Category Archives: Non-Fiction

2018 Holiday Gift Guide For The Readers On Your List

Do you have readers on your holiday shopping list this year? Are you at a loss for what to get them? I’ve pulled together some a holiday gift guide for different types of readers. Hopefully this will keep you from aimlessly wandering the aisles at the bookstore or resorting to the dreaded gift card.

Also, Nicole Bonia and I recorded a 2018 Gift Guide episode for our podcast, The Readerly Report, in which we discuss her recommendations as well as mine. I’ll post the episode here when it’s up.

2018 HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE FOR READERS

Books for your best friend, so that you can discuss together. (You’ll need to buy two of these: one for you and one for your friend)

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld (reviewed here). These short stories are so honest and realistic that they are crying out to be discussed and affirmed.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill (reviewed here). A breathtaking, yet depressing, look at urban marriage and parenthood. I couldn’t get enough of this one – and I know my best friend couldn’t either. You will laugh and commiserate together. Bonus: it’s short.

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve (reviewed here). I read this one with Nicole, and thankfully I had her to share the tension and suspense with. I absolutely needed to talk about it with someone! Shreve is an expert storyteller and this book did not disappoint.

Books for your friend who needs to take her mind off of something

One Day In December by Josie Silver (reviewed here). It’s romantic and schmaltzy but damn if I couldn’t put this book down for the three days I was reading it. Will Laurie and Jack, who meet one December day when they lock eyes through a bus window, end up together? Ten years after they meet, you’ll get your answer.

One True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid (reviewed here).  Another addictive read. Emma and Jesse are soul mates… until his plane goes down in Alaska and he’s never heard from again. Emma grieves and moves on… until Jesse reappears in her life a few years later, after she’s gotten engaged to someone else. Who will she choose?

 

Books for your friend who is always posting alarming stuff 

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas (reviewed here). Imagine a world in which abortion and IVF are illegal and adoption is only permitted by heterosexual couples. Zumas takes four women in different stages of life and explores what it is like to be female in such a world. Bleak indeed.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (reviewed here). This dystopian novel may not take on the things we’re worrying about today – climate change, racial violence, women’s rights – but it’s dark and stressful, and a post-apocalyptic world is a post-apocalyptic world, no matter how we got there. This is an imaginative and moving book.

Books for your friend who only reads literary fiction

Everything Here Is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee (reviewed here): A moving look at the relationship between two sisters, one with mental illness, and how the thread connecting them is strained but never severed.

The Leavers by Lisa Ko (reviewed here): A novel about the tragic consequences of our draconian immigration policies.

A Cloud In The Shape Of A Girl by Jean Thompson (review to come): My personal weakness: the story of three generations of women in the Midwest and their inner hopes, loves and disappointments. One of my favorite books of the year.

Books for the non-fiction reader

The Four by Scott Galloway: A look at how Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple became essential to our daily lives. (Warning: I haven’t read this yet but I really want to.)

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou: This story of high stakes fraud and deception by the high-flying startup Theranos has to be the second-most highly reviewed book of 2018! I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about it and have bought it for two people already. (Again, I haven’t read this one.)

 

Audiobooks for Anglophiles

For some reason the majority of the audiobooks I’ve listened to this year were set in England with British narrators. Don’t be a knob – get these clever recordings for your friend who couldn’t turn off the last two royal weddings:

One Day In December by Josie Silver (reviewed here)

Mary B. by Katherine Chen (reviewed here)

Still Me by Jojo Moyes (reviewed here)

 

 

Books For Anyone

Becoming by Michelle Obama: OK, I haven’t read this one yet, but I plan to soon, and how could it be anything other than amazing? It is the fastest-selling book of 2018.

Kitchens Of The Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal (reviewed here and here): Yes, I know. I’m annoying about this book. Just buy it – whoever it is for will love it.

ALL YOU CAN EVER KNOW by Nicole Chung

It’s Non-Fiction November, folks! So I read some non-fiction.

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung is a deeply personal memoir about the Korean-American author’s life as an adopted daughter. Born to Korean-American parents in 1980s Seattle, Nicole was given up as a premature baby and adopted by a white couple from a small town in Oregon. She grew up as the only Asian in her whole town, suffering teasing and bullying by those around her who couldn’t accept her being different. As a result, she was shy and insecure, constantly trying to fit in.

When Nicole got to college and was surrounded by other Asians, she started to think more about her identity and what it meant to be Korean. After a few years, she decided to pursue a search for her birth family. When she initially learned that her parents were alive – but not living together – and that she had two sisters, her reticence about hurting her parents and her fear of rejection were both overpowered by her intense curiosity about her birth parents and her roots as a Korean girl. All You Can Ever Know is a detailed, emotional and very clearly written memoir about the experience of tracking down her birth family and what their reunion was like.

