Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Nonfiction read in 2018 (BLTN; better later than never)

It's been interesting for me, in just these recent handful of years, to find myself more engaged and excited about reading nonfiction, which was not the case for most of my life.  I had a prejudice against nonfiction -- it was too much like homework, its prose couldn't possibly be magical like the fantasy novels I read, it would probably put me to sleep.  That has definitely changed.  I couldn't pinpoint when or why, but I do remember the first nonfiction book I read that was as dramatic -- every page laced with propulsive, elegant prose -- as any novel I'd ever read.  That book was David Simon's "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets."

This past year I read 11 nonfiction books, one down from last year (surprisingly).  Sadly, though the subjects covered were wide, my breadth of authors was not as diverse as I would have liked:

COMPANERO by Jorge Castaneda
EUREKA by Edgar Allan Poe
HOME IS THE HUNTER by Hans Carlson
IN OTHER WORDS by Jhumpa Lahiri
STRANGE JUSTICE by Jane Mayer & Jill Abramson
THE TURQUOISE LEDGE by Leslie Marmon Silko

Only four of the nonfiction books were written by women, though each woman, or pair of women in the case of "Strange Justice," came from a different background:  one of Indian descent, one African-American, one pair was white, and one Native American.  Each of these authors offered a distinct perspective on the world that was new to me, which I found exhilarating as well as enlightening.  One thing that has come from reading more nonfiction, and trying reach farther afield with regard to the authors I read, has been the new eyes through which I can view the world and view humanity.  Sure, that can sound trite or cliched or overly simplistic, but it does not make it any less true.  Every one of these four books written by the above female authors stayed with me, long after I finished them.

With "Strange Justice," Jane Mayer & Jill Abramson wrote about the Clarence Thomas hearings, doing the reporting contemporaneously, as well as in the time shortly after, laying out the evidence that was not shared with the public, revealing the multiple other women willing to testify alongside Anita Hill, who were not offered that opportunity, all contemporaneously to the divisive hearings. 

Leslie Marmon Silko's "The Turquoise Ledge" was a memoir, wherein you not only learned about her writing, but also her art, and her spirituality.  It was a wonderful story about an important Native American author and the harmonious way in which she approaches living in the American southwest, with snakes, scorpions, and drought, among other hardships.

Imani Perry wrote about rap, dissecting and examining it in a way that was not only academic but also very real.  She made it relatable for everyone, delving deeper into the societal realities that helped birth this American artform, while also discussing the problematic aspects of rap.

Jhumpa Lahiri's "In Other Words" was magnificent.  She is an author whose work I have come to quickly revere, in recent years.  In this memoir, she wrote of diving headfirst into learning Italian -- of moving to Italy, bringing her family along, of speaking and writing only in Italian -- revealing her uncompromising will and intellect, through a dual-language book, wherein she wrote the Italian manuscript and then had someone else translate it.  Even in a second language, her prose sings with a beauty that few can match.  Possibly my favorite book I read last year.

Among the other nonfiction books, there were many enjoyable and engaging reads, but few as memorable as the four above.  One such book would be Harlan Ellison's "Sleepless Nights..."  Noted for his short fiction, and more likely for his television work, Ellison was a noted essayist, winning the Silver PEN award for journalism in 1982.  The essays in this work cover a wide range of topics and the electricity of Ellison's prose is always a guarantee for one to be entertained and engaged.

Others of Note:

"Companero" was an interesting look at the life of Che Guevara.  I only knew the broadest, simplest strokes about Guevara's life.  This book certainly filled in the life of this revolutionary.  I think it's fair to say that Guevara was an idealist, who worked hard for what he believed in.  But he was more complicated than that, eventually coming to believe, to a certain extent, the myths surrounding him, while failing many of those who loved him most because of his human failings, most prominently revealed in this book his appeal for beautiful women and the resultant infidelity that came of this.  This was a well done and even-handed book about an important figure in 20th-century world politics.

"Home is the Hunter" was a fabulously propulsive book looking at the James Bay Cree of northern Quebec, looking at their legacy and the manner in which their culture has been changed by modernity and the need for energy, in the form of a series of large dams for a giant hydroelectric project beginning in 1971, for the whole world and the compromises that come from the schism between cultural and governmental needs.  Living in Maine, I found this to be a fascinating book that revealed a reality I was unaware of, previously.  Hans Carlson's facility with language, as well as his open-minded approach to reporting on this topic, helped make this a memorable book.

"Stranger in the Woods" told the story of a man, Christopher Knight, who hid out in the woods of Maine for more than a quarter century, with nobody being the wiser.  Living alone, he braved Maine winters with nothing but his wits and what he could procure, doing so in as little an intrusive manner as possible.  It's an extraordinary story that many believed, and still believe, to be not wholly accurate.  How could a human, in this modern age, live for almost 27 years without contact with another human being, and survive?  It can't be done.  Except it was.  Though it manages to tell Knight's story in a comprehensive manner, this book breezes along at a breakneck clip, pulling you from chapter to chapter, until you reach the end, wondering how you managed to get through it so quickly.  A great read!

All right.  We haven't quite reached the middle of February, and I'm two-thirds of the way through my reading recap of 2018.  Next, all the rest of the books I read.


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