Adult Nonfiction Roundup: August 2017

In which I review the latest adult nonfiction books I've read. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Today’s adult nonfiction roundup covers a lot of ground. There are fun how-to books, a biography (?), and some more serious fare as well. Whether you want to learn more about social issues or Jane Austen, there’s something here for you. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

$2.00 a Day

After two decades of brilliant research on American poverty, Kathryn Edin noticed something she hadn’t seen since the mid-1990s — households surviving on virtually no income. Edin teamed with Luke Shaefer, an expert on calculating incomes of the poor, to discover that the number of American families living on $2.00 per person, per day, has skyrocketed to 1.5 million American households, including about 3 million children.

Where do these families live? How did they get so desperately poor? Edin has “turned sociology upside down” (Mother Jones) with her procurement of rich — and truthful — interviews. Through the book’s many compelling profiles, moving and startling answers emerge.

$2.00 a Day was fascinating and frustrating. The authors show how families across America are surviving on less than $2 per person per day. They explore welfare and other governmental assistance, attempts at getting and holding subpar jobs, and the role of abusive families in these people’s lives. If you don’t know much about these poorest of the poor in the U.S., this book will open your eyes. I found myself talking about the stories in this book for days, and I still think about the issues presented here whenever the discussion turns to poverty.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Jane Austen Education

Before Jane Austen, William Deresiewicz was a very different young man. A sullen and arrogant graduate student, he never thought Austen would have anything to offer him. Then he read Emma—and everything changed.

In this unique and lyrical book, Deresiewicz weaves the misadventures of Austen’s characters with his own youthful follies, demonstrating the power of the great novelist’s teachings—and how, for Austen, growing up and making mistakes are one and the same.

A pretentious English major learns to love Jane Austen as he grows and applies her lessons to his life. I love Jane Austen, but I really disliked the author’s take on her works. He’s “too good” for Austen, and it takes a lot of work for him to appreciate the lessons she teaches in her novels. Sure, there are a couple of interesting points about Austen’s works which I enjoyed, but I’m never a fan of pretentious authors, and that really impeded my enjoyment of this book.

Rating: Meh

The Skeleton Crew

The Skeleton Crew provides an entree into the gritty and tumultuous world of Sherlock Holmes–wannabes who race to beat out law enforcement—and one another—at matching missing persons with unidentified remains.

In America today, upwards of forty thousand people are dead and unaccounted for. These murder, suicide, and accident victims, separated from their names, are being adopted by the bizarre online world of amateur sleuths. It’s DIY CSI.

The web sleuths pore over facial reconstructions (a sort of Facebook for the dead) and other online clues as they vie to solve cold cases and tally up personal scorecards of dead bodies. The Skeleton Crew delves into the macabre underside of the Internet, the fleeting nature of identity, and how even the most ordinary citizen with a laptop and a knack for puzzles can reinvent herself as a web sleuth.

The Skeleton Crew provides an interesting look at the “web sleuths” who are helping solve cold cases involving missing persons and unidentified bodies. There’s a surprising amount of drama surrounding the web sleuth community, but the real draw for me was the solving of cases the police have given up on. The author weaves several real-life cold cases that were solved by amateur sleuths into her book, and I found myself racing to the end so I could discover who the unidentified bodies turned out to be.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

We Should All Be Feminists

With humor and levity, here Adichie offers readers a unique definition of feminism for the twenty-first century—one rooted in inclusion and awareness. She shines a light not only on blatant discrimination, but also the more insidious, institutional behaviors that marginalize women around the world, in order to help readers of all walks of life better understand the often masked realities of sexual politics. Throughout, she draws extensively on her own experiences—in the U.S., in her native Nigeria, and abroad—offering an artfully nuanced explanation of why the gender divide is harmful for women and men, alike.

This succinct, insightful essay should be mandatory reading for all of us (cliche but true). If you or someone you know isn’t convinced that they are or should be a feminist, this essay is for you. It’s short enough that everyone can make time to read it. I’m certainly glad I did.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

The Little Book of Hygge

You know hygge when you feel it. It is when you are cuddled up on a sofa with a loved one, or sharing comfort food with your closest friends. It is those crisp blue mornings when the light through your window is just right.

Who better than Meik Wiking to be your guide to all things hygge? Meik is CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen and has spent years studying the magic of Danish life. In this beautiful, inspiring book he will help you be more hygge: from picking the right lighting and planning a dinner party through to creating an emergency hygge kit and even how to dress.

I like the ideas of hygge, but this book just rehashes a lot of things that are already familiar to many readers who have spent time on Pinterest. I feel the book would have worked better as a series of blog posts.

Rating: Meh

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons.

HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.

This book tells the interesting, upsetting, fascinating story of the woman whose cancer cells were stolen to create HeLa. HeLa became a line of cells that helped create polio vaccines, went into space, got blown up by nuclear bombs, and were experimented on in countless ways that advanced science and medical care by leaps and bounds. At the same time, Lacks’s family was never compensated for or even told of the HeLa cell line, and her descendants struggle to pay for their own medical bills.

The author goes on a journey to discover who Henrietta Lacks was, and along the way, she spends time with the Lacks family, medical researchers, and anyone else who has been affected by Henrietta’s cells. The book offers an exploration of ethics, racism, and law as they relate to medical research, and it made me think very differently about the research we do with human subjects. Although the book is part biography, part scientific exploration, it reads like a novel, even for those of us without a strong medical background.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla

A child’s concept of race is quite different from that of an adult. Young children perceive skin color as magical–even changeable–and unlike adults, are incapable of understanding adult predjudices surrounding race and racism. Just as children learn to walk and talk, they likewise come to understand race in a series of predictable stages.

Based on Marguerite A. Wright’s research and clinical experience, I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla teaches us that the color-blindness of early childhood can, and must, be taken advantage of in order to guide the positive development of a child’s self-esteem.

This book was recommended to me as a useful book for people considering adopting a child of a different race, and although I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla was not written primarily with that focus in mind, I did find it very interesting for parents or teachers of any race who work with children of color. It offers Dr. Wright’s thoughts on how to raise healthy black and biracial children in our race-focused world, supported by dozens of stories and interviews from her own research on the topic. This book brought up a lot of points I wouldn’t have thought of, like the fact that children don’t see race/color the same way adults do, and that adults need to be careful not to impose our own racially tinted viewpoints on children.

I do wish there was an updated version–this book was published in the late 1990s, and I feel like there is more to say on this topic given the events that have taken place between then and now. Still, the book provides a lot of food for thought, and I’ll definitely reference it in the future.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

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