My Favorite 2018 Non-Fiction Reads

Like every single year, I didn’t read as much Non-Fiction as I meant to — but I did read a decent amount, more than I did in 2016-17 combined (he reports with only a hint of defensiveness). These are the best of the bunch.

(in alphabetical order by author)

Lessons From LucyLessons From Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog

by Dave Barry

My original post
So, I figured given the tile and subject that this would be a heavier Dave Barry read, with probably more tears than you anticipate from his books — something along the lines of Marley & Me. I was (thankfully) wrong. It’s sort of self-helpy. It’s a little overly sentimental. I really don’t know if this is Barry’s best — but it’s up there. Lessons From Lucy is, without a doubt, his most mature, thoughtful and touching work (that’s a pretty low bar, I realize — a bar he’s worked hard to keep low, too).

5 Stars

 The War Outside My Window The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865

by Janet E. Croon, ed.

My original post
LeRoy Wiley Gresham was 12 when he started keeping a diary. LIttle did he know at that point that he was about to witness the American Civil War (and all the desolation it would bring to Georgia) and that he was dying (he really didn’t figure that out until the very end). Instead you get an almost day-by-day look at his life — what he does, reads, hears about (re: the War) and feels. It’s history in the raw. You have never read anything like this — it will appeal to the armchair historian in you (particularly if you’ve ever dabbled in being a Civil War buff); it’ll appeal to want an idea what everyday life was like 150 years ago; there’s a medical case study, too — this combination of themes is impossible to find anywhere else. This won’t be the easiest read you come across this year (whatever year it is that you come across it), but it’ll be one of the most compelling.

5 Stars

TimekeepersTimekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time

by Simon Garfield

My original post
I, for one, have never thought that much about my relation to time, my relation to clocks/watches, etc. I know they govern our lives, to an extent that’s troublesome. But where did that come from, how did we get hooked on these things, this concept? These are brief studies/historical looks/contemporary observations — and I’m not selling it too well here (trying to keep it brief). It’s entertainingly written, informative, and thought-provoking. Garfield says this about it:

This is a book about our obsession with time and our desire to beat it. . . The book has but two simple intentions: to tell some illuminating stories, and to ask whether we have all gone completely nuts.

He fulfills his intended goals, making this well worth the read.

4 Stars

Everything is NormalEverything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid

by Sergey Grechishkin

My original post
If you grew up in the 80s or earlier, you were fascinated by Soviet Russia. Period. They were our great potential enemy, and we knew almost nothing about them. And even what we did “know” wasn’t based on all that much. Well, Sergey Grechishkin’s book fixes that (and will help you remember just how much you used to be intrigued by “Evil Empire”). He tells how he grew up in Soviet Russia — just a typical kid in a typical family trying to get by. He tells this story with humor — subtle and overt. It’s a deceptively easy and fun read about some really dark circumstances.

4 Stars

Planet FunnyPlanet Funny: How Comedy Took Over Our Culture

by Ken Jennings

My original post
Half of this book is fantastic. The other half is … okay. It’ll make you laugh if nothing else. That might not be a good thing, if you take his point to heart. We’ve gotten to the point now in society that laughter beats honesty, jokes beat insight, and irony is more valued than thoughtful analysis. How did we get here, what does it mean, what do we do about it? The true value of the book may be what it makes you think about after you’re done.

3.5 Stars

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (Audiobook)The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

by Mark Manson, Roger Wayne (Narrator)

My original post
This is an enjoyable, amusing, call to re-examine your priorities and goals. It’s not about ceasing to care about everything (not giving a f^ck), but about being careful what you care about (giving the right f*cks). Manson’s more impressed with himself than he should be, but he’s a clear and clever writer displaying a lot of common sense. Get the audiobook (I almost never say that) — the narration is worth a star by itself (maybe more).

4 Stars

Dear Mr Pop StarDear Mr Pop Star

by Derek & Dave Philpott

My original post
If you read only one book off this list, it should probably be the next one. But if you pick this one, you’ll be happier. This is a collection of correspondence to pop musicians/lyricists picking apart the lyrics, quibbling over the concepts, and generally missing the point. Then we get to read the responses from the musician/act — some play with the joke, some beat it. Sometimes the Philpott portion of the exchange is better, frequently they’re the straight man to someone else. Even if you don’t know the song being discussed, there’s enough to enjoy. Probably one of my Top 3 of the year.

5 Stars

ThemThem: Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Hea

by Ben Sasse

My original post
My favorite US Senator tackles the questions of division in our country — and political divisions aren’t the most important, or even the root of the problem. Which is good, because while he might be my favorite, I’m not sure I’d agree with his political solutions. But his examination of the problems we all can see, we all can sense and we all end up exacerbating — and many of his solutions — will ring true. And even when you disagree with him, you’ll appreciate the effort and insight.

