Nonfiction November 2019: Favourites

I can’t decide if November is flying by or crawling, but either way we’re in Week 4 of our Nonfiction November efforts:


Week 4: (Nov. 18 to 22) –Nonfiction Favorites (Leann @ ThereThereReadThis): 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’m not sure that I’ve ever really taken the time to think about why a book is one of my favourites! So let’s see how this goes.

I am hugely drawn to books about extraordinary women and that’s been true since I was 11 reading biographies of Shirley Temple and Audrey Hepburn. So when authors tell the stories of women who have been ignored or maligned by history, those tend to turn into favourites. Kick by Paula Byrne, The Radium Girls by Kate Moore and The Mistresses of Clivedon by Natalie Livingstone are all recent additions to my favourites list for this reason.

I also prefer a light touch when it comes to nonfiction. That’s not to say that I shy away from heavy topics – I’m currently reading a book about the heredity of cancer, with plans to follow that up with some horrific true crime. But I don’t have a lot of time for an academic style of writing. I think in the last few years there’s been a shift away from distant, dry, staid nonfiction. Seems like nonfiction is more accessible than it used to be when only your dad was plugging away at military history or massive presidential biographies. There is a glut of celebrity memoirs on the market these days but they rarely make it onto my list of favourites (Me: A Memoir by Elton John is a recent, notable exception) while those books from “regular” people tend to be more relateable and strike a nerve with readers.

I will always gravitate towards books about people, whether that’s biographies or memoirs or those social science books that look at how we think or why we do the things that we do. I’m much less interested in books that take a more journalistic approach to the topic at hand, finding them to have a fair bit of distance between the author and the subject matter. One of the best books I’ve ever read is Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon. This book tackles incredibly difficult subject matter (children with autism, children with severe physical and developmental disabilities, children who have committed crimes, children conceived as the result of rape etc) and Solomon manages to make the book completely about these families while examining difficult realities that they are navigating. It could have been a dry, academic investigation into difference and one would have forgiven Solomon for needing some distance from his subjects. Instead it is a warm, inclusive, beautiful book that will reduce you to tears. I would say the exact same about One of Us by Asne Seierstad about the 2011 massacre and terror attacks in Norway.

I find it much more difficult to articulate what I like about books than what I don’t like about books! Anyone else?

Now let’s all head on over to ThereThereReadThis and join the rest of the conversation!


Making Elitist Memories

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

In the last few years there have been a number of books flooding the market about happiness and how to increase yours. One of the niche markets within the happiness market is the one looking at how Scandinavians live and stay so happy. I’ve definitely read my fair share of these books – I’m game to find out how I can increase my personal happiness!

(Note: these books are not geared towards folks who are struggling with their mental health due to medical conditions like clinical depression.)

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The Art of Making Memories: How to Create and Remember Happy Moments by Meik Wiking is another one of these books. But while the ones before focus on ways to make your life happier, this one looks at what you can do to ensure that you remember those happy moments better. Wiking is also the happiness genius behind The Little Book of Hygge and The Little Book of Lykke. He mans the World Happiness Institute in Copenhagen and spends his life looking at how people experience happiness.

This book is his effort at showing readers what they can do to actually remember those simple happy memories. He’s not talking about the big life changing happy moments like getting married, graduating, or meeting your baby for the first time. He’s talking about the every day happy moments, a walk with family when the light is just right, a great meal shared with friends, reading a bedtime story with your freshly bathed kid. He talks about the senses that are connected with memory and what you can do to engage those when you make the memory so that you can trigger that sense to remember the moment – choosing a specific scent to wear on your wedding day so that whenever you wear it later, it reminds you of that day; going on a memory walk where you choose a route in a neighbourhood that hits locations that have meaning for you; write in a notebook on your happiest days capturing how you felt, what you smelled, what you wore etc.

It was an interesting look at how memory functions and how you can exploit those functions to better capture those moments of perfect contentment.

But at times this book felt a little elitist and out of reach. Talking about changing your annual sailing vacation destination from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean isn’t something that most of us can do to change the way we remember our experiences (the idea being that novelty captures memory better). Writing about your time on Hornby Island off the coast of British Columbia while you work on your book seems kind of accessible for those of us who live in the general vicinity (if we’re willing to pay the exorbitant BC Ferries rate) but it’s a pretty rareified experience for most.

It’s also not a super in-depth look at memory. As far as I could make out, it was based on one massive survey rather than years and years of work. Other professionals’ work was summarized but it was mostly very surface level.

