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 Tonight. Her 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. Whicher, which covers a lot of the same cultural territory by digging deep into one sensational case.
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.
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 Cooking, too, 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.