Category Archives: Non Fiction

Book Review: Humans of New York: Stories, by Brandon Stanton

index (2)This book grew out of the five years that Stanton has maintained his blog of the same name. During that time he has interviewed and photographed more than ten thousand of New York City’s 8.5 million residents. Each of them, as does each of us, has their own story. Ranging from a line or two to a few paragraphs along with the photo, the entries are sad, tragic, hopeful, silly, serious, weird, just all over the spectrum. I found reading this pretty addictive.

Rating: * * * A good read

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Reviewed by: kh

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Review: The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain, by Bill Bryson

Two of our staff members share their thoughts on Bill Bryson’s latest travelogue.

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Inspired to reprise his “Notes from a Small Island” of twenty years ago, Bryson traveled from the south of Britain at Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath in far northern Scotland with dozens of stops along the way. He laces his travelogue with humor and history and often with a sourpuss attitude I didn’t care for. Visiting many coastal resorts of now faded glory (too many cheap flights available to Spain and the Mediterranean islands) Bryson relates fascinating historical anecdotes and lyrical descriptions of the beautiful English countryside. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Ancient Britain and the mysterious stone circles found in many parts of the country.

Rating: * * * A good read

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Reviewed by: kh


Good travel writing can be tough. But Bill Bryson is different funny, perceptive and poignant. In this book he decides to travel from Bognor Regis in the south of England, to Cape Wrath in Scotland.  He chooses the end point mostly because when folks ask him where he’s going he can say “Cape Wrath, God willing.” He gripes about the cost of visiting various museums and bemoaning park and ride lots outside of historic towns (another expanse), while marveling that if you wanted to visit all the medieval churches in the country at the rate of one per week, it would take 308 years?
There’s a lot to like about this island, the 13th largest landmass on the planet, but so slender in profile that no one in the country is ever more than 70 miles from one of its edges. Villages with ridiculous names like Shellow Bowels and Nether Wallop.
And let’s face it, the Brits are ripe for lampooning. He asks what kind of sandwiches are on on offer, the proprietor laconically notes ham and cheese.  Bryson says yes please and the shopkeeper looks at him .
‘Yes please what?’
“Yes please, ham and cheese.”
“No it’s ham or cheese.” he explained.
“You don’t do them together? “
“No.”
“Oh,” I said surprised, then leaned in toward him and in a friendly but confidential tone said “Why not? Too flavorful?”
God willing, there will always be an England.

Rating: * * * * Very, very good

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Reviewed by: Kathleen Hennrikus

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Review: How to be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Tudor Life, by Ruth Goodman

25622831The Tudor period (1485-1603) is historian Goodman’s favorite. There is nothing dry or tedious about this depiction as the author has been an enthusiastic participant in actually trying out aspects of Tudor life. It’s hard to imagine how different life was from today. Everything is done be hand, for a piece of clothing the sheep needed to be raised and shorn, the wool cleaned and spun and the cloth woven before the garment could be cut and sewn. If there was bad weather and a poor harvest people were hungry. Goodman explains in detail the importance of ploughing the fields and why it was an almost year round task. I enjoyed the explanations of the Tudor origins of expressions such as “pin money” and why we eat our meals in a particular order still following Tudor health guidelines today.

Rating: * * * * Very, very good

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Reviewed by: kh

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Review: The Narrow Door, by Paul Lisicky

indexWhen I first tucked into Paul Lisicky’s new memoir The Narrow Door, I assumed that it would be a tribute to his late writer friend Denise Gess, who lost her battle to cancer in 2009.  But we soon learn that Lisicky’s loss of Denise is compounded by a deteriorating relationship with his partner of sixteen years, poet Mark Doty.  Without veering into overly maudlin territory, Lisicky uses this perfect storm of catastrophes to reflect on losses of all magnitudes.  It is the disasters beyond our power that Lisicky fixates on most—natural disasters, the senseless murder of Marvin Gaye—as his own surroundings spiral out of control.  Sound like a downer?  True to its title, the book does offer a shaft of light through the narrow door.  Beyond loss and pain, there is always the possibility of something better.  Recommended for those who enjoyed Ann Patchett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, or Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams.

RATING: * * * * Very, very good

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Reviewed by: Susannah B.

