Posts Tagged 'nonfiction'

2015: A Bookish Year in Review

Yes, ideally a reflection on the year’s reading gone by is done before the year is over, but better late than never, right?

In 2015, I read 86 books in total, which is an all-time record for me, and blew past my annual goal of 65 books! I’m not really sure what to credit for this huge leap in numbers, other than 1) I received a Kindle, which makes it easier for me to immediately begin a new book after finishing an old one, 2) I have a long subway commute to work, and 3) a loss in my family resulted in me reading near-constantly for a week or so in order to cope with some of the stuff I was thinking and feeling. Reasons both good and bad, then.

The average length of the books I read in 2015 was 341 pages, with the shortest read being Rolling in the Deep by Mira Grant, and the longest being The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. My average star rating was a 3.3, or pretty average. (Still wishing there were half-star options on Goodreads, argh!)

There are a ton more interesting stats on my Goodreads Year in Review page. I encourage you to check it out!

What I think is a bit more telling of me and my reading style, though, are the 2015 books that I gave 5 stars to, 6 out of 7 of which were written by women. Mini-reviews of each can be found after the jump!

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Book Review: The Tastemakers, by David Sax

Kale. Cupcakes. Bacon-wrapped everything.

What do all of these foods have in common? Besides being delicious, that is.


They’re all trendy. Who could possibly forget the internet’s obsession with bacon? Or the prevalence of fondue in homes in the 1970s? Or even the spread of the chia seed as the next superfood?

Spurred by the cupcake craze of the early 2000s, journalist David Sax takes on the mission of deciphering the popularity of different food items in The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed up With Fondue. He doesn’t stop there, though. Sax takes us on a journey through the kitchens of top-notch chefs who have a renewed interest in the artisanal, the fields of farmers experimenting with crop cross-breeding, and the board rooms of food corporations spending millions to create the next big thing.

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Book Review: Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, by David Simon

Omar knows what’s up. 

I only started watching HBO’s The Wire about a year ago, but damn if it isn’t as good as everyone says it is. I don’t really know why I waited to watch as long as I did, but I’m almost glad–I feel like I can appreciate its messages and subtitles better now that I’m a bit older and have more life experience. It also means that I can draw out my watching of The Wire to avoid having it end too soon.

Before I had even starting watching, I knew that it (and the show Homicide) was based in part on a nonfiction book by David Simon called Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. What I wasn’t prepared for was for how engaging and eye-opening the book was on its own.

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Book Review: The Savage City, by T.J English

The Savage City: Race, Murder, and a Generation on the Edge was incredible. I couldn’t put it down. (And that only usually happens when I’m reading fiction, to be completely honest.) I was reading it on the subway, on the walk to the subway, in bed at night, and in the morning when I should have been walking the dog or showering. After finishing it, I recommended it to just about everyone I knew; I became that annoying friend at a party who tries to convince you and everyone around you that this is just the BEST. BOOK. EVER. and who refuses to take “no” for an answer. I wish that I had multiple copies of this book, just so I could hand them all out at the same time!

At this point, unfortunately, it has been a few months since I first read The Savage City, and so many of the details are fuzzy. I put off writing this review for so long because, in all honesty, it’s difficult! English covers so much history, both personalized and urban, so deftly and so well, that even attempting to summarizing it feels a bit sacrilegious. A truncated version of the summary, from Goodreads:

 In the early 1960s, uncertainty and menace gripped New York, crystallizing in a poisonous divide between a deeply corrupt, cynical, and racist police force, and an African American community buffeted by economic distress, brutality, and narcotics. On August 28, 1963—the day Martin Luther King Jr. declared “I have a dream” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial—two young white women were murdered in their Manhattan apartment. Dubbed the Career Girls Murders case, the crime sent ripples of fear throughout the city, as police scrambled fruitlessly for months to find the killer. But it also marked the start of a ten-year saga of fear, racial violence, and turmoil in the city—an era that took in events from the Harlem Riots of the mid-1960s to the Panther Twenty-One trials and Knapp Commission police corruption hearings of the early 1970s.

