Nonfiction Summary

Sometimes, nonfiction is the only thing you can read. When you’re focused on the practical things in life, fiction feels out of place. I went through a few months where I just couldn’t abide it. Every fiction book I opened seemed trite and predictable. I had a few subjects I was interested in and all I simply wanted to think about those – not some far off world that seemed wholly unconnected to me.

However, the nonfiction books I’ve been reading haven’t each deserved their own posts. The authors fell into two main groups – field experts and writing experts – each making rather similar mistakes. The prospect of writing on each book individually, repeating the same failings over and over again, filled me with despair, so I saved them all up for one giant nonfiction post.

Field Expert Non-fiction

Image result for the art of fermentation

The field experts understand their subjects perfectly, but they just can’t construct an engaging sentence to save their lives (or their book sales). If you approach these books with the pure expectation of extracting facts, much like a social studies book in high school, then you may be able to get through without maxing out your frustration levels for the day. Maybe.

All New Square Food Gardening: practical read for cheap people new to growing vegetables
You- the Owners Manual: decent introduction to health and nutrition
The Art of Fermentation: Fascinating historical and global facts… but did the editor even read it cover to cover?
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk: For when you find your days have become an endless series of nagging, repeating, and disciplining your children

Writing Expert Non-fiction

Image result for sugar nationAs expected, the writing experts category has the reverse problem. It’s filled with authors who want to write a book, but lack a subject. They are author-centered, filled with in-depth discussion of how the subject came into the author’s life and changed it. I always feel like a concise article on this category could have helped me more than a 300-page work of nonfiction. Cut out the ‘reality TV’ bits and the information could be summed up in a few good chapters.

Sugar Nation: interesting information (and strident personal opinions) on diabetes
First Bite: a few bits of information on feeding toddlers, but the pedantic historical filler is hard to slog through
The Art of Simple Food: great talk about food, but the recipes just didn’t turn out


Northanger Abbey

“It is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language” (Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey) 

I am a reader who likes Jane Austen. It’s always been at the core of my reader’s identity. I’ve read and reread each of her works, but I’ve always saved Northanger Abbey for later. It felt comforting to have an unread Austen lying in wait, knowing I could open it at any time and be both reassured and thrilled. Only my recent rut of unsatisfying reads could have made me desperate enough to pull it out. Though I loved the light, teasing air of the work, Austen spent most of her time parodying the Gothic literature of the day instead of creating robust characters. I got the feeling of having missed out on the punchline of an essentially historical joke; it’s too specific to be timeless in the way her other works are.

I worry that this is the final sign that I have become too critical in my reading: an unloved Jane Austen work. A reviewer likes to think that all of her criticisms are objective, but I’ve seen a growing trend towards dissatisfaction in my reading habit. Perhaps it’s not that I’ve been unlucky in my choice of books recently, but that I’ve been unwise. If I were to give a reader’s advisory interview to myself, I’d surely diagnose a reading rut: “Stop reading fantasy, sci-fi, or anything published in England” I would advise myself, “Pick a completely unknown genre and get to it.”

So, in an effort to climb out of said rut, I’m banning myself from reading in any of my old-standby genres until my 8th anniversary post. This opens up so many possibilities in unexplored areas: Thrillers! Historical Fiction! Romance! Noir! Nonfiction! Even the word ‘armchair travel’ sends goosebumps up my arms. It’s definitely time for a change.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 179 pages
Ending: tidy
Incidental Learning: all about tropes of gothic literature
Further Reading: Move onto the rest of Jane Austen

the curious incident of the dog in the night-time

“And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own, and because I solved the mystery…and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.” (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon)

CoverThere are few things I love more than a well-executed understated plot. So many books revolve around a marriage plot, a world-saving plot, or a grand mystery unraveled that one gets sick of all the escapades. How many events that dramatic happen in one’s own life? Eventually it becomes impossible to relate to them except as a method of escapism. In this book, no one changes except perhaps the secondary characters, and nothing happens that is more exciting than a train ride to London.

In spite of the circumspect plot-line, Haddon uses his first-person narrator – an autistic teen – as a springboard to discuss subjects as far ranging as advanced mathematics, philosophy, and physics in language so straight-forward and clear that it becomes poetry. You come away from the book both with the intimate comfort of insignificant things and the mind-expanding thrill of learning something new. A lovely combination, and an exceptional read.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 226
Ending: So hopeful and brave that you have to shed a tear, even though there’s not one particle of sentimentality in the whole book
Incidental Learning: Classic mathematical problems, facts about space, Sherlock Holmes references, etc, etc, etc
Further Reading: I’d suggest moving on to more adult/children’s books, like Neil Gaiman, perhaps.

When Breath Becomes Air

“I had attained the heights of the neurosurgical trainee, set to become not only a neurosurgeon but a surgeon-scientist. Every trainee aspires to this goal; almost none make it” (When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi)

The forward claims that Kalanithi will show incredible honesty, the post-script says he provides insights into death, and reviews laud it for its intimacy, but when reading the book, the only thing the reader can think is: unfair! Unfair that this near-perfect man had to die! He would have advanced neurosurgery, been a beautiful husband and father, and, if I had ever needed brain surgery in the San Francisco area, he would have been the man to do it. You clench your fists, you cry a little bit, and you become one with the millions of people who have read this book and would agree that this man should have had more time on the earth.

