Non-Fiction Weekend: Pop Culture Economics, Doctors in Training, and Pashtun Culture

This past weekend I veered off the usual trail and read three very different non-fiction books; I enjoyed all of them immensely. Here’s a bit of introduction and review of each one:

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner: This super popular book doesn’t need much of an introduction, but here you go anyway;

Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool? What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? How much do parents really matter? How did the legalization of abortion affect the rate of violent crime?

These may not sound like typical questions for an economist to ask. But Steven D. Levitt is not a typical economist. He is a much-heralded scholar who studies the riddles of everyday life—from cheating and crime to sports and child-rearing—and whose conclusions turn the conventional wisdom on its head.

This was a fun, quick read. Some of the findings were pretty surprising to me but some of them were just sort of common sense if you took the time to think about it. If you like Freakonomics I highly recommend Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh, whose work is mentioned briefly in Freakonomics. I borrowed Freakonomics from my roommate on a day where I couldn’t get myself interested in any other reading material.

Match Day by Brian Eule. This book was a gift from a friend who is now in medical school, something I’m interested in pursuing myself as well. I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did! There were certain points in the book that I was actually sitting on the edge of my seat, sweating with anxiety over the decisions and conflicts faced by the doctors. Highly recommended even if you’re not interested in going into medicine–it’s just exciting and informative and understandable in general.

Every year, on the third Thursday in March, more than 15,000 graduating medical students across the country encounter the biggest moment of their burgeoning young careers. On Match Day, a computer algorithm pairs students with hospital residencies in nearly every field of medicine. The Match determines where each graduate will be assigned the crucial first job as an intern, and shapes the rest of his—or, in increasing numbers, her—life.

Match Day (St. Martin’s Press) is a dynamic, revealing look at three female doctors as they pass through this intense day and take on their first, turbulent year as medical interns.  With his girlfriend entering the medical profession, journalist Brian Eule provides an unprecedented look into both this process and the lives of these new doctors as they face pressure-packed decisions and try to balance any personal life with a profession that demands everything from them. Match Day provides a real-life drama that shows how each comes to learn what it means to heal, to comfort, to lose, and to grieve, all while maintaining a professional demeanor— and the incredible process by which doctors are made in this country.

Secrets from the Field: An Ethnographer’s Notes from North Western Pakistan by Benedicte Grima. I haven’t read too much anthropology or ethnography so I’m not exactly sure how to judge books on that subject. However, Grima’s book here is more of a personal memoir detailing her many varied experiences traveling both alone and with her infant daughter (!) through rural and tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. She’s also written a different, more scholarly/academic book regarding her work with the Pashtun culture. Grima’s experiences as written here were extremely interesting, and were detailed and clear enough that I felt like I had gotten at least a beginning, amateur understanding of the Pashto people, specifically the admonition that one does not just speak Pashto, one does Pashto. There is a very definite set of rules and expectations that govern the culture and Grima details both her blunders and her successes as she navigate her way through this world.

The personal accounts contained here, reveal the untold experiences and relationships of an ethnographer with the people she lived and worked among for over 10 years in northwestern Pakistan among Afghan refugees and tribal Pakistani Pashtuns. They are the everyday occurrences and personal experiences of a woman living alone, or with her infant daughter, secrets and blunders withheld from academic books. Friends and colleagues have asked what it was like to be a foreign woman alone in an isolated and strict tribal Muslim culture. They ask even more so now, piqued by curiosity about the culture that is said to be protecting Osama bin Laden. These stories herein answer many of those queries and reveal information complementary to other political and scientific books.


The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney

Summary: Some schools have honor codes.

Others have handbooks.

Themis Academy has the Mockingbirds.

Themis Academy is a quiet boarding school with an exceptional student body that the administration trusts to always behave the honorable way–the Themis way. So when Alex Patrick is date-raped during her junior year, she has two options: Stay silent and hope someone helps, or enlist the aid of the Mockingbirds-a secret society of students dedicated to righting the wrongs of the student body.

In this account of a teenage girl’s search for her voice and the courage to use it, debut author Daisy Whitney reminds readers that standing up for someone, especially yourself, is worth the fight. (From author website).

My Thoughts: I read The Mockingbirds in one night, as I was immediately absorbed by the kind of terrifying opening scene–our narrator Alex wakes up in the morning in a strange bed next to a strange boy, both of them completely naked, and has absolutely no memory of what happened to her the night before. She is confused, scared, and uncertain of exactly what to do, but thankfully she has a circle of good friends, a cool older sister, and of course, The Mockingbirds, a secret student society at Themis Academy.