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Book Review: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, by Dee Brown

Surely revolutionary at the time that it was released, and even now, still an incredibly incisive look at how white American politics, backstabbing, greed, and genocide decimated the American Indian population, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West is not a comfortable read. Wounded Knee is relentless in its documentation of the betrayals and battles suffered by the United States’ indigenous populations, from the Comanche to the Blackfeet to the Kiowa.

I often had to put this one down while reading, due to the sheer injustice and treachery suffered by literally every tribe of American Indian, even those who considered themselves allies of Washington and the Great Father (the U.S. President). This is the real history of the West, which was far from the empty plains the U.S government painted it as; Native Americans had rich, vibrant, established societies that were displaced and destroyed by Manifest Destiny and westward expansion of industrial and agricultural interests. Knowing how the story ends–with the systematic removal of American Indians to tiny, poorly-served reservations–doesn’t lessen the blow.

Wounded Knee also gives us a deeper look into the lives and motivations of prominent American Indians like Red Cloud, Mangas Coloradas, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull, all of whom consistently tried to serve and protect their people however they could, despite the overwhelming odds facing them. It was especially interesting to see the divisions between American Indian leaders like Red Cloud, who tried dealing with the U.S. through legal channels, and those like Crazy Horse, who chose guerrilla warfare and resistance. The photographs and illustrations of these brave men were a welcome addition to their stories.

While the ending to Wounded Knee feels rather abrupt, it is still probably one of the most complete investigations of American Indian history out there, and the choice on Brown’s part to end it with the Ghost Dance saga was especially haunting. Wounded Knee is a difficult but important read, and anyone who considers themselves a student of the history of the West or Native American history would do well to read it.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was on my to-read list for the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by Roof Beam Reader!

Bookwanderer Rating: Four and a half out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.”
Other Reviews:  At Home with Books, A Variety of Words,

Book Review: Imperial Dreams, by Tim Gallagher

Imperial Dreams: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker Through the Wild Sierra Madre, by Tim Gallagher, is an account of the author’s travels through the Sierra Madre mountain range in Mexico in search of the imperial woodpecker. Presumed extinct since the 1950s, the imperial woodpecker–the largest of its species in the world!–is a close cousin of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which Gallagher claimed to have encountered with a birding team in Arkansas. This book represents one of his many in-depth searches for a rare, possibly extinct bird.

Imperial Dreams jacket

I’m a birder (though not on Gallagher’s level), and in addition to having birded in some cool places, I’ve also been lucky enough to have traveled throughout Mexico as a result of my father’s family still living there. So really, this book seemed as though it was tailor-written for me!

However.

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Book Review: Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

In Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc follows the lives of a Dominican-American family living and growing up in the Bronx in the 1980s and 1990s. Jessica, her brother Cesar, and Cesar’s girlfriend Coco face poverty, drugs, children, abuse, and incarceration over the course of a decade or so, and all of it is faithfully reported by LeBlanc. Much like Always Running (review here), Random Family is a sometimes- unpleasant read, but an important one. For many Americans, the effects of extreme, generational poverty are invisible. LeBlanc forces you to look–to care.

First, I very much appreciated that LeBlanc kept herself out of the narrative. I think the tendency to insert oneself into stories like this can be tempting, especially when you are following the same individuals for years, becoming enmeshed in their lives. LeBlanc wisely realized that this book was not about her, but rather, about the lives of Jessica, Coco, and their families. Readers will already recognize that LeBlanc is an outsider to this neighborhood and this culture, and any attempts to include herself more firmly in the narrative would have only highlighted the contrast even more.

The world of Random Family is fascinating–morbidly so. The Bronx of the ’80s and ’90s depicted in this book is, in many respects, an unforgiving place. Gang violence is prevalent, as is gun ownership. Drug use and dealing is merely a way of survival. The cycle of poverty appears unending. Parents are either absent, addicts, abusive, or incarcerated. Everyone suffers. It will weigh very, very heavily on your mind, and you will cheer every time Coco, Jessica, or Cesar make the slightest bit of headway against such overwhelming odds. LeBlanc does a commendable job in making the environment painfully real, even to readers who have never been to the Bronx.

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