book review, reading recommendations, nonfiction

Review: Common Sense

A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason

Common Sense, Thomas Paine

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Click the image above in order to purchase it at Amazon.

In honor of it being Thanksgiving here in the United States, and because I am so very thankful that I reside in the United States, I decided to do more of a patriotic super-short review today.

AUTHOR: Thomas Paine

GENRE: Nonfiction

WHERE DID I GET THIS BOOK: local library

RATING: 4/5 stars

BACKGROUND: This was a pamphlet essentially published in order to convince the colonists that the solution to their issues with Britain was to break off and declare independence rather than try and make amends with King George III. Paine’s writing was quite influential at this time.

THOUGHTS: I was inspired to read this book as a result for my love for Hamilton: An American Musical. It is a quick read, amounting to around sixty pages, but considering that this was a propaganda pamphlet that was widely spread, that is quite a lengthy argument. The thing that I loved best about Paine’s writing is that the line of logic that it follows is clear and yet complex, making it quite difficult for anyone to argue against him. He approaches the argument for America’s independence from many sides- a religious approach, a moral approach, an economic approach, a political approach, etc; this demonstrates that the American Revolution was not just another war to be fought, but also a question of identity, of values, and of ideas.

Paine’s writing tends to be a little disorganized, but I suspect that is because I read a version that had been edited many times in order to address counterarguments that arose from his critics. One of my favorite parts of the pamphlet is when Paine mercilessly calls out those who deemed themselves pacifists; essentially, he asked those who opposed war to his side, and his arguments for why they should enter a bloody revolution were actually quite compelling. There is no argument that Paine could not morph until it fit his own agenda, and it is easy to see why colonists were so compelled by his words.

The language is dense and sometimes tedious to get through, but this is more a product of the time that has elapsed between the time it was published and now rather than a product of Paine’s lack of writing abilities. For any of you fellow American history buffs, or fellow fans of Hamilton, I would recommend this as a quick, patriotic read that will allow you to learn a little more about the values that America was founded on.

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book review, nonfiction

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Like I’m always telling my brothers, if you gonna go into history, you can’t do it with a hate attitude. You got to remember, times was different.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

GENRE: Nonfiction, Science

RATING: 5/5 stars

BACKGROUND: Henrietta Lacks is the woman responsible for the immortal cell line dubbed as “HeLa”; she was also a relatively unknown figure before this book went to press. Though Henrietta’s cervical cancer cells have made immeasurable contributions to science, and though her cells have been sent into space and have been exploded in nuclear bombs, Henrietta had no idea that her cells were taken and used in the cell culture field. Her cells were taken without her informed consent, a fact that has stuck with the Lacks children, who are unable to afford medical care despite their mother’s contributions to medicine. The fact that Henrietta Lacks was a poorly educated, African American woman adds a whole other dimension to the narrative. Rebecca Skloot examines Henrietta’s story, the morals and complexities of scientific research on humans, the importance of family, and above all else, the value of information.

THOUGHTS: I really liked the way this novel was written. With most nonfiction books, the author remains a distant third party; they are an expert, but not much beyond that. This is not true in this book, Skloot is an active party in this narrative. Although a lot of the book contains history, it also contains the present. Skloot did not just try and convey Henrietta’s story, but also the story of her descendants and of those facing similarly ethical issues concerning their own tissues and cells being used for science.

You get to go through Skloot’s research journey, which seemed notoriously hard. Few academic materials used Henrietta’s real name, and the Lacks family was so tired of reporters taking advantage of their mother and her history that they had stopped “talking”. However, with persistence and the unwavering belief that Henrietta’s story deserved to be told, Skloot managed to grow close to several of the Lacks family members. Skloot also succeeded in educating Henrietta’s descendants about Henrietta’s story; she let Henrietta’s children understand, for the first time, the legacy they inherited.

Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, is one of the most colorful characters in this narrative and essentially grew up without her mother. She is also a very important part of the story, and is crucial to the way that Skloot ties past events to present, so that the reader is not just reading a history but rather a personal account and a personal journey, both for Skloot and Deborah. This is what I loved about this nonfiction book the most: there are emotions that a reader would normally experience with fictional characters, and you also get to learn interesting things about the research field that you might not otherwise have learned in school.

