Nonfiction November Week 3 – Nontraditional Nonfiction

Nonfiction November 2015Welcome to Week 3 of Nonfiction November! This week we’re discussing Nontraditional Nonfiction and your host is Rebecca at I’m Lost in Books, so make sure you head on over to her blog and add your links!

This week’s prompt is:

This week we will be focusing on the nontraditional side of reading nonfiction.  Nonfiction comes in many forms.  There are the traditional hardcover or paperback print books, of course, but then you also have e-books, audiobooks, illustrated and graphic nonfiction, oversized folios, miniatures, internet publishing, and enhanced books complete with artifacts. So many choices! Do you find yourself drawn to or away from nontraditional nonfiction? Do you enjoy some nontraditional formats, but not others? Perhaps you have recommendations for readers who want to dive into nontraditional formats.  We want to hear all about it this week!

h is for hawkRecently, I’ve been listening to more and more nonfiction on audio. Part of the reason is that I’m, in general, reading a lot more nonfiction, so it makes sense that my audiobook nonfiction reads would increase as well. But I’ve also just found that I really enjoy nonfiction on audio. I’m a captive audience in my car and I like spending that time learning about something new. The last audiobook I finished, though, I think is the best nonfiction audio I’ve listened to yet.

I’m sure I would have been just as impressed with  H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald if I had read it, but it is one of those books where the audiobook adds to the story. It is a book I listened to because of Nonfiction November. I purchased it a few months ago, but it was near the bottom of my possible choices for audiobooks for this month. All that changed after the first week of Nonfiction November. So many people recommended it and I can’t thank you enough. H is for Hawk is part memoir about the author’s grief after her father’s death and her experiences raising a goshawk, part a history of falconry as a sport, and part biography of the novelist TH White. It’s a book that tries to be many things and somehow succeeds at all, seamlessly weaving these three elements into a stunning book.

What sets H is for Hawk apart as an audiobook is that it is narrated by the author herself. Authors are not actors and it’s not always for the best when they do the narration for their own books. (And, to be fair, it’s not always for the best when famous actors narrate audiobooks. I’m looking at you, awful audiobook version of The Great Gatsby read by Tim Robbins.) But Macdonald is a magnificent narrator and it adds an element to this memoir that I would miss in print. I think I am lacking the vocabulary to explain why this narration feels more powerful than other audiobook memoirs I have listened to in the past, so I apologize if this doesn’t make sense. There is not necessarily any overt display of emotion during the narration, but there are moments when Macdonald reads her own words in a way that it seems no one else could. Though the shifts in her voice and narration are subtle, you feel what she is feeling, and it makes the audiobook feel more personal.

One benefit that print has over audio is the ability to reread particularly beautiful passages and to linger over perfect phrasing. I mostly listen to audiobooks when I’m driving, so it’s difficult to bookmark or go back and relisten to parts of audiobooks. It’s the one thing I wish I could have done listening to H is for Hawk. Not only is this memoir engaging for its story, but it’s beautifully written with evocative prose that I wish I could quote for you here. There are turns of phrase in H is for Hawk that feel wholly original and new that transport you immediately to the forests of England.

I really can’t recommend H is for Hawk enough and I can’t recommend the audiobook enough. I have no doubt that it is one of my favorite books of the year.





GNF 5 – Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary and Bryan Talbot

Something that has helped me find new comics to read this month has been really paying attention to the publishers and imprints. After reading and loving Friends With Boys, I immediately requested a bunch of new titles from First Second, the Macmillan imprint that publishes the book. If you’re at a loss for what to read next with comics, look at who published your favorite graphic novel or one you’re particularly interested in and look at their backlist. You’re bound to find books either by the same artists or with similar art and storytelling styles. I think the publishing industry has a long way to go before there’s imprint recognition in the general public. I know that I for one never paid much attention to imprints or publishing houses before I started working in publishing. But I think publisher recognition is more prevalent in comics. Think DC vs. Marvel. Starting with this post, I’m going to start including all the imprints/publishers on here, in case you want to keep track, too.

dotter cover

Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot (Dark Horse, 2012)

I had no idea what Dotter of her Father’s Eyes was about before I started reading, but for some reason it definitely wasn’t what I expected. Author Mary Talbot tells the story of her childhood with a distracted, angry father, who also happened to be a Joycean scholar. She parallels the story of her life with the life of Lucia Joyce, James Joyce’s daughter who lived a tragic life.

