Tag Archives: narrative non-fiction

It Sucked and Then I Cried – Heather Armstrong

How I had a Baby, a Breakdown, and a Much Needed Margarita

I have been reading Dooce.com for a few months now, and for most bloggers – “Dooce” is living the dream. Heather is a full-time blogger that makes enough money to support her family, and has recently written a book. The book doesn’t break any new ground, but is an accounting of the time period of her pregnancy and battle with post-partum depression. For a relatively new reader like me, I knew this existed and had glanced at the archives, so I don’t know if offered anything truly new, but it was a really engaging read.

I am please to report that Heather’s book-writing is a lot like her blog writing, and her voice is clear and personal. Her stories of pregnancy and all the things “no one ever tells you” is heartbreaking and terrifying and served as an excellent reminder to take my birth control medication. But her stories of how much she loves Leta make the whole thing seem worth it. Especially since even if I do have kids, and may eventually have to deal with post-partum depression, I wouldn’t have a regular history of chronic depression to contend with as well.

But, more than just an ode to motherhood – you realize that the true hero, in Heather’s eyes is her husband.  I have read a lot about mental illness, and the one thing I always come away with is how much it affects the people who love the patient. She holds her husband in high regard, and their love story is what remains, in my mind. Also, cute pictures of kids dressed up as frogs.


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Three Cups of Tea – Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

I read this upon the suggestion of my friend Michelle. I had it on my list for awhile, but her glowing review sent me straight to the library.


This was a book that I just couldn’t put down. It was seemingly written more by Relin than by Mortenson, and I had my nitpicks, but the overall message and story was so inspiring and so moving and hopeful, that they were easily overlooked. (Okay, not entirely overlooked. One of my major nitpicks is the almost deification of Mortenson, and it’s written in theory, by him – but it seems as if it was a posthumous biography. I was almost shocked that he is still [fortunately] alive.)

This is essentially the true story of one man’s struggle and determination to build schools for the children of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mortenson himself is amazing, but the story of these people and the conditions and the obstacles is the true star, in my mind.

The book also served to confirm and validate my long-held belief that a lot of the world’s problems and poverty could be alleviated or eradicated by focusing on the education and empowerment of women and children. If you give a woman the chance to free herself from poverty, and an education, they can protect themselves from tyranny. They can become self-supporting and in turn, can show her children that there is another way. If you are raised in poverty and have the bleakest of futures, it’s hard to imagine a better world, and it’s easy to turn to hate.  If you have a future, and a chance, and access to at the very least, clean water, food and medical care, then maybe we can turn future potential terrorists who had to unite against something to people who can create their own paths and futures.

Give a woman a chance to participate in her government and economy, or be able to read and write and you will give her options. My guess is that the options will be to take care of her children, and most likely have less children that she can’t afford, and stay in marriages where she may be abused. We need to stop treating women like second class citizens, and invest more time, money and effort into those that will be raising the next generation.

The “Three Cups of Tea” refers to the idea that the idea that “he first cup of tea, you’re a stranger; the second cup, a friend; and the third cup, you’re family.” It was a nice reminder that relationships have to be built, and once they are, when they are maintained, there is nothing stronger.

The book was so inspiring and hopeful, that as I was reading it, I kept hoping that we had a different outcome. For example, he is in the Middle East when the attacks on 9/11 happen, and reading about the CAI trying to get tribal leaders together and rally against Osama and for educating women, I actually had a glimmer of hope that it was all going to be okay, and we wouldn’t be bombing innocents. Of course, this didn’t happen. But if the CAI and other organizations succeed in educating women and children, I want to believe that this won’t happen again.

You can read more about the book and the story on their website, and I highly recommend that you do. I as so moved, that I made a contribution to the  Central Asia Institute’s charity at www.ikat.org. My guess is that after reading this book, you will want to do so as well.


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Welcome to Shirley – Kelly McMasters

I really, really wanted to like this book. I forget where I heard about it, but all I remembered when I saw it at the library was that it was written by a girl about my age, and was about growing up in Shirley (which is an area in Long Island, NY that I am very familiar with.)

