Nonfiction review: Danubia

Simon Winder, Danubia (2014)

You might think that a book subtitled “a personal history of Habsburg Europe” would be quite distant from our current preoccupations, would be dusty, nostalgic and quaint, irrelevant to the challenges we face today. You would be wrong.

This is a chronicle of the last few hundred years of the eastern part of the ancient Holy Roman Empire, which was ruled by the Habsburg family, generally located along the Danube river, and morphed into Austria-Hungary before its demise in the twentieth century. Over the entire length of that long period now hangs the shadow of the train wreck that was the Great War of 1914-1919. What happened there? How can we understand it, and how prevent it from happening again?

Those questions are not distant or irrelevant. They are ever more pressing, as the powers of division and conflict rise again, as tyrants and oppressed people struggle once more. As I read, I was repeatedly struck by the way things have not changed all that much at all, and at the same time how hard it seems to be for us to process the way things really have changed fundamentally. Will we ever learn?

Winder writes in a jokey, conversational style that could cause one to dismiss him as lightweight and not serious enough for such a big topic. Whether you find it engaging or irritating is probably a matter of personal taste. This is not an academic study, nor does it claim to be. It is a personal rambling through some personal pleasures and preoccupations, and should be judged as such. I would not take it as my only source of information, but as a starting point and an occasional source of laughter or jolt of recognition, it’s not bad.

For example, here is Winder’s description of Franz Ferdinand (whose assassination set off the Great War):

Of course we will never know if he would have been a “good” Emperor. It may well be that he had just waited too long and that whatever qualities he might have possessed had long curdled, lost in a maze of ritual, uniforms, masses, and — above all — hunting. His shooting skills made him legendary, belonging to that disgusting and depressing era when even the aristocratic hunting expedition became married to modern military technology, unbalancing the entire relationship of hunter and hunted, so that shooting partridges became like a proto-version of playing Space Invaders.

Academic it may not be, but it is vivid and memorable. Along with a vaguely chronological overview of the Habsburg rulers, who were a largely unattractive lot with occasional amusing eccentricities, we get interpolated commentary about Winder’s obsessions with things such as zoo architecture, folkloric villages, the music of Haydn, and much more. It’s like rambling through a historical museum with a talkative, witty, and easily distractible friend.

I did not ever really understand what happened in the time leading up to the war. It was such a tangle of nationalisms and bad diplomacy and self-aggrandizement that I could not wrap my head around it. But I did get this: nationalism is a dead end. Although Habsburg rule may have been terrible, the empire at least provided its diverse population with some room to move and interact and create, while after the empire fell, people were imprisoned in the narrow, dirty cells of their new nations. And of course, with a lot of people and entire ethnic/religious groups exiled, killed, or soon to be killed. We have to find a better way than this.

This is the kind of book I don’t like to read as an e-book (which is what I did). I would rather have the whole book before me so I can refer to former sections, look at maps and lists of rulers with confusingly similar names, and mark favorite passages. So if you do read it, I recommend paper.

If I can get my hands on a physical copy I might read it again, and I’d like to read Winder’s earlier book, Germania. Have you read anything by Simon Winder? Would you like to? Or is his personal take on European history not to your taste?


Nonfiction November: New to my TBR

Nonfiction November comes to a close with the topic New to My TBR (hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey): It’s been a month full of amazing nonfiction books! Which ones have made it onto your TBR? Be sure to link back to the original blogger who posted about that book.

Here are some of the titles I’ve added to my “want to read” list. What’s on yours?

  • Difficult Women – Adventures in Reading, Writing, and Working from Home – “took a series of big fights and showed the women who were involved in them, featuring some huge characters”
  • Apollo’s Arrow mentioned at What’s Nonfiction – “an up-to-the-minute analysis of what’s happened this year, how it compares to past pandemics and plagues, where we’re headed, and what’s important to know about epidemiology as we try to get there.”
  • They Called Us Enemy mentioned at The Book Stop – “Takei’s work is brilliant – it’s moving and yet provided a lot of historical detail I wasn’t aware of, all in the form of a graphic novel.”
  • Know My Name mentioned at Adventures of a Bibliophile – “It’s just another important read to better understand the experiences of women in America, and why society and the government largely fails to protect us. “
  • Dear Life mentioned at BookerTalk – ” In her book she argues that even in the final months, weeks and days of life, there can be moments of joy.”

