The 2019 Nonfiction Challenge Part XII: "I've Always Been Curious About..." Books in December
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Well, another year is almost over, and here's our final challenge for 2019. (Amazing to think that we're about to start another new decade, too -- who is leaning on the fast forward button out there??)
This month, the challenge is an easy one. Take a subject of any kind that you've always wanted to learn more about, or always been interested in, and read a book (non-fiction, of course!) on that subject. It's the now-traditional "anything goes" kind of year-end challenge.
This could be a lot of fun -- and hopefully will result in a LOT of book bullets for folks' holiday gift lists and for next year's reading. Try to be as specific as possible when you mention what interests you about a book -- eg, not just "history" but "the collapse of the Roman Empire", or whatever it is that draws you to this specific book.
Happy reading, and happy holidays to all!
Here's the lineup that I've drawn up for the new year of reading that lies ahead for challenge participants. Any last minute suggestions for tweaking or changing it are welcome! I hope that it includes enough "open" challenges that this will offset the narrower ones. I'm tempted to tweak the November challenge to be EITHER comfort reading, or political reading... Because, you know, US Presidential election, Brexit, yadda yadda... Thoughts?
Prizewinners & Nominees
Heroes and Villains
Food, Glorious Food!
Migration, Nationalism and Identity: New category dealing with emigration, immigration, nationalism, refugees, national identities, etc.
Books by Journalists
Science & Technology: From medicine to Galileo. History or current breakthroughs/research.
The Long 18th Century (1688-1815) (anywhere in the world...): The term is a British one, stretching out the 18th century to cover the period from the Glorious Revolution (which brought William & Mary to the throne but also sealed a new balance of power between the crown and Parliament) and the battle of Waterloo. The period saw the birth of capitalism as a concept, of colonialism, the end of China's status as an independent empire (ahead of the 19th century wars), the collapse of the Moghul empire, the birth of "reason", revolutions and the birth of the concept of the rights of man.
Books About Books (and Words, and Language, and Libraries)
The Byzantines, the Ottomans and their empire(s): The Ottomans took over from the Byzantines in 1453, and the former's empire collapsed circa 1915/1918, after WW1. Read anything set in this era, and about the region covered. So, you can read about Byron at Missalonghi, or the attempts to push the Turks back from Vienna. But not about Crete or Athens during the classical era (pre-Byzantine.)
Group Biography: you can read about a family, about a mother/daughter relationship, about a literary group, etc.), about siblings or a family.
As you like it… A catch-all category for the end of the year.
* -- a new category this year!
For December I'm highly attracted to Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-hand Time. I know nothing about life in the USSR.
In Her Own Image, Women Working in the Arts
This was published in 1980, just a year after I purchased 3 paintings by one of the living artists featured inside, indeed the central image in the frontispiece is also by Wendy Rose, and in a similar vein. I purchased it because of the 3 pages about her.
Sticking with the former Soviet Union, I am going to read Back in the USSR: Heroic Adventures in Transnistria by Rory MacLean (with photos by Nick Danziger). Transnistria is one of the several separatist states in the FSU - officially part of the Republic of Moldova, but it does not recognise Moldova and is trying to return to Russia. It is interesting as the government seems to have pretty much refused to accept the end of the USSR, so all the communist symbols and statues etc are still very much present and celebrated.
Everyday Saints because I know so little about them and life in 20th century Russian monasteries...
WAU-BUN covers early European trading in the Old Indian Agency House where I used to take my 4th graders
to visit the portage from the Fox to the Wisconsin Rivers...
and FATHER OF LIONS for love of animals and fears for what is still destroying Iraq.
The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You by Dina Nayeri -- because I'm interested in migration issues, questions of identity
1947: Where Now Begins by Elisabeth Åsbrink -- because I'm interested in postwar periods of history.
The Economists' Hour by Binyamin Applebaum -- because I want to understand how dominant economic ideas got that way.
Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage by Kathleen Winter -- because I'm fascinated by travel yarns and tales of exploration, especially in the Pacific NW
The Falcon Thief by Joshua Hammer -- because I'm always curious about quirky subjects
Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin's Russia by Joshua Yaffe -- because I'm still trying to figure out the whole Putin phenomenon.
