Nonfiction Roundup, January 2018

Quick reviews of my latest nonfiction reads, from the political to the religious to memoirs. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
.

It’s time for another nonfiction roundup! It has been a while since I posted one of these, and part of the reason is that many of these books were kind of difficult, for one reason or another. Still, I think you’ll find some good ones here, covering everything from politics to religion to American culture.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood

Strong-willed and independent, Rachel Held Evans couldn’t sew a button on a blouse before she embarked on a radical life experiment–a year of biblical womanhood. Intrigued by the traditionalist resurgence that led many of her friends to abandon their careers to assume traditional gender roles in the home, Evans decides to try it for herself, vowing to take all of the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible for a year.

Pursuing a different virtue each month, Evans learns the hard way that her quest for biblical womanhood requires more than a “gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4). It means growing out her hair, making her own clothes, covering her head, obeying her husband, rising before dawn, abstaining from gossip, remaining silent in church, and even camping out in the front yard during her period.

See what happens when a thoroughly modern woman starts referring to her husband as “master” and “praises him at the city gate” with a homemade sign. Learn the insights she receives from an ongoing correspondence with an Orthodox Jewish woman, and find out what she discovers from her exchanges with a polygamist wife. Join her as she wrestles with difficult passages of scripture that portray misogyny and violence against women.

I’m always a fan of Rachel Held Evans, and since feminism and religion are both things that are important to me, I was really excited to read this book. I found some of the things that Evans did a little bit… silly (and I questioned how she made it to the age of 30 without cooking, cleaning, or sewing on a button–no matter what your gender, I feel like these are basic skills that every adult picks up to some extent). But on the whole, I loved how she looked at groups from the Quakers to the Amish to the Jewish people and more to figure out how we have interpreted biblical womanhood in the past and how we can interpret it now.

Evans looks closely at the text and the way different Christian and Jewish traditions have interpreted the Bible’s teachings on women and invites us to do the same. Despite a little corniness that seems to come with any book that revolves around a year-long project, I really enjoyed this book. It gave me plenty of food for thought.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask

What have you always wanted to know about Indians? Do you think you should already know the answers—or suspect that your questions may be offensive? In matterof-fact responses to over 120 questions, both thoughtful and outrageous, modern and historical, Ojibwe scholar and cultural preservationist Anton Treuer gives a frank, funny, and sometimes personal tour of what’s up with Indians, anyway.

• What is the real story of Thanksgiving?
• Why are tribal languages important?
• What do you think of that incident where people died in a sweat lodge?

White/Indian relations are often characterized by guilt and anger. Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask cuts through the emotion and builds a foundation for true understanding and positive action.

This book answers a lot of questions about Native Americans that I never even thought to ask–everything from economics to education to history to politics to culture. It’s amazing (and depressing) how little I know about the present-day lives of the first residents of this country. (In case you’re wondering, Treuer, a member of the Ojibwe people, prefers the term “Indian” rather than “Native American,” “indigenous people,” or “first people,” for reasons that–again–never would have occurred to me.)

If you want to learn more about Native Americans/Indians and their culture, perspectives, and frustrations, this book is a great starting point. If any of you have suggestions about books by and about members of native tribes, I would love to hear them!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The View from the Cheap Seats

An inquisitive observer, thoughtful commentator, and assiduous craftsman, Neil Gaiman has long been celebrated for the sharp intellect and startling imagination that informs his bestselling fiction. Now, The View from the Cheap Seats brings together for the first time ever more than sixty pieces of his outstanding nonfiction. Analytical yet playful, erudite yet accessible, this cornucopia explores a broad range of interests and topics, including (but not limited to): authors past and present; music; storytelling; comics; bookshops; travel; fairy tales; America; inspiration; libraries; ghosts; and the title piece, at turns touching and self-deprecating, which recounts the author’s experiences at the 2010 Academy Awards in Hollywood.

This book offers a collection of speeches, introductions, and articles Neil Gaiman has written. I know some of the authors and awards; others were unknown to me, but they were all pretty interesting. It’s amazing how many famous and influential authors Gaiman has interviewed, worked with, or become friends with! I love listening to Neil Gaiman read his own work, so I recommend you listen to the audio book if this collection catches your interest.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

White Trash

Surveying political rhetoric and policy, popular literature and scientific theories over four hundred years, Isenberg upends assumptions about America’s supposedly class-free society––where liberty and hard work were meant to ensure real social mobility. Poor whites were central to the rise of the Republican Party in the early nineteenth century, and the Civil War itself was fought over class issues nearly as much as it was fought over slavery.

Reconstruction pitted “poor white trash” against newly freed slaves, which factored in the rise of eugenics–-a widely popular movement embraced by Theodore Roosevelt that targeted poor whites for sterilization. These poor were at the heart of New Deal reforms and LBJ’s Great Society; they haunt us in reality TV shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty.Marginalized as a class, “white trash” have always been at or near the center of major political debates over the character of the American identity.

I realized after I started listening to this book that the subtitle refers to “400 years of history,” and I strongly wish that weren’t the case. Although I did learn some new things about the history of class in America, I was not unaware that class is still an issue in our supposedly classless society, and the book seemed to drag on much longer than I thought necessary. The epilogue discusses how the issue of class affects us today, but I wish the whole book had been that, with only a little history interwoven. I know plenty of people have greatly enjoyed this book, and you might too. I just wanted less history and more modern-day application on this topic.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Wild

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State — and she would do it alone.
Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

I finally read this book because my book club was reading it, and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Cheryl faces outer and inner struggles (bears, aching feet, a too-heavy pack, the death of her mother, her divorce from her husband) as she traverses the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s an amazingly difficult trek, and it was satisfying to read about how Cheryl overcomes the obstacles that constantly pop up. Despite the questionable and sometimes outright dumb decisions Cheryl makes as she continues her journey, I found myself rooting for her.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Adult Nonfiction Roundup

Today's roundup is full of adult nonfiction reviews--memoirs, history, and parenting books. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
.

