Non-Fiction

FROM A WHISPER TO A RALLYING CRY: THE KILLING OF VINCENT CHIN AND THE TRIAL THAT GALVANIZED THE ASIAN AMERICAN MOVEMENT by Paula Yoo

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In 1982, Vincent Chin and several friends went to an adult night club for his bachelor party. Hours later, two men chased Vincent down and beat him to death with a baseball bat. Over the course of five years and three trials, Vincent’s death garnered national attention. While friends and family hoped for some form of justice for his death, people around the country began to ask a question that became a political movement: would Vincent Chin be alive today if he had been white?

Through painstaking research and engrossing storytelling, Paula Yoo recreates this tragedy from the 1980s in a way that is accessible and tangible for modern audiences. She includes the wealth of facts and nuances that made the trials so complex and difficult for juries to decide, but she focuses on the humans involved in the story–from Vincent and his friends to the men who killed him to the lawyers on both sides of the case to the witnesses and activists involved in the trial. She ensures that each person’s voice is accurately and fairly represented, including the men who killed Vincent. Although the two jury in the second Civil Rights lawsuit did not feel that the prosecution proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the killing was motivated by race, the story of two white men pleading out of a murder charge for chasing down and killing a Person of Color is all-too-familiar, even three decades later, and anti-Asian hate has risen alarmingly during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yoo’s recounting of the political movement that Vincent’s death inspired is a rousing call for awareness and action for readers today, highlighting the need for awareness of anti-Asian discrimination and also for reforms to the justice system that allowed men who were charged with murder to escape any jail time.

THE WOMAN ALL SPIES FEAR by Amy Butler Greenfield

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

When Elizebeth Smith accepted a job studying Shakespeare’s First Folio on a wealthy man’s estate, her primary motivation was to escape her domineering father’s household. But this unusual opportunity would set her life on a new and unexpected course. On the estate, she met fellow employee William Friedman and the two began collaborating on code breaking projects. Their partnership would become both professional and romantic, skyrocketing them both into positions as elite cryptanalysts for the United States government. Though William would become famous for heading the team that cracked the Japanese code machine “Purple” and for his role in the fledgeling NSA, Elizebeth’s contributions to her country were less celebrated and in some cases attributed to others–men, of course. But Elizebeth’s incredible work not only saved American lives in both World Wars but broke down barriers for women in intelligence work and pushed the boundaries of code breaking.

Spanning two wars and featuring colorful characters from eccentric millionaires to rumrunning gangsters, this true story at times feels like fiction. Though marketed to teens, adults will enjoy this fascinating biography just as much as younger readers. Greenfield is honest about holes in the historical record but still manages to uncover enough information to piece together a cohesive picture of Friedman’s secretive life and contribution to counterintelligence. Bits of code included in the text along with instructions for deciphering it add a beautiful interactive element to the book. I highly recommend this one to teens and adults alike!

THE PRINCESS SPY: THE TRUE STORY OF ALINE GRIFFITH, COUNTESS OF ROMANONES by Larry Loftis

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Though Aline Griffith’s contributions to the war effort in 1940s Europe were entirely clandestine, her life after leaving the OSS was anything but. She married into Spanish nobility, attended parties with stars like Audrey Hepburn, and published a series of sensational memoirs about her time as a spy.

But how much of Aline’s memoirs was sensationalism, and how much (if any) was truth? Larry Loftis set out to answer these questions and in THE PRINCESS SPY, brings the real Aline Griffith to light. Though there were fewer murders and death-defying feats than her memoirs suggest, Aline’s impressive fieldwork, her involvement in a lesser-known theater of the war, and her courtship with various bullfighters and noblemen make her a fascinating figure by any measure.

Though Aline’s story anchors the narrative, Loftis includes deep-dives into the overall work of the OSS in Spain, especially where it involves her recruiter, Frank T. Ryan, and colleague Edmundo Lassalle. For this reason, I would recommend THE PRINCESS SPY not only to biography readers but also to any WWII or military history enthusiast who enjoys narrative non-fiction.

