Category Archives: Non-Fiction

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness

brain on fireIt’s been a while since I’ve posted, but then again, it’s been awhile since I read something that I liked enough to share with you.  But Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan, is definitely a book worth sharing.

Brain on Fire is Cahalan’s account of her mysterious neurological illness which essentially caused her to go crazy.  Cahalan went from being an ordinary woman in her mid-twenties who had everything–a job she liked, an apartment of her own, and even a new boyfriend–to someone her friends and family didn’t even recognize, both in physical appearance and personality.

One thing I found very interesting about this book is that it’s a memoir written by someone who has almost no memory of the experience she’s writing about.  It works because of Cahalan’s journalistic background.  She starts the book by explaining her process–she conducted countless interviews with her family, friends, and doctors and nurses, had access to surveillance videos taken of her during her time in the epilepsy ward at NYU, and used that information to build upon the few memories she had from that time.  The end result is a gripping, “user friendly” account of a medical mystery and how it affected her life.

Many times throughout the book, Cahalan wonders how many people who suffer from the same disease go untreated, resulting in death or institutionalization, and it is that haunting question that has remained with me as a reader.

Cahalan, Susannah. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

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Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain

proust and the squid

Reading changes our lives, and our lives change our reading.

I am an English major through and through.  Science is interesting, but mostly over my head, and math–ha!  But the subject matter of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, by Maryanne Wolf, convinced me venture into the realm of science (at least, the kind of science an English major can understand and appreciate).

The book is divided into three distinct sections: “How the Brain Learned to Read,” “How the Brain Learns to Read Over Time,” and “When the Brain Can’t Learn to Read.”  The first section gives an overview of the history of language, writing, and reading and how the human brain had to evolve to accommodate such developments.  The most interesting and important thing I learned from this section of the book is that our brains are not hard-wired to read; over time we have sculpted our brains into “reading brains.”  The second section focuses on the process children go through to learn to read.  In essence, Wolf explains how the childhood brain undertakes the same challenge in about 2,000 days as the collective human brain accomplished in about 2,000 years.  Finally, the third section examines the brains of those with reading disabilities, specifically dyslexia.  Wolf is the director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Boston, and this section of the book is where she brings in her team’s findings.

I strongly believe in the importance of reading in childhood, and therefore the importance of children’s literature.  There were a number of times in Proust and the Squid that Wolf confirmed this importance, and perhaps that is the reason I liked the book so much.  For example, she defends the merits of children’s books such as Harry Potter by explaining, “The worlds of Middle Earth, Narnia, and Hogwarts provide fertile ground for developing skills of metaphor, inference, and analogy, because nothing is ever as it seems in these places” (138).  Wolf also points out a study that found that “the average young middle-class child hears 32 million more spoken words than the young underprivileged chid by age five” (20) simply because the middle-class child is so much more likely to be frequently read aloud to.

I would recommend this book to anyone who believes in the importance of reading, especially in light of an increasingly digital world.

Wolf, Maryanne. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007.

Designed by Renato Stanisic.  Image from

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Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

quietI have been described as “quiet” my whole life.  I am not the person in the middle of the crowd, I am the one on the edges, watching and listening.  I need time to myself, and I can only put up with large groups of people for so long.  I enjoy in-depth conversations, but excessive small talk wears me out.  In short, I am an introvert.

General opinion often prefers extroverts–the life of the party, the smooth talker, the one who exudes confidence.  But in Quiet, Susan Cain makes the case for the “quiet leaders.”.  She uses well known and influential people such as Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt as examples of how the world needs introverts as well as extroverts to reach its full potential.  Cain assures readers that introversion is not something to be suppressed like a bad habit, but simply a different way of viewing the world.  Cain stresses the need for an understanding of why introverts and extroverts act the way they do–an understanding that can result in a much stronger and less stressful relationship between spouses, parents and children, and coworkers.

I have never been ashamed to be an introvert, but after reading Quiet I have found that I appreciate my introversion and identify as such without hesitation.  I am happy to simply listen, and proud to be a quiet leader.  I feel that this is a book everyone should read, to see in a new light the value of the introverts in their life (or themselves!) that is so often overlooked.

Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Crown, 2012.

Image from  Cover design by Laura Duffy.  Cover photography by Joe Ginsberg/Getty Images.

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Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow

potluck supper with meeting to followPotluck Supper with Meeting to Follow, by Andy Sturdevant, is funny, authentic, and completely original.  Although Sturdevant isn’t originally from Minnesota, his collection of essays represents Minnesota and the Twin Cities beautifully. In fact, many, if not most of the essays actually taught me something about the Twin Cities’ art scene, history, and/or culture, and I’ve lived in the Cities all my life!

