Books Read in 2020: Five-Star Non-Fiction
Yes, I am slightly ashamed that I am still working on book review posts from last year and it's already February, but on the other hand I read a LOT OF BOOKS, OKAY? This would have been out earlier but I've picked up a few office shifts at the school on non-library days and I just don't feel that physically well at the moment. I've been having dry eye issues for a couple of years, but they are extra-bad right now, which means wearing contacts is difficult and I have to wear contacts for work because otherwise my glasses are fogging and I can't read or type, which is a big part of the job. I can get through the day, but even with reading glasses it's an effort, which means my already-borderline-migrainyness (which I think is weather-related) is even worse. Plus what I think is a fibro-flare, so all things considered I'm just not loving my time in this body right now. And our Covid cases are down and the kids are back to school, which is good, but we're all still on edge. Matt has always had issues with short-term memory, and right now they are at an all-time peak point, and I am having trouble being gracious about it. He comes upstairs and asks me if I want anything while I'm reading and I ask for water or tea and he says great, be right back, and then he goes downstairs and never comes back. And let's be honest, I didn't have the water or tea before, so really I'm no worse off than I was, but now I'm angry and convinced that I'm thirsty even if I wasn't five minutes ago. Plus I feel bad for being bitchy about it, because he's working really hard and he's not doing it on purpose. But dude -- you know this is how things are, stop promising liquids that are never going to materialize.
But today Eve and I baked a buttload of cookies and then she practiced driving while we delivered them to all her friends (they have a dedicated chat called Where Are the Cookies for just such occasions). And despite being thrown every unfavorable condition in the book - snow, the sun at that angle where it drills right into your eyes, people walking five across the street, construction, a truck parked the wrong way - she drove like a champ. And I brought warm cookies to my absent-minded husband while he was on a work Zoom meeting and he told his colleagues to suck it. So it's not all bad.
No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin: Synopsis from Goodreads: From acclaimed author Ursula K. Le Guin, and with an introduction by Karen Joy Fowler, a collection of thoughts—always adroit, often acerbic—on aging, belief, the state of literature, and the state of the nation. Ursula K. Le Guin has taken readers to imaginary worlds for decades. Now she’s in the last great frontier of life, old age, and exploring new literary territory: the blog, a forum where her voice—sharp, witty, as compassionate as it is critical—shines. No Time to Spare collects the best of Ursula’s blog, presenting perfectly crystallized dispatches on what matters to her now, her concerns with this world, and her wonder at it. On the absurdity of denying your age, she says, If I’m ninety and believe I’m forty-five, I’m headed for a very bad time trying to get out of the bathtub. On cultural perceptions of fantasy: The direction of escape is toward freedom. So what is ‘escapism’ an accusation of? On her new cat: He still won’t sit on a lap…I don’t know if he ever will. He just doesn’t accept the lap hypothesis. On breakfast: Eating an egg from the shell takes not only practice, but resolution, even courage, possibly willingness to commit crime. And on all that is unknown, all that we discover as we muddle through life:How rich we are in knowledge, and in all that lies around us yet to learn. Billionaires, all of us.
I read this as my 'crone lit' entry for book bingo. It's a selection of blog posts from LeGuin's blog in her later years. I've always been in awe of her as a writer, and this was an experience akin to reading Virginia Woolf's diaries - a privilege and a pleasure to be granted a peek into her witty, sharp, kind and humorous consciousness. The parts about her cat are worth the price of admission all on their own.
