Tag Archives: non-fiction

Read: The other Wes Moore: one name, two fates by Wes Moore

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The other Wes Moore: one name, two fates is a fascinating that is part memoir and part biography about two men from Baltimore growing up at the same time with the same name. As the subtitle suggests, their lives diverge and are polar opposites despite their oddly similar beginnings.

The audiobook is read by the author himself, which makes the story even interesting. It is a great way to enjoy the book since Moore does a wonderful job of reading and has great dynamics and intonation. Listening as an audiobook also adds more emotion to the story since there are many difficult times and passages for both men.

Despite having eerily similar family situations and starting environments, each Wes Moore makes decisions early on that set them on different paths but it isn’t until middle/high school that their lives become set. The author could have ended up like the other Wes Moore if his mom hadn’t made drastic changes and stretched their financial resources to ensure that his life was better than hers. He was sent to military school that in fact straightened him out whereas the other Wes Moore didn’t have the same opportunities and his mom struggled to support their family so like his brother he began dealing drugs to make copious amounts of money and couldn’t quit it for good then ended up in prison after a robbery was interrupted. Clearly environment as well as nurture played important roles in shaping both of their lives, for better and worse.

This is another timely book even though it is several years old. In a way, it reminds me somewhat of Between the world and me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and is a good pair to it.

Recommended?: Yes, for anyone who enjoys a memoir and is interested in reading about two very different lives of black men from Baltimore. It is a serious book but there is a lot to learn from it and certainly worth a read.

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Read: March: book one by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

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Continuing the trend of graphic novels, I recently finished reading Congressman John Lewis‘ March: book one. Lewis played a large role in the civil rights movement and marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This book is part of a trilogy and the final one was published earlier this summer.

March: book one takes place on inauguration day on January 20th, 2009, as Lewis ready himself in his office for President Obama’s swearing in. However, it’s only the backdrop of this first book, as most of the action takes places during Lewis’ childhood and the start of the civil rights movement. The story ends in April 1960 and in the present, Lewis just leaves his office to head outside for the ceremony.

Similar to Maus and Persepolis, March uses the form of the graphic novel as a conduit for the serious and often violent history of the civil rights movement. It’s a great medium for showcasing important scenes in a visual form, with concise story and dialogue to explain. This makes for an accessible, inviting read for what could be an otherwise dense and detailed non-fiction book. Perhaps this way it will attract more readers and hopefully younger ones who likely don’t know about the history or don’t know much of it. 

With a trilogy, the story is allowed more time to develop. For this first book, while it spans many years of Lewis’ personal history as well as the beginning of the civil rights, not much happens. This book feels like it’s just getting started as it wraps up. The end feels too abrupt but then again, the subtitle conveys that there will be future books. As a stand alone, it feels incomplete although they seem to have done a good job with it. 

Recommended?: Yes but I have a feeling that all three books will need to be read together. This book covers Lewis youth and the Woolworth lunch counters demonstrations along wth Rosa Parks. It’s really the tip of the iceberg but the story and sketches are so well done. I can’t wait to read the next two!
March graphic novel cover

Read:  Between the world and me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Everyone has something to say about Between the world and me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. At the time of this post, just Googling the title turned up mostly book reviews and interviews with the author, all from different websites and publications. It seems that the awareness of shootings is at an all-time media high, based on my own perceptions, that paired with several high-profile deaths of young black men shot for little to no reason, Coates’ short book arrived at an opportune time for a world craving answers, or at least a dialogue about why these particular incidents were still prevalent. I heard about the book from an interview with the author on the podcast This American Life and in the episode, Coates’ friend talks with him about their drifting away from each other as Coates’ fame grew.

So, I checked out a copy from the public library and was shocked at its size–the book is a squat and thin, like a small coffee table book. However, despite its lack of size, it packs a punch. The book is actually a candid letter to his son, who is 14 I believe, about the cruelty and unfair assumptions made still today about black men. He is both reluctant and anxious to share his knowledge and direct experiences with his son, not wanting to perpetuate the cycle and hold him back with the ideas of restrictions but yet being driven to ensure that his son understands the depths of the dark side of the world and the American historical contexts as a way to explain the skewed view and violence of black boys and men today. While life today in America is better in many ways, the dark past and habits remain ever below the surface and still arise.

