Category Archives: Non-Fiction

04) El Deafo

By: Cece Bell

Date Finished: 01.16.17

by Cece Bell

By day, Cece is a kid who has to wear a bulky device – the Phonic Ear – in order the hear. But in times of trouble, she’s a brave hero on a quest to find the most precious thing of all: a True Friend. El Deafo is Bell’s memoir of her experience of growing up with deafness which includes the fearless, made-stronger-by-disability alter-ego that she created as a kid. And, like all good superhero stories, El Deafo is a graphic novel.

This book perfectly reflects the mindset and logic of a kid. Young Cece is embarrassed by the Phonic Ear and is convinced that she needs to hide her deafness in order to be accepted. The adult in me kept thinking, “You’re making this harder than it needs to be,” and Bell admits as much in the afterword. However, the story itself is free from this kind of commentary. Cece never wavers in her convictions that the world is exactly the way she understands it.

Ultimately, this is a familiar story to anyone who’s ever been a child or dealt with loneliness. It’s the tale of girl dealing with deafness, yes, but it’s also the saga of a girl navigating the politics of elementary school friendships, sleepovers, and birthday parties. It’s also a great empathy builder in the way it shows several characters (including Cece) struggle to empathize with one another.

At the end of the day: For me

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02) Brown Girl Dreaming

By: Jacqueline Woodson

Date Finished: 01.09.17

by Jacqueline Woodson

Will the words end, I ask
whenever I remember to.

Nope, my sister says, all of five years old now,
and promising me

infinity.

As Jacqueline Woodson writes, “It’s easier to make up stories than it is to write them down.” Presently, it is easier for me to say, “Just read it; you’ll understand,” than to explain what makes this book so good. But I will try to give you something.

One, it’s beautiful. The story is told through a series of free verse poems. This structure lends a kind of buoyancy* to the tale so that while the subject matter is not always light the writing will keep you supported.

Two, Woodson masterfully says so much with so little (a clear advantage to poetry). She packs quite the emotional punch by describing the impact of events more than the events themselves. With just the right details, she shows how tragedy can alter a person. With just the right imagery, she makes you feel the difference between the sudden and the inevitable; she tightens the tension between the inevitable and the equitable.

Three, it adeptly captures the perspective of a child. This is non-fiction but there is little commentary on the events. The window through which we see Woodson’s world is that of a child standing on tiptoe to reach the sill and not of an adult stooping to look down.

Finally, the cultural context of the segregation cannot be overlooked. From the beginning there’s a theme of “emancipated but not free” when speaking of her family and her heritage. “So there’s a war going on in South Carolina,” Woodson writes, “and even as we play and plant and preach and sleep, we are a part of it.” She explores the different types of protests without making judgments on what is better or more effective. She keeps observing and listening and telling stories until she finds her own way to make a difference. This book is a textbook on resilience, not just in herself but in her community. And this book is vital for spreading the empathy and compassion we desperately need right now.

At the end of the day: Absolutely for me

*This word felt right although I couldn’t explain why. I looked it up on Merriem-Webster to make sure I wasn’t forcing a metaphor that wasn’t there and found this definition: “buoyancy: the ability of someone or something to continue to be happy, strong, etc., through difficult times.” That definition could be the entire review.

01) Hamilton: The Revolution

By: Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

Date Finished: 01.04.17

by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

This is a book for the fans. If you haven’t listened to the soundtrack yet, please don’t cheat yourself. Read less. Listen more.*

I wasn’t sure if the content was more about the show or the man — frankly, I would have devoured either way — but I was pleased to find that it’s almost exclusively a history of the musical and its creators. There plenty of biographies that cover the life of Alexander (one by Ron Chernow comes to mind…) and this book is for the fans.

There are two authors. Jeremey McCarter wrote the prose sections, the three or four pages that discuss the process from inception to Broadway, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, of course, wrote the lyrics (which are published in full). Fortunately for us, Miranda also provided commentary in the margins of every song. As for McCarter, his pace is perfect; the emotional journey of the show’s creation matches the emotional journey of the show almost beat for beat. Each chapter also focuses on a specific person (director, choreographer, actor, etc.) involved in creating the show. These vignettes are masterfully curated with each subject resting in their featured chapter like Goldilocks lying in Baby Bear’s bed. The resulting mix is flawless — an objective narrative from someone who was peripherally involved and a delightful stream of consciousness from the maestro himself.

I wonder (and I’d be interested to hear) what the book is like for someone who’s not a theatre professional. It’s easy for me to envision the room where it happened** because I spend most of my time in such rooms. (At one point, the commentary mentioned a complex calling sequence for the stage manager and I instinctively starting saying, “GO” at the end of every line.) As a theatre artist, this book was both encouraging and inspiring.

