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Non-Fiction

Book Review:

Brothel: Mustang Ranch and Its Women

By Alexa Albert

In the early 1990s, after three years of letters, medical student Alexa Albert gains access to Mustang Ranch, one of Nevada’s legal brothels. Spurred by allegations that no woman working at the brothels had tested positive for HIV since testing became mandatory in 1986 (and the number that had tested positive for a STD was next to nothing), Albert’s goal was to examine condom use in the brothels.

Albert flew to Nevada and moved into Mustang Ranch for a month to conduct her research. Before long, she was hooked, and her public health study transformed into a long-term study of the brothels – not just the health aspects but the economic and social aspects. What motivated these women to turn to prostitution? How did the women feel about their job? How did the people of Nevada feel about legalized prostitution?

Recommendation: I really enjoyed Brothel. It was well-researched and well-written. It had the perfect balance of personal stories and facts about Nevada’s legal brothels. And while the above questions are very interesting, I was most intrigued with Albert’s personal reflections about prostitution. Her views changed as she got to know the women at the brothel and learned more about the issues. While she remained fundamentally opposed to prostitution throughout her research, she realized that the legal brothels are not a black and white issue. There is merit to prostitution in a legal setting – from the health and safety aspects to the sense of community and family that many of the women gain.

Brothel was a short, quick read but packed with information. I would definitely recommend it!

Grade: A-

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Ever since commuting an hour to grad school, I’ve become an audiobook convert. I find they help me stay focused on driving. Weird, right? But the truth is, I don’t get as annoyed at the stupid drivers and the traffic. I don’t constantly glance at the clock or the GPS to see how much farther I have to go. I get absorbed in the story and actually am disappointed when I reach my destination.

I usually need to listen to a light story, otherwise I have a hard time focusing. I listen to a lot of mystery books and young adult books. It’s easy for me to get engaged in the story, and the narrators are usually pretty good. However, for my car ride home from Christmas – 7 hours with my hubby and my younger brother – I needed something that would appeal to everyone. After waiting for two months, Bossypants arrived from the library just in time for us to make our trip.

Book Review:

Bossypants

By Tina Fey

Bossypants is written (and read, if you get the audiobook) by actress, comedian, writer, and producer Tina Fey. The book is an autobiography about her life, from childhood to 30 Rock. She talks about her Greek childhood, college and her struggles to find a job, her experience as part of a traveling improv group, and moving to Saturday Night Live. From there comes 30 Rock and a side-show on SNL as Sarah Palin. All of this while balancing life at home with her husband and her daughter.

I thoroughly enjoyed Bossypants. Listening to the audiobook, it felt like Fey was simply having a conversation or telling a story. She was witty and sarcastic throughout the book. But at the same time, she brought up serious issues like the struggles she faced early on as a woman in comedy, originally a male-dominated profession. She discussed the difficult game of balancing her career in the public’s eye with her attempts to keep her own political views separate, particularly while performing in the SNL skits featuring Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton.

Recommendation: If you know who Tina Fey is and some of her work, you’ll enjoy this book. I am not generally up on actors/actresses, movies/tv shows (I don’t watch 30 Rock or SNL), and tend to dislike stand-up comedy, but I really enjoyed this book. Fey’s personality and beliefs came through loud and clear. If you don’t know how Tina Fey is, I think you’d still enjoy the book, but you may miss some of the stories and quips (like I did in the chapter on 30 Rock).

Grade: A-

Note: If you listen to the audiobook, Fey refers to several photos that are available on pdf, that comes with the audiobook. Since I was traveling, I did not have these photos readily available. While annoying, it didn’t detract from the book at all.

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Book Review:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot

1950s Baltimore, Maryland: Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who grew up a tobacco farmer in Virgina, just gave birth to her fifth child. Shortly after, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and just weeks later, after undergoing radiation treatment, she died. Henrietta didn’t just have cervical cancer – her body had been engulfed by the disease.

Tumors the size of baseballs had nearly replaced her kidneys, bladder, ovaries, and uterus. And her other organs were so covered in small white tumors it looked as if someone has filled her with pearls… (p. 90)

Throughout her treatment and after her death, samples of Henrietta’s cancer cells were taken by Johns Hopkins Hospital and sent to a lab research. Her cells, unlike any other ever discovered, did not die. Instead, they multiplied constantly. Henrietta’s cells, HeLa, become one of the most important advances in medicine – the first immortal cell. Since they’re unable to die, they’re used by scientists across the world to better understand cells themselves, to learn about the impact of diseases on our bodies, and to test new immunizations and antibiotics.

Over the fifty years following Henrietta’s death, Henrietta’s family gradually learned that their wife’s/mother’s cells still lived. Their fight for information, years after Henrietta died, and their struggle to understand what has happened to Henrietta is difficult to describe. It’s scary to imagine living in such ignorance. It’s scary not being able to understand scientists’ and doctors’ explanations and the sci-fi like headlines in newspapers and magazines. The Lacks family, particularly daughter Deborah, took over a year to trust the author of this book, Rebecca Skloot. Then together, the Lackses and Skloot embarked on a journey to learn about Henrietta’s life and her life after death.

