Tag Archives: nonfiction

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful ForeversTitle: Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Author: Katherine Boo
ISBN: 9781400067558
Pages: 288
Release date: February 7, 2012
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Nonfiction
Format: eBook and paperback
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 5 out of 5

Behind the Beautiful Forevers had a long gestational period with me. I began it in February 2013 on a work trip to India. I quickly became immersed, partly because the book reflected so much of what I was seeing in Mumbai—the dramatic inequality; the overcrowded, underserved slums; the breathtaking optimism of those we met. India is overpowering enough on its own, and so I put the book down partway through so that I didn’t become too overwhelmed.

That feeling of being swept up into a powerful, often depressing story stayed with me, and I didn’t return to the book again until more than a year had passed. I knew it would capture me again, and I wasn’t ready. In July of this year, I finally finished it and chose it for the nonfiction book club at One More Page. I’m very glad I did—we had a wonderful discussion. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is, in turns, painful, disgusting, gorgeous, and heart-wrenching—and always incredibly well-written.


Yet I waited again to review it—six months, in fact. It’s a book that resonated deeply in me, one that I would recommend to pretty much anyone—quite possibly the best nonfiction book I’ve ever read. One of the best books I’ve ever read, period.

Yeah. Sounds like a lot of hyperbole.

Part of me wanted to wait to see if the book would hold up—if I would still feel that way after the people and their stories had coursed through me, diluting with time. Part of me was so affected by Boo’s deep storytelling and by the lives of those she observed for five years, I wondered if I could possibly do it justice—how could I possibly offer any insight or opinion that hadn’t been expressed before?

But here’s my take anyway: Behind the Beautiful Forevers has changed the way I look at journalism—changed the very way that I want to tell stories. I admire Boo’s patience, her dedication, how immersed and thoughtful she seems to have been, so unwilling to accept common narratives, so determined to tell nuanced stories.

But more than the techniques of the journalist, I admire all of the times that Boo stepped back and allowed her subjects and their narratives to shine. That’s what truly great writers do. They remind us of the secret hopes we all nurture, and they show us how, at heart, we are all the same, all in different ways. They allow the characters to speak directly to us, without artifice or interruption.

That’s not hyperbole.

Quotes of Note:

Annawadians now spoke of better lives casually, as if fortune were a cousin arriving on Sunday, as if the future would look nothing like the past.

It seemed to him that in Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they dodged.

Asha believed a person seeking betterment should try as many schemes as possible, since it was hard to predict which one might work.

Sunil and Abdul sat together more often than before, but when they spoke, it was with the curious formality of people who shared the understanding that much of what was said did not matter, and that much of what mattered could not be said.

Don’t just take my word for it! Buy Behind the Beautiful Forevers for yourself from an independent bookstore. Each sale from this link helps support Melody & Words.

“Answers I’ll Accept” edited by Kelly Ann Jacobson

OKCupid 3

OKCupidMy self-summary

I’m just a fun-loving collection of essays, looking for a reader who enjoys the same. Sometimes I like to get deep and talk about the pain other relationships have caused me, but most of the time I try to stay light and fun. Above all, you gotta have a sense of humor, am I right?

I’ll admit, I’ve been around the block a little bit. I’ve tried Match, OKCupid (my fav!), Craigslist, eHarmony, JDate, AOL chatrooms, emails and listservs–and sometimes, all of the above. I’m not just looking for love; everyone needs friends, and sometimes I just want to have dinner with someone who doesn’t have the social skills of the Unabomber. Could that be you?

I know that everyone has a different experience with love. I just hope I’m one of the success stories.

Favorite books, movies, shows, music, and food

Books: That’s me! ;)
Movies: Rom coms, documentaries
Music: Because I’m an anthology, I’ve got pretty diverse tastes. But I especially enjoy love songs—anything from Etta James to John Legend to Beyonce. All my single ladies!

I’m looking for

• Girls who like guys who like books
• Guys who like girls who like books
• Girls who like girls who like books
• Guys who like guys who like books

My Details

Orientation: Nonfiction (essay collection)
Height: 6 x 9 inches
Body Type: Paperback (80 pages)
Birthday: March 2014
Job: Publishing
Income: $9.99 per copy
Sign: CreateSpace
Relationship Status: It’s complicated
Offspring: No sequels… yet ;) With the right contributors, though, I’d consider a trilogy…

Hit me up if this sounds like a good match! I’m available at independent bookstores and Amazon.

