27

Nonfiction November: Be The Expert

Just like that we’re in the middle of Nonfiction November – a month long celebration of all things nonfiction! It’s been an absolute joy to participate again this year, collecting new titles to read and chatting with other nonfiction readers! It’s been so liberating to just get to focus on nonfiction for a whole month.

Nonfiction-November-2018

A huge thanks to all of you hosting this year: Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness), Julie (JulzReads), Sarah (Sarah’s Book Shelves), Katie (Doing Dewey), and Rennie (What’s Nonfiction)

This week Julie at Julz Reads is hosting Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert so be sure to hop on over to her post to find links to everyone else’s post!

Three ways to join in this week! You can either share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

Since I am pathologically incapable of not pretending I know everything when it comes to books, I’m choosing to Be The Expert for the third year in a row. Insufferable right?

This year I’m choosing a to focus on one of the reasons we’ve all become readers: authors.

A caveat before we begin: in my experience, author biographies are the most fun if you are familiar with most of the author’s work.

Lucy Maud Montgomery

Lucy Maud

It should honestly be mandatory that all Canadians have to read Anne of Green Gables. Since it’s not and I’m constantly shocked by all the Canadians who have “always meant to read them” I thought I’d spotlight her creator, L.M. Montgomery. In particular, Mary Henley Rubio’s masterful biography Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings. Please do not be put off by the title, this book is brilliant. I grew up loving Montgomery’s work but knew next to nothing about the woman. This book changed that.

Roald Dahl

roald dahl

Another author that had a massive impact on my reading life is Roald Dahl – guys I have a kid named after one of his characters. But while Roald-Dahl-the-author understood children in an incredible way, Roald-Dahl-the-man could not have been more irritated that he was known for his children’s books instead of his serious man work. Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock isn’t afraid to get at the man behind the myth. This isn’t one you should read if you aren’t ready to have any illusions about him shattered but it is an incredibly thorough and interesting portrait of the man who created some of the most memorable stories.

Charlotte Bronte

charlotte

Whenever I think about Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman I just get really sad. Not only was she a talented woman who had to hide her gender to have her work taken seriously, or had to outlive every one of her five siblings, but when she finally found happiness on her own, she died. I will always think of Charlotte Bronte sitting down to write Shirley, alone, at the table where she and her sisters used to work on their stories together every evening. This is a dense biography but it really served to help me better understand her work. This one isn’t for those of you that have a more casual relationship with nonfiction!

Charles Dickens

charles

The granddaddy of English Literature, Charles Dickens was kind of an a**hole. Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin doesn’t shy away from the truth. He really did care about the plight of the poor and did his best to use his work to illuminate truly horrific living conditions in Victorian England. But. The treatment of his wife and children was completely abhorrent. If you have a love affair with his work, this biography is a must-read.

If you want to go further, I definitely recommend the biography of all of his children, Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens by Robert Gottlieb. This one is short too so it’s an easy one to pad those reading stats if that’s where your head’s at!

Have you read any great biographies of writers that I should get my hands on? Let me know!

And make sure to visit Julie at Julz Reads to find links to even more great nonfiction!

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6

Odd Duck: The Victorian and the Romantic

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

We’re working on sleep training which is great and terrible. On the one hand, my tiny girl cries by herself in her room and I have to let her work it out herself. On the other hand, I have time to myself for eating, showering, laundry, reading and yes, even blogging.

So let’s get to it before she wakes up.

victorian

The Victorian and the Romantic: A Memoir, A Love Story, and a Friendship Across Time by Nell Stevens is a quirky take on the genre. At once a memoir about her time doing her PhD on Mrs Gaskell, it is also the story of a part of Mrs Gaskell’s life. Stevens decides to look at Mrs Gaskell’s time in Rome, shortly after the publication of her biography of friend Charlotte Bronte. There she supposedly had a romance with the American critic, Charles Eliot Norton. While working on her PhD, Stevens finds herself distracted by her own romance with an American screenwriter living in Paris.

If you have been a reader of this site for any length of time, you will know that I despise it when women, in fiction or non-fiction, put their dreams and lives on hold because of a man. Or even just rearrange their entire lives to suit the needs of a romance. So there were definitely moments reading The Victorian and the Romantic where I was rolling my eyes, willing Nell to not give up on her own dreams to suit the guy’s.

