Recent Reading: Non-Fiction

Unlike some of my friends, I’m not doing any kind of WriMo (NaNo or Ac). Unless Academic Policy Writing could be a (really boring) thing? AcPoWriMo: I’m trying to get to grips with my semester goals for that. I’m also planning to blog more than once every 10 days this month (though I think every day would be more than any of us could bear) and to write more about specific books I’ve been reading. Today: non-fiction (and I’m asking for recommendations at the end).

When I try to write about recent reading, I realize I miss Goodreads more than I expected to. I’ve been keeping brief reading notes in Evernote, but it’s just not the same. I even miss rating a little. And I miss spying on friends’ books. I’ve gotten as far as exporting my Goodreads reviews, and I just might set up a Booklikes account.

My recent non-fiction “reading” is mostly listening. When I first started listening to audiobooks, I avoided non-fiction. I found it hard to pay attention; I missed having graphics (maps, photos) and seeing notes; I couldn’t tell when something was a quote from a source. I’ve learned to pay better attention (as Willaful commented on my last post, listening to books is something of a learned skill), but the rest is still true. I’ve decided I don’t care too much, though, when I’m reading non-fiction for pleasure. These are books I might well not find the time or energy for reading in print, so listening is way better than nothing. I gravitate towards 19th-century British social history (my PhD was in Victorian Lit), 20th-century US social history and some “current affairs” (I should understand my own world better), biography and memoir (whatever catches my fancy). These books tend to have a strong enough narrative or argumentative drive to work well on audio. What has that meant lately?

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss. I particularly liked the early sections of this biography of the novelist Alexandre Dumas’ father (I guess that makes him Dumas grand-père?), born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) to a white French aristocrat father and a slave mother, and brought by his father to France as a teen. Reiss explores the colonial history of France in the period and the changing status of people of color before, during, and after the French Revolution. Later I learned rather more than I cared to about the military history of the Revolution and Napoleonic wars, and I found the book a bit hagiographic–though Dumas seems to have been an amazing horseman, swordsman, and soldier, and Napoleon did him wrong. (I had this as a library e-book and totally skimmed the war bits. It might not have worked for me in audio). This made me want to read The Count of Monte Cristo. Also, what fodder for a really different historical romance! (I hear Isobel Carr has a Frenchman of color in the works). Jennifer Lohmann talked this up, and I’m glad she did.

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, by Alexandra Fuller. I loved Fuller’s memoir of growing up in Africa in the 1970s, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs TonightHer mother called her debut “that awful book,” and Cocktail Hour, a memoir of that mother, is . . . well, not an apology exactly, but an attempt to come to grips with an outsize character. I don’t think it entirely succeeds; I felt we always remained at a distance from Nicola Fuller. But there are lots of great stories here, and it’s an interesting portrait of a colonialist who outlived the British Empire, by a daughter who brings a fairly critical eye to colonialism. Nicola aspired to live a life that could be chronicled like Beryl Markham or Karen Blixen’s (to underscore the point, the opening chapter is called “Nicola Fuller Learns to Fly,” except it doesn’t quite work that way). But she’s poor and struggling and her Africa is far less glamorous than theirs. And yet, Fuller makes of her an equally fascinating and in some ways glamorous figure.

The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime, by Judith Flanders. The Victorian detective is one of my “things.” This book covers a lot of ground, sometimes, I felt, to its detriment. Flanders discusses a number of sensational Victorian murders, and catalogs every appearance they made on the page and stage, every racehorse and greyhound named for a celebrity murderer (that the Victorians did that is a fascinating tid-bit, though!). In other words, they were a lot like us–or we’re a lot like them, with our rabid interest in sensational crimes stoked by the media. There are really interesting points here: about the shift in interest from the crime to its solution, the murderer to the detective, in both literature and society; about the changing role of the detective, from semi-criminal thief-taker to professional. I enjoyed this for its encyclopedic overview, but prefer Kate Summerscale’s wonderful The Suspicions of Mr. Whicherwhich covers a lot of the same cultural territory by digging deep into one sensational case.

Now Playing: 

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson. I’m 1/3 through, and this book is absolutely living up to its glowing jacket copy:

Both a riveting microcosm and a major assessment, The Warmth of Other Suns is a bold, remarkable, and riveting work, a superb account of an “unrecognized immigration” within our own land. Through the breadth of its narrative, the beauty of the writing, the depth of its research, and the fullness of the people and lives portrayed herein, this book is destined to become a classic.

(Although . . . riveting twice in two sentences? the fullness of the people? that sucker needed an editor). I grew up in a city shaped by the Great Migration (Chicago’s population went from just under 2% black to about 30% between 1900 and 1970) and I know the history of the Jim Crow South and the migration of African-Americans north and west in broad outlines. But I’m learning so much more from this book. I particularly like the blend of oral history (following the stories of a handful of people in depth) and more general background. Robin Miles’ narration is outstanding as well. Extraordinary. And, well, riveting.

