Quick Review: Non-fiction

Today’s quick review is of two non-fiction books I recently picked up from the library.

  • Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy by Sudhir Venkatesh
    • Rating: ★★★½ [ratings guide
    • Venkatesh focuses his exploration on the sex trade in NYC and the connections formed in an underground economy, crossing dividing lines such as class and race. I liked the informal tone and the variety of people Venkatesh meets. I’m not usually too interested in books about the sex trade but I enjoyed this one because it’s a lot more about community, relationships, and a different system of economics than the actual in-and-outs of the sex industry. 
    • I was surprised at the negative reviews of this book. It seems most reviewers didn’t realize what form this book was going to take The author’s note appearing at the very end of the book would have better served the reader if it had been at the beginning. In the note, Venkatesh describes the circumstances and time period that gave rise to this book, that it is a memoir and not appropriate for academic publications, and that identities and time frames have been altered to preserve the privacy of individuals. These were all things I wondered about while reading the book. Placing the author’s note at the beginning would give the reader better context for the story ahead.
    • I’m not sure the self-exploration parts of this book are very convincing. They seemed unnecessary to me, like Venkatesh felt this was the sort of story where he should learn something about himself and not just about the people he studied, so he added some reflective passages. Thankfully, there weren’t too many of them. He does state that this is a memoir not suitable for academic publication,  yet at times it feels like a superficial memoir – like, since this isn’t an academic book he crafted it instead into a memoir rather than just leaving it as a ‘popular non-fiction’ book. 
      • This GoodReads review does a great job of outlining what’s great about this book (lives explored) and what’s not so great (author inserted as character).
    • Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen
      • Rating: ★★★½ [ratings guide
      • Good introduction for beginners who think they may have an interest in practising Buddhism (AKA not a scholarly book)
      • For me, the first part of the book was a good recap while the second and third parts had some great writing on the practice and morality of Buddhism.
      • The book is further divided into 12 chapters, with many small, manageable passages.
      • I noted a few sentences as good reminders. I particularly liked the passage about a leaf falling from a tree.

    Have you read any good non-fiction recently?

    Summer Library Challenge: Library Storytime

     This week’s challenge: “I wanted to share some stories about my library experiences and I’d like for you to do so as well.”

    This post is a little bit as I didn’t finish it up before I went to the lake this weekend. I wasn’t sure what to write about, but over the weekend I remembered an assignment I had in my first year of university. I wrote a short autobiography about the role of reading and writing in my life. Of course, the library has played a huge role! Here are my earliest library memories, which I wrote about in my assignment: 
    When I was two and a half, my favourite outing was to the library. I went with my mom at least once every three weeks when the books were due. There were two blue laundry baskets filled with books in the kid’s section at the [Local] Library.  One of the baskets was filled with books by Beatrix Potter. I would make my mom sit in one of tiny plastic chairs around the tiny plastic table and then I would go over to the Beatrix Potter basket. I would pile up the books and then rearrange them and then pile them up again. If I got bored, I would go look at the books on the kid-sized shelves. Then I would go back to stacking up the Beatrix Potter books. I was very possessive of that blue basket. I would put my arms around the basket if another kid tried to come near it. I wasn’t mean or rude, though. If somebody really wanted a book, I would pick one out for them and give it to them. I just wouldn’t let them near my basket of books. Sitting by that basket is the earliest memory I have. How fitting that the memory would be about books.
    The thing about the Beatrix Potter books is that my mom told me I could only take out two at a time because that was a rule the library had. This was a rule I didn’t like much, but I believed it to be real until I was eight years old and my little sister started taking out Beatrix Potter books (I was far too old for Beatrix Potter at that point). I told her she was only allowed to take out two, but then my mom laughed at me and told me that was a rule she had just made up because she didn’t like reading them to me (She would get my grandma to read them. I should clarify that my mother is very supportive of my reading and writing habits. She just didn’t like Beatrix Potter very much). Even though I was too old for Beatrix Potter, I was still upset that at one point my mom had limited the number of books I was allowed to take out.
    Around the time when I was reading Beatrix Potter books, my mother began taking me to a reading group. I can very distinctly recall not enjoying that activity at all. I didn’t see why I had to go into a room full of people and have someone else read a story to me and all those people. I would rather sit with a book on my own and read it, thank-you very much. I never talked during reading group. I didn’t tell my mom I never enjoyed going until I was much older, too old for reading group.
    In kindergarten we went to the [Other Local] Library for a field trip. I didn’t have a library card and I thought I wouldn’t be able to take out any books. I cried. Luckily my mom was a volunteer for this field trip and she hurriedly explained to me that I could a sign up for a library card right then and there. I stopped crying and cheerfully signed out a handful of books.


