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?

Nonfiction November: Book Pairing

Hooray, it’s Nonfiction November, one of my favorite blog events! Click on the link for a complete schedule.

This week’s topic is “Book Pairings,” hosted by Sarah’s Book Shelves — pair up a fiction and nonfiction book you’ve read, that are linked in some way.

I did not have to look far to find a pairing out of the books I’ve read or reread this year. I immediately thought of the new novel, based on real-life people and events, that I’ll be reviewing after it’s published in the US next year:

O’Connor’s fictional take on the relationships between actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, and their theatrical manager Bram Stoker, immediately brought to mind some of the essays of Robertson Davies, a specialist in nineteenth-century theatre, whose works I celebrated earlier this year:

This is always a fun exercise, and I invariably find that without meaning to I’ve read books during the year that go together in some way. What pairings would you come up with?

How should fiction and nonfiction mix?

This week’s Nonfiction November topic, hosted by Rennie of What’s Nonfiction, is Reads Like Fiction.

Nonfiction books often get praised for how they stack up to fiction. Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel? If it does, what gives it that fiction-like feeling? Does it depend on the topic, the writing, the use of certain literary elements and techniques? What are your favorite nonfiction recommendations that read like fiction? And if your nonfiction picks could never be mistaken for novels, what do you love about the differences?

I’d like to put a slightly different spin on the topic, and ask: What degree of factuality should there be in fiction, and to what degree is it acceptable to deviate from the facts in nonfiction? What works for you, or what do you find ethically acceptable?

I find the most impressive historical novels stick to the facts as far as they are known and fill in plausible details around the edges where there are uncertainties. It’s rare that an author does not change, rearrange, or combine the facts in some way, but I appreciate a note informing me about these deviations. And I personally do not like it when really important details, like whether a character was married or a murderer or present/absent at some crucial event, are changed — when things get too far from reality, then I think it’s better to create original characters based on or inspired by the historical figures, and give the imagination free rein.

I love nonfiction that reads like fiction, but I don’t like too much invention here either. Sometimes the facts are just too few and far between, and rather than writing a very short book the author speculates at length about things no one can possibly know. To me, this quickly becomes tiresome. Sometimes twisting a certain event or sequence of events makes a better story, which is within the bounds of respectability in a novel, but not, to me, in a nonfiction book. It’s all right to imagine some scenes or bits of dialogue, but I get uncomfortable if these devices take up too much of the book, or are not properly identified. Here, too, there are times when I wish the book would just be written as fiction and have done with it.

How do you feel about the mixing of fiction and nonfiction? Can they be respectably combined, or do they need to stay in separate corners?

Posted for the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Feed Your Fiction Addiction and It Starts at Midnight.

Nonfiction November: Fiction/Nonfiction pairing

Welcome to Nonfiction November! This week’s topic is one of my favorites; I find it great fun to look back at my fiction and nonfiction reading and see which titles go together, out of a seemingly random assemblage of books.

I have three pairings for you this year. If you have a post, please let me know – or leave your own suggestions in the comments! This week’s topic is hosted by Sarah’s Book Shelves, so head over there to find out more.



I Don’t Want To Talk About It by Terrence Real
It’s Like This, Cat by Emily Neville

Two decades ago, psychotherapist Terry Real wrote a groundbreaking book about the epidemic of “covert depression” in men, which stems from the way our society systematically discourages emotional nurture and relatedness in half of the population. This denial of basic human needs can cause extreme trauma and dysfunctionality, with far-reaching consequences for our families and our world. I think this book should be required reading for ALL women — and men who have the guts to face their issues.

In a Newbery-winning novel of the 1960s, the classic “disconnected father / silenced mother” relationship was subtly portrayed many years before Real made his study of the pattern. Narrated by their teenage son, who takes in a stray cat in defiance of his father’s wishes, it shows how building bonds of connection and relatedness between people (and animals!) slowly transforms him, and also changes his family.

The Apocalypse of St. John by Emil Bock
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

I’ve gotten very interested in reading about the Apocalypse these days, for all-too-obvious reasons. Emil Bock’s profound study elucidated many puzzling elements for me, including the meaning of the number 666. (Think of it this way: the Apocalypse is completely based on cycles of seven, so a triple six is like saying “the eleventh hour,” the last moment before a next stage has to begin.)