We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib: Synopsis from Goodreads: A CANADA READS 2020 SELECTION NATIONAL BESTSELLER How do you find yourself when the world tells you that you don't exist? Samra Habib has spent most of her life searching for the safety to be herself. As an Ahmadi Muslim growing up in Pakistan, she faced regular threats from Islamic extremists who believed the small, dynamic sect to be blasphemous. From her parents, she internalized the lesson that revealing her identity could put her in grave danger. When her family came to Canada as refugees, Samra encountered a whole new host of challenges: bullies, racism, the threat of poverty, and an arranged marriage. Backed into a corner, her need for a safe space--in which to grow and nurture her creative, feminist spirit--became dire. The men in her life wanted to police her, the women in her life had only shown her the example of pious obedience, and her body was a problem to be solved.So begins an exploration of faith, art, love, and queer sexuality, a journey that takes her to the far reaches of the globe to uncover a truth that was within her all along. A triumphant memoir of forgiveness and family, both chosen and not, We Have Always Been Here is a rallying cry for anyone who has ever felt out of place and a testament to the power of fearlessly inhabiting one's truest self.
Last year I decided to take a crack at reading all the Canada Reads books for the first time - I've usually read one or two. I had read one already and read three of the others and thought they were all really good. This one was amazing. Habib faced so many levels of discrimination, from being a persecuted Ahmadi Muslim in Pakistan as a child to being a Muslim teenager in Canada, and then a queer Muslim woman struggling to be accepted by both Muslims and other Canadians. The way she's engaged with her struggle through journalism and photography and the reconciliation she's achieved with her parents are both really inspiring. This gave me more of an insight as to why queer people still consider themselves Muslims, as well, which is something I've wondered about (same with Catholicism). I am going to look up more of her work.
Had it Coming: What's Fair in the Age of #MeToo by Robyn Doolittle: Synopsis from Goodreads: "A decisive snapshot of this moment in history that considers where we were, and sets the stage for where we might go, and will no doubt be used to describe this moment long after we move on to a new normal." --Zoe Whittall, author of The Best Kind of People An illuminating, timely look at the changing landscape of sexual politics by the author of Crazy Town. For nearly two years, Globe and Mail reporter Robyn Doolittle investigated how Canadian police handle sexual assault cases. Her findings were shocking: across the country, in big cities and small towns, the system was dismissing a high number of allegations as "unfounded." A police officer would simply view the claim as baseless and no investigation would follow. Of the 26,500 reported cases of sexual assault in 2015, only 1,400 resulted in convictions. The response to Doolittle's groundbreaking Unfounded series was swift. Federal ministers immediately vowed to establish better oversight, training, and policies; Prime Minister Trudeau announced $100 million to combat gender-based violence; Statistics Canada began to collect and publish unfounded rates; and to date, about a third of the country's forces have pledged to review more than 10,000 sex-assault cases dating back to 2010. Had It Coming picks up where the Unfounded series left off. Doolittle brings a personal voice to what has been a turning point for most women: the #MeToo movement and its aftermath. The world is now increasingly aware of the pervasiveness of rape culture in which powerful men got away with sexual assault and harassment for years: from Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Bill O'Reilly, and Matt Lauer, to Charlie Rose and Jian Ghomeshi. But Doolittle looks beyond specific cases to the big picture. The issue of "consent" figures largely: not only is the public confused about what it means, but an astounding number of police officers and judges do not understand Canadian consent law. The brain's reaction to trauma and how it affects memory is also crucial to understanding victim statements. Surprisingly, Canada has the most progressive sexual assault laws in the developed world, yet the system is failing victims at every stage. Had It Coming is not a diatribe or manifesto, but a nuanced and informed look at how attitudes around sexual behaviour have changed and still need to change.