From Publishers Weekly
Journalist McMasters’s look at the toxic relationship between Brookhaven National Laboratory and the neighboring Long Island towns careens into a tedious memoir of childhood. McMasters moved to the unpromising working-class town of Shirley in the early 1970s when she was five and her golf pro father got a job with Hampton Hills Golf & Country Club. For a child without siblings, the street teeming with young families was a magical place to grow up, and McMasters made lifelong girlfriends. However, the town was economically depressed, despite its optimistic founding by Walter T. Shirley in the early 1950s. And Shirley was in the shadow of the top-secret Brookhaven atomic research laboratory, whose nuclear reactor was completed in 1965 regardless of the dangers posed to the growing community. Tritium, the waste from nuclear experiments, leaked into the adjacent rivers and aquifers for decades, and the author ploddingly traces the seepage into private wells. The town flirted with a name change to bolster property values, just as residents were plagued by alarming cases of cancer. Indeed, thanks to the Long Island Breast Cancer Research Project of 1993, a cluster of cases was discovered within a 15-mile radius of Brookhaven. Intermittently, McMasters summons considerable research and critical powers, yet the litany of Shirley’s resident misery resists an elegant synthesis. (Apr.) Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

I felt like this book suffered from schizophrenia. On one hand, it wanted to be a memoir of childhood, and of growing up in a town that was almost designed for failure. Or the tragedies of the suburbs. I think that when it focused on that, it was good – but a little too flowery. But it held my attention, and I wanted to really feel it and know more.

But on the other hand, there was a lot about Brookhaven and how having this giant pollutant ended up killing a lot of people and shaping the town’s culture. Which would have been cool, except that it started getting pretty technical. It almost felt like two different books, and one of them I didn’t like, even though the subject matter was interesting.

Part of this just hit a little too close to home. A few years ago,  my 48 year old non-smoking, vegetarian, nutritionist hippie aunt died of lung cancer. A few years ago my dad was diagnosed with late stage Hodgkin’s (but is doing okay now.)  The block they grew up in Canarsie has a whole bunch of similar stories, and there appears to be a cancer cluster there. Some speculate it’s due to the power lines. I am convinced it’s definitely something environmental that is causing all this cancer.

In any case – I think the work McMasters did is important, and I always grew up close to the specter of Long Island’s breast cancer curse – but I just can’t say I really liked the book.

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The Audacity of Hope – Barack Obama

I swear – I haven’t abandoned this blog, its just that I wanted to finish the two books I was reading before I started anything else, and both books were taking more time and energy that I planned.

I wanted to read Obama’s book for awhile, but to be honest – I didn’t have the heart to read it before the election. I had a feeling I was going to like it, and if my political dreams were crushed once again, I didn’t want to know all that I had been missing. My “health” wouldn’t have been able to take it.

So, I started it sometime after the election. And have been picking through it ever since. The reason I haven’t raced through it isn’t because it’s not good. In fact, the contrary. I have been reading, and putting it down to think about what I have read. I have also been really tired lately, and my brain would rather sleep than think, so my subway rides have been filled with drool instead of hope and optimism. The other problem with reading on the train? I cry. I cry a lot. Obama is an excellent writer and the whole story isn’t a tearjerker or anything, but I can’t help but think about the way I want things to be, or what it takes to be a good father, or a husband or a young black man trying to make it in a world that has always told him he can’t. Or what it means to have a man be my president who has lived without flush toilets in Indonesia. Not that it’s a major requirement for presidency, but I am in love with the idea that this is a man who may actually understand the middle class or what struggle means.

The book is essentially a collection of his thoughts on values, family, the constitution, opportunity, politics, faith, race and globalization. What I ended up doing, since I have a hard time remembering what I read, and it took me forever to read it, was to make little tags next to portions that stood out for me. This is going to be a long post, and I apologize. Some of the phrases just stood out because I agree. Some because I disagree. Some stood out because I liked his phrasing. Some of them I may not remember why I choose them, or they may not make sense out of context, and some of the quotes aren’t even his own (noted below) – but here is what caught my eye:

