My year of Non Fiction

Canary friends! Remember when I posted about how great it would be to diversify my own reading, dip my toes into some non fiction, try some new stuff out?* The dip turned out to be an all inclusive two-year stay.

But I’m back now. Fantasy and sci-fi, here I come.

2015-2016 Books Read List:

 The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson Under and Alone by William Queen Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn Everything is Obvious by Duncan J. Watts The Immortal Game by David ShenkAll the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister Ghettoside by Jill Leovy Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates How to Fly a Horse by Kevin Ashton Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny LawsonCathedral of the Wild by Boyd Varty Animal Wise by Virginia Morell Being Mortal by Atul Gawande Pandemic by Sonia Shah The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami Rising Strong by Brené BrownThe Big Short by Michael Lewis I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling Bad Feminist by Roxane GayThe Only Pirate at the Party by Lindsey Stirling Originals by Adam M. GrantWaste-Free Kitchen Handbook by Dana Gunders Spinster by Kate BolickDark Money by Jane Mayer Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari Never Broken by JewelSounds Like Me by Sara BareillesEat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery America Again by Stephen Colbert Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss Kitchen Confidential by Anthony BourdainDaring Greatly by Brené Brown Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson Yes Please by Amy Poehler You're Never Weird on the Internet by Felicia Day First Bite by Bee WilsonMy Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem A Brief History of Creation by Bill Mesler Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell Grain Brain by David PerlmutterDays of Rage by Bryan Burrough When to Rob a Bank by Steven D. Levitt Born with Teeth by Kate Mulgrew  Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim Working Stiff by Judy Melinek Kill Chain by Andrew CockburnThe Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee Endurance by Alfred Lansing Surprise by Tania Luna Growing Up Amish by Ira Wagler Girl in the Dark by Anna Lyndsey Moody Bitches by Julie HollandThe Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot We Bought a Zoo by Benjamin Mee The Mormon People by Matthew Bowman Countdown to Zero Day by Kim Zetter Future Crimes by Marc GoodmanIt Was Me All Along by Andie Mitchell Made to Stick by Chip Heath It's What I Do by Lynsey Addario The Powerhouse by Steve Levine Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill LeporeHow Google Works by Eric Schmidt Angry Optimist by Lisa Rogak Now I See You by Nicole C. Kear Talk Like TED by Carmine Gallo Switch by Chip Heath The $100 Startup by Chris GuillebeauBehind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel Drive by Daniel H. Pink Blink by Malcolm Gladwell Born to Run by Christopher McDougall How to Survive a Sharknado and Other Unnatural Disasters by Andrew Shaffer


*This is why I am not allowed to have reasonable sounding goals anymore. These things escalate quite quickly.

Chirp, where has the summer gone?

Summer is for the non-fiction birds.

This canary has gone off the reservation. Over the last few months, I’ve been off the radar, munching my way through the nonfiction selection of my local library. It’s been a bit of an adventure, but, as the summer winds down, I’m finding myself drifting back to my usual reading roosts in fantasy and science fiction.

But here are some of the highlights from my nonfiction adventures:

 Scent of the Missing: Love and Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog   Hallucinations Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the MindDrunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave
The Mind's Eye Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality The Woman Who Fell from the Sky The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge
Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety  Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty  Salt: A World History The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
 The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People  Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything Radiation: What It Is, What You Need to Know The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean

My favorites of the bunch:

  The Possibility Dogs: What a Handful of "Unadoptables" Taught Me About Service, Hope, and Healing Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailArgo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History
 Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus Design Basics Index: A Graphic Designer's Guide to Designing Effective Compositions, Selecting Dynamic Components & Developing Creative Concepts

And onward! Keep an eye out for some advance reviews and book-chatter goodness.

Canaries, what have you been reading?

[ Small Chirp ] Literary Whiplash

The week started so normal: Sunday spent cuddled on the couch watching a football game, yelling at the cat to stop pulling out his fur (“You’ll look silly naked!”), reading The Power of Six and marveling at the sheer badness of the book.

