Category Archives: Non-Fiction

THE GRIND by Barry Svrluga

If you don’t like baseball, stop reading right now.

The Grind, by Washington Post sports reporter Barry Svrluga, is a collection of long articles about the 162-game baseball season, told through the prism of the Washington Nationals. The book opens in winter 2014 with an article about The Veteran, a longtime baseball player getting ready to start spring training. It then moves to The Wife, a chapter about what it’s like to try to raise a family when you’re married to a baseball player who is on the road so much of the year. Other chapters are devoted to baseball scouts, starting pitchers, the players who go back and forth from the majors to the minors, the players who seem to hold the team together, the guys who are in charge of getting all the players and equipment where they need to be (and so much more), relief pitchers and general managers. The book roughly covers the chronology of one year in the life of the baseball team, from winter 2014 to winter 2015.

If you’re a baseball fan, The Grind is a great read, and if you’re a Washington Nationals fan, The Grind is a must-read.

I have always enjoyed going to baseball games, and I’ve been a Nats fan since they came to DC, but in recent years I have become pretty much obsessed with the game and the Nats. I can’t get enough of them. So I loved reading The Grind. I got a lot of behind-the-scenes information, which I have always craved, and I loved hearing the different perspectives of the people that make up the team, even beyond players. I also came away with a new appreciation for the drudgery of the season. Yes, the players make it look fun, and it’s certainly an enviable career in so many ways – most make a ton of money doing something fun. But there are a lot of challenges, and it’s hard to stay focused and in shape for that many days on end, especially if you’re losing.

I loved The Grind. If you’ve read this far, you probably will too. Svrluga’s writing flows nicely and his journalistic style is perfect for the subject.

Svrluga was at Politics & Prose for a Q&A a few weeks ago. I was planning to write up the Q&A here, but it’s very Nats-focused so it might not have a wide appeal to this audience. :) Suffice it to say, it was a packed house and it went on well beyond the allotted hour. People have a lot to say about baseball!


I feel like in the last few months, my house has reached a tipping point: I hate almost everything in it. There’s too much stuff and I can’t take the clutter anymore. I have made a pact: 50% of it needs to go. We don’t use it, we barely look at it, and I am so much happier when there is less of it.

I’ve undertaken a few efforts to get things under control. First, I sold a bunch of stuff at our local mother of multiples’ consignment sale. As my son gets older, I can cycle out the stuff we have kept from when my daughters were little. Booster seats, infant toys, snap-and-go stroller – all now making someone else’s baby happy. Second, I’ve cleaned out my own closets and gotten rid of probably 2/3 of my clothes. I weeded out stuff that didn’t fit, that didn’t look right, that was out of style. or that I just couldn’t figure out how to wear. Of course, I’ve replaced some of it, but there is less hanging in there and I can see it all now. And I’ve started a project to redo my daughters’ room. I haven’t started the cleanout in there yet, but it’s coming soon.

But there is so much more to do. (The books! My god, the books.)

So I was in the perfect frame of mind to read Marie Kondo’s bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Kondo is a professional organizer in Japan, and she has a whole system – the KonMari Method – to help clients declutter for good. She sees decluttering not as something you do regularly, but as a way of life that will transform how you use your space and treat your belongings.

Here are some of her guidelines:

  • Surround yourself with things that bring you joy. If you are keeping things for any other reason, get rid of them.
  • Don’t de-clutter a little bit at a time. Instead group all similar items together and go through all of them at once.
  • Focus in what you want to keep, not what you want to get rid of.
  • Don’t store things in fancy containers. You’ll never see what you have. Cardboard shoeboxes make the best storage units.
  • The more paper you get rid of, the more efficient you’ll be, because you won’t spend time looking for what you need.
  • Store purses inside of other purses.
  • Don’t use belongings to keep you stuck in the past. Appreciate the memories and move on.

There’s a lot more to the The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, but those are the things that jump to mind as I think back on it. Pretty useful.

