Tag Archives: nonfiction

Gulp by Mary Roach

Gulp by Mary Roach (unabridged audiobook read by Emily Woo Zeller; 8.5 hrs on 7 discs): This is a tour of the entire digestive system, end to end, from cat food tasters to fecal transplants. It’s told mostly with a sense of wonder, with the occasional bit of juvenile humor (because come on, really). The breadth of information is vast and most of the anecdotes are fascinating, but all in all I just could not get over the Ick Factor. As interesting or funny as the text was, I found I could not eat during any portion of this book. The mere mention of gastric juices was enough to put me off my breakfast. Still, it remains – as with all of Roach’s books – an unexpectedly enthralling survey of a subject you likely never gave much though to before. I just didn’t come away with the same desire to read more about any of the case studies presented because, you know, ick.

A note on the audio: Zeller’s decision to do character voices for the real people in the book was a little strange, but it didn’t detract from the narration. I just wonder what the actual people thought of her “impressions”.

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre: I adore books about modern myths and this is among the best. Though the title is fairly generic, the science in question here is largely related to health: medicine, disease, and diet, and the media’s role in the spread of misinformation. I was surprised both by the debunking of myths I’d long thought to be true, as well as those myths and charlatans I’d never even heard of. As an American, reading about the British perspective was extra fascinating. Goldacre also has quite an amusing way with words, which helped dilute some of the anger a bit. Exasperation can be exhausting, but when tempered with humor it’s much more enjoyable. Sure, there are some tales, like the AIDS denial in South Africa, that are simply horrifying, but by and large it’s more eye-opening than depressing. Definitely recommended to anyone who’s ever had any interest in those big “such-and-such causes/cures cancer” tales constantly blasted over the airwaves.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Marbles by Ellen Forney

Marbles by Ellen Forney: It’s no secret that loads of famous artists suffered mental health problems, often severe and untreated. But will medication rob one of one’s creativity? What if the mental health issues are key to the art? In this unabashedly frank graphic memoir, Forney relates her adventures with bipolar syndrome, from diagnosis to eventual stability. Her ups and downs, as well as her fear of being “cured”, were very familiar to me, almost uncomfortably so. It made me want to read some of the other books Forney references, from The Unquiet Mind to biographies of various artists. This is a good book both for those suffering bipolar syndrome and for those hoping to understand the disease better from the outside. And, being a graphic work with drawings that somehow manage to be at once both simplistic and incredibly detailed, it’s a very quick read. I devoured it in two short evenings.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman

Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman: In November of 1889, World journalist Nellie Bly set off for a trip around the world with the intent of beating Jules Verne’s fictional record of eighty days. On the same day, The Cosmopolitan journalist Elizabeth Bisland set off in the opposite direction, and the race was on. I find this to be a fascinating period in American history to begin with, but even more compelling were the stark differences between Bisland and Bly, one a genteel Southerner and the other a born urbanite. Their reactions to their foreign surroundings covered the ends of the spectrum of popular opinion. I especially appreciated the sheer thoroughness of the narrative: this book also covered Bly’s exposure of a local asylum by getting herself committed undercover, Joseph Pulitzer’s strange quirks, and the working conditions aboard the steamships of the time, among other things. This is truly nonfiction that reads like fiction, and I simply loved it. Definitely recommended.

A note on this edition: I read an advance reader’s copy, which is an uncorrected proof. Most of the time these books are nearly identical to the final publication, but in this case there were a number of placeholder images and the index was completely blank. I’ll have to pick up a copy when it’s released to see what that map of Ceylon at the beginning of every chapter is really supposed to be.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Found by Davy Rothbart

Found by Davy Rothbart: This book is kind of amazing. Yes, it’s filled with assorted found items (mostly handwritten notes), but what gets me is how it looks like the whole thing was laid out by hand and photocopied, like a higher-quality version of a zine. It’s also not the sort of thing you can just casually flip through. I found myself repeatedly sucked into the stories of these strangers, at times sad and hilarious and maddening – sometimes simultaneously. It’s inspired me to look down from time to time to see what treasures lay at my feet. I also have a couple things I may yet send in.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

P.S. – Merry Christmas! May you find joy today. :)

As Nature Made Him by John Colapinto

As Nature Made Him by John Colapinto: In the late 1960s, the Reimers give birth to identical twin boys. When one is mutilated in a botched circumcision, they follow the advice of psychologist John Money to have the boy surgically castrated and raised as a girl. Money believes that people are sexually neutral at birth, that gender identity is entirely the product of environment, not biology. Identical twin boys give him the perfect opportunity to prove this theory. The “girl” rebels from the start, knowing something is wrong, but still the experiment continues, growing more disturbing over time. The psychologist even has the twins engaging in pretend sex play, nude, while he takes pictures.

This is not a novel. This actually happened. The whole thing is both highly disturbing and undeniably compelling. I was absolutely appalled at much of what went on under the guise of medicine, and at what lengths Money went to in order to confirm his cherished theories. The good news is that much of this led to changes in the field of sexual psychology, but that doesn’t make it less infuriating to read about. Definitely recommended if you’re at all interested in gender identity, but it’s a bit hard to take at times.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Cod by Mark Kurlansky

Cod by Mark Kurlansky (unabridged audiobook read by Richard M. Davidson; 7.75 hours on 7 discs): Apparently cod has a long an illustrious history I had absolutely no idea about. I’m not sure I’ve ever knowingly eaten cod, to be honest, but I guess it used to be a big thing. My favorite parts were the social and linguistic effects of this fish. The history and bizarre political maneuvers were pretty fun to learn about as well. The recipes, however, did nothing for me. Probably of more interest to foodies.

A note on the audio: There are a whole bunch of recipes interspersed in this book, with a big collection of them at the end. Which would be interesting to peruse, I suppose, but it lost something on audio.

Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer

Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer: I think, perhaps, that this book was not quite what I thought it was going to be. What I wanted – and this is no fault of the author’s – was a book debunking specific “weird things”. While I got a decent amount of that in the (fascinating) chapter on Holocaust deniers, by and large it was more about the psychological and emotional reasons people believe things that don’t make any sense. Which is fine, as far as that goes, but it seemed to keep returning to the same few theories each time. I guess you could say he was making his case with additional evidence, but I got a sort of “okay, I got it, move on” feeling about the whole thing. In short, it’s an interesting read but probably something you’d more enjoy reading a chapter here and there rather than straight through.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard P. Feynman

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard P. Feynman (unabridged audiobook read by Raymond Todd; 11.5 hrs on 10 discs): From his early days fixing radios by thinking to safecracking while working on the Manhattan Project to playing bongos in Brazil, Richard Feynman is certainly never short of a good story. I was especially amused by his attempt to enlist in the military. My only real complaint was how short the whole thing was on his main passion, science. Then again, that could be something to recommend it, since you are pretty much guaranteed to understand what’s going on. If you are easily shocked, you might want to skip this one – he’s pretty frank about his feelings about pretty girls, for example – but all in all I was quite entertained by his antics.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale: In 1860, a child was murdered in a grisly fashion and the case more or less inspired all of detective fiction. Mr. Whicher was the detective on the case, whose unorthodox and – by Victorian standards – extremely intrusive investigative style ruffled many feathers and caused a nationwide sensation. The details and public reactions were fascinating, as were the quotes from various detective novels of the day, most of which were clearly based on Mr. Whicher and this case. Not something I normally would have picked up, not being a mystery or true crime buff, but this was truly interesting. Recommended.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

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