Monday, January 25, 2016

Four-Star Books Read in 2015: Non-Fiction


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou: Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local "powhitetrash." At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors ("I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare") will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.
Poetic and powerful, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings will touch hearts and change minds for as long as people read.

I swear I'm not trying to be controversial or provocative, and in all probability it was just that the hype and the mythic status of this author created an expectation that was impossible to fulfill. I really liked reading this, and I marvel at her journey, her strength and perseverance, but the writing did not blow me away. 

Reluctant Genius: The Passionate Life and Inventive Mind of Alexander Graham Bell by Charlotte Gray: Award-winning author Charlotte Gray's latest biography,Reluctant Genius: The Passionate Life and Inventive Mind of Alexander Graham Bell offers an eye-opening account of the famously white-bearded inventor of the telephone. Who knew that he also was a pivotal figure in the development of the airplane, the hydrofoil, genetic engineering, and more? Charlotte Gray does, and she tells us how and why she brought to life the passionate mind and heart of the man behind so many amazing ideas and innovations.

Fascinating. There was so much I didn't know about Bell, and of course Gray is a wonderful biographer. There were a couple of clunky parts - I wish I'd written this one down, but there was one historical figure that wasn't in the book for long, but she was so desperate to get his description in that there was an awkward sentence that went something like "the tall, gawky scientist got in touch in January". But on the whole the flow was as smooth - and the action as engaging - as if the book was fictional. I had no idea Bell was so involved in the life of Helen Keller (almost to a creepy extent, one might say, I'm trying not to dwell on it), or that his mother's deafness played such a big role in his life's work, or that he did so much work with the education of deaf people, or that his wife was deaf. 

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling: Mindy Kaling has lived many lives: the obedient child of immigrant professionals, a timid chubster afraid of her own bike, a Ben Affleck–impersonating Off-Broadway performer and playwright, and, finally, a comedy writer and actress prone to starting fights with her friends and coworkers with the sentence “Can I just say one last thing about this, and then I swear I’ll shut up about it?”  
Perhaps you want to know what Mindy thinks makes a great best friend (someone who will fill your prescription in the middle of the night), or what makes a great guy (one who is aware of all elderly people in any room at any time and acts accordingly), or what is the perfect amount of fame (so famous you can never get convicted of murder in a court of law), or how to maintain a trim figure (you will not find that information in these pages). If so, you’ve come to the right book, mostly! 
In Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Mindy invites readers on a tour of her life and her unscientific observations on romance, friendship, and Hollywood, with several conveniently placed stopping points for you to run errands and make phone calls. Mindy Kaling really is just a Girl Next Door—not so much literally anywhere in the continental United States, but definitely if you live in India or Sri Lanka.

I've read a few other reviews and now I feel a bit self-conscious about how much I loved this, which I hate. Whatever. Although this was written before The Mindy Project came out and I realize the character is not the actress, I could clearly hear her voice in this, and most of it was laugh-out-loud hysterical, with a couple of wise and insightful passages. There were a couple of parts that lost me - one is where she admonishes married people to stop saying that marriage is hard work, because her parents made it look easy and it scares off the single people. I've heard this from quite a few single people, and I'm so over it. Marriage IS hard work. I know a very few people who make it look easy, and they've turned out to be really, really lucky, or totally lying. I've lived with my husband for longer than I've lived with any other adult, owned a house with him and raised kids with him, and it's not that I hate the work, but not all of it is a walk in the park with ice cream and balloons wearing pants that magically make your ass look tiny either. If you can't handle that, don't get married. Other than that little blip that clearly touched a nerve, I actually liked the book more than I thought I would - I bought it thinking I would keep it in my purse to read at physio (where I ended up laughing so much that I had to read parts out loud to my physiotherapist and the patients at adjacent tables), then couldn't stop reading it.

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King: WINNER of the 2014 RBC Taylor Prize 
The Inconvenient Indian is at once a “history” and the complete subversion of a history—in short, a critical and personal meditation that the remarkable Thomas King has conducted over the past 50 years about what it means to be “Indian” in North America.  
Rich with dark and light, pain and magic, this book distills the insights gleaned from that meditation, weaving the curiously circular tale of the relationship between non-Natives and Natives in the centuries since the two first encountered each other. In the process, King refashions old stories about historical events and figures, takes a sideways look at film and pop culture, relates his own complex experiences with activism, and articulates a deep and revolutionary understanding of the cumulative effects of ever-shifting laws and treaties on Native peoples and lands.  
This is a book both timeless and timely, burnished with anger but tempered by wit, and ultimately a hard-won offering of hope -- a sometimes inconvenient, but nonetheless indispensable account for all of us, Indian and non-Indian alike, seeking to understand how we might tell a new story for the future.

I would periodically find the writing style - irreverent, informal, smart-assish, caustic - a bit irritating, but on the whole I think it was the best style for this subject matter; it highlights the absurdity of much of the behaviour of various governments towards aboriginal people. It also indicates a very understandable anger, but the veneer of amusement makes go down more easily - which should not be necessary, but probably is. This is an Important Book.


