Confessions Of A Bookaholic: Noteworthy Nonfiction For May 2014

I am so sorry for the delay of this month’s noteworthy nonfiction list. I hope it was worth the wait. This list includes two books that have been at the top of my reading list for months and two favorites that will always hold a special place in my heart. Without any more ramblings from me, onto this month’s noteworthy nonfiction list!

“Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail”
by Cheryl Strayed (March 20, 2012) five_star.fw

top_pick.fw
wildWhen Cheryl Strayed was in her early twenties, her life was falling apart. She had lost her mother to cancer and was overcome by insurmountable grief. Shortly after that her marriage fell apart (they divorced) and she began acting out, dabbling in drugs, making impulsive and poor decisions… perpetually lost. She suddenly decides that she must find herself and the way to do this is to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) alone: an impulsive and life-altering decision. “Wild” takes the reader on Strayed’s journey, both internally and externally, as she braves 1,100 miles of wilderness alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker and yet she faces rattlesnakes, black bears, intense heat, record snowfalls and the beauty, but also loneliness, of the PCT. This is a story about a journey within a journey and by the time Strayed’s memoir comes to a close, you will feel like you hiked and experienced those 1,100 miles right alongside her. For as maddening as Strayed’s journey on the PCT is, it strengthens her and is ultimately a healing experience.

This book is heartbreaking, joyful, exhilarating, nerve-wracking, and inspiring. You don’t need to take my word for it – it was the first book of Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 and is a New York Times bestseller. It also was optioned as a movie that has been filmed, but has not yet come out, with Reese Witherspoon portraying Cheryl Strayed (and my hopes for the film are high since it seems like they are honoring the book and the real Cheryl Strayed has been involved with the movie’s production). For me this book was beautiful and moved me, even though I am not quite sure I grasp the entire why and how of it. I am not a huge nature person. (I love hiking, but backpacking or camping – forget it. Indoor plumbing is a must for me.) And yet Strayed’s beautiful and engaging prose actually had me contemplating why I’m not into roughing it for a few weeks (don’t worry; it only lasted a few minutes).

I think many men shy away from this book believing that the target demographic is women in their twenties and thirties. I think this is an easy conclusion to come to, because Strayed was in her twenties during the course of this book and reflects back on it with the wisdom of her forties, but a target demographic does not limit a great book, and this is one of the greats. If you have ever lost someone or something you loved dearly, this book is for you. If you have loved, lived and grieved fiercely, this book is for you. If you have ever felt lost or tried to find yourself, this book is for you. If you have ever made a decision you knew was hurtful, either to yourself, someone else or both, but because of the chaos inside you, you made those decisions anyway, this book is for you. If you love nature and adventure and have dreamed of a great physical journey, this book is for you. And if you do not belong to any of the groups I have listed off and are of legal age, please leave me a comment so I can peg why this book is for you as well.

Own it, gift it and share it, because Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail” is nothing short of a gift.

“Melissa Explains It All: Tales From My Abnormally Normal Life”
by Melissa Joan Hart (October 29, 2013) four_star_half.fw

melissa_explains_it_allMany people know Melissa Joan Hart by other names. There is Clarissa from ‘Clarissa Explains It All’ and Sabrina from ‘Sabrina, The Teenage Witch’ and then Melissa from ‘Melissa and Joey’. But this book is not about any of them, but about the girl (and now woman) who played them on TV. From her well-known roles as Clarissa and Sabrina, this book goes back to her very first commercial, her early Broadway days and the parts she didn’t get (Punky Brewster among them). Hart talks about everything from her family, to flings with costars, to boyfriends, to star-studded events, parties and the trappings of fame that she never let get to her head. With one foot in Hollywood and the other in reality, Hart shares stories from her extraordinary past (behind-the-scenes on and off-set) and her incredibly normal present.