While the topic is difficult to read about, especially since a black father is unveiling the reality of America to his son as to what it is like to live as a black man with everyone watching you all of the time, assessing, and judging you, Coates is a wonderful storyteller which gives the book an easy flow. Do not mistake this for saying that the book is a fun, quick read. It’s neither. But that makes it an even more important and impressive work. It is emotionally charged and taxing to read at times, making it potent and forcing the reader to address the issues Coates warns his son about.

Though it is only 150+ pages, and the book is half-sized remember, I had to put it down frequently because it made me so sad to read. As a woman, I too think about my surroundings and what ifs, so on some levels his stories and incidents that he experienced resonated with me but his fears cut much deeper and consistently with sometimes constant worry, from the sounds of it, whereas mine are occasional and fleeting, situational instead of engrained. For this reason, I had to return the book after a month and could not check it out again, since everyone wanted to read it. So, I waited a few months for my turn with the eBook and made myself finish it before it expired. I am so glad that I did.

Recommended?: Yes. Everyone and I mean everyone, especially all Americans, should read this book. In fact, it should be required reading. The content is adult, as Coates do not shy away from describing the brutal, violent American treatment of black people. Some passages here and there may be too much for high schoolers but if allowed, this could be a great book for discussion, especially with today’s unfortunate current events. All adults not in high school, though, need to spend the brief time reading this book and considering their actions in the world. There are many endearing and heartwarming passages, as this is a letter to his son, and will also warm your heart with his fatherly love for and efforts to protect of his son.

Read: Joseph Anton: a memoir by Salman Rushdie

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In a recent episode of the Dinner Party Download podcast, Salman Rushdie confided that he was tired of being asked about the fatwa and that after publishing the memoir, he doesn’t really get any questions about it now. It’s true, the 650+ pages of  Joseph Anton: a memoir by Salman Rushdie cover the minute details of his life, or lack of one, during the height of the fatwa. After reading it, there is certainly nothing more that I need, or want, to know about that time in his life; if anything, it was TMI (too much information) but then again that was the point.

The book spans from Valentine’s Day, 1989 to year 2001 in which attention shifted from the individual focus on Rushdie to worldwide discussions on terrorism. The Guardian has many articles curated about Rushie and the fatwa, including an article from the day after it was made. For the entire course of those 12 years, Rushdie was under the constant watch and protection of the British government and for much of that time was restricted in his travels, even being banned from certain airlines as they feared the unknown of carrying him.

To start off, even though this is a memoir, Rushdie writes about himself in the third person. Initially this seemed very stuffy and self-grandising, however, to remain hidden he did have to take on a persona and was deemed “Joe” by the officers protecting him so he decided on the name Joseph Anton so that he could set up accounts and still conduct business and pay bills while not raising concern. For the most part, once the reader gets used to this point-of-view, it is easy enough to follow although it gets a little confusing at parties or with other scenes in which “he” could apply to another person; Rushdie constantly uses either first or full names for other people so “he” usually refers to himself (Rushdie). Maybe distancing himself from his hidden persona made it easier for him to write about but part of me just wanted Rushdie to use first person for a more intimate read and experience–although I’m not sure how much more intimate it could have been considering how detailed he is in his nearly day by day accounting of the events. For me, it constantly felt like he was writing about someone else and not himself due to the use of third person which wasn’t as satisfying as if he would have used first.

The tone of the memoir is mainly journalistic and factual but there are times, either about particular topics or people, in which Rushdie’s anger is evident but that probably shouldn’t be too surprising after all that he went through for so long. At times, he was discouraged from speaking out or in defense of himself while others continued to criticize his writing and denounce him. This book was his outlet to set the record straight by telling his complete side of the story, finally.

Despite the long-windedness of some of the passages, or the rattlingly off of famous people whom he wined and dined with when he was allowed during this trying years (many of whom helped protect him and champion him), Rushdie’s writing style shines though here and there throughout the book, especially at the end. I think of him as a descriptive writer who is able to capture an essence in a poignant sentence or paragraph, packaging a gem of knowledge in an often wondrous sentiment. It is more pronounced in his works of fiction, obviously, since this focuses on a different sort of narrative and story. He wanted it to be true to his experience, rooted in reality, and he certainly pulled it off.

I have met Mr. Rushdie twice, once in undergrad and once at a library conference. At ALA, I had him sign my paperback copy of The Satanic Verses with a bookmark two-thirds in. He remarked, “People still are reading this.” In Joseph Anton, he discusses at length how difficult it was to get the paperback published, how it took years, so I appreciate my copy much more now knowing its history and struggle that went into printing it.