Mary, within the comic, points out that there aren’t many similarities between her life and Lucia’s. Instead, the parallels are more general. Their stories are about what it is like to grow up as a woman. Lucia fought for independence and freedom as a dancer in 1920s Paris. She suffered a hateful mother who didn’t see the worth in anything she was doing, a father who adored her, but wouldn’t stand up for her and her career, and the lost love of Samuel Beckett. Her parents forced her to leave Paris with them right as her career was beginning to take off and she never regained momentum. Eventually the stress from losing her career and the anger she harbored made her lose control. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed. She lived in a mental institution until she died at age 75.

Mary’s father was distant, distracted, and very short-tempered. Mary seemed to always make him mad, even when she wasn’t exactly sure what she had done to deserve it. When Mary becomes unexpectedly pregnant as a young woman, she marries the child’s father, because she doesn’t see any other way.

Mary and Lucia are both constrained by their societies and their families. Their lives are in deep contrast to the lives of their successful fathers, but also in contrast to each other. Lucia has a life that she wants to lead and she has some success at it, but her family never supports her. Mary never feels like she’s given as much freedom as her brothers and she is always painfully scrutinized by her father.

The difference is the end of their stories: Lucia’s story is tragic. Though I imagine the comic simplifies her downfall somewhat, she never recovers from the few months she was forced to leave Paris. Her dance career is ruined, Beckett calls off their relationship, and Lucia feels like she has nothing left. We know, however, that Mary changes her life. She is no longer married to the man she marries at the end of the comic. She has made a name for herself as a writer. Her father eventually respects her and her decisions, though she never sees him as warm or charming, the way some of his colleagues do.

I liked the art and the simple color distinctions between Mary’s story and Lucia’s story. I also loved the little interjections from Mary about her husband’s art. Whenever he got something wrong, she would point it out, but he didn’t redraw the pictures. It showed their collaboration process, but I thought it was also an interesting commentary on the way we tell stories and how other people perceive them. The inconsistencies are small. Mary really only corrects her husband’s art twice, but I think it was effective to leave them in there with only Mary’s commentary.

I liked this comic a lot. It taught me something about Lucia and I think the parallels between Mary and Lucia’s story are there. It makes sense to tell them together, a fact I think surprised the character-Mary in some ways.

Thirty Days with My Father by Christal Presley

Thirty Days with My Father: Finding Peace from Wartime PTSD is a brave memoir. Christal’s father suffers from PTSD and so, consequently, does Christal. She was diagnosed with it as a young adult and, once she left home for college, couldn’t bear to be around her father, the cause of so many of her traumatic memories. Her mother always insisted that she pray for her father and that her father was a good man, but Vietnam made him this way. That was true, but the psychological effects of having to keep such a terrible secret have repercussions throughout Christal’s life. Thirty Days With My Father is Christal’s attempt to finally get to know her father and understand him and maybe heal a little herself along the way.

I can’t imagine the strength it must have taken to put to paper the horrific memories that Christal and her father share. Both of them share very personal memories, whether it is through Christal’s own journal, which features memories of her childhood, or her father’s memories, which she records through their conversations. While PTSD is a disorder that we are coming to understand, especially for war veterans, I think that it is less known that the children of PTSD victims can eventually show signs of the disorder themselves.

In the years between when Christal left her family and she began the thirty day project, her father did a lot of healing. He found solace in music and playing music for other people. He was more comfortable in social situations. Christal finds, through her conversations, a man that she didn’t know but one that she recognized, because she sees so much of herself in him. Christal shows the evolution of their new relationship so well.

Structurally, this memoir isn’t perfect. The inclusion of the journal entries, memories that Presley recounts during the project, felt disjointed. I would have preferred a more fluid memoir that maybe wasn’t divided by day. But structural concerns aside, I feel like I really got to know Christal and her father and witness their changing relationship.

Thirty Days With My Father is not always easy to read, nor should it be. Both Christal and her father have harrowing memories to come to terms with. It is an important work on PTSD, especially for veterans and their children.

TLC Book Tours kindly provided me with a review copy of Thirty Days With My Father. You can find out more information about this tour, including other stops, here

Saturday Personal Readathon

Today, I’d like to escape this world with a few good books. It’s been a while since I’ve just sat down on a Saturday afternoon and read, so that’s what I’m going to do.

