Archive for the ‘Non-Fiction’ Category

I Wear the Black Hat by Chuck Klosterman (image via amazon.com)

By Chuck Klosterman
July 22
Finished: November 22

Huzzah! I finished all twenty-seven books in less than year! They now set upon a window shelf in my room, stacked about halfway to the ceiling because I literally have nowhere to put them. I took a month off to write all these recaps and re-energize for next year’s challenge.

My last book, I Wear the Black Hat, took a little while to read: it’s another collection of cultural critique essays that sometimes can be overwhelming to read straight through. I actually found out this brand new Chuck Klosterman offering because it was included as a preview in The Visible Man. The preview chapter focused on Batman and a real life NYC vigilante and how society viewed the two similar narratives through completely different lenses: the fictional Batman defeats foes who threaten the fictional Gotham and is a (complicated) hero; 80s subway shooter Bernhard Goetz, originally viewed as a hero that fought back against crime, quickly became a villain in the public perception. Disclosure: Klosterman almost lost me when he said something to the extent of “Pretend Batman is real…and he goes around New York City shooting people. C’mon, did you not see The Dark Knight Rises?).  

Each essay examines and different aspect of pop culture, ranging from sports teams and figures to musicians, actors, and politicians, and posing the question can anyone ever be truly good or truly bad?  Overall, this was not as engaging as other Klosterman works (like my favorite,  Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs) and, due to my age (hello, babies of the 80s!) some of the references were hard to follow or just not interesting, but as a Klosterman fan, I’m pretty sure I would have been disappointed in myself if I gave up on Black Hat–it’s a book that got me thinking, not only about myself and my perceived face but of how I perceived other as well. Do I see them as a villain because they are actually evil? Or do I see them as such because society tells me they are evil?



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Mapping the World of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice: An Unauthorized Exploration of the Harry Potter Series (image via amazon.com)

Edited by Mercedes Lackey
Started: January 13
Finished: September 11

Mapping the World of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice made me feel like I was back in college, reading academic papers for my Communications classes. And you know what? That’s completely OK because that’s what this book is supposed to be: a bunch of academics and science fiction & fantasy writers  waxing intellectual  and critiquing the biggest literary and movie phenomenon during my lifetime.

It’s a hodge-podge of essays, covering everything from J.K. Rowling‘s purposeful painting of wizard society as completely secular and without any notion of religion, to a very specific fan fiction fandom focuses on Severus Snape erotica (yeah, that one was pretty weird). Those two essays stuck out the most, and keep in mind I did read this over the course of about eight months. I won’t lie and say every single piece in this anthology is thought-provoking and worthwhile–I did have to really trudge through a couple of essays, taking a break of a few days or even a few months–but if you’re yearning for some more about the boy wizard, Mapping is worth a read.



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Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman (image via amzon.com)

By Piper Kerman
Started: August 31
Finished: September 3

Guys, I broke my #1 rule: I watched all of the Netflix exclusive Orange is the New Black before reading the memoir on which the series is based. My friend Heather pretty much bullied me into watching the series, and I was immediately hooked. It was great. Fantastic. Amazing. Jenji Kohan‘s brilliance strikes again. I loved it so much, I made my boyfriend watch the entire series over Memorial Day weekend. And yet, I still wanted more, so  when I stumbled across this book in The Strand I couldn’t resist.

So where to start? Listen, if you thought Piper Chapman was annoying, self-absorbed, and entitled in the series….wait until you read the thoughts of Piper Kerman. She’s worse than her TV alter ego by a landslide. And the book is so, so different. Pennsyatucky is not crazy, she’s nice! Awesome characters like Tastyee, Poussay, Nicki, and Sophia don’t really exist. Even the person Sophia is based upon is just not as awesome and confident as TV Sophia. The book is really a completely different experience that gives an honest look at life inside a women’s prison and the penal system in general. The biggest problem I had was Kerman’s narrative voice: it just made me want to stick a shiv in her to get her to shut up (not really but, kinda)!

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The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum (image via amazon.com)

By Deborah Blum
July 12
Finished: July 20

And we’re back to my macabre obsession with murder and forensics. Listen, not only do I hold a certificate in Criminal Justice from my university, I was also insanely excited when I got into a class called “Serial and Mass Murder.” I have issues. I know.

The Poisoner’s Handbook is less a guide to how to poison your enemy and more a lively historical narrative about the birth of forensic science in Jazz Age New York City. Dr. Charles Norris and forensic chemist Alexander Gettler manage to turn the corrupt and cushy position of “city coroner” (the appointment was a political one, often the coroner had no previous experience or credentials and would destroy valuable evidence at the scene) into a position based on excruciating attention to detail and a formidable science (I had a full on geek-out at work when I found out PBS was adapting the work for an upcoming episode of American Experience). Before Norris and Gettler pioneered the field of forensics, guilty parties easily escaped murder convictions because there was no way to prove an individual had been deliberately poisoned.