    Review: Light of the Andes by J.E. Williams

    Author: J.E. Williams
    Title: Light of the Andes
    Format/Source: eBook/ARC
    Published: June 2012 (new edition released June 2014, I think)
    Publisher: Irie Books
    Length: 200 pages
    Genre: Spiritual non-fiction
    Why I Read: Browsing ‘religion and spirituality’ on NetGalley; mountain caught my eye
    Read If You’re: A mountain lover or interested in Indigenous spirituality, esp. of Peru’s Q’ero people
    Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
    I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
    Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters 

    In university I took a few courses about Indigenous spirituality, particularly that of the Cree and Inuit. I know very little about Indigenous cultures outside of Canada, so I thought this book would be a good choice to learn more about a people who live far away. The Andean setting also attracted me because I love mountains, though I live on the prairies so unfortunately mountains do not play a large role in my life. The highlight of my younger years was heading out West to camp in the Rockies. I’ve never seen any mountains as huge as those to be found in South America. That’s what I liked most about this book – how Williams captures the majesty of these grand mountains and conveys how deeply moving they can be, even for someone who has never seen them before (the photos and glossary are welcome inclusions). I loved reading about his journey up Apu Ausangate, “the spiritual ruler of [the Andes]” (preface). Williams balances a spiritual perspective and a scholarly perspective, blending his roles as immersed participant and outside scholar. These two perspectives are naturally merged in the book. While the book is about his spiritual journey up Ausangate, he also draws parallels to other religious traditions and ponders about the place of the Q’ero in the world-at-large.

    The book begins with long sentences with too many words. For example:

    A small, solid man with reddish brown sun-darkened, chestnut-colored skin, Sebastian stands on the corner of the busy city street wearing traditional Q’ero short charcoal apalaca pants and black tunic, the unku, hand wove by his wife, Filipa, from the wool sheered from his own alapacas, over which he wears a natural-colored beige poncho and on his head a multicolored knitted cap called a chu/ulhu, intricately beaded with designs representing Inti, the sun.

    I didn’t really mind this, though, because I was interested in all the information  given. I found the style manageable because I felt there was a good story caught inside all the words. If this is not your style, no worries – the prose settles into a more natural, rhythmic style about 1/4 of the way in. Here is a short excerpt from a larger passage I particularly enjoyed, as Sebastian, Williams’ friend and spiritual mentor, and Williams have reached their destination near the top of Ausangate: 

    In the shadow of the mountain, memory is intangible. Most of my experiences escape; the process of forgetting is already begun. Whatever I am is being erased by the wind, lost in clouds and snow. Where lies the prefect empty mirror? Where falls the condor feather? How silent is the snow and ice? How thin is the blue canopy of sky? Sebastian is already at work. He has chosen a place for the ceremony near the shoreline.
    A more cynical reader could easily approach this work with a heavy does of skepticism, dismissing Williams’ involvement in the Q’ero community as self-righteous or exploitative, as he is a white man publishing a book about his experiences. I can be such a reader at times, but I honestly did not feel that sort of vibe from this book. It truly seems like Willliams is doing good work with the Q’ero and is personally invested beyond getting a good story to publish. Sebastian’s role is not diminished in the book, and Williams has included a note from Sebastian at the end. Williams founded the non-profit Ayniglobal “to further his mission and honour the commitment he made with Sebastian”. The mission of Ayniglobal is to “protect and preserve traditional indigenous cultures and ancestral lands including people, animals, plants and water systems”. Williams and Sebastian are currently on a tour to share the teachings of the Q’ero. Williams does offer “sacred journey” tours, but these appear to be in  cooperation with the Q’ero and in line with Sebastian’s desire to spread the Q’ero teachings.
    The Light of the Andes is something of a sequel to The Andean Codex, which I have not yet read. I don’t think it’s necessary to read The Andean Codex first, but I think doing so would give one better background knowledge of the issues discussed in The Light of the Andes. I’ve added The Andean Codex to my TBR pile.

