Tag Archives: Non Fiction

Aziz Ansari – Modern Romance (2015)

modern romanceThis was a big year for Aziz Ansari. In addition to this book, Ansari had two major Netflix hits, his stand up special Live at Madison Square Garden and his series, the critically acclaimed Master of None. While there is some overlap with all of his material, it’s not so much the same that it becomes redundant. Ansari is funny, there is no denying that, but he’s also incredibly perceptive and smart. Part of the reason I think he’s so funny is because his humour is so relatable; he speaks about situations that are totally commonplace for our generation, especially when it comes to dating.

To be completely honest I bought this book not really knowing much about it, expecting another comedian biography similar to Bossypants or Yes Please. I was surprised and then blown away at how much I enjoyed this hilarious and scholarly work. Ansari has teamed up with a social psychologist to conduct studies and then present findings about how technology has affected modern romance, and everything Ansari presents is very real and very true (the hilarity arises from Aziz’s quips and comments throughout the book – I read the whole thing in his voice). He looks at the rise of new dating apps and travels around the world examining the dating culture as it exists in other countries, something I almost wish he spent more time on.

The book is interesting, funny, and incredibly relevant. Ansari’s comedic sensibilities and level headedness has truly established him as one of the voices of this generation.

Frances Hill – A Delusion of Satan (1995)

89522I love reading about the Salem witch trials. Obviously anything to do with witchcraft will seem intriguing and is easily sensationalized, but the trials, because the were so confined to a specific time and place make them so interesting to study. Why Salem? Why 1692? These are questions that have bothered American historians. While many are apt to pass over the witch trials or view them as simply an anomaly in American history, there are a number of scholars who have attempted to give this event a significant amount of attention.

Frances Hill’s book is one of the better accounts that I’ve read. For those unfamiliar with the trials, the historical record is shaky at best, and absolutely impossible to get through at its worst. There are so many families involved, many sharing names and way too many people to keep track of. Factor in the debts owed and the grudges held and wading through the history of the Salem witch trials becomes a giant mess. Hill does a good job however, writing clearly and focusing on the prominent community members so the reader does not get lost.

What was especially interesting was Hill’s ideas about what started the whole paranoia about witches. As most know, the panic started when a number of teenage girls appeared hysterical and claimed to be possessed by other women in the community. Hill blames this on the nature of their existence. Growing up in the Puritan faith would have caused young people a great deal of stress and anxiety. While boys had a physical outlet for these feelings (it was permissible for boys to play outside, fight, etc), girls had no such way of dealing with these emotions. Hill believes the mass hysteria that gripped teenage girls in the community was a result of this. They blamed women who were outcasts in society to begin with and as Hill points out, this episode became one of the first episodes of women-on-women bullying.

It is definitely a feminist perspective on the whole episode in Salem, but seeing as the trials involved a majority of women (only one man was convicted of witchcraft), viewing it through a feminist lense is not off base. Hill does a great job in dealing with this very interesting, but aso muddled subject.

Anthony Bourdain – A Cook’s Tour (2001)

A_Cooks_Tour_bookA Cook’s Tour is Bourdain’s second book, a follow up to his successful Kitchen Confidential, and counterpart to his television show by the same name. In this piece of writing Bourdain tries to maintain his disdain for celebrity chefs and those who he believes to have “sold out,” (he harbours a very specific hatred for Jamie Oliver, which despite liking Jamie Oliver, I totally understand). This holier-than-thou attitude comes off as being a bit disingenuous however, since Bourdain at the time of this book, was a growing celebrity.

Bourdain makes up for this though by establishing a “rogue chef” persona that he has come to be known by today. Bourdain travels everywhere writing extensively about the different cities he’s been to and the local cuisine’s he’s tried. He writes at length about his love for Vietnam and Cambodia and mentions his admiration for both the people and the food. Bourdain has also just reinforced my desire to travel to Spain and Portugal simply to eat. This book is part food writing and part adventure writing. If it doesn’t give you Wanderlust, I’m not sure what will.

Lawrence Wright – Going Clear (2013)

going_clearAfter reading all the hype about the recently released documentary, I decided I wanted to the read the book first. Scientology has been a joke in popular culture for a while now, but the treatment it gets in many shows and cartoons, detracts from some of the seriously troubling aspects of this organized religion.

Wright’s book looks at the history of Scientology from its roots to the present day, focusing in on famous figures like R.L Hubbard and his family. Hollywood director, Paul Haggis, a former Scientologist, serves as a key player in this story. It was in fact Haggis’ experience with Scientology that prompted Wright to write this book. It was interesting, informative and shed light on some of the darker sides of Scientology without being too disparaging.

