Category Archives: Non-Fiction

THE WORKS: ANATOMY OF A CITY by Kate Ascher

I always have what I call a “blowdry book” going – same as what other people might call a “slow and steady read”. It’s a book that you read a few pages of a day and stretch out over a month or so, rather than one you read in chunks in a week. I read my blowdry book when I am styling my hair in the morning, and it’s usually about 8-10 minutes of (generally) focused reading. My blowdry book for November was The Works: Anatomy Of A City by Kate Ascher, an exploration of the systems and infrastructure that keep New York City going.

Why I picked it up: I’ve always been fascinated by how big cities – and in particular, New York City – work. How do all of those people get clean water in those huge high rises? Where does all the trash go? How do trains operate without hitting each other? When I learned about The Works, I knew I had to read it.

In The Works, Ascher goes methodically through New York’s urban infrastructure: plumbing, electricity, transportation (the subway!), trash collection, traffic control and more, explaining how it developed and how it works today. I learned about power stations and transformers and how electricity has to be stepped down each stage of the way so that it’s at a manageable level when it reaches homes. I learned about how mail gets to destinations in New York City, including the history of the pneumatic tube network that used to send letters in cylinders through pressurized pipes that connected 23 post across the city. (!) Ascher, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, goes into the science behind all of these systems, explaining how water main leaks can be detected and how bridges are built. She is remarkably well-rounded, and each section of the book is treated with equal depth and detail.

The Works was published in 2005, and some parts are outdated. In particular, the section on communications was written before the explosion in smartphone usage and is clearly not accurate today. (There’s two whole pages on pay phones, for example.) I would love to know whether Ascher might be planning an update to The Works, as she also references a lot of huge public works projects that are probably finished by now.

The Works was a fascinating read. I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in what you can’t see behind your walls or under your streets. New York City is a miracle to me, and I loved getting a glimpse at how it’s possible.

The Works was book #56 of 2020.

SMACKED by Eilene Zimmerman

Eilene Zimmerman’s memoir Smacked: A Story Of White Collar Ambition, Addiction and Tragedy opens with her going to her ex-husband Peter’s San Diego home, concerned about him because their kids haven’t heard from him and he was ill the last time they saw him. She finds him dead in his bedroom and, shocked and devastated, assumes that he had a heart attack. She is incredulous when the police on the scene tell her that the likely cause of death is a drug overdose, having not suspected that Peter used drugs at all. Smacked is the story of the rise and fall of their relationship and Peter’s secret journey into drug addiction. How did this happen to him, and how could she have missed all the signs?

Why I picked it up: Smacked came highly recommended by Sarah at Sarah’s Bookshelves, and when I found it available on audio on Overdrive, I decided to give it a try.

Peter and Eilene married in their 20s after a mostly happy few years together, and then, after he graduated law school, they moved to San Diego so he could work for a top law firm as an intellectual property lawyer. They had two kids, and Eilene, a journalist, stayed home with the kids while Peter put in long hours at the firm, eventually making partner. Their marriage ultimately fell apart, but it wasn’t until Eilene learned the truth about his addiction that she could fully appreciate what had happened.

Smacked shines a light on a population that many people don’t know about: educated, white collar drug addicts. Looking for a way to relieve stress, or because they are unfulfilled in their jobs, they turn to drugs – prescription or illegal – for relief or to fill a void. They become increasingly dependent on the high to survive, leading to financial ruin and often serious health issues, including death. While Smacked is an intensely personal story, meticulously recorded and related by Zimmerman, it is also a wake-up call about a serious problem. So much of our modern lives can be characterized as addictive – technology, social media, medication – and this phenomenon of white collar addiction should really not be surprising.

Smacked, which is narrated by the author, is well-written and very compelling. I found the impact of Peter’s death on their kids to be the most heartbreaking part of the book. They too had no idea what was wrong with Peter, although they definitely knew something was. Peter went to great lengths to hide his addiction, resorting to increasingly strange and hurtful behavior to accommodate his needs. Zimmerman is understandably angry, regretful and sad, and ultimately sympathetic, which all comes across very clearly in her writing and her performance.