Each new chapter is presented as a case study, Blum starts off with a murder or death with no discernible cause, and uses the murder as a frame for the scientific process of identifying how–and by what poison–a person died. A word of caution, while Blum does craft a great narrative, she is a science writer; and as such she goes into great and graphic detail about grinding up organs and bones, autopsies, and the experiments conducted on animals to prove Norris & Gettler’s theories (as a pet owner, this part was really difficult for me). I highly recommend the interactive comic American Experience developed based on cases presented in the book if you want to get an idea of the stories and poisons you’ll see profiled.



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The Bling Ring by Nancy Jo Sales via amazon.com

By Nancy Jo Sales
June 2
June 5

Guilty pleasure and pure trash. At least that’s what I thought when my eyes landed on The Bling Ring on a featured table at Barnes & Noble near the release date of Sophia Coppola‘s The Bling Ring, the movie “inspired” by Nancy Jo Sales’ book about five over-privileged, sticky-fingered, fame-obsessed teenagers.

Listen, I graduated in the middle of the recession and was unemployed for about nine months…and to escape the never-ending resume re-tooling, and cover letter writing, I ended up getting really involved with reality TV. It started with the Kardashians (because they made me feel like my life was normal in comparison) which was a gateway drug into a short-lived E! reality series called Pretty Wild.

Pretty Wild followed the Niers girls, including the now imfamous Alexis (the character she inspired was played by Emma Watson in the film), and capture Alexis’s arrest, court dates, and epic voicemail meltdown message left for Nancy Jo Sales. The show was pure trash, rich white girls running wild around LA, and I expected the book to follow the same plot line. Thankfully, Sales is an actual journalist, not a tabloid writer, and The Bling Ring is more like the in-depth reporting you’d see in Rolling Stone rather than the fodder that fills the pages of Us Weekly, and proved to be an interesting and informative read full of interviews, direct quotes, and honest-to-god research

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Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield (image via amazon.com)

By Rob Sheffield
May 28
Finished: June 1

Rob Sheffield is the man. Not only does he know music (and pop culture in general), he consistently delivers on all those VH-1 specials. In Love is a Mixtape he manages frame a love story through music without sounding sickeningly sweet or overly romantic.

Renée is an outgoing, larger than life, southern Country girl that shy, awkward Bostonian Rob is instantly attracted to. Though they run in they same circles, it takes awhile for them to become friends, and eventually start dating. Though Rob didn’t expect to stay in Virginia, his romance with Renée makes it impossible to leave. Each chapter begins with a mixtape of songs, used to frame their friendship, romance, marriage, and Renée’s sudden and tragic death from a pulmonary embolism. If you don’t know the songs on each mixtape, I highly recommend hitting up Spotify and listening to them before reading—the song selection completely sets the mood for the entire chapter and enhances the overall narrative (actually, kinda surprised Rob Sheffield hasn’t already done that. Get on that, Sheffield!).

A note on two of my favorite details: Renée buys a dog she is insistent Rob will learn to love (he does not). Also, after Renée’s death, Rob becomes obsessed with a vinyl album called “Portrait of a Valiant Lady,” a documentary about Jackie Kennedy and how she dealt with her husband’s death. Not only did he listen to the album constantly, he moved the cover around the house with him, propping it up on the stove as he cooks or in the laundry basket as he folds clothes. It’s the strange and vulnerable detail that keeps the book grounded (what grown man would make up a detail like staring at a photo of Jackie Kennedy?) and speaks to the universal ability of music (or I suppose audio in general) as an outlet for and healer of pain, heartache, and loss.hen stove.

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Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott

By Karen Abbott
March 29
Finished: April 7

Historical narrative with salacious content and mob connections? Count me in. Last year, I was on a Victoria-Era-to-Jazz-Age New York City focus, and this year that focus (mostly) shifted to Chicago, a city just as scandalous and maybe even twice as corrupted.  Basically, this book was right in my wheelhouse (and it also contains a treasure trove of historical photos and newspaper clippings).

Sin in the Second City deftly spins the story of the world-renowned Everleigh Club, a high-end brothel in Chicago that operated from 1900-1911 (right in the heart of the Progressive Era), into a rich historical narrative with fully formed and robust characters. Founded by sisters Mina & Ada Everly, two women with shady pasts that included abusive husbands, changing social mores, religion, politics, class, and gender all contributed to both the success and ultimate demise of the club.

Located in Chicago’s vice district, the Everleigh Club was more selective in its tastes than the normal Chicago brothel. With luxurious interior decor, a modest and discrete exterior, and hand-picked, well-groomed “Everleigh butterflies,” the club attracted high-end clientele, including Chicago politicians, men from the top echelons of Chicago society, and even royalty. Greasing the correct palms kept the Everly Sisters out of trouble and in the good graces of both the ruling political party and the Chicago Underworld. Though the sisters attempted to civilize the brothel business, changing social mores coupled with vindictive neighboring madam would cause the Everleigh Club to shutter its doors. Though the Everly sisters and their butterflies are the stars of the book, Abbott also paints brilliant portraits of Vic Shaw (a less civilized and jealous Vice district madam), Charles Roe (a prosecutor set on ending the new threat of “white slavery”), and Ernest Bell ( a minister on a mission to dismantle the vice district and its close its dens of sin).

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