Category Archives: Non-Fiction

Mini-review clearance: Nonfiction

Continuing my wrap-up of books read in 2012:

Why Evolution is True by Jerry A. Coyne

I grew up believing that (macro) evolution was not true because it didn’t align with a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation account. This was the only valid interpretation according to my parents, my church and most Christians I knew. There was a man who sometimes attended that church who believed evolution was true and I regarded him with astonished curiosity. Later, as an adult, I rejected the idea that evolution and Christianity were incompatible with each other, but felt I needed to learn more before officially changing my own view. I’ve had Coyne’s book on my to-read list for several years and finally got around to reading it last year. Coyne, a scientist whose primary field is evolutionary biology, outlines evolutionary theory in an intelligent but accessible way. He references recent research (the book was published in 2009), and includes fascinating and entertaining examples from the natural world. I especially enjoyed the chapters on the fossil record and vestigial organs / embryonic development.

Coyne’s main stumble is the awkward inclusion of sentences along the lines of, “why would a beneficent creator have done such-and-such this way” (I don’t have the book with me, so forgive the paraphrase). The book’s focus is not theological, so sentences pondering the motives of God just come off as clumsy and distracting. But overall, I really appreciated this book for giving me a good understanding of evolutionary theory. I felt like something just clicked in my brain after reading Coyne’s book and made me look at the world with fresh eyes.

(While reading the book, I sought out writings by Christians who view as evolution is true and found this great article by a biology professor who used to support the Intelligent Design movement.) Obviously I came to this book with issues of faith in mind, but I recommend Why Evolution is True for anyone who wants a refresh on evolutionary theory.

Ox Travels: Meetings With Remarkable Travel Writers – introduced by Michael Palin

If you’ve been reading this blog for while, you may know that I have a penchant for travel writing. When I was in Portland, Oregon last year, I raided the travel section of Powell’s Books, and this was one of the books highlighted by the store. Ox Travels is a collection of 36 travel essays, and proceeds of the book go toward supporting the work of Oxfam. Some of the essays are adapted excerpts from books, especially in the case of well-known travel writers such as Paul Theroux and William Dalrymple. I hadn’t read any of the source books, so the re-use of this material didn’t bother me. As with most books of essays, there were a few weak links, but overall this was a fine collection. There is “The End of the Bolster”, a little romantic tale from Sara Wheeler and “A Cave on the Black Sea” which is a story from an unfinished book by the recently deceased Patrick Leigh Fermor. There is a story which tells of a Brazilian Rastafarian who travels to Benin, the land of his ancestors; another story describes a tense encounter in the diamond fields of Zimbabwe; a street performer works a bit of magic on a desperate crowd waiting for a plane in Freetown, Sierra Leone in “The Beggar King”.

Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death by Deborah Blum

The subtitle of Ghost Hunters pretty much gives the premise for this book, although I would qualify that the book focuses on many researchers and not just William James (brother of author Henry James!). Ghost Hunters chronicles the efforts of these scientists to investigate mediums and others who claimed to bear messages from the dead, whether through sittings, seances or letter-writing. Blum focuses on the scientists’ work of the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Unsurprisingly, the scientists are derided by the rest of the scientific community for this line of research. The researchers often found possible psychics to be frauds, but occasionally there was an incident that seemed genuine and not a trick. It was methodical work with few rewards and about halfway through the book, I felt like that could somewhat describe my reading experience as well. I won’t blame Blum, as I think some external factors contributed to my declining interest in the book, but I was really dragging along by the end. That said, one of the aspects I did enjoy about this book was the parade of Victorian movers-and-shakers that had connections to psychical research: there were a lot of familiar names, from authors to philosophers to inventors.

This book was recommended to me by Eva.

Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood by Fatima Mernissi

This is a short memoir by Islamic feminist writer, Fatima Mernissi, about growing up in Fez, Morocco during the 1940’s. As the outside world is shaken by World War II, young Fatima learns about harem life. While her grandfather had many wives, the generation of Fatima’s father tended to be more monogamous. The household Fatima lives in is a harem because the women are not allowed outside, except on escorted visits. Another aspect of harem life is the multi-family dimension: Fatima grows up with cousins and aunts and uncles around. An aunt comes to live there after separating from her husband. Fatima observes how the women around her negotiate this cloistered life. Some abide by it strictly, while others test the boundaries. Fatima also compares this harem life to the harem life experienced on her grandfather’s farm, where the rules are a little more relaxed because it is in the country. I thought Mernissi occasionally laid it on too thick with metaphorical / inspirational passages, but I loved how Mernissi captured the details of this life and the personalities of her family.

This book was recommended to me by a friend who studied abroad in Morocco when she was in college.


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Game Change by John Heilemann with Mark Halperin

Subtitle: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin and the Race of a Lifetime

2010. HarperCollins. Hardcover. 448 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

In Game Change, political journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin give a behind-the-scenes account of the 2008 U.S. presidential election, from the primaries to the general election. Their account is drawn from interviews they conducted with campaign staffers immediately after the primaries and then again after the general election.