(Each sale from these links helps support the silliness that is Melody & Words.)

“(T)here: Writings on Returnings” edited by Brandi Dawn Henderson

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 8.42.29 PMTitle: (T)here: Writings on Returnings
Editor: Brandi Dawn Henderson
ISBN: 9780615970554
Pages: 258
Release date: February 23, 2014
Publisher: Martlet & Mare Books
Genre: Nonfiction anthology
Format: ARC
Source: Review copy
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

I always thought I would live abroad. Instead I travel only in short bursts, two or three weeks, hardly long enough to get used to a new place before I’m back home. Culture shock for me is a feeling that comes in small moments: forgetting which direction to check for traffic before crossing the street, or telling time on a 12-hour clock again. It’s difficult for me to place the much larger issues that I bump up against on my brief trips in the context of a real life, and so I find myself focusing upon the minutiae.

I had thought that the “large moments” of life—wondering where my true home was, feeling as though I belonged everywhere and nowhere, fitting what I see in other parts of the world into my life back home—wouldn’t belong to me. I had not earned them, whether through distance traveled or time spent or special occasion missed. But this book quickly corrected me. Culture shock—and reverse culture shock—can happen to anyone, anywhere, and with anyone else.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized the extent to which my personality has been shaped by culture shock and its reverse. I adjusted quickly to life in a big city after growing up in a rural area; I learned how to survive at a respected university after a childhood spent homeschooling; I thrived in new, challenging jobs. And I learned the reverse of those experiences: I moved back to the small town where my family lived; I graduated from school; I took on new jobs and more challenging interests. Each time I traveled back and forth between one life and another, I felt pieces of who I thought I was slipping away, and I discovered other facets of myself—both good and bad—that I had little clue existed.

That’s the value of a collection like this: It shows so perfectly the extent to which we are all products of culture shock. You don’t have to leave everything you know and love behind; those “large moments” for which I’ve yearned may be achieved in the smallest gestures. From new careers to new homes, from mania and depression to illness and recovery, we navigate new worlds every day.

The voices in (T)here: Writings on Returnings are delightfully diverse, but they all point to one truth: The home you return to is rarely the same home you left. Even the shortest journeys—across countries and careers, states and states of mind—bring about lasting transformations.

Of course, in every essay collection, there is unevenness. I liked certain chapters much more than others, but the good passages made it all worthwhile. Colleen Wells’ “Other Lives” spoke to me more than any other essay in recent memory. Here are a few more passage that resonated with me:

I realize two months is probably a blink of the eye for more seasoned travelers, but I am a novice at the nomadic life. I am too quick at rooting myself, and so, I am not a leaver… I have always been a heavy traveler, bringing my entire world with me wherever I go. Upon my return, I seem to have brought Thimphu back with me, under my skin, and it is unbalancing me.
-Ujwalla Bhandari, “Alight, Heavy Traveler”

Tree branches snapped like gunshots as smoke hesitated sideways from a neighbor’s chimney.
-Donna Girouard, “Going Home”

It will break you, and it will put you back together, if you let it―that country.
-Carol Smallwood, “A Returning”

Nothing seemed quite as important, as terrible, or as beautiful as the country I had just left behind.
-Eva KL Miller, “Home is a Foreign Country”

God, sometimes normal is too damned dark a ride for some people…. That’s when I feel as though the lights should go on for everyone, the choirs should start singing – maybe Dad’s favorite prison song, If I had the wings of an angel, and far from these walls I could fly -; that’s when I feel as though we should all get it, deal with it, let it go, and understand when somebody says that they can’t go out to the store that day; maybe they never had to go to the store before, and if they did, maybe that time seems so, so far away, irretrievable.
-Rhonda Poynter, “The Wings of an Angel”

You can’t use words that you don’t know how to say.
-Ren Diller, “With Love to My (S)motherland”

Interested? (T)here: Writings on Returnings is available on Amazon in paperback. Each sale from this link helps support Melody & Words.

“The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin

The Happiness Project 1Title: The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun
Author: Gretchen Rubin
ISBN: 9780061583261
Pages: 336
Release date: January 2010
Publisher: Harper
Genre: Memoir/self-help
Format: Paperback
Source: Personal collection (nonfiction book club)
Rating: 4 out of 5

I am among the 44 percent of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions. I tend to think of my goals in more seasonal terms: each spring, summer, fall, and winter I rethink areas of my life that could use improvement.