The book raises difficult questions, especially about the ethics of research on human subjects. It seems as if it is still legal for doctors to keep parts of whatever cells you willingly part with during operations or other investigative treatments without your consent. This means that your cells could technically be used for research that you may not ethically agree to (on abortions, for instance) and could be profited off of, and you have no legal right to deny doctors the DNA you willingly gave up in the first place, nor would you be able to make any money off your own cells. This also means that your DNA, your personal medical information, is able to be legally stored at hospitals and biotech companies without your knowledge. Now, while there are many benefits for disease research presented in this system of doctors keeping blood and tissue samples of many of their patients, there are many moral and ethical issues still tied up in not giving patients’ the right to informed consent. So Henrietta’s story is still relevant today…because honestly, it could still legally happen to you if you live in the United States. And if anything, I think it’s better that people should be educated about this and know about it in case they ever do decide to take action and fight for the rights that they feel they deserve.

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book review, memoirs/biographies, nonfiction

Review: Dreams From My Father

My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t end there.
At least that’s what I would choose to believe.

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, Barack Obama

AUTHOR: Barack Obama

GENRE: Memoir

RATING: 4/5 stars

BACKGROUND: This book was published in 1995, way before Obama stepped onto the federal stage as the senator from Illinois and before he was President of the United States. This does not concern any of Obama’s public life, but instead his background and his family’s background. This seems to be before he was acknowledging a career in politics, as he does not mention it. The main focus of this book is rather Barry Obama’s quest in finding his own identity: his racial identity and his identity outside of his race.

THOUGHTS: I thought that this story was intriguing, not just because it is the story of our former president but rather it is a story of someone who is caught in between cultures and races. Barack Obama was brought up by his white mother and his white grandmothers, in the absence of his father who spent most of his time in Kenya, but was treated by everyone else that he knew as what he appeared: a black boy.

Obama’s writing was clear, succinct, and admirable for someone who is not a writer by profession. His capacity to relate emotions in a particular moment and his ability in describing events or landscapes took me by surprise, though anyone who has listened to any of his speeches is probably less surprised to hear what a good writer Obama is.

I think the honesty of the book is also refreshing. In a world of turbulent politics dominated by twistings of the truth and fake news, this brief, honest look into Obama’s early life and his early mistakes was intriguing. His struggles in becoming the best brother, the best son, and the best black advocate he could be struck a cord with me; even though the man is intelligent and successful beyond belief, he struggles with the same idealistic struggles that most young people go through.

Anyways, I can fully recommend this read for anyone who wants to know a little more about our former president. It is pretty clear of our typical political debates, besides a couple of chapters about his advocating in Chicago. But even that does not sound like the pushing of an agenda…just a description of the feelings that he went through at a particular moment in his life. This book is truly a memoir, and not of the same stock as those books published after a politician’s term, or before a politician’s election. If you enjoy memoirs in general, you should definitely check this one out!

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book review, memoirs/biographies, nonfiction

Review: Lighter than My Shadow

I held on, waiting to be recovered, wondering how long it would last. How would I know when I get there?

Lighter than My Shadow, Katie Green

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AUTHOR: Katie Green

GENRE: Memoir, Graphic Novel

RATING: 5/5 stars

I received this ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

SUMMARY: In this hand-drawn autobiography/memoir, Katie Green investigates her personal battles in her relationship with food and how her eating disorders triggered other events in her life, including one in which she was abused by someone she trusted. Green starts in the early stages of her childhood and ends at her current state, and details the process of how she became ill, but also details the process of her recovery.  Trigger warnings (because if you have dealt with an eating disorder or are a survivor, then I certainly don’t want you to endanger your mental health): anorexia, binge eating, images of both unhealthy and healthy sexuality.

THOUGHTS: This was the kind of book that I could not put down. I initially picked it up, thinking I’d get through the first hundred pages or so just to start it, but by the time I bothered to look at the clock again, I had gone through all 500 pages and it was way later than when I had hoped to go to sleep.

You remember that kind of feeling you got as a bookish child when you read under the covers with a lightbulb because you had to keep reading even though it was past your bedtime? This book made me feel like that, and that is not a feeling I can say I always get now, even though I remain a very bookish person.

Katie Green does a magnificent job at illustrating her eating disorder, whether it was the literal shadow following around, or the melting of her body “into oblivion”. At times, the imagery was so powerful and stark, and sometimes it was more subtle and suggestive. I have not read many graphic novels, but the images that Green provides played out her story beautifully. I especially admired how she managed to convey metaphors in her illustration.

I also have to commend Green for the kinds of details that she chose to include in her novel focusing on eating disorders. There are so many important aspects included in this book that can really speak to and enlighten those who have not gone through eating disorders, such as myself. Details like the loss of her menstrual cycle, how eating disorders are not simply just a desire to not eat, how her eating disorder ruined her image of her own body and therefore her connection to the healthy aspects of her sexuality, and how progress and recovery is not a straightforward, easy process are all things that I adored about this book.