The essays cover a variety of topics, from the life and times of the resident artist of the Metrodome (that no one I know even knew existed) in “Dome Light: The Life and Art of Martin Woodrich;” to an examination of the portraits of every one of Minnesota’s governors that hang in the capitol building in “‘Have a seat, citizen, I’m here to help’: The Completist’s Guide to the Thirty-Nine Gubernatorial Portraits of the Minnesota State Capitol;” to a rather heated email exchange between Sturdevant and the Senior Associate Director of Marketing and Brand Communications of Buffalo Wild Wings in “‘Don’t you think it’s extremely arrogant to presume that because I enjoy the music of Wayne County & the Electric Chairs I am somehow obligated to share your worldview?'”  There is something in this book to make everyone at least crack a smile!

Sturdevant’s voice is amazingly clear.  I was fortunate enough to attend a reading of this book, and as Sturdevant read I realized that hearing the essays in his own voice was exactly the same as I had heard them in my head while reading.  He has a knack for seeing things as they really are and describing them in such a way that the reader feels like Sturdevant has written down a feeling they’ve always had but have never been able to articulate.

Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow is the kind of book that will make you laugh out loud, and that is my favorite kind of book!  If you are Minnesotan, this book should be required reading, and if you’re not Minnesotan, well, you should read it anyways because you just might get an idea of why we all choose to live here despite below-zero temperatures half the year!

Sturdevant, Andy. Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2013.

Cover and book design by Andy Sturdevant and Linda Koutsky.  Image from

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The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America

the devil in the white cityThe Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, is a book I had heard a lot of chatter about at work.  My colleagues highly recommended it, customers requested it so often I knew exactly where to find it in the store, and I even had a mom engrossed in it while her child played in the kid’s section.  It was obvious I would have to read it, but I decided to try something a little different–I bought it as an audiobook, and listened to it on a long road trip.  I must say, it was quite a nice way to be told a story.

And what a story it is!  The Devil in the White City is a historical (aka true!) story about two men who were greatly affected by the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893.  They were Daniel Hudson Burnham, the architect and director of works of the Fair, and Henry H. Holmes, a serial killer who drew his victims from the people poring into the city for the fair.  Larson seamlessly weaves together these two stories, creating a historical book that reads like a thriller.

I’m usually not one for historical nonfiction books, but The Devil in the White City completely sucked me in.  Not only was it exciting and suspenseful, but I learned so much about an event in my country’s history that has had a lasting affect, even though I (and I’m sure many others) knew nothing about it.  This event was the genesis of classic fair elements like the Ferris wheel and the Midway; Milton Hershey bought chocolate making equipment from a European exhibitor at the Fair so he could add chocolate products to his caramel company; and the artistic director of the Fair, Francis David Millet, invented spray paint to more quickly paint the buildings at the Fair.  And those are just a few notable things the Chicago World’s Fair introduced to American life!

I highly recommend this book, and promise it will be a book like you’ve never read before!

Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. New York: Vintage, 2003.

Book design by Leonard W. Henderson.  Image from

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Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story

love, life, and elephantsLove, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story is an autobiographical account of the life and work of Dame Daphne Sheldrick.  Born and raised in Kenya, Sheldrick was a lover of and advocate for nature even in childhood.  Both her first and second husband’s jobs gave her the opportunity to live in various Kenyan National Parks, where she came in contact with many orphaned animals, from elephants and rhinos to birds and impala.  These experiences led to her life’s work–to rescue, raise, and reintroduce into the wild orphaned animals.  The title of this book is very appropriate because it really is about the love between husband and wife, parent and child, and human and animal; the ups and downs of life; and of course the animals!

I have to admit, I picked up this book out of nostalgia for my time abroad in South Africa, and although it takes place in Kenya, it didn’t disappoint.  Many of the animals she raised, including zebra, impala, eland, rhinos, and of course elephants were animals I encountered in South Africa.  The struggle against poaching that Sheldrick so ardently describes in the book hit close to home as well, since I learned quite a bit about the very real danger rhinos are in due to poaching in South Africa right now.

I also have to admit that when I first started reading, I was a little afraid that the book would turn out to be boring, but luckily that was not the case!  Sheldrick writes clearly and eloquently, and she created a story that is full of both facts and emotion.  Anyone with a soft spot in their heart for Africa, animals, and/or a good love story will not be disappointed in this book!

Sheldrick, Daphne. Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.

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The Latehomecomer

the latehomecomerThe Latehomecomer, a memoir by Kao Kalia Yang, is a powerful and moving illustration of the Hmong experience.  Yang starts by giving the reader a little historical background on the Hmong situation in Laos after the Vietnam War, interwoven with her family’s history.  She shares her family’s escape from Laos to Thailand and their life in the Thai refugee camps, where Yang was born and lived until she was six years old; she shares their overwhelming and exhausting journey to America; and she shares how they settled and acclimated to their new life in Minnesota.  The love Yang’s very large family has for one another, and the way they support each other through good and bad (“bad” being far worse than many of us could ever imagine) is what makes this book so compelling.

