.  Jacobs outsources everything to India–and I mean everything.  He gets his assistants in India to research articles for him, worry daily about things that worry him, email his wife an apology after a big fight, even read a bedtime story to his son (that is, newspaper headlines).  This was fascinating to me, because I never would have thought to do it.  I didn’t even know that such agencies existed, or that India would have cornered the market on virtual assistants.  It was hilarious and eye-opening at the same time.
  • The Unitasker.  Jacobs tries to do only one thing at a time.  He closes his eyes while talking on the phone.  He stops making his breakfast while his wife tells him a long, rambling story.  He plays with his sons without looking at his phone.  I loved his conclusion–unitasking isn’t always practical or even necessary, but it is greatly underappreciated.  Slow down and be where you are.
  • Whipped.  Jacobs gives his wife a month of total authority over him.  She lays down the rules, makes demands, and reveals all the work she does that Jacobs doesn’t realize.  Funny–almost like he gets his just desserts for all the things he puts his wife through during his other experiments.  He also goes over typical “battle of the sexes” myths and sees how he and his wife stack up.

I really did like this book, but it just wasn’t as good as The Year of Living Biblically, the other A.J. Jacobs book I’ve read.  This one was a little disjointed due to the fact that every chapter was a different experiment, and I couldn’t get into his life experiments as deeply.  (Besides that, some of the experiments succeeded much more than others.)  Still, it’s worth a read if you’re into pop science as much as I am.  Some experiments are amusing, others are eye-opening, and almost all of them are entertaining.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Book Review: The Year of Living Biblically

Book Review: The Year of Living Biblically | Newbery and Beyond
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Next up is The Year of Living Biblically, written by A.J. Jacobs.  The author is Jewish, but only just (he says he is as Jewish as Olive Garden is Italian).  He took a whole year to, as the subtitle says, “follow the Bible as literally as possible.”  This meant animal sacrifices (just once!), not wearing mixed fibers, letting his beard grow out, eating kosher, avoiding lust, celebrating Passover, writing Scriptures on his door frame, and so on.  Along with attempting to follow all the rules in the Bible (both Old and New Testaments, but with a focus on the Hebrew Bible), Jacobs visited several Jewish and Christian groups and places–the Amish, Hasidic Jews, snake handlers, and even the Holy Land.

This book is funny–Jacobs did not grow up in a practicing Jewish or Christian home, and his shock at some of the stranger rules in the Bible brings fresh life to it for those of us who are (or who think we are) intimately familiar with the Bible’s contents.  However, although Jacobs describes himself as an agnostic and was not converted to either Judaism or Christianity by the end of his year-long experiment, he is surprisingly respectful to both faiths and to those who believe and follow the Bible.  He genuinely seems to have wanted to learn, and although he did give up most of his practices at the end of the year, he did find that he found peace in the Sabbath and in prayer, and liked the sacredness that following these rules lent to everyday things like washing, eating, dressing, etc.  For me, as a Christian, I appreciated Jacobs’ respectful approach and his desire to learn, and his insights gave me renewed desire to follow God’s laws myself.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Have you read this book?  Have any suggestions for what I should read next?  Let me know in the comments!

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