Category Archives: non-fiction

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

book coverThe Disappearing Spoon: and other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements is a history of the development of our modern periodic table and the discovery and uses of some elements on that table. The book is divided up based on themes, for example; elements during war, politics, money, art and mental health. Elements are the building blocks of the universe, so it would have been easy for this type of book to bogged down in trying to cover too much, however I thought Kean balanced it well. It isn’t necessary to have a lot of chemistry knowledge to understand this book, as he gives an introduction to reading the table in the beginning. I recommend this book for people who are interested in chemistry, physics and science history.

Availability:  COSMOS, USMAI, SMCM
Review Submitted by:  Joanne Hoppe
Rating:  Highly Recommended

Nomadland by Jessica Bruder

book coverA truly eye opening book about how the United States has failed a generation, and how older Americans have been forced to survive without stability. The resilience shown by the people in this book is inspiring, as is their reclamation of what it means to be “houseless.” Yet, amid people’s expressions of joy at the communities they have developed and their shirking of capitalism, this book made me deeply sad about how much the U.S. has failed its citizens and continues to do so, and how quickly we are turning into a manipulative corporatocracy. My only reservations in regards to this book would be its lack of discussion (about 3 pages in all), of the lack of Black nomads, and why that is.

Availability: USMAI and COSMOS
Review Submitted by:  Izzy Lott
Rating: Must Read
Challenge: book to film, book with a one word title

They Called Us Enemy by Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, George Takei

they called us enemy

They Called Us Enemy by Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, George Takei with Harmony Becker (Illustrator) is a graphic novel using George Takei’s own words to tell the story of the years of his childhood spent in Japanese internment camps. While it’s difficult to discuss the complexity of having joyous childhood memories in a horrible period of American history, Takei and his team walk this line very well. The art style reminds me of a children’s storybook which adds to the sense of childhood innocence. I recommend this book for people who are looking to start learning the basics of the history of Japanese internment told from a very personal perspective.

Availability:  COSMOS, SMCM
Review Submitted by: Jo Hoppe
Rating:  Must Read
Challenge:  Graphic novel with diverse characters

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

book coverBraiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants is part Indigenous knowledge and history, part plant ecology, and part memoir. In this book, Robin Wall Kimmerer examines her personal experiences wrestling with traditional Indigenous knowledge and science, at first believing that these different ways of thinking are at odds. Instead there are things we can glean from both, and we can use this information to fight for the planet and as the author put it, the consuming wedingo.

I recommend this book for people who are interested in plants, social and environmental justice, and for people who want to learn something new. It is difficult to describe this book, as it is a mixture of so many things, however it has certainly made me reexamine my world view, and I will be making more of an effort to fight the wedingo in my own life. The audiobook is narrated by the author, who has a very pleasant voice and has experience lecturing which translates very well to a book that has so many of her own experiences in it.

Availability:  COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Jo Hoppe
Rating:  Must Read
Challenge: Audiobook

You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar

book cover“If you don’t laugh you’ll cry” I found myself thinking with each turn of the page of You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories about Racism. These first person accounts of racism – stories that took place over the course of a woman’s life – bring to light the everyday racism people of color encounter from the overtly hostile to the laughably ignorant. Some of the stories I read and thought “yes, I can believe that happened” while others blew me away and left me thinking “I can’t believe that happened”. I think that was the author’s intent – to alert even racism-aware readers of the extent to which POC encounter these incidents on a day to day basis, as well as validate those people who have experienced similar incidents.

The book is written in a humorous fashion but don’t think that dilutes its message. It does not pull any punches when it comes to the actual stories. It is a good read for those wishing to understand more fully the extent of racism in this country. For those who do not believe racism exists, this might be a good book to introduce the subject. It is factual but not accusatory, humorous without being silly. A good conversation starter for those who need to be brought into the conversation.

Availability:  COSMOS, USMAI
Review Submitted by: Stephanie Marsich
Rating:  Must Read
Challenge: Published in 2021

You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar

book coverYou’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories about Racism was a fast but difficult read. I kinda go into a downward spiral every time I think about it. I mean the US has a huge problem, but this isn’t just a US problem. Racist parties and leaders are getting voted in left and right the world over. Hungary just revoked the human rights they’d given LGBT people. I’ve heard more stories about Alexei Navalny’s health during imprisonment than Aung San Suu Kyi’s. There’s vaccine nationalism left and right and us-first politics when we all know that if we don’t stop the pandemic everywhere then it ends nowhere.

Throughout the book Amber and Lacey reassure the reader that they’re okay, they have happy lives. I’m glad they do but none of what they relate is okay and much of it is downright traumatizing. I knew that this kind of stuff went on, hell I was there when my husband got “randomly” checked five (!) times at O’Hare airport during our layover, causing us to miss our flight to DC. He told me how he’d had to stand in line with the other people of color and listen to TSA make racist jokes while waiting for all the “random” checks to be completed. I was there when they finally “randomly” checked his luggage before we got on another flight but not mine, despite the fact we were traveling together. But man I am still so naive as to how ubiquitous this is.

Read this or a similar book and do better.

