Category: nonfiction

The Uncollected David Rakoff

The Uncollected David RakoffEven though he was a fairly prolific writer and frequent guest of This American Life, I didn’t know of David Rakoff until the publication of his last book, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. It won numerous well-deserved accolades (I loved it), but the book was obviously bittersweet for longtime Rakoff fans; he died of cancer shortly after completing the manuscript.

The Uncollected David Rakoff gives readers such as myself — people who weren’t too familiar with his oeuvre to begin with — a chance to get acquainted with his work. Unlike his other essay collections, all of which center around a theme, this collection draws from various parts of his career: there’s one fiction story, a handful of travel writings, commentary on literature and pop culture, and few interview transcripts. A number of autobiographical pieces are in there, including several writings about cancer; he was diagnosed with cancer at the age of twenty-two, the treatments of which probably caused the more aggressive form of cancer that he died from life twenty-five years later. Rounding out the collection is the full text of Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish.

Continue reading

Quickies: Heartburn & Red Rosa

HeartburnHeartburn by Nora Ephron

Publisher/Year: Random House Audio, 2013
Format: Audiobook
Narrator: Meryl Streep
Length: 5 hours, 30 minutes
Source: Purchase

What it is: Seven months pregnant, cookbook writer and food personality Rachel Samstat discovers that her husband has been having an affair with someone she knows. Meanwhile, her well-heeled friends spend their time planning events and gossiping about The Other Woman; they suspect she’s having an affair, but they can’t figure out with whom. Sprinkled throughout the book are recipes for Rachel’s various comfort foods. Rachel just doesn’t know what to do: she wants to make things work with her husband, but she also wants him to drop dead. The book was originally published in 1983.

Why I listened to it: I was looking for a short, light-hearted audiobook. I’d been meaning to read this for a while now because it seems to be universally loved, and it didn’t hurt that Meryl Streep was the narrator (she also starred in the 1986 film adaptation).

What I thought: I think I might have to come to terms that I love Nora Ephron the screenwriter and director, but not Nora Ephron the author. Heartburn is indeed light and entertaining — I can see why people seem to love it so much, and there were moments that genuinely made me laugh — but it felt very one-note/stand-up comedy routine.

Red RosaRed Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg by Kate Evans

Publisher/Year: Verso, 2015
Format: eBook
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher

What it is: A graphic novel about Rosa Luxemburg, who was born into a poor Jewish family in Poland. She was tiny (probably from malnourishment) and sickly (she would walk with a limp for her whole life), but by the age of fifteen, she was rabble rousing on behalf of the working class. She fought to be sent away to receive an education and grappled with Communism in a way that would make it accessible to the people. By her twenties, in a time when women still lacked any authority in important matters, Luxemburg had earned a PhD and made a name for herself in Germany as an important theorist, organizer, and writer whose ideas are still relevant to this day.

Why I read it: I love books on women’s history, and I loved that this one was presented as a graphic biography.

What I thought: First off, I commend Kate Evans for being able to work so much theory into the text in an accessible way! It was still a little clunky at times, but…have you ever read Marx? Overall, though, Evans did a wonderful job of showing Luxemburg as a person — someone with a fiery determination to make her ideas known, but also someone with a rich and fascinating private life. I’d never heard of Luxemburg before reading this, and I am grateful for the introduction.

You can view some of the artwork from the book after the jump. You can also read an excerpt at The Nation.

Continue reading

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl

Book cover: Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie BrownsteinThe first time I bought tickets to see Sleater-Kinney, I was living in a basement apartment in Yonkers, New York. I was in grad school, completely broke, but I bought tickets for me and my roommate. I can chart a lot of my grad school life in New York according to The Woods; in fact, that album basically provided the soundtrack for most of my thesis-writing marathons (I literally thanked Sleater-Kinney for that in my acknowledgements). Shortly after I bought those tickets, the bomb dropped: Sleater-Kinney was going on indefinite hiatus. The New York show, the last they’d play there for almost a decade, immediately sold out. Suddenly, The Woods tour turned into a farewell tour of sorts; my first time seeing them would also probably be my last.

In the nine years that followed, the women of Sleater-Kinney went on to different projects. Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss went on to do other music projects, while Carrie Brownstein is probably most recognized now for her role in Portlandia. Sleater-Kinney reunited in secret a couple of years ago, released a new album in January, and have spent the better part of this year on tour (I got to see them twice…yay!). Carrie also just released a memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (lyrics from a Sleater-Kinney song called “Modern Girl”). And while I’ll admit that my take on it is partially colored by the fact that I fangirl hard for Carrie, it really is a beautifully written book!