The Paris Wife by Paula McLain: A deeply evocative story of ambition and betrayal, The Paris Wife captures a remarkable period of time and a love affair between two unforgettable people: Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley.
Chicago, 1920: Hadley Richardson is a quiet twenty-eight-year-old who has all but given up on love and happiness—until she meets Ernest Hemingway and her life changes forever. Following a whirlwind courtship and wedding, the pair set sail for Paris, where they become the golden couple in a lively and volatile group—the fabled “Lost Generation”—that includes Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. 
Though deeply in love, the Hemingways are ill-prepared for the hard-drinking and fast-living life of Jazz Age Paris, which hardly values traditional notions of family and monogamy. Surrounded by beautiful women and competing egos, Ernest struggles to find the voice that will earn him a place in history, pouring all the richness and intensity of his life with Hadley and their circle of friends into the novel that will become The Sun Also Rises. Hadley, meanwhile, strives to hold on to her sense of self as the demands of life with Ernest grow costly and her roles as wife, friend, and muse become more challenging. Despite their extraordinary bond, they eventually find themselves facing the ultimate crisis of their marriage—a deception that will lead to the unraveling of everything they’ve fought so hard for. 
A heartbreaking portrayal of love and torn loyalty, The Paris Wifeis all the more poignant because we know that, in the end, Hemingway wrote that he would rather have died than fallen in love with anyone but Hadley.

I read this when I lifted my self-imposed prohibition on fictionalized history. It's very readable. I hated how Hadley and Hemingway called each other cutesy names and called their kid Bumby but what can you do when it's historical fact? I loved the descriptions of Paris life and Hemingway as a young man - it was so weird that he wasn't always "Hemingway", that people called him Ernest (or, you know, whatever stupid nickname they were using, because apparently that was a thing. *annoyed flounce*.)


What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton: As any reader of Jo Walton's Among Others might guess, Walton is both an inveterate reader of SF and fantasy, and a chronic re-reader of books. In 2008, then-new science-fiction mega-site Tor.com asked Walton to blog regularly about her re-readingabout all kinds of older fantasy and SF, ranging from acknowledged classics, to guilty pleasures, to forgotten oddities and gems. These posts have consistently been among the most popular features of Tor.com. Now this volumes presents a selection of the best of them, ranging from short essays to long reassessments of some of the field's most ambitious series.
Among Walton's many subjects here are the Zones of Thought novels of Vernor Vinge; the question of what genre readers mean by "mainstream"; the underappreciated SF adventures of C. J. Cherryh; the field's many approaches to time travel; the masterful science fiction of Samuel R. Delany; Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children; the early Hainish novels of Ursula K. Le Guin; and a Robert A. Heinlein novel you have most certainly never read. 
Over 130 essays in all, What Makes This Book So Great is an immensely readable, engaging collection of provocative, opinionated thoughts about past and present-day fantasy and science fiction, from one of our best writers. 


This really needed its own post, and would have gotten it if I hadn't read it so close to New Year's. Having all these in one book is a bit of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, yay, they're all together. On the other hand, you start to notice how often she uses the word 'absorbing' and if she gets onto a series that you either already didn't like or don't plan to read, it goes on for several essays/posts. On the other hand, she is a fantastic analytical reader and I loved the window into her reading mind, especially because she largely writes here more as a fan than a critic. She reads more hard-ish science fiction than I do, and she rereads MUCH more than I do, although I've started doing more. She says that over time, the series books she doesn't like become the only ones she can reread, because they're the ones that she doesn't have committed to memory - I just can't get there from where I am. If I don't like it the first time, why would I read it again unless I really feel like I missed something, when there are SO many other books clamouring seductively for my attention? I think she reads more narrowly in genre than I do, so her argument is that there may not, in fact, be enough books to keep her reading until her death. Which is kind of cool, I guess, although completely different from how I feel (all those people that want a pill that can replace sleep so they can work more? I only want it so I can read more.) On the whole, though, this was thoroughly enjoyable - especially the parts about how her son is just as much of a reader, and how they talk about books. 

4 comments:

Steph Lovelady said...

I'm with you on Caged Bird.

And yes, marriage is work.

Nicole said...

Thank god you said it first. I wanted to love Caged Bird, but mostly I just found it terrible and depressing - which is the point, I guess - but I had to slog my way through it. Then I felt awful for thinking anything negative about it, especially when the subject matter is important.

I LOVED Mindy Kaling's book and I keep it to read when I need something light and funny.

I really liked The Paris Wife, although it kind of made me hate Hemingway.

Hannah said...

For the record, Mindy Kaling's second book, "Why Not Me", is also hilarious and touching.

I also found Caged Bird tough going. Once I picked it up I felt like I had to finish it, because she *lived* it and managed, I wasn't going to punk out on just *reading* it... but I didn't enjoy it, and I heaved a sigh of relief when I was finished. The subject matter was difficult and the writing style just isn't for me.

Sarah McCormack said...

I have an extra copy of Minday's new book if you haven't read it. I really enjoyed it :)
I love Maya Angelou and even saw her at the NAC years ago..i think,perhaps, her book was ground breaking for its time. nowadays we get a lot of autobiographical tales of women's struggles, but not so much when her book was published. that is my theory!