Tag Archives: nonfiction

Book Roundup #5

1 Feb

I had a week of vacation time about to expire, so I used it up for a week of traveling, writing, and of course, tons of reading. One of my favorite things about going on vacation is having the excuse to sit and read for hours. Whether it be on a plane, in an airport, at a restaurant, on an island sanctuary, I look forward to how much reading I can get done on extended days off.

MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL by JOHN BEHRENDT

When I decided to take a vacation to Savannah, pretty much everyone I told asked me if I had read this book/seen this movie. I had heard marvelous things about it. With my plane tickets bought, I had to read it. It didn’t disappoint. Another book that is proof that nonfiction is often stranger and more fascinating that fiction. This book is a classic that describes one New York journalist’s life in Savannah society. Odd characters, muddled history, transvestites, voodoo priestesses, and a murder that shook the upper society of Savannah. It absolutely lived up to the hype.

THE PUSHCART PRIZE XXXVI

This is one of the series I had mentioned in my post about short stories. What I like about pushcart is that unlike other series, Pushcart doesn’t limit the writing form. They have a balance of nonfiction essays, fiction, and poetry. It’s nice to have a poetry palate cleanser after reading something longer and weightier. My favorite essay in this collection was “The MFA/Creative Writing System is a Closed, Undemocratic, Medieval Guild System That Represses Good Writing” by Anis Shivani. It put into words exactly why I’ve been so skeptical about applying to an MFA program and confirmed my decision not to. This entire collection, though, was dense, and I don’t have the space here to fully describe all the pieces I loved.

SAVANNAH FOLKLORE by Nicole Carlson Easley

51Ba716qxSL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

According to legend, this statue of Little Gracie can be heard crying at night.

While I was in Savannah (more detailed post to come), I became interested in the ghost stories. So upon my wandering one day, I found an adorable book store E. Shaver, Bookseller and spent an hour or so wandering the aisles and petting their cats that live in the stacks. I wanted to know more about the local history, but there wasn’t much to choose from, besides the big display of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” I settled with this short, glossy book that gave a quick overview of a lot of the history and legends of Savannah. Not great writing, and I read it in an afternoon while relaxing in a square. I hated revealing myself as a tourist to the cute ladies that managed the cash register at the book store, but I had to know more about the weird things I had seen and heard.

THE ALIENIST by Caleb Carr

Dr. G and I always discuss what books we are reading, and he gave me this murder-mystery paperback to read on my vacation. It’s pretty run-of-the-mill serial killer stuff. The Alienist refers to one of the main characters who is a psychologist. The book is set in the late 1800’s when psychology was a new and misunderstood science. It had a fun aspect of historical fiction to it, talking about the grimy Lower East Side of New York, the hatred many people felt toward immigrants (not much has changed). Teddy Roosevelt is a main character since he was police commissioner during that time. The group of sleuths try to find a serial killer by examining his motives, his mind, what his upbringing was most likely like. It was a fun vacation book to read.

JOHNS, MARKS, TRICKS, AND CHICKENHAWKS: PROFESSIONALS AND THEIR CLIENTS WRITING ABOUT EACH OTHER

51kDjdH7PUL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

A book of essays written by a variety of people who work in the sex industry and who are patrons of the sex industry. I find this subject interesting, but I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. The essays vary in what they cover, and some are a lot more graphic than others. Some people are into some weird things. And while I believe that the whole beauty and point of reading is to get a glimpse into other worlds, there are some worlds that I’d rather leave alone, some images I’d rather not have in my head. I made it about 60% through this book before I had to put it away. Just not my thing.

 

Don’t Hate on Nonfiction

28 Dec
nonfiction-wordle

Originally found here.

When friends ask me for a book recommendation, I’m really really good at it. I love reading and have a wide range of types of books that I read, and I have a knack for picking books for people that they will like. I take into account what I know about them as a person, as a reader, what their interests are, and I pick books that they end up loving, devouring. I wish there was a career there. A Reading Consultant. Much like a therapist, my clients could come in and describe their lives and their reading hangups to me, and I would guide them to a world of books that they never knew existed, a reading utopia. I wonder how much I could charge for that?

