Category Archives: nonfiction

From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty

image1 (19)I received From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by mortician Caitlin Doughty from a similarly death-minded friend. My friend and I have both spent a lot of time thinking about and discussing mortality for personal and professional reasons, so we are probably more likely to be the audience for this book than the general population who may be less macabre. 

I learned a lot about cremation and natural burials from Doughty’s first book, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and found From Here to Eternity to be similarly educational about death rituals, but I enjoyed the overall book a little less. Some of the facts shared I will remember for a long time to come, but the journey to getting the facts was not as seamless as I found Doughty’s first book to be.

When Doughty describes global examples of grief and dealing with death and decomposition, she illuminates that the American approach to death hasn’t always been the way it is now, as most people believe, but I’m left feeling a bit despondent about the little room available to change things in America. I agree with many of Doughty’s beliefs that people need to be more comfortable with death, their own and their loved ones’, so that people can respect each other’s wishes and be more comfortable with grieving. However, I don’t think that people who are already uncomfortable with death will pick up this book and I think there are many powerful players who are committed to keeping Americans uncomfortable.

Publication Date: 13 October 2017 by W. W. Norton CompanyFormat: Hardcover.

Author: Caitlin Doughty web/@twitter/@instagram/facebook

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Am I There Yet? by Mari Andrew

image1 (16)Mari Andrew is best known for her adorable, insightful Instagram illustrations. Most of Andrew’s illustrations on Instagram and within her debut book, Am I There Yet?portray finding yourself and/or creating yourself as the person you want to be, and all of the mishaps and misfortunes that happen along the way. 

While I love peeping at Andrew’s illustrations on Instagram and gaining bite size perspective, her book is situated into different chapters (such as heart break) and Andrew typically prefaces each chapter by contextualizing different events that have influenced her perspective on the theme. The contexts were helpful because they illuminated how Andrew experienced a huge perspective shift in her 20s that changed how she approached subsequent problems and her life.

If you enjoy Andrew’s beautiful watercolor depictions on Instagram, you’ll probably enjoy flipping through this collection of illustrations and their back stories. I found it to be a very quick weekend read that left my heart feeling cozy. 

Publication Date: 27 March 2018 by Clarkson Potter PublishersFormat: Hardcover.

Author & Illustrator: Mari Andrew web/@instagram

The Financial Diaries by Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider

image1 (15)The Financial Diaries details a study conducted by a research team directed by Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider that investigates how families receive and spend income within a single year. I picked this up per the suggestion of a colleague that it would be helpful background reading for a project I’m embarking upon soon and I’m so happy that I did.

This book dives into the fact that we typically think of and analyze income in a way that is not compatible with how most families interact with money on a regular basis. Their study uncovers many essential pieces of family spending that we are missing when we think about income in more traditional ways.

When we think about a family’s annual income, we are often missing the spikes and dips of income that occur for families with inconsistent, and even sometimes, consistent income. For example, receiving a large tax refund might make a family’s income spike in a predictable way that they count on, through putting off paying certain debts or making large purchases until they receive their refund check. Families with inconsistent income, such as those with work that is seasonally influenced or is related to regional events, often have to plan ahead and put large chunks of their money aside to cushion their income during months where their paycheck is lighter. There are many reasons why this is difficult for families to surmount and this book does an excellent job of portraying these spending realities.

My big takeaway from this book is that (somewhat obviously, but something I hadn’t been able to articulately describe before) a lot of families are “sometimes poor.” The idea here is that families who appear to have middle income and possess the assets to be “stable” when you look at their family’s annual income actually have moments of being sometimes poor, where their income is dramatically lower than it is at other times of the year. Families confront this by trying to prepare for these dips in income, but also devote a lot of their income spikes to paying for purchases that were necessary during income dips. For these families, it becomes almost impossible to save for the future when they’re constantly catching up.

This was a very nuanced, necessary reframing of spending and saving within American families. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants a better understanding of income instability in America.

Publication Date: 4 April 2017 by Princeton University PressFormat: Hardcover.

Authors: Jonathan Morduch web & Rachel Schneider @twitter

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 8.00.09 PMI snatched up Wild at a resell shop after loving every word of Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, a compilation of bits of her advice column for Dear Sugar. I love the way that Strayed weaves a sentence and a feeling, so I knew that I would probably greatly enjoy her famous memoir about a very specific period of her life.

At 26, Strayed is newly divorced, reeling and grieving from the sudden death of her mother a few years ago, and feeling unattached to anything in the world. She sets forth to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT as it more regularly called, alone and entirely unprepared. What follows are her musings of her life up until 26 and all of the moving pieces that came together for her to feel compelled to tackle an incredibly difficult hike, despite lacking any hiking experience or training. Strayed felt like she had mountains to climb, both physical and mental, and that she needed to be alone to do it.

I found Wild to be entirely captivating, as I read through someone recounting the mistakes they made, acknowledging the harm they caused others, and descriptions of wading through grief. All by happenstance of when I stumbled upon this book, I ended up taking Wild to four different state parks in California which felt perfect and majestic and left me thinking that maybe I, too, could trek across the PCT. (Spoiler: I can’t and I won’t because Strayed is extremely lucky nothing very terrible happened to her on her hike; and because I quite enjoyed driving to the parks, getting lost in nature for a few hours, then piling back into a car and driving back to my quiet, air conditioning lodging).