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Review: The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country, by Helen Russell

Helen, a magazine editor, and her husband moved from London to Denmark after he was offered a job there at Lego headquarters which is in rural Jutland. While researching Denmark, Helen discovers that this country consistently comes out at the top of well-being and happiness indexes from several sources including the United Nations and the European Commission. She decides to devote their year in Denmark to researching various aspects of  this small Scandinavian country and determining the Danish secret to happiness. It just might involve paying higher taxes, family and community involvement, and having first class pastry.  Read this one to decide if you could benefit from parts of the Danish lifestyle.

RATING: * * * * Very, very good

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Reviewed by: kh

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Review: Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Some may be a little unsettled reading Coates’ very blunt account of life as a black American. Written as letter to his son, Coates’ ties his life experiences growing up in Baltimore, attending Howard University, and living in New York as a writer to the historical and current oppression of black people. Coates is raw in describing the reality of race relations in the U.S. and offers no comfort to the reader, but is emotional in his treatise and offers wisdom through knowledge and experience. In light of recent social and political movements sparked by police violence against black people in the U.S. this is a must read for anyone concerned with human rights, civil liberties, and the state of the world.

ADDITIONAL INFO: I also listened to the audiobook, read by the author. It was a bit difficult to listen to due to the complex prose and Coates’ rather monotone reading. However, the reading comes off as forlorn and leaves you with an added emotional twinge you might not get from just reading it.

RATING: * * * * Very, very good

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Reviewed by: Bri

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Review: Yes Please, by Amy Poehler

Did you know that Amy Poehler was born right here in Newton? In her memoir, Yes Please, Poehler shares her own personal anecdotes of growing up in nearby Burlington, Massachusetts, attending Boston College and going on to her comedy career at the Upright Citizens Brigade and Saturday Night Live. Poehler also gives her audience a look into her personal life as an adult as well, talking about her marriage to Will Arnett as well as being a mother to two small boys. This memoir is candidly refined and will give you insight into Poehler’s life without being an expose of her life in celebrity life in Hollywood.If you enjoy Amy Poehler on screen, you will surely enjoy Poehler on the page. The audiobook, playaway or digital audiobook version of this book is highly recommended, as Poehler reads it herself, and it is with hearing her voice that her words really come to life.

ADDITIONAL INFO: Through OverDrive, you can download the digital audiobook copy.

RATING: * * * A good read

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Reviewed by: Laura

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Review: The Life and Works of Chopin, by Jeremy Siepmann

This is a set of 4 CDs that alternately feature Chopin’s biography and his music. It really is an easy and interesting way to learn more about the 19th century’s greatest composer for the piano. Born in Poland, he lived the majority of his life in Paris. He was quite a dandy with his white gloves and the daily services of a hairdresser. Most of his income came from the piano lessons he gave to the well-to-do daughters of the Parisian upper class. He died in Paris at the age of 39, probably from tuberculosis.

RATING: * * * A good read

Reviewed by: kh

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Review: Shakespeare: The World as Stage, by Bill Bryson

This volume is one of the Eminent Lives series by Harper Collins Publishers. At 250 pages or less, they are much shorter that most of the currently produced biographies. Bryson lays out the known facts of Shakespeare’s life and skewers some of the popular myths concerning the Bard of Avon, including a chapter on why William Shakespeare actually wrote his own plays. He is enthusiastic about seeing the plays in production and not just reading them. Actors bring the plays to life and make us enjoy and appreciate Shakespeare in spite of the 400 years that separates us from his time in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.

RATING: * * * * Very, very good

Reviewed by: kh

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Review: Philomena: A Mother, Her Son and a Fifty-Year Search, by Martin Sixsmith

First published in 2009 with the title, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, this book was reissued in conjunction with the movie, Philomena in 2013. Philomena Lee became pregnant out of wedlock in 1952 and was sent by her family to Sean Ross Abbey, not far from their home, in Ireland. There the nuns operated an orphanage, a home for unwed mothers and their babies, and a laundry where the mothers worked. The author, in a novelized way, covers the problems that arose with having the Catholic Church and its influence so entangled in the Irish Republic Government’s policies. Philomena’s child, Anthony, was adopted by an American couple in 1955 and grew up as Martin Hess, with a very successful career in the law in Washington, D.C. He tried to find information about his Irish background but neither his adoptive family nor the Irish church and civil authorities were willing or able to help him. Philomena kept her secret until 2003 when she told her family about the baby she had signed away and they resolved to help her find him. I found this a fascinating story although somewhat dramatized by the author.

RATING: * * * A good read

Reviewed by: kh

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