Despite my current residency in the D.C. metropolitan area, I am not a de facto political junkie. I keep up with current events fairly well, mostly by listening to NPR’s Morning Edition and checking in with Google News aggregate headlines during the day – but I am not an avid follower of political news stories.

So when I read Game Change in October of this year, the insider stuff was mostly new to me. I remembered many of the gaffes and controversies and major moments and it was cool to revisit them again, but this time from the perspective of the campaign offices.

When I’ve read other reviews of Game Change, “gossipy” is a word that comes up often. The authors describe near the start of the book their efforts to corroborate what they were told, but I still took everything with a grain of salt. That said, it was dishy, turn-the-page fun. I read an excerpt to my roommate early on, and this turned into me reading aloud almost entire chapters to her at a time.

I mean, anyone running for President has to have an ego, and when you have all those egos crashing around, there’s going to be tantrums and fallouts. And then the nature of the beast, is that your friends – who happen to be politicians and influential people – may very well throw in their lot with your opponent. The stakes are high, the variables of a successful campaign are many, and the world is watching. It’s a miserable business and you wonder why anyone does this. So reading Game Change while the United States gears up for its next election was actually very timely.

The authors write entertainingly without seeming to give in to sensationalism.  Occasionally there was a metaphor or colloquialism that went over my head (and that of my roommate’s), but then there would be a turn of phrase or concise summation of a moment that would be just perfect. Also, all the campaign staff got muddled together in my head, and I couldn’t always remember their titles or background unless I looked them up in the index. If I was a political junkie, this probably would not have been a problem.

This was the right nonfiction book at the right time for me. I swore after Zeitoun that I was taking a break from harrowing nonfiction for the rest of the year. And while Game Change is not a lightweight book as it certainly provoked several engaged discussions with my roommate, its fast-paced, tidbit-filled narrative was a boost for me.

Excerpts from other reviews:

A Novel Menagerie – “I found NO excitement, joy, or pleasure in reading this political rubbish.”

Bookchickdi – “It is also must-reading for anyone who is engaged in current events, and it puts into question whether the complicated primary process in its current form is the best way to elect the most important office in the land.”

Unruly Reader – “For narrative nonfiction junkies, this book is pure pleasure. For political junkies, same thing. “


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Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

  2009. McSweeney’s. Hardcover. 342 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

In this non-fiction book that reads like a novel, Eggers tells the story of the Zeitoun family’s ordeal in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun run a painting contracting business in New Orleans. Abdulrahman (known as Zeitoun), was originally from Syria, had married Kathy, an American convert to Islam, and settled down in New Orleans in 1994. When Hurricane Katrina is forecast to hit the city, Kathy takes their kids away to stay with her family elsewhere in the state. But Zeitoun stays behind to look after their home and rental properties.


Zeitoun started off gradually, introducing the reader to the family at its center. Eggers continued to intersperse backstory throughout the progression of the hurricane narrative. I enjoyed reading the stories of Zeitoun’s life. His family lived by the sea in Syria; his brother Mohamed was a champion long-distance ocean swimmer, a hero for Syria, but who died young in a car accident. Zeitoun took jobs on ships that took him all over the world until he finally fetched up in New Orleans. There he was introduced to and married Kathy, an American who had converted to Islam to the bewilderment of her family. She had one son from a previous marriage, and she and Zeitoun had four more. They knew people all over their city through their respected and successful business.

It was fascinating to read a sustained first-person account of staying through the hurricane and the flooding of the city. Mostly I had read only snippets and quotes from New Orleans citizens that were included in articles about the storm. At first everything was surreal but hopeful: Zeitoun assisted stranded neighbors and fed trapped pets, paddling his canoe among the watery streets.  But while he was using the phone at one of his rental properties, a boat full of armed men showed up and from then on the story became very harrowing. (I’ll give more detail on what happens later in the review, so if you like your nonfiction to be as unspoiled as your fiction, you might want to check out at this point.)

When I watched the news footage of Hurricane Katrina as it happened back in 2005, it was the angriest I had ever been in my life about something not personally happening to me. I usually cannot sustain a high level of anger for long, but I was furious for days over this.

Zeitoun brought me right back to that level, especially because I hadn’t really known about stories like Zeitoun’s. He and three other men were picked up at his rental property by armed police and National Guardsmen as suspected looters and taken to a makeshift outside prison at the Greyhound station. Zeitoun was almost immediately treated like he was a terrorist. He was repeatedly denied a phone call and medical attention, and was humiliated, taunted, and mistreated. The other men were also subjected to this treatment (along with hundreds more who were held in Camp Greyhound). Zeitoun was held for almost a month, and for most of that time his wife Kathy had no idea what had happened to him and feared that he was dead.

I couldn’t bear to put Zeitoun down as I raced toward the end, staying up later than I should have to finish it. I think I didn’t quite register the epilogue part of the book, because I was still reeling from the injustice of Zeitoun’s ordeal. My roommate vicariously experienced the book as I vented to her that night about the story and about Hurricane Katrina in general. I woke up the next morning still thinking about it.