  • Values are faithfully applied to the facts before us, while ideology overrides whatever facts call theory into question.
  • “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.” – M.L. King
  • It’s not just absolute power that the Founders sought to prevent. Implicit in its structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or “ism,” any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course, or drive both majorities and minorities into the cruelties of the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag, or the jihad. The Founders may have trusted in God, but true to the Enlightenment spirit, they also trusted in the minds and senses that God had given them.
  • “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” – D. Moynihan
  • While I was talking to some of the teachers about the challenges they faced, one young teacher mentioned what she called the “these Kids Syndrome” – the willingness of society to find a million excuses for why “these kids” can’t learn; how “these kids come from tough backgrounds” or why “These kids are too far behind.”  “When I hear that term, it drives me nuts,” the teacher told me.  “They’re not ‘these kids.’ They’re our kids.”  How America’s economy performs in the years to come may depend largely on how well we take such wisdom to heart.
  • What’s missing is not money, but a national sense of urgency.
  • So during my first year in Senate I proposed legislation I called “Health Care for Hybrids.” The bill makes a deal with U.S. automakers: In exchange for federal financial assistance in meeting the health-care costs of retired autoworkers, the Big Three would reinvest these savings into developing more fuel-efficient vehicles.
  • In other words, The Ownership Society doesn’t even try to spread the risks and rewards of the economy among all Americans. Instead, it simply magnifies the uneven risks and rewards of today’s winner-take-all economy. If you are healthy or wealthy or just plain lucky, then you will be come more so. If you are poor or sick or catch a bad break, you will have nobody to look to for help. That’s not a recipe for sustained economic growth, or the maintenance of a strong American middle class. It’s certainly not a recipe for social cohesion. It runs counter to those values that saw we have a stake in each other’s success. It’s not who we are as a people.
  • “When you get rid of the estate tax, you’re basically handing over command of the country’s resources to people who didn’t earn it. It’s like choosing the 2020 Olympic team by picking all the children of all the winners at the 2000 Games.” – W. Buffett
  • Religion was an expression of human culture, she [Obama’s mother] would explain, not its well-spring, just one of the many ways – and not necessarily the best way – that man attempted to control the unknowable and understand the deeper truths about our lives.
  • I am suggesting that if we progressives shed some of our own biases, we might recognize the values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of our country. We might recognize that the call to sacrifice on behalf of the next generation, the need to think in terms of “though” and just “I,” resonates in religious congregations across the country. We need to take faith seriously not simply to block the religious right but to engage all persons of faith in the larger project of American renewal.
  • … I was reminded that no matter how much Christians who oppose homosexuality may claim that they hate the sin but love the sinner, such a judgment inflicts pain on good people – people who are made in the image of God, and who are often truer to Christ’s message that those who condemn them. And I was reminded that it is my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society, but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided, just as I cannot claim infallibility in my support of abortion rights.
  • We lived in a modest house on the outskirts of town, without air-conditioning, refrigeration, or flush toilets
  • … I didn’t oppose all wars – that my grandfather had signed up for the war the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed and fought in Patton’s army. I also said that “After witnessing the carnage and destruction, the dust and the tears, I supported this Administration’s pledge to hunt down and root out those who would slaughter innocents in the name of intolerance” and would “willingly take up arms myself to prevent such tragedy from happening again.”  What I could not support was a “a dumb war, a rash war, a war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.”
  • Instead of guiding principles, we have what appear to be a series of ad hoc decisions, with dubious results. Why invade Iraq and not North Korea or Burma? Why intervene in Bosnia and not Darfur?
  • “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich”. – J.F. Kennedy
  • When we continue to spend tens of billions of dollars on weapons systems of dubious value but are unwilling to spend the money to protect highly vulnerable chemical plants in major urban centers, it becomes more difficult to get other countries to safeguard their nuclear power plants. When we detain suspects indefinitely without trial or ship them off in the dead of night to countries where we know they’ll be tortured, we weaken our ability to press for human rights and the rule of law in despotic regimes.  When we, the richest country on earth and the consumer of 25 percent of the world’s fossil fuels, can’t bring ourselves to raise fuel-efficiency stands  by even a small fraction so as to weaken our dependence on Saudi oil fields and slow global warming, we should expect to have a hard time convincing China not to deal with oil suppliers like Iran or Sudan – and shouldn’t count on much cooperation in getting them to address environmental problems that visit our shores.
  • Wanting to share the good news, I called Michelle from my D.C. office and starting explaining the significance of the bill – how shoulder-to-air missiles could threaten small commercial air travel if they fell into the wrong hands, how small-arms stockpiles left over from the Cold War continued to feed conflict across the globe. Michelle cut me off. “We have ants.” “Huh?”” I found ants in the kitchen. And in the bathroom upstairs.” “Okay…””I need you to buy some ant traps on your way home tomorrow. I’d get them myself, but I’ve got to take the girls to their doctor’s appointment after school. Can you do that for me?” “Right. Ant traps.” “Ant traps. Don’t forget, okay, honey? And buy more than one. Listen, I need to go into a meeting. Love you.” I hung up the receiver, wondering if Ted Kennedy or John McCain bought ant traps on the way home from work.
  • I invariably left the butter out after breakfast and forgot to twist the little tie around the bread bag; Michelle could rack up parking tickets like nobody’s business.
  • For three magical months the two of us fussed and fretted over our new baby, checking the crib to make sure she was breathing, coaxing smiles from her, singing her songs and taking so many pictures that we started to wonder if we were damaging her eyes.
  • For no matter how liberated I liked to see myself as – no matter how much I told myself that Michelle and I were equal partners, and that her dreams and ambitions were important as my own – the fact was that when children showed up, it was Michelle and not I who was expected to make the necessary adjustments. Sure, I helped, but it was always on my terms, on my schedule. Meanwhile, she was the one who had to put her career on hold. She was the one who had to make sure that the kids were fed and bathed every night. If Malia or Sasha got sick or the babysitter failed to show up, it was she who, more often than not, had to get on the phone to cancel a meeting at work.
  • In all this I am encouraged by Michelle, although there are times when I get the sense that I’m encroaching on her space – that by my absences I may have forfeited certain rights to interfere in the world she has built.
  • “You can’t handle goody bags,” she said. “Let me explain the goody bag thing. You have to go into the party store and choose the bags. Then you have to choose what to put in the bags, and what is in the boys’ bags has to be different from what is in the girls’ bags. You’d walk in there and wander around the aisles for an hour, and then your head would explode.” (Pale Nerd: Okay, I am going to explain why I love this quote. I love the fact that I (and Michelle Obama) would trust this man with the fate of the free world, but know that goody bags could be his downfall. I also love that she completely understands the importance of a good goody bag.)
  • A few weeks later, we got word that the Kerry people wanted me to speak at the convention, although it was not yet clear in what capacity. One afternoon, as I drove back from Springfield to Chicago for an evening campaign event, Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill called to deliver the news. After I hung up, I turned to my driver, Mike Signator. “I guess this is pretty big,” I said. Mike nodded. “You could say that.”

