10

Nonfiction November: New to My TBR

Well! We’re already at the end of Non-Fiction November! I always count on November to be a month that unravels slowly, to allow for maximum reading time but this November was a bit of a shit-show wasn’t it?

That said, I will be forever grateful to Non-Fiction November for such a great month of non-fiction love. It was the perfect excuse to clear a whole bunch of non-fiction titles from my list and upped my non-fiction percentage to 28! I managed to read the following, most of which I loved:

This is the last week, and it’s hosted by Lory @ The Emerald City Book Review. This is the week we get to list all the great books that have found their way onto our TBRs! (So much for clearing any titles off my list…)

I’ve been keeping an eye on the recommendations coming in to B.B. Toady for her Southern Settings requests. There’s a lot of fiction that is set in the South that I’ve read but not so much non-fiction. Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans by Gary Krist was suggested and I’m going to keep an eye out for that. South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature by Margaret Eby also sounds great!

Sarah’s Book Shelves had some great pairings during Week 3. The dark side of gymnastics really jumped out at me and I’ve added Meg Abbott’s You Will Know Me and Dominique Moceanu’s memoir Off Balance to my list!

Amanda @ Gun in Act One reminded me about a few greats that I keep meaning to read (mostly because of her insistence). I have The Bad Ass Librarians fromTimbuktu out from the library right now. Romantic Outlaws is totally in my wheelhouse and I can’t think of a more descriptive title than The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse.

Brandy @ Reading Beyond introduced me to the network of crime writers known as the Detection Club of which Agatha Christie was a member. So of course now I need to read The Golden Age of Murder which is a history of that club. She also mentioned The Proud Tower by Barbara W. Tuchman, a collection of essays about politics before WWI and that has definitely piqued my interest as well.

I had recently listened to a podcast where Sonia Sotomayor was interviewed by Sonia Manzano (Maria from Sesame Street). Manzano read from Sotomayor’s book and I remember thinking “I need to read that.” Which I had forgotten about until JoAnn @ Lakeside Musings posted about it. In that same post, she talked about reading Sisters in Law, a dual biography about Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by Linda Horseman and now I want to do that too.

So basically, this event has allowed me to clear out a nice stack of non-fiction titles I had kicking around the house. But it also replaced pretty well every one of them.

Thanks so much to Katie @ Doing Dewey, Lory @ Emerald City Book Review, Sarah @ Sarah’s Book Shelves, Rachel @ Hibernator’s Library, and Julz @ Julz Reads for hosting. It’s been a blast!

11

A Chosen Exile

One of the best things about Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon is their non-fiction department.

Nowhere else do they have such a diverse collection of amazing non-fiction. Nowhere else would I have found Allyson Hobb’s A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life.

First, let’s admit that I was completely ignorant about the practice of passing. If there are any of you that have no idea what I’m talking about, passing was the practice of lighter skinned African Americans choosing, for various reasons, to ‘pass’ as white. It meant turning their backs on their culture, and in many instances, saying good bye to their families forever.

But many were willing to make that sacrifice because living as themselves post-slavery, during the Reconstruction and then under Jim Crow, was unbearable.

Passing offered countless freedoms – from the pleasure of sitting in other sections of movie theatres besides the “buzzard roost,” to the simple dignities of trying on a hat in a store without being compelled to buy it, to the elusive opportunities to ‘feel more like a man’ or ‘to be treated like a lady.’ But passing – the anxious decision to break with a sense of communion – upset the collective, “congregative character” of African American life; it undermined the ability for traditions, stories, jokes , and songs to be shared across generations.

achosenexile

Hobbs highlights the lives of many African Americans between the eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries who chose to pass: Elsie Roxborough, who lived in New York City as Mona Manet to pass as a white actress; Albert and Thyra Johnston who lived as a successful white couple in New Hampshire and kept their race a secret from their four children; Theophilus Syphax, the son of an elite black family who, upon graduation from Columbia Law School, decided to change his name and pass as white.

While highlighting the lives and loves of those who chose to pass, Hobbs also highlights certain movements of American history. How the Reconstruction era, seeking to right some of the wrongs caused by slavery, may have given rise to Jim Crow as white people were threatened by the rise of a black middle class.

