Category Archives: Nonfiction

So Here’s the Thing

Finished So Here’s the Thing by Alyssa Mastromonaco.

Summary (from Goodreads):

From the New York Times bestselling author of Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? comes a fun, frank book of reflections, essays, and interviews on topics important to young women, ranging from politics and career to motherhood, sisterhood, and making and sustaining relationships of all kinds in the age of social media.
Alyssa Mastromonaco is back with a bold, no-nonsense, and no-holds-barred twenty-first-century girl’s guide to life, tackling the highs and lows of bodies, politics, relationships, moms, education, life on the internet, and pop culture. Whether discussing Barbra Streisand or The Bachelor, working in the West Wing or working on finding a wing woman, Alyssa leaves no stone unturned…and no awkward situation unexamined.
Like her bestseller Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?, SO HERE’S THE THING… brings a sharp eye and outsize sense of humor to the myriad issues facing women the world over, both in and out of the workplace. Along with Alyssa’s personal experiences and hard-won life lessons, interviews with women like Monica Lewinsky, Susan Rice, and Chelsea Handler round out this modern woman’s guide to, well, just about everything you can think of.”

This is a really fun book of essays. It’s focused a lot more on pop culture than politics, so if the fact that it’s written by President Obama’s former deputy chief of staff is a stumbling block, don’t let that keep you from enjoying it.

But as much as I love talking about pop culture, it’s the political essays that I liked the most. Alyssa is a little bit older than I am, and the chapter on Monica Lewinsky is probably my favorite in the book. When that scandal was happening, I was a teenager and I didn’t pay that much attention. I’m pretty sure my attitude was roughly the same as everyone else’s (somewhat anti-Monica, making fun of her looks and that dress; very little feeling about Bill Clinton’s responsibility/culpability in the whole thing) which I’m ashamed of now. We didn’t really think about power differentials in the 1990s and we certainly didn’t do things like hold men accountable for their actions. (We barely do that now!). But I’m better now.

I also loved her brief list chapters (things in her bag and things on her nightstand, etc.). I don’t know what it is, but I absolutely love lists. I love making them but I also love reading other people’s. I guess it’s just interesting seeing what other people care enough to write down? (Or type, I guess; lists on paper can be rare now.)

This is a fast read, and I hope to read her first book soon. I have it; I just haven’t read it yet. (That would be the first sentence on my list of things I say most often, btw.)

 

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Furious Hours

Finished Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“The stunning story of an Alabama serial killer and the true-crime book that Harper Lee worked on obsessively in the years after To Kill a Mockingbird.

Reverend Willie Maxwell was a rural preacher accused of murdering five of his family members for insurance money in the 1970s. With the help of a savvy lawyer, he escaped justice for years until a relative shot him dead at the funeral of his last victim. Despite hundreds of witnesses, Maxwell’s murderer was acquitted–thanks to the same attorney who had previously defended the Reverend.

Sitting in the audience during the vigilante’s trial was Harper Lee, who had traveled from New York City to her native Alabama with the idea of writing her own In Cold Blood, the true-crime classic she had helped her friend Truman Capote research seventeen years earlier. Lee spent a year in town reporting, and many more working on her own version of the case.

Now Casey Cep brings this story to life, from the shocking murders to the courtroom drama to the racial politics of the Deep South. At the same time, she offers a deeply moving portrait of one of the country’s most beloved writers and her struggle with fame, success, and the mystery of artistic creativity.”

This is divided into three sections. The first focuses on Willie Maxwell, the second on the lawyer who defended the man who murdered Maxwell and the third on Harper Lee. Each section is fascinating for different reasons and I think the book focuses on my three favorite things: true crime (section one), politics (section two) and literature (obviously section three). If there’s ever been something that’s more perfectly for me and my interests, I’m not sure what it is.

Like a lot of actively literate people, I love To Kill a Mockingbird and its author. I read Go Set a Watchman and I think I would’ve preferred this book be published. (I’m guessing that her notes and drafts really were destroyed—as she wrote to someone—because otherwise, this would’ve been released, too.)

I would have loved it if this were three books, each one a more thorough telling of each section of this book. It’s succinct and flows well, but I would’ve liked to learn more (and to spend more time with Harper Lee, which was probably my most favorite part).

Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered

Finished Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark.

Summary (from Goodreads):

The highly anticipated first book by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, the voices behind the #1 hit podcast My Favorite Murder!

Sharing never-before-heard stories ranging from their struggles with depression, eating disorders, and addiction, Karen and Georgia irreverently recount their biggest mistakes and deepest fears, reflecting on the formative life events that shaped them into two of the most followed voices in the nation.

In Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered, Karen and Georgia focus on the importance of self-advocating and valuing personal safety over being ‘nice’ or ‘helpful.’ They delve into their own pasts, true crime stories, and beyond to discuss meaningful cultural and societal issues with fierce empathy and unapologetic frankness.”

This doesn’t really deal with true crime (there is very little discussion of murder and crime). Instead, it’s a collection of essays from Karen and Georgia. They discuss their lives and experiences (good and bad). It’s incredibly funny and completely heartbreaking. Karen’s chapter on her mom’s Alzheimer’s is especially devastating; so is Georgia’s chapter that details her experience with a photographer. (She discussed it a little bit on their podcast; this is in greater detail.)

The thing with this book (and their podcast) is that it fosters such a sense of community. We may have gone through the exact same thing, or something similar; we may just relate to the underlying feeling. But either way, this feels like a series of conversations with our best, oldest friend, the one we don’t talk to as much as we’d like to because we’re all so busy, where they say something that’s exactly how we’d been feeling but we didn’t have the words for it, and all you can say back is, “YES. Me, too. That’s exactly how it is for me.”

When I went to the live show in Baltimore, Karen read part of one of the chapters (“Karen’s Lecture on Self-Care”) and said, “You deserve to be happy, no matter what your brain tells you.” It felt like the entire theater audibly gasped but that reading is in the Audible version of this, and I didn’t hear the gasp there. (It still feels true.) I think we should all get that tattooed somewhere.

I love Karen and Georgia and their podcast and this book is the perfect example of why. It’s OK to not have it all together, so long as you’re trying to reach the point where you do. And it’s OK to follow your instincts, if your instincts are saying, “This is not safe. You need to go.”

And it’s OK to stay sexy and not get murdered.

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls

Finished Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Acclaimed literary essayist T Kira Madden’s raw and redemptive debut memoir is about coming of age and reckoning with desire as a queer, biracial teenager amidst the fierce contradictions of Boca Raton, Florida, a place where she found cult-like privilege, shocking racial disparities, rampant white-collar crime, and powerfully destructive standards of beauty hiding in plain sight.

As a child, Madden lived a life of extravagance, from her exclusive private school to her equestrian trophies and designer shoe-brand name. But under the surface was a wild instability. The only child of parents continually battling drug and alcohol addictions, Madden confronted her environment alone. Facing a culture of assault and objectification, she found lifelines in the desperately loving friendships of fatherless girls.

With unflinching honesty and lyrical prose, spanning from 1960s Hawai’i to the present-day struggle of a young woman mourning the loss of a father while unearthing truths that reframe her reality, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls is equal parts eulogy and love letter. It’s a story about trauma and forgiveness, about families of blood and affinity, both lost and found, unmade and rebuilt, crooked and beautiful.”

This is more of a collection of essays than an actual memoir.

I asked for this for my birthday because I loved the title and the cover, and because it was getting a lot of buzz. I didn’t know much else about it (I am a sucker for clever marketing). And I’m glad, because I ended up loving this book so, so much.

It’s intense and hard to read in a lot of parts; it’s also brilliant and funny.

This isn’t for everyone. It’s about a girl who essentially raised herself and who made what a lot of people would consider to be bad choices (but she does a great job of just presenting what happened and letting the reader make their own judgments…which honestly, I felt a little squeamish about, because, while I enjoy judging people more than I probably should, I also felt very uncomfortable doing so in this case).

I hope this is the start of a lot of books for T Kira Madden. I am here for all of them. Highly recommended.

Brave Face

Finished Brave Face by Shaun David Hutchinson.

Summary (from Goodreads):

Critically acclaimed author of We Are the Ants—described as having “hints of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (School Library Journal)—opens up about what led to an attempted suicide in his teens, and his path back from the experience.

“I wasn’t depressed because I was gay. I was depressed and gay.”

Shaun David Hutchinson was nineteen. Confused. Struggling to find the vocabulary to understand and accept who he was and how he fit into a community in which he couldn’t see himself. The voice of depression told him that he would never be loved or wanted, while powerful and hurtful messages from society told him that being gay meant love and happiness weren’t for him.

A million moments large and small over the years all came together to convince Shaun that he couldn’t keep going, that he had no future. And so he followed through on trying to make that a reality.

Thankfully Shaun survived, and over time, came to embrace how grateful he is and how to find self-acceptance. In this courageous and deeply honest memoir, Shaun takes readers through the journey of what brought him to the edge, and what has helped him truly believe that it does get better.”

I’m not a huge nonfiction person, but I will read anything that Shaun David Hutchinson writes. I knew going in that this would be an emotional read, and it was.

What I didn’t expect was how much I would laugh and cry and experience everything along with Shaun.