Beyond inciting a need to place myself into nature, Wild moved me in other ways. Every time I read a piece from Strayed about losing her mother (see here for a post I share nearly every Mother’s Day), I feel suddenly seen, in a way that is striking and comfortable simultaneously. These were the parts of her memoir that bubbled within my chest for several days at a time. I loved reading about Strayed’s journey and all of the messy bits along the way. I hope to keep reading her words for years to come.

Publication Date: 20 March 2012 by KnopfFormat: Paperback.

Author: Cheryl Strayed web/twitter/instagram/facebook

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

IMG_0222I ate up this nonfiction number that weaves together the history of the LA library, the histories of libraries throughout all of time, the events involving the LA library fire in the 1980s, and tidbits about the many services that the library currently provides. 

Anyone who knows me knows that I am OBSESSED with libraries and the many services that they provide to the communities that they serve. Have you ever thought about how libraries are one of the only places in America where people can congregate for free without having to be a paying customer? In addition to access to books, computers, and knowledge, libraries provide many essential resources and services, like tax preparation tips, to their local communities. I’m so passionate about libraries that my old coworkers used to subtly bring up the library just to prod me into my tirade about the importance of libraries — I love libraries and I love this book! This is all to say, the appeal of this book may be totally niche, but I am the perfect reader for it.

Orlean is very talented in how she blends all of these histories, including an investigation into the cause of the great library fire, and modern day events together to create a brilliant nonfiction piece that is completely captivating. I talked about this book with everyone I saw while I was reading it and shortly after and I recommend you do the same!

& here’s my favorite lil fragment that captures the beauty and comfort of libraries,

“The library, where lonely people can feel slightly less lonely together”

Disclaimer: I was provided with a digital copy of this book for free from Simon & Schuster via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in the review are my own and have not been influenced by Simon & Schuster or NetGalley.

Publication Date: 16 October 2018 by Simon & SchusterFormat: Digital ARC.

Author: Susan Orlean web/@twitter

No Mud, No Lotus by Thich Nhat Hanh

Screen Shot 2018-08-05 at 12.47.31 PMThis slim little collection, by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, gave me plenty to ruminate upon while I was reading. Despite it’s dainty size, this book will take a bit to read because it incites long moments of reflection that I wanted to give myself time to ponder before moving along to another section.

Despite the full title (No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering) conveying that this is a book to read post a major moment of suffering, I picked this book up out of the blue and still benefited from reading it immensely. Much of the book focuses on cultivating happiness and redefining your interpretation of happiness to orient yourself to finding happiness in places you may not have before reading. There are many passages about how many people do not give themselves the time and space to consider their unhappy emotions and what may be at the root of those emotions, followed by suggested strategies for exploring and working through those “hidden” emotions. Some sections detail how our body holds suffering and happiness and I found myself writing a note to myself to “unclench my jaw” every 5 pages or so (something I need to remind myself even when typing up this blog!).

The book closes with a series of breathing exercises and mantras that I wish had been interspersed throughout the rest of No Mud, No Lotus instead of squished together at the end. I think the idea is that the reader is not ready for the exercises without fully understanding the meaning behind the messages, but I think sprinkling them throughout would have elevated the reading experience for me. This will definitely be a book I return to again, especially when I’m struggling to balance finding some bright spots in my life with the monotony of the every day.

Publication Date: December 2014 by Parallax PressFormat: Paperback.

Author: Thich Nhat Hanh @twitter/@facebook/Foundation/Monastic Community

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

leaninAfter learning that I would be dashing to Silicon Valley for the summer, I snatched up Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg (and co-writer Nell Scovell) to get a taste of her experience being one of the most powerful people at one of the most powerful companies in the area (she’s the Chief Operation Officer at Facebook).

Lean In is a slight combination of memoir, self help, and description of Silicon Valley. The parts I enjoyed most about the book revolved around Sandberg’s weaving in research findings about the workplace with real anecdotes. As a woman currently in tech, who often doubts herself (hello imposter syndrome, my old friend), reading about these studies were empowering. Many of the studies showed how women repeatedly disadvantage themselves by their mistaken beliefs about their own contributions (aka not believing that your contributions are worthy of a seat at the table) and their colleague’s incorrect beliefs (based on stigma, bias, etc.).

While I did enjoy most of the book, there were some caveats, most of which Sandberg highlights herself. A lot of her advice is specific to women who are 1)  partnered to supportive humans who empower them and share household responsibilities, 2) make an amount of money at their occupations that exceeds the costs of childcare, and 3) are well educated. This book is rooted in an ideology of “this is how I did it and you can too!” which is fundamentally false for many women who are or have been in the “workforce.” While Sandberg easily ties her success to her individual situation, that situation does not apply to everyone and there are many ways to get to a similar position to Sandberg’s other than her exact path described within the book.

All in all, I learned a bit, felt empowered, and wanted to send a hearty thanks to all of the powerful women in my life who have lifted me up in so many ways, all whilst encouraging me to do the same one day. That said, I was very much the target audience for a book like this and I could imagine it not being received as well by other readers.

Publication Date: 11 March 2013 by KnopfFormat: Hardcover.

Author: Sheryl Sandberg Lean In Organization/facebook/instagram