One of the most interesting things was reading the history of R.L Hubbard, and how the idea of Scientology developed alongside other occult-type groups in the early 40s and 50s. It was unsurprising that Hubbard was a science fiction writer given the fact that Scientology sometimes seems like science fiction itself. Wright also takes a look at some of the rumours surrounding the darker sides of Scientology as well as the reasons why celebrities seem so drawn to it.

I have read a number of articles and books written by Wright and know that he is a pretty respectable journalist. He does an amazing job in this book of looking at Scientology in an honest and open way. In the end, Scientology is still technically a system of belief and there are practitioners out there who follow it, and not all of them are bad people. In a way, Wright points out that Scientology is not all that different from other organized religions that all have dark moments in their history (think of the Catholic Church in recent years, or ever really).

While there are still a lot of problems with the top levels of the Church of Scientology (seriously, look up SeaOrg and GoldBase on wikipedia), it does not mean that everyone who decides to follow the religion is automatically a terrible person. This was a balanced and fair read, and I’m interested to see if this translates to the Documentary

Melba Patillo-Beals – Warriors Dont Cry (1994)

WarriorsDontCryThis book should be required reading for anyone studying the civil rights movement. I know that can be said for a number of titles, and there’s probably a few I haven’t read, but after reading these memoirs, written by one of the Little Rock Nine, I was floored by how much I didn’t know about the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School.

The Civil Right’s movement is so vast and so large that when studying it, the events at Little Rock are mentioned briefly, if at all. I had read about Governor Faubus standing in front of the doors of Central High School and the President ordering federal troops in to protect the 9 Black students, but often times the story ends there. The nine students enter the school, the end.

But of course the story doesn’t end there, the students faced persecution, torment, and physical and emotional abuse at the hands of fellow students; they faced indifference from the Arkansas National Guard, and they faced ostracism from members of their own community. Of course these students faced all these things, and yet I was floored reading Patillo-Beals’ account of her time spent at Little Rock.

These students were some of the most courageous participants in the Civil Rights Movement. Not only did they endure physical harassment, including and incident in which a white student flung acid into Melba’s face nearly blinding her, but they couldn’t do anything about it. While being harassed in the cafeteria by a group of white boys, one of the Black students spilled her soup over them, either accidently or on purpose, resulting in her expulsion. To fight back was to let the segregationists win.

While I thought I was more or less aware of the violence that went along with the Civil Rights Movement, I was still shocked at the physical attacks that these teenagers faced every single day. It really puts things into perspective and provides a look at the Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of a teenage girl.

Hazel Rowley – Franklin and Eleanor (2010)

FranklinandEleanorIt’s pretty well agreed upon that there is a sense of romanticism that settles around FDR, as well as his wife Eleanor. FDR managed to lead a country through wartime while battling debilitating illnesses and Eleanor has been an inspiration to generations of women. It should not be surprising that two such extraordinary individuals had an extraordinary marriage, but it does as a President’s private life is often treated as just that, private.

In her novel, Hazel Rowley provides an intimate look at Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s partnership from the day that they met to the day of his death. She details the number of affairs that both, either formally known or suspected, engaged in and how the pair made their marriage work. Franklin was a notorious flirt and enjoyed the company of young women, while Eleanor also had her fair share of “special companions.”

I for one have always been a great admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a strong silent presence in Franklin’s life and always stood by him. While this may have caused her to have a bit of a martyr’s complex, having to play the role of a put-upon wife, she was always willing and ready to put the needs of others, especially her husband’s before her own. Franklin relied on Eleanor and in turn supported her causes where he could even when certain issues, such as Eleanor’s support for Civil Rights, could hurt Franklin’s popularity.

Even though the couple spent a great deal of time a part, especially during the later half of their marriage while Eleanor was traveling supporting her own causes and Franklin was constantly visiting other world leaders during the Second World War, their letters to one another show a level of tenderness and love. While they may have taken other lovers, it is very clear that Franklin and Eleanor were life partners and needed, and loved each other vey much.

Michael Pollan – Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (2013)

CookedHaving been a huge fan of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I decided to read another book penned by Michael Pollan. While his previous work was more of an investigative piece, this book is more about the history and science surrounding the way we eat. Split into four section, Fire, Water, Air, and Earth, Pollan speaks about how important these four elements are to the way we cook our food.

He begins with fire, writing about the ways in which humans learned to cook with fire and the religious importance that fire held in traditional societies, especially when it came to animal sacrifice. He mentions the cooking hypothesis, the idea that cooking is what makes us different from animals, and talks at great length about the history of BBQ, from the racial tensions imbedded in the idea of “Southern BBQ,” to the ethical treatment of pigs, tying this work to his research in The Omnivore’s Dilemma,

While cooking with fire, especially smoking meat and BBQ with the highly ritualized pitmaster, has a more masculine tone, the second section of this book looks at the types of cooking deemed more feminine, mostly cooking with water. Not only does cooking with water often take more time (braises, stews, and other slow forms of cooking), but it is also more often then not carried out within the confines of a kitchen, as opposed to cooking with fire which takes place outside. The use of pots and pans for cooking is an important step in human evolution, but also brought cooking into the feminine domain.

