Book Review: Playing Through The Whistle

Author: S. L. Price
Published: October 4, 2016
Genre: Nonfiction
FLW Rating: 2.5/5

Aliquippa, Pennsylvania is a fascinating place. It’s one of the top two towns in the country to produce NFL players, but with one of the lowest average incomes. It’s a town that has truly been through it all and is a great way to learn about the last century of American History. That being said, the breadth of this book was both too wide and too narrow to be an enjoyable reading experience. I’ll explain more but first, the synopsis:

Playing Through The Whistle is the story of  Aliquippa, a suburb of Pittsburgh in Western Pennsylvania, that has been through it all. From steel mills and labor unions, to becoming WPIAL and State champions in both football AND basketball, to handling racial tensions and gang violence in the 80s, Aliquippa can serve as a microhistory of the 20th century in the rustbelt of America.

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To me a nonfiction book needs a cohesive plot, and in this case that storyline that flowed throughout the book was a modern day football game. But throughout the 450 page book, the modern day plot line only popped in to cover about 4 pages, and honestly didn’t add any value in my opinion because I didn’t really get enough of it to understand it’s significance. Part of me is also a little upset that the book was started with the modern day scene because I got excited about that aspect and then I never felt like it was fulfilled. Long story short, I felt like this book just lacked a story. (You won’t find this in my “Reads like Fiction” post later this week!)

To come back to what I said in the beginning – I felt like this book was both too wide and too narrow. The book spanned from the early 1900s to present day, but as the plot progressed through the century, the writing was incredibly detailed. I struggled with this because it meant there were so many names, and I wasn’t sure whose names to remember and whose names I could forget. Trust me, remembering all of them is not an option. Since the plot was so laser focused at times, it had to move quickly and I felt like I was both a little bored and a little rushed. I didn’t like the tempo!

Since I guess what I’m saying is that I wish this book were a little more focused on the story and told from a little higher of a level. I do think Aliquippa should receive the attention it deserves, so while I’m not sure I would tell you to read this whole thing, I want to share some of the highlights. If these pique your interest then by all mean, pick this one up! And let me know how you like it!

  • Aliquippa is on the forefront of labor unions – as the steelworkers needed to unionize to protect the worker’s rights
  • Aliquippa remained (relatively) above racial conflict until 1978!
  • Once the steel mills closed, there was a white migration out of Aliquippa that the town had to adjust to
  • The options for Aliquippa youth became football success or dealing on the streets
  • Two of the NFL players to come out of Aliquippa were Mike Ditka and Tony Dorsett

This (obviously) only skims the surface of what is covered in this book, but if it piques your interest check out this book! In my opinion, the book could have been done better and wasn’t my favorite book to read, tempo-wise, but there is so much to learn about Aliquippa and so much that can be learned from this story.

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Be the Expert/Become the Expert

This is a post written for link-up post for the month of Nonfiction November! It’s hard to say what I’m an “expert” in, but I’m going to choose a topic that I think I stumbled upon pretty randomly, but am enjoying — OKLAHOMA CITY.

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What a place.

Now, I must admit I’ve never been to Oklahoma City. It’s not a place I’ve ever particularly wanted to go, but in the past year or so Oklahoma City has seemed to spring to life in my… reading life.

I read two of the most facinating non-fiction books on the topic and interestingly enough, I had new downstairs neighbors move in who moved here from Oklahoma City! You bet I’ve been asking them to confirm all the crazy things I’ve been reading!

So about the books:

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

David Grann is a fantastic nonfiction writer – he’s a NYT reporter by day, and in his free time he’s written two best selling nonfiction books, one of which was adapted as a movie last year! Killers of the Flower Moon is a work of investigative journalism in to the mysterious murders of indigenous people in Oklahoma.

What this teaches us about Oklahoma: As many of you may know, outside of California, Oklahoma is the most seismically active part of the United States. Why? Fracking. Which means that there’s oil in Oklahoma, and where there’s oil there’s almost always conflict. In this case the indigenous people claimed control over the oil based on land rights, and the white men didn’t want to see that happen. I’ll leave you in suspense about what went down in Oklahoma over the land rights and the oil, but I’ll let you know that this issue prevails to present day and I have it on pretty good authority, that the state of Oklahoma is still pretty divided along racial lines over this issue.

Next Up: Boomtown by Sam Anderson

Will I ever stop talking about Boomtown? It’s unlikely. Boomtown is the fantastic history of Oklahoma City from the founding of Oklahoma to the 2016 season of the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team. Did you know that the team is named Thunder because Oklahoma City allowed Boeing to test their supersonic jets over the city. Just another example of the city’s search for greatness.