Smacked was Book #50 of 2020.

SECONDHAND by Adam Minter

Have you spent any of the pandemic cleaning out your home? Have you gotten rid of clothes, furniture, electronics or (gasp!) books? If so, have you wondered what happens after the truck comes for them, or you take them Goodwill or another donation site? Wonder no more: Adam Minter’s Secondhand: Travels In The New Global Garage Sale is a fascinating look at the circuitous route that our secondhand stuff takes after it leaves our possession.

Why I picked it up: I am kind of obsessed with recycling. I love the idea of things having multiple lives and purposes and avoiding landfills. As soon as I learned about Secondhand, I knew I had to read it.

In Secondhand, Minter, a business journalist, starts by explaining why so much stuff is discarded: we don’t expect our stuff to last long; kids don’t want their aging parents’ stuff; some societies view regular upgrades as a sign of status; manufacturers make it hard to repair electronics, appliances and cars; and more. The result of all of this casting away of things is a huge amount of hard goods that get transported from country to country, from cars and refrigerators to laptops and clothes. They may enter the “global garage sale” via Goodwill in the U.S., or a used bookstore in Japan, or a massive clothing sorting facility in Canada… and then they are on their way to Africa or east Asia or even to a rag manufacturing company in the U.S. with plants around the country. While there is a lot that ends up in landfills, there is also a complex, dynamic economy of companies and markets – legal or not – that find new homes and uses for a broad range of things.

While the book is scary on many levels – overconsumption, storage facilities, disposable culture – there is a lot of positive news in here. First, the interconnected network of buyers and sellers and secondary markets is a testament to human ingenuity and the efficiency of a good market. There are a lot of people who spend a lot of time preventing things from ending up in landfills. Second, Minter’s message is that people can help prevent landfills from getting fuller by investing in quality products and garments that have a longer expected life than many of the “disposable” items we buy today. If you buy something that lasts, you’ll either keep it longer or you’ll find a willing buyer more easily. Third, more countries are passing legislation making it harder for companies to keep their products out of repair shops. That means making it illegal for Apple to degrade their batteries or change their screws so that independent repair shops cannot open their phones.

There’s a lot more to this book than what I’ve summarized. If you’re interested in recycling and reducing waste – go pick up Secondhand! It’s well-researched and conversational in tone, and it will change how you think about buying and donating and consumption overall.

Secondhand was Book #48 of 2020.

MY FRIEND ANNA by Rachel DeLoache Williams

My Friend Anna: The True Story Of A Fake Heiress by Rachel DeLoache Williams is a memoir about the author’s experience with a generous but enigmatic friend who treated her to dinners out, personal trainers and a lavish vacation in Morocco and then convinced her to charge tens of thousands of dollars on her credit card with the promise of repayment that never came. It offers a fascinating glimpse into a friendship that, imbalanced from the start, turned into a power game as Rachel tried fruitlessly to be repaid and to figure out who Anna really was.

Why I picked it up: My Friend Anna sounded fascinating! And then my hold on it came in at the library and I read the first 10 pages in the car and was hooked.

Williams was living the twentysomething dream in New York City in the mid 2010s with a group of friends and a job as a photo editor at Vanity Fair. She met Anna Delvey, a German heiress, through some mutual friends and they hit it off. A few months later, Delvey returned to New York after some time away and sought out Williams. Their friendship intensified, with the women hanging out regularly, eating at expensive restaurants, enjoying spa treatments and generally cavorting with a fashionable, trendy crowd. Delvey routinely picked up the bill, which Williams appreciated but didn’t question, given Delvey’s family money and the lack of constraints on her spending. Within a few months, Delvey proposed a vacation in Marrakesh with Williams and Delvey’s personal trainer and a videographer she hired to take footage in Morocco for an upcoming documentary, all on Delvey’s dime.