I am sure that he will let me down. I don’t even agree with all of his ideals. I am sure that he can’t possibly mean or accomplish everything he says. But the idea, just the idea that this is something he at least claims he wants to do, and that he was elected gives me the audacity of hope. And for that, I am grateful.

I can’t wait for Tuesday (the inauguration). And I will probably save “Dreams of my Father” for 2012.


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Devil in the White City – Erik Larson

Really fascinating book – another narrative non-fiction choice that came highly recommended by Keren. It’s the story of the Chicago World’s Fair, laid over the absolutely chilling tale of America’s first known serial murderer. After growing up in Queens and literally living under the shadow of the Unisphere and other relics from our own World’s Fair, I had almost no knowledge or interest in Chicago’s – so it was enlightening, but not particularly compelling. What did surprise me is that I had never heard of Dr. H.H. Holmes.

Like any other good little goth girl, I had a morbid fascination with serial killers. I still do, I suppose – but somehow I never heard of this guy. He was a “doctor” in the late 1800’s who murdered women and children (probably 100+) generally by picking off boarders in his hotel (this is where the tie to the World’s Fair comes in. A lot of women, newly independent were coming to the fair and no one noticed their disappearances). He built this hotel, also known as the “Castle” and it was just a death funhouse. Trap doors, soundproof rooms, crematoria, gas chambers. Really horrifying stuff.

Anyway, while the book overall was interesting, I definitely skimmed through a lot of the World’s Fair stuff (lots of architecture stuff) and went right to the gore. I want to read more about this guy!


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Bonk – Mary Roach

Finally, a book I got to say I enjoyed :). I loved “Stiff” by Roach, and I only vaguely remember reading her other book – “Spook,” but if I did – I remember liking that too. In “Bonk” Roach looks at the convergence of science and sex – both how it has been studied and the actual scientific conclusions. As someone whose original intended career path was some sort of Human Sexuality/Anthro hybrid, this was the kind of book that I would have loved to write. It’s non-fiction, but it also can’t help but be a little bit of a travelogue, as she frequently gets involved with the research, or tells stories about her almost ruining an orgasm study because she fell off a chair or a table or something, startling the participant.

Favorite part of the book? The footnotes. Roach gives great footnote.

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