Continue reading

Apples Are from Kazakhstan: The Land That Disappeared

Greetings from Almaty, Kazakhstan! I apologize for the radio silence as of late. I’ve been traveling for almost two weeks now and just got to Almaty following a 36-hour train ride from Urumqi, China. This is the first solid internet connection I’ve had in a while, so it’s been hard to post reviews. So far, the trip as been exhausting but exciting, and although I’ll only be here for about 12 hours, I can tell you Almaty is gorgeous. I arrived at sunrise and the first things I saw were the snow-covered mountains looming over the city.

Apples are from Kazakhstan by Christopher RobbinsDuring a conversation on a flight, Christopher Robbins learned that his American seatmate was traveling to Kazakhstan to marry a woman he’d met online. The stranger went on and on about this country that few people know much about (other than it being where Borat is from). Robbins was intrigued by this country’s contributions to the world, but the one tidbit that stuck with him was, “apples are from Kazakhstan.” Robbins went on about his business, but after that, Kazakhstan kept calling to him. Finally, he decided to travel there and write a book about the country.

Kazakhstan is a former Soviet territory that is huge: four times the size of Texas. Parts of the country seem inhospitable to life — descriptions of the windy winters on the steppe sound particularly terrifying — yet nomadic Kazakhs lived and worked there for centuries before the Soviet Union moved to wipe them out. Communist Russia also sent a large number of its enemies to brutal gulags in Kazakhstan, and often sent intellectuals into exile there as well; Trotsky was sent into exile there for a period, as was Dostoevsky (partially inspiring Crime and Punishment). Vast areas of land have suffered irreparable environmental damage since then: the Aral Sea is quickly disappearing, and citizens in many areas are still suffering the effects of fallout from nuclear testing. The country has suffered quite a number of dark periods in its history.

Continue reading

Quickies: Unrequited & Choose Your Shot

Unrequited: Women and Romantic ObsessionBook cover: Unrequited by Lisa A. Phillips by Lisa A. Phillips

Publisher/Year: Harper, 2015
Format: ARC
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher

What it is: Part memoir, part investigation, Phillips explores the role of obsessive love in women’s lives. She begins with her own story: many years ago she fell hard for someone, was rejected, and kept pursuing him. She ended up sneaking into his apartment complex early in the morning and was shocked that he remained locked behind his door with a baseball bat, ready to call 911. Phillips examines how she, an educated and confident person, could have done that. She also looks at case studies and interviews other women who have done similar things and closely examines the gender-based double standards: former NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak, for instance, became a comedic punchline in 2007; male stalkers, on the other hand, are universally feared and considered dangerous. Women who go through life pining over an unrequited love are pathetic and desperate, whereas men suffering from unrequited love are at the heart of many pieces of classic literature. Towards the end of the book, Phillips also looks at the positive sides of unrequited love.

Why I read it: It sounded like really interesting subject matter, and I was curious how the subject of stalkers would be handled.

What I thought: There are a lot of complexities to this subject, and Phillips does a great job of exploring the different angles. Some parts dragged a bit, but overall, I appreciated the historical context and the way she teased out the double standards. I also like that she split her own story up, interspersing each stage of her romantic obsession into relevant chapters. It’s really interesting how common unrequited love among women is; most women will experience it at some point in their lives (although not everyone will act on it).

Choose Your Shot: An Interactive Erotic AdventureBook cover: Choose Your Shot by Christine d'Abo by Christine d’Abo

Publisher/Year: Carina Press, 2013
Format: eBook
Pages: 208
Source: Purchase

What it is: This is the fifth and final book in d’Abo’s Long Shots series. I haven’t read the other four books, but they all revolve around a BDSM club called Mavericks, which apparently burned down at some point before Book 5. In this particular book, Mavericks has now reopened for business, and Tegan, one of the regulars, is back for its opening night. Each chapter ends with different options and lets you choose what kind of sexytimes Tegan will have.

Why I read it: To examine the book’s structure and see if “choose your adventure” books worked better in eBook form. (Like, for real. I’ve been toying an idea for a writing project of my own for about a year now.)

What I thought: This is the second “choose your adventure” type book I’ve read. The other one was a romance with hook-ups; this is straight up erotica. In theory it’s a neat idea, but I’ve yet to see it executed in a non-cheesy way. The options just feel too paint-by-numbers. And I know this is erotica and not a romance novel, so it’s more about sex than plot, but when you have so many options, the already weak plot gets stretched way too thin.