That’s when things got weird. Delvey, who was chronically disorganized and behind schedule, got Williams to charge the airline tickets on her credit card. Then, after an indulgent week in Morocco, the hotel came after Delvey, saying that her credit card was rejecting the charge. Again, Williams agreed to put the charges on her own credit card – $36k on her own and $17k on her corporate AmEx. In the weeks that followed, the two played a prolonged cat and mouse game with Williams constantly asking Delvey for the money and Delvey stalling, making excuses and shifting the blame for the lack of reimbursement. As Williams grew increasingly desperate to get the money from Delvey, she started to realize that Anna might not be who she says she was and that her finances weren’t what Williams was led to believe. The rest of the book details how their relationship changed as Williams goes to extreme measures to try to get money back from Delvey.

You may be wondering, “Why is this worthy of a memoir?” $60k is a significant amount of money, but books about financial fraud usually deal with a larger scale – more people and bigger sums. My Friend Anna was nonetheless fascinating because it chronicled in great detail the unraveling of this friendship, as months of denial by Williams eventually gave way to her desperation to get to the bottom of Anna and who she really was. Williams saved all of their exchanged texts and painstakingly reconstructed the chronology of their interactions. You can blame Williams for being too complacent with Anna, for taking advantage of her generosity and enjoying a lifestyle she couldn’t afford, but I actually found her pretty sympathetic and relatable.

Reviews of My Friend Anna are all over the place. Some questioned Williams’ I’m-just-a-Southern-girl-with-old-fashioned-values image and call out her white privilege. Others describe it as an addictive read, finding it fascinating that Williams could get into this predicament. I am definitely in the latter camp. I had a hard time putting it down and read it at the beach in a day or two. I really liked it! I’m now looking forward to the Netflix series

My Friend Anna was Book #37 of 2020.

HOWARD STERN COMES AGAIN by Howard Stern

I’ve never been a regular Howard Stern listener. Long before he got to Sirius XM, Stern made his terrestrial home here in DC in the early 80s on DC-101 and I used to listen occasionally, but I rarely tune in to his satellite show. He doesn’t offend me, but for whatever reason, I never got on the bandwagon. I also never watched America’s Got Talent, so I didn’t witness his rebirth as a kind, encouraging judge/coach on that show either. So I came to Stern’s recent book Howard Stern Comes Again, a collection of his most influential interviews, with a mostly blank slate.

Why I picked It up: I was intrigued by Stern’s take on the interviews he’s done, as well as the content of the interviews themselves. I actually paid money for this one in the bookstore!

In the intro to Howard Stern Comes Again, Stern talks about his evolution as a radio personality. He started out as a shock jock, and continued that tradition at Sirius. It wasn’t until later in life that he softened a bit, becoming more introspective and overall kinder to his guests and to himself. Looking back now, he regrets the way he treated some of the people who came on his show and the wasted opportunities to have deeper, more meaningful conversations. The interviews he has collected in Howard Stern Comes Again are all ones in which he felt he made a real connection with the other person, learning about them and himself in the process. The people he interviewed are mostly comedians and actors, like Tracy Morgan, Jimmy Fallon, Chevy Chase, Gwyneth Paltrow, Chris Rock Amy Poehler and Jon Stewart, but he also talks to musicians (Ed Sheeran, Billy Joel) and real estate mogul/reality TV/president types (ugh).

Howard Stern Comes Again was my blow-dry book, the one I read while drying my hair in the morning. It’s the perfect book for that purpose, as I could get through about one interview every day. I enjoyed my mornings with these celebrities, getting to know them a little better. Stern probes his guests on the topics he himself grapples with – perfectionism, depression, mortality – which leads to honest, revealing and often surprising conversations.

My guess is that I am the ideal reader for Howard Stern Comes Again – I hadn’t heard any of these interviews before and I got to experience the new, improved Howard 2.0 fresh, without it dredging up memories of the old version (though some misogyny does sneak into his interviews, and he loves to bring up sex whenever possible). Overall, this was a worthwhile read and I am glad I picked it up. I learned a lot about a lot of people.

Howard Stern Comes Again was Book #34 of 2020.

