Category Archives: Non fiction

** The Evangelicals by Frances Fitzgerald

I’m not sure many readers of The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America have managed to read all 650 pages of it carefully. I certainly did not, and I found the detailed stories of the various political machinations and scandals very tedious.

That said, I found it most interesting to see the how some of the themes of the early start of the movement, during the Great Awakening, sound quite modern. The author also does a great job of showing how the thirst for political influence shapes the values that are put forth — abortion restrictions rather than anti-poverty campaigns, for instance. We are quite far from religious values and

 

 

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** Baking Powder Wars by Linda Civitello

That innocuous can of baking powder in your kitchen cabinet comes from a long line of chemists (understandably) and also schemers and corporate villains who made consumers believe their competitors sold poison and in the process changed the way home cooks baked. Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight that Revolutionized Cooking tells all about it, in often excruciating detail.

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** Into the Gray Zone by Adrian Owen

The author of Into the Gray Zone: A Neuroscientist Explores the Border Between Life and Death tells medical stories of how his team found that some people in vegetative state actually had some brain function, and some subsequently regained some consciousness. The science if fascinating, if a work in progress. The concern, if course, is that although some patients, can indeed “wake up”, it’s completely unclear whether they will regain full consciousness or continue to exist in an in-between state. It seems, for now, that the few complete successes recalled in the book are more flukes than models.

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*** White Working Class by Joan C. Williams

The author of White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America has a mission: to educate the “elite” her word, which she defines as semi-rich people (the top 20%) with a college degree, about the working class, which she defines as non-poor (above the bottom 30%) without a college degree.   (I’m still a little confused about how she classifies rich people without a degree, or middle-class folks with one.)

 

The book reminded me of Strangers in Their Own Land, but, unlike it and for the better, it starts from the perspective of working class people rather than trying to force ideas upon them and marvel at how they can vote, it seems, against their economic interests. Perhaps if the elite spent more time interacting with the working class it would understand better why working class women don’t care much about the glass ceiling or why it looks going to college as a gamble.

The author gives precious few suggestions on how to bridge the divide, beyond telling the elite to stop despising the working class (and a few well-chosen examples of how the Democratic Party could position issues better). So that was a little disappointing, but overall I recommend this short, well-organized book.

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** Deep Work by Cal Newport

There’s much to admire in the central idea of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, namely that to reproductive we need, at least sometimes, go into a mental cave and focus intensely. But why did the book grate on me so much? The random equations (e.g. high-quality work produced = time spent * intensity of focus) — so hokey, so unworthy of a computer scientist! The almost-exclusive focus on academic work, either ignoring or denigrating the “shallow” work of those in other professions. The arrogance of academics who refuses easy contact by the hoi polloi and instead rely on their assistants to open their (snail) mail. Really? And who has the luxury of an assistant these days? That said, most of my irritation came from the first part of the book. The second, where the author gives practical suggestions to organize for deep work, is surprisingly practical and accommodating of the majority of jobs that simply require a good measure of fast-paced interactions .

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* The Emoji Code by Vyvyan Evans

Concluding a week of messy books, let me introduce The Emoji Code: The Linguistics Behind Smiley Faces and Scaredy Cats, whose main and only virtue is that it looks at the Emoji phenomenon in a serious way without pulling its hair about the barbarity of it all.

For the rest, the author seems to have slapped the book in a hurry. There are many repeats and more than one factual error (in French quotes; I know I’m being picky but isn’t this a book about language?). There are also large blocks of text that seem to have been lifted straight out of another book and have only a slight bearing on the topic at hand.   It’s also very strange that some of the examples are segregated to a special section, making flipping back and forth annoying, while others are right in the text.

All that for not much: emojis add to the language rather than spell its doom, and nicely provide the humor and emotion that is so lacking in written communications. Duh.

 

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** Tiny House Basics by Joshua Engberg and Shelley Engberg

Tiny House Basics: Living the Good Life in Small Spaces is badly organized, badly written, and at times reads like a commercial for the author-couple’s company. But it’s also a refreshingly down-to-earth description of what it’s like to build a trendy tiny house, and what it’s like to live in one, complete with such details as how to bring clothes back to the closet loft. If you are curious about life in tight quarters,  this is the place to find out. And enjoy your probably more spacious house. Trendy does not mean practical. (And those two work from home! Oy vey!)

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