Category Archives: Non Fiction

Book Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck by Sarah Knight

So, it’s less than a month into the new year and I have a to-read list a mile long that I’ve already deviated from by reading this. This is exactly why I needed this book, which is all about the type of mental and emotional de-cluttering that I’ve been working on with mixed success for a couple of years now. You could probably also benefit from this book, even if it’s just as a quick-ish afternoon read for a few laughs–though I think most of us could learn at least a couple of things from Sarah Knight’s humorous suggestions for living one’s best life.

The book is well-organized into clearly labeled and defined sections that break things down into manageable chunks, and Knight does a good job of describing a system that can be applied to one’s life in stages. Because this sort of de-cluttering is something I’ve been thinking about and working on for some time, it wasn’t all new information–she’s not exactly reinventing the wheel here–but I found it validating to read something that is supportive of what I’ve been trying to do, and Knight’s systematic approach to things is genuinely useful and helped me realize some of the flaws in my own haphazard way of dealing with life stuff. There is definitely a focus on bourgeois concerns that may be alienating (or at least mildly-to-moderately irritating) to some readers–like, there’s a lot of stuff on weddings and who on earth goes to that many weddings?–but most of Knight’s advice and systems are portable in ways that can be adapted to any lifestyle. The book is also just repetitive enough that if you find your eyes glazing over during another passage about destination bachelorette parties or something, you can–and I learned this from the book!–choose not to give a fuck about it and skip ahead to something more useful to you.

I guess, if you’re religious or just don’t care for repeated usage of the f-word, you could just grab your nearest copy of the prayer for serenity and hope for the best, but there are some great tips here for setting priorities and establishing boundaries that help to maximize your enjoyment of life and minimize stress and resentment. Plus, it is pretty short.

Book Review – Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey

If you want to read ghost stories, read something besides this book. Certainly, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places contains ghost stories, but if you’re looking for titillating tales of terror for an autumn evening, you won’t find it here. Colin Dickey’s Ghostland isn’t about scaring its readers; rather, it’s a smartly eclectic work of history that looks to examine the whole ghost story phenomenon. Why do we tell ghost stories? Whose stories get told? What do these stories tell us about the places and people with which they’re associated? What do these stories say about the ways in which we, as a society, interact with death and with history? How do ghost stories help us connect with our past—and in what ways do they help us disconnect from aspects of the past that are unpleasant? If Dickey isn’t entirely successful in answering all these questions, he’s nonetheless crafted an engaging work of popular history that does a great job of introducing these ideas to the reader and encouraging further inquiry.

Ghostland is at its strongest early on, and Dickey’s exploration of the Winchester house in San Jose, California remains my favorite part of the book. Born and raised in Ohio, myself, I’d only heard the sensationalized story of the house and its unusual history, so it was wonderful to read such a thorough and well-researched counterpoint to the more mystical narrative. I appreciate the more feminist interpretation of Sarah Winchester’s life, although I must admit that I sometimes think Dickey’s conclusions about her motives are a bit of a stretch. Even if this is the case, however, the story and the way that it’s been embroidered and exploited over the years still serves as a perfect illustration of the points Dickey is trying to make about the way that female eccentricity is peculiarly pathologized. I tweeted early on while reading the book that the read would be worth it for this chapter alone, which is still true, but the whole book is packed full of these sorts of fresh looks at old stories.

Dickey’s thoughtful analysis touches on issues of gender but also includes issues of race and delves into some of the uglier episodes of U.S. history. Some of his chapters, such as those dealing with the slave trade and plantation culture of the South could easily be developed into whole books on their own, and I sincerely hope to see someone take these ideas and run with them. Ditto for Dickey’s look at some of the legends and ghost stories surrounding Native Americans. Throughout Ghostland, I often felt as if there was an enormous body of material and research that this book, ambitious as it is, was only capable of skimming the surface of. It would be great to see some of Dickey’s bigger ideas—especially about the ways in which ghost stories serve to erase and whitewash history—given more space to breathe. Here, the treatment of these concepts is necessarily brief (this isn’t that long a book) and sometimes shallow, and there are sometimes jarring shifts in tone and subject between chapters, particularly in the back half of the book.

Also evident in Ghostland is the author’s love of architecture and literature, and both of these things figure largely in Dickey’s historical analysis. Sadly, there are no photos in the book, which would have been a great addition to the stories it contains. Dickey dwells often on unusual architecture as being sort of inherently predisposed to being perceived as “haunted,” and it would have been nice to see some illustrative examples. Similarly, while the book is meticulously footnoted, it could have benefited from a bibliography or other section with suggestions for further reading or even just a list of literary works mentioned in the text. These lacks wouldn’t be felt so keenly in a more focused book, but in a history so wide-ranging, offering so many glimpses into little-known and lesser understood topics, some further guidance on where to look for more of the same would be much appreciated. That said, if you don’t mind digging through the notes at the back of the book, there are a wealth of resources, just not organized in the most useful possible way.