Kondo sometimes veers off into directions that didn’t resonate with me. I don’t think I need to thank my clothes at the end of the day for being lovely. I don’t believe in taking everything out of my purse when I get home from work, only to put it all back in the next day. I found her treatment of books to be totally unrealistic – she says to put them in a bookshelf in the closet and she expressed amazement at a client who had fifty books in her TBR pile. (Ha!)

I suspect that if you’re the type of person who would get something out of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, you’ve already decided that you want to read it. If you’re not the type of person who would get something out of it, you’ve stopped reading already.

Off to declutter the dining room table.

A TENDER STRUGGLE by Krista Bremer

A Tender Struggle: Story of A Marriage (previously published as An Accidental Jihad), by Krista Bremer, is about a non-spiritual Christian who meets Ismail, a Muslim Libyan man 15 years her senior while on a running path in North Carolina. Despite their vast cultural differences, she ends up marrying him and having two children with him. A Tender Struggle is a memoir about Bremer’s journey to understand him and his faith.

I have mixed feelings about this book.

On the plus side: Bremer is a beautiful writer. Her memoir is clear, eloquent and totally honest. I don’t think she held back at all in writing this book. She shares great detail about her visit to Libya to meet Ismail’s family and the isolation, boredom, and frustration she felt during that visit, when she couldn’t speak the language and was usually relegated to sitting silently with women she couldn’t understand. She is frustrated by her husband’s otherness – his need to bargain, even at the mall; his impatience with Christmas; his stubborn insistence on getting their son circumcised. But she’s also honest about her attraction and devotion to him, and the completeness with which she gives herself over to their relationship.

On the minus side: I found it strange how little Bremer tried to understand her husband’s faith until the end of the book (several years into their marriage). How could she have married him and had so little curiosity about why he believed what he did? How could they as a couple have communicated so little about how they were going to merge their lives and accommodate both of their traditions? I know that Bremer loved Ismail deeply, but I didn’t feel that I knew him well at the end of the book. (Did she?) All I really knew was that he was very different from her and made living the life she had expected to live close to impossible. On her trip to Libya: while her feelings were understandable, she made little effort to connect with her husband’s family, or to express to him her desire to be integrated.

Some people have criticized Bremer as whiny or self-centered. I didn’t find her whiny; I found her pretty relatable. I just found the book a little unrealistic in its depiction of the marriage. Perhaps it is the pacing or organization of the book, but how could it have taken so long for her to take an interest in Islam? When she finally did, it felt rushed and a little insincere. As a reader, I never really caught up with her.

I will say this: Bremer totally nailed the reason why I don’t like listening to NPR: “Ismail always listened to public radio in the car, and I usually objected to its litany of bad news, its droning analysis of the same intractable problems”. Yes, that.

So a mixed review from me on this one. I loved the writing but felt a little bereft at the end. I wanted to know more.


I have taken an unplanned blogging break this month. I was strong going into the new year, with 3 books finished in the first 10 days of January. And then… nothing. No posts and minimal reading. I blame a combination of work, snow, sick kids, ballet rehearsals and travel. But I am back, with a review. Thanks for bearing with me!

I just finished a book that I learned about in my college alumni magazine: Graduates in Wonderland by Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale. It is a modern day epistolary memoir consisting of email correspondence back and forth between Jess and Rachel, recent Brown graduates who are many thousands of miles apart but keeping their friendship alive and well online. Jess moves to China after graduation, somewhat impulsively, where she hangs out in the Beijing expat scene with another Brown classmate and finds work at a magazine. Rachel moves to NY, like many others from her class, and works in a gallery for a self-absorbed boss who causes her so much anxiety that she needs therapy.

Over the next few years, we follow Jess and Rachel’s professional and personal adventures. Rachel moves to Paris to pursue a master’s in film. Jess leaves a promising editing career to follow a boyfriend – again impulsively – to Australia. But the constant through all of this change is the honest, supportive relationship that Jess and Rachel maintain over email. They make reference to phone calls, but all the good stuff makes it into the emails.