I got this from the library and it was so excellent I ordered a couple of copies to give to people. I love how Doolittle starts with admitting and illustrating how she bought into rape culture before she started realizing the reality of it. I appreciated how she asked herself how she could 'quantify' rape culture, and then does exactly that. She acknowledges that this book could very easily have slipped into a "burn it all down" screed, and that would be justified, but it stays fair and balanced - for instance, Doolittle maintains and supports the argument that the verdict in the Jian Ghomeshi trial was the right one under the circumstances. I learned some things (her statistics and explanations of a lot of Canadian laws are really clear and helpful: in short, Canadian sexual assault laws are among the most progressive, but the way the cases are assessed and investigated - or not - needs serious reform) and learned how to articulate some things more clearly. One thing I really appreciated was the articulation of how it can important to meet people on their level - not appeasement, but understanding of the fact that not everyone has a degree in women's studies. I often feel obligated to speak up in situations where I don't really want to, and I actually thought I had to use up-to-date terms to be more credible. Doolittle's reminder that it probably isn't useful to go the call-out route - and throw around terms like 'micro-aggression' with seventy-year-old Uncle Bob at dinner, and that inviting people to have a productive discussion is likely to yield more positive results. It made me angry, predictably, and was a good reminder that none of this is comfortable, but it also gave me more of a vocabulary for talking about these issues, and gave me a tiny bit of hope. Highly recommended.
The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs: Synopsis from Goodreads: An exquisite memoir about how to live--and love--every day with "death in the room," from poet Nina Riggs, mother of two young sons and the direct descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the tradition of When Breath Becomes Air. "We are breathless, but we love the days. They are promises. They are the only way to walk from one night to the other." Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer--one small spot. Within a year, the mother of two sons, ages seven and nine, and married sixteen years to her best friend, received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal. How does one live each day, "unattached to outcome"? How does one approach the moments, big and small, with both love and honesty? Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, even as she wrestles with the legacy of her great-great-great grandfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nina Riggs's breathtaking memoir continues the urgent conversation that Paul Kalanithi began in his gorgeous When Breath Becomes Air. She asks, what makes a meaningful life when one has limited time? Brilliantly written, disarmingly funny, and deeply moving, The Bright Houris about how to love all the days, even the bad ones, and it's about the way literature, especially Emerson, and Nina's other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer. It's a book about looking death squarely in the face and saying "this is what will be." Especially poignant in these uncertain times, The Bright Hour urges us to live well and not lose sight of what makes us human: love, art, music, words.
I could probably write an entire post about this book, and about the fraught experience of reading books by dying people. The reason I came across this one is the sort of Hollywood-ish circumstances surrounding Nina Riggs's husband and Paul Kalanithi's wife. I had already read Kalanithi's book When Breath Becomes Air, written when he was dying of lung cancer. Then I saw a story about Kalanithi's widow Lucy and Riggs's widower John who were in a relationship after connecting over their spouses' dying memoirs. So then I had to read The Bright Hour. I loved it, possibly more than When Breath Becomes Air, which is, bluntly, probably because it is the kind of book I would write if I was dying. Riggs's family is also much like mine - using humour, sometimes black and inappropriate, to cope with fear and grief. She was also a descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson and a poet. I adored her elegant and elegaic observations, her writing about her children, her treatment of the absurd catastrophe of going through cancer treatment at the same time as her mother.
Some of the reviews of the book on Goodreads made me fume. One person said she was hoping for more insight, as in Paul Kalanithi's book. I was like, whatever, he was a brain surgeon and really fancied himself, clearly you bought into that. Another person was annoyed that she referred so often to Emerson, which what? She was related to him, she was also a poet, he wrote about death a lot and the references to him tied COMPLETELY APPROPRIATELY into the subject matter. But it's really dumb to get upset about other people not connecting with a book just because you connected with it. Particularly because I have totally read books that were supposed to be brilliant and brave and life-changing and thought things like "well, that was definitely the best book written by blinking out one letter at a time I've read this year, but that's all I can say about that".
It's amazing to me that anyone, when faced with the clear and present fact of their death, can string a number of coherent sentences together. The fact that Nina Riggs produced this work of courage, beauty and love is miraculous.In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: Synopsis from Goodreads: On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues. As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy. At the center of his study are the amoral young killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock, who, vividly drawn by Capote, are shown to be reprehensible yet entirely and frighteningly human. In Cold Blood is a seminal work of modern prose, a remarkable synthesis of journalistic skill and powerfully evocative narrative.