But Gretchen Rubin takes this idea much, much further. And her goal, although multifaceted, is simple: In one year, she wanted to find ways to make herself happier.

Rubin isn’t depressed; she’s not even particularly unhappy. But, she figures, she could always be happier. On a scale of 1 to 5, she ranks her happiness at 3.92.

But that’s the whole point of her happiness project, Rubin writes: “One of my goals for the happiness project was to prepare for adversity—to develop the self-discipline and the mental habits to deal with a bad thing when it happened.” She wants to prepare herself for moments of future crisis by learning what makes her happy now, when there is no tragedy consuming her.

So what qualifies Rubin to become a happiness expert? Nothing, really. “They say that people teach what they need to learn,” she writes. “By adopting the role of happiness teacher, if only for myself, I was trying to find the method to conquer my particular faults and limitations.” The book is a highly subjective journey of one woman’s attempt to change the way she views and experiences her life—much more of a memoir than a how-to.

That’s a good thing, because Rubin and I seem to be quite different people. Nagging, one of her greatest faults, is, thankfully, not one of my major flaws, but I have to make a much greater effort to be organized and on top of things than Rubin seems to be. She’s an extravert who glories in planning get-togethers and establishing family traditions; I prefer a good book over talking to strangers, and I don’t really understand traditions. Nevertheless, I learned quite a bit from her account.

It’s all too easy to make lofty resolutions—“I want to be a kinder, better person”—but in order to follow through, you have to develop ways to attain those goals. Perhaps because I’m a goal-oriented person, I found the more concrete examples of the ways Rubin attempted to add happiness to her life, such as reading and writing; singing every morning; and promoting her blog.

Clearing the clutter in my life—both mental and physical—proved a difficult but extremely rewarding task. I found myself taking frequent breaks from reading  the book to make a stack of books to lend to friends, tackle items from my to-do list, and schedule dentist and eye doctor appointments.

Rubin found that adding more activities that make you happy increases your level of overall happiness. But perhaps even more important is decreasing the number of things that make you unhappy—like tackling my nagging to-do list made me feel lighter and less stressed. Furthermore, an important component of happiness is a sense of growth. “[I]t isn’t goal attainment but the process of striving after goals—that is, growth—that brings happiness,” she points out.

I was most looking forward to the section on money; after all, the idea that money buys happiness is one of our most prevalent myths. Yet the book was most disappointing in this section. Rubin seems quite well off, and although she reflects on the relationship between poverty and unhappiness, she doesn’t linger long:

When money or health is a problem, you think of little else; when it’s not a problem, you don’t think much about it. Both money and health contribute to happiness mostly in the negative; the lack of them brings much more unhappiness than possessing them brings happiness.

Most of the chapter after this reflection focuses on the personal expenditures she makes to try to boost happiness—shopping for clothes, office supplies, and the like. She makes one short note about a donation to the local library—where she spends dozens of hours a week working on her books—and that’s it.

I don’t expect her to give away all of her belongings and go live in the trash heaps of Mumbai. But as someone who seems to experience great financial security, Rubin lives in a different world than many of us, and it’s difficult to find many lessons in her experiences. I would have liked to see much more about the happiness lift that donating to charity or helping others in need can provide. Or perhaps a study in how living without money, or with less money, can change your perspective. Since money is so closely related to happiness, I was quite disappointed in this section.

Some of her mantras, such as “The days are long, but the years are short,” began to feel a bit stale from repetition. But I found many points that spoke to me, such as:

Enthusiasm is more important to mastery than innate ability, it turns out, because the single most important element in developing an expertise is your willingness to practice.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, despite drastic differences between our personalities and the paths Rubin takes to happiness. I recommend this book to anyone trying to establish new habits or focusing on self-improvement.

Don’t just take my word for it! Buy The Happiness Project from an independent bookstore or Amazon (a Kindle version is also available). Each sale from these links helps support Melody & Words.