Snow: A Scientific and Cultural Exploration by Giles Whittell (another "who knew?" kind of book)
The Spy Who Changed History by Svetlana Lokhova (because I'm addicted to espionage yarns)
46 Pages by Scott Liell -- I've always found Thomas Paine a compelling figure.
1. Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya by Jamaica Kincaid
2. Edge of Maine by Geoffrey Wolff
3. Fellowship of Ghosts: A Journey Through the Mountains of Norway by Paul Watkins
One of my reading goals for the year has been to finish the long odyssey through the 23 titles in this series and I am about to finish them. It will be a good way to end the year.
In January of 1864, five sailors from the wrecked schooner Grafton are stranded on remote and icy Auckland Island, some three hundred miles from New Zealand. An isolated speck in the Southern ocean, it is a godforsaken place, with winds howling at sixty miles an hour, rain three hundred days a year, and an almost impenetrable coastal forest. Under the leadership of Captain Thomas Musgrave, these men defy their slim chance of survival. They build a cabin and, incredibly, a forge, where they manufacture every single nail as well as most of their tools. Miraculously, all the Grafton men survive for nearly two years before finally building a getaway vessel and setting off on one of the most courageous sea voyages ever. Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the same island - twenty miles of impassable cliffs and chasms away - the ship Invercauld wreaks during a horrible gale in May 1864. Nineteen men struggle ashore. They eventually succumb to utter anarchy, and only three survive. Using the survivors' journals, award-winning maritime historian Joan Druett tells a gripping cautionary tale about leadership, endurance, and the fine line between order and chaos." -- Publisher.
This series is a travel book series. This title is about author and gardener Jamaica Kincaid and the seed gathering expidition that she went on to Nepal with three fellow gardeners. Kincaid lives in Vermont and was seeking plants that she could grow in the tough climate of her home. She spent 6 months getting herself in shape for the hiking and was glad that she had done so. Even with the physical preparation the trip was hard on her. She was often struck down by altitude sickness and felt that the trip was less successful than she wanted it to be. She didn't pick up much for her garden. Even so, the writing in this book was an honest look at the difficulties of just hying off to the hinterlands and the problems that tourists from rich nations face when going to visit in developing countries.
This was not the best book in this series but it wasn't the worst one either. Much better than many of them.
This title was about the coast of Maine. The rivers, the islands, the harbors, the port cities, the people, and the classism that is rampant in this scenic part of the country. There was lots in it about sailing and sailing for pleasure and sailing for a living. This was a very informative book, and while it lays the class stratification on the line, it still makes me want to vacation there.
Rory MacLean wrote one of my all-time favourite books, Stalin's Nose, in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. A semi-fictionalised travelogue, I thought it captured eastern Europe in the very early 90s beautifully. Since then he has continued to blur the boundaries of travel writing, and in this book, Back in the USSR: Heroic Adventures in Transnistria, with photographer Nick Danziger, he turns his attention to the unrecognised state of Transnistria - officially part of Moldova, but in reality a breakaway republic which is trying to reunite with Russia, and which is functioning as though the Soviet Union still exists. As the author blurb puts it, "In sleight-of-hand Transnistria he found at last a place where there was no need for invention (or at least not much)." This journey around Transnistria, hosted by an unnamed rich business man he refers to as New Soviet Man, highlights the reality and absurdity of daily life, and the everyday paradoxes that characterise life there. Nick Danziger's photos are great. I loved this book, it was fascinating. I suspect the feeling of 'is that real or is he making that up?' is a pretty accurate reflection of how I'd feel if I were able to visit. 5/5.
I knew absolutely nothing about this book before I read it except that it was a memoir on several end of the year "best of" and was getting rave reviews. I like to go into books with little knowledge to avoid, well, you know.....spoilers of any kind. Sometimes this leads to all sorts of eye opening reading experiences. This was one of them.
It seems that Machado has created a new sort of genre with this book that relates her experiences with with an abusive partner as they worked through a lesbian relationship. To cut to the chase, Machado has set up a most unusual format for this memoir in which she she is blindingly honest in her explanation of exactly how she managed to get through what was obviously a horrific experience for her. And she doesn't hide the fact that she could've, should've gotten out of the relationship several times but somehow couldn't do it. It made me feel that she was so real, so human, because I could picture myself doing something very much like that.