I mentioned in my recap of the National Book Festival a quote from Gregory Maguire where he said we have a “moral need to take our time to decide who is good and who is bad.” That is exactly what did not happen for Zeitoun and for others held at Camp Greyhound. On the basis of one officer’s mistaken identification of him as a looter, Zeitoun was branded as “bad” and handed off to other authorities, who carried that assumption further, and handed him off to different authorities who were so far divorced from the original circumstances of his arrest that they just fell into the simplistic equation of incarcerated = bad, Muslim = terrorist and wouldn’t hear of anything otherwise.

I admire Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun for letting their story be told by Dave Eggers. They opened up their lives to us, the readers, and that is a brave thing to do.

Writing this review, I’m reminded of another couple’s story from the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, Scott and Kimberly Rivers Roberts. Their story was told in the documentary Trouble the Water and if you watch it, I recommend watching their Q&A with film audiences in the special features.

I’m so glad I read Zeitoun, but I had to make a pledge after reading this book not to read another nonfiction book about upsetting subjects for the rest of the year. I have read several emotional heavy-hitters this year: And the Band Played On (AIDS), Safe Area Goradze (”ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia), We Wish to Inform You… (Rwandan genocide). After reading Zeitoun, I realized that I do have an emotional limit when it comes to my reading material, and that I need to take a break for a while.

Excerpts from other reviews:

Life with Books – “Although Eggers tells this non-fiction story in narrative form, he is careful to relate things as simply and straightforwardly as possible. I’m sure it is a structure that has been criticized as blurring the line between fact and fiction, but I think Eggers manages to pull off a rather tricky balancing act.”

Literate Housewife – “While reading the book I felt like the Zeitoun family were close friends, I was at all times fully engrossed in their story.”

Ready When You Are, C.B. – “I’ve no reason to suspect their account, in fact I believe they are telling the truth from start to finish, but it would have benefited the reader if Mr. Eggers had built collaborating evidence into the book, instead of adding it on at the end in a few pages.”


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A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea by Joel Achenbach

The Race to Kill The BP Oil Gusher

2011. Simon & Schuster. Hardcover. 276 pages.

In a nutshell:

Joel Achenbach is a Washington Post staff writer who was assigned to cover the BP oil spill in 2010. In this book, armed with information provided by the Marine Board of Investigation, government emails, and interviews, Achenbach guides readers through the events of this massive environmental disaster. The book starts with the events of April 20, 2010 when the BP-leased Transocean rig, the Deepwater Horizon, exploded in flames, killing eleven people. Achenbach then covers both the technical and political response to the unrelenting oil gusher until it was finally stopped. (The oil plume was stopped on July 15th, but the permanent cementing of the Macondo well didn’t occur until mid-September 2010, after some intermediary and exploratory steps.)


Joel Achenbach is going to be one of the authors at the upcoming National Book Festival. I usually try to read a few books by Festival authors before going. I have enjoyed authors’ Festival sessions without having read their books, but it’s a nice bonus if I’m already familiar with at least one of their books.

While looking over this year’s line-up of authors and their bios, this book’s subject caught my eye. Like many Americans, I had followed the news stories on the BP oil spill with exasperation.  A year later, I remembered that the gusher was finally stopped, but was fuzzy on how exactly it had been stopped.

A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea not only cleared up for me how the gusher had been killed, but also why I was fuzzy in the first place. Achenbach does a superb job of showing the disparity between what the American public understood from news reports and what was actually going on behind the scenes.

This seems like it would be a difficult story to parlay into layman’s terms. First of all, there is the complicated science and engineering aspect. Achenbach’s approach to this aspect was to include excerpts of technical documents and then afterwards explain the significance of them – the take-away knowledge. So for those readers who want some scientific detail, that information is there, but for those who don’t have the background for it (like me), shortcuts to basic understanding are provided.

The story is also complicated by the multitude of players from the corporate and government spheres. Occasionally, I needed to reference the index at the back to remind myself of when we had last encountered such-and-such person. Overall, though, Achenbach introduced and reintroduced people well enough that I remembered their role in the disaster response as I read.

Not only does Achenbach bring clarity to the BP oil gusher story, but he also writes colorfully and with a nice dollop of humor here and there. Take this following excerpt:

The well was spewing oil as fast as ever, and BP began to suspect that the flow had gotten worse; that the mudding of the well had scoured it out, opened it up, like nasal mist up a nostril. This would be a debatable point. What’s certain is that Macondo’s hydrocarbons continued to shoot out the well as if they’d been fantasizing about being in open water for ten million years.

p. 149-150

Isn’t that just so vivid? And pretty much the whole book is just that energetic and vivid.

As A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea was published in April 2011, and the events were so recent, I imagined Achenbach writing under a particularly tight schedule. Achenbach’s stylistic choices sometimes had the flavor of under-pressure inspiration. For instance, Achenbach will frequently use the phrase “what comes to mind is” as he makes a comparison. (He has a knack for offbeat but apt comparisons, as seen in the excerpt above). This phrase “what comes to mind is” conjured up for me the image of the writer’s mind busily casting out into his pool of images and analogies. In this way, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea had a certain raw and transparent quality about it.