For those of you who haven’t gone off the Hamilton deep end yet, let me assure you that the show lives up to the hype. I beg you to listen; however, I encourage to do so in your time. Set aside an evening so that you can hear it in one sitting; it’s much more emotionally damaging, er, moving that way. The book will be here for you when you’re ready.

At the end of the day: For me

*I couldn’t resist poorly adjusting this quote for my own purposes. It is, of course, very unfair of me to use a show quote when addressing the people who don’t know the show but it’s staying.

**Another show quote. This one’s far more legitimate.

14) Quiet Influence: The Introvert’s Guide to Making a Difference

By: Jennifer Kahnweiler

Date Finished: 10.07.13

by Jennifer Kahnweiler

Now for a change of pace… This is not my typical read by any means, but it was the selection for my very first Book Club experience.  I couldn’t get my hands on a copy until the last minute, so it was a mad dash to finish reading this among the other things I needed to accomplish.  As such, maybe I didn’t absorb it as well as I could have.  But on the plus side, I was able to race through the book without difficulty.

Written by a self-proclaimed extrovert with a fascination of introverts, the tone struck just the right chord.  Kahnweiler writes with admiration rather than superiority or defensiveness.  In many ways, she’s a cheerleader for introverts and she clearly did her research.

Premise: Introverts have a unique ability to influence change in the workplace by using their natural inclinations to develop relationships that lead to long-term success.

Good things:

1) The foundation of this book is Stop Trying to Be an Extrovert.  Play to your strengths.

2) She broke the book into six main sections, detailing strengths that introverts possess and how to make use of them.  Pretty standard — but I really appreciated that each chapter ended with a section dedicated to the overuse of each strength.  The emphasis is on balance and intuitively judging the most appropriate course of action for each circumstance.

3) Kahnweiler used real world examples from a wide range of individuals and a wide range of professions.  Certainly much of the book discussed traditional businesses, but the creative fields had a strong representation.  She also used a few examples of community outreach initiatives and thus completely self-initiated.  I gleaned so much more from the variety of disciplines represented than if it had been saturated with office-based principles.

4) As mentioned, it was easy to read.  Kahnweiler writes with authority and intelligence, but avoids jargon and keeps it from getting dry.

Now, she did get formulaic with the excessive repetition of her talking points.  It was nice to have a consistent structure, but there were so many unnecessary sentences which simply listed the section headings.  Also, if I’m spending a chapter with each of the six strengths, I don’t need to have all of them listed three times per chapter.

The sad thing?  This wasn’t actually the book that was chosen for Book Club .

At the end of the day: Not my genre, but well done

16) Neptune Noir: Unauthorized Investigations into Veronica Mars

Edited By: Rob Thomas

Date Finished: 12.04.12

Edited By Rob Thomas

“Annoy, tiny blonde one, annoy like the wind.”
(Veronica Mars, S.1Ep.10, “An Echoll’s Family Christmas”)

And, yes, I realize this leaps far over the line of nerdiness again, but I couldn’t resist.  Neptune Noir is a collection of essays about the show Veronica Mars edited by the show’s creator, Rob Thomas.  I only recently discovered the show and was am completely hooked.  This is quality television, only most people I talk to have seen pieces of it and that was years ago.   Now, I’m the type of person who likes to discuss what I read/watch and I thought this book might give me the conversation I craved.  Also, I was intrigued by the concept of a pop culture essayist because it seemed paradoxical, and still does a bit.

The essays were hit or miss — which is to be expected, of course — but there were more misses than I had hoped.  A few were incredibly thoughtful and I was glad for the perspective, but several fell flat.  What made the book worthwhile were the introductions by Rob Thomas.  He wrote an intro for the book as a whole and then a couple paragraphs before each essay which were wonderfully revealing.  How I would love if he had written the entire book!

A glaring oddity is that Neptune Noir came out between Season 2 and Season 3, which was a somewhat surreal experience.  For one thing, it saddened me to hear the eassayists predict a long life for the show when it only survived one more season.  Also, some pretty big character changes happened in Season 3 which were (generally) for the good of the show, but several essays would have been a great deal more complicated to write had they needed to factor in the third season.  It worked for what the writers knew at that time, but I felt a bit omniscient reading it from the future.

Needless to say, this is not a book to read unless you’ve seen the show.  And honestly, even if you love the show, this is a book to check out from the library and read just the Rob Thomas parts.

At the end of the day: Not for me

8) How To Win Friends and Influence People

By: Dale Carnegie

Date Finished: 03.26.12

By Dale Carnegie

“The principles taught in this book will work only when they come from the heart.  I am not advocating a bag of tricks.  I am talking about a new way of life.”

