NF November Week 5: It’s been a month full of amazing nonfiction books! Which ones have made it to your TBR? Be sure to link back to the original blogger who posted about that book. (Rennie at What’s Nonfiction?)
I have had a very fun time toodling around and visiting lots of people’s blogs, which (thanks to NF November) I was happy to find out there in the vast prairie of Blogland.
This week, we’re asked which NF titles had made it on your own TBR list. So many from which to choose, but here are a small selection that I’ll be looking for in the future. (Each title is also linked with the name of the person on whose blog I saw it. Except for that one when I can’t really remember whose it was. Just let me know though!)
When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Memoir – Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele (from Bryan at Still an Unfinished Person.)
Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots and Elephants in Recovery Help us Understand Ourselves – Laurel Braitmann (from Deb Nance at Readerbuzz).
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing – Marie Kondo. (From numerous bloggers, but for an example, Unruly Reader mentions it very nicely.)
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (from Allison at Mindjoggle.)
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption – Bryan Stevenson. (As with the Kondo book, several bloggers mentioned this, but for an example, Rennie at What’s Nonfiction? handles it well.)
Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud – Elizabeth Greenwood. (Sorry – I just can’t track down who this rec came from, but let me know, and I am happy to get you that credit. Thanks.)
The Five: The Lives of Jack the Ripper’s Women – Hallie Rubenhold (from Doing Dewey).
And Brona’s (at Brona’s Books) has done a good job promoting Aussie lit (both F and NF)…
Naturally, there were absolutely loads of other good titles, but these were the ones who came to mind today. Plus – I haven’t been through all the other NF Nov entries just yet, so more delights to come, I’m sure.
For the other nonfiction November posts, check out these:
“Rest at pale evening…/A tall slim tree…/Night coming tenderly/Black like me.”“Dream Variations” by Langston Hughes.
Having heard vaguely of this title for quite a few years, I finally remembered to track down a copy of it at the library the other day. What a read (and this is me in the twenty-first century. I can only *imagine* the fuss it created when it was released in 1960!)
If you’re not sure about the plot of this NF book, John Howard Griffin, a white journalist from Mansfield, Texas, wanted to bring attention to the ongoing plight of the black American in the Deep South, and to do that, decided to work with a dermatologist to take medicine (usually for vitiligo) in such large quantities that it would substantially darken his skin (along with up to fifteen hours/day under a sun lamp).
Now under contract from Sepia Magazine (focused on a African-American reading audience), once Griffin believed that he had the same skin tone as an African-American man, he left his home with wife and children in order to travel across Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi to experience for himself the pain of life under racial segregation across the country for six weeks.
(And although most people believe that Griffin was the first man to undertake this experiment, it had actually been previously done before by journalist Ray Sprigle in 1949 published as a book called “In the Land of Jim Crow” but not to as much fanfare when it was published as Griffin’s work. And, interestingly, a little later a white female investigative journalist called Grace Halsell also lived for a time as a black woman and wrote the book “Soul Sister” about her experience (1969), according to Wiki.)
Back to Griffin: This was an eye-opening read for me, in
some ways because I was amazed at some of the things that Griffin was surprised
at during his first few days as a “black” man: “Black people sweat like white
people!” Woah. Did people really think there were any differences in this???
But then these slightly clumsy starting points were balanced with the truly difficult time Griffin had adapting to his new image in the mirror. Griffin actually uses the narrative tool of looking at his reflection in the mirror several times throughout the book in a very clever way to demonstrate how he gradually adapts to his new skin color until towards the end of his time when he reported that he was quite used to seeing himself that way.
::: Time passes as I think about how to write this review some more. :::
::: More time passes. I’m still thinking… :::
(You know this is actually a really difficult review to
write. I’m torn between just reporting the material that I read in the actual
book and how the whole sociological experiment looks to me through my modern
OK. I’ll do it this way: since you can easily look up for yourself the plot and details of the book, I’m going to tell you what I ended up thinking about this read:…)
I think that, most of all, it’s really important to keep foremost in your mind the time in history when this experiment was completed and when the book was actually written. It was in the late 1950s (1959, actually) in the U.S. at a time when racial relations were at a low (understatement) and when segregation was rampant throughout both the North and the South (but slowly being removed from the northern states).
It was also at the start of the years which would bring the most change:
Brown vs. the Board of Education happened in May, 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools violated the 14th Amendment of “separate but equal”. (This was about desegregation of schools. See below.)