I first came into possession of this book because my boyfriend was cleaning his house and, since hardly anybody hangs on to books the way I do, he was going to give it away.  I noticed that it was published by a Minnesota publishing house, Coffee House Press, and decided I would take it to read someday.  It sat in one of the many piles squeezed onto my sole bookshelf for a few weeks, when it caught my attention again at work.  One of the nearby schools was requiring it for summer reading, so I found myself putting it into customers’ hands at least twice a day.  My curiosity was piqued–after a few days I started reading it myself.

The Latehomecomer turned out to be a particularly fascinating for me.  My neighbors, who I have known since I was very little, are Hmong.  The father was born in Laos, and escaped on foot with his brothers, just like Kao Kalia Yang’s family did.  As the book progressed, I realized how little I know about my neighbors’ history and culture, and how little Americans know about the collective experience of the many Hmong refugees living in this country, and it made me feel sad and a little guilty.  Yang does a wonderful job of presenting the Hmong experience through her family’s story, and The Latehomecomer is certainly a book well worth reading!

Yang, Kao Kalia. The Latehomecomer. Minneapolis: Coffee House, 2008.

Cover/book design by Linda Koutsky.  Cover photograph by Kao Kalia Yang.  Image from

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Reading Lolita in Tehran

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Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi, is self-described as “a memoir in books.”  It could not be described more accurately.  Nafisi uses books to shed light on the lives of the citizens (and particularly women) of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  The books end up being completely relevant to her own life, as well as the lives of the students in her secret class.

In Reading Lolita in Tehran, Nafisi, a literature professor, starts an all-female book group at her house after she leaves the university because she disagrees with the government.  The students are hand-picked based on their aptitude and appreciated of literature and knowledge.  They study Western literature, including Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, even though they are titles that have been banned by the government.  But perhaps it is the relationships they build and the things they learn about themselves and each other that is important.

I really enjoyed this book because it illustrates how reading and studying literature is important in a larger context.  Nafisi also makes a number of points about reading and the novel in general that I found to be both true and insightful.  For instance, she says, “…do not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life; what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth” (8).  This quote is especially important to the book because the idea of a novel as a “carbon copy of real life” is exactly the mentality that the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran that led to censorship.  And frankly, it is the idea that leads to censorship/banned books in our own country today, which I think is a shame.

I will leave you with one other quote that I felt incapsulated the spirit of this book: “I have a recurring fantasy that one more article has been added to the Bill of Rights: the right to free access to imagination.  I have come to believe that genuine democracy cannot exist without the freedom to imagine and the right to use imaginative works without any restrictions.  To have a whole life, one must have the possibility of publicly shaping and expressing private worlds, dreams, thoughts and desires, of constantly having access to a dialogue between the public and private worlds.  How else do we know that we have existed, felt, desired, hated, feared?” (309).

Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran. New York: Random House, 2003.

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Half the Sky

Women hold up half the sky.  -Chinese Proverb

Half the Sky, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, is a very different book from the kind that I usually choose to read, but I couldn’t be more grateful that my roommate encouraged me to give it a shot.  While Half the Sky tells some stories that are hard on the heart, it couldn’t be more inspirational to hear about how women who have suffered horrible ordeals and injustices use their experiences as a drive to do something good and worthwhile to help others.

Prostitution, sex slavery, honor killings, poor maternal health care, lack of education for girls, rape–these are just some of the obstacles facing women that Kristof and WuDunn choose to address.  They use a mixture of personal stories and statistics to drive home their point that many of the horrors and obstacles women around the world face are a mere result of being undervalued, and that it is the women who pay the price.

Seems like a pretty grim book, right?  Luckily, in each chapter Kristof and WuDunn also relate the efforts that are being made towards change.  Often these programs are grassroots efforts, run by women, for women.  It is easy to dwell on the bad things after reading a book like this, but it is important to remember that there is good in the world too!  Who could forget, after reading Half the Sky, about Edna, who has poured so much of her life, savings, and heart into her maternity hospital in Somaliland; or Mukhtar, the Pakistani woman who runs a school for anyone who wants to learn and wouldn’t quit speaking out about how little is done about the rapes of poor girls in her country, no matter how many times her government asked her to be quiet?  These kinds of stories, alongside the shocking statistics and horror stories, is what makes Half the Sky a worthwhile and important book for anyone and everyone to read.

Kristof, Nicholas D., and Sheryl WuDunn. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

Book design by Iris Weinstein.  Image from

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