BOSSYPANTS by Tina Fey

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Through humorous autobiographical vignettes, Tina Fey gives fans a glimpse into her life, including the challenges of being a female comedian in a male-dominated industry, being a working parent, writing 22-episode sitcom seasons, pursuing society’s standards of beauty, and going on a cruise for your honeymoon (she would not recommend the latter). You’ll laugh. You’ll rage at the patriarchy. And if you listen to the audiobook, you’ll be thoroughly entertained for over 5 1/2 hours! Highly recommend.

BAD BLOOD: SECRETS AND LIES IN A SILICON VALLEY STARTUP by John Carreyrou

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For years Theranos was the “it” company in the Silicon Valley. It was the perfect startup–using technology to create an unprecedented medical device that promised to save lives. Theranos bragged that with just a finger prick, its devices could run hundreds of blood tests with a higher degree of accuracy than traditional lab tests. The icing on the cake was Theranos’ young, charismatic, female CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. Investors, scientists, and pharmacies were lining up to get in on the ground floor with this female Steve Jobs and the technology that would revolutionize the industry.

But not everyone was so excited about Theranos’ product, as investigative journalist John Carreyrou first discovered when approached by a fearful whistleblower. Despite threats of litigation, and NDAs, and a toxic culture of secrecy and bullying, a handful of Theranos’ former employees felt compelled to speak out about the faulty devices and numerous lies Holmes was feeding to investors and consumers. Her aggressive and secretive tactics may have been part of Silicon Valley’s tech culture, but Theranos had a key difference: they manufactured medical devices. Their lies were putting people’s lives in danger.

Fighting a multi-billion dollar company and its lawyers was no small feat, but Carreyrou pursued the truth and ultimately published a series of articles in the WSJ that brought Theranos to its knees. In this gripping book, he describes the corruption of Theranos in detail and demonstrates the frightening ways that Holmes exploited a “fear of missing out” to lead investors and business partners to completely disregard regulations, business protocols, and basic common sense.

THE LITTLE BOOK OF HYGGE: DANISH SECRETS TO HAPPY LIVING by Meik Wiking

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The Danish concept of hygge embraces everything comfy, cozy, and homey, and may be part of the reason that Danes are the happiest people on Earth.  In brief chapters, Meik Wiking breaks down “how to hygge,” teaching readers how to reject artifice, embrace genuine friendships, and find peace and joy in simple things like mood lighting, baking, and spending quality time with small groups of loved ones.  There are a lot of anecdotes, recommendations, and instructions (such as recipes) in this brief book, some of which are more compatible with an American lifestyle than others.  Overall, this book reads kind of like a Real Simple article; it creates a pretty picture of what life could be, with lots of ideas that you may or may not be able to apply in certain aspects of your own life.  A light read that may interest people who want a glimpse into another culture, or readers looking for ways to simplify or relax in their own lives.

THE ALICE BEHIND WONDERLAND by Simon Winchester

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Famously, the story that would become the enduring classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland began as a tale told aloud to a young girl named Alice Liddell. The author, Charles Dodgeson, had done some writing in the past under the pen name of Lewis Carroll, but he did not dream of becoming a novelist or a children’s entertainer. Instead, he spent his pittance of a salary from his low-level position at Oxford on the new and exciting art of photography. Much of the surviving evidence of his relationship with the Liddell family comes from the photographs he took of the children. A particularly enigmatic photograph of Alice dressed as a beggar serves as the focal point for Winchester’s examination of Dodgeson’s photographic passion and his relationship with the girl whom he would immortalize in his tales of Wonderland.

Although I have enjoyed some of Winchester’s other works, I found this book underwhelming. He devotes a significant amount of time to discussing photography practices and other photographs Dodgeson took, occasionally losing the focus on Alice and the Liddell family. Furthermore, the book contains no reproductions of the many photographs it discusses–a true limitation since the comparison and contrast of Dodgeson’s relationship with the Liddell siblings and other children largely depends on the reader’s ability to imagine and mentally compare the photographs. Winchester also mentions Dodgeson’s diary frequently when discussing his relationship with the Liddells and his relationships with and attitudes toward young girls, but the book would have benefitted from more direct excerpts from these diaries to help support Winchester’s conclusions.

Overall, if you are interested in the subject matter, this is a brief and interesting read, but it lacks a certain amount of depth and supporting material which could have elevated the book to a truly engaging narrative.