Michael and I might go see Spiderman later today, but between now and the time I go to bed, I will be sitting on my couch and reading. I already spent most of the morning reading With My Body by Nikki Gemmell. I’m also reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed and The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa. Also on the list to read today: Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson and more poetry

With My Body by Nikki Gemmell – When Harper Perennial pitched this book to me, I wasn’t really looking for a well-written alternative to 50 Shades of Grey, but the enthusiasm of the person from Harper who sent the email really convinced me. It’s written in the second person, which is usually something I despise, but I am actually loving it. I’m about 200 pages in.

After finishing – I ended up writing so much about this title, I decided to save it for another post. I liked it, but it wasn’t perfect. Now! On to Hicksville.

Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende

This book came at a perfect time for me. You see, I’ve been a little obsessed lately with the idea of living on a self-sustainable farm. I like city life, but I miss wide open spaces. I want to be able to garden and raise animals and be as reliant on myself and the food I can grow. This is something that I’d like to do sometime in the future, but right now, I’m content to read about other people making the plunge, like Eric Brende and his wife.

Eric Brende is a highly educated man (he has degrees from three universities, including MIT) who, one day, realized that he was relying too much on technology and it was actually hindering his life instead of helping it. To complete his graduate work, he decided to join a Mennonite-like community in an undisclosed location for 18 months to see what it was like and if people who lived without technology really are better off. He married his girlfriend and rented a small cottage in a closed-off, modern technology-free town.

Let’s get this out of the way: Eric Brende is opinionated and he can come across as bit of an ass. Though he brings it up once or twice, he rarely addresses how the community felt about him being an outsider studying their actions. He invaded their life to learn about self-sustainability, but also to finish his graduate work. He began the project with the intention of writing a book and it seemed a little disingenuous. I wonder how many of the people he lived with really knew what he was doing? Do they know he’s written a book about them and their lives? Does it matter? He’s self-righteous and not shy about blaming all our modern troubles on television, the internet and cars in that order.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think those opinions are necessarily radical or offensive. They’re not, but he presents them in such a way that they are indisputable. TV is always damaging. Nothing good can come of the internet. Your car will kill you, or at the very least, make you die faster. He never acknowledges the good that can come out of having a television, the internet, and cars. Good television shows are as engrossing, stimulating, and interesting as a well-written novel. The internet is a wealthy source of community and education. While I understand that stress from driving can make your blood pressure rise (trust me, I’ve commuted in two of the worst cities for commuting… I get it), it’s also good to have a car around sometimes.

Ignoring his opinions about everything from religion to technology to relationships to gender roles, I thoroughly enjoyed Better Off. I was intrigued by the “Minimite” culture and I was interested in learning about their relationship with technology and outsiders. Their community is strict about a lot of things, but it was kind of hard to figure out some of their reasoning. They disapproved of bicycles, but I never really understood why. My favorite parts of this book were actually the parts when Brende described how he and his wife survived without technology. The physiological changes were fascinating, including adjustments to extreme temperatures in the summer and the natural circadian rhythm that occurs when you don’t rely on electrical lights. I loved his descriptions of simple household tasks, like canning and farming and barn raising. The community that develops when you rely on each other was also fascinating to witness, though I’m not entirely sure how closely Brende really got to the members of the community or how accurate his descriptions really were.

Better Off is lucky. I’m fascinated by this topic right now, so I’m being rather lenient; I’m not sure I would have liked this book much at all if I hadn’t been so intrigued by its subject matter. Apart from Brende’s absolute stance on technology, the storytelling and writing is clunky and confusing throughout most of this book. When Brende is on, he’s on, but his narrative felt strung together and disconnected. It was chronological, but other than that not very coherently organized. It was difficult to keep the people straight and I was sometimes confused by the narrative. I often felt like I had missed something, but I would go back and reread and find I had read everything there. One thing that bothered me the most was the way he discussed his wife. I’m sure they have a very loving relationship, but it would feel like he would forget he had a wife for dozens of pages and then his editor would remind him to talk about her a little bit. She was definitely secondary in this story and I would have liked to see a little bit more of her perspective throughout.

I wonder how much of what they learned during those 18 months applies to their lives now. They talk about their current lives a little bit, but not much. They don’t have a television. They do have a car, they just don’t drive it very often. They do have electricity. They make their own soap. Brende drives a rickshaw. Over all, I think Better Off succeeds in taking the whole quest/goal memoir to a new level. It’s very difficult to join Mennonite/Amish/Anabaptist communities with any kind of success and Brende did it, more or less respectfully. Whether or not I agreed with him on all of his opinions, he certainly practiced what he preached for those 18 months and it made for an interesting, if not a terribly well-written, memoir.

