Some Non-Fiction Titles I’ve Been Reading

I mostly stick to fiction on the blog, and lately it’s been mostly YA fiction at that, but I wanted to highlight some of the non-fiction titles I’ve been reading this year.  Every once in a while, I go through a phase where I read some non-fiction, and right now, that’s the case.  Here are a couple titles that I thought were pretty outstanding.

Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder

I’ve been a Sylvia Plath fan since my misanthropic teenage days, and this micro-biography (is that a thing?) is so accessible and so fascinating I had a hard time putting it down.  Winder chooses to focus on the summer Plath spent in New York as an intern for Mademoiselle, interweaving first-hand accounts from the other women who interned with her with historical details about the time period, as well as excerpts of Plath’s work and snippets of her journal entries.  The result is incredibly successful: the fashion, the glamour, and the things we’ll never know about Sylvia’s inner-thoughts make this a standout non-fiction title.

Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kokler

Probably one of my favorite reads of the year, Kokler’s impeccably written and obsessively researched look at the disappearances and murders of a slew of women working as escorts through Craigslist on the East Coast a few years ago is haunting, riveting, and something that I still cannot get out of my mind.  Kokler digs into the lives of the women who disappeared and humanizes them in a way that a lesser writer would not have been able to do.  It’s accessible, well-written, and completely worthy of your time.  I loved it, inasmuch as you can love something that’s about a horrible thing that’s happened.

Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales

In the interest of full disclosure, I picked this one up with the intent to just read the parts where Chevy Chase comes off as a complete sociopathic asshole (read: every single time he opens his mouth), because I pretty much think Chase is the worst, and after hearing the book mentioned on one of my favorite podcasts, I knew I had to check it out.  But I ended up reading the entire thing, because it totally hooked me.  I’m not a huge SNL fan in general–I can appreciate the significance of the show’s presence in the pop culture cannon, and I’ll watch an episode if I really like the host, but I haven’t considered it must-watch TV in years.  But this was a surprisingly great read.

God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America by Hanna Rosin

Initially, I wanted to read this one because I have a love-hate thing going on with Rosin as a journalist in general.  I listen to the DoubleX podcast and am always rankled by how clueless, pompous, and generally nutso Rosin can be (not to mention her proclivity to cut people off when they are talking), but there’s no denying that she’s an intelligent person (and she would be the first to tell you so).  I knew about her book The End of Men, but I didn’t realize that she’d written this one until it was mentioned on the podcast when they were discussing sexual assault on Christian college campuses.  So I decided to check it out.

The result surprised me.  I really enjoyed reading it, but I’m not sure how much of that was Rosin (at least a little bit was, because her ability to balance snark and respectful reporting was quite good here) and how much was my complete horror that people like this exist in the world.  At any rate, I devoured this one.  And am still terrified of the fundamentalist Christian right.  Of all fundamentalists, actually.

Book Review: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

Allie Brosh started a blog called Hyperbole and  a Half, and she illustrated her stories.  The result was a wildly popular website and legions of fans.  In this full-color book-version, Brosh brings her trademark wit and unique illustrations to a new set of readers.  Combining new essays with fan favorites, Brosh tackles all sorts of topics, ranging from the hilarious (her dogs) to the hard (suffering from crippling depression).

This graphic-novel-hybrid is sure to attract Brosh’s established fans as well as new ones.  With an authentic, unique voice and one-of-a-kind illustrations, Brosh’s hilarious, frank observations about her life are not to be missed.  This is a laugh-out-loud, nod-your-head-in-agreement kind of book, and it’s got massive appeal for readers young and old.

There’s something to be said about someone who has achieved fame on the internet and attempts to write a book.  No easy feat by any means, it’s also something that has been met with a bit of mixed success.  Luckily, Brosh is a good writer, although this only illustrates how much stronger some of her essays are than others.  Apart from a few cohesion issues, this is a solid collection of essays, and it’s impossible not to enjoy how funny and self-aware Brosh is.