I liked All You Can Ever Know a lot. I appreciated the insights into her unique circumstances, including her interactions difficult birth mother and formal, academic father. Chung is so honest and forthright that it’s hard not to get emotionally involved with her story and feel affected by what happened to her. The book is a good look at adoption from the point of the adoptee, with all of the conflicting emotions and identity questions that it raises.

I listened to All You Can Ever Know on audio. It was narrated by Janet Song, who did a decent job with it. Song’s precise, clear delivery mirrored Chung’s writing style, and it was easy to follow. I was surprised that it wasn’t narrated by the author, which I think would have been very powerful. Ultimately, I felt a bit of a remove from the content, knowing that it wasn’t the author herself that I was listening to. I wonder if it was just too personal for Chung, and that she didn’t want her own voice out there talking about her parents and her feelings.

All You Can Ever Know is a short and satisfying read, and I recommend it to anyone interested in adoption, particularly trans-racial adoption.

I AM, I AM, I AM by Maggie O’Farrell

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell is an exquisite collection of essays about 17 brushes with death by the Irish author Maggie O’Farrell. From the medical – a c-section gone wrong, a brain infection – to near-drownings while on vacation and narrowly escaped violence at the hands of others, O’Farrell has faced a lot of physical adversity and danger over the course of her life. A life lived on the razor edge of death made O’Farrell less, rather than more, risk-adverse, pushing her to embrace mortality, almost daring it to stop her as she sought out adventures and experiences, often ill-advised, that her body may not have been able to handle.

Some chapters are more successful than others; the chapter about an AIDS test ends rather vaguely, for example, and detracts slightly from the overall collection. But there are others in which danger is so clearly present that I found myself rattled and anxious, even knowing, of course, that O’Farrell is alive and well. How frequently have we all been in situations where our safety was in grave danger, most likely without even knowing it? Life is a daily, ongoing miracle that we so often take for granted and think about only fleetingly, yet many of us could likely fill 17 chapters with our own harrowing brushes with disaster. I finished this book feeling grateful and lucky.

I enjoyed I Am, I Am, I Am quite a bit as I read it, but my feelings about it changed when I got to the last chapter, which is about O’Farrell’s daughter. Without spoiling the book, it wasn’t until that last chapter, when risk and worry were upended and transposed, that I really understood why O’Farrell wrote it: her ever-present, unwavering and never lessening fear and vigilance caused by her daughter’s auto-immune disorder. As a parent, I found this chapter the most harrowing of all.

I Am, I Am, I Am is definitely worth a read. If you’ve read any of O’Farrell’s novels (see here for reviews of Instructions For A Heatwave and The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox), then you know already what a beautiful writer she is. Her writing about her own personal experiences is even more meaningful and moving.

I listened to I Am, I Am, I Am on audio. It was narrated by Daisy Donovan, who did a great job conveying the intensity of this personal narrative. (I was a little surprised that it wasn’t narrated by O’Farrell herself, and I supposed I just pretended it was O’Farrell reading it as I listened.) I highly recommend the audiobook, which breathlessly and urgently conveyed the gravity of the subject.

BACHELOR NATION by Amy Kaufman

I am a fan of the Bachelor franchise. I have been since the beginning. I’ve watched almost all the seasons – maybe missed 4 or 5 along the day – and it’s definitely one of my top guilty pleasures. It’s mindless, yes, and predictable and ridiculous too, but I do love watching it.

So I jumped at the chance to read and review Bachelor Nation: Inside The World Of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure by Amy Kaufman. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the franchise, compiled with lots of research about the show and how it works. Kaufman starts with a history of dating shows, which is a little dry, but then explores how the Bachelor franchise got started and why it’s so popular. Kaufman explains how the producers manipulate interviews and dates to create drama, and how people on the show are pressured to act certain ways and say certain things for the cameras. She covers the double standard for men and women on the show and gets a bit into the details of what it’s like to live in the mansion.

I didn’t learn anything earth-shattering, but Kaufman did answer some of the questions I’ve amassed over time. I wish she had gone into more detail about the daily lives of the contestants and what it’s like for the couples when the cameras stop rolling. Many of her sources were other books, articles or blogs, and I wanted more first-person accounts and interviews. I feel like I never have enough detail when it comes to The Bachelor!

If you’re a hardcore Bachelor fan who follows the podcasts and blogs about the show, then you’ll probably find that Bachelor Nation doesn’t have a lot of new material. If you’re a casual fan who hasn’t spent a lot of time learning about the show, then you’ll find this book to be a fun read. If you don’t know or care about the show, then definitely don’t pick this one up.

A BEAUTIFUL, TERRIBLE THING by Jen Waite

A few weeks ago, I said that I was done reading popcorn thrillers about sociopathic husbands. So what did I do next? Picked up a memoir about a sociopathic husband. SMH.