This is not a criticism, but I had a mild disappointment that Achenbach never mentioned the oil-eating bacteria. I actually don’t know what role, if any, they had in the aftermath of the oil spill, but I remembered hearing a couple of news stories about these bacteria in 2010 and was hoping they would come up in the book. They just sounded so nifty.

I looked forward to reading this book every time I picked it up. I look forward to hearing Achenbach speak at the Festival next weekend. The epilogue is called “An Engineered Planet” and I’ll close with an excerpt of some of Achenbach’s big-picture conclusions:

The human race is gambling that an engineered planet can be made sustainable, nuclear weapons controlled and managed, crops and livestock genetically modified, machines deftly crafted on the nanometer scale, the electrical grid revamped to be more highly networked and “smart,” and perhaps the entire planet “geoengineered” to combat climate change. As we go down this technological path, we will count on complex systems to work correctly. We will assume that someone smart is in charge, looking over our world, protecting us. We will imagine a world full of blowout preventers that will actually prevent blowouts.

p. 251


**There weren’t any other reviews of this book when I did a search in the Book Blog Search Engine, so no excerpts from other book reviews this time.***


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We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families by Philip Gourevitch

1998. Farrar Straus and Giroux. Hardcover.356 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

A year after the 1995 Rwandan genocide, the author of this book, Philip Gourevitch, visited Rwanda. We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families is the result of many visits, extensive interviews and research. In the introduction to the book, Gourevitch writes: “I wanted to know how Rwandans understood what had happened in their country, and how they were getting on in the aftermath.”


I might as well cut to the chase: We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families is a brilliant book. It can be a harrowing read, but don’t let that put you off. Gourevitch’s writing skillfully pulled me into its difficult and complicated subject matter.

What I knew about the Rwandan genocide before reading this book was mostly gleaned from two films about that time: Hotel Rwanda and Sometimes in April.  They were both good films but could only cover so much, given the medium. Gourevitch’s book delved deeper. The book examines the history of Rwanda (and where pertinent, neighboring countries) and how that history built up to 1994’s horrific wholesale slaughter. The author’s interviews with survivors provide chilling descriptions of that unrelenting slaughter. The inaction of the international community is detailed.

However the most incredible section of the book – for me – may have been Gourevitch’s description and contemplation on post-genocide Rwanda. First of all, I knew very little about the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the military force funded and populated by Rwandan expatriates. (As I understand it, these expats were mostly Tutsis or other Rwandans who had left due to the deteriorating situation within Rwanda). I knew that the RPF’s push through Rwanda was the primary reason why the April 1994 genocide stopped. But I knew nothing about the immediate aftermath: how most of the Hutus fled from the RPF into other countries; how the genocide-mongering Hutu Power members regrouped in refugee camps, and how the new Rwandan government started its struggle to rebuild a country where killers, accomplices, and survivors lived side by side.

We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families did so much more than provide me with information; it is filled with an astonishing level of insight about people and what makes them act in terrible ways. While reading, it seemed clear to me that Gourevitch committed his heart and mind to this story.

There are so many quotes I would like to share, but I will share just two excerpts:

In discussions of us-against-them scenarios of popular violence, the fashion these days is to speak of mass hatred. But while hatred can be animating, it appeals to weakness. The “authors” of the genocide, as Rwandans call them, understood that in order to move a huge number of weak people to do wrong, it is necessary to appeal to their desire for strength – and the gray force that really drives people is power. Hatred and power are both, in their different ways, passions. The difference is that hatred is purely negative, while power is essentially positive: you surrender to hatred, but you aspire to power.

p. 128-129

Gourevitch goes on to describe how Paul Rusesabagina (the hotel manager portrayed by Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda) appealed to the Hutu Power killers’ sense of power, in order to save the people who had fled to the hotel for refuge.

And here is a portion of Gourevitch’s discussion of genocide:

But body counts aren’t the point in a genocide, a crime for which, at the time of my first visit to Rwanda, nobody on earth had ever been brought to trial, much less convicted. What distinguishes genocide from murder, and even from acts of political murder that claim as many victims, is the intent. The crime is wanting to make a people extinct. The idea is the crime. No wonder it’s so difficult to picture.

p. 201-202

The above sentences come near the end of a passage where Gourevitch has wrestled with the astounding number of people who were killed.

As I said, there are more quotes I’d love to share, but when I tried to include them in this post, I realized that there was too much contextual explanation I would need to provide in order for the quotes to fully make sense.

As with Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On about the early years of AIDS in America, Gourevitch’s book made me want to throw things as I read about the inaction of ostensibly beneficent organizational bodies. It’s also a book that made me contemplate some current events at a different angle.

We wish to inform you… is a book I talked about to others as I was reading it, and the family and friends I talked to didn’t shy from the topic at all, and we had some engaged discussions as a result.

