Book Recommendations: Non-fiction

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One year I made a New Year’s resolution to read one non-fiction book a month. I thought it was going to be a tedious way to improve myself and continue to learn after graduation from university. I did not expect to fall in love with the genre.

This list is divided into two sections. The first is non-fiction for people who don’t read non-fiction. The genre can be intimidating! These books are easy to read, with a chatty style and lack of overwhelming technical terms.

The second section is for books that are more specific/niche/difficult to read. I recommend them for people who already have an interest in the subject or are willing to push through technical language.

Non-fiction for Fiction Readers:

Macintyre, Ben– Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies

D-Day is often most remembered by that scene from “Saving Private Ryan” but this book delves into the ludicrous, hilarious, and astonishing story of the agents who spun the lie to the German intelligence that made the battle succeed…because the Germans were expecting the troops to land elsewhere. Some highlights from these characters include requests for chocolate from MI5 “for medicinal reasons,” a man with a degree in chicken farming creating entire networks of fake spies to feed bad information, and a woman who whispers insults about people to her dog in Russian. If you like James Bond, you’ll love this story because these real people pulled off one of the greatest espionage schemes in history and they were perhaps the least capable of doing so.

Nafisi, Azar– Reading Lolita in Tehran

Note: this book has a LOT of heavy literature analysis. If you don’t like classics, maybe this might not be the best choice. I almost put it in the other category but if you’re a heavy reader of fiction, you may have the background that this book relies on. Reading Lolita made my top ten list of 2016. It beautifully illustrates how our relationship with literature can give us strength and purpose while also focusing on parallels between literature and our modern lives. This book feels important to me on another level because it is very humanizing of the people of Tehran. In the western world, we’ve been blasted by negative media about this area and only see certain images of it. The book is political, feminist, and deeply touching.

Roach, Mary– Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

Everything Mary Roach has written is well worth reading but I picked Gulp because of the many, many absurd scenes in this book that had me picturing the professional scientists Roach was interviewing staring at her in dumbfounded exasperation. Roach asks questions that we all wonder but are usually too polite to ask and isn’t afraid of getting her hands covered in various types of fluids and solids to understand the science. She conveys these stories with gleeful prose that’s easy to understand and easier to laugh to. I think Gulp requires less squeamish warning than Stiff, so I picked it for this list.

Ronson, Jon– Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries

Like Mary Roach, Jon Ronson has a way of reporting his stories that is comedic and relatable. This is a collection of essays with highlights include Ronson interviewing the Insane Clown Posse about their song “Magnets” and their distrust of nerdy looking people wearing glasses, a trip where he attempts to recreate a road-trip from a James Bond novel, and visits the North Pole where it’s always Christmas (maybe enough to drive people to murder).

Sandel, Michael J.– Justice, What’s the Right Thing to Do?

What’s that whole, philosophy thing about anyway? Michael Sandel breaks down in an understandable way many of the prominent ethical questions of our time. It’s a book that was suggested to me when I first showed interest in philosophy and a recommendation I pass on. The philosophy in Justice is all practical, ethical philosophy, not the sort of nebulous “How do we know we know?” topics that tend to have people running away screaming at the top of their lungs. The questions discussed here include examining the free market, taxes, and capital punishment. It’s a great resource on being able to understand and structure your own opinions on topics that often arise when politics are discussed while also being accessible to readers unfamiliar with philosophical concepts.

Simon, Matt– The Wasp that Brainwashed the Caterpillar: Evolution’s Most Unbelievable Solutions to Life’s Biggest Problems

This may be the funniest non-fiction book I have ever read. It’s split into easily digestible sections, perfect for consuming when you have 10 to 15 minutes of time and want to learn something new. The book captures perfectly how shockingly strange our neighbor animals on this planet can be. It will gift you with many stories to pull out at parties, though maybe people don’t want to hear about the ant that stacks up the dead bodies of its conquered foes on its back like a towering monument of victory (I absolutely would love this story at a party).

Non-fiction:

Gladwell, Malcom– What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures

I would call Gladwell a less funny more technical Mary Roach. His writing is still far into the range of accessible, but he focuses more on journalism than comedic journalism (not that his stories can’t be amusing).  This collection of essays, which I think is much better in the latter half, covers topics from why there’s only one ketchup and dozens of varieties of mustard to the difference between choking and panicking. I prefer this one to Blink, because I feel that, unfortunately, there are some pop-psychology mistakes present in that book.

Kean, Sam– The Violinist’s Thumb: and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code

This book has a lot of dense science focused on genetics, but the stories within are worth pushing for. While genetics don’t determine everything about our life, they can determine how well we can play the violin (due to extremely flexible fingers) or why eating a polar bear’s liver is lethal and why nuns were some badass scientists. Another book where I went around yelling at everyone about what I learned within it.

Newborn, Jud– Sophie Scholl and the White Rose

I actually had to read this book for class and ended up finishing it in the university library, sobbing where everyone could see me. Sophie’s story and the story of her brother and the rest of the white rose is affecting because the main players of the story are so young. These are students (and a professor) who were brave enough to try to spread a message of resistance against the Nazi regime, risking their lives to do so. There’s a fervent (maybe foolishly idealistic) passion in the texts that these students wrote that’s intoxicating. The only way I can describe this book is spiritually uplifting. It restored my faith in humanity.

O’Connell, Mark– To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death

Transhumanism is an idea that I’ve been interested in for years and Mark O’Connell’s book is a great entry point to the world of people seeking to leave our biological bodies behind. Because O’Connell doesn’t subscribe to the doctrine of transhumanism himself, there’s a through-line to his adventure that follows his own path of regarding his mortal body and what it would mean to be free of it while not losing sight of how absolutely bonkers some of the transhumanists’ ideas sound. For people who are interested in futurism, biotechnology, and A.I., this book will be a pleasure to read.

Which D-Day Spy Are You?

 

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies was one of my favorite books I’ve read this year. In celebration of the absurdity that was the Double Cross system, here are the D-Day Spies for you to tag yourself as.

“Scoot” aka “Tricycle

-play boy

-sent back pictures of his current gf reclining in front of planes instead of information

-bought an expensive car as part of his ‘role’

-demanded the british government buy him chocolate “for medical reasons”

-good fashion sense

 

Bronx

-“Lesbian” tendancies

-good at being bad at gambling

-no matter how much money she is allowed, manages to spend all her money

 

 

Treasure

-keeps a diary

-said diary is mostly about her dog

-really, really loves her dog

-talks smack about people to her dog in Russian

-almost betrayed the entire operation over not being reunited with her dog

 

Brutus

-got arrested for distributing inflammatory pamphlets

-should have been playing it cool as a spy

-has no chill

-owned 32 cats after the war

 

 

Garbo

-spends most of his time with fictional people of his own creation

-has an overactive imagination

-would be that person in your university class who can write 15 pages for a paper and say absolutely nothing but is praised for it

-has a diploma in chicken farming

What The Fuck Wednesday – 02/24/16

Have you ever reached a point in a book where the author clearly just said “fuck it” and called it a day? Ever read something so brilliant or absurd that your brain does a double-take? We’ve dedicated Wednesday to capturing these moments when you just have to ask yourself, “What the fuck?”

VonG:

One of my goals for this year was to read a non-fiction book every month. I wasn’t too excited about this goal, it was more of one of those goals directed towards making me more of a well-rounded reader (and hopefully person). But that didn’t mean I was going to enjoy it.

My selection for February is Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, which has turned out to be one of the most hysterically true stories I have ever learned in my life.

When we think of spies, we think of the sexy image that James Bond represents: confidence, expensive cars, action sequences of drawn out chases, secret messages, and, of course, the Bond Girl–espionage at its finest

It turns out the reality of the spy life, at least during World War II, had almost all of those things except the sexy part. Instead everyone is a goddamn mess (which I have sympathy for, because this would be me if I was a spy.)

The entire Double Cross operation is one big WTF moment as in, how the hell did they ever pull anything off?

The spies, at the very least, had some of the appearance of the James Bond lifestyle, especially agent “Scoot,” also known as “Tricycle” also known as Serbian playboy Dusko Popov.

“Dusko and Johnny were friends. Their friendship was founded on a shared appreciation of money, cars, parties, and women, in no particular order and preferably all at the same time.”

Sure, Dusko sounds like James Bond material. But this is a man who will later write a letter to British intelligence demanding that they buy him….chocolate. Because we all know that having your chocolate funded by a top secret spy agency is how espionage works.

“My heart is in a very bad condition. My doctor who is my biggest friend says it is too much alcohol, tobacco and sin. The only remedy which I found efficient until now was milk and chocolates. Please send $100 worth of any kind of chocolate you can think of. I don’t mind what they are. I am taking them as medicine.”

You and me both, Popov.

What about “high” speed chases? The double cross spies had those as well, but they looked a little more like this:

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You can’t make this stuff up. Even if you made this stuff up, people would say you weren’t being realistic. This is beautiful.

And thanks to one spy’s obsession with her dog (girl I feel you), you get gems like this:

“Britain was preparing for battle on an epic scale, and MI5 was seriously considering whether to deploy a navy submarine to fetch a small dog, illegally, in order to placate a volatile double agent.”

Freaking INCREDIBLE.

And the Bond girl? Popov spent a lot of time sleeping around and sending pictures of his girlfriends to MI5 (I’m sure they really cared), but shout out to Double Cross agent Bronx, who was both a lady Bond and slept with women and men. I’m going to say it, she had Bond Boys.

Also shout out to the records about the Double Cross agents, who referred to Bronx’s “Lesbian tendencies” with a capital L. The only other thing to be reliably given a capital letter in attention were, of course, the all important double agent Pigeons. (Like actual bird pigeons. There were pigeons in the Double Cross department who were going to infiltrate the German pigeon houses. Send help.)

Maggie:

So I stopped at a department store on my way home from work to pick up some paper plates and beef jerky – I lead a sophisticated life – and just happened to sneak a glance at the bargain book box only to spot this little gem:

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Excuse me, but what godforsaken planet do I live on in which a publisher allowed the men of Duck Dynasty to write a book about their beards?

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Apparently one with a beard, if you manage to make it about half way through this book.

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I just can’t stop imagining the creative team for this book and how painful it must have been to sell their souls to pay off their MFA debt. The writer sobbing bitterly into his frappuccino as he types out rhyming beard couplets. The graphic designer looking through pages and pages of old men’s beards to photoshop onto children, sunflowers, and ducks – wondering where he went wrong in life, what he did to deserve this. I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of, but Jesus…

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Sweet, sweet Jesus.