I think Whitney did a perfect job here of portraying the confusion, shame, and fear that comes after an event like this. Date-rape does not fit into the classic stereotype of rape that everyone seems to have, the one where a complete and total stranger holds a knife to your neck and forces you into a dark alley late at night somewhere. A lot of people seem to think that is the only kind of rape that happens, the only kind of rape where the victim is absolutely blameless.

Date rape, on the other hand, is often perpetrated by someone you know, or someone who’s associated with you once or twice to some degree–an acquaintance, a friend of a friend, a co-worker. There are often drugs or (more likely) alcohol involved, a factor that many seem to think makes the victim partly to blame for being raped.

Which is untrue, as Whitney does a good job of explaining throughout the novel. At first, Alex doesn’t believe she’s been raped–and as the reader, you don’t think she has either, because all you have are her thoughts and her memories, which aren’t complete. But things start to unfold, and we learn, along with Alex and many other students at Themis, that “only yes means yes.” That silence should never be taken as consent.

I wasn’t as thrilled with or convinced by the circumstances Whitney built up to explain why exactly Alex did not approach the authorities or the administration at her school to report the rape. I understand it was necessary in order to introduce the Mockingbirds themselves, but it was a little bit loose and didn’t clinch it for me.

I still enjoyed The Mockingbirds a lot and definitely recommend.

Author Website:

If I Stay by Gayle Forman

Summary: On a day that started like any other…

Mia had everything: a loving family, a gorgeous, adoring boyfriend, and a bright future full of music and full of choices. Then, in an instant, almost all of that is taken from her. Caught between life and death, between a happy past and an unknowable future, Mia spends one critical day contemplating the one decision she has left—the most important decision she’ll ever make. (Courtesy of author website).

My Thoughts: I had been reading many great reviews for this book before I finally decided to pick it up a few weeks ago from the library. It took me a long time to get around to it–mostly because it seemed like your typical post-tragedy YA novel, and I was never particularly in the mood for depressing emotions and contemporary moaning-and-groaning. And I just didn’t want to read something sad during my first few weeks of summer.

Well I was wrong. If I Stay was so far from your typical contemporary YA novel. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly it is that Forman does so right other than “everything”. From the first page I was connected with Mia’s crazy but sincerely loving family, and not because my family is similar to hers, or that I’ve had the same experiences as they’ve had (in fact, far from it), but because Forman’s writing just does that to you. It’s simple and clean and perfect.

The whole novel takes place, like the summary says, in “one critical day”, but it’s a bit more than that. There are clear memories of Mia’s life before the accident interspersed with her present-day situation, and these transitions are handled and timed perfectly by Forman.

I highly recommend If I Stay to anyone who wants an absorbing, emotional read.

Author Website:
Apparently now there’s a sequel! Where She Went

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Summary: Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless Lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl. . . .

Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg. She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future. (From author website).

My Thoughts: I was drawn to this one both by the fabulous cover and the plot summary; cyborg mechanic Cinderella in the future? Extraterrestrial plagues? Hostile human sub-group living on the moon? Definitely something I haven’t heard of before.

While Meyer uses the old French fairytale of Cinderella to start off her story, she quickly makes it into something original and all her own. There’s more going on here than catching the attention of the prince and going to the royal ball–in fact, the royal ball only serves as the location for the climax of a much larger, much more complicated story. The evil stepmother, while suitably detestable, doesn’t come close to the real villain of our story, the queen of the Moon who is intent on exerting her unwelcome influence over the inhabitants back on Earth.

I immediately liked Cinder as our protagonist, and her trials and tribulations were exciting to follow. Her love for her younger stepsister, Peony, was a new look at the traditional Cinderella story, and her little helper Iko was also delightful to read.

I’d recommend Cinder to anyone who likes updated fairy tales, dystopian science fiction, and interesting plots. I think the author has several sequels in the series planned.

Author Website:


Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Summary: Why be the sheep, when you can be the wolf?

Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?

Commentary: I was pretty excited to read Grave Mercy–assassin nuns in medieval France? Definitely not something that’s been done before. I was drawn in from the very first chapter, but then my interest sort of petered off, and I’m not exactly sure what went wrong.

While the premise of the novel was certainly interesting, I felt like the author didn’t deliver. I had a hard time connecting emotionally with our narrator, Ismae, whether because of the awkward and kind of stumbling narration, or because she was just kind of flat as a character. We see that she escapes from her horrible arranged marriage, but her transformation to a full-formed character never happens. I wasn’t able to relate to any of her emotions and was never fully pulled into her trials and travails,which means the romance also fell completely flat for me.

I did enjoy the historical aspect of this novel, however, and appreciated the political intrigue between Brittany and France.

Overall, Grave Mercy had a very interesting premise but failed to deliver fully. Really fabulous cover though, I have to say.

Grave Mercy is the first in a series, but I don’t think I’ll be following up with the rest of the novels.

Author Website:
How did I get this book? The public library!