Then I got an email. An emergency request to review a book for the science magazine I regularly freelance for. Sure, I wrote back before even looking at the title. I love to read science things!

So from The Power of Six I went directly into How the Hippies Saved Physics by David Kaiser, a delightful narrative that follows a group of counterculture physics gurus as they investigate the kooky realms of quantum mechanics and parapsychology. And while the physics major in me absolutely adored the sentiment of the book—the exploration of the philosophy of physics—to go from rather crappy YA novel to an intense discussion on the non-locality of quantum particles was a bit of a headspinner.

But it was okay. I was making great progress with Physics when my mom called to ask how I was getting along with the book club novel for the month. Fuck, I thought. Not again.  So I grabbed Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan on my Nook, promising myself that someday I would get a head start on these damn book club selections. I was in for another jarring experience—from YA to Quantum Mechanics to the fluffiest lit fic I’ve ever had the mild disgruntlement to read.  The sentence structure is terrible and the story is very so-so. But at least it has a plot that does not involve aliens or any discussion of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

At this point, I’m suffering from some pretty major Literary Whipslash.  What say you, Canary readers? What’s the most mind-bending genre leap you’ve made in back-to-back readings?

[ Book Review ] Naked Economics, Skeptical Canary

Naked Economics by Charles Wheelan

Four semesters of economics in college convinced me of one unshakable truth: economics is irredeemably boring. So when I saw the tagline to this book included the phrase “dismal science”, I approved.

I approved even more when I read the intro and the author’s promise of no-graphs and no-math. The part of me that convinced me to take those four semesters of econ in the first place reared its head then: “Economics are important. You’re gonna fail at life if you don’t read this book!”

Okay, okay, fine, Inner Voice of Reason and Responsibility, I’ll give it a try. And maybe become a more productive citizen in the process.

I dove in and realized a few things very quickly.

1. Wheelan doesn’t lie. There are no graphs, charts, or number crunching. Even Bill Bryson, who made space and geography fun, hadn’t managed to do that. Plus respect points to Wheelan!

2. It might have been a much dryer read if I hadn’t already had some small amount of economic background. I breezed through the first few chapters, and only started slowing down when it got to talking about the recent economic crisis and Wall Street.

3. It’s fun! The narrator pulls out plenty of amusing anecdotes that had me chortling.

4. The approach and context is US-specific rather than global. If you’re international, mileage may vary!

What about the book in general?

Wheelan, the middle bird.

Ideologically, it takes the middle ground between the kind of rhetoric I listened to last night during the US Republican debate (see upside down canary for more details) and the kind of approach proposed by economists like Jeffrey Sachs (if you like non-fiction, neoliberalism, and NPR, check out The End of Poverty*). Indeed, most of the content in the first half of Naked Economics was standard textbook material, minus the canary-numbing, narcolepsy-inducing dryness. It answered questions such as “what in the world does the US Federal Reserve do?”,  “Why are set prices and rent ceilings a terrible idea that makes everything pricier, not cheaper?” and “Why can’t we just print money–oh wait, we do? How does that work?”

Specific examples, light tone, fits in a very large pocket…It’s like the newest iPad of Economics.

(Well, okay, iPads don’t fit in pockets, have fun Econ examples, or go pastel. But they could, if Apple put its mind to it.)

*Yes, sir! I have my NNN badge, right here!

This Week’s Mine Shaft

Naked Economics by Charles Wheelan

Four semesters of economics in college convinced me of one unshakable truth: economics is irredeemably boring. So when I saw the tagline to this book included the phrase “dismal science”, I approved.

I approved even more when I read the intro and the authors promise of no-graphs and no-math. So I dove in. I’m roughly half-way through, and it’s kept its promise. The narrator is witty and engaging, and I’m surprised to find myself calling it a fun read. Let’s see where that goes.