Nonfiction November: Be the Expert

Hosted by Rennie of What’s Nonfiction), there are three ways to join in Nonfiction November this week! You can either share 3 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 year I read several books by blind people or about the topic of blindness. My interest was first sparked by reading Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life for the Classics Club last year.

I then wanted to read another collection of her essays, The World I Live In, which came highly recommended by Oliver Sacks, among others. As I said in my review, “it is the description of her other senses, of the world of touch, smell, and taste that she lives in, that is most fascinating and mind-expanding. Her finely differentiated, sensitive observations made me feel how blunt and unrefined my own sensory experience normally is, how I go through my colorful, sounding world without truly seeing and hearing it. Perhaps it is I who am handicapped, rather than Helen Keller, who perceives so much through the faintest vibration in her environment.”

Oliver Sacks’s own An Anthropologist on Mars contains several fascinating case studies of blind or vision-impaired individuals, including a painter who becomes color-blind with disturbing results; a man whose brain is damaged by a tumor that is later removed, leaving him blind but convinced he can still see; and another man who is able to have an operation that partly restores his sight but ends up unable to negotiate this new world. It is revealed that sight is not only about functioning eyes, but something we must learn to do — with very great difficulty after we lose the malleability of our brains in early childhood. There is so much to think about here, that I can only recommend that everyone read this illuminating book.

This was all so interesting that I wanted to learn more. Library browsing brought up Haben, an autobiography by a deaf-blind woman who graduated from Harvard Law School and now works as a lawyer for disability rights. Her courage and persistence were impressive, and it was good to read from an inside perspective about her experience of prejudice, misunderstanding, and the struggle to make herself seen and heard.

I also stumbled upon For the Benefit of Those Who See by Rosemary Mahoney, a journalist who has been terrified of becoming blind from a young age. When she wrote an article about Braille without Borders, a school for blind children in Tibet, she was moved to investigate further and spend time teaching English at another school in India. Mahoney seemed quite oblivious about how unreasonable her own fears and prejudices were, which was a little off-putting, but she does uncover some important information and experiences that added to my understanding of the topic. I would rather have read a book by a student of Braille without Borders, though.

Have you read any other books by or about blind people? What can you recommend?

Should memoirs be considered fiction?



I remember how it rocked my world when a New Yorker article showed that Madeleine L’Engle’s portrayal of her life and family in her Crosswicks journals was more of a fictional construct. Since then I’m cautious about assigning factual truth to memoirs, but I tend to give the authors some leeway.

Goodness knows, if I had to write the story of my own life, there would be a lot that was not strictly accurate. Our memories are not photographic records, and we do tend to “re-remember” the past as a defense mechanism against painful experiences or to make sense of disconnected incidents.

If this is done unconsciously in the writing of a memoir, it’s understandable and human. If it’s done consciously, with deliberate intent, then such a book seems to depart from the realm of nonfiction. And given that sometimes it’s hard to know what really happened, maybe all memoirs should be assumed to be “fictionalized.” But is there something wrong with that?

There can be different levels of truth, and sometimes the truth of a narrative is not in the bare facts. Some memoirists are able to tread that line gracefully, letting their real selves shine through what will necessarily always be an interpretation, a reordering of lives phenomena.

If too much is concealed or distorted, though, it seems problematic. If it’s an attempt to push some agenda, or present a false persona, the claim to any kind of truth should be discarded.

What do you think? Should memoirs be considered fiction or nonfiction? And does it matter?

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

Nonfiction November: Book Pairing

This week’s Nonfiction November topic is Book Pairing (hosted by Julz of Julz Reads): This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.


The obvious combo that springs to mind from this year’s reading is one I’ve mentioned elsewhere: The House of the Spirits and My Invented Country by Isabel Allende. Allende’s debut novel was a magical and sometimes brutal evocation of Chilean history through a family saga that was based on her own. After reading it I was curious to know more about the real story, and so I read one of the author’s several memoirs, a book in which she particularly considers what it means to her to be a writer in exile from her homeland. I enjoyed it even more than the novel; Allende’s sense of humor particularly comes to the fore as she writes about her own thoughts and experiences.