BUZZ SAW by Jesse Dougherty

Last fall, something magical happened in DC. The Washington Nationals, who had started the 2019 baseball season with the pathetic record of 19-31, beat the odds to make it to the World Series. They dispensed with formidable opponents along the way, notably the Milwaukee Brewers and the Los Angeles Dodgers, leading to a World Series against the Houston Astros, who had one of the best records in baseball and a scary lineup of ace pitchers. Buzz Saw: The Improbable Story Of How The Washington Nationals Won The World Series, written by Washington Post Nationals beat reporter Jesse Dougherty, chronicles the 2019 season from sad start to glorious finish, delving along the way into the personal histories and unlikely plays that made the Nats’ journey even more meaningful and historic.

Why I picked it up: I am a huge Nats fan, and I can’t resist any chance to relive the 2019 postseason. It was amazing!

Buzz Saw goes month by month through the baseball season, explaining how unexpected the streak was. The Nats had the oldest roster in MLB, with some players who had considered retirement before getting picked up by Washington. Some were overcoming injuries from the season before. And there were also young stars on the team, like Victor Robles and Juan Soto, who brought explosive raw talent to the Nats. As the wins piled up, the team worked to overcome its most glaring deficiency – the bullpen – trying different combinations and bringing in Daniel Hudson to offer relief to overworked starters like Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasberg.

And then, of course, came the postseason, the many elimination games, the come-from-behind wins, the heroics of Howie Kendrick and Juan Soto and the clutch pitching. Ah, it was all so good! And so unexpected. And so much fun to experience. Buzz Saw brings it all back. And in a summer without baseball until just a few weeks ago, it was a great reminder of a season that feels like a lot more than 9 months ago.

I read Buzz Saw out loud with my son, so I guess I read it and did it on audio. The narration (me) – not great. The book is well-written. I like Dougherty’s writing style a lot – lively and descriptive – but I suspect that its publication was rushed to make an Opening Day deadline (or what was supposed to be Opening Day) and it could have used another round of copy editing, as I found a lot of typos and small mistakes. Overall, though, a really fun read.

So would you care about this book if you weren’t a big Nats fan? Hard to say. If you’re a hardcore baseball fan and/or enjoy underdog stories, then you might enjoy Buzz Saw as much as I did.

Buzz Saw was Book #32 of 2020. It satisfies the Book About Sports category of the 2020 Everyday I Write The Book Reading Challenge.

CRAIGSLIST CONFESSIONAL by Helena Dea Bala

Helena Dea Bala was unhappy in her lobbying job in D.C. and, on a whim, decided to post on Craigslist soliciting confessions from strangers in an attempt to feel connection with other people and bring purpose to her life. To her surprise, the response to her ad was strong and immediate. She soon found herself setting up several meetings a week with respondents who sat down and shared their secrets with her, anonymously of course. Dea Bala eventually quit her job and moved full-time into telling these strangers’ stories on various online platforms. This summer, she released a collection called Craigslist Confessional featuring 40 of the people she has met with over the years.

Why I picked it up: These types of voyeuristic glimpses into others’ lives are right up my alley, and Craigslist Confessional came highly recommended by Sarah of Sarah’s Bookshelves.

Craigslist Confessional is an engrossing read. There are stories of mental illness, bad parenting, secrets, abuse, pain, redemption, regret and much more. The chapters are short – 5-6 pages – so it’s easy to pick up the book, read a few confessions, and put it down. The stories tend to blend together, and I didn’t leave the book with particularly distinct memories of more than a handful of the confessors, but the cumulative swirl of humanity spun by Dea Bala certainly leaves its mark. I don’t know how you could read Craigslist Confessional and not become a more empathetic person. It is a privilege to get a glimpse into people’s heads and hearts and hear them explain their feelings honestly, without fear of judgment.

I listened to Craigslist Confessional on audio and I wouldn’t recommend it. The confessions are narrated by performers, so there’s a remove between the voice and the content. Some of the intimacy of these confessions gets lost when you know, as a listener, that the people talking are not the people who experienced them. I also found some of the narrators a little robotic. So if you’re interested in Craigslist Confessional, go for reading the book over listening on audio.

