Well. Things look a little brighter on this Monday no?
This week Julie @ Julz Reads is our host for what is probably my favourite week of Nonfiction November:
This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.
I love the idea of this prompt so much. One of my favourite things to do is follow up a fiction read with the nonfiction version! Here are my pairings this year!
I read How to Kill A City: Gentrification, Inequality and the Fight for the Neighborhood back when it came out in 2016. It was the first time that I was really introduced to the policies that shaped the way cities are formed, often at the expense of Black and Brown people. Pride and When No One is Watching use the theme of gentrification as the anchor for their stories, a chance to see how these policies affect the people cities aren’t thinking about.
I really enjoyed getting to read the behind-the-scenes story of Instagram. I spend an embarrassing amount of time on there and it was interesting learning about how it became what it is, how it changed our culture. More books featuring instagram and influencers are starting to come out (Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner comes to mind) but My Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella was an early adopter and I loved it.
Edward VIII’s Loves
This wouldn’t be my blog if I didn’t include at least ONE historical fiction/biography pairing! I’ve characterized them as Edward VIII’s loves but one thing you should know about Edward VIII was that he didn’t fall in love with pushovers. I consider Anne Sebba’s biography of Mrs Simpson to be the definitive one. I read The Woman before Wallis this summer and it was a delight; I’m on the hunt for a thorough biography of Thelma Morgan please.
Those are my pairings for 2020! I’m looking forward to seeing what everyone else has picked this year!
And if you want to see what I recommended in year’s past, here are some of my old posts!
Well, here we are. November! Did you ever think we’d make it this far?
There’s other noteworthy things happening but around here, it’s all about Nonfiction November!
This year it’s hosted by Katie @ Doing Dewey, Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction, Julie @ Julz Reads and Leann @ Shelf Aware. Each of them will host a week and we all get to benefit from some really great nonfiction discussions and fill our TBR with new titles! There’s also an instagram challenge that you can get in on.
Week 1: (November 2-6) – Leannwill be kicking things off with Your Year in Nonfiction : Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?
One thing that the pandemic *was* really great for was reading. Especially in the early days when we didn’t really know what was to come, we didn’t know enough to be really fearful. I’ve read 116 books so far this year and 33, or 28%, have been nonfiction. I usually roll into November with around 29% of my reading being nonfiction so I’m super consistent.
I don’t think I can pick one favourite that I read this year. I read a lot of really excellent nonfiction! It started off really strong with Mary Laura Philpott’s essay collection, I Miss You When I Blink. She wrote about things I felt that I didn’t have words for. I made a lot of friends read that one afterwards and looking back now I honestly can’t believe it was *this* year that I read it! The same thing happened with Glennon Doyle’s Untamed. I think she fundamentally shifted something in me with that book and I’m a full Glennon convert now.
I read and loved Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns for the first time this year. I took it out from the library and that was a mistake. I did not make the same mistake when Caste came out this summer. I loved that one too! Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond was such an eye-opener about the cycle of poverty and how imprisoned in it so many people are in that system.
The best true crime book I read this year was definitely Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe. Another library book I wish I owned! I read about Jessica Simpson (Open Book), Meghan and Harry (Finding Freedom), The View (Ladies Who Punch), about Instagram (No Filter) and Pixar (To Pixar and Beyond) and all of them were really good!
I also read a lot of parenting books this year because my kid is now at an age where I really need to learn what I’m even doing. I loved The Whole Brain Child and No Drama Discipline by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, looking at how a child’s brain development can inform interactions and successful discipline. They were really illuminating. I loved the validation of The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in an Age of Distraction by Meghan Cox Gurdon and wanted to learn more about how to still see people this winter by reading There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids by Linda Akeson McGurk.
The worst nonfiction book I read was absolutely, no question Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell.
I’ve never laughed louder at nonfiction than reading Samantha Irby’s We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. I have Wow, No Thank You on deck for this month and I cannot wait.
I think out of all of the books I read this year I recommended Glennon Doyle’s Untamed and Jesse Thistle’s From the Ashes the most. You already know about Untamed, From the Ashes is a memoir about an Indigenous man cut off from his culture, abused as a child, his addictions and homelessness and his redemption. The book was selected for Canada Reads this year (a big deal up here!) and I will never get over that a man who picked up a book for the first time as an adult has now written one, and one that is this good.
I for sure read a lot of memoirs this year: I was also drawn to social justice type books: Medical Bondage by Deirdre Cooper Owens, Evicted by Matthew Desmond, Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore. It seemed that the harder the world burned, the more I wanted to learn about how we got here. I have a number of these that I still want to read and I’ve been saving them for this month.
As for what I’m hoping to get out of this Nonfiction November, it goes without saying that I’m going to discover a whole host of new amazing titles for my TBR. What I’m really excited about is getting to talk about nonfiction with all of you! It’s the total highlight of my reading year!