In another pairing, as I was reading Home by Julie Andrews, I thought, “This is like a real-life Noel Streatfeild novel” — for example, Dancing Shoes, which I reread this year. Young Julie’s talent brought her to the stage at an early age, just like Streatfeild’s performing children; and like them, she struggled with poverty and family problems. Her story has a bit more grit and realism but also a hopeful trajectory as she becomes a rising star.


Another reread was Chime by Franny Billingsley, a dark but beautifully written and moving fantasy that circles around themes of abuse and how it alters our perception of reality. I’d pair this with the new release Inferno by Catherine Cho, which comes out of the author’s experience of postpartum depression and psychosis. It’s also emotionally devastating and beautifully written.

Have you read any other novels that you would pair with a memoir or biography that gets into the reality behind the fiction? Or what other combinations have you discovered?

Nonfiction November: My Year in Nonfiction

Hooray, it’s Nonfiction November! This is a yearly event that a lot of us look forward to.

The topic this week is Your Year in Nonfiction, hosted by Leann of Shelf Aware: 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?

I made it a goal this year to read more nonfiction, and I did. I discovered many amazing books and learned so much.

Aside from memoirs, which are always a pull because I love to read people’s stories, I’ve been attracted to medical topics, books about trauma and recovery, and books about people with neurological or sensory differences. The standout was probably An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks. I’ll definitely be seeking out more of his books.

I have recommended The Body Keeps the Score to many people, and I will continue to do so because I think it is such an important book. We need to change our thinking about lots of things, and trauma is one thing that severely clouds our thinking. This book shows it is possible to find a way through, using the wisdom of the body to help.

Here is a list of the nonfiction books I’ve read since last November:

  • Daring to Drive by Manal al-Sharif – Memoir, activism
  • Ce n’est pas toi que j’attendais by Fabien Toulmé – Graphic memoir
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (plus her other memoirs)
  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah – Memoir
  • The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk – Science (trauma and recovery)
  • The World I Live In by Helen Keller – Essays
  • I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong – Science (microbiology)
  • Good Morning Monster by Catherine Gildiner – Psychology (patient stories)
  • Inferno by Catherine Cho – Memoir of a psychosis
  • Home and Home Work by Julie Andrews – Memoir
  • My Invented Country by Isabel Allende – Memoir
  • The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu – Spirituality
  • In Pursuit of Disobedient Women by Dionne Searcey – Memoir, reporting
  • Rudolf Steiner and Swedenborg by Gary Lachman – Biography
  • An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks – Science (neurological case studies)
  • Funny, You Don’t Look Autistic by Michael McCreary – Memoir
  • Haben by Haben Grima – Memoir
  • Lingo by Gaston Dorren – Language
  • For the Benefit of Those Who See by Rosemary Mahoney – Memoir, experiences with the blind
  • Toucher la vie by Thich Nhat Hanh – Spirituality
  • Too Much and Never Enough by Mary L.Trump – family biography, psychology

What do I hope to get out of Nonfiction November? It’s always so interesting to see what others have been reading and to get ideas for my own nonfiction reading for next year. And I hope that others might be inspired by some of what I have to share too.

There is so much to learn and to discover in our world, and this event helps to keep me grounded in that activity when so much is flying out of control. We can always strive to keep our perspective, to see clearly, understand, and put together the disparate pieces of our experience. That’s what I’m trying to do, anyway.

What does Nonfiction November hold for you?

Witch Week: The Graveyard Book

As October turns to November, I hope you’re enjoying Witch Week as hosted by Lizzie Ross – she’s put together a wonderful array of posts on the theme of “Gothick.”

Today’s treat is a discussion of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. I was so happy to get to participate, along with Lizzie and two of my other favorite blogging friends, Chris of Calmgrove and Jean of Howling Frog Books. We had a long and fascinating discussion over Google Docs, which Lizzie has edited down for your reading pleasure.

In this dark time, Gaiman’s tales of life in the graveyard held a curious kind of reassurance for us. I hope you’ll read more about what we found there.