But then her heart is shattered and she must pick up the pieces and I found myself drawn to Nell and her story. I enjoyed the way she wrote Mrs Gaskell’s story, as though she were talking about a friend. In writing about her own relationship with a man who came into her life at the exact wrong time, she aligns herself with Mrs Gaskell and her very conservative Victorian “relationship” with Norton. Stevens illuminated a part of Mrs Gaskell’s life that I had no idea about (although to be fair, I knew she was married to a minister, lived in Manchester and died before she finished Wives and Daughters…)

This was an easy non-fiction read that had spirit, was beautifully written and made me want to learn more about a woman whose work I have enjoyed since I was introduced to Mary Barton in first year university. It’s a bit of an odd duck of a book (for example the Mrs Gaskell section is written in second person which you almost never see) but for all it’s quirks it’s also a solid little book written with heart.

19

2016 TBR Pile Challenge: Matriarch

We’re getting pretty close to the end of the year! Which means holidays, darker days, lots of eating scheduled, and that I’m running out of time to complete the Unofficial 2016 TBR Pile Challenge.

I’m not quite throwing in the towel, but I’m starting to resign myself to the fact that it might not happen this year.

But the year isn’t quite over, so I dug into Matriarch: Queen Mary and the House of Windsor by Anne Edwards.

So Queen Mary was the real deal. She was born a Princess, but was one of those impoverished relatives who spent her youth putting off creditors and relying on other, more well-off relatives for extended visits.

queen-mary

At some point, Queen Victoria decided that lovely, clever, dignified Princess May (she was born Victoria Mary Augusta Louisa Olga Pauline Claudine Agnes but was called May after the month of her birth) would be the perfect wife for second-heir Prince Eddy (eldest son of heir Bertie, who would become King Edward VII). But then Eddy had to go and die (he was an odd duck, a possible homosexual and rumoured to have been Jack the Ripper) and after a suitable period of mourning, her “affections” were transferred to Prince Eddy’s younger brother, Prince George (who would go on to become King George V).

Here’s the number one thing I learned about Queen Mary: she believed in the power of Monarchy. She was dignified, a core of strength for her family during some dark days and she revered the position of Monarch.

“Queen Mary had lived her life with dedication to the principle of Monarchy, and she died as she had lived, as her Sovereign’s most devoted subject.”

Seriously – Queen Mary is the reason Queen Elizabeth II is as dedicated as she is. She was the role model for duty before everything else. Also, early pictures of Princess May show a remarkable resemblance to QEII, and now to Princess Charlotte.

She wasn’t a warm mother and most of her children had a distant relationship with her. But everyone agrees that in any capacity (as Princess May, Princess of Wales, Queen Consort or Queen Mother) she was always the very personification of dignity. She loved to dress well and because of her incredibly regal bearing, she was able to wear an insane amount of jewels (ropes of pearls, diamond necklaces stacked all up her neck, tiaras, jewelled stomachers, bracelets, rings and any number of jewel encrusted orders) and look just right.

Queen Mary’s life covered an incredible amount of history: born in the Victorian era, she lived through the reigns of Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII and George VI. She died just before the coronation of her granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II.

And while Anne Edwards’ book is very thorough and clearly well researched, the whole time I couldn’t help but think “but this is Queen Mary’s book.”

A lot of this book looks at the reigns and troubles of the men in her life: her father-in-law, husband and later, her sons. And while there’s no way to tell Queen Mary’s story without also talking about the wars, relationships with various Royal relatives (she never got over the fact that they weren’t able to save their cousin Tsar Nicholas II and his family), and her son’s Abdication, their stories aren’t hers. I found myself frustrated  by all the time spent talking about the education of her sons , their loves and travels.

I wanted Queen Mary only.

That said, I’m glad to have finally read this book. It’d been on my list for ages.

10

You Can’t Touch My Hair

When a copy of You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson showed up at the door, I read a couple of pages.

Right from the introduction, I knew that I was going to love this book.

phoebe

Robinson’s collection of essays on feminism, race and pop culture is compulsively readable and so, so relatable. She’s one of those writers whose authentic voice shines on every page – I could hear her speaking to me so clearly as I read. If you’ve ever listened to her podcast, 2 Dope Queens (that she co-hosts with Jessica Williams, formerly of The Daily Show), then I would guess you’d have a similar experience.

Robinson’s essays are littered with hashtags, slang, and amazing pop culture references. But don’t let that fool you – Robinson has some real stuff to say.