I'm not sure how it took me so long to get around to this, other than that I don't really read true crime - is this even true crime? How does it fit into that genre? Okay, one article says it "set the standard" for true crime writing. Capote said it "scraped (him) right down to the marrow of (his) bones". I chose this as my pick for book club last year because I felt like I should read it, but I anticipated it being a bit of a slog. I was completely wrong, I could not put it down. The meticulous, loving description of the Clutters' last day, laden with the heavy inevitability of what was to come. The grace granted to the murderers of tracing their bitter, traumatic backstories. The people haunted by the aftermath. The vivid sense of place and community. It's an unbelievably beautiful book about a terrible, ugly occurrence. Also a reminder to myself to stop dismissing entire genres. A good book is a good book.
My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead: Synopsis from Goodreads: Rebecca Mead was a young woman in an English coastal town when she first read George Eliot's Middlemarch, regarded by many as the greatest English novel. After gaining admission to Oxford, and moving to the United States to become a journalist, through several love affairs, then marriage and family, Mead read and reread Middlemarch. The novel, which Virginia Woolf famously described as "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people," offered Mead something that modern life and literature did not. In this wise and revealing work of biography, reporting, and memoir, Rebecca Mead leads us into the life that the book made for her, as well as the many lives the novel has led since it was written. Employing a structure that deftly mirrors that of the novel, My Life in Middlemarch takes the themes of Eliot's masterpiece--the complexity of love, the meaning of marriage, the foundations of morality, and the drama of aspiration and failure--and brings them into our world. Offering both a fascinating reading of Eliot's biography and an exploration of the way aspects of Mead's life uncannily echo that of Eliot herself.
My wonderful sister-in-law sent me this when I told her I was reading Middlemarch. Every year I go back and tackle a sizeable classic that I missed somehow. It's not my preferred reading genre and I have to force myself to start, and then there's often a nearly-audible 'click' when I fall into the rhythm, which definitely happened with Middlemarch. Many reviewers complained that the title of the book is misleading, which is definitely is, but it didn't bother me. Mead makes it very possible to imagine growing up in England and having this book as a touchstone through various stages of life. The rest of the book is a combination of a study of George Eliot's life and close readings of various parts of the book. I read this in the reading spot my husband set up for me on our tiny back deck, and it was a sublime experience. This is a wonderful companion to Middlemarch.
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo: Synopsis from Goodreads: In this breakout book, Ijeoma Oluo explores the complex reality of today's racial landscape--from white privilege and police brutality to systemic discrimination and the Black Lives Matter movement--offering straightforward clarity that readers need to contribute to the dismantling of the racial divide In So You Want to Talk About Race,Editor at Large of The Establishment Ijeoma Oluo offers a contemporary, accessible take on the racial landscape in America, addressing head-on such issues as privilege, police brutality, intersectionality, micro-aggressions, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the "N" word. Perfectly positioned to bridge the gap between people of color and white Americans struggling with race complexities, Oluo answers the questions readers don't dare ask, and explains the concepts that continue to elude everyday Americans. Oluo is an exceptional writer with a rare ability to be straightforward, funny, and effective in her coverage of sensitive, hyper-charged issues in America. Her messages are passionate but finely tuned, and crystalize ideas that would otherwise be vague by empowering them with aha-moment clarity. Her writing brings to mind voices like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay, and Jessica Valenti in Full Frontal Feminism, and a young Gloria Naylor, particularly in Naylor's seminal essay "The Meaning of a Word."
I have followed Oluo on Twitter for quite a while, and bought this book first after deciding that I had to do some reading on racial issues (I read Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me a few years ago). I feel like this should really be required reading. The way she lays it out for us is generous and gracious. Easy to understand, easy to gather what first and next steps we should be taking. As with the Doolittle book, she would have been within her rights to go medieval on our asses, and her restraint is admirable. Still. What the fuck are we even doing, people?