Review: The story flips between past and present, which actually make the book very easy to read. When I heard about it, I was concerned that it would be far too scientific, and frankly a bit boring. I was completely wrong. I was completely sucked into Henrietta’s story and didn’t want to put the book down.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks combines the stories of Henrietta’s life, her daughter’s journey to learn about her, and the progress medicine has made as a result of her cells. The book is much more about the woman behind HeLa, her family, and history – African America history and medical history – than about the nuances of science. It is simply astonishing to think of the advances made over the past 50 years…. the differences in race relations, the increase in education among the general population (and thus, the way we perceive and treat those in the medical field), the advances in medicine (from diagnosis to treatments).

While the book was just a glimpse into these advances, it made a serious impression on me. It’s made me want to go back to the library for another book that will tie in with one of the themes in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks rather than work on my large to-read-before-I-move stack on my bookshelf.

Recommendation: If you love history, memoirs, or science, this is a must read.  If you don’t, I’d still recommend it. So basically, no matter who you are, read this book.

Grade: A

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Book Review:

The Zookeeper’s Wife

By Diane Ackerman

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Based on memoirs, interviews, old photos, and other historical documents, Diane Ackerman tells the story of Jan and Antonia Zabinski, a Polish couple who ran the Warsaw Zoo when World War II broke out. When the Nazis occupied Poland, the Polish Jews became persecuted – they hid within a shadow world or moved into ghettos; many were sent to labor camps or killed.  Jan and Antonia opened their house and their destroyed zoo to old friends and unknown Guests who sought to escape to a safer place. Antonia ruled the home, the villa and the zoo, where Jewish Guests were hidden throughout the war, in closets, animal houses, tunnels, and cages. Jan played a lead rule in the Underground, the Polish resistance, where he and a network of Poles helped smuggle Jews out of Warsaw, created false papers for those staying in the city as well as fleeing, and, of course, led acts of sabotage against the Nazis (including everything from spray-paint vandalism to poisoning Nazi officials and bombing Nazi trains).

The Zookeeper’s Wife is rich with descriptions that make both life at a zoo as well as life in the Polish shadow-world come alive. Animal life  thrived, despite the war, as pets were hidden and Guests (code-named by animals) acquired qualities of those animals they were called. At the same time, Ackerman described the daily emotional struggle of the Zabinski’s and their Guests (the story often bouncing from the Zabinski’s to highlighting the story of a Guest) – the fear for themselves and their families, the guilt at endangering others with their activities – all make the Underground resistance come alive.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is an amazing glimpse into the Underground resistance. Although the Zabinski’s were aided by many friends and corrupt Nazi and Polish officials, their story shows how much impact just a couple of people could have. Over 300 Guests stayed at the Zoo, and all but a couple of them survived the war.

Recommendation: Absolutely.

Grade: A (4.5 of 5 stars on Goodreads)

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Book Review:

First Comes Love, Then Comes Malaria

By Eve Brown-Waite

First Comes Love, Then Comes Malaria is a cute story about the author’s years in Ecuador through the Peace Corps and then in Uganda with her former Peace Corps-recruiter-turned-husband through CARE, another non-governmental organization. Brown-Waite detailed – in her funny and slightly sarcastic voice – her short Peace Corps adventure in Ecuador, falling in love with her recruiter back in the States, and their 3 years living in Uganda.

I appreciated Brown-Waite’s manner of storytelling and could see her maturing as the memoir progressed. When the book began, Brown-Waite was in her early 20s, and there were the stories about falling head over heals in love and her idealism about saving the underdeveloped peoples of Ecuador. At this time, Brown-Waite clearly seemed like both a young, silly girl and a bit spoiled. But with age and experience (Ecuador, marriage, schooling, and finally Uganda), Brown-Waite matured substantially.

First Comes Love, then Comes Malaria was a fascinating glimpse into life in a third-world country, the struggles faced, and the interesting contrast between the seemingly elite Western CARE representatives to the native Ugandans.

Recommendation: I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a lighter read, but something much different from most books on the shelves (or at least the ones I’ve come across!).

Grade: B+

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Book Review:

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise

By Ruth Reichl

Garlic and Sapphires is a quick read about Ruth Reichl’s years as a food critic for the New York Times. Each chapter begins with a one or more personal stories about a food, a restaurant, or her personal life, and goes on to include a recipe or two and a restaurant review.

I enjoyed Reichl’s incredible, elaborate descriptions about the food and her service in the various restaurants. The thing that amazed me was how she seemed to be able to identify almost every flavor in a dish. (As a fellow foodie, I hope to someday know food that well!) It was clear that the good dishes really transported Reichl to another world.