“Quiet” by Susan Cain

QuietTitle: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
Author: Susan Cain
ISBN: 9780307352156
Pages: 368
Release date: January 29, 2013
Publisher: Broadway Books
Genre: Nonfiction/self-help
Format: E-book/paperback
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

According to my family’s mythology, I was what you might call a high-reactive baby. The slightest disturbance would leave me wailing. I was picky about sound, about food, about the way fabric touched my skin. When I was a year or so old and still cried like it was my full-time job, my mom took me to the doctor and said, “There has to be something wrong with her.” My mother herself cried when she found out she was pregnant with the brother who arrived after me, and her best friend comforted her by saying, “Don’t worry. When God made Melody, he broke the mold.”

True stories! And you people wonder why I only got more sensitive.

According to Susan Cain, the way I process stimuli—touch, sound, smell, sight—has implications for my personality. I react strongly to the merest hint of shiny/flashy things, and therefore easily become overstimulated. That’s why I like loud concerts and parties, but only when I’m able to go outside whenever I need to chill out. I hate crowded rooms and certain foods and God help me if I should touch velvet. (Ughhhhh. I get the creeps just thinking about it.)

Because I respond so strongly to the smallest things, I find it easier to cope in places where I can limit my exposure to stimulants. Like a darkened room, all by myself, where I can plot my revenge.

That, Cain writes, is part of what makes me an introvert. So I’m perfectly normal! It’s science!

“Our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race,” Cain writes.

And the single most important aspect of personality—the “north and south of temperament,” as one scientist puts it—is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum. Our place on this continuum influences our choice of friends and mates, and how we make conversation, resolve differences, and show love. It affects the careers we choose and whether or not we succeed at them. It governs how likely we are to exercise, commit adultery, function well without sleep, learn from our mistakes, place big bets in the stock market, delay gratification, be a good leader, and ask “what if.”

Yet, Cain points out, in the United States we have a predilection for the extrovert. “We’re told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable,” she explains. “Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.”

So who, exactly, is an introvert? It’s pretty simple, actually. An introvert recharges his batteries by being alone, whereas an extravert gets her energy by being around people. It doesn’t have anything to do with being shy or sensitive or energetic, although (as noted above) these qualities often go hand-in-hand. “Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation,” Cain writes, “while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating.”

Cain sometimes muddies the waters by addressing all of introversion’s “cousins” under the same umbrella, and extraverts may feel a little left out or picked on. But overall, I found the book to be illuminating and helpful in analyzing my own social interactions.

“We like to believe that we live in a grand age of creative individualism,” Cain writes. “But the way we organize many of our most important institutions—our schools and our workplaces—tells a very different story.” Cain continues:

As adults, many of us work for organizations that insist we work in teams, in offices without walls, for supervisors who value “people skills” above all. To advance our careers, we’re expected to promote ourselves unabashedly.

Such activities are not only counterproductive to introverts’ spiritual health; they might potentially affect the way an employer views her introverted employee’s job performance. Beyond coming to a greater understanding of my behavior as a child, this book has truly changed the way I view my professional life. At times, I need to put away the shy self who wants to hide in a corner at a work event, and get out there with a smile and an icebreaker. Although Cain advocates for more social acceptance of introverts, she acknowledges the power of learning how to be an extrovert in some situations—work events, parties, speeches. The motivation for acquiring such traits, she explains, is passion:

According to Free Trait Theory, we are born and culturally endowed with certain personality traits—introversion, for example—but we can and do act out of character in the service of ‘core personal projects.’

If something matters to you, you will find a way to overcome the qualities of your personality that may be holding you back from reaching your goal(s). However, recognizing that this is a stretch—that you would rather be at home in your pajamas with a good book—is key to maintaining a healthy, balanced life. Don’t force yourself into being someone else just because extraversion is all the rage right now. Just put on the qualities you need when you need them like a jacket, and discard them when you’re back home.

Besides, as Cain points out, things are changing in the business world. The interwebz allow you to do all your work from the quiet of your home, and social media allows you to be a leader without having to shake a single hand.

One final thought:

We all write our stories as if we were novelists, … with beginnings, conflicts, turning points, and endings. And the way we characterize our past setbacks profoundly influences how satisfied we are with our current lives. …

Those who live the most fully realized lives—giving back to their families, societies, and ultimately themselves—tend to find meaning in their obstacles.

Don’t just take my word for it! Buy Quiet from an independent bookstore or Amazon (a Kindle version is available). Each sale from these links helps support Melody & Words.