Here are some others’ thoughts:

Book Addiction – “Gourevitch is an amazing journalist – the way he brought this time to life for the reader is stunning.  He did a great job mixing politics with stories of genocide survivors – although there is a LOT of politics in this book.”

Maw Books – “What I did learn from reading this book, is that when I read books about atrocities, horrors, genocides and such, my interest lies in the human story.  I’ll give Philip Gourevitch credit, he tried.  But I wanted more.  I guess I prefer memoirs rather than accounts of the political atmosphere . . . I do think that he did an excellent job giving us in depth coverage of the situation and anybody can learn something from reading this story.”


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BAND Discussion: Favorite Type of Non-Fiction

Recently, a few book bloggers have started the Bloggers’ Alliance of Nonfiction Devotees (BAND) – “Advocates for Nonfiction as a Non- Chore.” BAND members will be hosting monthly discussions related to nonfiction.

Well, I’m on board with that! Nonfiction has been a part of my regular reading diet for a while; Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm was one of the first books that demonstrated to me how engrossing nonfiction reads can be. And to echo what Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness says, nonfiction is not a monolithic category – there are so many types of nonfiction out there, and so many subjects.

The BAND discussion question for July addresses this aspect of nonfiction by asking: What is one of your favorite types of nonfiction to read? OR What is one of your favorite nonfiction topics to read about?

The answer to this question is probably not a surprise to most readers of this blog, for I have mentioned several times that I am fond of the travel writing subgenre. (Not sure what the official subgenre name is so I use travelogue / travel narrative / travel memoir interchangeably.)

But to be even more specific, my favorite travelogues seem to be those where things don’t go according to plan. I’m tempted to call this type of travelogue, the travel thriller, although sometimes the mishaps are more funny than scary.

I know that some of my best personal stories about traveling involve the unexpected, even the unwelcome, like this one time when the Glasgow hostel’s last-minute “holiday suite” accommodations turned out to be some guy’s flat.  I know that when things went wrong on my own trips to unfamiliar places, I learned so much about my own and my friends’ resourcefulness.

Most travel narratives involve the comparison of the traveler’s culture with the cultures encountered in the traveler’s journey. The misadventure travel narrative often is the result of amplified cultural differences or misunderstandings. In the scarier travelogues, the travel writer is suspected of being an enemy or threat by a specific group and treated with aggression, even hostility. The traveler gets out of his or her depth, fast.  Or the journey is in wilderness and things don’t go according to plan because nature laughs at the traveler’s plans.

Here are my three highly recommended misadventure travel narratives:
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson is definitely a humorous misadventure, at least as Bryson tells it. Bryson and his even more ill-prepared friend Katz take on the Appalachian trail. It’s been a few years since I read this, but I clearly remember a scene where, in Maine, Katz goes flailing off-trail down a hill toward a distantly seen lake.

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman is a nailbiting account of Susie’s post-college graduation trip to China in the late 1980’s, when the country was only newly open to backpackers. Susie travels with a college friend, Claire and both become sick at different times in the trip. Even worse, Claire starts behaving strangely, leading to a nightmarish situation for both of them.

The Cloud Garden by Tom Hart Dyke and Paul Winder is a joint account of the authors’ experiences in the Darien Gap (which is at the Colombian / Panamanian border). In 2000, the two British men decided to travel across the Darien Gap on foot despite repeated warnings about its danger. The two were kidnapped by FARC guerrillas and were held for nine months in various locations within the rainforested area.


Filed under Non-Fiction

Counter Culture by Candacy A. Taylor

2009. Cornell University Press. 142 pages.

From: the public library

Recommendation from: Nan of Letters from a Hill Farm

In a nutshell:

From Taylor’s introduction to her book: “This book is not a scholarly study, a memoir, or a historical account of waitressing. And even though there are photographs throughout the book, it’s more than a coffee-table book of a pop culture icon. It combines interview excerpts, cultural criticism, photography, and oral history to recognize an overlooked group of working women who have brought meaning and culture to the American roadside dining experience.” (p. 4)


I have never been a waitress, choosing retail work for my summer jobs instead. I got to know a number of waitresses though, as I spent three summers living in a women’s hostel in a New England tourist town. Although retail yielded its own tales of customers-gone-bad and cranky management, waitresses generally seemed to have it worse. I admired waitresses mostly for what they had to put up with.

Candacy A. Taylor’s book, Counter Culture, focuses more on the incredible skill and sense of service of career waitresses. Almost of all the women she quotes or profiles in the book have been working for decades as diner waitresses, some for forty to sixty years. They have plenty of anecdotes to share and an obvious pride in their work.