Still, it was an incredibly gorgeous book. Every page is full colour, there are beautiful photographs and punchy illustrations that make the reading a memorable experience. It’s a bit like reading a TED Talk which means it’s very readable.

It just felt a little out of reach at times.


Nonfiction November 2019: Be/Ask/Become The Expert

Week 3: (Nov. 11 to 15) – Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert (Katie @ Doing Dewey): 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).

This is a week that I always look forward to during Nonfiction November even though I overthink it every year! Turns out that this is actually the fourth year that I’m participating and so far I’ve chosen to Be The Expert every time. This year is no exception I’m afraid. It’s partly that I think I know everything 😉 but mostly it’s that I get so excited about books that I’ve read that I want to tell everyone about them so that they can read them too. And Be The Expert us such a great opportunity for that!

In years past I’ve done Royal Women, Movie Stars and Authors and legitimately had read so much on those topics that I was pretty close to an expert. This year I’m picking a little from the Be The Expert column and a little from Ask The Expert because I would love to find more titles on my chosen topic which is:

LGBTQ+ Lives

In my opening post I wrote that I like to read about experiences that aren’t mine. As a ci-gendered hetero (white) woman, I think it’s important to educate myself on the experiences of the LGBTQ+ community. The part about educating myself is particularly important as the burden for educating me to be an effective ally should not rest on the community.

Here are some of the nonfiction books about LGBTQ+ people I’ve read and loved.

loveliveshere Love Lives Here: A Story of Thriving in a Transgender Family by Amanda Jette Knox. I know, I’m kind of cheating because I already mentioned this book in my first Nonfiction November post. But it’s that good. And although it wasn’t written by someone who is transgender – something that was rightly pointed out to me – the author’s experience of loving two members of her family who are is one that should be more widely read. This is a memoir of love and understanding and of not knowing all the answers but willing to work to find them.


saeed jonesHow We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones. This debut from poet Saeed Jones will take your breath away. It just won the 2019 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction and Marlon James, Roxane Gay, and Jacqueline Woodson have all sung its praises. It is the story of Jones growing up as a gay black boy in Texas, with a mother who knew he was gay but never wanted to hear it spoken aloud and a grandmother who slapped him across the face when she realized his truth. Jones’ writing is raw and perfect and beautiful. How We Fight For Our Lives is an incredibly honest book, with descriptions of sex that I’ve honestly never come across before – and I mean that in the best possible way. I love love loved this one.

darling days

Darling Days by iO Tillett Wright. I read this one when it came out in 2016 and I still think about it.  Darling Days tells the story of the way that Tillett Wright grew up, namely in absolute poverty with a mother who was fighting demons of her own and a father who wasn’t always present. Somehow through all of that trauma, Tillett Wright came out of his childhood with love. I was remind of iO Tillett Wright via the podcast My Favorite Murder – he was a part of a weekend event they hosted, as the host of his own true crime podcast, The Ballad of Billy Balls.



Me: A Memoir by Elton John. Taking a bit of a different direction with this last one and I haven’t finished reading it as of writing but feel confident recommending it. Elton John’s memoir is unflinching in its honesty and he strikes me as someone who has benefited greatly from therapy – his memoir is incredibly introspective. And aside from the seriously great gossip in this book (he was friends with Billie Jean King! John Lennon! He and Rod Stewart are in a decades long prank war and call each other Sharon and Phyllis!) it is almost casual in descriptions of his sexuality and encounters. And I mean that in the most positive way. Elton John didn’t have a big coming out moment, he just realized it, the people around him realized it and when he officially came out via a Rolling Stone interview, he barely thought about it. And considering all of that happened before 1985, it’s kind of mind-blowing. I am *loving* the time I’m spending with Sir Elton John.

So that’s it, that’s my list! Do you have any LGBTQ+ that I should read ASAP? I’ll take fiction as well, honestly. Ones that I’ve loved have included Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn, The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne and The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai…



Nonfiction November 2019: My Year in Nonfiction

It’s time! Nonfiction November is happening!