Availability:  COSMOS, USMAI
Review Submitted by: Emily Nelson Ringholm, ’07
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: Published in 2201

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson

Consider the ForkIt is often said that the one thing that connects us all is food. Because food is a great connector, there have been many books exploring the subject of food history which catalog the development and spread of different types of cuisine around the world. Consider the Fork instead is a history of the tools we use to eat and cook: spoons, knives, forks, pots, heat and refrigeration, amongst others. While these are tools we are so used to having in our lives, there has been a very long history, sometimes thousands of years, of ingenuity behind them. Consider the Fork provides just a taste of a micro history that isn’t often explored, and a downside is that I would’ve preferred a more in depth look at some of the subjects covered. However, the book is presented in an easily enjoyable learning experience. The audiobook narrator is also very pleasant to listen to and the writing made me appreciate the thought and invention that has gone into both the simplest and more complex tools we use in the kitchen. If I were to describe the book in one word, it would be “quaint”.

Availability:  COSMOS, USMAI, SMCM
Review Submitted by:  Joanne Hoppe
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: Audiobook

We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper

book coverWe Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and Half a Century of Silence is a true crime novel about the 1969 murder of Jane Britton, a 23-year-old graduate student in Harvard’s anthropology program. Being a fan of true crime novels and also an anthropology major myself, I was immediately drawn to this book. The author is a Harvard alum and while still in school, she heard a story about a murder many years back, about a girl who had an affair with her professor and then he murdered her to keep it quiet. Over the course of 10 years, the author painstakingly tracks down all of the players in this story, and while the rumor about the professor proved to be false, she uncovers far more about gender inequality in academia, the silencing of female victims, and how we are all biased in a way by the fantastical stories we hear.

This was such an engrossing book. The suspects change as the author moves through her research over the years, and partly due to her unfailing search for the truth and her mission to keep this case within the police’s radar, the murderer is finally known. You’ll just have to read the book to find out who it is (it was a big deal in the news when the case was finally solved, so don’t google it beforehand, like I did). It’s best to experience it as the author did, uncovering one suspect, becoming convinced you’ve found ‘the one,’ realizing he’s not the one, and then moving on to the next potential suspect. It’s a lot of ups and downs, of excitement and despair. The author so badly wanted to solve this case that had been all but forgotten and bring justice to Jane, and following along on her journey, we get to experience some of what she felt in her search for the truth. This might be the best true crime novel I’ve read in some time.

Availability: COSMOS, USMAI
Review Submitted by:  Kaylie Jasinski, class of 2014
Rating: Must Read

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

book coverI found this to be a heartbreaking look into how our justice system treats people of color. In this book Stevenson, a lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, takes the reader through his legal journey to free Walter McMillian, a man sentenced to die for a murder he didn’t commit. Throughout the book Stevenson details his own encounters with racism as well as other cases in which people of color were wrongly accused of crimes. If you are looking to inform yourself on how the justice system can unfairly persecute people of color, this is a good book to start with.

Availability:  COSMOS, USMAI, SMCM
Review Submitted by:  Stephanie Marsich
Rating:  Highly Recommended

 

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

book coverSPQR is a history of Rome, mainly focusing on the Republic period (in particular Cicero’s life) and the transition to autocracy. Beard also provides insight into how modern classicists their primary sources and why it’s important to study Roman history. The rest of the book has a general overview of Roman emperors (because, generally speaking, there’s little difference between individual rulers), and what daily life was like for the poor and Roman provinces. This book is not recommended for people who are only interested in reading about the series of events that lead to the rise and “fall” of the Roman empire.

Availability:  COSMOS, USMAI, SMCM
Review Submitted by:  Joanne Hoppe
Rating:  Recommended

I Beat the Odds by Michael Oher

book coverI Beat the Odds: From Homelessness, to the Blind Side, and Beyond

Earlier this year I read The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis. I found the descriptions of football and strategies used in the game to be incredibly boring. I was also left wanting to learn more about Michael Oher, whose story was written in the second half. So, I was pleased when I discovered Oher wrote an autobiography.

This was everything that the movie the Blind Side should’ve been. As Oher stated himself in the book, Lewis had taken several creative liberties when describing how Oher was a dumb kid who needed to be taught how to play football. In reality, he was incredibly bright and worked hard to make the right decisions so he didn’t wind up like his mom. He also had played football, and other sports, his whole life.

Oher also dedicated an entire chapter at the end to giving advice to at-risk children on how to work towards the life they want, find good role models, and use their talents to achieve their goals. Even for those adults who’ve “made it”, he lists youth organizations all over the country at which one could volunteer their time as a mentor. Even after his success, Oher was still trying to give back to the community.

Availability:  COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Marissa Christensen
Rating:   Recommended

Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

book coverSalt: A World History is an examination of history spanning across the world and throughout time, using salt as the connector. Salt has influenced food, trade, technological developments and different traditions worldwide. This book is in some ways disorganized. There’s a lot of jumping around to different locations, topics and time periods, although I didn’t find this confusing. It would be difficult to discuss in an organized way because salt has been a staple in so much of the world. This book is recommended for people who are interested in history and learning about one of the ways the world is connected.

Availability:  COSMOS, USMAI, SMCM
Review Submitted by:  Joanne Hoppe
Rating: Highly Recommended