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.

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Everything is Normal by Sergey Grechishkin

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

by Sergey Grechishkin

Kindle Edition, 336 pg.
Inkshares, 2018
Read: March 19 – 26, 2018

I would spend hours by the balcony window, watching smoke rise from the power station chimneys on the horizon and listening to the suburban trains chug by in the distance. Most of my memories of that time coalesce into a sense of timeless boredom. But after my first taste of bubble gum, something new began to mix with my malaise: jealousy of the kids in faraway countries who could chew such gum every day.

This is the kind of thing that you expect a memoir of growing up in the Soviet Union to be full of — a grim skyline, yearning for something unobtainable, a general malaise. But in Sergey Grechishkin’s book, you don’t get a lot of that — yes, it’s there, to be sure (how could it not be?), but there’s so much more.

Grechishkin writes with a vivacity, a thorough-going sense of humor, a spark of hope that you don’t expect — and are frequently surprised by. He doesn’t paint a rosy picture of the USSR in the 70s and 80s, but he paints a picture of a life with hope. The book focuses on his childhood — particularly school ages — we get a little before, we see him briefly in University, with a hint or two about what happens next. But primarily we’re looking at his time in school. This coincides with the time of Leonid Brezhnev (at least the tail end) through the early days of Mikhail Gorbachev, with all the changes those days entailed. It’s not an incredibly political book — but it’d be difficult to discuss life under these various leaders without mentioning them and the way each government was different from the previous.

A word about the humor — which is all over. We’re not talking Yakov Smirnoff, first off. Secondly we’re not talking about anything that makes light of the hardships, or denies them. But comments that can talk about the hardships in a way that is above to find the humor in the human condition or something else we can all relate to: like

So many Soviet friendships and even families have been formed while standing in lines.

Nothing major — just a quick smile as you read. At other times, he’ll deliver a hard truth about life in the USSR through a joke. Like here, when describing how they couldn’t process the appearance of Western athletes on TV during the 1980 Olympics criticizing their governments:

For those lucky Soviet citizens who were allowed to cross the border, any sort of misbehaving while abroad or giving the slightest hint at being unhappy with the Soviet workers’ paradise would mean no more trips anywhere except to camping locations in eastern Siberia.

You laugh, and then you realize that he’s talking about a harsh or sad reality while you’re laughing. I don’t know how many times I’d think about something being funny or actually be chuckling at something when I’d catch myself, because I realize what he’s actually getting at.

The jokes slow down as he ages and the narration becomes less universal and more particular to his life — looming chances of being sent to Afghanistan, and other harder realities of adulthood on the horizon. It’s still there, it’s just deployed less.

While narrating his life, Grechishkin is able to describe living conditions, schooling, medical care, shopping, food, friendships, family life, dating, Western movies, crime, the role of alcohol in society, political dissidents, and so much more. I enjoyed his discussing the experience of reading George Orwell (via photocopy) or listening to Western pop music — learning that LPs were “pressed at underground labs onto discarded plastic X-ray images.” You can do that? That sounds cool (and low-fidelity). Almost everything in the book seems just the way you’d expect it, if you stopped to think of it — but from Grechishkin’s life experience it seems more real.

This is one of those books that you want to keep talking and talking and talking about — but I can’t, nor should I. You need to read this for yourself. If only because Grechishkin can do a better job telling his story than I can. You really don’t think that this is the kind of book you can enjoy — but it is..

Did I have a happy childhood? Well, it was what it was. From a nutritional and a relationship standpoint, it wasn’t particularly great. But it also wasn’t awful or tragic. It was, when I look back on it now, normal.

Normal was a word that showed up more than once in my notes — despite everything around him, his childhood seemed normal (and its only now that I remember tat the word is in the title). I’m not saying that I’d trade places with him, his life was not easy — or that there weren’t kids in Leningrad who suffered more forms of deprivation or oppression (not to mention kids in less well-off areas in the USSR). But on the whole, he had a childhood thanks to a caring family, a good school, and good friends. Everything is Normal shows how against a bleak background, a normal life can be possible. It does so with heart, perspective, humor and a gift for story-telling. Exactly the kind of memoir that will stay with you long after you finish the book. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Inkshares in exchange for this post and my honest opinion.

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4 Stars

Opening Lines: Everything is Normal by Sergey Grechishkin

We all know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover (yet, publishing companies spend big bucks on cover design/art) (also, this has a great cover). But, the opening sentence(s)/paragraph(s) are fair game. So, when I stumble on a good opening (or remember one and pull it off the shelves), I’ll throw it up here. Dare you not to read the rest of the book.

from Everything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid by Sergey Grechishkin:

          

Anekdot

n.: the most popular form of Soviet humor, a short story or dialogue with a punch line, often politically subversive. “Being simultaneously independent from and parasitically attached to mass cultural production and authoritative discourse, the anekdot served as a template for an alternative, satirical, reflexive, collective voice-over narration of the Soviet century.”

Many of the anekdots under this book’s chapter headings were once punishable in the USSR by up to ten years of forced labor under article 58 of the criminal code (“ Anti-Soviet Propaganda”). This article was used freely to put critics of the Soviet government behind bars. Today, of course, things are very different in Russia. Now it’s article 282.

Maybe it’s just given the subject matter, I was expecting something dreary or earnest or incredibly serious — or all three, but man, I cracked up at that last sentence. I tell you, my friends, this book is going to have to work for less than 4 stars from me at this point.