As in years past we have five wonderful hosts who will lead a prompt each week to get us all discussing nonfiction. The hosts and schedules is as follows:

  • Week 1: (Oct. 28 to Nov. 1) – Your Year in Nonfiction (Julz of Julz Reads)
  • Week 2: (Nov. 4 to 8) – Book Pairing (Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves)
  • Week 3: (Nov. 11 to 15) – Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert (Katie at Doing Dewey)
  • Week 4: (Nov. 18 to 22) – Nonfiction Favorites (Leann of Shelf Aware)
  • Week 5: (Nov. 25 to 29) – New to My TBR (Rennie of What’s Nonfiction)

To kick things off, this first week we’re talking about nonfiction reading so far in 2019. If you’ve visited my blog before/follow me on instagram, you know that I love reading nonfiction. It’s not something recent that I’ve gotten into, it’s not a new reading niche for me, I didn’t have to learn to like nonfiction, I’ve been reading and loving nonfiction as long as I’ve been reading.

But it’s not always something that gets a lot of attention. Most people are more interested in fiction than nonfiction.

Still, so far this year 29% of my reading has been nonfiction (27 out of 94 books). I wouldn’t have said that I’d read more of any one genre or subject matter but looking back through my stats, it appears that I’ve been gravitating towards memoirs this year. I’ve also read a number of essay collections. In terms of subject matter, it looks like I’ve been reading more about race, LGBTQ experiences and true crime. A few biographies but not as many as usual.

(Some of my nonfiction highlights)

Easily my favourite nonfiction book of the year has been Amanda Jette Knox’s Love Lives Here: A Story of Thriving in a Transgender Family. Not only did I learn a lot from this book but the overwhelming emotion in it is love. Even though I cried my eyes out reading it, I felt hopeful and weirdly proud that this family is Canadian. I’ve recommended it numerous times and am doing it again here.

Other memoirs that I read and loved included Becoming by Michelle Obama (obviously), Running Like a Girl: Notes on Learning to Run by Alexandra Heminsley (I was convinced it would inspire me to start running but it did not. Still, it was an enjoyable read that I have definitely recommended to others), and This Will Only Hurt A Little by Busy Philips (for the gossip).

Another book that fundamentally shifted something in me was 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act by Bob Josephs. I can’t overstate the importance of this little book and really really think that every Canadian needs to read it if we’re going to get serious about Reconciliation.

Even though I didn’t read a ton of bios or history books this year, the ones that I did read were great (except for The Favorite by Ophelia Field, just watch the movie). Hitler and the Habsburgs: The Fuhrer’s Vendetta Against the Austrian Royals by James Longo focused on a story that I had never come across in all my Royals/WWII reading. I had no idea that Hitler had such a personal vendetta against the Austrian Royals! And if J. Randy Taraborrelli has a new book out, I need to read it! Jackie, Janet, & Lee: The Secret Lives of Janet Auchincloss and Her Daughters Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill was a gossipy portrait of the women behind the legends and I thoroughly enjoyed every page. The most physically beautiful book I read this year was The Mistresses of Cliveden: Three Centuries of Scandal, Power, and Intrigue in an English Stately Home by Natalie Livingstone. Full colour portraits of the women who ruled Clivedon, every page in coloured ink, it was a complete joy to look at and read. Definitely not one you want to take out of the library! And for a beast of a book (657 pages), Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs: 1613-1917 was incredibly readable and enjoyable. It had the potential to be stuffy but it wasn’t at all.

I tended to get a little obsessive about my reading this year. I started listening to The Dropout podcast about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos but I wasn’t getting the information fast enough so I went out and bought Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carryrou and man, did it scratch the itch. I also watched the HBO documentary right after that. The whole thing was an incredibly satisfying learning experience!

They aren’t necessarily grouped around any one topic but I’ve really enjoyed essay collections this year as well. I find that they are a great way to get an overview on any one topic or person. I’ve loved Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground (incredibly raw, a lot of rage, it blew me away), and 90s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality by Alllison Yarrow (was an eye-opening look at how I was socialized in my formative years).

I don’t think that there’s any one subject matter that I am drawn to over others or that I want to read more about. I’m such a mood reader that I tend to go to what strikes my fancy at any given moment. I have a biography of Kick Kennedy ready to go because I read a fictional account of her life this year and felt like I needed to read the whole story. I have an essay collection I want to read because I heard the author on a podcast and it sounded right up my alley. I will always want to read stories about experiences that are different than mine, Royals continue to be my reading kryptonite, and feminist nonfiction is something I never say no to.

I can’t wait to find a whole bunch of new titles to my never-ending TBR and to connect with other nonfiction readers about what is striking their fancy at the moment. I think this is my third year participating in Nonfiction November and I feel like I’ve been waiting to get started for months!