At the same time, Reichl struggled against critics to sample and review all types of food (instead of the traditional high-class French food of the previous critics) and struggled to come up with an honest review – how does the restaurant treat people who are not restaurant critics or wealthy persons? To achieve this latter goal, Reichl created characters to disguise herself, such as her mother or hippie Brenda. Its incredible to think that restaurant service and food depends in part on your appearance and I applaud Reichl for standing up and giving these restaurants poor reviews because of it. These characters also helped Reichl find and better understand herself.

Overall, this was a great book for food-lovers.

Grade: B+

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Book Review:

Government Girl: Young and Female in the White House

By Stacy Parker Aab

I can usually easily say whether I loved a book, hated it, or if it was just alright. Not the case with Government Girl. I had conflicting feelings about this book.  Let me explain.

Government Girl is the story of Stacy Parker Aab’s time working for the Clinton White House, from the time she began interning as a student through her brief professional career as an executive assistant. I enjoyed the glimpses into White House life and the major players at the time. The periods covering the Monica Lewinsky scandals and the feelings of White House staffers were particularly interesting to read.

However, this book tends to fall short of expectations. I appreciate seeing the rise of a student throughout the ranks and to a staff level, but too much emphasis was placed on these early years. Throughout these years, too much of the emphasis was on Parker Aab’s personal life (I didn’t expect quite so much talk about her boyfriends, or lack there of) and on her incredible naivete and idealism. For me, the last third of Government Girl was the best portion of the novel, where Parker Aab focuses on her job as a staffer, and not on idealism and her personal life.

Recommendation? I honestly can’t say whether I would recommend this book to others. It was an interesting read, but perhaps would be better suited and more enjoyable for a junior high schooler with less expectations.

Grade: C

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Book Review:

Covert: My Years Infiltrating the Mob

By Bob Delaney with Dave Scheiber

*******

“There are three groups of people you don’t mess with in this world – the FBI, the Mafia, and NBA refs.” Mike Schuler, NBA head coach, p. 223

*******

My husband asked Santa for Covert this past Christmas, and I immediately knew I wanted to steal it from him. It is the story of Bob Delaney, aka Bobby Covert, a New Jersey state trooper who is asked to go undercover just shortly after he joins the state troopers. In this new assignment, Delaney teams with other state troopers and the FBI (cooperation that was almost unheard of at the time) in Project Alpha, an effort better understand the inner workings of the mob and to make a serious dent in NJ’s organized crime. Over three years, Delaney starts and becomes president of a Jersey-based trucking company while wearing a wire and gathering evidence against the mobsters that plague the Jersey Shore.

Covert stands out not because it is a true crime novel, but because you can see, as you’re reading, the battles Delaney/Covert undergoes as he swings between his identity as a trooper and a mobster. He suffers from guilt at prosecuting mobsters who had become friends. He is unable to express his emotions after so long of suppressing them.

It was difficult for Delaney to readjust to ordinary life after his undercover left, but a few choice confidants and his “hoops therapy” (p. 185) allow him to get back to normal life. For several years, Delaney splits his time with the state troopers and reffing all levels of basketball, eventually becoming a full-time NBA ref.

Recommendation: While I was drawn to the book when my husband got it, I was a little doubtful I would enjoy it. It ended up being a great book. Delaney’s undercover assignment and his life after the assignment wasn’t romanticized like so many stories today. Delaney’s story was fascinating and well-told. I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in true crime or memoirs.

Grade: B+

Genre: True Crime, Biography, Sports

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Book Review: My Life in France

By Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme

I got this book while at an airport – I had finished the one I brought with me and was trying to choose something that I knew a relative or friend wouldn’t buy (because those usually get mailed to me!). Since I love cooking, am eagerly anticipating Julie & Julia from Netflix, and know nothing about Julia Child, I chose her book, My Life in France.

I went into this book with no expectations, and to be honest, didn’t want to put it down once I started reading. However, for some reason, I felt oddly unsatisfied when I finished the book… like I didn’t know what she talked about for 300 pages.

The first two-thirds of the book were when Child actually lived in France and was learning to cook. I enjoyed the bits and pieces about her cooking classes, I wish there had been a lot more about her trials and errors in the kitchen and her experimentation while working on her cookbook.  I did appreciate the glimpses into the 1950s – life in France at the time and the American diplomatic bureaucracy as the Cold War was just beginning. However, I wish there would have been more about Child’s experiences in the kitchen.

The end of the book really focused on the publication of Child’s cookbooks and her work doing tv cooking shows – she traveled back and forth between Norway, France and the U.S. Definitely more about cooking here. However, what I appreciated most about this section was the descriptions of working together with her husband, who was retired at the time and was an amateur photographer and artist. The descriptions of the two of them working together on recipes or the cookbook were just wonderful!

Recommendation? I would recommend this book for a glimpse into Julia Child’s life and into the time period, but if you’re expecting full stories about how she learned to cook or her lessons, I would probably skip this book, as I found that lacking.

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Books n’ Cooks is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program. Some links on Books n’ Cooks may be affiliate links – links books and kitchen supplies that I love and would recommend. If you click on the link and purchase, I make a very small percentage (at no additional cost to you!) which goes towards maintenance of this blog. Thanks for your support!

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