What does this teach us about Oklahoma City: Pretty much everything! We learn about the founding of Oklahoma that literally involved everyone running in from all of the surrounding states at “noon”, bearing in mind that noone had synchronized clocks back then. We learn about the fantastic city plan by I.M. Pei that never took hold. We learn about the Oklahoma City bombing and all of its tragic affects on the population. And we learn about a basketball team that tried its hardest to reach greatness.

I feel like I know a lot about Oklahoma City at this point, but I can’t be a true expert until I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Maybe one of these days I’ll get there and I’ll definitely let you know what I think!

Fiction/Nonfiction Book Pairing

One of the bookstagrammers/book bloggers I enjoy following is Simone and Her Books, and earlier this year (maybe January) and I remember her asking, “Do you ever get in periods of reading where you just stay in one part of the world for a while?” As I considered the question, I realized I was in my third book set in North-East Asia and that reading them in sequence was enhancing my experience so much more. So for this pairing challenge, I want to talk about the two book told about Koreans — both in North Korea and Japan throughout the 20th century. The third book I read during this period was The Leavers by Lisa Ko, which is a favorite of mine, but I think the other two mesh better for  cohesive pairing.

We’ll start with the fiction choice: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.

Pachinko tells the story of a Korean family living in Japan during World War II. As the war progresses through the attack on Pearl Harbor and on through the bombing of Hiroshima, the book showcases Korean values, why a family would choose to relocate from Korea to Japan, and how Koreans are treated as Japan starts to close their borders. It was incredibly compelling and emotional to read and I absolutely loved it. One of my favorite things about this book was the authors note, in which Lee wrote about the time she spent in Japan and how the book was influenced by hundreds of interviews over the course of her time living there.

And now, the nonfiction: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick.

Nothing to Envy is the work of an investigative journalist living in South Korea who connected with defectors from North Korea. Through her relationships, she’s able to tell a horrifying story about the conditions in North Korea in the 1990s. These stories are truly beyond belief – imagine being so hungry that you blend grass in a blender to try to drink it. I won’t ruin any more of the shock but its fascinating to not only understand how bad it really was, but how they got there.

I hope you enjoy these two books and learn about a side of history not always taught in the West! Happy reading!

 

A Look Back on 12 Months of Nonfiction

Last week I shared with you some of my all time favorite non-fiction books, but I for the first “challenge” of Nonfiction November I’m going to take a closer look back on the nonfiction reads I’ve read over the past year.

When I look through my list of non-fiction reads since last November, the things that jump out to me are a) a lot of them are backlist titles with pub dates backing back 1999, and b) these are some of the best books I’ve read in the last twelve months!

In total, I’ve read fifteen nonfiction books, which I’m stoked about! I’ve talked about them a lot recently so I’m just going to organize them by mood here. I’ll link to another blog post if I’ve raved about it recently!

If you’re looking for….

A peek in to military culture, coming from a place of love: Ranger Games by Ben Blum

A book that will change your views on rape culture forever: Missoula by Jon Krakauer

A way to understand what goes on behind closed doors in North Korea: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Nightmares for days (seriously though), but via an incredibly compelling tale: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

A way to indulge your inner whale lover: Spying on Whales by Nick Pyenson

A story about a city, that’s really about a team, and will warm your heart forever: Boomtown by Sam Anderson

A cautionary tale that teaches you to respect the danger of backpacking: Into Thin Air by John Krakauer

A way to understand the side of America who’s voting for Trump: Janesville by Amy Goldstein

An escape in to the middle of the ocean: Love with a Chance of Drowning by Toree DeRoche

A front seat to the 2016 election: Unbelieveable by Katy Tur

A coming-of-age slash fundamentalist mormon memoir: Educated by Tara Westover

History with a side of comedy along the Apalachian Trail: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

A calm and collected version of the 2016 craziness: What Happened by Hillary Clinton

An irreverant memoir of the military and christianity all at once: A Girl’s Guide to Missiles by Karen Piper

An often untold history of the largest city in America: The Mirage Factory by Gary Krist

Let me know if you’ve read and enjoyed any of these titles! I truly recommend them all!

Book Review: Bad Blood

Author: John Carreyrou
Published: May 21, 2018
Genre: Nonfiction
FLW Rating: 4.5/5

If you’re ready for a book to stun you and teach you so much about the world we live in, I highly recommend Bad Blood. I expect a lot out of the books I read, and with all the positive reviews surrounding this one, I went in to it very skeptical. It took a little while to hook me, but after that, I was done. I absolutely needed to know what happened. And you bet I’m going to spend the next week reading articles and listening to podcasts on what has happened since pub day!