Memoirs/non-fiction have been working for me during the pandemic, and Craigslist Confessional was no exception. If you’re a fan of PostSecret or advice columns or Humans of New York, you’ll like this one.

Craigslist Confessional was Book #31 of 2020.

UNTAMED by Glennon Doyle

I am new to Glennon Doyle. I never followed her parenting blog, and though I’ve long had an unread ARC of her memoir Love Warrior in the house, I didn’t really know who she was. But when her latest book, Untamed, came out earlier this year, it was hard not to notice the book all over Bookstagram and Book Of The Month and Reese’s Book Club. I was curious, so I swapped for it and read it.

Why I picked it up: Untamed isn’t usually my type of book, but I couldn’t resist the buzz.

Glennon Doyle was raised in Virginia, and during her teenage years developed bulimia and a drinking problem as ways to soothe her anxiety and stave off depression. She married young to a man with whom she partied more than she actually connected with, and amidst her substance abuse found herself pregnant with her first child. She got clean, threw herself into motherhood, and then had two more children with her husband. Doyle’s marriage was tested when her husband confessed to being unfaithful, a challenge she overcame through faith and public pronouncements of her commitment to her marriage. She wrote a book about her experience with addiction and forgiveness – Love Warrior – which was well-received and often held up as Christian guide to working through marital problems.

During the book tour for Love Warrior, though, Doyle met and fell instantly in love with someone else. That someone else – soccer player Abby Wambach – completely turned her world upside down. Could Doyle – now a symbol of the steadfast wife and mother who sacrificed everything for her family’s stability – leave her marriage to pursue her true love? Untamed is Doyle’s memoir of breaking free from expectation and finally being true to herself.

I don’t really like self-help books, and there is a lot of self-help in Untamed. I didn’t love some of the early chapters about “Knowing” and inner selves and sobriety – I found them repetitive and at times too self-centered. But as I read on, later chapters in the book really resonated with me. I liked Doyle’s messages about parenting, such as the importance of both pushing kids out of their comfort zone while also acknowledging that their knowing their limits is a form of bravery. She had some interesting, non-trite things to say about racism and what white women can actually do to help improve the situation. I also liked her wake up call – that we parents spend more time worrying about college admissions than the health of the earth they are inheriting. And her love story with Wambach is very compelling.

In the end, I was glad I read Untamed. Is it worth the hype? Possibly not, but still worth the read.

I listened to Untamed on audio, narrated by Doyle. Like many memoirs, narration by the author made it more personal and felt more genuine. Although there were a few times when I felt my mind wandering, Doyle generally did a good job of keeping me engaged and the book moving along.

Untamed was Book #30 of 2020.

IN THE DREAM HOUSE by Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In The Dream House takes a look at an emotionally abusive relationship between the author and her girlfriend through short chapters about The Dream House, which is really a home of nightmares where Machado spent weekends with her girlfriend. Using references to folk literature and movies, Machado explores the nature of abusive relationships and explains why she stayed.

Why I picked it up: In The Dream House came out last fall, and the reviews were amazing. I’ve had this library copy in the house since the beginning of the pandemic, and now the dropboxes are opening up so I need to return this by the end of the month. Nothing like a deadline to get you to read a book…

I really liked In The Dream House. It’s not an easy read, so be warned. Machado’s girlfriend – loving and magnetic in the beginning, turns jealous, irrational and abusive as their relationship progresses. The author is always anxious, worried about triggering rage in her partner and afraid of the consequences. She sacrifices much of her year in graduate school commuting between Iowa and Indiana to visit the Dream House, using the hours on the trip home to recover and convince herself that the relationship is healthy. The relationship, even when over, leaves Machado scarred and gun-shy, with little perspective about what went wrong. “Clarity is an intoxicating drug, and you spent almost two years without it, believing you were losing your mind, believing you were the monster, and you want something black and white more than you’ve ever wanted anything in this world.” In the next page, she writes, “Trauma has altered my body’s DNA.”