Additionally, I feel as though many books about eating disorders do not really focus on the process of recovery as Lighter than My Shadow does. Recovery is probably the most important part of this story, which I find so admirable, and while I have a limited perspective on this subject because of my own personal experiences, I believe this book has something important to those who are in recovery or are suffering from eating disorders, as well as to those who have no personal experience with eating disorders.

I cried, I definitely cried. It was that good, y’all. Go pick up this book when it is published on October 3rd!!

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book review, memoirs/biographies, nonfiction

Review: Sounds Like Me

Things evolve into other things. Emotions do the same. Forever. Your best ally in all of these shifting seas is your faith in the fact that you are exactly where you are supposed to be.

Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) In Song, Sara Bareilles

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In which I have checked off another book from my insanely long TBR list. It’s slowly but surely getting smaller…

AUTHOR: Sara Bareilles

GENRE: Memoir, Nonfiction

WHERE DID I GET THIS BOOK / WHAT FORMAT: local library / audiobook

RATING: 4/5 stars

BACKGROUND: Sara Bareilles, the songstress/mastermind behind pop classics like “Brave” and “Love Song”, has poured her heart out on the page in eight beautiful and poignant essays. These essays mostly touch on certain periods or instances that occurred in her life, but they are really about different lessons she has learned growing up, stepping into the music industry, and having several new experiences. Bareilles gives readers and fans a exclusive look into her private life in a way that most celebrity memoirs tend not to.

THOUGHTS: Okay first of all, I must recommend the audiobook of this book over the physical copy simply because each of Sara’s essays is based off one of the songs she has written, and she sings each song a capella at the beginning of each chapter AND ITS REALLY BEAUTIFUL OKAY.

I have only read two other memoirs by famous people, (those two people being Tina Fey and Amy Poehler) and I was ready for Sara’s memoir to be spunky, funny, and a look into the unseen glamour of the scenes of pop-star life. I was ready to learn some more interesting factoids about a woman who I consider to be one of the cooler alumni from my own alma mater. I was not prepared for a frankly honest look at several events in her life, in which she dealt with fright, trauma, heartbreak and the like. However, if anything, that just makes the book that much more endearing to me.

Sara talks about a lot of things that have nothing to do with her life as a pop star, as well as several things that has to do with her life as a pop star. She discusses mental health issues, crying in front of strangers, how fake and twisted the music industry can be, how the right band members can make all the difference, how writing a musical was easier for her to do than writing a book (any other fellow Waitress the Musical fans out there?), how a first heartbreak can really be a metaphor for all heartbreaks, how she navigated her parents’ divorce, and so much more. There was no unifying theme of the book, just the feeling that Sara felt that readers could actually take something a little more real and more substantial than entertainment from the stories that she chose to tell.

Sara had something she wanted to say with her book and she made that clear from the start. However, it wasn’t forced or fake; it was genuine. Sara talks a lot about struggling with her self-image, with her weight, with her appearance, and with her overall image as an artist and a celebrity. But more importantly, she talks about how she navigated through some of those tough areas and has progressed in building up her confidence and convincing herself that she is beautiful no matter what the world might say. Additionally, she desperately wants her fans to know that they are beautiful too, and so loved. And I could honestly hear how much she meant it as she read the words aloud, it was so honest and real.

Sara is not a “writer” so I am not going to comment on the prose or most of the mechanics of her writing. But I will comment on the voice of her novel (the actual voice of her words, not the one I heard on the audiobook). It is unique, and it is all her. It was refreshing to hear a celebrity ready to be so vulnerable and down-to-earth with her audience, with the knowledge that it will not benefit her professionally but rather she is writing with the purpose of gracing her fans with her love and her personality. And that, to me, was the best thing about Sara’s memoir: that it was all her, and that she gave it all.

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book review, nonfiction, reading recommendations

Review: Hidden Figures

Their dark skin, their gender, their economic status–none of those were acceptable excuses for not giving the fullest rein to their imaginations and ambitions.

Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly

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Click on the image above to purchase on Amazon.

So as soon as I saw that this audiobook was available to loan with no wait from my local library, I immediately borrowed it because I loved the movie!

AUTHOR: Margot Lee Shetterly

GENRE: Nonfiction

WHERE DID I GET THIS BOOK: local library

RATING: 5/5 stars

SUMMARY: Hidden Figures follows the journey of mostly black women (some white women and black men and their struggles are also touched on) that worked as those who specialized in math and/or science for NASA or NACA, as it was named before the space race. The women in this book include Dorothy Vaughn, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Mary Jackson, among other amazing black, female minds that are also mentioned. The story does discuss the racial or gender based barriers that the women face when trying to advance themselves and their careers at Langley Institute on the Virginian Peninsula, but more importantly, it details the achievements of these women that would otherwise have been lost to history, and how these women tie into and contributed to American history, as well as the American narrative.

