Category Archives: Non fiction

** A Game of Birds and Wolves by Simon Parkin

A Game of Birds and Wolves: The Ingenious Young Women Whose Secret Board Game Helped Win World War II tells an exciting story of well-timed war games that allowed the British navy to create new, successful strategies to overcome the dreaded German U-boats and allow supplies to flow into the UK. Unfortunately, the war games are buried into all kinds of other details and extraneous stories (and longish discussions of naval warfare, whichI found unbearably tedious).

 

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*** The Address Book by Deirdre Mask

Those of us with physical addresses never think twice about it: of course, the mail carrier or the UPS driver will find us, of course, anyone visiting can just plug in the address into Google Maps, of course the property we live on is recorded in some official record. But  The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power reminds us that most of the world does not enjoy such luxuries (and it’s not just in the developing world, some rural folks in the US have no street addresses). It also shows how government developed addresses mostly to track its citizens, and tax them, and how naming streets is an essentially political act.

The book is full of interesting insights about the power of something as apparently simple as a street address.

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** Notes From Public Typewriter by Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti

One of the authors of Notes from a Public Typewriter placed an old typewriter in his bookstore and carefully gathered and chose a selection of the notes to share. There are funny notes and sad notes, deep notes and silly notes. It makes for a delightful and kind overall effect.

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** Becoming Wild by Carl Safina

I’m not sure why anyone would deny that animals have cultures, and I’m not sure why the author chose such an over-the-top subtitle, but I enjoyed Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace. At least when the author shows us how sperm whales, macaws, and chimps raise their young in differentiated communities that both carry the customs of the past but also adapt to new or disappearing threats. The rants about preserving the environment seem a bit superfluous: if we understand the value of non-human societies, surely we will want to find solutions that work for everyone?

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** This Is All I Got by Lauren Sandler

This Is All I Got: A New Mother’s Search for Home follows a new, bright mother with a difficult family history from a private shelter in New York City through her quest for housing for her and her son. She encounters opaque rule at the private shelter where she starts, which evicts her but does not fill her room for months, a horrible welfare bureaucracy, which bounces her from office to office without offering justification or progress, a famously tight housing market, especially at the low end, and, sometimes, her own questionable decisions, as when she decides to spend an unexpected award on a trip overseas.

To everyone who thinks that free housing is available for the asking, this may be a good book to read. Note that the author seems to equate the building of luxury housing with the lack of affordable housing. It’s not quite as simple, as we saw in Golden Gates. Different city, same problems.

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** The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Written by an undocumented writer about fellow undocumented workers, The Undocumented Americans exposes the lives of workers without a legal status and how easily they are exploited by their bosses and left without resources when they are ill or old. Immigration reform is badly needed!

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** The Body by Bill Bryson

Despite its charming subtitle, The Body: A Guide for Occupants reads more like a recitation of facts, some rather pedestrian ones and some more entertaining, including many short biographies of scientists who figured out various malfunctions (there are many! It’s a miracle we do as well as we do considering what we have to work with).

Rather than feeling the miracle as critics announce, I got just a little bored with all the facts.

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*** Golden Gates by Conor Dougherty

Decisions on whether to build new housing are typically made by people who already live in the city or suburb where the housing is planned. Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America shows how this method results in too little housing being built, massive rent increases, gentrification, and ultimately homelessness for the people at the bottom of the income ladder. The focus of the book is the San Francisco area, where the effects have been brutal as the economy has created many new jobs but very little new housing.

I highly recommend this book to better understand the real consequences of not-in-my-backyard thinking, and change your view of gentrification forever.

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*** This is Big by Marisa Meltzer

In the style of Julie and Julia, the author of This Is Big: How the Founder of Weight Watchers Changed the World — and Me explores Weight Watchers as she researches the life of its founder, the irrepressible Jean Nidetch, who transformed herself from a Queens housewife to the founder of perhaps the most successful weight-loss business in the world. The biography is fascinating, including the many anecdotes that remind us how hard it was for women to work and be taken seriously in the 60s. The personal history is less fascinating, but stays within reasonable bounds.

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** The Longing for Less by Kyle Chayka

The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism explores minimalist thought and art in the US (mostly), showing how minimalism can equate to upscale and luxury more than moonlike simplicity.I would have liked to see more illustrations of minimalist architecture and art to better understand the discourse

It was very interesting to read this book while in quarantine, which in itself is a minimalist state. I wonder how it would figure in a more hectic environment.

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