Tag Archives: Non-fiction

The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow Wilson (Review by Ritu B. ’24)

The Butterfly Mosque: A Young American Woman's Journey to Love and IslamThe Butterfly Mosque: A Young American Woman’s Journey to Love and Islam by G. Willow Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a world where most Americans’ views on the Middle East are biased by polarizing media stories on nuclear weapons and dictators, The Butterfly Mosque depicts the real pulse of Egypt encountered by the author during the ‘90s. Willow narrates how after graduating from college with a history degree and a draw towards Islam, she takes a job as a teacher in Cairo, where she finds her future husband and also becomes a Muslim.

I loved seeing Egyptian society through Wilson’s American perspective because she skillfully pulls the reader into understanding the intimate exchanges of extended family (as we see her become integrated into an Egyptian family herself), the politics of negotiating the best prices at a souk (market), and the expected social dynamics between men and women. Some of the book’s broader ideas address cultural differences between the East and West. An example of Wilson’s many musings is a rhetorical question: why is it acceptable in America for men and women to kiss each other on the cheek as a greeting, but not for men and men, while the opposite is true in Egypt—even though both sides claim that the kiss is completely platonic?

Wilson also fights back against the common Western portrayal of Islam as oppressive and anti-feminist, and I wish more could hear her message that even though something may seem different than what you believe in, one shouldn’t take it at face value, and definitely shouldn’t rush to label it as backwards.

If you’re worried this book is a little too deep for you, don’t worry—there’s plenty of entertaining anecdotes about Willow’s difficulties with Arabic and her adventures with her close roommate, an example being when they have to help a cat give birth. Despite a disappointing cliffhanger ending, I cherished this book and read it again within a week. For those who would like to have their eyes opened to another culture or who are interested in learning more about Islam, I strongly recommend picking up The Butterfly Mosque. —Review by Ritu B. ’24

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The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination by Barry S. Strauss (Review by Rupert C. ’23)

The Death of Caesar: The Story of History's Most Famous AssassinationThe Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination by Barry S. Strauss
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In painstaking detail, Strauss shines light on the political climate of 44 B.C. in this non-fiction, focusing on the motivations, tensions, and people involved in Caesar’s assassination on the Ides of March. In vivid prose, he brings to life the complex networking of Roman politics–a dramatic departure from the dry and factual tone of the textbooks that I am accustomed to reading for Junior Classical League (JCL).

Strauss adeptly balances intellectual rigor with broad accessibility, managing to make pages fly by without diluting their substance. I particularly enjoyed his blend of Livian day-by-day analysis in the immediate aftermath of the assassination with more episodic construction, a technique that allows him to paint broad strokes and highlight trends while still focusing deeply on pivotal moments.

I personally would give this book a deserving 4.5./5 stars, but I do think that this book only satisfies a certain niche of non-fiction history readers and might not appeal to a more general audience. However, if you’re still reading this review, I urge you to try this book! Even though this is the first of Strauss’ works that I’ve read, Strauss has earned a place among my go-to classical historians such as Mary Beard and Patrick Hunt. I look forward to reading his other works! —Review by Rupert C. ’23

For those who enjoyed this book, Rupert has recommended SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome and Hannibal for you to check out!

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The Truths We Hold by Kamala Harris (review by Ritu B. ’24)

The Truths We Hold: An American JourneyThe Truths We Hold: An American Journey by Kamala Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wouldn’t necessarily call myself well-versed in politics; sure, I skim the newspaper headlines every weekend (or so) but the bulk of my opinions on politics stems from topical memes and, of course, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. If this sounds like you, and it’s getting harder to pretend you don’t live under a rock when conversation turns to the upcoming elections, then keep reading.
I picked up Kamala Harris’s autobiography hoping to understand the background of the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee, but my entire world view had shifted by the end. In The Truths We Hold, the arc of Harris’s life, from her humble upbringings to vast political victories, unites with a not-so-subtle Democratic agenda to create a highly captivating read. I greatly admired her approach of translating political triggers into real stories. She strives to highlight the voices of actual people, from victims of the subprime mortgage crisis to separated families at border entry points. Readers familiar with Michelle Obama’s Becoming will find Harris’s book more political and op-ed-like as opposed to a meticulous memoir, but nonetheless, just as inspiring and educational. Anyone interested in becoming interested in the elections will love The Truths We Hold.
—Review by Ritu B. ’24