This book is definitely outside my reading comfort zone, or really my interest zone.  However, my boss suggested that I read it and I’ve always found the title intriguing, so why not?  Actually, I wasn’t won over until I learned the book had originally been published in 1937 (although I’m not so sure about the copy I read — Stevie Wonder was used as an example when his heyday came after Carnegie passed away.  Perhaps Carnegie was a time traveler or seer, in which case this book is not so different from the ones I usually read).  I don’t put much stock in the run of the mill self-help book, but this one’s pushing a century and still widely acknowledged.  Seems like it has earned some attention.

The book reads very easily, without confusing or dry scientific jargon.  Some of the references required me to extract memories from my U.S. History classes, but Carnegie does an excellent job of giving context where needed, despite being very close to some of the events.  Perspective, that’s what this man has in spades.  Carnegie uses a variety of examples expertly, providing the right amount of backstory and highlighting the appropriate passages to support his ideas; any English prof would be proud.  Most of the principles are presented as stories — a smart arrangement of historical accounts, testimonies from everyday businessmen, and Carnegie’s personal experiences.  The stories keep the book from becoming preachy and illustrate the points more clearly, much to the reader’s benefit.

In a nutshell, the premise of the book is slow down and treat people with the utmost respect.  It gives suggestions on how to cultivate a positive and productive attitude.  By exuding appreciation and showing a genuine curiosity in the other person’s interests, your interactions at work and at home will become smoother.  This book does not advocate passivity or blind acceptance in any way, but it maintains that you can accomplish more when you eliminate antagonism.

Certainly the right man wrote this book.  Carnegie approaches the subject with a childlike enthusiasm, as though he is still surprised that the principles work.  In many ways, it feels as though he is writing to himself and no one else.  This particular kind of humility makes his ideas easy to accept, which coincidentally is one of the themes of the book.  Hmmm…

At the end of the day:  I can dig it

6) The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter

By: Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook

Date Finished: 03.02.12

By Russell T. Davies & Benjamin Cook

(Yes, I do realize this is the only way to make a book blog even nerdier.)

This book is extraordinary.  It is a book about Doctor Who that does not analyze Doctor Who.  It is a book about writing that does not analyze writing.  In fact, it is not a traditional book, rather an extended conversation via email.

On February 18, 2007 Benjamin Cook of Doctor Who Magazine emailed Russell T. Davies, head writer of Doctor Who with an idea:  “How about a magazine article on the writing of one or more of your Doctor Who scripts?  The nuts and bolts of the process, from start to finish.”  Later that day, Davies replied, “Well, that’s a yes, then.  You had me at hello.”  Thus began a two-and-a-half year correspondence.

(A little background…  this email exchange occured as Davies was starting work on Series 4.  It quickly surpassed the length of a magazine article, leading Davies and Cook to publish “The Great Correspondence” as a book instead.  The original Writer’s Tale covered only Series 4, but during that year, Davies formally decided to leave the show and chose a successor (Steven Moffat).  In fact, most members of the creative team passed on their roles to new people.  To give the new team a chance to nail down their vision for the future, the show took a year off between Series 4 and 5.  Davies and the old team stayed to provide a few specials to fill the space and lead up to the regeneration into a new actor for the Doctor.  As such, Davies and Cook extended their discussions until Davies physically left the show.  The book I read (The Final Chapter) includes the original book and a second book’s worth of emails from that final year.)

There are similar books out there — Scott Westerfeld’s From Bogus to Bubbly is a prime example — but nothing touches on writing as deeply as this.  Westerfeld’s book is wonderful and gives great insight into the writing process, but it’s told in retrospect.  It’s a tidied up version — smartly arranged and with the luxury of distance.  The Writer’s Tale was written in real time.  It shows writing in the midst of deadlines, shooting schedules, actor availability, and shipping containers falling on set pieces.  It shows writing in the midst of weddings, funerals, chicken pox, and hospitalizations.  Nothing else comes close.  And nothing else can come close.  If a writer were to publish their journal, it might be interesting, but flat, compared to this.  The richness of this book lies in the banter, the smart feedback, and the utmost honesty.  Cook constantly poses difficult, but insightful questions and Davies answers without hesitation.  Both men are truly remarkable.

Of course, if you’ve never watched the show, this book is one big spoiler.  As a (huge) fan of the show, I found the book almost more suspenseful than a traditional story because I knew the ending.  But how does he get to that moment I so love??  Plus, it’s downright hilarious.  Their reactions to the most absurd situations had me literally hooting.  (I don’t “hoot” often, but it’s one of Davies’ favorite terms and the most appropriate description.)  More often than not, the funny bits came along as I was reading in public — why does that always happen?  Embarrassing.  But, oh, so worth it.

If you’ve never watched the show, it’s worth doing so, just for the chance to enjoy this book.

At the end of the day: Really, really for me.