One chapter of the book is called “The Waitressing Stigma,” where Taylor explores the historical and current stereotypes of waitresses. Some waitresses didn’t tell their family where they worked; one waitress’ mother thought that waitresses were “trashy people and alcoholics.” People assume waitresses use their sexuality to get tips. Customers also assume waitresses are stupid as demonstrated in this anecdote:

At the Seville Diner, a customer told Sammi DeAngelis, “You’re just doing this because you are not smart enough to do anything else.” Sammi said, “Excuse me? I have a degree, I could be teaching. I’ve done public relations and business management . . . . I tell you what, if you can do my job for an hour, this money is yours.” After an hour, the customer said, “I’ve been watching you and you know that last table was really a handful. Maybe I couldn’t do your job.” Sammi said, ‘Really? What part of it didn’t you get: the public relations, the psychology, the physical?’ I wasn’t nasty, but she respected my honesty. Now she’s one of my regular customers, she likes to sit with me so she can watch me work.”

p. 81

The photographs in the book are great, because there is so much character and life apparent in the faces of the career waitresses and their ‘regulars.’

I was disappointed in the career waitresses’ nearly uniform dismissal of the younger generation of waitresses. The older waitresses complain about the younger generation’s lack of heart for the work, lack of discipline and care. They tell anecdotes about they went into work with a broken toe, a foot cut by a weed-whacker, and other ailments, and how they rarely if ever take sick days. It’s a little too much of the “when I went to school, I walked 10 miles in the snow . . .” type rhetoric for me. I am at the very beginning of the Millennial Generation, depending on how its defined, and I know there are hard-workers and entitled, lazy persons of every generation. Taylor does note that truth, but it still didn’t stop me from feeling some annoyance at the career waitresses’ categorical dismissal of the younger set.

That annoyance aside, this was a thoughtful and interesting book and made me wish I was a ‘regular’ at a place with one of these career waitresses.

Others’ reviews:

Citizen Reader – “Although I’m just glad it was published by someone (in this case, the Cornell University Press), this is the sort of book that should be published by a mainstream trade publisher, and which should become a bestseller. If there were any justice in the world, anyway, that’s the way it would be.”

Letters from a Hill Farm – “It is informative, fascinating, warm-hearted, and entertaining. I’ve never read anything like it.”


Filed under Non-Fiction

The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose

A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University

2009. Grand Central. Hardcover. 324 pages.

From: the public library

Recommendation from:

It was actually during the job interview process for my current position that this book was first recommended to me, because the person noticed I had gone to a Christian college.

In a nutshell:

In early 2007, Brown University student Kevin Roose spent a semester ‘undercover’ at Liberty University, the Christian institution founded by ultra-conservative preacher and political commentator, Jerry Falwell. Observing the polarized nature of current American society, Roose wanted to cross a cultural divide and see what conservative Christians were really like, up close and personal. Drawing from the notes he took during that semester, this non-fiction account unfolds more or less from the perspective of Kevin as he was living the experience.


When Roose jumps into Liberty University life, he goes all in. It’s really quite impressive.  On top of the regular Bible & theology required courses, he attends the Falwell-founded Thomas Road Baptist Church, goes on a spring break mission trip, and even scores an interview with Jerry Falwell himself.

As a former pastor’s kid and Christian college alumna, I loved seeing Christian culture through the eyes of someone from the outside. For instance, it was funny when Roose thought he needed to use “Golly” and other twee substitutes for swearing, and all the students looked at him like he was nuts.  All the praise songs Roose copied out, the little mnenomic devices for memorizing books of the Bible – it was exciting and fresh-feeling to see it through the eyes of someone for whom these things are foreign.

This is especially true because Roose comes into the experience with an open mind. He has preconceptions about Christians, sure, but he’s willing to have his mind changed.

The book is a page-turner, mostly because of the built-in tension of Roose being undercover. There are several times where he almost gets caught out by other students. Other tensions arise: Roose develops a crush on a Christian girl; he comes into conflict with his homophobic, aggressive roommate; his family, including his lesbian aunts are concerned he will be brainwashed. Roose writes also about his struggle to humanize everyone without making excuses for the championing of narrow-minded viewpoints.

One thing Roose comes back to a number of times is how surprisingly ‘normal’ the students are, and how they struggle to connect faith to real life.

One of Roose’s observations really hit home for me:

The trick to being a rebel at Liberty, I’ve learned, is knowing which parts of the Liberty social code are non-negotiable. For example, Joey and his friends listen to vulgarity-filled secular hip-hop, but you’ll never catch them defending homosexuality . . . And although they might harass the naive pastors’ kids on the hall by stealing their towels from the shower stalls – leaving them naked, wet, and stranded – they’d be the first people to tell you why Mormonism is a false religion. In other words, Liberty’s true social code, the one they don’t put in a forty-six-page manual, has everything to do with being a social and religious conservative and not a whole lot to do with acting in any traditionally virtuous way.

p. 91

In context, this passage was not written judgmentally at all. But I felt that it touched on a core problem I have with Christianity as its usually practiced by conservatives in the faith. Christian culture has emphasized the defense of one’s faith so much that learning how to live faith in a thoughtful and considered manner can sometimes take a backseat.

And this priority is shaped in large part by teaching philosophies such as those used at Liberty:

So far, I’ve gleaned a few dominant themes from my classes – a few things Liberty really, really wants us to know:

– Evolution didn’t happen.

– Abortion is murder.

