Mini Nonfiction Reviews: Technology, Yemen, Twins

by Kim on October 7, 2010 · 23 comments

Because I’m woefully behind on writing reviews, I’m combining a few of them to try and get caught up. These are three nonfiction books that I enjoyed, for the most part, but ended up not having a ton of stuff to say about. Click the photos to head to the reviews!


Better Off

Title: Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology
Author: Eric Brende
Genre/Format: Memoir
Year: 2004
Acquired: Bought

Review: MIT graduate Eric Brende and his wife, Mary, decide to make a drastic change in their lives. They moved to a remote, “off the grid” community and proceeded to spend 18 months living without a car, electric stove, refrigerator, running water, or anything else electric or motorized. Better Off chronicles their journey.

The concept of Better Off was intriguing to me, but I felt like the book lost a little bit on execution. Brende does a nice job of setting up a sense of mystery and adventure to the unusual quest, but the writing style was a little stilted and formal to me – you can tell Brende went to MIT. Phrases like “rectilinear patchwork” and “profundity of interest” just feel odd.

The book also came off as overly happy. It never seemed like anything bad happened – no setbacks, no frustrations, just an ideal life without technology. That strikes me as unrealistic, but maybe I’m a little cynical.

I’m glad I read the book because it was an interesting memoir version of the get away from technology theme, but an odd style and what seemed like lack of conflict left me feeling a little flat.


The Woman Who Fell from the Sky

Title: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky: An American Journalist in Yemen
Author: Jennifer Steil
Genre/Format: Memoir
Year: 2010
Acquired: Sent to me by Jill at Fizzy Thoughts

Review: Jennifer Steil is an American journalist that wants to try something new. She goes to Yemen to do a news writing workshop, and is then invited to come back to serve as editor of the Yemen Observer. Her main project is supposed to be reforming the newspaper, but she runs into a number of problems. The story follows her year in Yemen working at the paper and trying to have a life.

I liked a lot of the parts of this book that any regular reader of my blog would expect I’d enjoy – learning about life as a woman in the Middle East, seeing how journalism in Yemen works, and absorbing some lessons on news writing and reporting. This is about 90 percent of the book, and I was fascinated by it.

My problem with the book was the last few chapters. Without giving away much more than the dust jacket, I can say that near the end of the book Steil “just happens to meet the love of her life.” As soon as that happens, the book turns gushy as it follows Steil’s whirlwind romance.

The man in question turns out to be a pretty high-profile, married fellow with a daughter. Having an affair doesn’t bother me in and of itself, but what didn’t work for me was the seemingly cavalier attitude Steil takes about the whole thing. There’s something hard to swallow about making a decision that will inevitably hurt innocent people and not giving that pain more than a one sentence acknowledgment.

For the most part, this book was right up my alley. I love things about the Middle East and journalists and the experiences of women living in those countries, but the last few chapters left me a little disappointed.


One and the Same

Title: One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin and What I’ve Learned About Everyone’s Struggle to Be Singular
Author: Abigail Pogrebin
Genre/Format: Nonfiction
Year: 2009
Acquired: Library

Review: I picked up this book on impulse at the library because I’ve always been interested in the idea of twins. My mom is a twin, and there’s an old wives tale that twins skip generations, meaning I could have a pair someday (the book says this is a myth, but whatever).

The author of this book is an identical twin herself, so has always been fascinated by the idea of “twinness” and what it means for individuality. If a twin is a person exactly like you, how do you find yourself? It’s because of this question that the book ends up being a lot more than just a book for people who are twins – everyone struggles with finding themselves, and this book is a new way of looking at that issue.

I loved the way Pogrebin mixed personal stories about her and her sister Robin with research on current studies about twins and identity. She also interviews many other pairs of twins to find out their stories, which add other layers to the book. It ends up being a comprehensive and personal look at some relatively universal questions.

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