Non-Fiction Roundup

I didn’t read a single piece of fiction this summer. This is unheard of. What’s even more surprising is that I read all four non-fiction books cover to cover and enjoyed most of them. From favorite to least:

Switch cover
Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath — When I described it to him, Boyfriend S thought this sounded like Brainwashing at Home for Fun and Profit, but it’s really more about encouraging change: change in yourself (go to the gym regularly), change in your country (respect this endangered species instead of eating it, an example from the book), or change in your organization (get your students to recycle bottles properly, not that I have that problem at all). I found it utterly fascinating, and I highly recommend it if you, like me, start a lot of sentences with, “Why can’t people just…”

Happiness Project cover
The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin — The subtitle gets it about right: “Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun.” The Bitch Magazine article “Eat Pray Spend” lumps this book with Eat Pray Love in the category “priv-lit,” which I don’t actually think is fair. Rubin’s whole mission is to be happier in her own life, with her own job and two young kids and minor daily joys and annoyances. (I want to go off on a tangent about priv-lit here, especially as it applies to YA, but I’ll have to save that for another post.)

She’s full of little tricks and Lifehacks for greater happiness/sanity. (A particular favorite of mine is the One-Minute Rule: if it can be done in less than a minute — recycling the junk mail, putting the dishes in the sink — do it right away.) Rubin’s approach to happiness is not everyone’s, but you might find the book interesting even if you do not, like me, believe that “happiness” is synonymous with “organization, productivity, and lists.” Thanks for the rec, Jaime!

Strength in What Remains cover
Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder — Moving out of the self-help realm here… this is the gripping biography of Deo, a Burundian med student who escaped the Burundian/Rwandan genocide and worked his way up from a homeless New York grocery delivery man with only a few words of English to a major player in Partners in Health (and now, a med student again). “Overcoming all odds” books are not usually my cup of tea (er, my Three Cups of Tea?), but Kidder is an excellent writer and I couldn’t help but like Deo. Kidder is speaking at my school this fall, and I’m very much looking forward to it.

Power of Half cover
The Power of Half, by Kevin Salwen and Hannah Salwen — Driven by the inspiration of their teenage daughter Hannah, the Salwens decide to downgrade from a huge house to a more moderate one and donate half the proceeds to charity. I suggested this as a faculty summer reading book this year, but I ended up being disappointed in it. For a journalist, Kevin is a facile writer, too often going for the easy joke or obvious characterization. I was frustrated with all the sanctimonious comparisons between his family and others’ (that family treats their son to a steak dinner when he hits a lot of home runs, but we have family bonding time at a cheap diner over how to save the world).

I wanted more philosophical wrestling with the problems of “How much can we do without sacrificing too much?” and “Why Africa, rather than our own community?” The family clearly has a lot of financial privilege, but rather than dealing with that honestly, Kevin often sidesteps it and tries to cast them as Everyfamily. The book couldn’t seem to decide what it wanted to be — family autobiography? manual for how you too can implement the “power of half”? discussion of the problems with charitable giving in the developing world? — and it ended up doing none of those things very well. (That said, I do think it has a fantastic cover: eye-catching and evoking the coziness of a smaller family home over the sacrifice.)

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One Response to Non-Fiction Roundup

  1. Karen Keely says:

    I had a similar fiction-less summer, perhaps the first ever, and found myself enjoying nonfiction. I feel a little guilty about this (what kind of English teacher am I anyway?), but am trying to let that go.

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