He’s only a couple of years older than I am, and I vividly remember how gay people were perceived in the 80s and 90s. (SPOILER: Not well. It wasn’t until Ellen came out that things started to turn around.)

It’s hard to grow up with this kind of constant messaging (erasure at best; damaging stereotypes at worst) and not internalize it; that’s what happened here.

At its core, this book details how you overcome that. And it details how NOT to overcome that.

It absolutely broke my heart in places but it’s also one of the best books I’ve ever read. Highly recommended.

Good Talk

Finished Good Talk by Mira Jacob.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“A bold, wry, and intimate graphic memoir about American identity, interracial families, and the realities that divide us, from the acclaimed author of The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing.

“By turns hilarious and heart-rending, it’s exactly the book America needs at this moment.”—Celeste Ng

“Who taught Michael Jackson to dance?”
“Is that how people really walk on the moon?”
“Is it bad to be brown?”
“Are white people afraid of brown people?”

Like many six-year-olds, Mira Jacob’s half-Jewish, half-Indian son, Z, has questions about everything. At first they are innocuous enough, but as tensions from the 2016 election spread from the media into his own family, they become much, much more complicated. Trying to answer him honestly, Mira has to think back to where she’s gotten her own answers: her most formative conversations about race, color, sexuality, and, of course, love.

“How brown is too brown?”
“Can Indians be racist?”
“What does real love between really different people look like?”

Written with humor and vulnerability, this deeply relatable graphic memoir is a love letter to the art of conversation—and to the hope that hovers in our most difficult questions.”

I loved this book so much! I was just discussing graphic novels with a friend and I said that I couldn’t think of one that wouldn’t have been just as good or better as a regular novel instead. I mention that because I think this was better as a graphic memoir. It’s incredibly personal but also universal; these are topics we all hopefully grapple with.

There are a lot of things that are hard to discuss and they’re also the things we also most need to talk about.

I know Mira Jacob has written a novel and I need to find and read it. I was really impressed with this and hope to read everything she ever does from now on.

Highly recommended.

No Happy Endings

Finished No Happy Endings by Nora McInerny. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“The author of It’s Okay to Laugh and host of the popular podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking—interviews that are “a gift to be able to listen [to]” (New York Times)—returns with more hilarious meditations on her messy, wonderful, bittersweet, and unconventional life.

Life has a million different ways to kick you right in the chops. We lose love, lose jobs, lose our sense of self. For Nora McInerny, it was losing her husband, her father, and her unborn second child in one catastrophic year.

But in the wake of loss, we get to assemble something new from whatever is left behind. Some circles call finding happiness after loss “Chapter 2”—the continuation of something else. Today, Nora is remarried and mothers four children aged 16 months to 16 years. While her new circumstances bring her extraordinary joy, they are also tinged with sadness over the loved ones she’s lost.

Life has made Nora a reluctant expert in hard conversations. On her wildly popular podcast, she talks about painful experiences we inevitably face, and exposes the absurdity of the question “how are you?” that people often ask when we’re coping with the aftermath of emotional catastrophe. She knows intimately that when your life falls apart, there’s a mad rush to be okay—to find a silver lining, to get to the happy ending. In this, her second memoir, Nora offers a tragicomic exploration of the tension between finding happiness and holding space for the unhappy experiences that have shaped us.

No Happy Endings is a book for people living life after life has fallen apart. It’s a book for people who know that they’re moving forward, not moving on. It’s a book for people who know life isn’t always happy, but it isn’t the end: there will be unimaginable joy and incomprehensible tragedy. As Nora reminds us, there will be no happy endings—but there will be new beginnings.”

This book is exactly what I needed. It’s sad—heartbreakingly so—in parts. But it’s also hopeful and warm, and it’s so, so funny.

Nora is my imaginary best friend, and she’s very real in this. There are a lot of emotions (not all of them sad ones although obviously when you lose a baby, your dad and your husband in back to back losses, there are plenty of sad ones) and we feel them all with her.

I believe this will be on a lot of Best Of lists this year and it deserves its space on all of them.

Highly recommended.

Captured

Finished Captured by Alvin Townley. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

Alvin Townley, a critically acclaimed author of adult nonfiction, delivers a searing YA debut about American POWs during the Vietnam War.
Naval aviator Jeremiah Denton was shot down and captured in North Vietnam in 1965. As a POW, Jerry Denton led a group of fellow American prisoners in withstanding gruesome conditions behind enemy lines. They developed a system of secret codes and covert communications to keep up their spirits. Later, he would endure torture and long periods of solitary confinement. Always, Jerry told his fellow POWs that they would one day return home together.

Although Jerry spent seven and a half years as a POW, he did finally return home in 1973 after the longest and harshest deployment in US history.

