Category Archives: non-fiction

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold BloodIt feels like there are few books anymore that “most people” seem to have read, but when I was asking around for recommendations, this one kept getting mentioned. On the surface, the subject (the senseless murder of the Clutter family in Kansas family in 1959) didn’t appeal to me, but there’s no gratuitous violence in the book, and the author’s voice throughout was somehow reassuring in its authority. The book felt well rounded, introducing us to the family and their community and also following the fortunes of the two perpetrators, who display odd flashes of vulnerability and compassion along with their reckless disregard for human life. It felt much more like a well made black and white movie than, say, an Investigation Discovery show, and it conveyed a vivid sense of the time and place.

Availability:  SMCM, COSMOS, USMAI
Review Submitted by: Eric Blomquist
Rating: Highly Recommended

Al Franken: Giant of the Senate by Al Franken

Al Franken, Giant of the SenateImagine a political outsider with a significant media profile winning a narrow and bitterly contested election. When the outsider was sworn in he pivoted from the utter comedian and buffoon his detractors thought he was to a serious legislator bent on serving his constituents the best he could, and got to work learning the customs and procedures of representative government. Pouring over tomes of policy briefs, working across the aisle…

You could call that a pleasant fantasy, or you call it story of Senator Franken, and it’s the story– among others– that he details in Al Franken Giant of the Senate. Let me stop right now and say this: DON’T READ THIS BOOK. Listen to it on audiobook. Franken is a gifted humorist– one of the original and longest-enduring writers and actors on Saturday Night Live– and he knows how to intone and land a joke he wrote. His impersonations of Washingtonians like Mitch McConnell or Bob Corker or Ted Cruise are hilarious.

Kaitlyn Grigsby-Hall and I drove across Canada on our from Eugene, Oregon to Salisbury, MD, and listened to a number of audiobooks. Franken’s book is funny and informative– he wants to take pains to explain wonky political machinery not to lambaste it or bore you, but to help you understand how Washington works (or doesn’t). He is an unabashed liberal who continues to skewer lies and the lying liars that tell them, but he also makes a pragmatic pitch for bipartisan muddling through. He is clearly going to run for president, and this book is a great start to that effort.

Kaitlyn wants me to add that it is worth listening to this whole book just to hear the chapter “Sophistry,” in which Al Franken details his feelings about Ted Cruise.

Availability: COSMOS (Print & Audio), USMAI (Print only)
Review Submitted by:  Shane D. Hall
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: Published in 2017

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

Under the Banner of Heaven

Krakauer is usually more of an adventure writer. The story of his ascent of Mt. Everest is riveting. This is more of an interwoven tale of the evolution of the Mormon religion and flash forwards to a splinter faction that practices polygamy in Utah, Idaho and British Columbia and how one of its members conspires to kill a woman and her child because of a perceived slight against their sect. There are a lot of footnotes showing that Krakauer did a lot of research going into this.

Availability:  COSMOS
Review Submitted by: J. Tyler Bell
Rating: Recommended with reservations

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeper"s Wife

The Zookeeper’s Wife is about Jan and Antonina Zabinski, who after the Nazi invasion of Poland became active in the underground and used their zoo to hide Jews and Resistance members. It is a story about very brave people and my issues with the book aren’t meant to insult them. I enjoyed the setting and perspective of the book and I liked learning about Nazi-occupied Poland for non-Jewish people. I also enjoyed the description of the zoo and Antonina’s love for animals made the book very interesting. I also like that for the main description of the couple as “Christian” they don’t actively villainize atheists and don’t bring it up much, they just leave it at these people used their faith to help other people which I think is a good direction to take it.

My first issue with the book is that there were or two instances where the author seems to imply that the discrimination against Roman Catholics by Nazis was comparable to their discrimination against the Jews, which did leave a bad taste in my mouth. I’m just going to chalk it up to me not understanding the original intentions of the lines in question as this does stop when the main narrative of the story takes over.

The main issue is that I couldn’t stand the way the book was written. For a book entitled The Zookeeper’s Wife there is shockingly little focus on the zoo or the people in it. The book would be going along then every few pages there would be a random tangent about people who aren’t really connected to the family which would last a few pages or even an entire chapter. It got really annoying after a while as because of this I didn’t really hear much about the stuff at the villa or their attempts to help resistance members. I would like to read a story about these people but I don’t need a few pages of a summary in the middle of a story about other people. Also, the book time jumps a lot. The main problem with this time jumping is that it happens at random in the middle of chapters and gets a confusing because the author is trying to document the lives of these people in 1943 and then suddenly they are back in 1942. A good example of this is with Antonina’s pregnancy as she appears to be pregnant and is bed ridden because of health related issues and then suddenly isn’t pregnant anymore and helping hide people in her house only for her to become bedridden again and then she is helping people again and then later she gives birth. Although maybe the birth is miraculous because after the birth the time jumping stops.