    The Bottom Line:  Another reader might have a more cynical attitude towards William’s involvement with the Q’ero, but he comes across as sincere in this book. A good story if you want to learn more about the Indigenous Q’ero spirituality that has grown over centuries around the Andes in Peru, or if you have a deep love of mountains.

    Further Reading: 

    Summer Library Challenge: Book Haul #2 and Goals Check-in

    In my first library book haul post, I picked up five books. I dropped three of them, but The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender was a five star read and I’m greatly enjoying Buddhism Plain & Simple so far. I had two more holds come shortly after that post – All the Birds, Singing and I Forgot to Remember. I read both and posted a few thoughts here.

    Over the past couple of weeks I’ve picked up a good number of library books, through planned trips, spontaneous browsing and hold requests. Here’s what’s sitting in the pile:


    As we’re just past the halfway mark for this challenge, I thought I would review how my goals are going.
    • Visit the library once a week
      • I forgot this was actually on my goals list! Oops…I haven’t been keeping track, but I think I have managed this anyhow. I’ve been stopping in lots to pick up books. I haven’t had any of those fun afternoons at the library yet, but now that I’m done school I hope to get in at least two before the end of the month.
    • Read 12 library books
    • Attend two library-hosted events
      • Halfway there! I participated in an Ideas Fair last month. Today I inadvertently found a clue for the library’s book hunt. Next time I visit I’m going to give it a try. After checking out upcoming events, I might attend an outdoor open mic reading session or a guided tour of a local park.

    Have you visited the library recently? What’s in your library TBR pile?

    Quick Review: Ambivalent

     These reviews are part of the Summer Library Challenge Week 6 Activity – Reviewing Library Books.

    These books I read all the way through, but I’m not sure how I feel about them. Because of that, these books are difficult to review. I still wanted to document my thoughts so here are a few odd notes on each.

    • All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
      • Rating: ★★-★★★½?  [ratings guide
      • I picked this book up because of the gorgeous cover, book description and four star reviews from a few bloggers I follow.
      • I thought the book had great atmosphere, moody and dark and solitary (reminded me of when I was running around with sheep in Ireland).
      • I kept waiting for something to happen in the present story-line but I found it extremely disappointing. I think I may have ~missed something~ there. A lot of somethings did happen in the past story-line but somehow it never really grasped me. 
      • I did not really like Jake, but I guess I liked reading about her?
      • The book felt empty to me, yet I read the whole thing quickly and without feeling like i should stop. So I must have liked something about it? I’m not too sure what else to say. I have confusing feelings about this book! I think I felt a bit let down by the book’s description – it’s not nearly as mysterious or fantastical as its made out to be.
    •  I Forgot to Remember by Su Meck and Daniel de Vise
      • Rating: ★★-★★★? [ratings guide
      • I find this book extremely hard to evaluate because I would essentially be evaluating someone’s life. You have to keep in mind that Meck lost all her memories, she has no knowledge of the first part of her life, she had to be completely re-educated, including how to read and write. I found a lot of parts of this memoir uncomfortable to read. It was not the sort of story I was expecting. I can’t believe how many years it took for people to start to realize what she really lost when the accident happened. I want to keep my concerns about this memoir to myself, since it’s a fresh story and because who I am to judge how someone’s life play out? Meck’s choice to tell her story in such a no-holds-barred manner is admiring, at the very least. I don’t think you can find many memoirs like this, where the author’s husband (to whome she is still married) is so thoroughly exposed. (Suffice to say, the husband’s behaviour is mostly terrible. But then, given the situation – like I said, it’s not my place to judge!)
      • The writing style is nothing impressive, but again – she had to learn to write again as an adult. That she can write this memoir at all is truly incredible.
      • My uncertainity over this book comes from the fact that the subject matter is undoubtedly interesting, but the how Meck’s life actually unfolds was not at all what I was expecting. Perhaps it’s a bit terrible of me to say this, but it wasn’t the story I wanted to read! That’s certainly not Meck’s fault, though, and her story is still fascinating. If the book’s description sounds interesting to you, I recommend you give it a shot. Maybe then my ramblings here will make a bit of sense… 

    If you’ve read either of these books, I would love to hear what you think! Maybe reading other peoples’ opinions will help me sort out mine 😉