1955, teenager Emmett Till, a 14-year old boy from Chicago, allegedly whistled and made a remark to a white woman, leading to two white men dragging Till from his uncle’s house, beating him and then shooting him to death before throwing him in the river. An all-white jury acquitted the two men of any murder charges…
1955, a month after Till’s death, the Montgomery, Alabama’s citywide boycott would begin (with Rosa Parks) and spearheaded by a group called the Montgomery Improvement Association led by a young man called — Martin Luther King, Junior…
1957 was when Melba Pattillo Beals and eight other teenagers integrated Little Rock’s Central High School… (See Warriors Don’t Cry review for this…)
1960, the four black students refuse to move from the Woolworth’s whites-only lunch counter… and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded in Raleigh that same year.
1961 saw the start of the Freedom Rides and 1963 was Martin Luther King, Junior’s speech, “I Have a Dream” which paved the way for the 1964 Civil Rights Act…
NOTE: (African-American women wouldn’t get the right to vote until 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed, five years after Griffin’s book had been published. Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, was elected in 1968, eight years after this book’s publication.) (Compare with now ref: redlining, redistricting and voter registration issues… Grrr.)
So when the book was published, America was starting to get apprehensive in terms of race relations, and in fact, in Griffin’s book, he makes several mentions of how tense the situation feels on the streets in general…
(In fact, take a look at the Langston Hughes poem that is
given at the start of this post (and at the start of the book)…
And – if you’re interested, take a look at how the music culture is being impacted around now, and you can see how this tension ratcheting up throughout the country played out via that avenue: Mahalia Jackson, Chuck Berry, John Coltrane (and including some white musicians as well: Bob Dylan etc.) – and then later with James Brown’s “Say it Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud”, Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”…
And also drama and plays: Raisin in the Sun (Lorraine Hansberry) was published in 1959, for example, while To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner (film with Sydney Poitier et al.) (1967) were released a bit later.
It’s a fascinating read especially when you look at how all these changes in American society and cultural mores were happening at the same time (or around that time)…
(NOTE: I am certainly not an expert on this, but there is plenty of info online for further information… Highly recommend you do some further reading if you’re interested in learning more.)
Week 4: (Nov. 18 to 22) – Nonfiction Favorites (Leann @ Shelf Aware):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.
For me to select a nonfiction book to read, I think it’s mostly determined by the topic, first of all. If I am remotely curious about whatever the subject of the book may be, then you can probably bet that I’ll take a second closer look at the volume.
(And you know – this can happen even if I’m not that taken by the subject, but then it’s totally dependent on how the back-cover blurb + the first page (+ any notable reviews) read. If one (or more) or a combination of all those hit the target and still sound interesting (and well-written), then I’ll be even more interested than otherwise. And sometimes it’s none of those things! 😉 )
But then again, let me add this caveat that sometimes it’s a topic that I didn’t know that I was curious about and yet I STILL finish a book on it. For example, who would have thought that one of the most interesting books that comes to mind from the last few years was one that examines the phenomenon of the Baby Beanie craze that took over the country a few years back?
I didn’t collect Baby Beanies; didn’t own any Beanie Babies; hadn’t even thought about Beanie Babies for YEARS and yet, heard about this title, picked it up and found it to be fascinating. (And I’m still thinking about it years later!)
I’m not even sure how I tracked down this title in the first place, but I would bet that I read about it on someone else’s blog and then found it at the library. But who would know that this title even existed without those? I wouldn’t have.
So perhaps it’s a combination of all those factors listed earlier (the blurb + the first page + notable reviews + non-prof review of someone I trust re: reading)?
If anyone had ever asked me if I would be interested in learning the details and history of the Beanie Babies, my hand would not have been raised to say yes, and yet, it was actually one of my most intriguing and memorable reads that I can remember in recent memory. Go figure.
An amazingly well-written and well-organized read about the worldwide slave trade history and the efforts of a small group of men to end slavery in the British Empire (with ripples that crossed the globe afterwards), this was perhaps part of the catalyst that brought to my mind my ongoing interest in the African-American experience.
(I’m really interested in the experiences of other disenfranchised groups, so I’ll be learning more about them at some point.This just happened to be first.)
A finalist for the 2005 National Book Award in NonFiction, this title rather opened the door and pulled me in to educate me on the history of the slave trade, which, in turn, led me to become very interested in race, diversity, bias and the other buzzwords flowing across campuses right now.
Which then led me on to more recent history such as the Civil Rights Movement, desegregation/resegregation, the Great Migration, and right on up until we reach the various discussions about race and POC topics that make up part of today’s conversation.
(I would also say that another influence on this diversity interest would be the current U.S. administration and its disdain for anyone who’s not a rich white man. But that could be a whole other conversation, couldn’t it?)