Denton’s story is an extraordinary narrative of human resilience and endurance. Townley grapples with themes of perseverance, leadership, and duty while also deftly portraying the deeply complicated realities of the Vietnam War in this gripping narrative project for YA readers.”

I feel like “inspiring” gets thrown around far too often, but this actually is an inspiring story. There are a lot of heroes here, but it centers around Jeremiah “Jerry” Denton, who was a POW for seven and a half years. He was instrumental in helping his fellow soldiers keep hoping, and he managed to keep everyone’s morale as high as possible. (Which, given the conditions, is probably an actual miracle.)

This synopsis says it’s for YA readers but I think it’s also appropriate for middlegrade. There’s torture in here, but usually it’s phrased very vaguely (along the lines of “”They took him away” followed by When they were done…”) although there are a few more graphic descriptions. Even so, it never feels gratuitous and it is clearly meant to show that these are the things that temporarily broke Jerry and made him go along with what his captors wanted.

The general rule was that they wouldn’t tell the captors anything but that if they couldn’t withstand the torture anymore, they were to share things that were either false or inconsequential. Jerry had either the highest or next highest rank in every prisoner camp he was part of, so he told the men how to proceed. He followed that rule but he also told every man that the primary objective was to go home “with honor” and they all had to decide what that meant for them.

This is an incredible and heroic story, and I’m glad Scholastic sent it to me.

Recommended.

I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening)

Finished I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening) by Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth A Silvers. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“More than ever, politics seems driven by conflict and anger. People sitting together in pews every Sunday have started to feel like strangers, loved ones at the dinner table like enemies. Toxic political dialogue, hate-filled rants on social media, and agenda-driven news stories have become the new norm. It’s exhausting, and it’s too much.

In I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening), two working moms from opposite ends of the political spectrum contend that there is a better way. They believe that we can

choose to respect the dignity of every person,
choose to recognize that issues are nuanced and can’t be reduced to political talking points,
choose to listen in order to understand,
choose gentleness and patience.

Sarah from the left and Beth from the right invite those looking for something better than the status quo to pull up a chair and listen to the principles, insights, and practical tools they have learned hosting their fast-growing podcast Pantsuit Politics. As impossible as it might seem, people from opposing political perspectives truly can have calm, grace-­filled conversations with one another—by putting relationship before policy and understanding before argument.”

I don’t listen to Pantsuit Politics (I have one political podcast, and that is my beloved Hellbent.) but as someone who loves talking politics, I knew that I wanted to read this.

I think that the idea of being able to meet in the middle, find common ground and work to find solutions from there is a good one but it’s not always practical. For example, I’m gay. Our common ground has to start from a place of “I think you should be treated the same as every other citizen, including not getting fired or evicted for who you are and I think you should be allowed to get married.” I don’t care what else we have in common if you can’t start there. It’s not my job to convince you to treat me like a human being.

But there are times when it would work. I don’t think anyone is enjoying the rash of mass shootings, and I think there are a lot of solutions (although the biggest one really has to be “make sure that not every single person can acquire every single gun”) that are worth exploring.

There’s a lot packed into this slim book, and I think it’s incredibly valuable. There are tips in making sure you actually know policy and can discuss the issues without repeating talking points (which can be hard!).

This is a good starting place and I’m hoping a lot more people will join me in talking politics. It matters and it’s an important thing to be knowledgeable about and discuss. Recommended.

Shout

Finished Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Summary (from Goodreads):

A searing poetic memoir and call to action from the bestselling and award-winning author of Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson!

Bestselling author Laurie Halse Anderson is known for the unflinching way she writes about, and advocates for, survivors of sexual assault. Now, inspired by her fans and enraged by how little in our culture has changed since her groundbreaking novel Speak was first published twenty years ago, she has written a poetry memoir that is as vulnerable as it is rallying, as timely as it is timeless. In free verse, Anderson shares reflections, rants, and calls to action woven between deeply personal stories from her life that she’s never written about before. Searing and soul-searching, this important memoir is a denouncement of our society’s failures and a love letter to all the people with the courage to say #MeToo and #TimesUp, whether aloud, online, or only in their own hearts. Shout speaks truth to power in a loud, clear voice– and once you hear it, it is impossible to ignore.”

This is an incredibly intense book. That’s probably not surprising, because all of her books are intense in one way or another.

I love when people tell the truth, without any sort of equivocation or apology. That’s this entire book. Laurie Halse Anderson starts with telling us what’s happened in her own life but by the end of the book, we see just how many times it’s happened in everyone’s life. (Most of us do know this already but at the same time, it evokes an incredibly visceral reaction.)

I hope she continues to write nonfiction. I think she’s even better at that than she is at fiction, and that’s high praise.