Recommended?: For those who are fans of Rushdie or anyone curious about his time during the height of the fatwa threat. The last chapter, which covers 2001, becomes more of an essay on the changing of the world at that time and the pivot of the event of 9/11 for everyone. The part that truly impresses me is that Rushdie was able to recover and continue writing his novels even while the threat was still looming. His book Fury was published on September 11, 2001 oddly enough and due to the events that day, came to have more meaning and nostalgia than he had meant for it. I have wanted to read more of Rushdie and I think Fury will be my next of his.  

Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie book cover 

Read: Every love story is a ghost story: a life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max

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I’ll be honest, this book took me a long time to get through. It was a marvelous, meticulous, fascinating read that was also dense and complex. A work to steep oneself in, taking the time to truly understand the literary life along with the personal path of David Foster Wallace (DFW). Or, to put it a different way, reading it any faster would have fried my brain with the overload of details and tangents that entangle the entire book. To offer D.T. Max the highest compliment, Every love story is a ghost story: a life of David Foster Wallace, reads like DFW’s Infinite jest, with beautiful, jam-packed sentences, ever-moving story and scenes, and the requisite multitude of jarring and subdued endnotes that keep the reader flipping back and forth to break up the reading experience. Nicely done, Max, nicely done! This biography masqueraded as fiction most of the time, as it was so well-crafted and focused on telling a rich tale, which I loved because I am not typically a fan of non-fiction.

This sense of familiarity between Max with DFW creates a closeness for readers, taking us on the life and literary journey as it is told. The literary portion entwines with the biographical details to show that both inform each other for DFW, which feels genuine and likely the truth for DFW. We sit with him in his apartment, walls covered in written passages of his current writing endeavor along with his correspondence with author friends, as he struggles to work and his dogs run a-muck. We contemplate with him about the influence and inspiration of other writing on his own. Having not read all of DFW’s works that Max discusses, I felt like I missed out on the insight of Max’s literary criticisms for those works. For the portion about DFW writing and publicizing Infinite Jest I felt much more connected to the story, having read that work. Max has an amazing ability to succinctly interpret and offer profound criticism of DFW’s writing in powerful sentences that hint at a depth below the surface comment. This became apparent to me during this portion, so I want to now read other DFW works and re-read corresponding passages in this book to understand them both better.

Max conveys DFW in all of his complexity, which I appreciate because I completely changed the image of DFW in my mind from very little about what I actually knew about him. DFW struggled in many aspects of life, even with his writing, but he forever strived to be better, remain sober, and a genuine person. His personal change and growth during his lifetime is incredible and he shared his lessons with anyone he could, including young writings who were as idealistic and cocky as he had been. Max provides a clear, factual, and balanced perspective on DFW and his life, which is refreshing because it never becomes emotional nor feels distant. It is as if we are living life along with DFW and that is the sign of a true writer, when they fade from the pages and the reader is caught up in the writing and people.

The biography is crafted as if it was written by a close friend or even sibling, and in a few instances as if by DFW himself due to the amount of insight and deep knowledge not only about what DFW’s personal history but also his inner thoughts and feelings. Throughout reading this, I believed that Max and DFW knew each other very well, however, Max admits in the first sentence of his acknowledgments at the end of the book that he never actually met DFW, merely saw him once from afar. That makes this biography all the more profound and stunning, since 5 of the 6 pages of acknowledgements list the names of everyone who knew DFW well and contributed stories, letters, notes, and personal history about then man that they loved and admired, despite the likely pain and sadness that the remembrances caused even a couple of years after his suicide. Max represents DFW’s personal struggles matter-of-factly and builds subtly towards what could be an emotional, dramatic climax but Max resists sensationalism, ending simply and plainly with great respect for DFW and his work.

Recommended?: For those who love DFW, are interested in learning more about him and his life, anyone wanting to read his work but hasn’t yet (as this is a good taste of what he and it is like), and fans of biographies or literary criticism. Okay, let’s through in aspiring, or current, writers since this is a well-written book and DFW offers much advice throughout. If you enjoy and can finish this biography, you are ready for Infinite Jest. Keep in mind, both require two bookmarks (one for endnotes in the back).

