$2.00 a Day by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer

Genre: nonfiction
Secondary genre: sociology
Format read: audiobook
Rep: POC, disability, extreme poverty
Rating: planchet-4

This book takes a deep look at extreme poverty in the US. People so poor that on average, each member of the household lives on only $2.00/day. If you’re doing the math, that means only about $62 a month, or less. 

It was absolutely heartbreaking to read, and it hit so close to home. There have been many times in my life where I have been on the brink of eviction. When I haven’t been sure what I’ll eat for my next meal. When I’ve had to choose between feeding myself or my cat, or paying water or electric. 

And yet none of that can touch what some of these people have to do to survive. The book highlights the way prejudice forces people down, and the way that one small setback–like a cold–can send everything else spiraling downward, and the enormous gaps in the social support network. The gaps between WIC and food stamps, between healthcare and discount prescriptions, between homeless shelters and employment. 

Though it was a very stressful read and I had to break it up with other things for the sake of my mental health, I do highly recommend it, particularly for those who come from privileged backgrounds. If you think poor people “just need to try harder” or “aren’t working enough” or that they are all “welfare queens” then shut up, sit down, and read this book. 

The Book of Blood by H.P. Newquest

Genre: nonfiction
Secondary genre: science/biology
Format read: ebook
Rating: planchet

Read the blurb, Sophie. 

Seriously, this is another case of me checking out a book based on the cover and title, and not paying any attention to the actual content of the book. 

In my defense, the subtitle mentions Dracula and DNA, so I thought it was going to be very different. Instead, what I got was an 8th grade level biology book. 

That being said, if you maybe missed the unit on genetics, or just want to brush up on some basic bio, this would be a good book to pick up. It’s quite short (the audiobook is only 2 hrs) and explores breakthroughs from around the world regarding blood, biology, and genetics. 

However…it is highly simplified for the target audience, to the point that some of the more complex subjects aren’t explained correctly. It was published in 2012, so some of the information may have changed in the last 7+ years. 

And one bit of a spoiler alert: While the cover does mention Dracula, he’s barely a footnote in the book. The chapter on “vampires” focuses on blood consuming animals, such as mosquitoes, bed bugs, and vampire bats. 

All it all, I found it to be a let down, but for someone coming at it from another angle with no background in biology, it might be a good basic primer to pick up.

Real Ghost Stories by Brad Steiger

Genre: nonfiction
Secondary genre: paranormal
Format read: hard copy
Rating: planchet-3

This is a hard book to rate, because it has literally hundreds of stories in it, and some of them are better than others.

Some of them are traditional ghost stories. Others are personal experiences gained through interviews, newspapers, or the internet. Most of them are from the US, but there are stories from England, Germany, Australia, and other parts of the world as well.

My favorite section was the one on death bed apparitions and moment of death appearances. The chapter on possessions freaked me out and I skipped the one on “ghosts from outer space” entirely because few things freak me out more than aliens.

The two things I disliked the most were the author’s penchant for defending pseudo science, and the photos sprinkled through the book, most of which had absolutely no connection to the stories they were inserted in. I wish the stories had been presented without the author trying to justify them. I wish the photos that didn’t have stories were just in their own section, as some of them were pretty freaky and could sneak up on me when I was reading, like the bookish version of a jumpscare (which I hate).

It was a very interesting read, however, so if you are looking for a good ghost story or twelve (or a thousand) you might try to track this one down.

Witches of America by Alex Mar

Genre: nonfiction
Secondary genre: sociology, religion
Format read: audiobook
Rep: WOC, Paganism, Wicca
Rating: planchet-3

It was supposed to be a simple research question, which became a short documentary, and then a full-on book: Are there still witches in America?

The short answer is yes.

Alex Mar, a New York City journalist, started her journey with a group of Faerie practitioners in California as a  simple observer, watching as a group of women called down the moon, cast blessings, and prayed to an unfamiliar goddess. Alex herself, of mixed Greek and Hispanic background, raised Catholic, had a professional curiosity and nothing more.

But as the documentary came to an end, her connections in the world of wicca and neo-paganism only grew and strengthened. This book documents her slow descent from high-brown journalist to supplicant as she begins not merely observing, but practicing, searching high and low for her personal path to divinity.

As a lapsed pagan myself, there were some parts of her observations that made me uncomfortable, but by and large her observations were treated with sensitivity. My one complaint was that most of the traditions she examined in this book were sex-centric, which certainly does not provide a good cross section of the pagan community. However, I did like that her explorations took her all over and she did try to keep it well balanced.

I did find the narrative to be somewhat meandering, with no real overall structure aside from Mar’s personal journey, which doesn’t become apparent until much later in the book. I wouldn’t recommend it as a book for someone who wants to learn more about paganism specifically, but perhaps if you have an interest in subcultures in general it would be a good read.

90 Church by Dean Unkefer

Genre: memoir
Secondary genre: true crime/investigation, history
Format read: audiobook
Content warnings: sexual assault
Rating: DNF

Wrapping up my nonfiction crime reading spree was 90 Church, a memoir about the start of the FBI’s first drug task force in the 1960s.

I was expecting something in the vein of Erik Larsen’s work, but that wasn’t what I got. Unkefer’s story is tawdry, gritty, and dark. It follows a dedicated, patriotic family man as he descends into the chaos of a corrupt department, doing drugs, drinking himself into a stupor, fighting with his wife and ignoring his son. It reads more like an HBO crime drama than anything else.

I was about halfway through when I reached the part that made my put the book down for good (CW): After picking up a woman at a bar and going back to her place, he’s so enraged when she doesn’t want to sleep with him that he beats and rapes her.

No. Hard pass. After spending five hours listening to him justify drug use, binge drinking, his mistreatment of his family, and falsified reports, I didn’t want to hear how he justified rape and assault. This isn’t a record of the early days of law enforcement, it’s a self-aggrandizing account of narcissist.

Pick something else if you want to read about true crime and criminal investigation.

Queen of the Air by Dean N. Jensen

Genre: Nonfiction
Secondary genre: biography
Content warnings: rape/sexual assault of a minor, child abuse, use of G*psy to refer to non-Romani people, mental illness.
Representation: POC/immigrants
Format read: audiobook
Rating: planchet-3

**This review contains mild spoilers**

Leitzel was one of the most famous, most adored performers of the early 1900s. But she wasn’t a singer, or a dancer. She was an aerialist who seemingly broke the laws of physics and gravity, going beyond what it was thought the human–and especially the female–body could achieve at a time when powered flight hadn’t yet been accomplished.

She went on to marry another circus performer, Alfredo Cordona, a Mexican trapeze artist. Their doomed romance would enchant the entire would.

But in order to understand both Leitzel and Alfredo, we need to go back further, to the late 1800s, when their parents were working in the circus.

This book dedicates it’s first quarter or so to the story of the older generation, describing how Leitzel and Alfredo came to be on opposite sides of the planet under wildly different circumstances.

I feel like there is very little I can tell you about this book that wouldn’t be a spoiler, as it is a biography and there for about someone’s life. There isn’t a plot, per say, just the events that happened, and wow, were they a doozy. If this had been a work of fiction, I could write paragraphs about what a twisted mind the author has, but alas, all of these events are true, from the abuse to rape and murder.

There are bright spots: happy times, challenges overcome, family reunions. But this is definitely not a cheerful book.

If, however, you enjoy biographies, the circus, or stories that are frequently untold, then this might be one to pick up.