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?

    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: 

    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 😉

         

        Review: The War on Science by Chris Turner

        Author: Chris Turner 
        Title: The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Willful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada
        Format/Source: Paperback/Library
        Published: March 2014
        Publisher: Greystone Books
        Length: 176 pages
        Genre: Popular non-fiction
        Why I Read: To learn more about scientific research in Canada + Harper’s treatment of Canadian scientists
        Read If You’re: Canadian, invested in science, or interested in science+politics
        Quote: See below
        Rating:  ★★★½ [ratings guide]
        Links: GoodReads | Chapters | Amazon 

        In The War on Science, Chris Turner explores the relationship between scientific research and the Canadian government, focusing on the dismal role of science in the Harper government. The sensationalist title summarizes the book well. If you think Canada is a good example of an environmental steward – think again. The federal government has been viciously cutting funding of scientific research, research meant to inform government policy. The reason for this cutting, Turner argues, is that the research would tell the government to stop doing what they’re doing, which they do not want to hear. Written in a highly accessible and passionate style and coming in at just 134 pages (remainder is chronology and bibliography), this book is likely meant to appeal to the uninitiated. In that regard, The War on Science is a good introduction to those unfamiliar with how the Canadian government presently manages and responds to scientific research.  For myself, this was a topic I wanted to learn more about. Turner covered some events about which I already knew (ex. scientists’ protest on Parliament Hill, funding to the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory cut for a year), but he also provided more history and context for those events so I learnt what prompted them and what they imply.

        This is one of those books where it will be easier for me to write about its weaknesses, because this book has just one great strength, albeit one that makes up for all shortcomings. That strength lies in the subject matter. I’m glad this book exists – a published, non-academic book that has the potential to be read by a lot of people. I think many Canadians would be incensed by Harper’s treatment of scientists and scientific research if they understood what was happening. This could be the book to spread that awareness. There are a lot of great quips that summarize the bulk of this work, when Turner really hits the nail on the head. Here’s a sampling:

        “To accelerate the exploitation of Canada’s resource wealth – that’s the explicit part. To eliminate its ability to see the cost of this policy – that’s the implicit part” (46).

        “Instead of freeing scientists to establish the best methods to conserve natural resources, the government has crippled their ability to gather and disseminate the data demonstrating the consequences of policy decisions” (67). 

        “This is the essence of the new culture of government under Stephen Harper. The purpose of research – of science generally – is to create economic opportunities for industry, and the purpose of government is to assist in that process in whatever way it can” (112).

        However, those quips also embody the weaker side of this book. My biggest disappointment is that the book is largely undeveloped. The quotes above get to the heart of the book, but there isn’t a lot backing them. As I described above, it’s probably meant to be an introduction to the subject to get people worked up about the issue, but I would have loved to see more analysis, evidence, backing, explaining of why science is important and how it relates to government policy. This is what the entire book is about, but it’s too too short to really do the argument justice. Turner largely relays what’s happened so far and saying “This is terrible!” without fleshing out why too much. He relies heavily on the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) as an example of a science project doing something good then being cut. A lot of the examples are explained generally or vaguely, and there is a lot of repetition. For example, he argues multiple times that “the same budget gave Revenue Canada $8 million to audit environmental groups believed to be backed by deep-pocketed foreign radicals – a sum that could have…” (101) done this or that. In other areas Turner adopts an almost melodramatic tone (see, for example, his framing Northern Gateway Pipeline on page 93), which could make it easy for detractors to dismantle his argument. I agree with Turner’s message – that the Harper government is doing an immense disservice to Canadians and the Canadian environment by dismissing scientific research – but by the end of the book I was less-than-impressed with its overall tone.

        The Bottom Line: It’s easier to pick on the weaknesses of this book, but really, The War on Science is a good introduction for people who are unfamiliar with what’s been going in Canadian government with regards to science. It is by no means an exhaustive book, and I don’t think it’ll change the minds of anyone who supports the Harper government’s treatment of science, but I recommend it because it’s an easy read tackling an important subject. 

        Review: The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida

        Author: Naoki Higashida
        Title: The Reason I Jump
        Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
        Published: August 2013
        Publisher: Random House
        Length: 176 pages
        Genre: Non-fiction question and answer
        Why I Read: Saw it at the bookstore, thought it would be interesting 
        Read If You’re: Interested in learning about autism from a person with autism’s perspective
        Rating:  ★★★ [ratings guide]
        Links: GoodReadsChapters | Amazon 

        There seems to be a lot of suspicion surrounding this book as to whether it could actually have been written by a 13 year old with autism, or how much David Mitchell embellished the translation. I approached the book with some skepticism, but now that I’ve read I don’t think there’s any reason to be suspect of Higashida’s writing. Yes, I think there /could/ be some embellishment but I also think that it’s not unreasonable to believe a thirteen year old wrote this text. Now, controversy aside…

        I found this book very heartbreaking at times. Many times Higashida writes about how he knows he can make situations difficult for people and how he hates himself for it, but he still very much wishes for people not to give up on him. This must be a terrible feeling for someone who cannot communicate with others in the generally expected and accepted ways. Yes, it can be difficult for a non-autistic person to engage with an autistic person – but it is important to recognize the person with autism is very much a person, just like someone without autism!

        The above paragraph brings me to another point – how Higashida addresses his audience. He uses the plural you, presumably to address an audience of non-autistic people who have many questions about what it’s like to have autism. I’m not sure if there’s a better way to address these questions, given the nature of the book. but sometimes it does feel a bit presumptuous of him to make statements like “One of the biggest misunderstandings you have about us is your belief that our feelings aren’t as subtle and complex as yours.” (109) He also uses ‘we’ to speak for all autistic people which I think is more problematic than how he addresses his audience. Overall, his pronoun use is a relatively minor issue with the book, and it may possibly just be attributed to his age or his editor or something but it is a noticeable aspect of the narration that might bother some people more than most.p

        The Bottom Line: Definitely check this book out if you any interest in what it might be like to have autism – but remember that it’s just one teen’s account.