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Read: A door in the ocean by David McGlynn

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David McGlynn’s writing draws the reader close and throughout the memoir sustains this intimate camaraderie, which makes it enjoyable yet hard read at times. His memoir revolves around grief, struggle, and perseverance, focusing on the murder of his friend, his time as an Evangelical Christian, and the comfort he finds in water and swimming. Life, as many of us know, is not easy, but for McGlynn, life dealt him a particularly tough hand.

The murder of McGlynn’s best friend and family during high school creates a ripple throughout his life, a consuming loss that shapes his future and choices as he tries to make sense out of something in which it can’t. He takes up his father and stepmother’s religion with fervor, becoming very active and studious within Evangelicalism. Though already a competitive swimmer, swimming becomes a way of life, of interacting with the world. It not only earns him a full-ride scholarship for college but gives him solace during hard times. Obstacles and doubts pave his path, yet McGlynn presses on, having faith that things will get better, even when it is religion itself that he struggles with.

At the end of his memoir, McGlynn takes a teaching job at a college in Wisconsin as an English and creative writing professor. I was in the first class of students Professor McGlynn taught. During that time, I remember hearing bits and pieces about his life but all of the details in his memoir make me feel like I am truly meeting him for the first time. His writing style is captivating as well as heart-breaking, and yet hopeful as he persists and life progresses, getting better while new worries and hardships crop up.

While the story itself is relatable and accessible, I found several similarities between his life and mine, particularly with the mission trip. Finishing the memoir makes me want to visit Wisconsin and go get a beer with him, to catch up and tell our own stories from the past. Next time I’m in the area…

 

Recommended?: Definitely. Besides the wonderful writing and his storytelling ability, McGlynn peppers his work with insights and commentary on life and people, religion and society. After closing the back cover, my own knowledge and view of the world had grown from these nuggets of truth that he learned through his struggles and successes.

A door in the ocean by David McGlynn

Read: How to be alone by Jonathan Franzen

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How to be alone by Jonathan Franzen isn’t as lonely or instructive as the title sounds. Actually, it is a collection of his published essays through 2002. The overarching theme for all the essays is that they were published by Franzen. He covers dementia and Alzheimer’s, the Chicago US Postal Service, privacy, sex books, smoking and the tobacco industry, super max prisons, and several other essays that examine different slices or memories of Franzen’s life–including the Oprah incident over The corrections when he turned down letting her use it for her book club (he remedied that by giving her Freedom for her book club instead). At the end of his explanation of the revision and expansion to the paperback version I own, Franzen explains that the connection of the essays is the collection’s title:

“But the local particulars of content matter less to me than the underlying investigation in all these essays: the problem of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture: the question of how to be alone.”

Collections of essays, or even non-fiction for that matter, aren’t my normal reading diet but I couldn’t pass up a Franzen book, regardless of what it held between its covers. I enjoyed them all. They are dense, extremely well-crafted morsels of his writing. If you haven’t read a Franzen novels, this will give you a taste how he writes.

However, the continuity is odd. There aren’t intros or explanations before any of the essays and for me this meant a mixed bag of topics, like not looking while reaching into a Halloween candy bag filled with loot and not knowing what you’ll pick out (it is October already!). Story and plot line are still my favorite, so this book won’t get me to read essay collections regularly. Yet I will start including them more in my reading lists if they are of particular interest. If they covered one topic or subject then perhaps I’d enjoy a collection more. Reading various essays that Franzen published in greta literary magazines, though, was a treat. This one will hit my re-read list because it seems like a book in which I will learn and enjoy it more each time through since he fits his amazing sentences full of great ideas as well as language and multiple reads would further sort out the denseness.

Recommend it?: For general readers, probably. I wouldn’t call this a quick read but it’s an interesting one, and if you’re willing to take the essay topics as they come then it’s for you. Franzen fans definitely must read this because he pours much of his self into the essays throughout and has several that go into his personal life and why he writes.

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* It’s been a while since the last post–nearly two months! After I sorted my bookshelf and pulled out the ones on this list for 2012 Reads, I’m more motivated than ever to finish this project. I’m at 7 books read so far and will pick up speed here on out!

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace update:

When I began this project, I was on page 80-something in February and now reached 297. A little over two-hundread pages might not sound like a lot but go try reading the book yourself and you’ll see. Will I finish this on by year’s end? Wait and see… I’m on footnote 100-something, since they are crucial to the storyline, backstory, and as clarification.