Brosh mixes personal stories with her colorful illustrations, and she tackles subjects ranging from how crazy her dogs are to her fears about life and her crippling depression.  The mix of new and old material should hook her new fans as well as keep the old ones satisfied.  There’s appeal here for fans of other cartoon-based blogs like The Oatmeal.

Thoroughly enjoyable.

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things that Happened by Allie Brosh. Touchstone: 2013. Library copy.

Book Review: MWF Seeking BFF by Rachel Bertsche

Rachel Bertsche moves to Chicago so that she and her boyfriend can finally be in the same place together.  But it isn’t long after she’s gotten married that she realizes that her life is lacking in the best friend department.  She has lots of long distance BFFs, but no one to hang out with in her actual town.  So she sets off on a quest: 52 friend dates in a year in an attempt to gain a new best friend (or more) in her current city.

What you see is what you get with Bertsche’s memoir of her friend-dates and search for a new best friend.  She chronicles her attempts to meet new people, and some of the meetings go well, and some of them don’t.  Is there some interesting stuff here?  Yes, of course.  But there’s also an in-authenticity that comes with writing a memoir that involves some sort of goal or quest.

Things that do work her work fairly well in this memoir are her ruminations on friendship as she continues to meet a variety of women.  She goes out on “girl dates” with women older than her, younger than her, and in between.  She meets women from different walks of life who are in different places of life, and some of this leads to reflection on what female friendship is, and what it isn’t.

There are things here that I didn’t much care for, either.  I think the book starts to drag in the middle, and Bertsche clearly felt like she needed to add content to it, too, because she delves too often into other issues like weight, insecurity, etc.  It felt like pandering to the audience, and it wasn’t necessary in the least.

There’s also a fair amount of privilege at play here, and that won’t sit well with some readers.  The sheer cost alone of what Bertsche sets out to do (and she does acknowledge this) is not something that many could undertake.  Bertsche has the money and the privilege of time to do all these things, and that gets a little grating at times.

I’m not sure what I wanted this one to be, but I did want it to be better than it was.

MWF Seeking BFF by Rachel Bertsche. Ballantine Books: 2011. Borrowed copy.

Book Review: Everything is Perfect When You’re a Liar by Kelly Oxford

Kelly Oxford rose to fame on Twitter with her pithy, clever updates.  In this funny memoir, she shares more of her personal stories.  Essay topics range from her experiences as a precocious child growing up in suburban Canada to her experiences as a mother.

The stories present in Oxford’s book are loosely chronological, starting with her precocious childhood (these stories are often gratingly obnoxoious) and moving into her young adulthood.  The book also deals with Oxford’s experiences with parenthood, and she often takes a no-holds-barred approach to storytelling.  This works, sometimes: her voice as a child and a teenager comes across as incredibly entitled (which was the point, I think), and it makes it hard to like her.

The strongest parts of the book are near the end, when Oxford seems to grow into her voice. Standout essays include “How I Met Your Father” and “An Open Letter to the Nurse Who Gave Me an Enema Bottle,” but many of the other stories sort of blend into the background.  These are funny, heartfelt, and entertaining.

Of course, the problem here is that Oxford isn’t much of a writer.  Her true calling is as a funny voice on Twitter, and what’s disappointing about this collection of essays is that she stays far away from that topic.  The most interesting thing about her is her celebrity-persona on the social networking site, and her decision to only briefly mention it feels like a mistake.

Although this is a sometimes funny memoir, it’s also totally forgettable.  Recommended to hardcore fans of Oxford or readers looking for a light collection of autobiographical essays, but there’s better stuff out there. A tendency to be a grating personality will alienate some readers.

Everything is Perfect When You’re a Liar by Kelly Oxford. Harper Collins: 2013.  Electronic copy accepted for review via Edeweiss.

Book Review: How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

Throughout Caitlin Moran’s humorous memoir, she interweaves observations about women’s lives today with anecdotes about her own experiences in becoming a woman.  Nothing is taboo or out of bounds for Moran, who covers issues such as Brazilian waxes, abortion, pregnancy, weddings, and popular entertainment without even pausing to catch her breath.  Equal parts funny and thought-provoking, Moran’s memoir is sure to delight while it also inspires.