In the end, Hobbs looks at race in the 21st Century:

Perhaps passing, as traditionally understood, has “passed out”in the twenty-first century. But underneath, the core issues of race and identity remain. Hybrid identities are still radicalized identities. Racially ambiguous people are racially marked and still must negotiate the terrain of a racist society. Personal choices about how to live with race continue to be tested and contested over time, correlating and shifting with historical circumstances and social structures.

The one failing of this book is that it’s quite an academic read (probably not surprising coming from a Stanford professor published by Harvard University Press). It’s less than 300 pages and full of really interesting stories but I’m not sure that it will find a wide audience, which is a shame. But if the subject matter interests you, don’t let that scare you off.

7

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate, is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all.

That’s how Trevor Noah’s book, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, begins. Right away I realized that this wasn’t going to be another comedian’s book about becoming famous. Noah’s book is as much about apartheid and racism as it is about how he grew up.

born-a-crime

Trevor Noah was born in 1984 when apartheid was still in full effect. His birth was literally a crime, as it was illegal at the time for a black woman to have sex with a white man. His birth was proof of their illegal act. For the first years of his life, he was barely allowed outside. His complexion was so light, deemed ‘coloured’ by the system that criminalized his existence, that his mother used to go out with a lighter skinned neighbour and walk behind them like she was the nanny.

Noah talks about growing up Other – how he wasn’t white, was too light to be black and how culturally, he wasn’t ‘coloured’ either. How, when he was 11, he chose to identify as black:

Before the recess I’d never had to choose, but when forced to choose, I chose black. The world saw me as colored, but I didn’t spend my life looking at myself. I spent my life looking at other people. I saw myself as the people around me, and the people around me were black. My cousins are black, my mom is black, my gran is black. I grew up black. […] With the black kids, I just was.

I didn’t know anything about Trevor Noah going into this book. I hadn’t heard of him until he was announced as Jon Stewart’s replacement. I don’t watch The Daily Show anymore because I can’t stay up that late (I am old) but now I wish that I did.

Noah’s life is so far removed from any reality that I’ve ever known. He grew up hiding his parentage, he rolled with a gang in the “hood”, grew up playing in Soweto township, his mother threw him from a moving car when he was nine because the driver was very likely going to kill them, and his mother was shot in the back of the head by his stepfather.

Those last two are mentioned super matter-of-factly in the first pages, by the way.

There are funny moments too – Noah has a way of telling stories in a tongue in cheek manner that made me smile. He talks about how he and his mother used to communicate by letter when they were arguing, how a friend of his once passed him off as an American rapper, and how one time he sh*t on the floor in front of his blind 90 year old great-grandmother.

But mostly, this book was so much more than I thought it was going to be. It’s a rumination on race and belonging, the power of language, culture and the love of one’s parents. I loved every beautiful page and totally recommend that you read this one!

8

Non-Fiction November: Be the Expert

This week as part of Non-fiction November, we’re thinking like experts. We’re either being the expert, asking the experts or becoming an expert.

I have been most looking forward to this week, hosted by Julz @ Julz Reads.

For as long as I’ve been reading, I’ve been obsessed with Royals, mainly female Royals. I’ve read about Tudors and Yorks, Romanovs, Stuarts, Windsors, even a Bernadotte or two. I’ve read about minor German duchies, Spanish Infantas, French Queens, and Austrian Empresses. I’ve read about Elizabethans, Georgians, Edwardians, and the Restoration.

I will forever be drawn to Royals.

Here are some of my favourite  books about Royal women (in no particular order):

The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport. I’d read a lot about Nicholas and Alexandra by the time I read this one. Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia were always mentioned as their lives intersected with their parents’. Their deaths at such young ages meant that they were never really known as their own people. Rappaport’s book was the first time I was introduced to the sisters as individuals. The whole thing is of course, totally sad, because ultimately you know how their story ends.

The Mystery of Princess Louise by Lucinda Hawksley. Princess Louise, was the sixth child and fourth daughter of Queen Victoria. She was unusual in that she convinced her parents to let her have an artistic education. She was quite a talented sculptor, married a commoner (as much a commoner as the era would allow anyway, he was still in line to a Dukedom), and spent part of her life in Canada when her husband was appointed Governor-General. The province of Alberta is named for her.