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Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter (review by Anya W. ’20)

Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted DaughterChinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I opened this book, I was unaware that it was an autobiography. In fact, it took me reading about a quarter of the way through until I was sure that it was in fact, a book of facts. In some ways, that was a bit disappointing; not, however, because the book was badly written, but because by that point in the story, I felt the author had suffered enough to deserve more of a fairytale ending than reality usually grants.

Mah’s poignant tale of abuse, defiance, and survival is a brilliantly written work for those with the stomach to read her history of pain. It was without a doubt one of the most engaging autobiographies I have ever read. Her writing is clever and just the right amount of detailed: enough imagery to immerse oneself, but not enough to bog down the story. Currently, I’m keeping an eye out for more of her works. -Anya W. ’20

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The Handbook of Us: Understanding and Accepting People with Autism by Matteo Musso (review by Kelsey W. ’19)

Handbook of Us: Understanding and Accepting People with AutismHandbook of Us: Understanding and Accepting People with Autism by Matteo Musso
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Handbook of Us is a book written by Matteo Musso, a 13-year-old boy with Autism. Until the age of 12, Matteo was considered “non-verbal”, meaning that he could not conduct regular conversation. His mom discovered RPM (Rapid Prompting Method), a speech-prompting method that allowed Matteo to express his thoughts. Since then, Matteo experienced what he described as a “brain explosion” – he began writing beautifully about his experiences and perceptions of life. This book details how he himself portrays his diagnosis of autism and features some of his beautiful poetry. The autobiographical work is truly phenomenal and very moving, as Matteo’s unique perspectives draw us into his world. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone, particularly those who are looking to view neurodevelopmental differences in a different light. – Kelsey W. ’19

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Hot Lights, Cold Steel: Life, Death and Sleepless Nights in a Surgeon’s First Years by Michael J. Collins (review by Simar B. ’20)

Hot Lights, Cold Steel: Life, Death and Sleepless Nights in a Surgeon's First YearsHot Lights, Cold Steel: Life, Death and Sleepless Nights in a Surgeon’s First Years by Michael J. Collins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hot Lights, Cold Steel tells the story of Dr. Collins while he was a resident at the Mayo Clinic. Specifically, it is a medical memoir about his life; Dr. Collins went from a lowly junior resident to the chief resident of orthopedics at one of the most renowned hospitals in the world. He did this by working his way up and working tirelessly, trying to learn all he could. Moreover, he worked extremely hard to support his family, moonlighting in Mankato Hospital 90 miles away from his home just to make ends meet. The story is centered on the theme of choices and making the right one for the patient in the hardest of circumstances. For example, a young teenager came to him with a severely damaged leg, and he had to make the choice of whether to amputate the leg or try to save the leg and risk the boy’s life. Dr. Collins’ story is absolutely riveting and a great read for anyone interested in becoming a doctor. – Simar B. ’20

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (review by Saloni S. ’21)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From start to finish, I was thoroughly captivated by Rebecca Skloot’s biography, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Skloot masterfully conveys the heartbreaking story of Henrietta Lacks, a thirty-one year old African-American woman suffering from cervical cancer whose cells were taken for research without her consent. With a magical sensation, I learned that Henrietta Lacks’ cells, dubbed HeLa by scientists, reproduced rapidly and continuously unlike any cells before, resulting in a scientific miracle; however, Skloot stresses the fact that Lacks’ family was not informed about the mystifying HeLa cells as they struggled to survive in poverty, while commercial ventures profited from her cells.