Except that Moran spends too much time trying to delight, and not enough time actually thinking about her arguments and the kind of message they send.  It isn’t that Moran hasn’t done her homework–because it’s clear that she has–it’s more that she seems to subscribe too often to the classic white-feminist viewpoint and completely ignores intersectionality.

This is too bad, because Moran has some good stuff present in her humor-memoir-manifesto.  She doesn’t shy away from any topics, and her honesty is refreshing.  There are whole chapters that are particularly effective, including the one on abortion, which is searingly honest.  Her anecdotes about her childhood growing up in a poor, large family also lend humor and color to the book.

But there are so many moments where Moran goes off the rails that it’s hard to remain on her side throughout the book’s pages.  Moran tries so hard to hit all the marks of feminism while also remaining pithy and cool, and while this in and of itself gets a little grating, it’s her blind spots when it comes to intersectional feminism, transgenderism, and cissexism that are the most jarring in a book that’s supposedly a call to arms for all women.

Moran tends to see issues in a very black-or-white way.  While this is partially put into place to add to the humor of Moran’s book (and she is very funny), it’s also quite polarizing.  Of course, reader sensitivity will play a role in how all of her statements are taken, but the fact remains that her humorous tone often comes off as a little too dismissive:

Even the most ardent feminist historian…can’t conceal that women have basically done fuck-all for the last 100,000 years. Come on — let’s admit it. Lest stop exhaustively pretending that there is a parallel history of women being victorious and creative, on an equal with men, that’s just been comprehensively covered up by The Man. There isn’t.

It seems odd that Moran is making the argument that women have done nothing in the history of humankind.  While she is clearly exaggerating, it is this same kind of dismissive attitude that is so often applied to the histories of people of color by white people.  It is a slippery slope, and it’s also kind of offensive.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the end of Moran’s lack of empathy for marginalized groups.  Take, for example, Moran’s distinction between stripping and burlesque dancing:

With burlesque, not only does the power balance rest with the person taking her clothes off…but it also anchors its heart in freaky, late-night, libertine self expression: it has a campy, tranny, fetish element to it.

There’s a lot to unpack there, and whether or not the reader agrees with Moran about burlesque being so different from stripping is beside the point when one unpacks the offensive, loaded terms she uses to describe burlesque.  This sort of language is rife with cissexism connotations and feels particularly insensitive, given what Moran is trying to accomplish.

Not all readers will have the same reading experience, and many will enjoy Moran’s very British take on the current state of women’s issues.  However, anyone who is interested in a dialogue about intersectional feminism will have to look elsewhere, as Moran turns a complete blind eye to it in her memoir (and hasn’t been great about it on Twitter, either).

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran. Ebury Press: 2011. Library copy.

Book Review: Behind the Bell by Dustin Diamond

In Dustin Diamond’s memoir about his time as Screech on the much-mocked and much-beloved (ironically?) 80s sitcom Saved by the Bell (as well as its spin-offs), he takes a no-holds barred approach to spilling the dirt on his cast mates.  Diamond recounts his days on the set with his much-older peers, his brushes with other celebrities of the day (as much as Jaleel “Urkel” White can be counted as a celebrity), and his myriad sexual encounters with women.  Be prepared, readers, for you’re in for a bumpy ride.

There are so many problems with Diamond’s memoir that it’s hard to know where to start.  This might be the biggest disasterpiece I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot of really, really crappy books).  Perhaps the biggest problem is that from the onset, Diamond presents himself of the voice of authority and experience.  This is even present in the book’s subtitle, which states that it goes “behind the scenes of Saved by the Bell with the guy who was there for everything.”  The problem is that not only was Diamond not there for most things, but he’s clearly also delusional, or a pathological liar.  That works for Diamond’s purposes, though, because the only way that readers are going to believe the contents of this book is if they are very stupid or total superfans who want to be scandalized.