This week, Kate at Doing Dewey is hosting a discussion on what makes your favourite non-fiction titles your favourite:
We’ve talked about how you pick nonfiction books in previous years, but this week I’m excited to talk about what makes a book you’ve read one of your favorites. Is the topic pretty much all that matters? Are there particular ways a story can be told or particular writing styles that you love? Do you look for a light, humorous approach or do you prefer a more serious tone? Let us know what qualities make you add a nonfiction book to your list of favorites.
I’ve had to have a bit of a think about this one. It’s tough to nail down what I loved about my favourite non-fiction titles.
I love stories and really, that’s just as true about my fiction reading as my non-fiction reading. I love non-fiction about women, especially women who were ahead of their time in some capacity. I love biographies of Princesses or Queens, Duchesses, Countesses, actresses who didn’t take any sh*t, women who fought fascists and Nazis and lived to tell the tale.
I love non-fiction where you can tell that the author totally geeked out while writing it. Those non-fiction titles tend to have a really strong author voice running through them. Erik Larson, Malcom Gladnwell, Gretchen Rubin all come to mind. Even Sheryl Sandberg. I recently read a joint biography of Marguerite de Valois and her mother, Catheine de’ Medici, where the author’s footnotes were pure gold. One of them even referenced a preferred sexual position with the note that the reader should “look it up.”
Ultimately I love gossip. And I know I say that I a lot. But I love non-fiction books that make me feel like I’m getting the inside scoop. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish either – especially not for more academic authors. When it’s done well, it can make reading a 500 page book about people long dead so exciting and fun.
And now, here’s a list of some of my very favourite non-fiction titles for you:
Mary S. Lovell wrote an incredible biography of The Churchills as a whole. It ably covered Sunny and Winston and Randolph and Clemmie and Winston’s kids and Consuela but it was Jennie that I wanted to know more about.
(Lovell also wrote an equally fantastic book about The Mitford sisters that is absolutely worth reading)
I accidentally found myself in the library again last week and came across Anne Sebba’s Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother. I’d read Sebba’s That Woman about Wallis Warfield Simpson and really liked it so I was confident that her handling of Jennie’s story would be just as good.
Jennie Churchill, like Wallis after her, was a bit of a controversial figure in her time. It wasn’t until much later, years after her death in fact, when her son became The Winston Churchill, that she underwent a kind of makeover, to show her to be some kind of saintly mother who believed in and loved her son above all else. After all,
In 1921 [when Jennie died] the scale of Winston’s importance could only be guessed at by most. He himself feared that his career might already be over. It took another thirty years before he was hailed as ‘The Greatest Briton’. Jennie already knew it.
Jennie Jerome was beautiful, clever and rich. Her father, Leonard, had a gift of making money but he was equally adept at losing large amounts of it. Eventually his wife Clara and their daughters, Clara, Jennie and Leonie, decamped to Paris where the cost of living was lower. It was also easier for upstart Americans to be admitted into the right society in Paris – society was so much stricter in England.
Still, eventually the Jeromes found themselves at Crewe, which is where Jennie met Randolph Churchill, second son of the Duke of Marlborough. By now we’re all familiar with the scores of rich American women that married into the British aristocracy as an attempt to finance and save their properties. But when Jennie met Randolph, this wasn’t yet common; Jennie was actually one of the first to do it.
This book is only 331 pages but Jennie (and Randolph and Winston) lived a LIFE. So a lot went on. In an effort to pique your interest but not have your eyes glaze over from details, here are some of the more interesting points:
Jennie was married three times. First to Randolph, with whom she had two children. The second and third times to men MUCH younger than her. One was said to have been the handsomest man of his generation (although to look at his picture, of a balding man with a moustache who looks at least 15 years older than his age, we have very different standards of beauty now)
She is said to have had around 200 lovers. Sebba doesn’t think it was that high but for a woman of her generation she definitely had more than the average. Probably at least 30, including Prince Albert Edward, later King Edward VII.
She was always poor. Her father ended up losing all his money and from then the Jerome sisters have to kind of shift for themselves. Not so easy when you think about the confines society placed on women at the time. And yet, they still managed to go to Paris, to go to house parties for fancy dress, to rent incredible homes that were fully staffed…
She was an incredibly horrible mother to Winston and Jack when they were kids. In later years, yes she became devoted to her boys, especially Winston. But when they were small and needed the attentions of their mother, when Winston was having the sh*t beaten out of him by his teachers at school and BEGGED for a visit or a letter, she completely ignored them.
She travelled all around the world. She organized for a hospital ship to go to South Africa during the Boer War and ended up going on it to help out. And when her husband, Randolph, was dying in 1894, she went on a round the world trip with him.
Before she died she had her leg amputated above the knee. She loved high heels and was wearing a pair when she hurried into dinner and slipped and fell down some stairs. It was quite a bad fracture and two weeks later, although the swelling had gone down, her skin had gone black from gangrene. She hemorrhaged to death as a result of the amputation.
Oh yes, Jennie Jerome was quite the woman. I appreciate that Sebba looked at her as her own woman, not as the wife of Randolph or the mother of Winston, despite the title. She lived and loved on her own terms and I suspect that she was really quite ok with the way her life turned out.