What’s Next?

I eyed up Publisher’s Weekly’s 2013 best non-fiction list, released this week. I already read the Scientology one. I promptly used an Audible credit on Luke Barr’s Provence, 1970 (M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the shaping of American taste? yes, please!). I noticed they had Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cookingtoo, and I’ve got that in mind for the future. Others I’m especially interested in but couldn’t find at Audible are Jesmyn Ward‘s and Cris Beam‘s, both of which look like they will require fortitude in the reader. It’s a really diverse list and I expect to come back to it looking for ideas.

Got any recommendations for non-fiction listening or reading? I’d love more ideas, as I’ve really enjoyed making this a bigger part of my reading life.

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33 Responses to Recent Reading: Non-Fiction

  1. Miss Bates says:

    Thank you for the ear fodder and Willaful’s sage suggestion to learn to listen!

  2. Sycorax Pine says:

    Ah! I am glad to see THE BLACK COUNT here; I just gave it to my father, who’s an aficionado of swashbuckling.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh, there’s plenty of swashing and buckling! And it’s a very engaging read–Reiss is a real enthusiast and the lengths he had to go to to find material are impressive (the opening story of persuading a small French town to break into a museum safe, since the one person who cared/knew the combination had died, is great).

  3. merriank says:

    I have a paper copy of The Black Count in my TBR so glad that it is one to look forward too. Would love to read your take on The Count of Monte Cristo. It is a seminal book for me as I read it when I was 7 or 8 years. I was only thinking of it the other day as a story about agency as well as rage. That the Count’s agency was stolen from him and the journey he goes on is about regaining his personal agency and that his acts of revenge while channelling his rage at the betrayals towards his betrayers ultimately only have meaning because they reconstitute his agency.

    Also I read and enjoyed a free short story by KJ Charles ‘Butterflies (The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal #2)’ which is a paranormal Victorian m/m detective story. It’s free on Smashwords and well reviewed on Goodreads It is very good; in writing, evoking the Victorian world and in plot.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think you will like the Black Count, then. It’s very good on how Count of Monte Cristo is partly coming from Alexandre Dumas’ rage at how his father was treated by Napoleon: he went from being a hero to being left to languish as a prisoner of war in Italy for two years, and died in relative poverty. Because of personal animus, political differences, and Napoleon’s attitudes to race. His situation appears in his son’s work in a number of ways, apparently.

  4. pamela1740 says:

    I’m fascinated to learn that you have a Victorian detectives ‘thing’! Can you forgive if I pepper you with questions about several such characters I have found intriguing recently…? I’m a fan of Deanna Raybourn’s Nicholas Brisbane character. I think she does a good job conveying his unusual social position, clothed as a gentleman and moving among the aristocracy, but always ‘other” by virtue of being in trade (and also his dubious origins). The relationship of Brisbane and his wife Julia, who wants to work with him but is amateur and inferior to him professionally, though socially superior by virtue of her title, is the center of these romantic suspense/mysteries. Which sort of reminds me of the “detective’s apprentice turned lover and wife” in Laurie King’s Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes books. Which is really neither here nor there — but I mainly wanted to ask if you’ve read any of the Raybourn books? I think Brisbane is a great character, but since I rarely read mystery, I’m not sure how he stacks up…

    I’ve also been very fascinated by the detective characters on the BBC America drama COPPER – not English, but Irish, in Reconstruction-era New York, but there’s a lot of semi-expository work going on with this show, towards telling the early history of the municipal police force, and the professionalization of the detectives as distinct from the rank and file ‘coppers.’

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I read the 1st three in Raybourn’s series and I enjoyed them, although as a detective figure I don’t find Brisbane very Victorian–I mean that the tone of the book and style of detecting is more like contemporary historical mystery (like Anne Perry, say), which is not a criticism and not surprising. But there are some influences of Victorian sensation that were fun and I especially liked the Hound of the Baskervilles homage in Silent on the Moor (isn’t it? I get it confused with Laurie King’s The Moor, which I think is also a Conan Doyle homage).

      I think Brisbane is more a sort of Bronte-esque hero figure than a Victorian detective. Not that that’s a bad thing. But I haven’t read them in a while, so my memory is kind of fuzzy. (I loved the Mary Russell series, but like any long series, eventually I fell off the wagon or just got distracted and I’m several books behind. And then it’s so hard to pick back up again without feeling lost).

  5. willaful says:

    I enjoyed Animal Vegetable Mineral very much. A friend recommends Steve Martin’s autobiography, though I didn’t get into it. That was fairly early in my audiobook learning curve, however.