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in Silicon Valley is an exposee on the blood testing startup, Theranos and how they got from conception to breaking the law. Elizabeth Holmes, a Stanford drop out, founded a company with the intention of creating a device that could run multiple blood tests on  a single drop of blood. While the criminal trial is still unfolding, Bad Blood tells the story of the start up from its creation, to the point when it toed the line of questionable morality, to when it absolutely lost sight of that line. 

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One of the things I was skeptical about with this book was the layout. How was a book about a failed start-up going to keep my attention for three hundred pages? Through a narrative style arch is how! I was truly impressed with the suspense that was able to be conveyed, even though based on the fact that this book has been written, you know generally what “happened”. I was engaged and amazed as every stunt Holmes pulled was revealed to the reader.

What I believe I learned from the book is a) how far manipulation and closed doors can get you, and b) to never use a product that may impact my health of decisions about my health without an FDA certification. I’ll start with the first one — Holmes was a master of loopholes, and of only showing certain people what they need to see, so that they could never start to put the pieces together. It was truly astounding how many people started to see that there was a problem, but the problem they saw was out of their jurisdiction or a certain fear they had was being exploited to prevent them from raising the issue.

Along that note is the point of the FDA certification. That was really the sticking point for Theranos – their products were never FDA approved through a certain loophole. Legal loophole or not, I think that’s one thing that we as consumers are able to look out for and able to question, when it comes to medical devices and tests. It’s terrifying that their products avoided FDA regulation, but at least the FDA standards weren’t compromised even though so many other things were.

I highly recommend this book, and I hope I’ve piqued your interest! It’s an entertaining, well-crafted, and immensely well researched book. The stakes were high in this one with a criminal investigation ongoing, and Carreyrou certainly produced a winner.

Top Five Favorites: Nonfiction

It’s November! And I’m excited to be participating in Nonfiction November, so to kick that off, I wanted to share some of my favorite nonfiction reads. There are so many others I could mention, but I’ll leave you with five for now, and hopefully talk about more over the course of the upcoming month!

Each of the books below opened my eyes to a world I hadn’t known before and that is why I love reading. I’ll just write a few notes on the books here, but I’ll link to their Goodreads Page so if you’re interested, you can check them out there!

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah

My high school had truly amazing history classes for a high school, and I read this one for a class called African Issues. This is probably the only book I read in high school that I read every page of on the day it was assigned, and enjoyed it. I was obsessed with this book and wanted to get Beah to come talk at our high school. Unfortunately Beah was in high demand and couldn’t make it, but the fact remains that learning about the Boy Soldiers and the Sudanese Civil War was life changing to someone growing up in Western Pennsylvania. Can’t recommend this book enough!

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Erik Larson was a go to author for me after reading Devil in the White City in high school (it was a required summer reading selection!). I found Dead Wake to be insanely readable and eye opening. Larson is able to share intimate details from both a presidential romance and the experience of being in a German U-boat in WWI. It was a truly remarkable work of narrative nonfiction and I didn’t want it to end.

The Profiteers by Sally Denton

This book is the definition of an eye opener. In my senior year of college I took a course called “History and the Environment”. It was an absolutely fascinating class that tied things going on in nature, with those going on in politics. One major topic we focused on was the oil and the Iraq War. As an engineering major, some of this was over my head, but all the holes were filled in when I read The Profiteers. I read this right around the 2016 election and it felt so timely — and when the CEO of Exxon was appointed as Secretary of State, I felt that I understood the motives completely and knew exactly why I was not OK with it. If you want to be clued in to the financial motives spearheading politics, check this book out.

Ranger Games by Ben Blum

I haven’t read a slew of military nonfiction, but I imagine this is one of the most open and honest books in the genre out there. Written by a close cousin of Alex Blum, a former golden boy turned criminal by way of the army, the answer at the heart is what happened to Alex when he left home to become a U.S. Army Ranger. While this book is not for the feint of heart, its dives incredibly deep in to the psyche of our soldiers going through this intense training process. I really enjoyed it and recommend it to everyone I know.

Missoula by Jon Krakauer

I posted about this recently, but I’ll just repeat a bit of that here: This book is a nonfiction account of a town in Montana that had way too many rapes of high school and college students. Be prepared for a brutal read – this book takes you through trials where no details are spared, but if you want to know the facts about rape, read this book. I mean, let’s be honest, you don’t want to hear the facts necessarily (because they’re hard to hear), but they’re so important. I learned so much and my life has never been the same.

Do you read much nonfiction? Do you have any recommendations for me?