I have been having some time with reading in 2016.
First there was the whole “first book” debacle where I was terrified to choose the wrong first book and then had a hard time getting into said chosen first book before falling hard for the ending. I followed that up with a favourite author standby, Maeve Binchy. And while Scarlet Feather was good and I enjoyed the read, it wasn’t Minding Frankie, Circle of Friends, Tara Road or Evening Class. Then I thought Classics! And thought that a book that did double duty as a classic and a start on the 2016 TBR Pile Challenge would be exactly what I needed.
Ultimately I enjoyed The Custom of the Country (review to hopefully follow) but it wasn’t The House of Mirth, you know?
My reading restlessness means that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, reading, and talking about books. Like, more than usual. And I’ve also wandered into a bookstore or two.
Apparently I think the answer to my book problems is more books.
Non-fiction books to be more specific.
Because if fiction isn’t doing its thing, it’s obviously time for non-fiction to take a crack at it.
In recent days I’ve collected the following non-fiction titles:
Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol by Anne Dowsett Johnstone. This is my book club’s pick, timed perfectly for a time of year when we’re probably all thinking about drying out a little. Methinks book club will be a lot cheaper to host this time.
Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women by Elizabeth Wurtzel. Anyone noticing a theme? I’ve been called ‘difficult’ more times than I care to remember. This one was sitting on the shelf screaming at me (the word “Bitch” in hot pink on a spine will do that) when I picked up Drink. I’m looking forward to this one.
Tiny, Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed. I’m doing it Chelsey! I’m taking the first step to actually reading this. This is on hold for me at the library RIGHT NOW.
My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem. When I woke up to the news that Emma Watson, the patron saint of new wave Feminists, was starting a Feminist Book Club, I was ON BOARD. This is the first selection (obviously) and I’m just 8th in line (on 6 copies) at the library.
Ghettoside: Investigating a Homicide Epidemic by Jill Leovy. This book has also been on my list forever. When I noticed it on a table marked “Books You Have to Read in 2016” and that it was in paperback, I knew it was meant to be. I cracked this one and read a few pages – it’s written in that wonderful novelistic style which should make for a great read even though I may want to burn the world down when I’m done.
And for Christmas I got Matriarch: Queen Mary and the House of Windsor by Anne Edwards and In Triumph’s Wake: Royal Mothers, Tragic Daughters and the Price They Paid for Glory by my biography star, Julia P. Gelardi. So those should satisfy my royals reading requirements.
With all of those non-fiction gems at my disposal, one might wonder why I chose Second Life by SJ Watson after The Custom of the Country. And the answer would be because I am weak.
I’ve never seen Apollo 13. My husband had to drag me to see Interstellar and I can’t even with Star Wars. All this to say that space? Is not my thing.
So I too was surprised when The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel landed on my radar. I hate to admit that it wasn’t until the book became the basis of the show of the same name that I actually went out and bought a copy of the book. I read it before I watched the show though! And no TV show covers, Jennine!
The Astronaut Wives Club tells the behind-the-scenes story of the wives of these new American heroes. Jo Schierra, Louise Shepard, Marge Slayton, Betty Grissom, Trudy Cooper, Annie Glenn and Rene Carpenter were charged with keeping the home fires burning while letting Life magazine into their lives to document every single moment. Their husbands were away working all the time, but the wives had to make sure that everything looked Stepford perfect so as not to jeopardize their husbands’ chances. NASA didn’t want any surprises or scandals.
Like I said, I’m not a fan of space so a lot of the information in the book was new to me. I didn’t know that Annie Glenn had a really bad stutter or that her husband was so protective of her that he supported her when Lyndon Johnson wanted to come in with network cameras to interview her and she said no. To the Vice President! I didn’t know that Trudy Cooper existed let alone that she was an accomplished fighter pilot in her own right, getting ready to divorce her husband Gordo when he got the call from NASA. NASA didn’t want any divorced men in their program so Trudy came back.
These women were thrown together into the spotlight without any support or guidance from the organization that had turned their lives upside down. I honestly don’t know how they did it. Keppel goes through the milestones of those first Mercury 7 flights, how the wives bonded and supported each other, how they tried to tamp down their competitive spirits, used as they were to doing everything they could to support their husbands. Then the New Nine were introduced. These men were part of the Gemini program, tasked with getting a man on the moon. With these nine new astronauts came nine new wives, who were going to share the spotlight and the perks that came with being an astronaut’s wife.
Once these additional wives arrived in the book, it all became a little hard to follow. There were nine new wives to keep track of as well as their husbands and children and the relationships between the nine as well as who got along with who in the original. I had just started to be able to keep the Mercury 7 families straight and it was almost too much to add more at that point. The Astronaut Wives Club is not a long book – 270 pages all told. I can see how it would be great inspiration for the TV show (which I’ve since watched and am totally into) but at a certain point the book is more surface than substance.