There’s classic twentysomething fare here – the sense that everyone else has a life, but you don’t; the paralyzing fear of making the wrong career choice; wondering if you’ve found The One, and if you’re ready for that; and the feeling of being adrift without a geographic home base. Add in the language barriers and physical distance inherent in living abroad, and it’s easy to see why Rachel and Jess’ friendship was so important to them. They were living similar lives, only many, many time zones apart.

I enjoyed Graduates in Wonderland. There wasn’t much Brown in the book – they had already graduated, of course – but the book really brought me back to my early 20s, when I was dealing with some of the same issues. A friend of mine recently presented me with a letter (!) I had written him in 1993 when he was living abroad after graduation. It was not dissimilar to the emails in Graduates in Wonderland. I just wish I had more of those letters – email was not widespread in the early 90s!

I recommend Graduates in Wonderland to fans of epistolary memoirs and anyone who can relate to – and wants to re-experience – the uncertainty and excitement of starting out in the world.


Our January Mother-Daughter Book Club read was Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang. This was probably the most serious and definitely one of the saddest books we have read for book club. It’s a memoir about the author growing up in China in the late 60s during the Cultural Revolution.

Ji-Li’s family had been relatively well-off before the Revolution, especially compared to other families around them. They all lived in one room – Ji-Li, her parents, her grandmother, and her sister and brother. But they employed a housekeeper and had nice things in the house. After the Revolution, they were considered to be a “bad class” because her grandfather had once been a landlord. Red Scarf Girl is a chronicle of the years of anxiety, fear, deprivation and pain that Ji-Li’s family suffered when the Communists targeted them as capitalists who had built a fortune on the backs of working people. Her parents were persecuted, her father was jailed, her grandmother was physically abused, and their apartment was repeatedly ransacked and looted by the Red Guard.

Ji-Li had been an honors student before the Revolution, and when the book opens, she is still trying to remain faithful to the party and obey the directives she is given in school. Over time, however, she becomes aware of the capriciousness and ruthlessness of the Red Guard, and when her loyalty to the Party is tested against her loyalty to her family, she chooses her family. Her disillusionment with authority, exacerbated by her disappointment with her schooling under the new regime, makes for a powerful coming-of-age novel about adherence to political views and the nature of sacrifice for one’s beliefs.

I had feared that the girls wouldn’t enjoy Red Scarf Girl, but I was pleasantly surprised by how many girls had read it and really thought about it. The subject matter was difficult, but it was easy to digest. We had a good discussion about how different characters in the book reacted to the harshness of the Cultural Revolution and what the girls would have done in Ji-Li’s shoes. We admired how brave she was, even as things just kept getting worse and worse. The Epilogue is worth reading, as it talks about how Ji-Li looks back on those years (she now lives in America). Rather than feeling angry at Chairman Mao and his government, she explains how her classmates and the families around her were brainwashed by Mao’s messages and believed that the Cultural Revolution was necessary for China’s survival. Her message – that without laws, a small group or even a single person can take control over an entire country – is just as relevant today, and we talked as a group about how important it is to preserve and retell stories like Ji-Li’s.

Red Scarf Girl was not an uplifting or easy read, but it was an important one. I am glad that we picked it for book club and that my daughters read it.

RARE BIRD: A MEMOIR OF LOVE AND LOSS by Anna Whiston-Donaldson

Anna Whiston-Donaldson and I run loosely in the same DC blogging circles. We’ve never met, but I learned about her and started reading her blog, An Inch of Gray, after her 12 year-old son Jack was killed in a freak drowning accident in September 2011. He was out playing in the rain with friends on a late summer afternoon and got caught in the current in a tiny neighborhood creek that had flooded due to a very unusual strong summer storm.