THOUGHTS: I gave this book the highest rating possible because I cannot honestly think of something I would change about it. The writing was clear and precise, and the author did a good job of navigating the material- she neither underplayed nor overplayed the role of racism or discrimination in the story, but she also did not idolize the women described nor did she downplay their characteristics or achievements. Instead, she did what a good nonfiction writer does- stick to the facts, but also adding humanizing elements to the story because it is a story with a uniquely humanistic value.

The story of success against all odds, of how hard work and dedication and ingenuity can lead to achievement otherwise impossible for black females to even dream about, is a story that I’m sure all Americans with a belief in the ideals of this country and the American Dream can enjoy and sympathize with. However, the recognition that the racial discrimination of the 1950s and the 1960s is only in the near past and the acknowledgement that black women still have a gigantic hill to climb are important aspects of this story to, and more importantly, Shetterly knows this keenly and tells her readers as well.

I am sure some people will be disappointed that this is not the same story that was eloquently fictionalized in the film, but I believe that the film took the necessary creative license to dramatize the work and to embody the same message and sentiment as the book. However, if you are not the kind that enjoys nonfiction persay, but would prefer a clear-cut story, then this book is probably not for you. (Go watch the movie instead! It’s still amazing and inspiring and Shetterly was very involved in its production.)

Ultimately, I am grateful that this book exists to enrich the minds of both Americans and international readers- the achievements of Dorothy Vaughn, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden are a reminder of what is possible in America, despite someone’s gender or despite someone’s skin tone, as well as a reminder of how far we still need to go as an American society. The bits about how black men fared at Langely Institute are also important and of the also-forgotten white, female mathematicians that worked at Langely reveal that black women were not the only “hidden figures” in this story. (Quick note: the subplots of white and black female friendships are SUBLIME). Therefore, this story is not just one about race, or about gender…it’s about the fact that only those of a certain, preferred demographic are sometimes the only ones that get noticed and how all of us could best help everyone reach their full potential, so that there are no more hidden figures.

 

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book review, nonfiction, reading recommendations

Review: Freakonomics

The conventional wisdom is often wrong.

Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

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Click the image above to purchase this book on Amazon.

This book was once recommended to me by a college admissions officer for the University of Chicago, and let me tell you, I would definitely take an economics class from Steven D. Levitt, although it is outside my major.

AUTHORS: Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

GENRE: Nonfiction

WHERE DID I GET THIS BOOK: book sale

RATING: 4.5/5 stars

BACKGROUND: It may sound odd, but there is a striking similarity between sumo wrestlers and school teachers in Chicago. Have you ever gotten the feeling that your real estate agent is trying to cheat you? Is a gun more dangerous to your child than a swimming pool? How did the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade affect trends of violent crime? Will your name affect your future success? What are the economics at play in the Ku Klux Klan? Questions and observations like these are addressed in this book; there is no unifying theme, as admitted by the authors, except that an economist and a writer look at everyday, and unusual, situations and use data and numbers to try and challenge our own conventional wisdom and apply economics to the strangest of situations.

THOUGHTS: I am sure that, unless you are a super-nerd like me, reading a book about economics sounds like the last thing you’d want to do with your free time. However, the way that Levitt and Dubner (who is not an economist but rather a journalist) approach these topics is accessible to us laymen who have maybe left the basic properties of supply and demand back in high school. There is data and numbers involved, but it is done so sparingly, so that less economics-inclined readers can easily skip over them and read the conclusions only and so that those who like numbers can pore over them and have them supplement the conclusions drawn. Freakonomics is for everyone.

And it is far from vanilla as other economics books might be- it addresses data surrounding abortion, drug dealing, and the black-white gap. Of course, there are more whimsical chapters as well that deal with sumo wrestling and real estate agents. The point is, that it brings real-life situations under the microscope and challenges the reader to analytically examine the conclusions before them and compare it with the information that they thought was a given. If anything, this book encourages us as rational creatures to question every piece of information given to us, and to not take what the media says for granted. And in an era filled with fake news, we could all afford to be a little more skeptical of what we’re being told.

If you enjoy a read that will challenge you to step out of your comfort zone a little bit, that will engage your mind, and that will leave you rethinking some aspects of your life, then this book is for you.

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