I was at work the other day talking with two of the veterinarians. Dr. L was about to take a week off from work to relax and spend time with her family on Long Island. She lamented to me about how she doesn’t take pleasure in reading anymore. In her undergrad, she was a dual major in Biology and English. The English major part of her feels guilty that she never reads anymore. She asked me for some book recommendations.

“What aren’t you liking about the books you’ve tried reading?” I asked her (see what a good Reading Consultant I am!)
“I get bored with the plots and find myself not caring. I end up skimming through huge chunks of the books trying to find the point. Med school ruined the way I read. I’m always trying to find the facts.”
“Then maybe you need to be reading Nonfiction.”
Both Dr. L and Dr. N gave me ick faces.
“Nonfiction is so horrible and boring,” Dr N said.
“Not the right kind of nonfiction! I love reading nonfiction. You just have to know where to find the non-textbooky nonfiction. Didn’t you love ‘Brain on Fire‘?” I asked Dr. L.
“I couldn’t put it down. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.”
“There you go. That’s nonfiction. And with all the fucked-up tv and movies you watch, I bet you’d love true crime books. Have you ever read ‘Helter Skelter’ or ‘The Stranger Beside Me.'”
“I feel guilty. The English major in me feels like I should be reading works of literature.”

“You’re not in school anymore,” I told her. “No one gives a shit if you are reading Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina. If you miss reading, just read whatever book you enjoy. You don’t have to force yourself to read classics.”

I believe that the majority of people who don’t read regularly or who say they don’t like reading are suffering from a form of PTSD from being forced to read boring, shitty books while in school and college. Some people suffer more than others. I understand that there are important classics that society wants the younger generations to be familiar with, but our school systems seem to be doing more harm than good in forcing literature on children. Not everyone is going to love Shakespeare or Milton or Emily Dickinson. And I think forced encounters with writers make people want to never read again once they are done with school. And I think the genres that suffer most are Short Stories, Poetry, and Nonfiction.

Nonfiction can be dull and full of research and works cited, or it can be exciting and strange. The old adage, stranger than fiction, is talking about nonfiction. When strange things happen in fiction, it’s easy to criticize them as a reader and say, “That would never happen.” In nonfiction, it’s all real and you find yourself saying “I can’t believe that happened!”

So I honestly believe that anyone who isn’t enjoying reading should start off my giving nonfiction a shot. I recommended “A Kim Jong Il Production” to Dr. L and when she came back from her vacation she gushed about how much she loved it and couldn’t put it down. See! Highly-acclaimed Reading Consultant Chrissy Wilson, at your service.

Some of my most-loved nonfiction titles:

  • The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. A book that doubles as a narrative of poor depression-era men at the University of Washington and describing the evolution of 1930’s Nazi Germany propaganda. The back and forth of the narrative works, and the characters are rich and endearing.
  • A Little Book of Language by David Crystal. For the word nerd, this book is a quick read about the nature of language and linguistics, how we learn language and how we use it.
  • Zeitoon by Dave Eggers. The story of a man from New Orleans who remained in the city during Hurricane Katrina. It documents the hurricane, the aftermath, and the way he was treated by government officials. It’s unbelievable that this sort of thing happened in America, and it shows how out-of-control American xenophobia (especially toward Muslims in the post 9/11 era) can be. Dave Eggers also wrote “What is the What,” another great nonfiction book documenting the immigrant experience.
  • The Peaceable Kingdom: A Year in the Life of America’s Oldest Zoo by John Sedgewick. A must-read for animal lovers. This is a perfect example of a nonfiction book that isn’t out to teach anything, just to tell the true story (more like stories) of people who work in an unconventional field.
  • Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life by Ann Lamott. If you’ve ever wanted to write, if you have ever felt trapped in a creative dead-end, this is the book that most every writer alive today has read and continues to turn to. It’s an inspiration about how to write and about how to live, which to writers is often the same thing.
  • Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach. I love books by Mary Roach because they are informative and digestible. She takes a big subject (in this case death) and writes quick chapters that describe the scientific approaches over the years to understand these topics. She talks about seances, the attempt to measure the soul (21 grams), angels.
  • Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer. Another master of nonfiction, this book is about the history of the Mormon church. A classic example of a book where fact is stranger than fiction. It culminates in descriptions of fundamentalist Mormons. Important proof that all religions are prone to extremists and bad interpretation.