I soon learned of Jack’s death and started following Whiston-Donaldson’s blog, which quickly reoriented to focus on her family’s loss in the aftermath of that terrible September day. I was always struck by how honest she was about her anger and sadness about Jack’s death, as well as her strong Christian faith and how she could reconcile the two. She published a book this past September, Rare Bird: A Memoir of Love and Loss, which was my first read of 2015.

Rare Bird is an extremely sad book – how could it not be? The loss of this beautiful, sensitive, smart, sweet boy was a tragedy. And to learn about it from his mother’s perspective? Heartbreaking. It’s impossible to read Rare Bird and not put yourself in the author’s shoes, trying to imagine how you’d put one foot in front of other other if it happened to you. But it is not a depressing book, and that is an important difference. It is unflinchingly honest in every respect. Whiston-Donaldson holds nothing back as she relates the days leading up to Jack’s death and the year after. She talks about her marriage, her faith, her thoughts of ending her life, and the importance of staying present and capable for Jack’s younger sister, Margaret. She also talks about her grief and how she eventually emerged from that first, awful year. Perhaps that is why I didn’t find it depressing, even though it brought me to tears on many occasions.

Whiston-Donaldson is also a very good writer. Rare Bird is readable, clear, and even funny at times. Writing is definitely one of her talents, and I am grateful that she took the time to adapt her blog and memories into this longer format.

There is a fair amount in Rare Bird about Whiston-Donaldson’s Christian faith and how Jack’s loss tested it. I am Jewish and therefore couldn’t necessarily relate to some of what she wrote, but I still found it interesting and compelling.

Don’t be afraid to read Rare Bird. I had a hard time putting it down and I am so glad that I read it. I learned a lot from it, and I am grateful for Whiston-Donaldson’s honesty and analytical, challenging mind. I wish her and her family peace in the coming years and will always keep Jack in my mind.


Neil Patrick Harris’ autobiography, Choose Your Own Autobiography, is a funny and interesting chronicle of the multi-talented entertainer’s first 40 years. Harris used a unique format to tell his story – the old “choose your own adventure” style, where you are presented with two options at the end of every chapter and get to choose which one you want to pursue. However, I listened to this book on audio, so it was a more linear read for me.

Wow, what a life Neil Patrick Harris has led. He was born in New Mexico to kind, loving parents who cultivated his love for theater and performing from an early age. After some school productions, he was discovered by Hollywood and cast in a few movies. But his big break came as a teenager when he won the role of Doogie Howser, MD. That show – which ran for 5 years – made Harris a household name and really set the rest of his life in motion.

Doogie, coming out, How I Met Your Mother, the Tonys, the Emmys, Hedwig And The Angry Inch... anyone who has followed Harris’ career knows about these highlights and achievements. But hearing it all from his perspective is a lot of fun. Harris is engaging, funny, smart, and often humble, and he makes for a great narrator. He is appreciative of his great fortune in life, and he expresses gratitude for the people he has worked with and the projects he was involved with, but he’s not above a little celebrity dishing and calling out bad behavior when he sees it.

I learned a lot about how things worked behind-the-scenes on his TV series and awards show specials, and what it was like being a child actor and later a closeted gay man starting out as an actor.

There were a few things I didn’t love about the book. First, if you listen to it on audio, it can feel a little choppy and out of order  – and also redundant – because of  its unique format. I felt like he was jumping around and/or doubling back sometimes, because he was. The Choose Your Own Adventure books are meant to throw the reader off and send them on a bit of a ride; picking one up and reading it straight through is not the goal. The book was clearly reoriented for the audio version, but it’s not perfect.

Second, there is a lot of sex in here. It didn’t bother me, but I wouldn’t recommend listening to it with your 10 year-olds unless you have good reflexes and can sit close to the pause button. I got a lot of questions like, “Mommy, what’s he talking about?”

In all, Choose Your Own Autobiography was a very entertaining read. Neil Patrick Harris is a lucky guy (his husband ALONE sounds amazing), but he’s also extremely talented, so you feel good reading about the guy and all of his accolades and successes. He’s also a skilled narrator, and I highly recommend the audio version.