A Beautiful, Terrible Thing is the story of the demise of Jen Waite’s marriage to a charming Argentinian man named Marco. She married him after a frenzied period of dating and enjoyed 5 blissful years with him before everything fell apart. A few weeks after she gave birth to their daughter Louisa, she found a strange email on his computer that suggested that he was seeing someone else. He denied it repeatedly, but it came out over the next few months that Marco was cheating on Jen with another woman (and that there had been others).

The cheating was bad enough, but hardest for Jen was Marco’s coldness and lack of empathy. He claimed to be “sick” and “numb” and “unable to feel” anything about what he had done. After a lot of internet research and therapy, though, she concluded that he was a sociopath who had tricked her for years into believing that he loved her, but who cast her off when he decided he was ready to move on due to his own need for attention and adoration.

I guess I’m glad I read A Beautiful, Terrible Thing… ??? In the end, yes, Marco was awful and Jen’s pain was very intense, but did I need to read a whole book about it? I was more interested in the analysis of sociopaths and the identification of their patterns than the timeline of the revelations about Marco’s infidelity. Waite is a good writer, so it’s not like the book wasn’t written well. It’s just a somewhat familiar story and in the end I didn’t really grow that much for having read it. There is a lot of talk about not giving too much of yourself to another person or being so invested in their happiness, but if Marco hadn’t been a sociopathic monster, I don’t think Waite would be advising against either. (That’s what marriage is, right?)

You probably know by now whether this book is for you or not.

 

HAPPINESS by Heather Harpham

Vacation read #4 was Heather Harpham’s memoir Happiness, which I grabbed on an impulse from my 2017 Book Expo box the night before we left. Harpham, a writer living in New York, meets and falls in love with an author named Brian. They have a strong, passionate relationship that is leading toward permanence, except for one issue they can’t resolve: Heather wants kids and Brian doesn’t. When they accidentally become pregnant, the decision of what to do – and how it will impact their relationship – becomes too much for them to survive. Heather moves home to California to have the baby, leaving Brian in New York.

Their daughter Gracie is born outside San Francisco, and from the start it’s apparent that she is suffering from a mysterious blood disorder. Within the first few weeks of her life, Gracie received a blood transfusion, a procedure she requires every three to four weeks to help get oxygen to her body. Heather handles Gracie’s condition and treatments solo, with help of her mother and some longtime friends, bearing the emotional and physical burden of caring for a sick infant. Brian finally flies out to California to meet his daughter a few months later, and he slowly backs his way into fatherhood.

Ultimately, Heather and Brian reconcile, and are then faced with the question of whether to have another child who might be a genetic match to provide bone marrow for Gracie. Given their history, this is a complicated question, but one that is quickly answered when Heather becomes unexpectedly pregnant with their son, Gabe. From there they must decide whether to transplant his marrow into Gracie, and where, and how they will get through it, emotionally and professionally.

I enjoyed Happiness. Even though I knew how it would end, I felt the suspense and stress of Gracie’s treatments and procedures and was eager to hear how it all worked out. Harpham does a really good job of letting the reader into the head of the parent of a sick child. She’s honest and genuine, sharing her innermost thoughts while Gracie was hospitalized, including the guilt she felt about neglecting her young son, her ambivalence toward her partner, and the conflicting emotions conjured by watching other parents enduring the same awful experiences in the hospital. I felt great empathy for her and for Gracie.

Happiness was a compelling read and I’m glad I included it on my travels.

CAN’T HELP MYSELF by Meredith Goldstein

I am a sucker for advice columns. I read several on a regular basis – Carolyn Hax, Ask Amy, Dear Prudence – so when I learned that there was a book coming out by Boston Globe advice columnist Meredith Goldstein, author of the “Love Letters” column, I knew I wanted to check it out. (Goldstein also wrote the novel The Singles, which I reviewed here.)

Can’t Help Myself: Lessons & Confessions From A Modern Advice Columnist is about Goldstein’s column: how she started it, the types of letters she gets and her interactions with her readers. But it’s also about Goldstein’s own life – her relationships with men and the people close to her. The “Love Letters” column addresses her readers’ relationship quandaries, covering everything from one night stands and overdue marriage proposals to work spouses and online dating. Goldstein divides the book into themes about love lives while threading her own personal narrative throughout. We learn about the guy who got away, her very close relationship with a colleague, and her mom’s cancer diagnosis.

Can’t Help Myself is a quick and interesting read. Goldstein is funny and deeply honest, so I really got a sense of who she was. I almost always agreed with the advice she gave out to her readers, even while she had trouble following it in her own life. I do wish she had spent more time behind the scenes. I wanted to hear more about how she picked the letters and trends she has noticed in 9 years of writing her column. Goldstein always seemed so sure of her answers; I’d like to have heard about the times when she just didn’t know what to advise. More focus on the role and responsibility of the advice columnist would have given Can’t Help Myself more heft.

I liked the reader letters spread throughout the book, and have, of course, now subscribed to “Love Letters” updates.

This is a fun book if you’re an advice column junkie, but in the end I wanted a little more detail and analysis.