#NonFicNov: A Recap.

I enjoyed the hell out of non-fiction November. I like reading challenges, usually. My reading journey is, largely, unfocused; I let myself flit from shiny book to shiny book, often guided by what’s available or the newest release I just. haveto. read. (Ahem:Revival.) So reading challenges sometimes guide me to places I wouldn’t necessarily move to the top of my incentive list. I probably would have gotten to The Sparrow…eventually. And I always wanted to read Toni Morrison’s canon as a whole to really live and breathe in her body of work, but when would I have found the time? And the Bag of Bones read-along this month will be a ton of fun, even if I am moving it up in my (unrelated) Stephen King re-read project, just so I can enjoy the companionship of a shared read.

That’s half the fun of these challenges for me – the community. I love having a whole group of people online, many who’ve become friends, there to share ideas and theories, and many, many crazy thoughts about the books and characters and what should-have-beens. My bookish communities have lead to so many other wonderful book recommendations, ones that do move up the To-Read List, because these people have become my people, and their recommendations carry weight. When you talk that many stories together, they get to know what you’ll like, what’ll make you think – and blather. Book blathering is the best kind.

Non-fic Nov did that to me. I have no idea when I last devoted such a large chunk of time to reading solely non-fiction. [And by “solely” I mean except for that 24-in-48 break {and a bit afterwards} when I read Revival. It wasn’t my fault my favorite writer published a new novel in the middle of my non-fiction experiment!] It wasn’t even back in college because as an English/African-American Studies duel-major, I read a lot of fiction. Not as much as I read now, but a goodish chunk. So maybe I’ve never devoted this much time to non-fiction. And it was a blast! I read about presidents, cannibals, ghosts, art, mental illnesses, death, an avalanche of memoirs, immigration, writing, feminism, politics, and the medical world. It was a mad-cap journey a bit dizzying in complete turn-abouts of subject matter. Which made it all the more delightful.

I’ll See You Again, by Jackie Hance. This book stared at me for months from the new(ish) release section of my used book store. A woman’s haunting – and I mean absolutely devastating – memoir about the tragic car accident that took the lives of her three little girls. I started crying more than once while working my way through this one. It wasn’t the most acclaimed writing, sure, but I imagine it’s a book that would help someone work their way through their own mountain of grief. I have no idea how this woman ever forgave her sister-in-law (who also died in the accident) for drinking and getting behind the wheel, but if she can move past the worst of her grief to live at least the semblance of a functional life, I should stop complaining about the troubles in my own road. They ain’t nothin’ compared to what she’s been through. (3 of 5 stars.)

Ghost Hunters, by Deborah Blum. Okay, yes, this one is a bit of a weird pick for me. It’s been on my To Read list forever, and an e-copy happened to be available from my library. It’s the story of how William James (Henry’s famous brother – possibly even more famous since William was one of the greatest intellectuals of his time and founded the American Psychological Association and all Henry did was write world-renowned fiction) suddenly announced and argued for his belief in the existence of ghosts. If you know me, you know I have a rather tenuous grasp on my sanity when the idea of the afterlife comes up; the “is there or isn’t there?” bit unhinges me to a certain degree. So this would seem like a stretch for me. Except I was able to read it with a certain amount of detachment. It helped that it was somewhat incredible. Can’t say I’d recommend it unless you really, really are into this sort of thing. (2 of 5 stars.)

Savage Harvest, by Carl Hoffman. This book I stole from my sister’s bookshelf in August. It’s the tale of the missing Rockefeller heir, Michael, who went missing while on an art expedition in Indonesia in the 1960s. Rumor had it that he was possibly killed and eaten by local cannibals, but no one knew for sure… until Hoffman traced down the answer. It seemed a little remarkable that someone could after all this time – I mean, why now? How do we know for sure? I was Scullying this book from the beginning. But I had turned Mulder by the end. I won’t say what his conclusions were, because I think you should pick this book up and find out for yourself. It reads, mostly, like fiction, and the sections (which bounce back and forth between a fictionalized narrative of what must have happened with a more traditional account of Hoffman’s research as it unfolded) can be skipped if you want a more straightforward account of either perspective. What I loved most about this book was that it stood for me what #NonFicNov was supposed to do – get you to read books you would love, but wouldn’t necessarily have had time to read otherwise. I remembered, as I read, how much I enjoyed my African Art senior seminar that I took. It had a rather anthro bend to it and I learned so much from that class and had a smashing good time. Sure cannibalism is intriguing and adds a bit of mystery to the Rockefeller affair, and maybe the “did they or didn’t they?” question got me to pick up the book, but the rest of it got me to stay. (4 1/2 of 5 stars.)

Book of My Lives, by Aleksander Hemon. This was one of my favorite books I’ve read this year. This is one of the books that I bought on purpose because I knew I’d have to fill my month with non-fiction. It’s a memoir I’ve had starred on my To-Read list since it came out; this was the excuse to finally buy it. Aleksander grew up in Sarajevo, emigrated to the United States as war broke out, and then felt helpless as he studied here at university while his family was stuck back home. Yeah, well, okay – he does a much better job adding poetry to the prose. I’m a sucker for Eastern European literature and you know my affection for memoirs – this hit all my buttons, especially given all the time Hemon spent examining the idea of self and otherness in both cultures. Hooked yet? (5 of 5 stars.)

Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, by Lynne Truss. I have been asking for this book for Christmases and birthdays since I don’t know when. My sister finally bought it for me for Christmas, only she didn’t tell me that’s what it was for, so I read it when it showed up. And then stowed it away again. Heh. Anywho… If you love the technical behind-the-scenes bits of writing, the history of punctuation, and shouting at the universe about all the ways people butcher the written word – this book is for you! If not, you’ll think it’s an absolute bore. I found it fascinating and laugh out loud funny, so. Yeah. You know my camp. (4 of 5 stars.)

Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer. Another memoir/mystery/guessed-at-history story that’s been on my To-Read list forever! And another book I bought – used – for the sole purposes of #NonFicNov. You know survival stories are another one of my weaknesses, and a college graduate who gives away everything he owns to live in a broken-down minibus in the Alaskan wild? Does it get any more survival than that? It does not. I found the writing to be a little dry, but that could have been because of the great non-fic narratives I lucked into this month. It was still interesting…just not as compellingly readable as I’d hoped. Still recommend it, though, if this is your thing. Just adjust your expectations accordingly. (3 of 5 stars.)

No Biking in the House Without a Helmet, by Melissa Fay Greene. A memoir that had been on my To-Read list for awhile, I found an e-copy at my library and jumped in. And discovered my first true “meh” of the month. The idea of a couple who had raised their own four children and then adopt five more from across the world certainly landed in my ballpark. As a mom raising children and looking for any excuse to laugh about it, this seemed like a good place to start. And Greene had twice been a finalist for the National Book Award! Surely she could write! And I’m sure others would find her more charming than I did. I’m sure she’s a lovely woman. I just couldn’t connect. I didn’t find the stories as hilarious as others did, and I found a lot of her jokes about their blended “United Nations” family to be slightly off-key. Maybe I was just in a grumpy mood when I read this one, because it’s landed four stars on Goodreads, but it just wasn’t for me. (1 of 5 stars.)

Brooklyn Zoo, by Darcy Lockerman. A journalist-turned-psychologist’s report of her internship inside one of Brooklyn’s most notorious mental health facilities? YES, PLEASE. Therapy and institutions have always fascinated me, and I found Lockerman’s writing incredibly readable. I might not have made all the same decisions she did, but I found that she wrote about them in a way I could disagree, but stay invested in her story. If you have any interest in this field, I highly recommend spending an hour or two on this. (3 1/2 of 5 stars.)

Yes, Please, by Amy Poehler. Holy cats, was this good! When Bossypants came out, I refused to read it. I liked Tina Fey, but I knew her singularly. I’m not an SNL fan (yes, the only one)(and only because I can’t stay awake and I never think to record it, not because I don’t like the comedy style, so I’m not not a fan on purpose) and I hadn’t yet discovered the wonder and glory that is Tina-and-Amy together. And then I did. The cover of Bossypants still bugged enough to keep me away (yes, a silly aversion, I admit), but the advance praise I heard for Yes, Please finally tipped the scales. I read it. And it was revelatory. I’ve decided Yes, Please is my spirit animal. Seriously. It is EXACTLY the book I needed to read right now in my life. It was so good, it’s gotten me over that damn aversion to the Bossypants cover. Because how could I not read whatever Amy told me to? Don’t read it if you’re looking for gossip (although there is some) or a thorough biography of how Amy got where she is (although there’s a fairish amount). DO read if you’re looking to read amazing stories of how to be confident in who you are, how to laugh at your flaws, and why it is so damn important. (5 of 5 stars.)

John Adams, by David McCullough. So I’m doing this silly thing, half-heartedly, where I read a biography of all the presidents. Because I’m a giant nerd, yes, I know. I’m so serious about this commitment that I read the George Washington bio last year and just now got around to number two. Told ya. Anyway, McCullough’s account was surprisingly readable and I learned a lot I didn’t know about Adams – and like him more because of it. Having ties to my hometown and being set largely in New England didn’t hurt. Heh. Highly recommend if you’re into history or the presidents or silly self-challenges. (4 of 5 stars.)

Gracefully Insane, by Alex Beam. Who doesn’t want to know more about McLean, the infamous and exclusive mental health institution that has housed so many famous people and starred in numerous movies (Girl, Interrupted for one) and accounts? And have I mentioned my fascination with mental health? This has been near the top of my To-Read list, but I never found the time to track it down. Yep, another win. The reading was a bit stodgier than Brooklyn Zoo, but good enough that I flashed through it. Another keeper for my collection. (3 of 5 stars.)

Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay. Stop. Seriously – stop what you’re doing and go read this book. Right now. Roxane Gay is one of my favorite new (to me) writers. And she was just named one of the best under-40 writers out there, so it’s not just me. I really enjoyed unpacking her novel An Untamed State that I read earlier this year, but this collection of essays on feminism, class, and politics – great googly moogly, it was ON FIRE! She cuts through the bullshit and turns a phrase like…well, Chris Rock comes to mind, only you won’t just dismiss Gay the way everyone does Chris Rock just because he’s Chris Rock. You will wish you thought of everything she says before she did because she’s brilliant, and then you’ll want to bring her all the world’s problems to solve. I’m not sure it’s quite as easy as all that, but I for sure want to hear what she has to say about it all because YES. This should seriously be mandated reading for every high school senior. (5 of 5 stars because I can’t give it 6.)

So there you have it. I hope this makes you go out and read one (and if it’s only one, I hope it’s Bad Feminist), and I hope you share your one Must Read with me. Because I find myself looking around and wondering “What’s next?” now that November is over and my directed reading has gone away.

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One Response to “#NonFicNov: A Recap.”

  1. Kathy Says:

    That is a huge variety of topics! I love it when you write about books – just in case I decide to put down the knitting and pick up reading again I know where to go for recommendations and what to avoid.

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