Skloot effectively describes the high racial tensions during the 1950s, with only John Hopkins Hospital available for African-Americans for miles; she also narrates harrowing stories of research conducted on unsuspecting patients, especially African-Americans. She was able to warm the Lacks family’s heart, despite their profound distrust of reporters, by promising to reveal the face behind the name HeLa. With ten years of devotion to writing this book, Skloot not only described the ethical issues behind HeLa cells and scientific cell research, but also emotionally articulated the frustration and story of the Lacks family. Overall, I was amazed at how Skloot evokes so many different emotions from the reader throughout this detailed and interesting 381 page book. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who would like to read a breathtaking, informative book about the science and ethics behind cell research. – Saloni S. ’21

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Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder (review by Simar B. ’20)

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the WorldMountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder is a thrilling biography of Dr. Paul Farmer, treats millions of patients from Haiti to Siberia with his charity Partners in Health. Dr. Farmer epitomizes the founding tenets of medicine, devoting himself to curing patients of their ailments regardless of their socio-economic status. He commits himself to serving the poor and the needy, trying to treat poverty and one of its symptom: sickness. The book is absolutely riveting and inspiring, putting you in the eyes of Dr. Farmer. This is a man who does not take “no” for an answer and will see everything to the end. He truly does change the world one patient at a time. Among other good works, the book describes how Dr. Farmer is able to reduce the cost of second-line drugs for multi-drug resistant tuberculosis by ninety-five percent and establishes a free clinic in Cange, a desolate region in Haiti. Overall, I loved how Kidder portrays Farmer and allows you to understand the motivation that pushes this man to give up everything for a cause. It reminds you that there are people in this world who will “fight the long defeat,” as Kidder puts it, to do the right thing and help the impoverished of the world (257). – Simar B. ’20

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Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li (review by Andrew ’17)

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your LifeDear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A few months after I finished Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, the Chinese-born writer Yiyun Li’s 2010 story collection, only one piece lingered in my mind: a novella, entitled “Kindness,” about a girl’s complex relationship with her female commander in the Chinese army. The storytelling style of “Kindness” is pretty run-of-the-mill realism, but there was something in the narrative, some hint toward a deeper melancholia, that stuck with me. Li’s brand-new memoir, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, helps pinpoint what that profound sadness is and where it comes from. Li wrote these essays during her years-long struggle with suicidal depression, but most often she presents recollections from earlier in her writing life. One essay deals with her decision to forsake Chinese entirely and write in English, another with her unlikely friendship with the legendary Irish writer William Trevor, a third with her mentor at the Iowa Writers Workshop, a man just as flawed as the commander from “Kindness.” The publisher bills this memoir as a “richly affirming examination of what makes life worth living.” It’s not. The essays here are pained and painful, meditative and often oppressively sad. Readers willing to brave all that will find insight on nearly every page into the particular somberness of Li’s life and art. – Andrew R. ’17

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Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine by Sophie Pinkham (review by Tiffany Z. ’17)

Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet UkraineBlack Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine by Sophie Pinkham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Despite the subtitle, Black Square is not just about Ukraine. It is about the shrapnel the explosive nineties left in Russian and Ukrainian society, from the free travel of drugs that accompanied free borders, to Ukrainians’ struggle with their Soviet inheritance every Victory Day. Through anecdotes from Ukrainian and Russian colleagues and her own travels, Pinkham paints a portrait of Ukraine from the early 2000s to 2015 that, though vivid, falters in its attempt to illustrate a multifaceted society. Though she tries to cover all classes and regions in Ukraine, too often does she fall back on experiences with overwhelmingly young, artistic hipster types from Kyiv and western Ukraine. Some parts, like her discussion of the Donbas, almost entirely lack in-depth firsthand testimonies, even though those would have bolstered already interesting arguments rare in Western media. I wanted to see more like her coverage of the 2013-14 Maidan protests: though she did not attend them, she drew on rich historical contexts and personal interviews to represent the complex dialogue surrounding Ukrainian identity. Pinkham’s work sheds vital light on post-Soviet daily life, but I hesitate to extend Black Square from highly recommended for Russia-Ukraine aficionados to required reading for all. – Tiffany Z. ’17

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