Essays include “Welcome to being Black” in which she talks about the experience of realizing that she’s somehow Other because of the colour of her skin and “How to Avoid Being the Black Friend” which covers advice like “Do Not Start Any Friendships with White People During the Summer Months”, “Call People out When They Say Unintentionally and Intentionally Racist Garbage” and “Take a Picture and See How Everyone Responds.”

Her essays are funny, obviously, but also not. There’s a story she includes where she was called “uppity”, how she once had to sit through a reading of a classmate’s play that involved a white woman falling in love with one of her female slaves and ended with the slave choosing to stay for love, rather than making a break for freedom  (“no slave is ever, ever, ever, going to say yes to more slavery”), and about getting ignored at a Michaels when all she wanted to do was get a frame.

Honestly, there were times reading this book that made me want to shout. WHAT’S WRONG WITH PEOPLE????

Robinson’s book showcases a millennial black woman’s voice. She is so, so funny, and writes things that honestly make me laugh hysterically but then she calls me back by dropping a truth bomb that I can’t ignore.

If you’re looking for something to add to your Non-Fiction November roster, I would really recommend this. If you have listened to 2 Dope Queens and want more Phoebe Robinson in your life, I recommend this book. If you have no idea who Phoebe Robinson is, I recommend this book.

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for an ARC of this book. 

6

Darling Days: A Memoir

When I started reading Darling Days by iO Tillett Wright, my reading mojo was bruised from two, basically back-to-back DNFs.

I read 10 pages of Darling Days and knew that that wasn’t going to happen here.

Darling Days is iO Tillett Wright’s memoir of growing up poor with an incredibly challenging mother as well as a queer gender identity.

This memoir is unlike any I’ve ever read before. It reminds me of The Glass Castle but I don’t want to compare the two because they are so unique. Darling Days is so unflinchingly honest, Tillett Wright’s life is laid bare but it’s written with so much love.

darling

Tillett Wright’s mother is a Viking warrior queen, a dancer, an artist, a beautiful soul in a cruel, hard world. She loves her daughter fiercely, cocoons them together away from the darkness of the rest of the world the best she can. But before iO is born, her mother suffered the violent loss of a lover. She never quite gets over it, and the medications that she takes to help her cope, to help her to feel closer to that lost love, end up causing their own kind of damage.

iO spends her childhood in awe of her mother, a happy sidekick in the kinds of adventures you can only have when you are very poor – like walking all your stuff to a new apartment after you’ve been fighting eviction.

On top of living with and loving a very complicated mother, iO has her own gender identity to come to terms with. When she is told she can’t play soccer with some kids in the park because she is a girl, she decides that she would rather be a boy and asks her parents to call her Ricky. To her parents’ credit, they both went along with it and allowed iO to live her identity for years. When she’s a teenager, she decides that actually she would like to be a girl again, and the transition is made seamlessly once more.

iO’s story is complex. When life with her mother becomes too much, she tries living in Germany with her father and then a boarding school in rural England. But iO is also a product of her upbringing and always feels kind of other. As a teenager, she feels incredible rage and starts experimenting: with her sexuality, with alcohol and drugs.

The one thing that I really felt the entire time I was reading this incredible memoir was love. The book opens with iO’s letter to her mother, someone who continues to be a tangled presence in her life, basically saying that this is their story but that it’s written without judgement and that she has always loved her and always will and that she wouldn’t be the person she is today without her mother.

I mean, if that doesn’t make you want to cry your eyes out right there, I don’t know what will.

The reason that the love stands out for me will be clear if you end up reading this intense, honest, captivating memoir. Few people live this kind of life, survive this childhood, and come out on the other side with love and compassion for their parents. Even contentment is difficult to achieve and iO has come out with joy, enthusiasm and a delight in what this world has to offer.

iO Tillett Wright is clearly a pretty incredible person and I felt privileged to get to read her story. If you get the chance, I hope you do too.

4

Required reading: Between the World and Me

So you know how the world is basically a toilet filled with garbage and everything is terrible?

How there are no answers for anything but people keep getting hurt and dying and it’s scary and horrible and devastating?

I’m not really sure what to do anymore so I do what I always do when things are terrible: read more.

Last week I decided to go to the bookstore because it’s really one of the only places that makes sense anymore. And I could have bought some books that were fluffy and escapist but I was pissed and that didn’t feel like the right decision in the moment.