The writing is beautiful and I could hardly stop reading wondering how long she would put up with this woman who was making her life hell. The format, as I mentioned, is very unusual. She compared the Dream House, where they thought they would be so happy, to a number of tropes and headed each section of the book with that metaphor: Dream House as Confession, as Bildungsroman, as Noir, as Here Comes the Bride, as High Fantasy, as Doppleganger, as Demonic Pissession, as Unreliable Narrator and on and on. Absolutely brilliant. And somehow left me feeling unexpectedly hopeful and joyful. Very highly recommended.
"The caliphate suffered an abundance of widows, and widows, as everyone knows, are especially prone to envy. If the widows were widows twice or even thrice over, as was the case with many women, the problem of envy took on monstrous dimensions. To be a widow in the Islamic State was to be condemned to a rough, deprived existence in a guest house for widows."
I read this whole book thinking it was written by a man. Wrong. A young Californian/Iranian woman wrote it. And it's brilliant. I mean absolutely brilliant. I knew so little about ISIS and the war in Syria that you'd think I never read the news. But I do read the news. Pretty much everyday. And yet I didn't know sooooo much.
Do any of you remember seeing video in 2014 of some very young Muslim women in Heathrow getting ready to board a plane to Turkey and eventually arrive in Syria to participate in the war as part of the Islamic State? I saw the video many times. It never occurred to me to sympathize with the mothers of those very young girls. It never dawned on me that anyone so young could up and leave home and go to war. But they did. Unbelievably that's exactly what they did.
They weren't the only ones. Moaveni traces the lives of several of these young women. They came from Tunisia, Libya, Iraq, London, Germany, Turkey and Syria. They end up being forced into marriage, and having as many children as they could, and waiting, then, for the return of their husbands from the battlefield, or, worse, the notification that their husband was killed on the battlefield. And then, when they no longer had a husband, the grueling life of a widow, with children, who will be expected to marry the next ISIS soldier who is "assigned" to her. Horrible suffering.
And in the end, guess what? They're stuck in a camp in Turkey or Iraq living with their children because their country will not take them back. Some of them end up in prison. It's all pretty awful. And the author tries to detail why it all happened, the poverty and disrespect that many of them felt they could no longer tolerate and forced them to move on to the battlefield where they hoped to make a better life for themselves.
As I said, absolutely brilliant. Narrative non-fiction at its best. And very highly recommended.
Sorry, I have dropped the ball (yet again...) on posting the covers, but it's been a difficult month (yes, another, boring, I know...) That said, i get to spend the whole of today READING, and I plan to finish Kathleen Winter's astonishingly marvelous travel memoir, Boundless. It's about her life, and the Northwest Passage, and liminal spaces. It's going to be one of my top books of the year.
For seasonal content, I read Snow: A Scientific and Cultural Exploration by Giles Whittell, which was fascinating. I also read Alan Rusbridger's chronicle of the evolution of news in the digital era, Breaking News. I confess that I came to this with a bit of a different POV, as I wrote for the Guardian for 3 plus years as a contractor/columnist, and was one of many victims of massive layoffs here (which he doesn't even address...) And he ends on a happier note than I would have, though I think his broader point (that you get what you do or don't pay for in terms of news quality) remains valid. I understand his pov re paywalls, but don't think the solution is a public radio/TV model (begging for backers/guilting readers into paying.) It's about finding creative new ways to provide access (in the same way that municipalities are pushing the boundaries in terms of make the Internet a public right..)
I was pleasantly surprised by The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis, as I'm often not a fan of his reporting (his writing is fine, but he tends to focus on an idea and find facts that support his theories, while discarding others...) I've read a few more non-fiction tomes, but my final shout-out is for 1947 by Elisabeth Âsbrink, who employs a kind of breaking news approach/style in chronicling what happened in this seminal year, leaping across continents and areas of emphasis (from war crimes to the New Look to de-colonization...).
Fascinating story and excellent audiobook.
The book was not a travel book in the same sense as some other travel books I have been reading. The whole middle section of the book was mostly about the writing of travel books and literature and why people write travel books to start with. This part of the book dragged, but the parts about his travel to various cities and places in Gemany was of the greatest interest to me. Since there is not much travel literature available on Germany this was a worthy place holder.