 

A Kim Jong-Il Production by Paul Fischer

10 Aug

Happy National Book Lover’s Day everyone!

This is the second book I have read about North Korea. The first had my jaw on the ground. This threw me into a full-blown obsession with the hermit kingdom.

This book is nonfiction which sounds impossible when you hear the premise. The book is about two South Koreans, one a film actress, the other her estranged film director husband. In the 1980’s, Kim Jong-Il had them kidnapped and brought to North Korea where they were forced to make propaganda films, including a Godzilla-knockoff. They escaped years later and this is the tale of their saga. They were put through brainwashing prisons, isolated in strange houses with North Korean guards and minders to stop them from escaping. They were forced to watch movies with Kim Jong-Il and to thank him for kidnapping them.

The best part about Fischer’s writing (and all good nonfiction writing in my opinion) is that he intersperses the drama of this true story with relevant politics and history of the region. While the other North Korean book I read was incredible and painted the daily lives of North Koreans from different songbuns (social classes) with heartbreaking detail, I came away from this book with a good basic understanding of the history of how North Korea came to be, the official state biography of Kim Jong-Il, and the finances and politics behind supporting this rigidly nationalistic dictatorship. The book has a comic-book-like dust jacket, but the research is meticulous and fascinating.

I’m obsessed. I’m OBSESSED with North Korea. All my nearest and dearest have had to listen to non-stop rambling about the craziness in the country. I see mirror images of the empire around me everywhere. I went to a Yankee game on Friday night, and as I looked at the giant sign with George Steinbrenner’s face and the words “The Boss” on it, I could only think of the propaganda of Kim Il-Sung “The Supreme Leader.” Remember how Donald Trump called Mexicans rapists and thieves? That’s almost verbatim the rhetoric that Kim Jong-Il uses to describe Americans!

I think my obsession stems from the fact that North Korea is a mystery. We can’t really know what life is like there, and the world is at a loss as to what to do with this strange pocket of comic-book-level villainy. What we know of North Korea are just glimpses. Here are some of the better things I’ve found in my obsessive research.

  • This three-part documentary from Vice does a good job of getting inside the country and sneaking a bit past the carefully orchestrated face North Korea shows the world. The main documentary guy made me nervous. He karaoked “Anarchy in the UK” in front of his minders! I was nervous he was going to end up in a concentration camp. People have been sent there for much less. Lisa Ling also has a good documentary available on Netflix called “Inside North Korea.” That documentary delves more into the brainwashing of the citizens.
  • This photo gallery is beautiful and disturbing. I like this one even more.
  • Ever heard of the mass games? It’s organized insanity. Once a year to celebrate the founding of their country, thousands of North Koreans put on this bizarre performance for their leaders. People practice all year for it, and the giant moving pictures in the back are made up of thousands of children holding giant books over their heard and flipping the pages in tandem. IT’S WEIRD. It was thought up by none other than Kim Jong-Il.
  • In recent news, North Korea announced they are creating their own time zone which will be 30 minutes off from everyone else. Of course the are. Of course they are.
  • All mockery aside, though, it’s quite tragic what goes on beyond our reach. The people of North Korea are enslaved to the strongest cult of personality the world has ever seen. My heart breaks to think of the starvation, the brainwashing, the labor camps, and the violence North Koreans have to live through. It’s important to remember that while the leadership in the country is deplorable and terrifying with their constant talk of nuclear war, millions of people are suffering within the country’s borders, and it is to them that we owe a bit of compassion and concern.

I leave you with an apt quote from this book that I highly recommend anyone and everyone to read.

“The people are still required, under pain of imprisonment, to thank Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il every morning for their food, even though Kim Il-Sung is dead and they have no food”

Drunk Mom by Jowita Bydlowska

4 Nov

Have you ever had a friend confide something somewhat disturbing to you? Maybe they warned you there was something they wanted to talk about. Or maybe they just blurt it out while you’re enjoying your weekly meetup for coffee/drinks. They look you right in the eye while they confess a truth that’s been weighing on their heart. They hush their voice and tell you the unpolished, unaltered secret that they can’t hold onto any longer. You are enraptured in them at that moment. You don’t know whether to condemn them or tell them it’s okay, so you just sit and listen, because that’s probably all they want you to do anyways.