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

I’d like to say that I picked this book up out of some kind of noble sentiment. Perhaps I picked it up because I heard the NPR program about the book in March (April? May?), or perhaps being a literate lover of history, I couldn’t walk past the chance to get an in-depth look at this ancient Egyptian celebrity. Oh, who am I kidding?

I got the book because when I was 15, in a flash of teen genius, I named my darling cat Cleopatra. It took about a week for sanity to reassert myself and I downgraded the name to “Clea”.

Reading this book shall be a kind of penance. Learn from my misdeeds, canaries. Ye Shall Not Call Your Cat Cleopatra.

Infidel by Kameron Hurley

And lest you think that I have completely converted to the dark side, here’s a bit of the fantastic to my reading list.

I’m finding myself drawn in more and more into the world Hurley has created, despite the main character’s name (Nyx, if you must know. Nyx the ex-assassin.) and the discomfiting realization, courtesy of, that this is apparently the second book of a series, not the first.

Still, I hadn’t noticed from the story itself, and that bodes really good things.

And really, any book with a cover like this one will have to work really hard to put me off.

Now over to theothercanary…

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

theothercanary’s mom on the phone: “Hey, Meggie. Don’t forget we have book club this week.”

theothercanary: “Yep. All done with that book.”

theothercanary’s mom: “Great, see you there!”

theothercanary, after hanging up the phone: Fuck.

Ten pages into “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter,” and I’m already miffed. The sentence structure does not allow for speed reading, and this little canary has a deadline!

What’s on your reading list?

[ Book Review ] In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

In a Sunburned Country by  Bill Bryson; if you think the going is rough, you’ve never been to Australia

Take-home messages:

  1. Australia doesn’t make waves. Except for swimming and drowning.
  2. Australian aborigines are quite remarkable. Except they’re criminally ignored.
  3. Australia has a lovely biosphere. Except it’s been trying to kill people since white settlers stepped on its shores. Quite successfully too.
  4. Australia’s history is full of crazy people who do great things. Except it’s usually by accident.
  5. Australia is full of potential. Except people don’t actually have much of an idea of what’s out there.
  6. Australia reminds Bryson of the 1950’s. Except dryer and bigger.
  7. Australia is quite lovely. Except– well, no, it’s just quite lovely.

Continue reading

[ Book Review ] Bossypants by Tina Fey

Bossypants by Tina Fey: I had to hear it to like it

What do 30-Rock, Saturday Night Live, and 63.4% of my friends have in common? Tina Fey. And, in the case of my friends, the looks they give me–part mild concern, part disbelief–when I reluctantly admit that I don’t watch either show. At least, not beyond a few youtube clips those self-same friends are moved to send my way in pity.

And this is why I can’t stress enough how glad I am that I went for an audiobook version of Tina Fey’s Bossypants (narrated by the author, herself).  Had I picked up the print version of Fey’s collection of articles,  I’d have been reading it flat, and flat wouldn’t have done anything but create an angry, sardonic atmosphere. But with Tina Fey performing her own words, there is nothing vicious in the narrator’s light, chirpy voice–and the liberal in me was content.

But wait, canary. You just called this a collection of articles. It’s a book.

Yes, Bossypants is presented as a memoir, but the book is best approached as a collection of chapters and commentary, only loosely connected by Fey’s themes from her childhood to now. In fact, that’s one of the thing I ended up enjoying immensely. Not only are the stories entertaining, but there are a lot of them. And just when I might have been tempted to let my mind wander, Fey ends a story and hits me with a pithy list–or a series of replies to comments from the internet.

TheOtherCanary informs me that this is what modern nonfiction memiors look like. Weird.  Continue reading

[ Book Review ] Short Review of a Short History

The Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson 

Read by Richard Matthews

Take-home messages:

  1. Hell hath no fury as two scientists bickering.
  2. Science consists of scientists bickering, feuding, and/or driving each other into obscurity or suicide.
  3. In the large scheme of things, the existence of humanity is a monumental accident and a rather fleeting millisecond.
  4. People are really rather terrible.
  5. People are really rather terrible for the planet.

Continue reading