Tag Archives: Nonfiction

Guest Post from Flora: A Pole in Africa

Writing from the relative warmth of Boston (I’m in the Twin Cities, land of snow-crete), Flora returns with a blog post about Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński.  I have allowed her to keep her weirdo British spelling, even though she is technically American. Stay warm, blog friends!

So many dichotomies in the world. Type A’s and Type B’s.  Optimists and pessimists. Doers and dreamers. Those who fly into war zones, arc over burning roadblocks, slip through the jungle towards Stanleyville post-independence pre-Mobutu, stare into gun barrels; those whose days are spent in the swirl of “people, hotel, key, room, stuffiness, thirst, otherness, foreignness, loneliness, waiting, fatigue, life.” And those whose days simply- aren’t.  Or such is the ineluctable conclusion drawn after reading three of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński‘s books.

Just under a year ago I read the posthumously published Travels with Herodotus. I was new to Kapuściński‘s work, and his measured grace struck me. In truth, his world is not one that encourages dichotomies but instead subverts them, one in which a roaming journalist from a beleaguered nation-state, spectre of German and Soviet subjugation at his back, tries to wend his way through the polarizations – black and white, democracy and totalitarianism – that threaten to coopt day to day life. If only more people alighted on a Calcutta train station platform or waited days for transport in a Sudanese waypost, cross-fertilizing revelation if not understanding; then, he seems to promise, the madnesses of the world might settle into sense if not resolution. I used a passage from Travels for a volunteer orientation session on culture shock for (shameless promo) WorldTeach. I then rather foolishly traded my copy of Travels with Herodotus for an Indian buffet lunch. End Act One of my encounters with Kapuściński. Continue reading


When Everything Changed, by Gail Collins

I wrote about meeting NYT columnist Gail Collins a couple weeks ago.  Here’s the recording of the conversation that I heard.  I hope to write about her book soon, as well.  Carry on!

*Thus commences review of said book.*

Moments ago, I closed the epilogue of Gail Collins’s social history of American women from 1960 to the present, When Everything Changed.  I found it to be a fascinating, informative read.  I’m young enough to have been raised in a society where girls and women are expected to be high achievers, and the educational and professional discrimination barriers have mostly been eliminated.  I was occasionally shocked at the misogyny and paternalism evinced by political leaders and corporate executives, but the enterprising spirit of the many women profiled in the book overshadowed those injustices.

The book is very readable, despite clocking in at 400 pages.  In part, I would attribute that to the column-length sections within each chapter.  Gail is an op-ed columnist for the NYT, so it seems that her comfort range for relating a story is pretty standard.  This is also helpful for the reader, and it enables Gail to jump around to tell different stories without making the themed chapters seem disjointed.

Over one hundred women, famous and unfamous alike, were interviewed for the book, and their stories enrich the familiar tales of issues like the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, the sexual revolution, and the 1980s quest to “have it all.”  There was a good variety of women from different races, ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, geographic areas, and academic qualifications.  One of the most interesting chapters centers on African-American women in the civil rights movement, many of whom were summarily pushed aside in favor of black male leaders.  Gail does a good job of recognizing that feminist waves that featured the plight of white middle-class women didn’t always encompass poor women and women of color.  She features the struggles of lesbians to be accepted and included in mainstream feminist fights, so there’s very much a multi-faceted representation of individual women and their experiences. Continue reading

When You Are Engulfed in Flames, by David Sedaris

I have long been a David Sedaris fan.  On one family vacation a few years ago, my mom, stepdad, and I circulated two books among ourselves: David Sedaris’s Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and Bill Bryson’s Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.  Both had their hilarious, true-life virtues, but I’ll only focus on Sedaris for today.  I recently re-read his most recent compendium of essays, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, which takes its title from a warning pamphlet that he read while in Tokyo.

Having heard Sedaris on audiobook, in person, and in various episodes of This American Life, I’ve become accustomed to his nasal, slightly Southern-accented voice.  I can hear the cadences as I read the pages, which makes it funnier and more relatable to me.  Although his isn’t a particularly resonant, pleasant voice to listen to, because all of the essays are first-person and autobiographical, it better sets the stage to see the world through his slightly warped perspective.  (For example, this is a man who voluntarily spends several days watching medical examiners dissect human cadavers.)

If you’ve read Sedaris before, you know that most of his essays concern his bizarrely funny family, his drug-riddled youth (well, and adulthood), and his calm, accepting boyfriend named Hugh.  Sedaris attempted various careers, such as dishwashing, housecleaning, and, most memorably, elfing, but writing is clearly where he belongs.  It seems absurd that one person should have such a plethora of strange, uncomfortable, and humiliating experiences, but apparently, Sedaris has been capable of it.  Or perhaps he’s just better able to identify these moments and can transform them into something bigger and connected to other moments or themes. Continue reading

Colonial History Buff

Sorry for the long delay between posts; I was traveling throughout the Midwest this past week(end).  I have now added Indiana to my list of “visited United States states.”  I still have about 25 to go, though.

I’ve been reading a lot about colonial America lately, both in book and audio formats.  The book I’m reading is The Island at the Center of the World, by Russell Shorto, which could easily be subtitled: Why the Dutch are Awesome.  It tells the previously unheralded tale of the Dutch colony in Manhattan, Long Island, and Staten Island, and it is fascinating.  Shorto’s been able to access newly translated documents that are housed in the State Library of New York, where fortunately a gentleman reads old Dutch and has enthusiastically been making his way through something like 16,000 documents about the colony from the late 1600s.  The book’s thesis rests on the tolerant worldview of the Dutch (then, as now), a theme echoed in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir Infidel, although she finds multiculturalism to be more pernicious than vaunted.  Anyway, Shorto argues that the Dutch accepted religious freedom and some level of municipal government, and these values are as much a part of the American political and cultural fabric as our Anglo customs.