The fact remains, though, that Diamond doesn’t present anything particularly scandalous or shocking, and the allegations he does make are not backed up by facts or anecdotes or even tidbits of stories.  All of the alleged bad behavior that went on onset is the stuff of normal teenagerdom, and it becomes clear, early on, that Diamond wasn’t actually present for any of it.  Once readers realize this, the book alternately bores and grosses out.

Diamond is incredibly bitter about his entire life, and much of his vitriol is aimed at his fellow cast members.  There doesn’t seem to be any legitimate reason for Diamond’s hatred of his costars, but it’s present all the same.  He takes them all to task for various reasons: Mark-Paul Gosselaar was fawned over by the producers and was thus “the Golden Child;” Mario Lopez was a womanizer who started working out too early in life; Tiffani-Amber Thiessen was a whore; etc.  Particularly disturbing is Diamond’s weird obsession with Gosselaar’s heritage: more than once, he makes comments about Gosselaar’s Thai heritage that are blatantly racist.  There are moments where you realize that this can’t all be true: there’s several anecdotes about Diamond playing around with Lopez and Gosselaar on set, and when he had a stalker, he lived with Thiessen and her family until the situation was handled.  These things don’t add up.

If the book were being honest–if, indeed, Diamond could be honest with himself–this memoir would talk about the fact that Diamond was on a show where he was surrounded by people both older and cooler than him, and that despite his desperate desire to belong, he never did.  This would be an interesting memoir: one in which Diamond is capable of being both vulnerable and self-reflective.  Of course, none of that is present here, as Diamond puts on an air of smugness and weird superiority from the first line.

Instead of offering any sort of actual content, though, Diamond prefers to focus on sex.  He spends a great deal of time hinting at all the sex his cast members were having with one another, but there’s no evidence to support this.  There’s a fairly lengthy passage where Diamond makes the claim that he’s pretty sure both Gosselaar and Thiessen were having a threesome with producer Peter Engel in order to curry favor.  In these (frankly, imagined) scenes, Diamond sits outside the office and stares at a closed door.  Never is it more clear that most of–if not all–this is in his head.

This review wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t talk about Diamond’s preoccupation with sex.  In the memoir, he claims to have slept with over 2,000 women, the majority of whom he picked up at Disneyworld.  Diamond also repeatedly refers to his penis as “the monster in [his] trousers.”  It’s not the claims that I take issue with–I don’t really care if he’s slept with that many people, and it’s certainly not my business–it’s the vulgar way he goes about describing these encounters.  He talks about women he’s slept with with the kind of callousness you expect from some drunk old douche in a bar, and his disregard for them as human beings is repulsive.  All of this frank discussion about sex hints at what is really going on, of course.  Saved by the Bell took away his sexuality (watch an episode–any episode–of SbtB and you’ll see it immediately), and Diamond is on a mission to reassert his masculinity and sexuality.  It’s gross and sad and more than a little pathetic.

This revisionist history of the cult-classic 80′s sitcom is worth skipping, even for the die-hard fan.  Diamond’s recounting of his time on the show and his life afterwards is almost impossible to slog through.  It’s not just his insufferable tone or the fact that he’s clearly lying: the book is not well-written and doesn’t appear to have been edited at all.  Mistakes and typos abound.  With nothing new to offer readers, nothing about this memoir is worth reading.  Pass on it, and watch the series again instead.

Behind the Bell by Dustin Diamond. Transit Publishing: 2009.  Borrowed copy.

Quick and Dirty Mini-Reviews: Readers’ Advisory Edition

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America Along the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson

Bryson and his friend Katz decide to hike the Appalachian trail, starting in the mountains of Georgia and ending up in Maine.  The trek is long–although no one can say exactly how long–and requires a great deal of faith.  Along the way, Bryson reflects on how the trail has changed since its inception and what it means for hikers today and into the future.