Anything by Julia P. Gelardi. She is, hands down, my favourite Royals biographer. She has written three books looking at multiple Royals. Five Granddaughters, which looks at the lives of the Queens of Norway, Russia, Spain, Romania and Greece, each of whom was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria; In Triumph’s Wake, which looks at the lives of incredibly successful Queens (Victoria, Maria-Theresa and Isabella of Spain) and their very tragic daughters (Vicky, Marie-Antoinette, Katherine of Aragon); and From Splendour to Revolution, which takes on some of the Romanov women, from 1847-1928. Anyone of them is so very worth your time – I can’t even pick a favourite.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie. Catherine was Empress of Russia but she was also a woman. Massie’s portrait of her manages to do justice to both sides of this august historical figure.

Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte by Kate Williams. Before reading this, my knowledge of Josephine was that she was always really well dressed. Williams introduced me to a completely different person, a woman who was born on a remote island, who kicked and scratched her way through life. It was exquisitely researched and I loved every page. (Williams is actually a prolific author. She has many books about royal woman, as well as fiction books like the WWI series that starts with The Storms of War. I totally read it – also quite good)

The Reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann. The first time I ever became aware of Empress Elisabeth of Austria was when I was actually in Austria. Her portrait, the Winterhalter one of her in a white dress with diamond stars in her hair, is everywhere. I bought this biography of her while I was there. Empress Elisabeth wasn’t supposed to marry Franz-Joseph, her sister was. But he fell in love with Elisabeth and she with him. Life at the very formal Austrian court turned out to be a lot to handle for a young woman raised in an informal Bavarian household. She spent the rest of her life searching for ways to avoid court life, to live as free as possible away from the gossip and the rules that otherwise governed her life.

Well those should get you started should you feel the need to better acquaint yourself with some of these Royals. If you know of a good one, please let me know. I’m always looking for more.

12

2016 TBR Pile Challenge: 11/22/63

Last month I was whining lamenting the fact that I didn’t think I would finish the Unofficial 2016 TBR Pile Challenge. I had three options left, and needed to read two of them. Two of them, 11/22/63 and I Am Pilgrim were quite lengthy and I’ve been trying to find a copy of My Cousin Rachel all year.

But then, Buried in Print was like I will read 11/22/63 with you!

And I can’t ever say no to that.

Plus, I was feeling like taking a break from the non-fiction business.

I am SO glad that you made me read this. I loved it. Plus, it’s literally been on my list for FIVE years (it was the first on my TBR but one) and now I’ve finally read it.

11-22-63

So for the couple of you that haven’t read Stephen King’s 11/22/63, here’s the gist of it: There’s some kind of time portal at the back of Al’s Diner and Al had been using it to go back to prevent the assassination of JFK. But when he gets sick and realizes he won’t be able to finish the job, he asks his friend Jake to do it. When you walk through the portal, it’s September 1958 and every time you walk back through the portal, everything resets to September 1958.

My version of the book had 1080 pages and I finished it in three days. This book was compelling, interesting, funny, nostalgic, wonderful.

Jake, aka George Amberson, kind of falls in love with the world as it was. He sees the late 1950s, early 1960s as this kind of simple, idyllic paradise, where people are more honest and trusting. But of course, it’s also way more racist and sexist. People are not tolerant of those who are different in any way. At times I was annoyed at this view of the past as better than now. For many people, the past was dangerous. If you were not straight, cis-gendered, white and hopefully male, life was kind of a rough go.

The whole time Jake/George was in the past, I was dying to see what the modern world would look like once he had changed this one watershed moment. His friend Al was convinced that Vietnam, the shooting deaths of RFK and Martin Luther King Jr happened because JFK was shot. He envisioned a better world where JFK lived.

Well. George Wallace ended up becoming president after JFK, so.

I couldn’t help but be struck by some of the parallels in this new modern world and what we’re seeing now. In a world where JFK had lived, people felt like he wasn’t speaking for them, they felt left out and looked for an alternative that felt closer to home. In Jake’s new modern world, earthquakes are a regular occurrence, and Maine is now a part of Canada, annexed when problems with nuclear fallout became too big to handle.

This part was like a punch in the gut I did not see coming:

“Bill Clinton’s president?”

