Thursday, December 12, 2019

Mini Reviews: Nonfiction November

I read some awesome books during Nonfiction November, and I fell very behind on writing book reviews, so I thought I’d do some one-paragraph-style reviews. I’m not going to include summaries of the books because that would make this post colossal. Click the titles to see them on Goodreads.

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Rapid Reviews Of Things I Read During Nonfiction November

Category 1: Um . . . Not My Favorite

Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time by Michael Shermer 

I read about 2/3 of this one before I got frustrated and gave up. It doesn’t do what it says on the cover. The author spends most of the book debunking illogical beliefs. I know illogical things are illogical! I want to know why people believe them. The author wasn’t getting to the point fast enough for me.

Category 2: Pleasantly Average

Truevine: Two Brothers, A Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South by Beth Macy

I learned a lot, but the book isn’t quite what I expected. I guess the Muse brothers and their “kidnapping” by the circus in 1899 was too thin of a premise to sustain a whole book. The brothers are dead, and there isn’t enough information about their lives to make a book about them. To fill the gaps, the author writes about Virginia history, circus history, racism, the culture of early 1900s America, and anecdotes about how she did the research for this story. I bought the book because I was interested in the Muse brothers. Most of the book isn’t about them. It does contain fascinating historical information, though.

Vincent And Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman

I’m not overly interested in art, but I love that the book is written in vignettes, like you’re walking through a gallery, looking at pieces of people’s lives. I only knew the basics about Vincent Van Gogh, and I’d never heard of his brother, Theo. That seems a bit backwards because Vincent wouldn’t have been famous without Theo. Theo was an art dealer who financially supported Vincent and brought Vincent’s work to the public. Actually, I feel bad for Theo. He was responsible for supporting his giant, bad-decision-making family and keeping everything from going off the rails. He had to do all that while living with debilitating syphilis. It sucked to be Theo. Anyway, the book is well-written, but there are a few dropped plot threads, which probably happened because we don’t have records about how those situations turned out for the brothers. I also would have loved more pictures. Reading about art isn’t nearly as interesting as looking at it.

A Time To Dance A Time To Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518 by John Waller

An intriguing look at stress, mass hysteria, and cultural expectations. The most interesting chapter is the last one. The author talks about how people’s responses to stress have changed as our culture changed. Back in the dancing plague days, people thought life’s problems were caused by angry saints. They responded to stress by believing in curses and thinking they needed to please the saints. Nowadays, our culture sees stress through a medical lens. We respond to it by going to the doctor and complaining about headaches, stomachaches, insomnia, etc. Instead of appeasing saints, we take medication and do yoga. Our way of experiencing stress may seem bizarre to people in the future. I enjoyed the last chapter, but the rest of the book is dry and padded with repetitive information. The author does a lot of assuming and speculating. Historical records about the dancing plagues are sparse. I don’t think we know enough about them to write an entire book on the subject.

Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family by Garrard Conley

No one should have to go through conversion/ex-gay therapy. It’s horrific. I was cringing through a lot of this book, but the author does a nice job of helping the reader understand why he agreed to attend a conversion camp. I appreciate seeing life from the author’s perspective because he’s trapped between two worlds. He grows up in a home where life revolves around his family’s Christian faith. Then he goes to a college that encourages him to read widely and question everything. I felt his fear and confusion. It’s a compelling story, but I can tell that this is the author’s first book. It’s both overwritten and underdeveloped. Mundane things are described in mind-numbing detail. Some of the scenes need more depth and tension to be truly impactful. This book reminds me of the stuff I read (and wrote) in college writing workshops. I’d like to see the movie, though. I’ve heard it’s awesome.

Category 3: Would Recommend

Honor Girl: A Graphic Memoir by Maggie Thrash

It creeps me out that the people in the drawings don’t have pupils. Just empty white eyes. That’ll give you nightmares. Despite that issue, this is a fast, enjoyable read full of loveable kids with big personalities. This is one of the better graphic novels (graphic nonfictions?) I’ve read. It reminded me of the (mis)adventures I had at Girl Scout camp as a child. The dialogue is hilarious. There are a few awkward transitions between scenes that confused me. I thought I’d skipped a page or something. Also, the characters look similar, so it took me a while to remember who was who. Those are minor issues. I liked this one very much.

Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang and Nate Pedersen

I know the world has problems, but I’m grateful to live in this century. At least when I get sick, a doctor doesn’t show up to remove half my blood. Yuck. I was surprised at how pretty this book is. It has colorful graphics and an easy-to-read layout. Instead of talking about medicine’s strange history in a linear way, it has sections, such as “Animals,” “Mysterious Powers,” and “Tools.” It’s easy to bounce around and find what interests you. You’ll be shocked at the bizarre things that people have done to their bodies. The writing style is lively. I laughed a few times, which is great because the subject matter is a bit . . . gruesome. I think the authors occasionally overdid it with their jokes. Instead of enhancing the story, they became distracting.

Category 4: Go Read This!

Born A Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

Best book of Nonfiction November! Probably one of my best books of the year. Even if you’ve never seen Trevor Noah’s comedy shows, you should read his memoir. I promise you’ll be entertained while learning about South Africa’s culture, history, and flawed legal system. Each chapter reads like a short story / essay about an incident from the author’s childhood. I’m not entirely sure how he survived to adulthood. Between South Africa’s cruel laws and the trouble he brings on himself, he shouldn’t be alive. The book is accessible and insightful. You feel like you’re there with the author while he’s being thrown out of a moving car or (accidentally) burning down a white family’s home. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking.

Have you read any good nonfiction recently?


  1. I stay pretty far away from non-fiction. I think the last one I read was some time last year, Bossypants, which I enjoyed. I have Thrash's book, I guess from BEA or something, but I still haven't read it. Good to hear it's worth a look.

  2. Good reviews and the Vince and Theo is more interesting to me for having seen a recent show of Van Gogh and those who influenced him (mostly through his art dealing brother).

  3. I like how you've categorised these (ha) plus 8 NF books is great!!

  4. I love Trevor Noah and watch his show often! I was hesitant when he replaced Jon Stewart (big fan), but I shouldn't have been worried. I knew he'd written a book, but this is the first review I've seen for it. I'm happy to hear it's amazing! I'm going to see if my library has a copy while I'm thinking about it. :)

    Lindsi @ Do You Dog-ear? ☃💬

  5. I think I want to read Vincent and Theo, now! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 👍✨

    1. Maid was my favorite Nonfiction this year. 🙌🙌🙌

  6. Vincent and Theo was an interesting read - I wasn't expecting that writing style. It was also.. kind of depressing? I felt so bad for so many of the individuals.

  7. Great selection of reviews! I never knew Van Gogh had a brother. That just made me go on a rabbit hole of reading all about Theo.

    Elle @ Keep on Reading

  8. That dancing plague was a weird thing! I read a few articles about that years ago. I've had a great couple of months with my non fiction-politics, history, sharks, military, Game of Thrones related...

  9. Completely agree with you about Born A Crime. One of the best books I read this year too.

  10. I NEED to read Trevor Noah because I freaking LOVE him, so I am glad the book was good too! Quackery and Honor Girl both sound really good, and I will be getting HG to read with my daughter, I think she'll enjoy that one! It really DOES suck to be Theo, considering we don't even know about him. The Dancing Plague is so interesting, and this dude had to go bore it up!? How dare. And as with the Muse Brothers, if there isn't enough material to write a full book about it... how about just don't? I feel like both could have been better served as perhaps a novella/whatever the non-fic version of that is? As for the asshat that didn't tell us why people believe illogical stuff, WOW. He sits on a throne of lies! I was hoping he could tell us why Trump supporters exist or something, but he too is a disappointment. Glad that most of these were at least tolerable!

  11. Looking forward to pick up Trevor Noah even more now.

  12. Glad you liked Born a Crime. I didn't expect it to be so good when I read it or to like it as much as I did because I didn't even really know who Trevor Noah was at the time. It's a great read.