5 Stars

Honorable Mention:

Henry: A Polish Swimmer's True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to AmericaThe Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

by Steven Pinker

I started this at a bad time, just didn’t have the time to devote to it (and the library had a serious list waiting for it, so I couldn’t renew it. But what little I did read, I thoroughly enjoyed and profited from — am very sure it’d have made this post if I could’ve gotten through it. I need to make a point of returning to it.

The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee by R. David Cox

The Religious Life of Robert E. LeeThe Religious Life of Robert E. Lee

by R. David Cox
Series: Library of Religious BiographyPDF (will be published as paperback), 259 pg.
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017
Read: December 25, 2016 – January 1, 2017

I feel always as safe in the wilderness as in a crowded city. I know in whose powerful hands I am, & in them rely, & I feel that in all our life we are upheld & sustained by Divine Providence. But that Providence requires us to use the means he has put under our control. He deigns no blessing to idle & inactive wishes, & the only miracle he now exhibits to us, is the power he gives to truth & justice, to work their way in this wicked world.

So wrote Robert E. Lee in a letter to his wife while serving in Texas, and according to R. David Cox it summarizes his theology. If you have to sum up a man’s theology in 3 sentences, that’s a decent one to have.

Robert E. Lee was no theologian, he wasn’t a pastor or preacher or religious scholar of any kind. He was a churchman, however. Seemingly a faithful one who served as he could — and he was a believer in the middle of a tumultuous time for American Protestantism and American as a whole, as such what he thought about the tumult from his religious perspective is instructive and fascinating reading. Which is pretty much why anyone might want to read this (and probably why Cox wrote the thing).

By and large, the book is a chronological look at Lee’s life, what’s going on in the national and ecclesiastical culture, and how Lee (and his family members — particularly his wife) responded to it and how his faith grew throughout his life. It’s not exactly a biography, but it is biographical. There were a couple of chapters that stepped back from the chronological look, and examined Lee’s perspectives on specific topics (the above quotation about providence comes from one of those). I particularly enjoyed and appreciated those.

I was surprised how little space was devoted to the years of The War Between the States, honestly. It may be that there wasn’t that much material — Lee was probably too busy to write a lot of things in letters that he might normally have (like: thoughts about sermons heard, theology, ecclesiastical concerns, etc.), that’d certain be understandable. Cox might be the one historian who doesn’t like writing about that time period. It might just be that his pre- and post- War writings were better material for the book — there are any number of good reasons for it, I was just surprised that the one thing the man is best known for is so little represented in the book.

One of the drawbacks of this book is the author’s perspective on Lee himself (at least what came across to me as his perspective, I could have read him wrong, he could have written it in such a way as to be easily misinterpreted, etc.). I’m not saying that I want a hagiography, nor do I want Cox to be some sort of Lee fanboy. A critical eye is essential. There’s an element of Chronological Snobbery (to borrow Lewis’ phrase) here when reflecting on Lee’s racial and political views. I have no problem with Cox disagreeing with them (I disagree with many of them), but he came across as patronizing (at least on the border of it). To a lesser degree, I thought the same about some of Lee’s religious views. But this didn’t crop up often, and when it did, it was easy to gloss over or ignore. It’s a drawback to the book, but not a reason to avoid it. If anything, Cox came across as detached and neutral when it came to the subject and his religion (it was impossible to tell if Cox shared any aspect of belief with Lee) 98% of the time. It’s just that 2% or so . . .

This is a part of Eerdman’s Library of Religious Biography series — which I hadn’t heard of until now. I have one sitting at the top of my To Be Bought pile (talked about it last month in a Saturday Miscellany post), but I didn’t realize it was part of a series. The books in the series are intended to “link the lives of their subjects – not always thought of as ‘religious’ persons – to the broader cultural contexts and religious issues that surrounded them.” It’s a fascinating concept, and I’m glad this series exists. I hope to get more of them soon.

This was a fascinating read, if a bit dry and detached. Neither’s bad, and may be commendable under the right circumstances (which may include such a divisive figure as Lee), but it doesn’t make for the best read. That, plus my ambivalence towards some of Cox’s attitudes toward the subject, makes me rate this 3 Stars. That’s still a recommendation, and I’ll gladly tell anyone to read it — believer or nonbeliever — if they want to understand Lee better, but I’m not that enthusiastic about the book.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this opportunity.
N.B.: As this was an ARC, any quotations above may be changed in the published work — I will endeavor to verify them as soon as possible.


