Category Archives: Non-Fiction

I WILL ALWAYS WRITE BACK by Martin Ganda and Caitlyn Alifirenka

Our March mother-daughter book club read was I Will Always Write Back by Martin Ganda and Caitlyn Alifirenka. It was a rare non-fiction pick for the group, but I think it was one of the most-liked books so far this year.

When Caitlin Stoicsitz was 7th grader in suburban Pennsylvania, she was assigned a pen pal in Zimbabwe to correspond with named Martin Ganda. This random assignment turned out to be life-changing for both Caitlyn and Matin. Their correspondence, at first rather sporadic, grew increasingly more substantive, as Martin gradually revealed to Caitlyn just how poor his family was. He eventually explained that he was forced to drop out of school because his family couldn’t afford the fees, and shared some details about the home in which he lived (two adults and four children in one room, with only one bed and no shoes). Caitlyn, a typical self-absorbed and relatively spoiled American teenager, was shocked by what she heard from Martin, and started sending him her babysitting money in the form of $20 bills.

Well, those $20 bills were frequently enough to pay Martin’s fees and make a serious difference for Martin’s family. Caitlyn and Martin grew to care a lot about each other, and Caitlyn got her family involved after confessing that she had been sending him cash through the mail. Meanwhile, Martin’s family situation got more desperate as Zimbabwe’s economy deteriorated and his father lost his job.

I Will Always Write Back is about the difference that Caitlyn and her family made in Martin’s life, ultimately paving the way for him to go to college in America. It’s also about the importance of understanding different cultures and having your eyes open about how other people live. Caitlyn was continually amazed by the hardships and deprivations suffered by Martin’s family, while he was amazed by Caitlyn’s American lifestyle.

I Will Always Write Back is a great book for middle schoolers. The writing is pretty simple, and kids have a lot to learn from Martin and his drive to learn and succeed. The book also prompted a good conversation among the girls about what they would have done in Caitlyn’s shoes. How much would they have done for Martin? Did they think their parents would have helped the way Caitlyn’s did? Is it better to help one person, or try to contribute to a school or another cause in Africa?

This was perspective-broadening book that put global income disparity into sharp relief for kids. Our book club is now looking into ways to raise funds to similarly situated kids in Africa, and I’ve already had a few conversations with my daughters about ways that they can help. Readers might be a little bored by the repetition in the letters (and frustrated with some of Caitlyn’s letters about parties and fights with friends), but I Will Always Write Back was overall a very worthwhile read.

WATCHING BASEBALL SMARTER by Zack Hample

In the last few years, I have become increasingly obsessed with baseball. I love it, but I am definitely an amateur in terms of my understanding of the game. I’ve come to appreciate that baseball is played on many simultaneous levels. There’s the simple movement of the players through the bases, and the strikes and balls and outs. But there’s also strategy in the pitches, the communication between the catchers and pitcher, the simple act of rubbing dirt onto a ball before throwing it. There’s strategy around quick decisions, like where a second baseman steps on base when he has a runner sliding in. There’s a world of statistics to measure every aspect of a player’s performance. There are rule changes and weird stadiums and gestures and a whole vocabulary of baseball terms that you need to know to really understand the game.

Thanks to Zack Hample’s Watching Baseball Smarter, I have a much better appreciation for the game. His book is readable, entertaining, and full of information about baseball, from umpires and pitchers to fielders, hitting, stadiums and stats. I didn’t understand everything in the book (the anatomy of pitches seems to be outside my grasp), but I followed most of it, and retained quite a bit. I’ve been watching some 2016 pre-season games, and I already see a big difference in how I watch and what I notice.

A few caveats:

  • Watching Baseball Smarter is probably too basic for the “deeply serious geeks and semi-experts” the subhead suggests that it’s for. For someone like me, it was perfect. It reinforced what I already knew and introduced me to a lot that I didn’t.
  • It’s outdated. It was written in 2007 and could use an update.
  • There are a lot of baseball terms that Hample uses throughout the book but only defines in the glossary. This can be annoying, because you have to keep flipping back and forth to the glossary as you’re reading.
  • There is a lot of information here. Sometimes it can be a bit much to absorb.

