Category: nonfiction

The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors without Borders

Book cover: The Photographer by Emmanuel GuibertIn 1986, photographer Didier Lefèvre was hired to join Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) on a mission into Afghanistan, which was in the middle of a war with the Soviet Union. MSF had roots in the country but had been forced to leave because of escalating violence that had resulted in the deaths of some of their aid workers. With the country now at war, the need for medical care was imperative, and MSF intended to go back into the heart of the country to establish a hospital.

Getting to their destination was a very dangerous journey that required the help of the Mujahideen. They left Pakistan in the middle of the night and traveled by foot across the border and higher into the rugged mountain terrain of Afghanistan. It was Lefèvre’s job to photograph the journey entire journey, and unlike the others in the MSF team, he didn’t know anything about the culture or speak the language. The team was led by a woman named Juliette, and it is through Lefèvre’s eyes that we see Juliette negotiate with everyone along the way, from humble nomads to wealthy landowners and Mujahideen fighters; it’s a rare sight, considering she’s a petite white woman dealing with leaders from a male-dominated culture. Lefèvre is equally shocked when he sees their final destination: the war-zone hospital they establish in Afghanistan looks nothing like the Western hospitals he’s accustomed to. It’s a life-changing and physically taxing experience for him, and the treacherous journey back is equally formative.

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Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (with Recipes!)

Book cover: Bon Appetempt by Amelia MorrisGrowing up, Amelia Morris was never a foodie, and it wasn’t until she was in her twenties that she decided to test her cooking skills. Despite never having made a cake from scratch — or having much of any kitchen experience whatsoever — she was dazzled by a beautiful chocolate-peppermint cake in Bon Appétit magazine and decided to try the recipe for a Christmas brunch that she was hosting.

Instead of creating a magazine cover-worthy cake to dazzle her friends with, the end result was a confection that had to be scooped out of a serving bowl, “unequivocal proof that if you work hard and follow the rules to a tee, your cake may still fall over and need to be scraped into a bowl on Christmas Day.” She took lots of pictures, was at peace with her epic failure, and ended up creating Bon Appétempt, a blog that’s charted her culinary journey over the past five years.

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Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on Their Decision Not to Have Kids

Book cover: Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed ed. by Meghan DaumA few years ago, before I hit the big 3-0, one of my older students asked if I had kids. I told her no, and she immediately started scolding me, saying that time was running out and that I needed to start trying to get pregnant so that I wouldn’t be too old to enjoy my hypothetical children or run into problems down the line. When I politely told her I didn’t want kids, she doubled down on trying to convince me of the error of my ways.

I am now at that age — my early 30s — when my friends are being told by their OB/GYNs to start wrapping things up in the baby department. Their eggs, apparently, are dying, and they’re reaching the end of their reproductive lives. Or something. (That sounds really extreme for early-to-mid thirtysomethings, no?). If they wait any longer, it could be too late. So my friends are doing it (no pun intended): they’re working on that second or third baby to complete their family.

Me? I’m daydreaming of my next big travel adventure. I’ve been blatantly called selfish for my childfree by choice stance (maybe I like spending entire days on my couch, living off popcorn and beer while reading multiple books). Shallow? Whatever. Self-absorbed? Yeah, sometimes. But what’s it to you?

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On dating, virginity, and life experience: Never Have I Ever & Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin

Book cover: Never Have I Ever by Katie HeaneyKatie Heaney’s Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Date first came on my radar towards the end of 2014; it was a finalist for the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards in the humor category. By the age of 25, Heaney has had a lot of things: college degrees, a social life, general happiness…but no boyfriend. Ever (and not for lack of trying). The book’s subtitle is extremely misleading — she’s gone on plenty of dates, makeout sessions included, and was even in the unfortunate position of having of one potential boyfriend who kept stringing her along without committing — but Heaney has never been serious enough with anyone to consider having sex with them. Hers is a book about social and emotional awkwardness; her friends are always several steps ahead of her. They seem to intuitively know all of the rules.

Book cover: Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin by Nicole HardyAt 35, Nicole Hardy was in a different place entirely. She was raised to be devoutly Mormon, and as a woman who had not yet married, she had also never had sex. Unlike Never Have I Ever, Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin grapples with some of life’s bigger questions, especially those relating to deeply held religious beliefs. Unlike Heaney, Hardy has dated. Quite a bit, in fact. The fact that she had to abstain from sex until marriage was never a question, but she did acknowledge her desires and seek out information. She even dated outside her religion, something that put her partially at odds with her faith (if she wanted to get married in a temple — which she did — she’d have to marry another Mormon). For a long time, especially in her twenties, she thought she could wait. As her twenties became her thirties, her natural sexual desires grew stronger, and she remained unmarried, that religiously-mandated waiting game started to become unbearable.

For all intents and purposes, these are two middle-class white women who both seem to have come from fairly stable middle-class backgrounds. They’re each dealing with different subject matter but are similar in that they’re late bloomers, so to speak, in one area of life that’s important to them.

But oh, what a difference a decade and some actual life experience makes.

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Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights

Book cover: Pro by Katha PollittToday marks the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade; before that, illegal abortions claimed the lives or the fertility of thousands of women around the United States. But though abortion has been safe and legal for decades, the battle over abortion access wages on. In Texas, for instance, there were 41 clinics providing abortion services. After the Texas legislature pushed the abortion omnibus through, we now only have 17, and most of those are only open pending an appeal currently in court; that decision is expected within the coming few months.

In Pro, Katha Pollitt puts her foot down and says enough is enough. All too often, because of pro-choice complacency or weak messaging or whatever, anti-choice narratives have shaped the abortion debate. The debate is all about the hypothetical baby, even though two-thirds of all abortions happen before the eight-week mark of pregnancy (the embryo stage). Women’s voices are only valid if they say they regret abortion — the scientifically refuted Post-Abortion Stress Syndrome (PAS) is often brought up to scare and shame people — while those who are vocal about their abortions bringing them emotional or financial relief are dismissed (they’re in denial but will experience PAS eventually, you know).

In her introduction, Pollitt writes of pro-choice complacency:

For many years, pundits dismissed the notion that abortion would ever be significantly restricted, and mocked as Chicken Littles pro-choicers who warned that both rights and access were at risk, and contraception, too. The conventional wisdom help the Republican Party would not risk waking the sleeping giant that is the middle-of-the-road more-or-less-pro-choice voter. Now we’re seeing the Chicken Littles were right. Where is that giant?…It’s the millions of pro-choice Americans who are so far uninvolved (and still complacent) that will ultimately decide the fate of legal abortion in this country.

It’s past time for the giant to rise.

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