Machado talks a lot about the nature of same-sex partner abuse, which gets less attention and is awarded less legitimacy than heterosexual partner abuse by courts and the media. In The Dream House rebukes the notion that same-sex abuse is easier to escape or avoid in the first place. Just because two partners are women doesn’t mean that one cannot be abusive or difficult to extricate from. She explores dislocation and isolation – two common features that abusers capitalize on – and gaslighting, or convincing someone that they are crazy when they react to abuse.

The Dream House is both the physical location where Machado and her girlfriend spent time together, but it is also a prison, the symbol of their relationship at its worst Each chapter of In The Dream House puts the experience in a different literary or cultural context – Dream House as the Apocalypse, Dream House as Surprise Ending, Dream House as I Love Lucy, etc. This construct gave the book variety and texture, expanding the story well beyond a chronicle of one relationship to a more universal treatise on the nature of partner abuse and its causes and effects.

Memoirs have been my most successful genres for pandemic reading, and In The Dream House did not disappoint. Highly recommended.

In The Dream House was Book #29 of 2020.

HOME IS BURNING by Dan Marshall

I have found that some pandemic reads are too light, while some are just too heavy. Others, for whatever other reason, just don’t fit the bill. From what I’ve learned from talking to my friends and those who follow my blog and Bookstagram, we readers today are a picky and fickle bunch. I am not sure what drove me to read Home Is Burning this month, other than that it was on my list of 7 Backlist Books I Want To Read, and I’ve been enjoying memoirs lately. It’s about Dan Marshall’s year taking care of his father, who was dying of ALS, and while it sounds super depressing, it’s also very funny at times.

Why I picked it up: Home Is Burning has been on my shelves for years (it came out in 2015). I don’t even remember where I got it. It thought it might hit the weird reading spot I am in right now. And, I was able to get it on audio via Scribd, which sealed the deal.

Dan Marshall was living the dream – working in LA in his early 20s, seeing his long-distance girlfriend regularly – when his father finally got an explanation for some strange symptoms he’d been having. He was diagnosed with ALS, a crushing blow for a family man who ran marathons and took care of his wife, Dan’s mother, who was in treatment for a second bout of cancer. Despite having three siblings living near or with his parents in Utah, Dan and his brother Greg made the difficult decision to move back home so that they could care for their father full-time. Home Is Burning chronicles the year after Dan returned to Utah, when his father’s condition deteriorated and Dan had to contend with the loss of his father as well as that of his job, home and girlfriend.

The Marshall family, made up of Dan’s parents, two sisters and a brother, was a close one, with his father the source of financial and emotional support for all of his children. Watching his father deteriorate was horrific for everyone, especially Dan, who took on the lion’s share of his father’s physical care. He chronicles the ways they adapted the house to accommodate the wheelchair, the difficult decision to intubate his father so that he could breathe and receive nutrition, and his father’s ultimate decision to end his life by going off the respirator. He’s quite honest about his own shortcomings as a son and a caretaker, and he admits that he was quite hard on his poor mother, who was undergoing chemo while all this was going on. This is all heavy, sad stuff, but Dan is so entertaining and honest that I actually wanted to keep returning to Home Is Burning, even though I knew what was going to happen. He’s really funny. The book is also full of sex and profanity (be warned!), so even at the most touching and poignant moments, there’s always a funny line coming out of Dan’s mouth. There isn’t much here about the nature of loss and how to survive it – Dan’s not the most introspective guy – but it was memorable and thought-provoking and even entertaining.

I listened to Home Is Burning on audio. It’s narrated by Dan himself, and I couldn’t imagine it any other way. You know how you can tell when an author is reading his or her book, rather than a professional narrator? You can tell here. But it’s totally worth it for the personal perspective (because this is a highly personal book) – and for his imitations, particularly of his family’s housekeeper.

Home Is Burning was Book #26 of 2020 and fulfilled the Book Sitting On My Shelf For 2+ Years category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.