  6. Liz, wow. I consider my reading habit eclectic, but the art of Soviet cooking? I did *almost* buy a book about cable cars this weekend, just to placate the earnest enthusiast who got excited by my small amount of interest. Seeing your book about Victorian murder on here, which I saw you mention on Twitter, made me remember that I’d wondered if you’d read Connie Willis’s TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG–Victorian time travel plus church satire with a whole riff on the genre of murder mystery (not Victorian, but early 20th century). So delightful. I love her!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Well, the subtitle of that book is “a memoir of food and longing,” so I don’t think it’s as out there as it might sound. I like memoirs with a food focus/food writing.

      I tried that Connie Willis book a while ago and couldn’t get into it, but I need to try again because it seems like *exactly* my kind of thing (I loved THREE MEN AND A BOAT, too) and I expect it was just my mood.

      • willaful says:

        I didn’t like it that much on first read, 2nd was much better. Have you read Bellwether?

      • SonomaLass says:

        To Say Nothing of the Dog is my favorite Connie Willis, and considering how hard I love her books, that’s saying a lot.

        I wonder if you’d like my friend Amy’s book on Mesmerism — she’s also in Victorian studies, although she came to it through theatre rather than lit. It’s theory and case studies; I found it fascinating, if more scholarly and less sensational than I secretly longed for.

        One of these days, I will learn to listen to books. I don’t have a space in my schedule for them right now, except a 15-minute commute a couple of days a week. Maybe a memoir, or essays — right now I usually listen to news radio, which can be repetitive (same stories a.m. and p.m. drives) and has way too many ads.

  7. Erin Satie says:

    My interest is piqued by both the Victorian detection books you mentioned. They sound like they might work really well as a pair, actually.

    I’ll toss out a couple of recs–The Great Influenza by John Barry & The Information by James Gleick. I listened to both on audio. The Barry book is long and epic and satisfying; a history of the titular devastating flu, how it spread & how the country & world mobilized to respond…or failed to. Really interesting, although the narrator’s tics really grated by the end. The Information is shorter & funner & the narrator has a GREAT voice. Ended up being one of my favorite books last year & I’ve convinced at least one other person to read it, & it was a hit. Sample the first chapter on talking drums & you’ll have an idea of whether or not the rest is likely to hook you (it’s super cool).

    I’m sure I’ve mentioned both of these before, but eh. They’re good!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      They are a good pair, because they complement each other–breadth and depth. I loved Kate Summerscale’s book but this IS a topic I’m somewhat obsessed with (part of my dissertation dealt with the fictional detective as a kind of order of the chaos of urban experience–rendering the city legible). I also enjoyed Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook, which has a US focus and deals with the birth of forensic medicine.

      Thanks for the recs! You’ve definitely mentioned the Influenza one before, and that is a period I’m really interested in.

  8. meoskop says:

    I loved The Warmth of Other Suns. I am always reading five or six nonfiction titles & I know a book is good when I don’t flip between it & the others.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yeah, I’m almost at the point of looking for chores to do, and I’m listening instead of reading in the evenings. It’s so amazing. Full of things that shouldn’t surprise me, but do, like the way Southerners tried to keep people from migrating, because of course they needed the labor. Not by granting more rights and freedoms, but by repressing and threatening all the more. What a fucked-up system. I think the blend of close-up, personal accounts where you get to know these people and broader context for their lives is so well done–the way that, in choosing what makes sense for their own lives, they are participating in making history (as we all do). The narration really avoids (melo)drama, which makes the horrors have all the more impact. I’ve had it on my iPod for a while, and I’m glad I decided to finally start it.

  9. Ooh, a whole bunch of good stuff I’d like to add to my TBR. In particular THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS, THE INVENTION OF MURDER, and THE BLACK COUNT.

  10. Sunita says:

    I haven’t read Wilkerson’s book (the topic was central to my dissertation/first book and also related to my second, so I’m pretty immersed in the scholarly literature), but I’d heard good things about it, and it sounds like she hits all the right points. If you’re enjoying that, I’d recommend my former mentor and colleague Ira Katznelson’s most recent book, Fear Itself, on the New Deal. Katznelson has written extensively on race and politics, in both the US and the UK, and for a scholar he has a very accessible style.

    On the PW list, I read a great review of the Karl Marx biography, and I’m really interested in the Fosse biography as well (I think it just came out, and there’s a positive review in the Chicago Tribune). I just re-watched All That Jazz a few weeks ago and was fascinated by him all over again.

    If you decide to read The Count of Monte Cristo I hope you’ll blog about it! I read it when I was in my teens, I think, and then reread it a few years ago and still loved it. It’s definitely one of my Desert Island books, and not just because it takes up a lot of reading time!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks for the rec! I read a really interesting review of the Marx bio too, and it’s on my wishlist. I’ve only read bits of Marx, but Engels’ CONDITION OF THE WORKING CLASS was part of my dissertation.

