Category Archives: Non fiction

* Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson

It’s not clear what Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America is trying to accomplish. While the author rightly highlights the many privileges of white people in America, his strident tone will surely repel those who would most need to grasp the damage of their racist views, and discourage those who are working towards a more egalitarian society. The most effective part of the book, for me, were the personal stories of discrimination taken straight from the author’s family, full of law-abiding, educated, successful individuals that regularly encounter naked racism as well as more covert versions. He also clearly explains how black immigrants have a leg up on black Americans. But the vitriol…

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* Always a Bridesmaid (For Hire) by Jen Glantz

 

Always a Bridesmaid (for Hire): Stories on Growing Up, Looking for Love, and Walking Down the Aisle for Complete Strangers start with the humorous description of the author’s realization that she is a very good bridesmaid and she might be able to sell her services. And she does! After a lark of a Craigslist message and a whirlwind of media interviews, she has herself a business. If the book stopped there, it would be hilarious. As the chapters drone on and we hear about the adventures of inebriated groomsmen, missing bridesmaid dresses, and, saddest of all, the brides who pretend that their for-hire bridesmaid is not for hire, it’s decidedly less entertaining.

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* Never Out Of Season by Rob Dunn

You might cleverly deduce from the subtitle of Never Out of Season: How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future that this is a doom-and-gloom book. I did not, and I regret my oversight. The author does a great job showing that relying on just a handful of the most productive crops is a recipe for disaster as pests and diseases can wipe out entire species. But he does so in the most apocalyptic manner, which weakens the argument, I think. For instance, he could just say that United Fruit planned the Guatemalan railroads to be as useful as possible to transport bananas, rather than as useless as possible to the people of Guatemala. The latter may be a consequence of the former, let’s not exaggerate.

In the same vein, it’s clear we need seed banks, and scientists that are not on the payroll of agribusiness companies. But more inspiring stories (about the survival of the Leningrad seed collection during the WWII siege, for instance) and fewer doomsday descriptions would carry the message forward just as effectively.

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*** Cannibalism by Bill Schutt

Written by a biology professor, Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History is divided between the non-human world, where cannibalism is common and marvelously varied, and the human world, where we, as usual, have complicated the practice with all kinds of cultural and religious practices and taboos. I much enjoyed the first half, which leaps deftly from sharks eating their siblings inside their mothers’ oviducts to amphibians that consume the mothers’ oviduct lining using their special spoon-shaped teeth (yikes). It took me a while to appreciate the human stories, but the author investigates the Donner party (and gives us a lovely hand drawing of a beautiful Ponderosa pine supposed to be the tree where George Donner lived his last days), the fearsome original fairy tales in which ogres ate many young children (whitewashed by Disney), gruesome stories of the siege of Leningrad (do not use your imagination), and his memorable adventures eating placenta (does not taste like chicken).

Great book. Try not to read it in public, at least if you are reading a hard copy!

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* Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

I agree with the author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less that the current mania for not just appearing to be very busy, but wearing it as a badge of honor, is silly and destructive.

But the book is written from a bubble (and addressed clearly at the same bubble) so the point of ridicule. Do you want to be like Bill Gates? Like Charles Darwin? Like Winston Churchill? Then schedule deliberate rest, limit work to 4 hours a day, and please take a nap (never mind that the august characters being cited did not all follow this specific prescription). And why are all the role models male (except for Barbara McClintock)? It does seem like an oversight rather than a deliberate choice, but it left me wondering…

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*** Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness is basically a love letter to the octopus, written by a philosopher who also sent hours diving to a magic spot off the coast of Australia where multiple octopuses live, making meticulous observations, and taking magical pictures, some of them included in the book.

It seems that the author was not too sure of how to organize the book, as it starts much like a textbook, navigating the tree of life and relating some in-lab experiments with octopuses (wily guests: they seem to recognize individual experimenters and play mind games and splashing games with them!). Eventually it settles into an extended description of the goings-on at Octopolis (the dive site) and I bet that by the end, you will be as sorry as I was to realize that octopuses have short life spans. If they lived longer, they may take over the under-the-sea world!

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* Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello

Animals Strike Curious Poses is a collection of essays about famous animals (or groups of animals), some more historical, and others with a more philosophical bent. Some of the essays are interesting, even delightful. I got a chuckle from the “Osama the Crocodile” essay, which exposes both the weight of first names and the absurdity of children readers. And who knew that an elephant inspired the merger of the P.T. Barnum and Bailey circuses? But other essays are tedious, obscure, or seemingly pointless.

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