That’s what reading this book was like. Somebody baring the dirty, nasty secrets of their past. I read this book in two days, glued to every word. While getting my hair done, waiting for the subway, eating a bagel and sipping coffee at a diner. I couldn’t turn away. Jowita Bydlowska describes a year of being a relapsed alcoholic while also being a new mother. Her prose is jarring, overloaded with metaphors and missing dialogue and cuts between time. I found it beautiful and felt pulled into what it must be like in the mind of someone completely under the spell of addiction.

I was reading some of the reviews of this book on Goodreads and was shocked to see how many people gave it one or two stars. These reviews always read something along the lines of “Great book/writing, but I can’t give her a good rating, because she was a horrible mother who did deplorable things while caring for her child.” WHAT?! When you rate a book, you aren’t rating the author as a human being. She doesn’t speak highly of the things she did. If anything the book is full of shame, grief, self-loathing and disappointment. I loved the book because of her absolute honesty. Who wants to read a 300-page book about someone being a perfect mother, never making any mistakes? Bigger question: Who wants to read a 300-page book about anyone being a perfect person, skating through life making all the right choices?

Sometimes when I sit down to write personal essay/memoir/blog posts, I hesitate. I think less about the craft of writing and more about who might one day read it. My mom, my friends, ex-boyfriends, future boyfriends. I even worry about possible future children who will think their mother was a moron/shitty person in her younger days. So I censor myself. I tell half the story and shelve the rest. I’m not ready for the world to see the ugly parts of me. It always makes me think of one of my favorite F. Scott Fitzgerald quotes:

“You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner…you only have your emotions to sell.”

And that’s what made me so in awe of this writer and this work. It was the truth, her truth as she felt it and she lived it in what was the darkest year of her life. I thought it was beautiful.

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

8 Jan

Because of my dependency on the public library, I don’t get to read a lot of newer books. I usually have to wait 5 months to get ahold of a copy, and I’m an impatient person.

But over the holidays I splurged and bought myself a book…at a bookstore. An extravagance in my life as a poor New Yorker. This book was in the bestseller section which makes me wary. I worry about cheesy romances or over-hyped memoirs. This memoir, though, surprised me.

The book is written by a young journalist from New York. Within a couple of weeks, she goes from being a normal, productive member of society to a paranoid, barely verbal, mental patient in NYU’s epileptic ward. I don’t want to give too much away, because the book is written with such subtle and creeping suspense. I read it in two days. But I will say that her story takes unexpected turns and is a terrifying read.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

12 Feb

unbroken-cover_custom-s6-c10 Here are some things I’ve been whining about lately.

  • My right calf has been really itchy.
  • I’m hold #166 on a book I really want from the library.
  • My tax return was not nearly as large as I thought it was going to be!
  • I want a kitten sooooo bad.

It’s times like this in life that we all need to read a quit-your-bitching book. This is it. “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” by Laura Hillenbrand is guaranteed to pull you out of your high-pitched, teary-eyed funk.

I must emphasize this isn’t a quit-your-bitching book in the vein of “The Jungle” or “Angela’s Ashes” where you just feel depressed and want to give up on that cruel world. This book is positive, optimistic. It follows the true story of Louis Zamperini whose plane crashed in the Pacific in WWII. He survived in a raft for weeks only to become a POW in a Japanese internment camp. Yet he held on to hope and spirit. It’s unbelievable what the human body can survive, what the mind can endure.

Had a bad day, huh? Were there sharks circling your deflating life raft, lunging at your face? Were you forced to sleep in a hut with your own feces as a pillow? Did anybody beat the dignity out of you with a bamboo shoot? Is your answer no? Then I think your day isn’t going half bad.

I recently read Hillenbrand’s first book “Seabiscuit” which is also an excellent book. She is good at holding interest, suspense. Her writing style is fluid and poetic. But where “Seabiscuit” was an entertaining tale, this is another level of empowerment.

And if you need some empowerment and are too lazy to read a book?