Tag Archives: nonfiction

Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) by Sue Macy

“Let me tell you what I think about bicycling.  I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.  I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.”  -Susan B. Anthony (1896)

Wheels of Change:  How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) documents the rise of the bicycle in American culture and the social impact it had on women.  Cycling was fun, good for your health (once they fixed the design so you wouldn’t take a header!), and provided a newfound sense of freedom for women around the country.  Not everyone was a proponent of women and cycling, though; opposers  like Charlotte Smith believed the bicycle was the “devil’s advange agent” and would cause young ladies to plummet into a moral downward spiral.  Thankfully, those ideas petered out rather quickly.  I found it fascinating how much influence the bicycle had on everything from fashion to sports to health and how far women were travelling (hundreds of miles at a time!).  This was definitely a great read whether you’re a sports fan, cycling enthusiast, or woman’s history buff.

Wheels of Change:  How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) by Sue Macy
Young Adult Nonfiction | 96 pages | January 2011 | National Geographic Children’s Books | 1426307616 | Library copy

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Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone

“The world was not divided into those who had it and those who did not.  This quality, this it, was never named…The idea was to prove…that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff.”

When NASA was formed in 1958, the pressure was on to beat the Russians in the space race.  A team was formed of seven male test jet pilots who were rigorously tested to determine whether they had the right stuff.  They were called the Mercury 7.  Apparently, the only people who could possibly have the right stuff were men…white men, at that.

Despite having taken over in traditional male jobs during World War II, by the late ’50s, women had been relegated once again to the home.  There was one man, though, who believed women might also have what it takes to be part of the astronaut program.  In fact, Randolph Lovelace not only thought that women have what it takes, but that in many respects, they would actually be more suited than men to become astronauts.  He began secretly testing exceptional women pilots in order to test his theory.  The first subject?  Jerri Cobb.

Jerri Cobb was put through the same grueling physical, psychological and technical tests the Mercury 7 men had been through.  She passed with flying colors and with fewer complaints than the men.  Lovelace gathered 12 other accomplished female pilots to continue his testing but was shut down before he could finish.  There was a lot of opposition to the idea of women in space and sadly, these 13 women faced discrimination and prejudice that prevented them from realizing their dreams. 

Stone paints a fabulous portrait of the political and social mood of the nation as Cobb and the other women struggled to have the same opportunites their male counterparts had.  From the demanding tests required to become an astronaut to the testimonies in the courtroom, Stone takes gives us wonderfully rich details that will make you feel like you know these women and makes you want to root for them all the more. 

If you know your history, you know the “almost astronauts” didn’t ever make it into space.  But their courageous and resilient spirits did so much to pave the way for women like Sally Ride, Eileen Collins and others who have come later.  A truly touching and amazing story.

Other reviews at Bookends and Challenging the Bookworm.

Almost Astronauts by Tanya Lee Stone
Nonfiction | 144 pages | February 2009 | Candlewick | 0763645028 | Audiobook – library copy

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The Woman Who Fell From the Sky by Jennifer Steil (2010)

 “How does someone develop compassion for someone with a completely different set of values without reading something from their point of view?  Books are one of the few ways in which we can truly get into the heads of people we would never meet in our ordinary lives and travel to countries we would otherwise never visit.

I suppose that the harsh existence of most Yemenis leaves little time to contemplate other ways of life.  Perhaps it is only when our own lives are comfortable that we can afford to look out at the world beyond our personal borders” (p 177).

Jennifer Steil was initially invited to Yemen to give a 3 week crash course in journalism techniques to the reporters at the Yemen Observer.  Little did she know, those three weeks would change the course of her entire life. 

In a fascinating portrait of this Middle Eastern country, Steil painstakingly describes the challenges of running the Observer, as well paints a vivid picture of Yemeni culture and life.  In a place where the sexes are severely segregated, Steil is surprisingly highly revered (due to the face that she is a foreigner).  She is granted access to both the mens’ and womens’ intimate gatherings and pulls back the curtain on a society that is so vastly different from our Western ways.  I’m a sucker for travel memoirs and Steil’s story delivered.