Melissa Joan Hart’s memoir is as frank as it is funny. What I appreciated most is that she doesn’t hold back. (She talks about passing gas for goodness sakes, the girl isn’t shy.) She shares her experiences with the casts and crews she has worked with along the years (including her experiences on ‘Clarissa’ and ‘Sabrina’ of course) as well as what was going on in her personal life from her awkward teenage years to dabbling in drugs and partying to facing a family health crisis, PR flubs and how she fell hard and fast for her husband of nearly eleven years. This is the first celebrity memoir to make these lists, and I am glad (though to be fair it being first was not exactly an accident).

My favorite aspects of this book were her relationships with her costars on her more well-known projects and all of her adventures growing up and in her early-twenties: from the actors who influenced her, to whom she worked with, and befriended and who her competition was as well as her personal life from boyfriends (half of them were never in ‘the business’) and family life. I do think at times she is a little too quick to point out her or her family’s own greatness and perhaps feels a little more important than she is/was (I don’t see her playing Julie James in ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’) but I also related to that need to be great. She is the oldest child of a large brood for one thing and I found a lot of similarities in our personalities (from reading the book at least) that made her that much more relatable to me. Maybe it is an oldest sibling thing, but there is this overachieving aspect to her (and to me) where she has to be her best, all of the time (think fourteen going on forty – and yet she doesn’t feel or act old in many other ways).

At the end of this book, I think most readers will find Melissa Joan Hart to be the hilarious, quirky and overachieving girl-next-door that she has been branded to be. And it becomes clear they built that brand around who Hart was, rather than trying to force her into brand to pretend to be. Perhaps that is why she has remained so grounded and approachable over the years. And hey, the work hasn’t stopped coming her way – has it?

This book is a fun and fast read with plenty of behind-the-scenes action, both personal and professional, and hilarity that regularly occurs in her ‘abnormally normal life’. It is a must-read for anyone who likes a funny and light memoir, or is interested in celebrities or ‘the business’; and most importantly for the people who grew up watching Clarissa, Sabrina or Melissa.

“Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing And Life”
by Anne Lamott (September 1, 1995)five_star.fw

BirdbyBirdThere are books with wisdom for writing (hello writing-craft books!) and books with general life wisdom, but I have rarely found both in a single book. “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions On Writing And Life” is a book that has both. Lamott’s style is easy to read and it isn’t funny as much as it is absolutely hilarious. Lamott’s voice is strong and distinct, and wise without being condescending and funny without trying to be.

To be clear, this is not a book that is overly deep on matters of craft, but rather a book to get your butt in gear and start writing. There are entire books devoted to certain areas of craft (dialogue, character development, marketable plots, and pacing, etc.) and so few that I feel cover the core fundamentals. For writers, writing and life are interlinked. It is more than a hobby or even career choice; it is a deeply rooted part of our identities, an intimacy we are compelled to share with the world (especially if we want to draw a paycheck).

I first read this book when I was eighteen, and in my first semester of college. Its lessons on writing are the ones that have stayed with me above any others. For example, everyone’s first drafts suck. Seriously. When you write it out there is going to be so many problems you’ll rethink your calling. And this is how it is from the high school student to the award-winning novelist whose books are each a bestseller. You cannot wear your editing hat and your writing hat together. That is why revision exists, so put your critical eye away until it is out on the page. Lamott spends an entire chapter on this subject, which she calls “shitty first drafts”. Consider it your obligatory starting point. The thing is, many writers are so overly concerned with why they are writing (to get published) that it interferes with the writing and the process itself. Lamott tackles this and many more life and writing lessons with a natural style all her own. This book is much richer on life wisdom because writing is life.