This was my first experience with Bryson, and I don’t think it will be my last.  There’s a lot to recommend here: Bryson’s writing is engaging, funny, frequently witty, and above all else, extremely accessible.  Bryson manages to weave narrative nonfiction with facts about the Applachian trail in a way that is nearly seamless.  This book will appeal to all sorts of readers: those who love travel memoirs, those who love ruminations about nature and history, and those who are just looking for a fun, smart read.

Lakeside Cottage by Susan Wiggs

A fairly typical contemporary romance set in the Pacific Northwest, Susan Wiggs’s novel features Kate, a single mom, and JD, a reluctant American hero.  Add in a summer lake house, a teenage runaway, and some good summer grilling, and you’ve got yourself a novel.

Any further descriptions of the plot make me feel fairly silly, but the novel itself was pleasant enough (though not so pleasant that I’ll be picking up any more of her titles).  Earnest, moving, and carefully plotted, this will work for readers looking for a gentler romance (we have a fade-to-black approach to any and all sex scenes).  The weirdly didactic social issues were off-putting for me but will work for readers who like a touch of reality to their romances.

State of the Onion by Julie Hyzy

Olivia Paras is one of the chefs in the White House Kitchen.  She’s good at her job and likes it that way.  She’s also dating one of the Secret Service officers–but they keep it under wraps for a number of reasons.  When she finds herself in the middle of a murder mystery and an assassination attempt, Olivia isn’t sure who to trust or what to believe.  A White House Chef mystery, Hyzy’s novel features food, terrorism, and a tiny bit of romance.  It’s closer to cozy-mystery than anything else, and it will definitely work for readers who like the food sub-genre of mysteries (who knew there was such a thing?).  While it was enjoyable enough (like cotton candy without the caloric guilt), I don’t feel compelled to read the next in the series.

Nothing to Lose by Lee Child

Jack Reacher roams the country and finds himself in trouble wherever he goes.  He can’t seem to help it–he’s curious, and once he’s onto the scent of something fishy, he can’t let it go until he figures it out.  When he wanders into the town of Despair (no, seriously), he’s struck by how unfriendly everyone is.  Why do they want him out of town so badly, and what are they hiding?

My first and hopefully last experience with Lee Child and his enigmatic hero Jack Reacher.  While I certainly understand the appeal of these books (they are pure and utter escapism for the graying population), they’re way, way too ridiculous for me.  If you can’t get enough of them, I’ve got good news and bad news: the good news is a movie’s in production; the bad is that Tom Cruise is playing the 6’4″ Reacher.

Book Review: The Breakup 2.0 by Ilana Gershon

Until recently, romantic commitments were all about the tangible: rings, pins, letter jackets.  All of these things let people know when a couple was together and when they broke up.  But with the advent of social media, the rules are changing.  What does it mean to be “Facebook Official,” and what happens when one person in a relationship cancels that status?  What are the rules when it comes to breaking up in a 2.0 world?

Gershon is an associate professor at Indiana University, and a few years back, she was teaching a linguistic anthropology class.  In order to get her students thinking about language and its impact, she asked them what makes for a bad breakup.  Instead of hearing stories about cheaters and love lost, her students started arguing about etiquette, especially in light of social media technology.  Was it okay to break up with someone via email?  On Facebook?  Via text?  As her students argued over logistics, Gershon started formulating a research question.  The result is The Breakup 2.0, an accessible rehashing of the interviews Gershon did with 72 undergraduate students (18 male, 52 female).

It’s a limited but very intriguing study.  Because social media usage is limited amongst older generations, Gershon’s focus on the upcoming generation is particularly fascinating.  Social media users who have essentially grown up with the technology have their own set of rules that govern its usage, and these explanations of the norms and mores are some of the book’s most fascinating tidbits.  The increasing reliance on technology to conduct personal relationships is alarming but also fast becoming what is normal and expected.  Examining it is important in order to better understand society.

