Non-Fiction Book Reviews

I’ve been reading an outsized amount of non-fiction lately and wanted to dedicate a post solely to reviews on non-fiction reads.

There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids By Linda Akeson McGurk. (Non-Fiction/Parenting, 2017). I’m sure it’s a bit odd for a non-parent to be reading a parenting book, but I assumed that this book would be in the vein of other books I’ve read in recent years about Scandinavian culture. It very much was in this vein, and offered plenty of insights as an adult reader that I appreciated. Linda shares her experience growing up in Sweden, emigrating to the United States with her American husband, and the experience of raising two elementary school children in rural Indiana – and then juxtaposes this with a six-month residency with her children in Sweden. Linda shares the difference in parental and schooling approach when it comes to time spent outdoors, testing in academic settings, allowing children to get dirty, take risks and build confidence. My takeaways from this book were 1) that I was fortunate to spend so much time outdoors as a child, 2) that I need to ensure that I spend enough time outdoors as an adult, and 3) that our mental health and human connection would be better if we connected with one another in nature more frequently. This was a really enjoyable read, regardless of whether you are a parent, and if you enjoyed this subgenre of literature, I highly recommend you read The Finnish Way: Finding Courage, Wellness, and Happiness Through the Power of Sisu.

Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life by Richard Louv. (Parenting/Nature, 2016). I read Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder back in 2018 when our library was constructing a device-free natural play area (called the Interactive Learning Garden). It was inspired by Louv’s work and I wanted to better understand the research behind our development project. Vitamin N was a wonderful hands-on guide (targeted toward parents or educators) on how to immerse yourself in nature more regularly, a lifestyle that goes against the tide of our device-filled ones. Louv features ideas from parents, teachers, and passionate nature lovers on how they find budget-friendly ways to engage young people in the outdoors, as well as recommendations on how to civically engage to resist moves that look at play as a liability. While I’m not a parent, this book was a huge reminder to me of my fortune in being a free-range child playing outdoors and inspired me to find ways to inject more nature into my day-to-day life. I listened to this book, but I’d recommend reading an electronic or physical copy of it as many of the suggestions are given in list form in the book. Overall, I thought this book was an excellent look at how to form a stronger sense of community through immersion in nature. This book was a great read to read following reading There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids By Linda Akeson McGurk.

The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America by Bill Bryson. (Non-Fiction/Travel, 1989). I’m going to preface this review by saying that Bill Bryson is *NOT* everyone’s cup of tea. He’s snarky, sexist, sarcastic, and downright offensive. He has a distinctly British brand of dark humor and because of this, it reminds me SO MUCH of the humor of my late grandfather. His bestsellers were all written in the early 1990s or earlier and he’s no longer actively writing. If he were, honestly, he would be canceled already. I love his sense of humor, even if some of the jokes hit your ear now much differently 30 years after publication. So basically, if you’re offended easily, stay away from Bill Bryson.

The Lost Continent follows Bill Bryson on his return to his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa after a decade spent living abroad in England. He takes a 14,000-mile road trip by car to 38 U.S. states over the course of several months and documents his quest to find the perfect small town, which he dubs ‘Amalgam’. I loved hearing his perspectives pre-internet on the experience of traveling. He complained at length about the death of American downtowns and the surge in suburban strip development, wholly dependent on chain occupants and access by vehicular means only. I’d love to hear Bryson’s perspective 30 years later on how some of these places have died entirely, and how others have experienced a resurgence in locally-owned businesses and a pedestrian experience. I can’t even imagine taking a road trip where we didn’t have our stays (or route) planned in advance, so this book offered a freeing perspective on what it might be like to truly let the road take you where it leads.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. (Autobiography, 2016). If you enjoyed Educated, this book is very much in the same genre, but perhaps less jarring for a reader to experience. J.D. Vance documents his experience growing up as a native Kentuckian who had moved to Ohio with his large, extended family. Vance’s home life is tenuous, to put it mildly, with a parent facing addiction issues and a revolving door of ne’er do well father figures cycling through. Fortunately for Vance, he has an incredibly loving and protective extended family, in particular his grandparents. Against all odds, Vance manages to overcome an incredibly traumatic upbringing to join the Marines and eventually go onto college at Ohio State and to attend law school at Yale. Vance reflects on the intersection of issues such as job opportunity, decaying family structure, drug and addiction, and upward mobility from the perspective of someone who shouldn’t have made it out, but who did. This book was published just before the 2016 election of Trump and has become a bit of a cultural clashing point, with many seeking to explain Trump’s rise to power on securing the support of Rust Belt voters like those portrayed in this book. The book has come under some controversy as some vehemently feel that this book falsely and negatively portrays Rust Belt Americans. Regardless of your perspective on this, Vance’s story was powerful, compelling, and heart-wrenching.

You’ve Got This!: The Life-Changing Power of Trusting Yourself by Margie Warrell. (Self-Help/Personal Development, 2020). I was first introduced to Dr. Margie Warrell when my undergraduate alumni association hosted a webinar featuring the author. The focus of the webinar was on gender parity in the workplace (dubbed the She-cession), a condition that has been exacerbated to an even worse degree as the pandemic continues. I received a copy of this book as a webinar attendee and it sat on my bookshelf until I quit my job and found myself with time on my hands to read. The time was absolutely right to pick up this book. Warrell writes this book as a personal guide to defeating self-doubt – with a methodical breakdown of why our doubt is unfounded and how it holds us back. As I read this book, I was weighing the idea of trying my hand at entrepreneurship and was terrified. Warrell’s book reminded me that if I don’t take chances, I (and the world around me) will miss out on what I could have achieved and contributed. I’m a big fan of personal development books that challenge you to take risks and bet on yourself, but I’m not a fan of the Brene Brown works that are so often touted. Nothing against Brown, it’s just not a style of writing that appeals to me. That said, I was surprised by how approachable Warrell was in her writing. This book not only gave me a shot of confidence when it was needed, but it also motivated me to start a daily journaling practice. I’m not exaggerating to say that this was a profound book for me and one that has shifted my mindset and my habits.

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