“The Misanthrope’s Guide to Life” by Meghan Rowland and Chris Turner-Neal

Misanthrope's GuideTitle: The Misanthrope’s Guide to Life (Go Away!)
Authors: Meghan Rowland and Chris Turner-Neal
ISBN: 9781440525087
Pages: 197
Release date: September 2011
Publisher: Adams Media
Genre: Humor
Format: ARC
Source: Review copy
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Scratching your head over what to get for your favorite misanthrope this holiday season? At a loss over what to slip into your post-collegiate kids’ stockings? You can’t go wrong with The Misanthrope’s Guide to Life, a slim, humorous book by Meghan Rowland and Chris Turner-Neal.

Rowland and Turner-Neal took DC by storm with the inappropriately funny 2birds1blog, intended as a twenty-something’s guide to life. Rowland and Turner-Neal excel at hip, raunchy humor that often references pop culture, and they always situate their humor in their real experiences: graduating from school, getting fired from a job, wondering whether they will ever find a career that both matches their talents and keeps the cable on.

DC’s hip-to-it readers have responded by voting them the Best Blog in the City Paper’s 2010 and 2011 polls, not to mention an admirable third-place in “Best Local Scandal of 2010.” (Who could possibly have competed with Marion Berry?) 2birds1blog has also attained distinction as WTOP’s “Best Local Blog” and an NPR intern’s “Best of the Web” picks.

The pair’s first book, The Misanthrope’s Guide to Life, offers advice on making friends (and somehow keeping them), commuting to work, the work/life balance, sex and love, surviving the holidays, and dying, to name a few. While the book purports to offer advice for misanthropes of all ages, it’s not surprising that the authors shine in the sections for twenty-somethings.

One of the best parts of the book include a rant well-known to fans: Meg’s distaste for those who ignore public transportation etiquette, from Metro pole-leaners to riders with rolling backpacks trailing behind them. The authors attribute such behavior to paradigm shifts:

In the past several decades, America’s understanding of what a “family” is has undergone significant changes. Children today are not necessarily raised by a mother and a father, but may be raised by a single parent, a same-sex couple, or, apparently, roving packs of rabid wolves.

Although their blog has become popular for going into hilarious and sometimes over-the-top detail about their daily lives, the book sticks strictly to its misanthropic theme. Terrified of spending happy hour with your coworkers? Made them feel bad by telling them you’re a recovering alcoholic. Want to quit your job? Plan an elaborate fake wedding. Amusing, sure, but perhaps a little disappointing for fans looking for more of Meg and Chris’s personal stories.

Rowland and Turner-Neal have created a brand that is predicated upon being open about their personal lives. What could be funnier than Meg’s infectious diarrhea episodes, or the time she almost hooked up with a guy who tried to use fish tranquilizer as an aphrodisiac? They have proven on their blog that they are at their most uproarious when they are disclosing some embarrassing fact about themselves. In breaching propriety again and again, Meg and Chris become a standard against which other twenty-somethings struggling with identity and purpose can hold themselves and think, “Maybe my life isn’t so bad, after all.” A dubious honor, but one that has amassed a cult-like following for the bloggers. It is puzzling, then, that they would abandon their signature style for a more conventional humor book.

Longtime readers of 2b1b might be tempted to skip the short introduction to get into the good stuff, like the quiz about what kind of misanthrope you are. (Options include Avoidant Misanthrope, Crotchety Misanthrope, Stealth Misanthrope, and straight-up Asshole.) But if you are interested in the book because you are a fan of 2b1b, don’t miss the introduction. This is the only part of the book where the authors directly reference their own lives.

Those qualms aside, the duo does not fail in their quest to entertain. Passages like the one describing Christmas shopping rites abound:

Since most Americans have never directly experienced famine, catastrophe, or the privations of war, we have to manufacture nightmarish, traumatic events to serve as bonding experiences. This is how Black Friday came to be.

The Misanthrope’s Guide to Life is fun to flip through—a good bathroom book, perhaps—but I’m still waiting for a joint memoir from the comedic force behind 2birds1blog.

Don’t just take my word for it! Buy The Misanthrope’s Guide from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle version is available).

Twelve Nonfiction Books on Tanzania

In just a few weeks, I’m leaving for Tanzania! Naturally, my mind first turns to books about or from Tanzania. Last week, I listed six novels I’d like to read before/after the trip; this week, I’m focusing on nonfiction titles.

Guides & Wonky Stuff

Personal accounts

Conservation & Culture

Have you read any of these or other nonfiction books on or from Tanzania? What am I missing?