In fact, I became so interested in this subject that it was one of the big reasons that I traveled to Memphis last Spring to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement there, to visit the Lorraine Motel and the National Civil Rights Museum, and to walk down Beale Street. (Beale Street is a real-life place but is also the title of a book: If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin (pub. 1974), plus it’s been released as a remake as a movie…)
(Another reason for the Memphis visit was to visit Graceland and other Elvis-related places. Interestingly, Elvis’ life and music were very influenced by the African-American experience, but again, that’s a whole other rabbit hole…)
Back to the topic at hand: which other qualities do I look for in a good NF read? Well, I need to find the topic appealing in some way. I’m also learning that I’d like it to be really well-written, well-organized, quite academic in how its research is cited and with a long bibliography at the end. (More books! Give me more!)
And if you could also throw in an occasional mention of some dry sense of humor – witty, clever without being condescending – then I’ll definitely read it.
And — I usually try to find a topic that’s pretty different from whatever I’ve just been reading about in my previous NF read, just to keep things interesting (unless I’m on a kick on one area in particular, in which case I might read more of the same).
(I’m very consistent in being inconsistent. 🙂 )
So – what about you? Let me know what you think. I am having a lot of fun visiting lots of other similar-minded people’s blogs!
If you’re curious what other slightly-random topic reads I’ve read about, you might like to check the following reviews:
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 prompt took me down a few rabbit holes (in a good way) and forced me to take a good objective look at what I’ve been reading in terms of POC-related authors, topics and titles. To that end, I’ve collected many of the POC titles that I’ve read and reviewed on my blog over the past few years, certainly not as a method of boasting or as positioning me as any sort of expert, but more as a reference for others who may also be interested in digging a little deeper into this subject.
I’m also rather hoping that others may also have lists of related titles that they might want to share… There’s always room for more books on the TBR, don’t you agree?
COMPLETED AFRICAN-AMERICAN RELATED NF TITLES (from last couple of years):
Wanting to come up with choices that perhaps may be off the beaten path a bit, this was actually a little more challenging than I had first realized, but putting my Thinking Cap on, I came up with the following:
The obvious connection between the two titles is that they are by (and about) persons of African descent who live in North America, but what’s less obvious is that they were both written within four years of each other and when one reads these as a package or sequentially, they add depth to each other, different though they may be. In my mind, it’s similar to the difference between watching something on normal TV and then watching it again in high definition. (Or it could even be compared to an experience in virtual reality (VR) if you’d like to move it to an even more digital plain.) Reading the two of them just adds so much more detail and depth to what would otherwise be a fairly superficial literary experience.
Let’s look a little more…
Wright’s Native Son has a narrative arc that follows a journey (of several types) undertaken by protagonist Bigger Thomas, born and living on the South Side of Chicago and whose journey is both literal (the story’s main catalyst is linked with his job as a chauffeur) and psychological (in terms of how the action impacts Bigger and his entire life, as well as that of the people who surround him).
The plot also clearly demonstrates the dichotomy between the interior (i.e. Bigger’s life and thoughts) and how they are necessarily impacted by the exterior (cultural, judicial, social/economic)…
But even if this is all sounds too academically intimidating for you, please don’t be put off by the literary criticism side of things: I have no qualms recommending Native Son for just an excellently good read. (This novel is a rollicking experience to leave you with lots of thoughts, even if you don’t notice or see these same aspects.I understand that not everyone is lit crit nerd! :-} )
As a complementary read to this powerful title, I suggest the Negro Motorist’s Green Book (1936) which is a NF title* published as a guide book for African-American car drivers traveling throughout the U.S. at a time when it was dangerous and challenging for travelers such as themselves to find somewhere safe to eat, drink and stay when they were on the road.
So, allow me to set the stage for both of these reads.
Historically speaking, the later 1930s and early 1940s marked the middle-to -the-end of World War II and were a time of radical change for America in many ways. American soldiers (of all races) were returning home after military service armed with new job skills and experiences which would enable them to earn their entrance to the middle class, socio-economically speaking – a fact that particularly impacted African-Americans upon their return stateside.
For many African-Americans, their military service years had given them experiences abroad where they were given training and responsibilities far different than their lives had allowed prior to the battles. For the first time, quite a few African-Americans had been placed in battalions and given the same job duties (with similar levels of respect) as their white brothers-in-arms were given.