Month in Review: October 2020

This month I went on vacation for two weeks to Crete (see here for pictures on my other blog). It was a most welcome and relaxing break, during which I got into rereading Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. It started with Gaudy Night, which I’ve been wanting to reread for some time, but then I realized I had to started with the first two Harriet Vane books, and then I couldn’t stop. It was perfect vacation reading, after all.

I could not get on at all with Foundation by Isaac Asimov, though. It’s the start of another series, and some say the later books are better, but I’m not interested in pursuing them. This one was too silly and too boring. Classic science fiction sometimes does have that effect on me.

What books or series have you been captured by this month?



  • In search of something light, I hit on Unmarriageable, an update of Pride and Prejudice to modern Pakistan.


Other Books Read

  • The Song of Seven by Tonke Dragt, translated by Laura Watkinson
  • Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  • Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, Clouds of Witness, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, The Nine Tailors, and Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers
  • Too Much and Never Enough by Mary L.Trump


Other Features and Events


On my other blog


Shared in the Sunday Post hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer and the Monthly Wrap-up Round-up hosted by Feed Your Fiction Addiction

Am I an e-book convert?



Many, many years ago, in my eighth grade oral presentation class, one of the few talks I remember giving was one about e-books. They were not even really a thing back then, but for some reason the topic was in the air. I argued against them, saying that paper was more permanent, more aesthetic, and more shareable. E-books seemed so ephemeral and somehow illegitimate.

I still find e-books more ephemeral and uglier than paper books. But I’ve given them a larger and larger share of my reading life. They’re just so convenient and portable. I check out books from the library, or download free classics, because I don’t like spending money on them. I can carry my e-reader around easily everywhere, get books instantly, and not have to wrestle with heavy volumes or awkward positioning.

Since I’ve started to read books in French, the built-in dictionary is a godsend. And the real clincher is that my excellent eyesight has at long last started to fail, and I HATE wearing reading glasses. With an e-book I can enlarge the text so that I don’t have to.

What I like least about e-books is the inability to focus on more than one page at once: to physically grasp the length of a chapter in relation to the whole, to flip back and forth to look at maps, pictures, and footnotes, or to correlate passages with diagrams or with other sections of the book. For these, I definitely prefer paper. And for a total aesthetic experience, with pictures and typography, give me a beautifully printed and bound copy. These still have an important place in my life.

But otherwise, I’ve done a 180 degree turn from my eighth grade position, and embraced e-books.

What about you? Do you have any opinions about your reading habits you thought would never change, but have since converted?

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

In search of something light

Looking for a book to lighten my mood, I tried and discarded a number of candidates, from contemporary and historical rom-coms to fantasies to classic mysteries. Nothing held my attention for long: too crude, too contrived, too anachronistic, too dated. Would I ever find something to brighten up my reading life?

A couple of tried and true favorites came to the rescue: Margery Sharp (the appropriately named Something Light) and Barbara Pym (Jane and Prudence). Compared to the plodding and half-literate writing I sometimes come across in popular fiction of today, these two ladies always write with real style and distinction, but not a touch of pretention. Perfect light reading that does not insult the intelligence, if you can look past the mid-century assumptions about gender roles.

I’ve taken a long break from Jane Austen retellings, but I also tried a couple of those — and found  Unmarriageable to be a worthy entry in this overcrowded genre, as well as an addition for my Reading All Around the World project. Soniah Kamal has updated the story of Pride and Prejudice to twenty-first-century Pakistan, a setting that is in some ways very far away from Austen’s and in other ways very close, with a similar pressure on women to marry, rigid social rules and codes, and tension between outer wealth and inner moral worth. The updates of the characters are fun to follow; even their names are entertaining.

Just a few things felt off to me: what was perhaps meant as sardonic wit from Alys, the Lizzie Bennett character, came across as too harsh and angry; the Mr. Collins character was too positively portrayed, being wealthy, successful, and generous instead of a sycophantic creep; and it was beyond the bounds of belief that Alys, a high school English teacher who opens the novel with a lesson on P&P, would not notice that her life has started to uncannily resemble her favorite book.

Otherwise it was a literary romp that also gave a fascinating view into life, and especially marriage customs, in Pakistan. I especially loved how at the end every single female character got her own business or profession at which to shine. That’s the kind of update I like to see!

Have you found any light reading lately to lift your spirits?