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Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival and my Journey from Homeless to Harvard by Liz Murray (2010)

Liz Murray’s childhood was full of nightmarish experiences.  Both of her parents were crack addicts who did nothing to hide their habit, leaving drug paraphernalia strewn about their filthy apartment.  Each month the welfare check was spent in a matter of days, only a small portion of which went to purchasing groceries.  Without enough food to eat and absolutely no structure, Liz began to slip through the cracks. 

While her sister, Lisa, dealt with their chaotic life by imposing strict rules on herself, Liz ‘s life took a downward spiral.  She felt responsible for making sure her parents were alright and subsequently began skipping school to take care of them.  As her family falls apart, Liz’s truancy lands her in group home and eventually out on the streets full-time.  After her mother dies from AIDS, Liz hits a breaking point and knows something has got to give:

My mind was racing.  One minute I had a home, a family, a roof over my head, and loved ones to orient me in the world.  And now I was on Sixty-fifth Street and Ma was dead, Daddy was gone, Lisa and I were separated.  Everything was different.  Life has a way of doing that; one minute everything makes sense, the next, things change.  People get sick.  Families break apart, your friends could close the door on you.  The rapid changes I had experienced were hitting me hard as I sat there, and yet sadness wasn’t what came up in my gut…If life could change for the worst, I thought, then maybe it could change for the better. (p. 251)

Much of what Liz experiences is extremely difficult to read, but there is an overall message of hope in her story.

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Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle with Anorexia by Harriet Brown (2010)

In this compelling memoir, Harriet Brown takes us down the rabbit hole of eating disorders and describes how the demon, anorexia, tried to steal her eldest daughter, Kitty. I’ve read other memoirs about eating disorders but they have usually been from the eating disordered person’s point of view. This is the first one I’ve read from a family member’s point of view.

Dissatisfied with traditional therapies, Brown, ever the resourceful journalist, sets out to find a method for dealing with anorexia that gave her daughter a better chance of survival. Through her research, Brown discovers Family Based Therapy (FBT), a system where the family is heavily involved in the patient’s recovery. It’s not a popular therapy and there are still far too few FBT certified therapists in the country, but studies have shown that for children under age 18, FBT has the best rate of recovery. That was enough for Brown to take on the extraordinary task of bringing Kitty back.

Brown documents the heartache, the struggle of getting Kitty to eat, and the agonizing torment of not knowing whether her daughter will ever be “normal” again.

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The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (2010)

Nicholas Carr explores how the Internet is changing the way people think.  In this well-documented novel, Carr provides a detailed history of the book, studies on the neuroplasticity of the brain, and how the Internet is possibly re-wiring the way we think.

Interspersed are “digressions”; anecdotal asides from Carr that give the reader insight into some of his more personal views. This is not a bashing of the Internet. In fact, Carr lets the reader know how dependant he has become on the medium.

Rather, I believe Carr is encouraging us to think about how we process information today and what the Internet has done to change that process. He says the Internet has created a mind that is easily distracted and I personally believe he is correct. I find it much more difficult to focus on reading something on a screen than reading something in print.

In one section, Carr paints a pastoral picture of Nathaniel Hawthorne in peaceful contemplation near Sleepy Hollow. Hawthorne writes of how his reverie is suddenly broken by the arrival of a steam engine. Carr uses this example to show how the “contemplative mind is overwhelmed by the noisy world’s mechanical busyness” (pg. 167).

Once again, Carr is not discrediting the advantages technological innovations bring, but instead reminds us that there “needs to be time for efficient data collection and inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden… The problem today is that we’re losing that ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind. Mentally, we’re in perpetual locomotion” (p 168). I highly recommend this book.

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