Even if you are a professional writer, but have not yet read this book, you need to. I wasn’t talking about craft basics as much as I was talking about things I believe many writers forget, at least when they are blocked. If you are a student with no interest in writing, but need to be able to churn out work to get your degree this book is for you too! This book is for anyone because whether you are a writer, student or some other professional you need to know how to write and why not do that through fun and engaging prose that is a pleasure to read (it is even considered to be by many non-readers I know). And it is full of awesome life stuff as well (talk about a bonus). Don’t worry if you aren’t looking for a how-to because that is not what this book is; Lamott is so funny, you’ll forget you’re actually learning how to write well (and live well too).

“Born On A Rotten Day”
by Hazel Dixon-Cooper (February 4, 2003) three_star.fw

born_on_a_rotten_dayWant to know what your stars really say about you, but no other astrology book will dare admit to? Then “Born On A Rotten Day” by Hazel Dixon-Cooper is the book for you. Dixon-Cooper takes a walk on the dark side of the zodiac and reveals all of the things other astrology books, readings and columns try to sugar coat. Truth be told, everyone is more or less born on a rotten day.

I will admit that this book left me very sad. Why? Because in my very first ‘Confessions Of A Bookaholic’ blog where I don’t even discuss specific books, but about how I will never read everything I want to before I die (it is a serious problem people!) I shared a few titles I was most anxious to get to. One of those titles was this book, and I was underwhelmed, which is putting it mildly. To be honest, I was downright disappointed and it was incredibly difficult to finish the book because I had better things to do and better things to read.

I ‘discovered’ this book when I read its pitch and the query letter Dixon-Cooper had written for representation in one of the many publishing/representation books I had read for my own manuscript. I also loved the concept. I don’t follow astrology, for me it is just like a fortune in a fortune cookie. Fun to read, and can be very entertaining, but nothing to put stock into. That being said, this book was unique in what it had to say about each sign. If you are into astrology you should read this book, because this is information you won’t find elsewhere. I just question the validity of it (even to serious astrologers). While Dixon-Cooper has the credentials and is obviously a professional in her field, this book felt like a farce. Everything was exaggerated to the extreme and she painted nearly every sign as a narcissistic sociopath, the how they were a narcissistic sociopath just varied slightly. I wanted to read a book because I wanted the ‘real’ (unsweetened) profiles of each sign. I didn’t feel like that was what I read though. I read jokes. Exaggerated and sometimes on point (though extreme) and other times so off base, I wondered how far in the clouds Dixon-Cooper was when she wrote the book. Dixon-Cooper was also lazy and often used copy and paste and just changed the names of the signs in parts of this book (talk about a turn-off). She claims every sign can squash the others and lists how, but these repeat in every chapter with the sign names playing a game of musical chairs. How can a Leo always defeat a Scorpio when a Scorpio always defeats a Leo? (I would seriously like to know, and not just because those happen to be my husband’s and my signs.)

To be fair the book was not terrible, it just wasn’t terribly good either. The pitch was an example of terrific and hilarious writing. I don’t know what happened with the actual book. Though I do know one reason it isn’t nearly as funny as it should have been: Dixon-Cooper tries way too hard to be funny. It is glaringly obvious but when she uses the same lines over and over they just get boring and her transparent attempts at humor are still amusing, but also annoying. I don’t consider myself a comedian, but I am funniest when I am not trying to be funny. “Bird By Bird” is hilarious and it was natural – Anne Lamott telling the reader how it is and using her own natural wit. Dixon-Cooper would have benefited from reading that book. I think “Born On A Rotten Day” is fine if you are interested in astrology or just want a laugh. Don’t expect barrels of laughter though, or you’ll be immensely disappointed. Borrow the book, don’t buy it. For me the only thing worth reading was the stats of each sign, which only took up a page for each chapter. The other 191 pages I could have done without.


I hope you enjoyed this list of books as much as I enjoyed reading and rereading them. And I meant what I said about “Wild” and “Bird By Bird”. If you haven’t read either of them, do not finish reading this sentence and procure a copy today! 🙂 Until next month, which I promise (my fingers are itching, but I am not crossing them) will be on time! (Check back for them the week of May 26.)

-DMW

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