The last two sections of Air and Earth focuses more on the science of food and how the food we eat embodies both life and death. With Air Pollan talks about making bread and how tricky it is to develop a “starter” in order to bring bread to life. This section also got very scientific dealing with the differences between whole grain and white grain, to how gluten intolerances work. Since I am obsessed with fermentation, I loved the Earth section, especially when Pollan learns to make cheese with the cheese nun. Foods like cheese and yogurt and other things created from bacterial cultures are essentially decaying, and remind us of our own mortality.

I really love the way Pollan writes, and his breakdown of this book into four elemental sections works to his advantage. Each section is accompanied by its own list of resources and recipe, which I will be trying soon. I highly recommend this for anyone interested in the history or science behind the way we cook.

Ed Catmull – Creativity Inc (2014)

CreativityIncWhen I saw that a history of Pixar Animation was being published I was so excited to read it, but my excitement was dampened somewhat what I realized that above all else, this book was attempting to be a guide to leadership along the lines of How to make Friends and Influence People. My fears however were unfounded.

While Catmull is definitely intending to provide managers of businesses with sound advice, he does so by talking about past projects he’s worked on at Pixar, both the failures and the massive successes. The innovations that company has introduced, things like the BrainTrust meetings, (essentially a brainstorming session where everyone involved in the project is included), are spoken about as tools that can be implemented in any workspace, although it is clear that Pixar is still a special company.

Any company that employs so many creative people will have to come up with outside-of-the-box ways to manage them and funnel that creativity into the final projects that we have grown to love and cherish; Toy Story, Monsters Inc, Up, and the most recent iteration, Inside Out. Through all these movies, the story remains key and it is really interesting to read how some movies like Up started with an entirely different plot, then watching all the twists and turns that took place along the way before arriving at what we watch on the big screen.

This isn’t a traditional history of the company or of Disney animation, and it will most likely be found under the “Business” section of bookstores. This shouldn’t deter you though, anyone who has ever cried or fallen in love with any one of Pixar’s movies will find the tale told between these pages to be charming and insightful.

Florence King – Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady

ConfessionsofaFailedSouthernLadyFor some reason reading this felt kind of like reading Are You There God It’s Me Margaret, if that book had been written for adults and if Margaret had turned out to be a lesbian later in life. This was a great read in which Florence King details her life growing up in Washington DC under the tutelage of her Grandmother, determined to make Florence a lady despite failing with her own daughter, Florence’s mother.

While this book is Florence King’s memoir and tells the story of her life from growing up in the 1950s in Washington to her pursuit of higher education before falling in love with professional writing, Florence’s grandmother is by far the best part of this book. Her grandmother’s obsession with feminine weakness, even to the point of competition with other women over whether nervous breakdowns, or “female troubles,” were the true marker of femininity, is the most hilarious part of Florence’s story and becomes a reoccurring theme throughout the whole book.

Even though King writes about her grandmother with a sense of humour, she still maintains a great deal of respect for her and it becomes clear how much of an impact having such a strong willed grandmother, and mother, albeit in a different sense, had on her life. King writes beautifully which makes her memoirs a treat to read and enjoy.

Margaret MacMillan – The War That Ended Peace (2013)

The_War_That_Ended_Peace_EditorCopy_EditWhile her previous book, Paris 1919 dealt with the end of the First World War, her most recent looks at why war broke out in the first place. In her very detailed way, Margaret MacMillan walks the reader through all of the events that led up to the outbreak of war in order to answer one question, Why did the long peace not continue?

Building on the copious literature that already exists on this subject, Margaret MacMillan provides her own take on this question. She takes a rather hard stance, something unusual for historians, stating that the naval race is a key, if not the key factor in explaining the growing hostility between Britain and Germany. This is an interesting approach, and one which, I will admit, I had not given much thought to before.

The most interesting thing I found however was the long list of assassinations that occurred leading up to the First World War, and how while all of these had the potential to start a war, none of them did. This makes the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand both unremarkable and incredibly important at the same time. The panic around these assassinations or “terrorism” that occurred is also eerily familiar and proves that sometimes history does repeat itself.

MacMillan has also learned from Paris 1919, not to focus too much on individuals and personalities. She does still rely on prominent men to explain why some events played out the way they did, but she does not rely on them as heavily as she had done in previous writing.

I liked this book better than Paris 1919, although it is not for the faint of heart. At just over 600 pages, MacMillan has done her best to cover everything she can to explain the outbreak of hostilities. Those passionate about this time period will find her work enjoyable, while those looking for a lighter take on the subject might want to steer clear of this one.