I found myself in the non-fiction section and Ta-Nehisi Coates book Between the World and Me jumped out at me and I knew it was the right book for me. Often books will find their way to me when it’s the right time for me to read them – I won’t see them for weeks and months and suddenly there’s one last copy and it hasn’t been quite properly shelved and I pick it up.

Between the World and Me wasn’t a balm for my soul; it didn’t soothe me or unbreak my heart. But it was the book that I needed to read.

Between the World and Me is a letter Coates has written to his 15 year old son, in the wake of the murders of black men, women and children. It’s a letter that serves to explain to his son how the world got to be this way, a manifesto on how to protect himself in this world that doesn’t see him as a person but as a threat.

Between the World and Me is angry and explosive and heartbreakingly true. It is lyrical and  beautiful and devastating. It is appalling and unflinching and totally honest. The description promises that the book also holds a “transcendent vision for a way forward” but it doesn’t. And why should it? Why should Coates or his son or any people of colour be the ones to come up with a way to fix this giant mess of a world that they didn’t create?

I can’t do any proper justice to this book so I’m going to let Coates’ words speak for themselves:

I am sorry that I cannot make it okay. I am sorry that I cannot save you – but not that sorry. Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of your life, just as for others, the quest to believe oneself white divides them from it. The fact is that despite their own dreams, their lives are also not inviolable. When their own vulnerabilities become real […] they are shocked in a way that those of us born and bread to understand cause and effect can never be. And I would not have you live like them. You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.

Enough.

16

Batch Reviews: Non-fiction Edition

I’m attempting to clear out my non-review guilt by batching some of them together. I don’t even have a good excuse for this. I’ve just been a lazy blogger.

Today we have non-fiction on deck!

When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning. I wanted this book for Christmas last year. And then for my birthday. But it wasn’t until this past Christmas that a copy finally found it’s way to me.

American GIs serving in WWII were sent to war with BOOKS. Special service editions of thousands of books, contemporary and classics, were published and sent overseas where they made an incredible difference in the morale of the men serving. It also turned some books into classics we still love today: The Great Gatsby and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn were both sent out as Armed Service Editions (ASEs).

Not only does this book provide a glimpse into the daily lives of the soldiers serving, the theatres of war and the political machines at home trying to win, it illustrates a love of books that any reader can appreciate. These books sometimes meant that young men who didn’t think that they could read, that they enjoyed reading, ended up taking advantage of the GI Bill and getting degrees when they returned home.

Books were being burned in Germany, hundreds of thousands of them thrown on the fire because they were written by undesirables (homosexuals, artists, Jews etc) but because of these ASEs, more books were produced than were destroyed during the war.

“On one side, Mein Kampf spread Nazi ideology and propaganda, hatred and devastation. On the other, books spread ideas in the face of their very destruction, stimulated thought about the terms of a lasting peace and built understanding. As Hitler waged total war, America fought back not just with men and bullets, but with books. Despite the many advances in modern warfare – from airplanes to the atomic bomb – books proved to be one of the most formidable weapons of them all.”

People, especially Chelsey, have been telling me to read Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed for a good long while. And I hesitated for no good reason (except the piles and piles and piles of other books I have yet to read).

Frustrated by my lacklustre fiction reading, I was driven to look for non-fiction and Tiny Beautiful Things was at the top of my list.

I tucked into this one when I was waiting for a friend, managing only to read the introduction by Steve Almond. Those few pages showed me that I had made a mistake: I never should have borrowed this one from the library.

Where to even begin with this? I see now why people have trouble putting into words the reading experience that comes out of this book. It is at once uplifting and encouraging and hopeful and devastating and harsh and terrifying. The people who write to Sugar are often in the middle of intense turmoil and reach out to someone they hope will help them heal their hearts, encourage them into taking a leap of faith or enable them to forgive and move on.

Strayed handles all of their hearts with care and empathy. Even the ones that have made terrible decisions and caused pain to others. Whether her letter writers are lonely, have cheated, wondering about reaching out to family who turned their backs on them, have suffered sexual or physical abuse, are tortured artists or looking to make a big life change, she shows them that all is not lost, that there is time to make amends, that it’s still possible to change the outcome.

This book is balm for your soul. In a world of anger and distrust and awful, scary things, Tiny Beautiful Things is an island of love and empathy and compassion. It was exactly what I needed.

When I return it to the library, I hope it finds it’s way into someone else’s heart.