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About Time I Read It: The Best American Essays 2013

A young man, fearing a lifetime of dead-end jobs lies ahead for him, runs away to join the circus.  After chance encounter with a suicidal stranger a Powell’s Bookstore employee is jolted into examining his own life. The hardscrabble central California town Merced is overflowing with poor, teen moms and one 30-something local teacher would like to know why. A dentist his and son find themselves honored house guests of an eccentric whose private castle deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains is stocked wall to wall with Nazi memorabilia. Looking back on her years as a teen runaway hitchhiking across America, a woman suspects she narrowly escaped the hands of a notorious serial killer.

These stories, in addition to a number of others are the subjects for the essays found in The Best American Essays 2013. You might remember from an earlier post I’d developed a craving for longform journalism prompting me to borrow a pair of Best American Essays collections. I’ll admit, I was pessimistic about having Cheryl Strayed as editor, fearing she’d got the job solely based on the success of her book Wild. But once I dived into this collection and began enjoying the essays I quickly learned Strayed was up to the job. (I also learned she’s written more than just Wild. Plus, I also remembered one her essays appeared in The Best American Essays 2015.) I even enjoyed this collection of essays more than the one from 2015. So much for me doubting the editing talents of Cheryl Strayed!

Like any anthology, there are contributions I liked and some, well, I didn’t. One of my favorites from this collection is “The Girls In My Town” by Angela Morales. In her piece Morales reflects on the high prevalence of teen moms in her hometown of Merced, CA. Another favorite was Vanessa Vaselka’s piece from GQ. As a teen runaway she hitchhiked across the country begging rides from long haul truck drivers. Chances are while doing so she had a close encounter with convicted serial killer Robert Ben Rhoades. I also enjoyed Poe Ballantine’s “Free Rent At the Totalitarian Hotel” about life in a run-down hotel during the late 80s. As for essays that weren’t favorites, just like with Best American Essays 2015 it was Zadie Smith’s contribution. (Maybe I should give her fiction a try. Who knows, maybe it’s more to my liking.)

From start to end this is a pretty good collection of essays and goes a long way to satisfying my craving for longform writing. I must say I’ve developing quite a taste for this stuff. Therefore, look for more essay collections featured on my blog.


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Nonfiction November Week 3: Be the Expert

This week’s edition of Nonfiction November is Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert. Our host is Julie at JulzReads who happens to be one of my favorite bloggers in no small part thanks to her love of historical nonfiction. Here’s how it works:

Three ways to join in this week! You can either share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

Last year when I did this, I assumed the mantle of expert and recommended six books about Iran by Iranian authors. This time around, I’m going to recommend books by women who’ve left their respective religions. I’ve always had a soft spot for these kind of books and over the years a number of them have been featured on my blog.

There seems to be no shortage of these books, (especially memoirs) by women who’ve walked away from churches, synagogues or mosques. While there’s similar stuff by men it feels like female authors dominate this genre. Not long ago a good friend and I chatted about this on a Facebook thread and wondered why. Perhaps women leave religions because they’re oppressed or lack adequate opportunities. Maybe women feel more comfortable as opposed to men when it comes to writing about these experiences. Honestly, I have no idea why so many of these dissenting voices are female.

Below you’ll find an array of books by women who’ve walked away from their respective faiths.

  • Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain and Lisa Pulitzer – Drain spent her young adulthood protesting at funerals and engaging in hate speech before being tossed out of the wackadoodle WBC. Once out she never went back.
  • Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family by Veronica Chater –  Chater grew up with eight brothers and sisters in a Catholic fundamentalist (or “Trad” for traditionalist) household that rejected the Second Vatican Council and its spirit of inclusion and modernism.
  • Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister’s Wife Examines Faith by Carlene’s Cross – After her marriage to an evangelical minister fell apart Cross was forced to strike out on her own. Once she did, she left her old religion behind her.
  • I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing by Kyria Abrahams – Raised in the Jehovah’s Witness faith and married off at 17, after she’d had enough Abrahams left both her husband and religion and became a successful slam poet.
  • My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine Girlhood by Christine Rosen – I have a soft spot for Rosen’s memoir because both her and are former fundamentalists who came of age in the late 70s and 80s.
  • The Ebony Exodus Project: Why Some Black Women Are Walking Out on Religion—and Others Should Too by Candace R. M. Gorham – Part memoir, analysis and oral history, Gorham looks at why she left her post as a minister within the black church to pursue a career in counseling. Her books contain a number of interesting oral histories of African-American women who left Christianity and are now atheists.
  • Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life Without Religion edited by Karen Garst – Speaking of oral histories, Garst’s book is another great collection of them. The cool thing is I personally know one of the contributors!
  • Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman – Feldman grew up in strict Satmar Orthodox Jewish community in New York’s Williamsburg neighborhood. At 17 she was married off in an arranged marriage and gave birth to a son a two years later. Later, she became disillusioned with it all, got divorced enrolled in college and left the faith.
  • Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali – Hirsi Ali is a controversial figure, generating strong opinions about her both pro and con. In Infidel, she recalls her life growing up in Somalia, as well the time she spent living in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Germany, Holland and now the United States. She also discusses what made her start questioning Islamic culture, Islam and then later, religion in general.



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Nonfiction November Week 2: Nonfiction and Fiction Pairings

This week’s edition of Nonfiction November (hosted by Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves) asks book bloggers to pair up nonfiction books with works of fiction. In the words of  Nonfiction November’s creators:

“If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

Last year I had a lot of fun doing these pairings, so much so I posted a ton of them on my blog. This year I won’t be offering quite so many, but hopefully the ones I do suggest are good ones and will be well received.

The Soviet Gulag

Published in 2004, Anne Applebaum’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag: A History is not only outstanding, it’s one of the best books I’ve read over the last decade. It easily made my 2015 Best Nonfiction List which was a year I read a ton of great books like Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of ReaganTo me the answer is obvious. One has to pair Gulag with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1962 classic One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Life in Nazi-occupied Europe

Peter Fritzsche’s An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler is one of those books I’d seen at the library a number of times yet never borrowed. When I finally did get around to reading it my goodness I was impressed. Utilizing primary source material like letters, diaries and the like, Fritzsche shows us what life was like for millions of Europeans who suffered under Nazi rule. If you’re looking for a novel to go along with An Iron Wind I’d suggest Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winner All the Light We Cannot See.

The Aftermath of World War II

Thank you Claire of The Captive Reader. A few years back she mentioned in her Library Loot post what was then a new book by Keith Lowe entitled Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II. I took her advice to heart and secured a copy of Lowe’s book from my public library and was not disappointed. Just like Applebaum’s GulagSavage Continent is another all-time favorite of mine. Lowe’s book opened my eyes to the degree and scope of destruction that plagued Europe during the immediate aftermath of WWII, as well as the bloody conflicts that raged even after Germany’s surrender. If you end up reading this fine book, follow it up with Martin Fletcher’s novel Jacob’s Oath.

Inside Saudi Arabia

Recently, I reviewed Robert Lacey’s 2009 book Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia. Over the years I’ve read  several good books about Saudi Arabia and this one might be the best. I think Kingdom of Strangers by Zoe Ferraris is worthy compliment.

Life Imitates Art

In my previous post, I mentioned I’ve been reading a lot of political books in hopes of understanding the current mess we’re in and how we got there. After reading my post, many commented they’re so broken-hearted and disgusted by our current situation they’ve found it difficult, if not impossible to read this kind of material. But if you’re able to read something like Luke Harding’s Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Trump Win the White House, Joshua Green’s Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency or Garry Kasparov’s Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped please, by all means be sure to read Philip Roth’s 2004 alternate history novel The Plot Against America. If you follow my advice, depending on your ensuing mood you can thank, or blame me later.


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Nonfiction November Week 1: Your Year in Nonfiction

Once again it’s time for Nonfiction November. This year we kick things off by looking back on what we’ve read in 2018 and answering a few questions. So far this year my reading has been reasonably productive. According to Goodreads I’ve read 66 books with roughly 85 per cent of them nonfiction. Unlike the majority of book bloggers, I read mostly nonfiction. However, last year was an exception in that I read more than my usual fare of fiction. As a result, for the first time ever my year-end Best Fiction List was significantly stronger than the one for nonfiction. Also unlike most book bloggers, instead of reading just new releases and more recent stuff I avidly devour backlist books and older stuff.

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

As the years go by this question gets harder and harder to answer. Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics gets my vote for this year’s favorite. But let’s not hold the coronation too early because I’m halfway through Gal Beckerman’s masterful When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry and it has the potential to dethrone Playing with Fire and thus be awarded Best Nonfiction Book of 2018.

Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?

With each passing day the American White House becomes a larger dumpster fire. In hopes of gaining insight into this hideous mess I’ve been reading stuff like Allan J. Lichtman’s The Case for Impeachment, Luke Harding’s Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Trump Win the White House and Joshua Green’s Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency. On a related note, I’ve also read a few books on Putin’s Russia, specifically Garry Kasparov’s Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped and David Satter’s The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin.

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

Again, thanks to our current Presidential Administration I’ve found myself recommend many if not all of the above-mentioned political books, as well as Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire. 

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

Just as in past years my mission is three-fold. One, pick up valuable nonfiction recommendations. Two, discover new book blogs. Three, if I’m lucky pick up a new subscriber or two.


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Wordless Wednesday

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September 19, 2018 · 1:51 pm

This Summer’s Reading: My Five Favorite Books

After Time posted an article listing former President Obama’s favorite books of this summer I was inspired to do the same. However, since I read a number of excellent books over the course of this summer keeping my list to just five was easier said than done. But after much deliberation I was able to narrow it down to five. Eventually, I’ll post longer reviews for each of the below mentioned books but until then, here’s my five favorites from this summer.




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Three More Coming Attractions

Sadly, I failed miserably this week to crank out a brief review or two. Nevertheless, I’m confident you’ll start seeing some new posts before you know it. But until then, here’s yet another preview post to tide you over.

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt – Everywhere one looks, from Eastern Europe to Latin America to these United States democracy looks besieged. Here’s how it happened and what we can do to reverse the trend.

Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam by Robert Dreyfuss – Remember, it wasn’t that long ago left-leaning, secularist ideologies like Communism, Pan-Arabism and  Palestinian nationalism were the rage throughout the Arab and Muslim world and  threatened to overthrow the status quo. In response the United States and, to a lesser degree Great Britain turned to Islamist groups or Islamic-oriented regimes like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to stem their rising tides.

The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam by Douglas Murray – The second of my 20 Books of Summer. This one might have been a slight disappointment, but first let me reflect upon Murray’s words before I make my final pronouncement.


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