– Absolute truth exists. At Liberty, unlike many secular schools, professors teach with the view that there is one right answer to every question, that those right answers are found plainly in the Bible, and that their job is to transfer those right answers from their lecture notes to our minds.

p. 87

Let me just go on a personal tangent here: I am in such gratitude that my alma mater did not take this teaching approach at all. The majority of professors encouraged us to question the assumptions in our worldviews, voice doubts, and consider different interpretations. My college’s main themes in chapels and campus-wide events tended toward subjects like social justice and celebrating diversity, environmental stewardship and service-learning. I’m not saying there weren’t and aren’t things to criticize about my alma mater, but by and large I am happy with the education I received there.  Indeed, it is the church pulpit, and not my Christian college, where I have frequently encountered teaching philosophies and priorities similar to that described by Roose in this book.

The Unlikely Disciple is certainly one of my favorite reads of the year so far. It is a lovely picture of someone trying to find common ground and understanding with the ‘other side.’ It’s also an intriguing look at a culture whose members are frequently dismissed out of hand.

I was reading The Unlikely Disciple while on a trip to Vermont back in May. My uncle, whose son (my cousin) went to Liberty, picked it up while I was busy doing something else and we had a bit of steal-the-book-back game going on.

So yeah, if this subject interests you, I highly recommend you pick it up.

Other reviews:

The Captive Reader – “It is a brilliant combination of immersion journalism and spiritual quest, forming one absorbing memoir that seeks to educate, inform, and broaden the reader’s views rather than to condemn or criticize an already much-maligned group.”

Jenny’s Books – “I could not put this book down.  I must read thousands of books that are exactly like this book.  ”

My Friend Amy (a blogger with similar background to myself) – “… it has turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read this year, I didn’t want to put it down, and I’ve managed to find a way to bring it into most conversations this week.”


Filed under Memoir and Personal Essays, Non-Fiction

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

For photo credit, please click on the picture.

2008. Penguin Books. Paperback. 244 pages.

From: I bought this at a Borders (that is still in business!)

Recommendation from: Fizzy Thoughts

In a nutshell:

Pollan writes in the beginning of In Defense of Food: “I started on this quest to identify a few simple rules about eating after publishing The Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2006. Questions of personal health did not take center stage in that book, which was more concerned with the ecological and ethical dimensions of our eating choices.”

Pollan spends the first part of the book describing The Age of Nutritionism.  He argues that when food scientists reduced food’s value to the nutrients they contain, they started a new era.  In this era, the definition of “healthy eating” is ever-changing: a nutrient will be lauded one year only to be condemned the next.  The second part of the book focuses on the rise of the Western diet and the havoc it has wreaked on those who eat it.  And finally, the last section elucidates the eating manifesto which adorns the book’s cover: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.”


This is the first book I’ve read by Michael Pollan, but certainly not the first time I’ve been exposed to his ideas.  A number of years ago, I was visiting my friend Jocelyn in her apartment in Baltimore.  On her kitchen wall, she had affixed a clipping of a news article about Pollan and one of his books (possibly The Omnivore’s Dilemma).  I asked about the clipping and Jocelyn explained to me Pollan’s ideas as she knew them.  Since then, I have run into Pollan’s ideas from reviews of his books, or radio interviews, or from word of mouth.

So when I finally did read this book, In Defense of Food, I found myself running into ideas that were already familiar from these Pollan snippets.  Additionally, I’ve read a good chunk of Jane Goodall’s Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating, which I found a little austere, but thought-provoking.  Her book has some similar recommendations to Pollan’s.

While the eating recommendations tread some ground familiar to me, Pollan’s discussion of ‘nutritionism’ was new to me.  Certainly, I have long been skeptical of new health findings, as each new health claim is quickly supplanted by a newer one in quick succession.  Still when Pollan illuminates the dubiousness of certain accepted principles of eating, I was surprised by how many of them I had assimilated anyway.

One criticism of this book that I have is that Pollan challenges the validity of most food studies, but then uses other scientific studies to support his point, sometimes without telling the reader why we should trust them when he’s cast doubt on others. For instance, he uses a study run by the Organic Center for examples on how current food quality is compromised, but doesn’t address the fact that an institute “established by the organic food industry” might have an agenda too (p. 119).

In the end, what I really liked about In Defense of Food is all the take-away points.  Though I have been gradually altering my eating habits for some time, this is a book that encouraged me to take some further action.  I think a lot more now about how food interacts with each other, and not just consider each item on its own.  In response to a specific recommendation in the book, I’ve started adding a half-glass of red wine to some of my dinners (one of the more pleasurable take-away points to be sure.)

I’m also buying the grocery store’s bakery bread, instead of the packaged kind.  The bread I used to buy had been both appealing and suspect for its ability to last a long time.  Also, I really liked Pollan’s recommendation that, if possible, we should be willing to pay more for good food, and not just settle for cheap options that degrade our health. I’m lucky to have a decent job and to live in an area with a plethora of food options.  (Unlike in some urban and rural areas of the United States where finding healthy food options is actually quite difficult and can be labeled “food deserts.”)

