Nonfiction November

Posted November 7, 2014 by Lory in brief reviews / 28 Comments

After an intense week of immersion in fantasy fiction for Witch Week, it’s time for something different! So this month, I’m joining in Nonfiction November, hosted by I’m Lost in Books, Regular Rumination, Sophisticated Dorkiness, and Doing Dewey. I hope this event will inspire me to read and post more about non-fiction, as well as gather recommendations from other bloggers to help me diversify my TBR list.

Today, I’m combining two of the weekly topics of the event, “My Year in Nonfiction” and “Be the Expert” (i.e., compose a list of recommendations on a particular subject). I think of myself as a fiction junkie, so I was surprised that many of my favorite reads this year so far have been non-fiction. And when I looked more closely, I found that they mostly fell into a category I could call “Unconventional Biographies.” Rather than sticking to a traditional cradle-to-grave narrative of a single person’s life, told by an author who tries to keep him- or herself out of the story as much as possible, these books shake up the biographical conventions in one way or another, and are all the better for it.


The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science – Richard Holmes
Holmes tells the story of the “second generation” of the scientific revolution, largely through pocket biographies of the men and women who created it, including Joseph Banks, John and Caroline Herschel, and Humphry Davy. In the process he creates a fascinating portrait of a time of transition in art, science, metaphysics and politics, which laid the foundation for the world we live in today.  When I read this book shortly after Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, which covers the same time period, I liked the novel, but I found the true stories even more compelling.

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things – Paula Byrne
We are perhaps most concretely connected to the people of the past through the objects they left behind, yet it can be hard to penetrate their exteriors and call up an experience of what they really meant for their former owners. In this biography of the elusive Jane Austen, Byrne takes objects as a starting point for her essays on various biographical themes, and brings some fresh insights into a life that remains a source of endless fascination. Though the book could have used more thorough editing (as I mentioned in my “Austen in August” review), it’s also immensely entertaining and thought-provoking, as long as you take some of Byrne’s conclusions with a grain of salt.

Robertson Davies: A Portrait in Mosaic – Val Ross
One of my favorite authors is portrayed through the words of those who knew him, with short quotations from a staggering variety of sources artfully woven together into a coherent narrative. Davies’s “official” biography was written while he was still alive, and was a project he regarded with some ambivalence, causing him perhaps to hide as much as he revealed. In this posthumous Portrait, light is shed upon some areas that were formerly murky, while the unusual format helps to make it clear that a human life is a complex and sometimes contradictory thing, which can be seen differently from different perspectives. Not for Davies newbies — read some of the novels first, but once you do you’ll want to learn more about their larger-than-life author.

My Life in Middlemarch – Rebecca Mead
When I originally reviewed My Life in Middlemarch, I wrote, “Why aren’t there more books like this?” Mead links her life with the great book that has stayed with her through the years, and also explores the life of its author, in an unusual blend of memoir, biography, and literary criticism. Never ponderous or self-indulgent, it’s a celebration of the joy of reading that is itself a joy to read.

Strings Attached – Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky
This inspiring, heartbreaking story of a fiery Ukrainian-American music teacher, written as a sort of autobiographical duet by two former students (one of them his daughter), is many things. It’s being publicized as “a celebration of the profound impact one person can have on the lives of others,” and it is that. It also shows what can happen when our public school system actually works, when initiative meets freedom of opportunity. For me, it was most touching in its exploration of the power of music to sustain and connect us, as in a life marked by almost unbearable tragedies “Mr. K” passionately passes on his gifts. A great bonus is the music featured on the book’s website, where you can listen to such gems as eight-year-old Melanie playing a piece composed especially for her.

What have been your favorite nonfiction reads this year? What topics have you learned the most about, or want to explore more?

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28 responses to “Nonfiction November

  1. Like you, I really don't make lots of forays into the world of nonfiction. That little image of the cork board at the top of this post reminded me of my favorite (that I never reviewed on my blog!). Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. I've always been an introvert that functions as an extrovert and this book absolutely fascinated me! I'll be thinking of other nonfiction stuff that I've read this year. I know I've read more than just this one book…

    • I remember you mentioning that one but it's good to know it remained so memorable for you. I'd love to know some of your other nonfiction picks.

    • It was one of my favorite books this year. It's unusual for me to prefer nonfiction to fiction, but this time I definitely did.

  2. The Age of Wonder has been on my TBR list for ages – I must get to it! His more recent book Falling Upwards sounds awesome too. Also, I bet I'd love My Life in Middlemarch. Maybe it's one for the Christmas list…

  3. My book club read Middlemarch this summer and a couple of the members mentioned My Life in Middlemarch as a recommendation too. Middlemarch itself was so long I needed a break from that world. 🙂

    The Austen book sounds ínterestîng too. I reread Northanger Abbey this year which has whetted my appetite for more of her.

    • It's good to read a traditional biography first for orientation, or at least have some knowledge of basic facts and dates. Otherwise Byrne's treatment might be a bit confusing.

  4. I like the sound of My Life in Middlemarch…I love books that have literary commentary woven though out (The Storied Life of AJ Fikry…though it's fiction).

    This week, I posted books about the Kennedys for the Be an Expert post.

    • I have to read The Storied Life… I also love books about books. Your Kennedy list reminds me of my mom — she was (still is?) a Kennedy fanatic.

  5. I've never really enjoyed biographies. Not sure why. Most seem too dry, but your twist on the category here seems like a great way to approach them. Thanks for posting this list. 'Age of Wonder' has been added to my wish list.

    • I think it's good to have read Middlemarch, but Mead writes so lucidly that may not even be necessary. I haven't re-read it for a long time either (but I would like to, now). The Paper Garden sounds marvelous – thank you!

  6. Wow, what a goldmine of recs 🙂 I'm not sure if I've ever read an inconventional biography." I've seen My Life in Middlemarch and often wondered about it so thanks for your thoughts, I think I will read it 🙂

    • One thing that was interesting about that book was that it helped me realize that the arts and sciences were not always as separate as they are now — Keats was a medical student, for example, and Herschel was a professional musician. Fiction and nonfiction can play together well!