Wanderlust by Elisabeth Eaves

Wanlderlust is Elisabeth Eaves’s travel memoir that spans her teenage years to her late twenties. She first becomes obsessed by travel after a boyfriend saves up and travels the world with no commitments. Jealous, she begins planning to do something similar. Through study abroad, an internship with the State Department and her own travels, Eaves honestly details what it is like to travel alone as a woman. Unfortunately, Eaves’s memoir left me confused and uncomfortable, frustrated and disappointed, when I really wanted to enjoy this memoir.

I respect Elisabeth Eaves’s honesty, but I’m flabbergasted as to why every trip she takes is either because of a man or results in a man. She talks about finding herself, but all she finds is another man to sleep with, or perhaps, fall in love with. Why is this the particular structure she chose for her story? Did it really have to be that way? You can’t tell me that she couldn’t have described her travels outside of the context of getting, losing or lusting after a man. To top it all off, she described other women so disdainfully. And maybe it wouldn’t bother me so much if Eaves weren’t such a good writer. I wanted to keep reading Wanderlust, because it is written beautifully, but I found myself angry and even offended at her descriptions.

There were times when Eaves really examined what it is like to be a girl traveling alone and that is when I truly appreciated her. “I craved total freedom, and I envied the boys because I thought they could have it. But there was a way in which, as a girl, I could act free but never quite get there in my head. However many expectations I escaped and constraints I threw off, there would always be that nagging caution at the back of my mind that said I’d better lock the door, ” she explains. That is what I wanted, acknowledge what it is like to be a girl traveling alone, but to go beyond that, to write about what it is like to be Elisabeth Eaves traveling alone. Instead, I came across understanding little about her and the places she visited and more about how many men she slept with. I want to make clear that my problem is not with how many men she slept with or the fact that she slept with men, but that it became central to her memoir, apart from her travels. The subtitle of her book is “A Love Affair with Five Continents”, but the reality becomes “Love Affairs in Five Continents”.

When Eaves abandons this pretense, and writes just about travel or just about where she is or about how she is feeling, I loved her best. I can almost overlook the rest just for those pure moments of excellent travel writing. I understand exactly what Ash is saying in her own review of this novel, the fact that Eaves acknowledges her faults, acknowledges what she does with this book, almost makes it easier to read. At the same time, though, I just don’t understand the structure. Once again, I find myself wondering if this is a fault of how the book is marketed. It’s billed as a travel memoir and travel writing, but is it really? Or is it a memoir of love, relationships and travel. If it had been sold to me as that, I very well may have enjoyed this.

Giveaway: If your interested in finding out for yourself if you could connect with Eaves and her storytelling style, I have one copy of Wanderlust to give away. All you have to do is leave a comment on this post. I’ll announce the winner in one week! 

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing me with a copy of this book to review. You can find out more about the tour here

Thoughts Without Cigarettes by Oscar Hijuelos

Though I’ve never read any of Oscar Hijuelos’s fiction (not for lack of wanting to… I’ve always been interested in Hijuelos, it just hasn’t happened yet), I was deeply intrigued by his memoir Thoughts Without Cigarettes.  Hijuelos moved to the United States when he was just a young boy and Thoughts Without Cigarettes chronicles his life from before his birth, when his parents met, to his struggle for success as an adult and fiction writer. Though I have never read any of Hijuelos’s fiction, it’s clear to see through this memoir how fabulous of a writer he is. Some of my very favorite parts were in the beginning when he was talking about his visit to Cuba as a young boy. He gets across that dreamy reality that is a childhood memory so well.

A lot of times it feels as though you are reading fiction or even poetry, Hijuelos just has a talent for describing every day things with beautiful language that makes it seem unreal or better than reality. That’s not a complaint or a bad thing at all, in fact I love reading memoirs like this. Like I said in my post about Breaking Up with God, everyone has a story to tell, it’s just about how well you tell it. Hijuelos has a pretty remarkable story and he tells it brilliantly. When Hijuelos moves on from telling the story of his childhood this dreamy quality disappears a little bit, but rightfully so.

My biggest complaint is that this book is long, probably longer than a memoir needs to be and there certainly were parts that interested me more than others. It’s a difficult book to get into because the amount of detail, but I recommend picking up this book for an interesting story about finding your place in between two cultures, writing, and family.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for sending me a copy of this book to review!