The take-away point that I would ideally like to enact, but might not be in the cards: “Try not to eat alone.”  I often have the option of eating with my co-workers at lunchtime, but at dinner I’m frequently on my own and I usually take it to my computer desk, so I can multi-task.  The picture I chose for this review reflects the kind of meal experience I’d like to have more often – eating a home-cooked meal with friends.

Other reviews:

The Book Nest – “I really like Pollan’s writing style – for non-fiction, it’s completely accessible and wow is he persuasive. I finished reading this book and wanted to chuck out every processed food in my house.”

Shelf Love – “On the whole, In Defense of Food feels like a puffed-up appendix to The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Much of the new information here is worthwhile, but there’s not enough to warrant a whole new book.”

So Many Books – “Pollan also writes with his usual easy-going style that does not put down the reader. In fact, I always feel like he includes himself as among the people who had no idea.”


Filed under Non-Fiction

And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts

Subtitle: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic

1987. St. Martin’s Press. Paperback. 630 pages.

From: the public library

Recommended by: Jenny of Jenny’s Books within a review of Dave Cullen’s Columbine.

In a nutshell:

Journalist Randy Shilts describes, in detail, the course of the AIDS epidemic in America from 1980 to 1985.


I’ve been living with And the Band Played On for the last three weeks, carting it around on metro rides, opening it up for a few pages’ worth before going to bed.  I have been compulsively telling my friends the exasperating details of how the AIDS epidemic was mishandled by so many.

And the Band Played On is a long book, no doubt about it.  It’s helpfully written in short, energetic chunks:  Shilts dashes around from East Coast to West Coast, jumping from the developments of the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, to the different political and public health atmospheres of New York City and San Francisco, to the scientific research being conducted in Maryland and Paris.

This is a long book where the length itself serves a purpose.  It may seem repetitious to read about yet another funds request denied by the government, or yet another Gay Men’s Health Crisis committee meeting that ended in tension and frustration.  To me, however, reading such a detailed account about AIDS had the effect of making me vicariously feel the frustration those in trenches must have felt, as they suffered through years of the illness being dismissed or ignored, even while more and more people died.  True, I could have learned the outline of events and problems through a shorter book, but the impact emotionally would not have been the same.

And The Band Played On is a highly passionate book.  Shilts indicts many for their prioritizing of political capital, prestige and other pursuits over the lives of those at great risk for AIDS.  Among his targets are: The Reagan administration, the National Institute of Health, certain gay political leaders in San Francisco and New York City, journalists, and the blood bank industry (including the Red Cross).  At a congressional hearing, a man with AIDS says he hopes that his epitaph “would not read that I died of red tape.”  Bureaucracy is a wall against which urgent need knocks and knocks again.

Shilts’ passion also is displayed in his passages that detail the lives and deaths of the people with AIDS.  I was especially moved by the story of Gary Walsh.

I picked up this book because fellow blogger Jenny said: “If you are ever going to read a book about a national tragedy, it should be And the Band Played On.”  I am so glad I took up her recommendation, because this is truly an unforgettable book.  Not only did I learn so much about what happened with the AIDS epidemic at the start, but it made me think about what role I would have played if I had been in the thick of it.  Would I have too easily succumbed to the bureaucracy or would I have taken risks to do what was right?


Don Francis pounded the table with his fist. The other officials from the Centers for Disease Control exchanged vaguely embarrassed glances. The blood bankers were becoming visibly angry.

“How many people have to die?” shouted Francis, his fist hitting the table again. “How many deaths do you need? Give us the threshold of death that you need in order to believe that this is happening, and we’ll meet at that time and we can start doing something.” p. 220


September 22 [1983] – Matt Krieger’s Journal

Despair is what I hear in Gary’s voice tonight . . . He has just reason for despair. He fell down three times today when his legs simply gave out on him. He had an infection in one eye and now the same infection in the other eye . . .

I wonder how he can sustain this relentless series of devastating and painful illnesses. Horribly, I recognize that dark corner in my mind that wishes it were all over and I could talk about Gary and his illnesses in the past tense.

My mind plays that game. Sometimes I think it is all over. Gary is dead. Back in the eighties, I had a best friend and former lover, a wonderful man whom I loved very deeply, and he suffered and he died in that terrible epidemic that hit the gay community nationally, the disease we hardly remember now. It was called AIDS.” p. 373

What others have said:

A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook – “And the Band Played On is an intense piece of journalism that explores the AIDS epidemic in social, political and personal level. It is a lucid and stunning indictment of public policy toward the vicious disease that has coalesced into an extremely serious serious health threat in a matter of months.”

Open Mind, Insert Book – “It’s horrifying, gritty and intense, and it will stay with you. Please don’t let the size intimidate you- the subject is important, and Shilts’s style is beautiful.”

Reggie’s Reviews – Accounts of historical events and publicly verifiable facts are mixed with imaginative reconstructions of meetings and conversations that Shilts was not privy to . . . Shilts should have decided whether he wanted to write a novel or a non-fiction account, and then stuck with it.  All the same, the book is a monumental achievement, well deserving of its acclaim.


Filed under Non-Fiction