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A Variety of Non-Fiction

November 2, 2007

I don’t really feel like giving in-depth reviews, so here are brief thoughts on three very different non-fiction books I’ve read recently: The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat  by Oliver Sacks, A Cold Case by Philip Gourevitch, and Madam Secretary by Madeleine Albright.

 I first discovered Oliver Sacks’ work almost four years ago, when I was a freshman in college taking Intro to Psych.  Our professor, a biopsych gal, had us read one of the essays that make up The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat.  I was struck by the writing style, but somehow I never got around to reading the rest of the book.  Then, it was one of the first books I bookmooched, and I’m glad I’ve finally read it!  Sacks was a neurologist, but he was interested in the human dimensions of his patients as much as the medical mystery.  First published in 1970, this book is a collection of essays Sacks wrote on various patients.  The length of the essays varies; some are only a page, others close to twenty.  They’re generally under ten pages, though.  I loved them, since Sacks seems to struggle with very human philosophical questions; does brain damage affect the soul, how do people cope when they can no longer process the world?  His writing doesn’t feel dated (except for when he’s discussing ‘the retarded’), and he has the ability to bring his patients vividly to life.  I recommend this one for everyone interested in the human condition. :)

Unfortunately, I can’t recommend the next book, Philip Gourevitch’s A Cold Case, to much of anyone.  I expected to love this book.  Three years ago, I read We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families, Gourevitch’s account of the Rwandan genocide, and I was stunned by the power of his writing.  I even thought I might want to be a journalist, all based on Gourevitch.  Unfortunately, this book (much shorter, at less than two hundred pages) doesn’t live up to its predecessor.  Gourevitch uses the revival of a cold murder case in New York City to develop character sketches of the criminal and detective involved, as well as sundry others involved.  There are flashes of brilliance, but for the most part, I couldn’t help wondering why I ought to care.  I never really became involved in the story, which was a shame.  Nevertheless, for all of you who haven’t read We Wish to Inform You, I highly, highly urge you to.  Don’t be put off by the subject matter; although the first couple chapters are difficult, after that your emotions will be fine.  Meanwhile, I’ll be waiting for Gourevitch to live up to his first book!

 Finally, I read Madam Secretary, which is the (ghost written, I believe) memoir of Madeleine Albright, America’s first female secretary of state.  It begins with her childhood and goes all the way through her last day in office.  In between, there are chapters on both professional stuff (the collapse of the Soviet Union, the failed Middle Eastern peace talks, etc.-virtually every big foreign affairs event from 1992-2000) and the personal (balancing work and motherhood, her divorce, discovering her Jewish heritage).  While the writing style is nothing to write home about, I very much enjoyed reading the thoughts of such a spunky and successful woman.  I also liked having an inside view on American foreign policy in the nineties.  I recommend this one if you enjoy international relations, or need a woman role model, and don’t mind pretty simple English.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 5, 2007 5:38 am

    Isn’t Oliver Sacks great? I think he has a new book out, too…did I read about it in the NY Times?

  2. November 5, 2007 7:32 am

    That’s neat! I haven’t read my NYT books update this week, so I don’t know. But I’m very impressed by Sacks humbleness. :)

  3. November 5, 2007 9:28 pm

    I like the new site. : ) Thanks for pointing me towards the Audrey Neffeneger interview.


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