  11. Liz,

    I’m glad you liked THE BLACK COUNT. Nonfiction is one of my favorite things to listen to on audio; I like it much more than listening to fiction. I also like nonfiction with an adventure-side to it and a narrative arc. So, here are some things I’ve been listening to that I’ve enjoyed:

    I’m now on my fourth Joseph Ellis Revolutionary War book. I listened to AMERICAN CREATION on what the founding fathers got right and what they punted on (or just got completely wrong), HIS EXCELLENCY on George Washington, FIRST FAMILY on John and Abigail’s relationship, and am almost finished with AMERICAN SPHINX about Thomas Jefferson. The writing is good and I’ve enjoyed learning more about all of these legendary figures, though I think AMERICAN CREATION would be the one to listen to if you were only going to pick one.

    I’ve got THE HEMMINGS OF MONTICELLO next on my list, to help balance out the above. I’ve also got THE ATLANTIC on audible. I’d really love it if Dubois’s HAITI were on audible, but it’s not yet. THE BLACK COUNT made me want to listen to that book.

    Caroline Alexander is one of my favorite nonfiction authors. I loved listening to THE BOUNTY and THE ENDURANCE, though I missed having the maps for both those books. She also wrote a book on Achilles that I enjoyed, though I read that one rather than listening to it. Good character developments and plot lines.

    I’ll have to bump THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS up my TBLT pile a bit. I also started (but didn’t finish) THE BIG BURN. The listening was going fine, but I was on vacation and got stopped, but never started again.

    Caroline Weber’s biography of Marie Antoinette was fabulous, though that was one I read, rather than listened to. It’s one I recommend highly in general.

    I gave up on HOW THE VICTORIANS INVENTED MURDER. It was *so* encyclopedic that I didn’t get a sense of a narrative arc to the book and I like my nonfiction to have character development or plot. The Victorian book was just murder after murder after murder, followed by the sensationalism that happened after each murder. That was a bummer, because I’d really been looking forward to that one. I also read THE SUSPICIONS OF MR. WHICHER and was disappointed by that one, too. I found it dry and a bit repetitive, though I also think it suffered (for me) for the hyped up reviews I read of it. I expected more than I got. Did you read THE ELEMENTS OF MURDER, which talks about how metals are used as poisons? That was pretty entertaining.

    Not for Liz, but for others who like science nonfiction–Mary Roach’s books are fantastic on audio. her humor really comes across well.

    That was really long, but I think I’m done now.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      This is the best librarian comment! Thanks for all the recommendations. I’m not surprised that you found Flanders’ book too encyclopedic. I followed it OK because I have a fair amount of background, and enough interest in the topic to keep me going (I’m sure that’s part of why I loved Mr. Whicher so much and didn’t find it dry).

      While we’re recommending, I really enjoyed Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgianna, Duchess of Devonshire, and probably my top non-fiction listen so far (which I know Erin Satie loved as well) is Wade Davis’ Into the Silence, about the 1920s attempts to climb Mt. Everest. Davis connects this to (many of) the climbers’ service in WWI and its a fascinating and very moving book. It can be pretty brutal, both the war and climbing parts, but the things these men accomplished are just astonishing. I gave that one to my dad for Christmas and he liked it too.

    • Erin Satie says:

      Just a wee note: Do finish The Big Burn! I read it & loved it, and it really builds to such an amazing climax.

      The Big Burn was my first Egan book. I read it on paper. Later went back and listened to The Worst Hard Time on audio & thought the narrator was very poorly chosen. Very folksy tone that didn’t bring out the beauty of his prose as well as I would have liked & a little fast.

      Still. Big Burn. It’s been years now & I loved it.

      • Okay, I’ll move THE BIG BURN higher on the TBR pile. It’s also set in a part of the world I grew up in, so there was a lot to interest me–only vacation that killed it.

  12. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang. It’s been a while but I thoroughly enjoyed this—three generations of woman with very different lives (concubine, communist, academic).

    It’s been interesting to hear about all these different non-fiction books!

  13. I’m (slowly) reading Meaty by Samantha Irby, the blogger behind bitches gotta eat (link here: The book is a collection of autobiographical essays that don’t really follow a chronological pattern. The stories are hilarious and painfully honest.

    This book is not for everyone, but I’m enjoying it more than The Bloggess’ book, which I ended up DNFing. I’m also thinking about reading Hyperbole and a Half to keep with the “bloggers turned authors” theme.

    I don’t know if you guys like Isabel Allende, but I just read The Sum of Our Days, which is a follow-up to Paula. I find her memoirs more entertaining than her novels (and her novels are good), and those two books, which should be read in order, are fantastic. She is such a wonderful storyteller and she’s had a great, rich life, two things that go together well. I highly recommend those two books and if anyone reads or has read them, let me know because I don’t know anyone who’s read them and I would love to talk about them 😉

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