I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK by Michelle McNamara

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In the years leading up to her death, true crime writer Michelle McNamara diligently researched the serial killer and rapist that she labeled “The Golden State Killer.” Only two months after the posthumous publication of this book, a suspect was finally identified and arrested in connection with the decades-old crimes. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark reads partly as a police procedural mystery, with focus on the investigators, the collection of evidence, the piecing together of threads over the years, and the different theories swirling around the unsolved (at the time) case. It also reads as a bit of an autobiography of McNamara, with both the stories of her own life and her emotional connections to cold cases that she intended to share and the annotations about her writing process added by those close to her after her death. The interwoven plot lines of the investigators and writer in their relentless pursuit of justice made the book a gripping and powerful read at the time of its publication.

The arrest of Joseph DeAngelo only heightens the book’s appeal. Readers who may have been astounded that a cold case could be broken after so many years can see the inner workings of the investigation–the sometimes wild leads investigators followed relentlessly, some dead ends, but others astoundingly prescient given the investigation’s conclusion. The knowledge that the killer was finally caught also adds some catharsis to an otherwise unsettling ending where the killer remained free and the writer did not live to pursue her investigation further.

True crime is a tricky genre, especially for relatively recent crimes where in-depth studies may seem voyeuristic or insensitive to those loved ones still grieving. Through her focus on the investigation, McNamara gives a clear sense of purpose to every detail that she includes. The more graphic and salacious information is not provided to shock readers or to dramatize a family’s tragedy, but rather to build a wall of evidence with which to ultimately bring the killer to justice. If you are interested in this case or in true crime, I would highly recommend this book.

NORSE MYTHOLOGY by Neil Gaiman

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The world began in fire, ice, and mist.  This is also how it will end.  The gods who formed the earth by slaying a giant will in turn be slain by giants, and thus will end the reign of the Aesir and the Vanir, the gods of Asgard.  But before the end of the world, the gods went (or perhaps are still going) on adventures that still capture the imagination.

Neil Gaiman breathes life into the ancient stories of the Norse gods, embracing their crass and ignominious qualities along with their cleverness and nobility.  The characters and stories he explores are complex and humorous, told with his characteristic narrative style and masterful world-building.  In contrast with many mythologies, the Norse tales focus on the gods and their enemies, the giants, almost exclusively.  The gods fight their own battles rather than enlisting mortal heroes.  Although all of the tales are distinct and–as Gaiman notes in his introduction–occasionally contradictory, still a story arc sweeps from the world’s creation to its destruction and rebirth.  The short tales, however, make this book an ideal audiobook to listen to during start and stop activities, such as a commute, and the author’s reading of the audiobook is, as always, superb.

Highly recommended to mythology fans and fantasy fans!

MORE FOOL ME: A MEMOIR by Stephen Fry

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In the third installment of his memoirs, Stephen Fry briefly reviews the most formative events of his childhood and university years before meandering through the cocaine-laced journey of his career.  The memoir is littered with anecdotes about his own personal life and his star-studded friendships–although he makes a point not to tell any scathing or overly embarrassing stories about famous people other than himself.  The story of his initial introduction to cocaine and early, high-functioning usage is much more detailed and direct than the story of its negative impact on his life (told through the publication of a litany of his actual diary entries which focus primarily on people and events).  But he makes a point of telling the reader that cocaine dependency negatively impacted his professional and personal life, and he would recommend it to no one.

Fry’s non-chronological reminiscences follow thin thematic threads, which makes the book difficult to follow at times.  There is no real arc to the overall points he makes (they are somewhat scattered throughout), so the memoir reads more as a collection of anecdotes than a cohesive narrative of its own.  That said, many of the anecdotes are quite entertaining.  One of the highlights of the book is an anecdote about Prince Charles and Princess Diana paying a visit to Stephen Fry’s home over the Christmas holiday while he had house guests (including Hugh Laurie and Rowan Atkinson).  The majority of his anecdotes, however, will be of most (perhaps exclusive) interest to fans of Stephen Fry and his closest colleagues (Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, etc.).  I would recommend this memoir specifically to such fans.