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Mini Nonfiction Reviews: Technology, Yemen, Twins

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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Helen Murdoch October 7, 2010, 6:41 am

    Thank you for the 3 great reviews. I am especially interested in the Woman Who Fell From the Sky since I am doing an Middle East Challenge (check it out since you mention that you are interested in things Middle East). I’ll definitely add this book to my TBR list!

    • Kim October 7, 2010, 4:53 pm

      Helen: I think I saw that challenge on your blog awhile ago. I will have to head back and look. I think this would be a good book for the challenge.

  • Suzanne October 7, 2010, 7:07 am

    I listened to the audio version of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky and like you I was disappointed with the last section.

    One and the Same sounds interesting. My dad was a twin, and I have twin nieces (further to your point that twins skip generations!) so I’d like to check this one out. Thanks for mentioning it.

    • Kim October 7, 2010, 4:51 pm

      Suzanne: I’m glad it wasn’t just me then; sometimes I worry about that when I get into a book. Yay for more anecdotal evidence to back up old wives tales, even if the tale being true means two babies at once 🙂

  • Amanda October 7, 2010, 7:09 am

    I plan to read The Woman Who Fell From the Sky at some point in the next six months, so I’ll keep in mind that the last few chapters might be a little off. My sister lived in Yemen for a year, so I’m really looking forward to the book as a whole!

    • Kim October 7, 2010, 4:50 pm

      Amanda: That’s great – I think you’d really like it. And it would be some nonfiction, which I know you don’t read very often (and I’m totally a nonfiction pusher!).

  • Erin October 7, 2010, 7:12 am

    Sorry to hear Better Off was a little stilted and overly happy — it looks like it could’ve been a good book! It bugs me when the language doesn’t seem to match the subject, which it sounds like was the case here.

    The Woman Who Fell From the Sky is a book I’ve seen around. Yours is the first review I’ve seen of it, and it looks quite interesting! Maybe I’ll just stop reading early…I don’t think I’d like the end either, from the way you’ve described it.

    I don’t have any twins in my life, but One and the Same sounds interesting. I’ve never read anything about them before, but I have wondered what it’s like finding your own identity when you have another person kind of sharing your life. I also enjoy nonfiction that mixes in personal anecdotes, so I might have to give this one a go.


    • Kim October 7, 2010, 4:49 pm

      Erin: Exactly – there was some disconnect between the writing and the substance that didn’t gel for me. Oh well, it was interesting anyway. Jill at Fizzy Thoughts also reviewed The Woman Who Fell from the Sky the book – her’s is good too. I just got lazy about linking to other reviews this time around. One of the things I liked best about One and the Same as the balance she struck between personal and research, which can be tricky to do.

  • Jenny October 7, 2010, 9:16 am

    The twin memoir sounds wonderful! I haven’t got any twins in my family (thank God, because I would be petrified if it seemed at all likely I would have twins someday), but I have always thought it must be strange and interesting to be a twin.

    • Kim October 7, 2010, 4:47 pm

      Jenny: It was surprisingly wonderful – I love when random books end up being awesome. I’ve always thought the twins thing would me a mix of weird and awesome too. I’m not sure if having them is something I’m that psyched about, but I really don’t feel like worrying about it until the time comes!

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) October 7, 2010, 1:53 pm

    Better off sounds a lot like See You in a Hundred Years – a book I liked a lot. The Woman Who Fell From the Sky sounds like it’s right up my alley too.

    • Kim October 7, 2010, 4:46 pm

      Kathy: I haven’t heard of See You in a Hundred Years, but from the title they do sound similar. I definitely thing The Woman Who Fell from the Sky would be a book you’d enjoy.

  • Lynne October 7, 2010, 2:26 pm

    I’ve always been fascinated by multiples and of course watched Kate Plus Eight. In high school I had several friends who were twins, and I always wondered what it was like as an identical twin to be able to look at “yourself!”

    • Kim October 7, 2010, 4:45 pm

      Lynne: I’ve wondered the same thing! It seems like it’d be so cool, but also really hard, to have an identical twin. My mom is a fraternal twin, but I think they got a lot of the twin stuff growing up. My grandma used to dress them the same!

  • Gwen October 7, 2010, 5:25 pm

    Better off sounds like total hogwash with nothing challenging or bad happening. My internet was out for a week or so in August and it was a trial. For example, a neighbor was mistreating his dogs and without the internet or a phone book, I ended up playing pass the buck just trying to get the number to the local animal services. Oh and I couldn’t keep track of bank accounts well, etc.

    • Kim October 8, 2010, 9:09 pm

      Gwen: I have so many things like bank accounts and credit cards that I only deal with online, it’d be a huge pain. The book did have some bad things, but they felt really glossed over in comparison to all the great things that happened. It just seemed odd.

  • Amy October 7, 2010, 7:12 pm

    Oh no, I was most interested in the Yemen book, but the last few chapters would certainly bother me too. Disappointing!

    • Kim October 8, 2010, 9:11 pm

      Amy: The affair didn’t bother me, just the attitude about it. It just left me with a bad taste, even though before then I’d enjoy the book.

  • Abigail Pogrebin October 8, 2010, 8:01 am

    Hi Kim,

    Thanks so much for reviewing my book, One and the Same. I’m looking forward to exploring your blog and reading some of your other reviews. Thanks again!


    • Kim October 8, 2010, 9:12 pm

      Abigail: Thank you for stopping by! I enjoyed the book a lot, and I’m looking forward to finding some of the other things you’ve written.

  • Lu October 11, 2010, 6:16 am

    Ooh the book about twins looks really interesting… to the TBR it goes!

    • Kim October 11, 2010, 6:58 pm

      Lu: Awesome! I think you’ll like it if you get the chance to read it.

  • liz June 28, 2013, 4:22 pm

    Oooh. Another twin book. I happen to be an identical twin and would be very interested to find out experiences of other twins growing up. For most of our childhood, we were “the twins” so I well understand the importance of finding yourself, whatever age you happen to be. Thanks for the tip.