I can’t build a relationship with these people because I have no idea what their position is or if their in danger. Also, Jan is kind of mean to his wife, which I found uncomfortable to read about but since it’s nonfiction there isn’t much to be done about changing that attitude. I will say that it probably would have made sense in a more linear story because it comes right up out of nowhere in the middle of the book and isn’t discussed again.

I would recommend the book with reservations because while I found the writing style annoying that is a personal preference and other people might like that about it.

Availability: COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Madeline Rivard
Rating:   Recommended with reservations

City of Light, City of Poison by Holly Tucker

City of Light City of Poison

This is my first summer read recommended here (Thank you!). I enjoy short, specialized history books, and this one had the advantage of reading like a novel. It was a pleasure learning about the various advisors and intriguers surrounding Louis XIV, so much so, in fact, that it could have been a good read even without the poisonings. The complex machinations and complete lack of qualms on the part of unhappy wives and mistresses throughout made for compelling reading, but by the time I got to the torture scenes near the close of the book, I was ready to move on. We owe much of the story to the copious note-taking of chief-of-police Nicolas de La Reynie and the later revelations of Marie-Marguerite Voisin, whose mother, Catherine, was a notorious poisoner and abortionist. The bleak world of Voisin provides a counterpoint to the excesses of the court, and it’s the symbiotic relationship of these two worlds that lends this story its poignancy.

Availability: COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Eric Blomquist
Rating: Recommended
Challenge: Published in 2017

Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes

Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed CampaignEverybody loves a good campaign narrative, right? There’s nothing better than a peek behind the curtain to witness the frazzled decision-making, the ego-clashing, and the titanic personalities. This book offered an extremely detailed inside-out view of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, focusing on her campaign manager Robby Mook’s reliance on analytics at the expense of old-fashioned glad-handing and political instincts. The authors’ incredible sourcing among Clinton’s team and confidantes offered a nuanced and convincing portrayal of a campaign whose failure was ultimately of its own making, despite the circus that surrounded the campaign throughout.

This book is a suspenseful page-turner, despite its foretold conclusion. Donald Trump looms over the book, a lightly sketched figure who nonetheless wreaks havoc among his opponent’s team. A Hillary supporter might find this book to be immensely dispiriting, as old, still-painful mistakes are made afresh. For that matter, a Hillary supporter might find that reading this book is like watching a horror movie, as the reader urges the protagonist to make wise choices: “Hillary, go to Wisconsin! You need to go to Wisconsin!” But she doesn’t get there in time.

Availability: COSMOS, USMAI
Review Submitted by: Michael Dunn
Rating: Highly Recommended
Challenge: A book published in 2017

You’re Wearing That? by Deborah Tannen

You're Wearing That?You’re Wearing That?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation was recommended to me about six years ago by my mother, but it wasn’t until only a few days ago that I committed to actually reading it. Even just looking at the title, I could tell Deborah Tannen had something thought-provoking to share with me.

The mother-daughter relationship distinguishes itself from father-daughter, father-son and mother-son relationships because communication between mother and daughter is much more likely to be rife with misunderstandings. As talk plays a crucial role in the emotional and physical bonding of women, it is thus used more within the mother-daughter relationship than it is used within other familial relationships. However, this opens more alleys for miscommunication and more opportunities for a casual, harmful conversation to sky-rocket into an intensely heated argument in which neither party knows why the other has lashed out against her. The key to pinpointing why a friendly conversation between mother and daughter can instantly transform into a savage fall-out lies in the interpretation of metamessages. Metamessages are the underlying, implicit meanings of what is manifestly said. When a mother asks her daughter: “You’re wearing that?”, she may believe she is demonstrating concern that her daughter may embarrass herself if her clothes give off a bad impression to others. Though the mother may have her daughter’s best interests at heart, the daughter may only pick up on her mother’s seemingly accusatory or critical tone of voice, misinterpreting her mother’s metamessage as disgust at her wardrobe.

Reading this book has really opened my mind to the dynamics of my relationship with my own mother. Thankfully we have always had a strong bond that is very rarely threatened by misunderstandings, but now it is easy for me to see why sometimes we misinterpret each other’s words. If we can determine what it is that irritates us about what our mother or daughters tell us and reassess what it is they mean to say, then we can avoid conflict and stress in the future. This book is definitely worth the read because it is very likely to revolutionize the way you perceive the mother-daughter relationship.

Availability: USMAI, COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Xuejie Kimball
Rating: Must Read