War impacted every soldier, regardless of what color his skin was, and so, when these servicemen (and they were mostly men, in terms of enlisted soldiers) returned home at the end of their military commitments, they had just survived life-changing experiences only to be expected to re-enter a Jim-Crow era of laws and cultural mores that had remained untouched from before they had left to fight abroad. Soldiers had just risked their lives for a country that now anticipated them to (re-)fit quietly back into the same old molds as before. Of course there were problems for all involved.
You can’t give a prisoner a taste of freedom and respect, and then expect them to squeeze back into their old cells without issue, and yet this was the case with these returning GIs. (If you’re interested in more details about African-American soldiers serving in the armed forces, you might try The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks, a 2014 graphic novel about an all-black regiment who served in WWI. This link takes you to Goodreads since I don’t have a personal review for this (regrettably).)
So, despite the Negro Motorist travel guide being mentioned as published in 1936, it was actually updated and published every year between 1936 and 1966, so there would have been a new edition published in the same year as Native Son – the country had not changed that much for the average African-American, despite the ongoing war, and there would still have been the related Jim-Crow concerns for those with cars who travelled across the nation. Where to eat? Where to stay? How to stay alive when the sun went down to drive tomorrow?
So, to me, Native Son pairs well with the Green Book since it would have been a guidebook with which Bigger would have been familiar, particularly since his job was as a chauffeur, at least for a while. It also is a clear demonstration of some of the restraints and rules to which these returning soldiers would have had to bend, rules which impacted every aspect of the life of an African-American at that time.
When you read Bigger’s story and then fit it into the national and cultural landscape of the Green Book and of America at that time, it’s no wonder that the novel ends as it does. How could it have any other ending without turning it into a fantasy tale?
If your interest is at all piqued by this post, I highly recommend you take a delve into the history of African-Americans (and other POC/disenfranchised groups) in the U.S. It’s a fascinating rabbit hole with repercussions still echoing in the world of today.
For the other nonfiction November posts, check out these:
Nonfiction November, that time of year to celebrate stories filled with facts and footnotes, truth being stranger than fiction, and very, very long subtitles begins today!
This week, a look at your year in nonfiction:
Week 1: (Oct. 28 to Nov. 1) – Your Year in Nonfiction (Julie @ Julz Reads): Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?
My year has included a big increase (+170 percent!) in the numbers of NF titles that I’ve chosen and completed, related (I think) to a growing need from recognizing that there is still so much for me to learn in the world out there. That, and I seem to be interested in almost EVERYTHING so there is always a good book waiting for me to pick it up. (Additionally, this trend may or may not be related to the political nonsense happening across the globe in terms of truth (or the lack of it).)
What has been your favorite NF read so far this year? In terms of being influential, I think my favorite NF title so far has been “Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston (written in 1931 but published more recently). It really underscored just how recent slavery was; before I had read this book, slavery had rather seemed like some “long-ago” historical event, but the fact that Neale Hurston actually met and interviewed a man who had lived through it was amazing and really brought the fact home that it wasn’t really that long ago when it occurred. It also overlaps with the focus on most of my NF reading this year. (See below for more deets.)
What particular topic have I been attracted to more this year? Oh, the African-American experience for sure. No doubt about it. As part of my ongoing focus, I’ve been choosing book titles that are either by a POC author and/or about a POC experience. Since February was Black History Month (at least here in the U.S.), I’ve maintained my emphasis of reading more African-American authors and/or related topics, and looking back at the numbers, I can see that just over one in every three titles falls under that category (and this number includes all the POC titles – not just those from African-American writers.)
This also aligns with the fact that the university where I work now has a vice-president who is focused on diversity, and in so doing, has brought (and is bringing) some powerful voices to campus to bring more awareness of diversity issues: bias, privilege, protest, history… It’s been eye-opening to say the least and I’ve learned a lot. I have a lot more to learn, but I know a lot more than I did this time last year.
That would be the topic-of-choice for this year (and ongoing), but another focus has been reading from my TBR shelves as well. When those two goals overlap, even better!
Which NF book have I recommended the most this year? Despite what I’ve just said in the section before this one, this most-recommended title would have to be the tried-and-true “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. I reread it each year as a reminder of effective writing and I mention it a lot in class to students. I’m also pretty sure that I mention it to my poor patient friends more than they’d prefer, but what can I say? It’s good!
What am I hoping to get out of NF November?
I’m hoping to find more excellent titles that overlap with my current interests, and – fingers crossed – introduce me to more subjects of which I am woefully uninformed right now. I do seem to have a growing craze on animals so perhaps some new titles there?
I’d also love to be introduced to more non-fiction readers!
ETA: People have asked which particular NF titles I’ve read this year. Here you go. (Links where available):