Ghostland is, on the whole, an excellent primer for the subjects that it covers. It’s full of interesting and entertaining information, and Dickey puts forward a lot of thought-provoking ideas that make this book a perfect reference for writers as well as readers. The questions that Dickey sets out to answer here are worthy ones, and there’s a lot to think about regarding the way we produce and consume ghost stories. With genre conversations often focused these days on issues of diversity and representation, Ghostland is a potentially very valuable conversation starter. I only hope that it is treated as the beginning of the conversation and not the end of it.

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Book Review: Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

I read Why Not Me? as part of my last ditch (and probably doomed) effort to catch up on my 2015 Goodreads challenge and finished it in just a few hours. Like Mindy Kaling’s first book, this one is a fast, enjoyable read with a moderate amount of insight into all kinds of things that Mindy Kaling is interested in. Also like Mindy Kaling’s first book, this one makes me want to be best friends with her, because she seems to be utterly delightful.

I say that, of course, with the full understanding that Mindy Kaling is obviously not going to be delightful to everyone. In fact, she’s clearly a little self-absorbed, a little out of touch, super smart, somewhat nerdy, and not above being occasionally awful. Basically, Mindy Kaling seems like a real human being, albeit far more successful most of the rest of us.

What I love best about Mindy Kaling, though, is that her real human being-ness never feels like a schtick or an act or a ploy to make us like her. Sure, she’s endearingly self-deprecating, but always about actual flaws. She kind of weirdly humblebrags about her McDonald’s addiction, but I suspect that she really does eat too much McDonald’s, and I can relate to that because I, too, eat too much McDonald’s. Her story about dragging B.J. Novak to a play against his will sounds exactly like the sort of thing a real person might do. So, also, does her story about the time she gave a teenage girl a kind of bullshit answer to a serious and worth-answering question.

The advice that Kaling offers at the end of her book is thoughtful, but not too obnoxiously wise. Her thoughts on her work and career are amusing and sharply observed, but delivered without rancor. There’s definitely a little bit more of “work hard and good things will come to you” advice, but it’s not offered without at least a basic awareness of the role played by luck and privilege.

Why Not Me? is not a great work of literature, but Kaling is a clever and funny essayist who isn’t weighed down by pretension. I enjoyed Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) but this follow-up book is altogether better and showcases a Kaling who is more confident, more assertive, and even more readable than she was before.

Book Review: Born With Teeth by Kate Mulgrew

Mulgrew_Born With Teeth
Born With Teeth by Kate Mulgrew

Over the last couple of years, I’ve found myself developing a real fondness for memoirs, so when I found out that Kate Mulgrew, who I’ve admired since the first time I saw her enter the bridge on Star Trek: Voyager, was publishing one, I was thrilled. Born With Teeth is not a book about Star Trek, so fans of the series hoping for that may be disappointed, but Kate Mulgrew has lived a full and interesting life and has a lot to say about art, love, and finding happiness by being true to one’s self.

From the first pages of this book, as she writes about growing up as a precocious and much-loved child in Iowa, it’s very clear that Kate Mulgrew is not cut out to be a conventional woman. Leaving home for New York, she pursues her career as an actress with a deep and abiding passion for her craft that sustains her over the decades of her life.

Early on, we learn that Mulgrew gave birth early in her career to a daughter who she gave up for adoption, and Mulgrew’s regret over this decision and her desire to be reunited with the child she lost figures nearly as largely in the story as her passion for acting. Mulgrew’s feelings about the adoption consume many pages, and even as she later marries and has two more children by her first husband, she never stops wanting to know her daughter.

I finished this book in just one day, I found it so riveting. Kate Mulgrew is a passionate, intelligent, driven woman who isn’t afraid to talk about her mistakes. She’s also wry and funny, but never cynical, even about her often disappointing relationships with men. Mulgrew’s love for her children and her attempts to stay true to herself while also doing right by them are relatable and compelling.

Born With Teeth is an excellent, fast read about a woman who struggles with balancing her personal and professional lives. The book is light on practical advice, but I think it’s a wonderful story to show that a life doesn’t have to be objectively perfect in order to be rich and fulfilling.  I think one takeaway here is that mistakes shouldn’t define one’s life and that it’s never too late to make positive changes. The other takeaway is that it’s okay to not compromise when happiness is on the line, which is an excellent message, especially for young, creative women, to whom I would most recommend this book.