3 Stars

No Problem, Mr. Walt by Walt Hackman

Reposting this in honor of the book launch tomorrow. This’d make a great Father’s Day gift, for those looking for something that’s not a tie. . .

No Problem, Mr. WaltNo Problem, Mr. Walt: A Memoir of Loss, Building a Boat, Rebuilding a Life, & Discovering China

by Walt Hackman
Publish Authority, 2016
Read: February 18 – 26, 2016

Walt Hackman led an interesting life — sometimes, too interesting. At the age of 55, while trying to decide how to move forward from some major life changes and recover from a great tragedy, he decides to fulfill a long-held dream and move onto a boat. The question was only: what kind of boat?

He decides on a Chinese Junk. And then proceeds to figure out how to get one built for him — not a replica, not a used Junk — but an authentic, Chinese, made they way they’ve been made for centuries, built just for him.

As mid-life crises go, it’s a lot more creative and original than a red Porsche. *

The process was long, involved, troubled, and confusing. Which is works out well for the reader, because it makes for an interesting story for Walt to tell. He walks us through the process involving banks, embassies, multi-national shipping, translators (professional and not), engineers, trans-pacific flights, and a whole lot of tea.

But it’s not just a story about getting his Junk built — it’s a story about Hackman learning how to get things done in China, what he learned about the culture, and how he applied that. For me, this was the most appealing part (really, as interesting as it was, the boat portion of his tale was pretty straightforward).

Hackman did a lot of research into Chinese culture and history — and shares that with his reader. You could get a quick and dirty understanding of Chinese history just by reading the little his chapter introductions. But it’s not just about the big things like the Great Wall, the history of Chinese shipbuilding, various leaders, and whatnot — he talks about culture — the need to make sure everyone saves face in a discussion (and how to ensure that), and even Chinese singing and fighting (??) crickets — which are sometimes kept as pets, in tiny little boxes.

It wouldn’t be a book about international travel, business, and misunderstandings without some travel horror stories — but wow, he had some doozies. Which is probably why those kind of stories are so ubiquitous, they’re great bits of temporary drama that everyone can relate to. They’re also great reinforcement for those of us who aren’t that into travel to stay home.

Second only to travel horrors, are stories about food when it comes to narratives about other countries/cultures. Hackman described both restaurant and home-cooked meals. He gave a lot of detail about home-cooking — both by his Chinese-American friend and her family in China. Also, thanks to an encounter Hackman had walking around and talking to strangers, I learned more about the traditional way to prepare duck than I ever wanted/needed to know.

Most of us have seen enough travel shows, documentaries, etc. about China to get the idea just how foreign a land it is to Western eyes (even The Drew Carey Show sufficiently demonstrated that), and Hackman’s descriptions helped reinforce that. But more effective was his bringing things like coming home to the aftermath of the L. A. Riots (that he had no idea were happening) demonstrated the contrast with his time in China and underlined how otherworldly it can be over there (although in the age of 24-hour news cycles and smartphones, that might not be as stark now.).

It’d be easy to expect this book to be an exploration of Hackman’s dealing with the emotional and familial hardships in his life — but nope. It’s just what it promises: a story about a man trying to get a boat built. That other stuff happens, you can tell, but that’s not what this book is about — part of me would’ve like to see how his construction project helped him find the distance or whatever he needed — but I just found it refreshing that he didn’t use this story as an excuse to deal with all that in print.

Actually, now that I think of it — that’s pretty typical of Hackman — he doesn’t share his thought process (by and large) with the reader. We don’t really get an explanation for his choice of Chinese Junk, just that after some thought, he picked that. We see the results of his thinking, we see some of what his research (both via book and being around the culture) have taught him — but we get almost nothing of the process. Now, that’s a strange approach for this kind of book (at least by current standards), but it works.

The book’s subtitle is: “Building a Boat, Rebuilding a Life, & Discovering China.” Well, Walt Hackman does all three, but we really only get to see two of those. Building his boat and discovering China are enough to carry the book, and allow him to do the rebuilding. This is not the kind of book I normally read, but when Hackman contacted me about reading an ARC, something about it made me sign on — and I’m glad I did. It’s a fascinating book and an easy, rewarding read. Give it a shot, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Disclaimer: I was provided an Advance Reader Copy in exchange for an honest review – I still might end up getting a hard copy, just so I can have that cover to look at easily (can’t tell much from that thumbnail, but it’s great – click through to the website and check it out).

* I’m not trying to make light of everything Hackman was going for, his crises were a lot worse than most.


3.5 Stars