“Gosh, no. He was a shoo-in for the ’04 nomination, but he died of a heart attack at the convention. His wife stepped in. She’s president.”

11/22/63 strikes me as an incredibly appropriate book to have read right now. The whole thing seems to be telling us that the past can’t be changed. That it’s not productive to dwell on what could have been. That we need to look forward and change what we can control.

That’s a message that I found great comfort in.

 

8

An odd choice? American Hookup

It’s been more than a decade since I’ve been out looking for a hook up. I have no college-bound children. I’m not an educator.

So perhaps American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus by Lisa Wade was an odd choice for me.

But guys, I’m all about gender relations and how they enforce stereotypes and certain behaviours. American Hookup is all about that too.

Wade is a professor and asks her students to help illuminate for her the current state of hookup culture. Where are the lines? What are the roles? Who is hookup culture for? Who can’t participate?

hookup

She looks at the history of colleges as institutions and how they’ve come to signal this hedonistic paradise to millions of young people, at gender relations and how the power dynamic has shifted from women to men over time due to external forces, at how gender and racial stereotypes enforce discriminatory behaviours and how this hookup culture can turn dangerous real quick.

It was an eye opening read. Wade’s students’ insights make for a more inside look at the current state of affairs than I would’ve expected from a PhD. Her students are incredibly forthcoming about their sexual encounters!

This book strikes me as one that would do a lot of good for students heading to college. One of the things that Wade points out at the beginning is that this idea of college as this alcohol-infused orgy free-for-all is stressing students out. They obsess about how much sex they’re not having, comparing themselves and their experiences to their peers when actually everyone is having a lot less sex than they care to admit to.

I think it would terrify parents to read it but maybe it’s a good idea for them to get an understanding of what their kids are headed to? Definitely those working with young adults should give this a read. I am definitely passing it on as appropriate.

Look for American Hookup early in 2017 (when everything isn’t a total dumpster fire?).

7

Doing the work: Truevine

How are you all feeling? Have you looked after yourselves? Are you starting to feel like you’re coming out of the fog? Ready to do the work?

Some of that work is reading. Educating ourselves. Looking for books that tell stories that don’t necessarily bear any resemblance to our own.

Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South is one of those stories.

truevine

Beth Macy’s book looks at what really happened to George and Willie Muse, Albino brothers born to a black family, who were taken from their family and made to perform in a sideshow. For years, their story was a kind of local myth, used to scare children into behaving lest they be taken like the Muse brothers. Macy spent twenty-five years building a relationship with the Muse brothers’ niece, Nancy, their caretaker and protector. Nancy, understandably, didn’t want her uncles to be a kind of modern day sideshow.

I’m going to tell you right now that Macy doesn’t really uncover exactly what happened. There is never any kind of conclusion to this book that provides all the answers.

But what this book does do is paint a picture of what it was like to be black and live under Jim Crow laws. No one needs to be told that it’s not a pretty picture. But it’s maybe a good opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the nitty-gritty. I cried for the first time on page 25, when Macy recounts stories she’s been told by the community’s black residents about dropping out of school at tender ages to work, being made to eat outside because white people didn’t want them in their homes, about how 1976 was still too soon for many black people to talk about slavery and what it meant for their families.

muses

George and Willie Muse were either kidnapped by the sideshow or they were sent to work there by their mother, who was probably told that they would be back after a season. Whatever happened, the Muse brothers spent their lives performing in sideshows all over America, Canada and even further. The photos that Macy has managed to find of the brothers show handsome young men who look incredibly sad. Those who were tasked with their wellbeing failed them, parading them around the world and making money off their difference.

Their mother, Harriet, did everything in her power to bring them home. She stood up to the police when it could have cost her her life.

In the end, Willie Muse lived to be 108. His niece always reminded Macy that whatever she found out about what happened, the brothers won in the end.

Truevine is not an easy book to get to at times. Beth Macy describes incredible brutality perpetrated against black bodies, and later against those “freaks” who made money off their oddities. Macy describes trying to watch AHS: Freak Show with her son and feeling like it too was trying to profit from the rubbernecking. I suspect if she had continued to watch the show, she would have found that the those with “ugly” outsides were the good guys, that the “beautiful” people were rotten all the way through.

This is one of those books that works to keep those stories we’d rather forget, alive. It’s important to remember them.