Yet, the disconnect between the actual reading experience and the commentary about the experience is jarring. On the one hand, the book itself reaches out to you as a dying man’s plea to be remembered for his best qualities, and on the other hand, everyone else insists that the book is truthful, insightful, and intimate. If the author had included one flaw without defending it or turning it into a learning experience, it might have been truthful. If he had confessed to anything shameful or raw, it might have been intimate. Instead, the book reads as a compendium of perfection, the author underscoring his triumphs and name-dropping prestigious institutions at the expense of focusing deeply into an experience.

I’m glad that he wrote it, glad to have read it, but I can’t see why everyone else insists on pretending it’s something it’s not.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 256
Ending: Posthumous post-script
Incidental Learning: Neurosurgery, neuroscience, Stanford, cancer

Big Magic

“Perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat” (Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert)

big magic coverI was a bit snooty about this book at first. Too many exclamation points, I thought, too casual, too new age-y, too many parenthetical asides. I confess to also having a slight prejudice against huge best sellers like ‘eat, pray, love’.  Yet, I dog-eared, underlined, and bookmarked more passages in this book than any other I’ve read since college. It reminded me of panning for gold or shelling peas; you have to dig through a lot of filler to get to her points, but they’re well worth the effort once you find them.

Of her many randomly assorted ideas on creativity, I keep thinking about her comments on perfectionism; namely, that it has no place in an artist’s toolkit. She claims that something done is, without exception, better than something left unfinished, even if it’s imperfect. A born perfectionist, I tend to fiddle and nit-pick my sentences to death, sometimes leaving posts (and other creative projects) to languish for weeks or months until I can get one word or phrase correct. Gilbert proudly proclaims that Big Magic is an imperfect, leaning tower of a work, and she’s right. I can list many of its faults, but it is undoubtedly better than some idealized, perfect work languishing unfinished in her drawer. And in spite of, or perhaps because of, its faults, I loved it.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 304
Ending: hopeful; encouraging
Incidental Learning: interviews with various creative people
Further Reading: reminds me of other writing books, like Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott

The Art and Craft of Tea

“Although this book is dedicated to capital “T” tea and takes a hard-line stance on what should and should not be considered tea, the one exception I make is Ethiopian tea, which is technically a tisane and not a tea (it does not use leaves from the Camellia sinesis plant).” (The Art and Craft of Tea by Joseph Wesley Uhl)

41k0ozehcbl-_sx258_bo1204203200_There are few acts more comforting than reading a book of gathered and sorted facts about one’s favorite subject. With each new tea book I read, I’m reminded of childhood’s obsession with accumulating the names of things: dinosaurs, star wars characters, rocks. Knowing these names is inherently meaningless in and of itself, but being able to recite them in your mind, recounting something stable at any time, relaxes. Similarly, at this point I don’t really need to read another book that tells me about the various categories of tea or the growing regions of China, but seeing them down on the page, accompanied by gorgeous pictures and a modern page layout, reminds me of all the other times I’ve found comfort and beauty in the subject.

This particular tea book’s virtues lie in the recipes found at the end. The author not only describes how various countries brew their traditional cup of tea (Persian Rose Tea sounds particularly intriguing), but also delves into modern mixes involving fruit, fresh herbs, and alcohol. I also appreciated the shortened, albeit obligatory, outlining of tea’s history, and the authors repeated insistence that one cannot call a tisane tea.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow NowBorrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 160 coffee-table book sized pages. Probably not meant to be read cover to cover, but I recommend it anyway.
Ending: An index. Quite proper to the subject.
Incidental Learning: While you may expect to learn a lot about tea, you’ll also pick up some interesting details about the craft cocktail scene in Detroit.
Further Reading: More Tea books! I particularly love The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo, although that book is less about the facts of tea than its art. I’d also recommend

The Happiest Baby on the Block

“I believe that once our ancestors began living in villages and cities, they forgot that, since the Stone Age, babies were almost constantly jiggled and wiggled as their moms walked up and down the mountains… modern parents began to mistakenly think that babies were so fragile they could only tolerate quiet sounds and gentle motions.” (The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp)

The Happiest Baby on the Block CoverOf the parenting books I’ve recently breezed through, this one seems the most practical. If the technique does do as promised, calm any crying infant, then it was well worth the few hours put into reading it. However, the author could have made his points much more succinctly. He intersperses practical advice with pseudo-science justifications for why to use his method. Apparently, one should use the cuddle cure not because it works, but  because it mimics the way ‘cave men’ used to care for their young. Personally, I’ll believe a theory if it works in practice, not because of some hyped up historical pedigree.

In spite of its potential applications, the book does lack a certain panache as a reading experience. The author uses so many exclamation marks, casual sentences, and long-winded emoting that I had to check three times to make sure I wasn’t actually reading a series of social media posts written by a teenaged girl. Perhaps he uses the style for relatability, but I’d like to hope that most moms are reading with an adult level of emotional intelligence. Yet, for its failings as a reading experience, this book has the potential to be a life-changing force in a person’s life if read at the exact right time.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow NowBorrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 267 pages
Ending: A New Parents’ survival guide appendix
Incidental Learning: breast feeding, pacifier training
Further Reading: If you don’t have a few hours to throw away on this book, I’d recommend just reading some articles or watching a video on the cuddle cure.