One of the most interesting parts of the book focuses on the usage of Facebook, both in beginning and terminating relationships.  Gershon makes a particularly astute observation when she points out Facebook (by far the most public of all 2.0 technologies) is implicitly conservative in its operations: by creating options for relationship statuses, Facebook present monogamy as the ideal and encourages users to link to one another’s profiles.  It is an interesting observation that many casual Facebook users have probably missed.

Although the book starts to feel overly long in its final third, Gershon’s observations about 2.0 technologies and breakups are still relevant and important.  Recommended to those interested especially in how social media 2.0 technology is changing our relationships.

The Breakup 2.0 by Ilana Gershon. Cornell University Press: 2010.  Electronic galley accepted for review via NetGalley.

Book Review: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

Part memoir, part humorous essay, Mindy Kaling’s first book aims to be a little bit of everything.  She offers stories about growing up the obedient child of immigrants, offers a list of commandments for a best friend, and offers some tidbits about what it’s like to be a writer for The Office.  A quick, breezy read, Kaling’s book offers some gentle laughs and some genuine insights into a very bright, very funny woman.

It’s impossible for Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? to live up to its own hype.  When the publisher released a sneak peek of the book on the internet last year, the outlook was exceptionally good: the parts of the book readers were privy to were well-written, funny, and warm.  While this is true of most of Kaling’s book, the thing as a whole doesn’t quite work.  Although it is often funny, Kaling’s odd detours from personal memories–like when she talks about why guys should wear pea-coats–detract from the book’s resonance.

The best parts of the book are the parts where Kaling writes about the entertainment industry.  Her keen observations about being a female writer in comedy are particularly astute, and it is here that she really shines.  Her observations about life as a writer on the set of The Office and her struggles to make it as a writer/actress in Hollywood in general are some of the book’s strongest moments.  She writes about her coworkers with grace and admiration, and there’s nothing saccharine or fake about it: she genuinely admires these people.

There’s no doubt that Kaling is funny.  It’s also clear that she’s a good writer, as her conversational tone throughout the book is part of its appeal.  In fact, it often reads like a more verbose version of her Twitter feed, which isn’t a bad thing at all.  This reader just wishes the book had been more focused and that Kaling had allowed herself to be as funny as we know she is.

Recommended to fans of Kaling’s Twitter, fans of The Office, fans of light comedy.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling. Crown Archetype: 2011.  Purchased copy for Kindle.

Book Review: 101 Things You Thought You Knew About the Titanic by Tim Maltin

Titanic expert Tim Maltin tackles the myths and legends surrounding one of history’s most famous doomed ships in this new book.  Methodically moving from the ship’s construction and launch to its notorious sinking, Maltin tackles the biggest stories about the big ship and tells readers what the real story was.  History buffs and fans of shipwrecks should take note: this book is detailed, compelling, and accessible.

Obviously this book is going to find a readership in hardcore Titanic fans.  This could mean the ship itself or James Cameron’s eponymous, epic 90s movie.  (Did anyone else see that it’s being re-released in 3D?  Is nothing sacred any more?!)  The book might also resonate with fans of shipwrecks and history in general, but because Maltin’s book is so detailed, Titanic fans are going to be the most entertained by his account of what happened.

Using a variety of sources, including actual interview transcripts from surviving passengers and crew members, Maltin dispels the myths surrounding the ship in a clear, concise manner.  Each of the 101 issues Matlin tackles is handled in a few pages, but it never feels overly rushed–his accounts are detailed and thoughtful.

It’s a book that will also work for individuals doing research about the ill-fated ship.  The writing is accessible enough to work for high school students (or even sophisticated middle-grade readers) looking for detailed information about the boat.  This book wouldn’t be a bad resource to have in classrooms or school libraries.

Overall compelling, Maltin’s book about the Titanic is a relatively quick read that offers a great deal of information to chew on.  Recommended to fans of the ship, the movie, or those just looking to learn more about what happened to that crazy ocean liner.

101 Things You Thought You Knew About the Titanic…But Didn’t by Tim Maltin. Penguin Books: 2011.  Electronic galley accepted for review via NetGalley.