Today’s roundup contains a significant number of nonfiction books I’ve read lately. Some were forgettable, but a couple made it to the top of my favorites list for this year!

Make Me a Mother

In Make Me a Mother, the author discusses the adoption of her son from Korea. It’s an interesting look at the challenges and joys that come with adopting a child of a different ethnicity.

As someone who looks forward to adopting children someday, I really wanted to enjoy this book. And I did, to some extent, but I wished there were more details included about how the author and her husband dealt with the difficulties they faced in raising their son. (Basically, I wished this book was a how-to guide, rather than a memoir.) I found it pretty forgettable.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Why Not Me?

This is Mindy Kaling’s second humorous memoir. The first one, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, was pretty meh for me, so I was excited to find that this book is way better than her first. It contains great photos, a chapter following an average day in her life, advice for feeling confident and successful, and tons of laugh-out-loud stories about celebrities and life in Hollywood.

I have to admit that I didn’t always agree with Mindy’s advice (I am soooo not into her idea of success), but I definitely enjoyed reading it. Good for a laugh, especially if you like following the lives of celebrities.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Princess Problem

It’s no secret that little girls love princesses. Behind the twirly dresses and glittery crowns, however, sits a powerful marketing machine, encouraging obsessive consumerism and delivering negative stereotypes about gender, race, and beauty to young girls. So what’s a parent to do?

The Princess Problem features real advice and stories from parents educators, and psychologists, and children’s industry insiders to help equip every parent with skills to navigate today’s princess-saturated world. As parents, we do our best to keep pop culture’s most harmful stereotypes away from our kids, but contending with well-meaning family members and sneaky commercials can thwart us.

The Princess Problem offers language to have honest conversations with our kids and shows us how to teach them to be thoughtful, open-minded people. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I loved this book! I’m putting it on my mental shelf of books to re-read once I have kids, along with the wonderful book Untangled. The Princess Problem offers some really helpful tips for parents of young children, especially parents of little girls who are being subsumed by “princess culture.”

The author talks about being a pop culture coach, helping kids engage critically with movies, toys, and other areas of pop culture. I love this–you can’t protect your kids from all questionable media (although one of the earlier chapters walks you through creating a suitable media diet for your child), but you can give them the tools to deal with the hurtful messages our culture often presents. So important, so interesting, and definitely worth a read if you’re a parent or educator.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Tiny Beautiful Things

I don’t know much about Cheryl Strayed (I doubt I’ll ever read Wild), and I’d never even heard of the Dear Sugar advice column before I read this book. Still, I was amazed at how much I enjoyed Tiny Beautiful Things.

Even though I didn’t always agree with Sugar’s advice, I always found it thought-provoking and beautiful to read. It made me tear up on several occasions. There should be trigger warnings included here–everything from salty language to sexual content to abuse–but if you’re good with reading about all of that, this book is definitely worth a read.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

The Girls of Atomic City

The Tennessee town of Oak Ridge was created from scratch in 1942. One of the Manhattan Project’s secret cities, it didn’t appear on any maps until 1949, and yet at the height of World War II it was using more electricity than New York City and was home to more than 75,000 people, many of them young women recruited from small towns across the South. Their jobs were shrouded in mystery, but they were buoyed by a sense of shared purpose, close friendships—and a surplus of handsome scientists and Army men!

But against this vibrant wartime backdrop, a darker story was unfolding. The penalty for talking about their work—even the most innocuous details—was job loss and eviction. One woman was recruited to spy on her coworkers. They all knew something big was happening at Oak Ridge, but few could piece together the true nature of their work until the bomb “Little Boy” was dropped over Hiroshima, Japan, and the secret was out. The shocking revelation: the residents of Oak Ridge were enriching uranium for the atomic bomb. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Even though I spent my high school years living not far from Oak Ridge, I knew very little about this military installment before reading this book. The Girls of Atomic City offers a fascinating and eye-opening look into life on this top-secret installment.

This book succeeds mostly because the author was able to interview women who worked at the plant. Some mopped floors, some took coded notes, some adjusted dials, some worked as nurses, and some unclogged pipes, but none of them knew what they were really doing–enriching uranium to create the atomic bomb.

The book covers many aspects of life at Oak Ridge, from the suffocating secrecy surrounding every detail to the sexism that the (mostly female) workers faced to the emotions that the workers felt once the reasons and results of their work were revealed. This is a long read (at least it was for me; I had to keep putting it down and coming back to it later), but it’s an interesting look at a still little-known aspect of WWII.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a bold and inspired teacher named Azar Nafisi secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, fundamentalists seized hold of the universities, and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the girls in Azar Nafisi’s living room risked removing their veils and immersed themselves in the worlds of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. In this extraordinary memoir, their stories become intertwined with the ones they are reading. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a remarkable exploration of resilience in the face of tyranny and a celebration of the liberating power of literature. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

There seems to be a theme in today’s roundup: topics I know very little about. I knew very little about the Iranian revolution before I read this book. In fact, I kept having to put the book down and search Wikipedia for information on the events and parties that are discussed. I’m still not sure I completely understand the revolution’s causes and effects, but I do have a better grasp on how average Iranians felt about it at the time.

I loved the way the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran related the classic books she taught to her students (first at the university; later in secret to a select few female students) to the events in Iran. The memoir is written almost in a series of essays, which are sometimes academic and sometimes very personal. The treatment of women is, of course, horrifying, but I’m very glad I read this book.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Scroll To Top
%d bloggers like this: