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Tag: non-fiction

READING THE TBR, DAY 302: Under the Tuscan Sun (1996) by Frances Mayes

Don’t get me wrong here. I am very happy for Frances Mayes that she spent the duration of her Money Pit-like renovation of her new holiday home in Italy’s gorgeous Tuscany region with her long-time husband, Ed. It is lovely that they experienced the vicissitudes of their enormous undertaking — from understanding cultural differences to dealing with ancient plumbing — together, and had each other to lean on when all the foreignness of their surroundings just got a little too unbearably foreign for these American part-time expats.

But in the 2003 film version of this tale, Frances Mayes (Diane Lane) is newly divorced and depressed, which is what leads her to take on the Tuscan house project in the first place — and then leads her to a new love — and since that was the story I was expecting, and quite liked, I didn’t exactly know what to make of this (admittedly more realistic and, clearly, factual) version of events for much of the time I spent reading it.

Except to say, wow, the hubris of that film’s producers, to think it’s okay to entirely change the facts of a living person’s life like that! On the other hand, she probably doesn’t look like Diane Lane (because no one looks like Diane Lane), so despite the rather drastic, not to mention hurtful, alteration to her life, it must have been hard for Actual Frances to be mad about Character Frances and her lovelorn situation.

Actual Frances’s story is filled with a lot of wish fulfillment, and a lot of home renovation porn, and for the most part I enjoyed it, despite the weird presence of Ed. (Sorry, Ed, but it was just weird that you were there… in your life. Hollywood, huh?) The narrative did get bogged down in fish-out-of-water ignorance in some places, and detailed a few Italian feasts perhaps a tad too lovingly in others, but it is nevertheless an engaging snapshot of life in the kind of picturesque surroundings to which we all aspire but can probably never own a piece of, and that is most of its appeal.

The biggest shock of the book, for me? When Frances and Ed were still together at the end of the book. Moreover, a quick google proves that they are still together, nearly twenty-five years after this book was published. 

Like, damn. That movie really just had no shame, huh? IS ANYTHING ON FILM EVEN REAL?


TBR DAY 302: Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes
GENRE: Travel Narrative, Memoir, Non-Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: ~15 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Collins Booksellers.
KEEP: Probably not, no.

READING THE TBR, DAY 297: God is Not Great (2007) by Christopher Hitchens

In this somewhat strident effort, celebrated athiest Christopher Hitchens argues — very persuasively, very successfully — that humanity has outgrown religion in these science-blessed times, and in fact that religion is far more harmful than it is helpful nowadays.

Hitchens is very much preaching to the choir (if he will forgive the church-based metaphor) in this one, but even I found myself more and more convinced of his point the further the book went on. I don’t know how it would play with anyone who was fundamentally opposed to the idea at the outset — or, indeed, with anyone who is a fundamentalist of any sort — but I like to think that the logical, if occasionally extreme, force of his argument might at least arouse the occasional question in the minds of even the most devout.

Because he just makes so much sense.

And religion… just doesn’t, does it?


TBR DAY 297: God is Not Great: The Case Against Religion by Christopher Hitchens
GENRE: Philosophy, Non-Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: ~10 years.  
KEEP: Yes!

READING THE TBR, DAY 293: The Body (2019) by Bill Bryson

The inimitable Bill Bryson’s amiable, often incisive, travel narratives are among my very most beloved books ever, and I love his explorations of the English language, Shakespeare and the like, but his impeccably researched popular science works — first, A Short History of Nearly Everything, then At Home, and now this one — are, quite simply, works of staggering genius.

This one is somewhat squickier than his earlier scholarly tomes, because the human body itself is squickier, of course, but it is nevertheless fascinating, as Bryson not only details the various parts and functions of our biology but also honours those who have examined it so thoroughly and dedicatedly (and, at times, unethically) throughout the millennia.

It is fantastic.

Read it.


TBR DAY 293: The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson
GENRE: Non-Fiction, Popular Science
TIME ON THE TBR: 1 month.  
KEEP: Of course.

READING THE TBR, DAY 289: The Wrong End of the Table (2019) by Ayser Salman

A sprightly and engaging story of hardships, embarrassments, friendships and dating, successful screenwriter Ayser Salman’s reminiscences of being an immigrant in America, an expat in Saudi Arabia, an Iraqi during two Gulf Wars and a Muslim post-9/11 kept me entranced all the way through. Her storytelling is effortless, her humour often subtle, and her life completely fascinating, while also being infinitely relateable. 

Loved this.


TBR DAY 289: The Wrong End of the Table: A Mostly Comic Memoir of a Muslim Arab American Woman Just Trying to Fit In by Ayser Salman
GENRE: Non-Fiction, Memoir
TIME ON THE TBR: 2 months.  
KEEP: Sure.

READING THE TBR, DAY 288: The World According to Star Wars (2017) by Cass R. Sunstein

I am a sucker for books of essays that turn beloved pop culture into topics for scholarly discourse, and this one is a fine example of the breed. I can’t say I agreed with all of the conclusions, or even propositions, enclosed within these pages, but I thoroughly enjoyed Cass R. Sunstein’s in-depth look of the world of Star Wars, its place in our society, and the lessons we can take not only from its text (and subtext) but from each of our reactions to this entertainment behemoth.

I liked. I learned. I even laughed occasionally.

Especially when Sunstein claimed that Darth Vader is the best character in all of Star Wars

That’s just hilarious.


TBR DAY 288: The World According to Star Wars by Cass R. Sunstein
GENRE: Media Tie-in, Non-Fiction, Film
TIME ON THE TBR: ~1 year.  
PURCHASED FROM: It was a gift.
KEEP: Naturally.

READING THE TBR, DAY 211: Bookworm (2018) by Lucy Mangan

I related to this book so hard it could easily be my own memoir of childhood reading. Oh, I didn’t read exactly the same books as Lucy Mangan, and I didn’t feel the same as she did about others, but this account of her early life spent between the pages of a dizzying array of children’s fiction, and her adult perceptions of those books now, just sang to me as I don’t think any other memoir ever has.

Mangan is wry and clever and self-deprecatory and amusing, and this book did so much to make me appreciate not only children’s books as a whole — she seeds a lot of research about the history of the genre, from its early, prosy religious instructional works to the powerhouse bestsellers of today — but the ones I read myself that it made me want to do nothing so much as return to those enchanted worlds, and explore some of the others that I missed out on, but that Mangan recommends so enthusiastically.

This is a must-read book for every lifelong bookworm.

She’s wrong about Twilight, though.


TBR DAY 211: Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan
GENRE: Non-Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: ~9 months.  
PURCHASED FROM: Christmas gift.
KEEP: Yes!

READING THE TBR, DAY 191: Obsessive Compulsive Cycling Disorder (2008) by Dave Barter

About fifteen years ago, I stunned friends and family when I announced my intention to ride a bicycle around Ireland. The reaction of almost everyone was dismaying and identical; it wasn’t “You’re going to ride a bike around Ireland?!” so much as, in great disbelief, “You’re going to ride a bike around Ireland?”

Thanks a lot, friends and family!

 That two-month trip was inspired by back-to-back readings of Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawk and French Revolutions by Tim Moore, to of my favourite travel writers. Eight years later, I hit the road again for another extended cycle tour, this one around Tasmania, which is pretty much the same size as Ireland, though significantly less populated, and would take around the same time.

A couple of years ago, I mooted the possibility of cycling around New Zealand’s North Island, and my friend Barney very kindly presented me with this book, sure I would find it an inspiring read on the journey. Unfortunately, the trip has been long-delayed, and size constraints will mean that I’ll have to leave it behind, anyway — if you have a Kindle, then travelling with hard copy books always seems a little foolish, especially when space and weight are an issue. As it happens, it would have been an excellent companion on my ride, and I think I would have very much enjoyed Dave’s cheerful, enthusiastic, thoroughly relatable company.

A collection of articles written across ten years, these breezy and often amusing anecdotes certainly struck a chord in me — especially the one where he rode Ireland from end to end. (I, however, rode its perimeter. Take that, Dave!) He examines the appeal of cycling, especially of distance cycling, and while I am not about to enter a race, or take up mountain biking, both of which are discussed in some detail in this book, I am now, having read this, inspired to repack my panniers with camping gear and protein powder, and perhaps hit the road one more time.

New Zealand, here I come. Eventually.


TBR DAY 191: Obsessive Compulsive Cycling Disorder by Dave Barter
GENRE: Non-Fiction, Travel Narrative, Sports
TIME ON THE TBR: 8 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: It was a gift.
KEEP: Sure.

READING THE TBR, DAY 184: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (2017) by Neil deGrasse Tyson

I am very grateful to this book. It is due to this book that I learned that the speed on audiobooks can be altered — I’m pretty much at at least 2x speed on all my books these days, and thus my TBR reading challenge — a book a day! — is made all the more attainable, especially as I am also reading newly released books throughout, as well. 

But before I discovered this useful piece of information, I ended up buying this book in hardcopy in addition to my audio version, because Neil deGrasse Tyson is a brilliant scientist and an excellent writer, but his deep voice is so soothing and somnolent that, as keen as I was to read this book, I just kept nodding off or spacing out every time I attempted to listen to his narration of it. (A review I later read of the audiobook mentioned that the way to get around this was upping the speed, and ah! Thanks, random reviewer! And thanks also, Neil deGrasse Tyson!)

But, the book. As I tried to read it in print again and again, I began to think that it wasn’t necessarily Tyson’s voice, but his topic, that was making me sleepy. Astrophysics is hard, you guys! And because this is the “in a hurry” version — and even though it is the accessible, humour-laden version — a lot of concepts are flung at the reader in a very short time, which for me means that I had hardly grasped (barely) one of them when another one would come flying in at the speed of light.

There is a reason that astrophysicists are held in awe, and it is that their field of expertise isn’t immediately transparent to every layperson who attempts to understand it. I long ago resigned myself to a lack of instinctive theoretical genius — I’m no John Nash, or Will Hunting, or that kid from Gifted — and reading this book just reinforced to me how little I really get about the world, and how okay I am with that–as long as someone, somewhere, gets it, then I don’t need to. 

Neil deGrasse Tyson gets it. And that is more than enough for me. 


TBR DAY 149: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson
GENRE: Non-Fiction, Popular Science
TIME ON THE TBR: 1 1/2 years.  
KEEP: Yep!

READING THE TBR, DAY 156: 24 Hours in Ancient Rome (2017) by Philip Matyszak

Such a clever book! An hour at a time, from midnight to midnight, we walk in the footsteps of the denizens of Ancient Rome, from the to bath attendants to Vestal Virgins to laundry workers to lawyers to sex workers and beyond, this book gives us a very accessible taste of living history, and enables us to get inside the heads of these — fictional, but based on fact — long-dead archetypes.

In many ways, however, their lives find echoes in our modern society — even the rampant slavery, unfortunately, cannot be said to have been completely wiped out — and it is through this steady buildup of empathy and familiarity with his subjects that historian Philip Matyszak puts us into their heads, and brings them to life. It is a winning conceit, and one that carries you through each of the twenty-four hours in absolute wonder.

There is probably not a lot that is new here for the avid Roman scholar, but for newcomers to the field, or even just those who really love a “lower decks” perspective on history — which is so often written by, and reflective of, the great and the good — this book is a real triumph.

I am so pleased to have read it. 


TBR DAY 170: 24 Hours in Ancient Rome: A Day in the Life of the People Who Lived There by Philip Matyszak
GENRE: Popular History
TIME ON THE TBR: 1 year.  
KEEP: Yes!

READING THE TBR, DAY 153: The History of the Kings of Britain (1138) by Geoffrey of Monmouth

Following yesterday’s abhorrent, indigestible trifle, I thought I’d make with the scholarship and refinement today, which led me to select this venerable work from my (diminishing, but still overflowing) TBR shelves.

Almost nine hundred years old, and therefore missing out quite a few kings (and queens), Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history is… well, a bit unreliable, really. It’s like Philippa Gregory labeling one of her historical reimaginings — The White Queen, The Other Boleyn Girl, what have you — as non-fiction. I mean, Merlin is in this. King Arthur is in this. And I do not in any way mean to suggest that a writer of the 12th Century knows less about the history of his own nation than I do, close to a millennium later and living across the globe, but, really? Merlin?

This is not so much a history as it is a fantasy, but that’s okay. It’s lyrical and lovely, and evocative of an earlier, certainly more martial, but also more courtly time. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but I appreciated its sweeping grandeur, its scattershot attempt at a faithful record of events long past, and the sense of living, breathing ancientness that it brings along with it. Nine hundred years is a long time, and whenever I am reminded that the legacy of human creativity goes back almost as far as humanity itself, I am always grateful.   

Still pretty cheeky to call this a “history”, though.


TBR DAY 153: The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth
GENRE: Classic, History, Non-Fiction (?)
TIME ON THE TBR: ~ 10 years.  
KEEP: Yeah.