What makes the book stand out is that it’s not a dry telling of colonial Dutch farmers and merchants — the people come alive through their letters, and as you might expect of people who leave comfortable, civilized Amsterdam for the wilderness of the New World, there are some pretty wild folks.  One married woman is remembered for drunkenly pulling at the fronts of several men’s breeches one night, and a chapter is memorably titled “The King, the Surgeon, the Turk, and the Whore.”  (The Turk and the Whore get married!)  Shorto has a good sense of humor, offering a sly take that Puritanism was valuable in part as a lifestyle because of the cool hats.  Continue reading

The New Kings of Nonfiction, edited by Ira Glass

If you’ve been reading this blog, you also know that I love the public radio show “This American Life,” so when Ira Glass, who is the host of TAL, came out with an edited collection of nonfiction essays, I had to bite.  The collection includes essays by pretty famous people — David Foster Wallace, Malcolm Gladwell, Chuck Klosterman — and some less famous people — Jack Hitt, Coco Henson Scales.  There’s no unifying theme to the book, just examples of writing that Glass admires.  I’d already read the Foster Wallace piece in his book Consider the Lobster, and I’m pretty sure the Gladwell essay is included in edited form in The Tipping Point or Blink.  So what I especially enjoyed were the essays that took new and unexpected leaps with their subjects.

For instance, the Klosterman essay is a profile of Val Kilmer, who will always be Iceman for me.  Kilmer, according to Klosterman, is weird and nice, and after reading the essay, that’s pretty much the assessment I got, too.  Here’s a great aside:

We talk about the famous women he’s dated; the last serious relationship he had was with Darryl Hannah, which ended a year ago.  During the 1990s, he was involved with Cindy Crawford, so I ask him what it’s like to sleep with the most famous woman in the world.  His short answer is that it’s awesome.  His long answer is that it’s complicated. Continue reading

Guest Post from Shannon: Gang Leader for a Day, by Sudhir Venkatesh

Shannon, of The Time Traveler’s Wife fame, is back to offer her thoughts on a new sociology/economics book for the masses.  You may have read a bit about Sudhir Venkatesh in Freakonomics, but now he has his own format to discuss crime, poverty, and the projects.

Sudhir Venkatesh’s book, Gang Leader for a Day, is his account of the six years he spent in Chicago while working on his PhD in sociology from the University of Chicago.  During this time he became impassioned to return to the root of sociology and discover people in their most natural environments.  His solution?  Conduct his own research in the projects.  For a guy from suburban California, it was a wake-up call to say the least.

Through his interviews, Venkatesh became entwined with J.T., a gang leader who was college educated and had chosen to go back to the projects.  J.T. was quickly rising through the ranks and willing to let an eager student follow and study his every move.  Venkatesh does an excellent job of keeping the story moving by telling short vignettes in an impersonal voice.  Although he shares some of what he was thinking at the time, he withholds judgment – a standpoint that allows him to draw connections between policy, economic development, sociology, poverty, the drug trade, and demographics.  The situational account of what actually happens in the projects and more importantly why it happens provides a realistic glimpse into the problems and amazing coping mechanisms of those in poverty, as well as the options and decisions governments have to ameliorate the over-arching issues that pervade “bad” areas of large cities such as Chicago.

This was a fascinating book and was written in a very conversational style. Right after I finished it I had the opportunity to hear Venkatesh on his book tour. I would suggest that others supplement their reading in this way if possible. He spoke of much more of the background behind some of the decisions and was even somewhat self-deprecating in noting his idiocy in certain situations.  While there was a certain amount of fear, he became more and more desensitized by some of the scenarios in which he found himself, including fights and drive-by shootings.  His recount is not just from memory but also directly from the many notes he would scrawl after spending all day and night in the projects. Continue reading

Guest Post from Mike: The Machine, by Joe Posnanski

Baseball season is coming to a close (well, until all the playoffs and World Series and such).  So it’s fitting to bring you the tale of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, aka the Big Red Machine.  My boyfriend Mike is an ardent Minnesota Twins fan but is equally ardent about Joe Posnanski, a baseball writer whose star is on the rise.  Posnanski, now a writer for Sports Illustrated, recently published The Machine, and Mike has some thoughts about it.

I discovered Joe Posnanski thanks to Minnesota Twins bloggers’ repeated praise of the Poz’s writing.  After sampling his blog last year, I managed to work through about a year of posts over the course of a few months.  This feat (and it is a feat – Posnanski is prolific in his writing) converted me into one of his many blog readers excited about his new book about the 1975 Cincinnati Reds.

I grew up building an epic baseball card collection, so I recognized all of the names in the Cincy lineup from that year: Rose, Morgan, Bench, Perez, Foster, Griffey, Geronimo, Concepcion.  Four Hall of Famers, plus a Hall of Fame manager.  I knew the stars best, of course, and only through the eyes of someone who read the epilogue to the story.  Pete Rose’s downfall, Ken Griffey playing for the Seattle Mariners with his son, Joe Morgan becoming a broadcaster.*  The Machine brings out the personalities through anecdotes giving dimension that baseball cards never could.  Knowing that Rose collected 4256 hits does not tell you how willing he was when manager Sparky Anderson asked him to move to third base to help the team.  Quotes from Tony Perez (“Doggie”) show a sense of humor that I couldn’t get from the Donruss rendering of his smile that I saw years ago.

* I think the tremendous and now-defunct blog Fire Joe Morgan clouded my view of one of the personalities, though not his dominance in his playing days.  Posnanski mentions the FJM blog at one point, as it (like Morgan’s baseball announcing career) has likely had a significant effect on Morgan’s legacy for some baseball fans.

Continue reading