I am glad to have read Watching Baseball Smarter and plan to keep it on hand to refer to as the season evolves. I recommend it for casual baseball fans like me who want to take their viewing to the next level. I’m going to give it to my 11 year-old daughter to read next, and I think she’ll enjoy it too. Maybe you have a fan in your life who would enjoy this resource as well?

LOVE HER, LOVE HER NOT: THE HILLARY PARADOX by Joanne Conrath Bamberger

There are few people who inspire emotional responses the way Hillary Clinton does. Whether they like her or don’t, everyone seems to have a strong opinion about her. A new collection of essays edited by Joanne Conrath Bamberger, Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox, tries to get to the heart of these complicated feelings about Clinton.

Love Her, Love Her Not is not my usual fare, but I found it pretty interesting. Bamberger’s essayists come at the Hillary question from a variety of angles. Some are unabashedly supportive, while others are (somewhat) more critical. One essayist says Hillary’s not progressive enough, and that to win her vote, she must fall more in line with populist sentiments. One takes issue with Hillary’s position of privilege among “the very rich, the very powerful” and questions her ability to fight for those who have less. Another calls on Hillary to work harder to support families. One, her neighbor in Chappaqua, NY, draws on hometown interactions with her to draw a more personal image of the candidate.

My favorite essay, “Bill Clinton As Metaphor For America And Why Hillary Is Uniquely Qualified For President”, gets into the eternal question of why Hillary stayed with Bill after Monica, focusing on her capacity to forgive not only her husband, but America for not electing her in 2008. “That love, that loyalty, that ability to see the real America – the raw, striving, gasping with hope America – is Hillary’s strength, a nearly wifely attitude of loyalty – in richer and poorer, sickness and health, weakness and strength.”

Candidly, there aren’t many contributors here who “love her not”, and including some real Hillary critics would have made the book a little more well-rounded. Some of the essays were pretty similar and left less of an impression than others. But I got a lot out of this collection and was able to satisfy and understand some of my own curiosity about the Democratic frontrunner.

Love Her, Love Her Not is well-written, thanks to the talents of Bamberger and her contributors. The main takeaway for me was that Hillary is not perfect, just like the rest of us aren’t, and that expecting her to be will leave us eternally disappointed. But embracing some of the contradictions inherent in this fascinating, impressive woman will free us to recognize her full potential.

SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED by Anne Lamott

Writer Anne Lamott had a son, Sam, when she was 35-years old, and wrote a memoir of Sam’s first year of life called Operating Instructions: A Journal Of My Son’s First Year. When Sam turned 19, his girlfriend Amy got pregnant, and they decided to keep and raise the baby. Some Assembly Required: A Journal Of My Son’s First Son is Lamott’s memoir of Sam’s son Jax’s first year of life. I just finished Some Assembly Required on audio, my first foray into Lamott territory.

Lamott is clearly in love with her grandson, Jax. Despite her concerns about the situation before he was born, she becomes utterly besotted upon his arrival. But at the same time, she seems to forget that other people in the world have had babies and grandbabies, and that Jax’s learning to roll over and make sounds is something that pretty much all babies eventually do. After a while, her repeated descriptions of Jax as the most advanced, good-natured baby in the world get a little old.

Lamott can be funny and self-deprecating, but she’s also very self-absorbed. While she acknowledges that it’s unreasonable for her to expect to be the center of the universe, she does expect to be the center of the universe. She has a hard time putting herself into other people’s shoes and understanding their point of view. She understands in theory that Jax’s mother Amy is far from home and the people she loves, but she just cannot accept Amy’s moving away as a rational, defensible position. She frequently mentions her generosity toward Sam and Amy, such as buying them groceries and clothes or babysitting Jax, but she is also fairly critical of their relationship and Amy’s refusal to get a job.

There are also long forays when Lamott goes to India and Europe which are initially interesting but then tend to drag on. I also got a little bored with the sections about religion and Lamott’s church and the ashram she attended with her son.

In the end, Some Assembly Required was sort of a drag. Touching and funny at times, but also tedious and frustrating.

Lamott herself narrated the audio version, with her son Sam narrating his own portions. Neither is a good narrator. They both recite the words with little expression. I feel like they were each sort of bored with the whole thing before they got to the audio.

Some Assembly Required was disappointing in the end. Should I try any other Anne Lamott books?

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!

THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP by Marie Kondo

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.