Meanwhile, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman take a much more irreverent view of the topic, with a set of Four Horsemen on motorcycles and an eleven-year-old Antichrist. Yet for all their silliness, they never lose sight of the dignity of the human spirit which is the basis of all true religion. That’s what I like about these two authors; they know the real meaning of comedy, which is to restore wholeness.

Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales by Marie-Louise von Franz
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

Speaking of wholeness, we can’t have it without an understanding of the shadows cast by our light of consciousness. Fairy tales offer a superb guide to this un-penetrated part of our being, and Marie-Louise von Franz’s lectures illuminate their wisdom with her own insights from years of work as a Jungian analyst.

For a literary treatment of the shadow motif, there’s none better than Le Guin’s first tale of Earthsea, in which a young wizard looses the forces of darkness in a moment of pride and arrogance. As he painfully must find a way to make up for the harm he has caused, we follow him on a journey that can teach us, too, how to reclaim and own our shadows.

Nonfiction November wrap-up: New to My TBR

It’s been a veritable feast of nonfiction books this month! Thank you to everyone who has made this such an amazing event once more.

Here’s a roundup of those who shared their new TBR additions this week. (Sorry about the linky problems everybody — I’m not sure what happened, but most links seemed to come through in the end.)


Wow — that’s around 200 books with not much overlap (though a few popular titles appeared more than once). This should definitely keep us busy for the next 11 months! Until next November, enjoy your reading and be sure to come back to share your adventures in nonfiction with us.

Nonfiction November: New To My TBR

It’s my pleasure to host this final week of Nonfiction November, with the topic New To My TBR:

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!

I’ve gone through every link from the previous weeks, and though it’s really difficult to keep from adding dozens of books to my list, I’m going to limit myself to just one book for each topic this year. Then, I might have more hope of actually reading them!

Your Year in Nonfiction (hosted by JulzReads)

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah was recommended many times, including at The Book Stop, Novel Visits, Sarah’s Book Shelves, and Too Fond. Even though I’ve never seen The Daily Show, this memoir of growing up in South Africa sounds both hilarious and heartbreaking. The audiobook version comes highly praised, too, so I might break my usual resistance and try that version.

Fiction/Nonfiction Pairing (hosted by Sarah’s Book Shelves)

So many wonderful combinations here! For an individual pairing, I was strongly attracted to The Novel of the Century and Les Miserables, the novel in question, a combo recommended both at One Catholic Life and Words and Peace.

Nick also got me interested in his chapter-a-day readalong of Les Miserables, taking place throughout 2018 (yes, there are 365 chapters). If you’d like to join, here’s the sign-up post.

Be the Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert (hosted by Sophisticated Dorkiness)

The variety of topics here was truly mind-blowing; do check them out. Learning more about the Middle East is calling to me right now, and Maphead provided a great list of books from Iran. The one she identifies as the “best book on Iran she’s ever read” has the intriguing title The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, so that sounds like a good place to start.

Nonfiction Favorites (hosted by Doing Dewey)

Not everyone listed individual books in their posts, so I had fewer to choose from this time, which in theory should make picking one easier. In fact, it was incredibly difficult to decide between everyone’s “must-read” favorite books. What’s Nonfiction had a great list; I’d love to read all of them, but The Tiger sounds like an amazing read: a thrilling adventure that also reaches into many aspects of history, science, and other areas of knowledge. That’s a combination I always love finding in nonfiction.

What have you added to your TBR this month? Please use the linkup below for your own posts, or share them in the comments. I’ll do a final wrap-up on Friday, and that’s it for this year!


What makes a nonfiction favorite?

This week’s topic for Nonfiction November, hosted by Katie of Doing Dewey, is Nonfiction Favorites:

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.

Fascinating facts

This may seem ultra-obvious, but when I read nonfiction I want to learn interesting things. I’m not obligated by my job or studies to do this, so any topic will do as long as the author brings out something relevant, unusual, surprising, beautiful, or mind-blowing about it. My favorite books leave me with a life-enhancing sense of wonder and amazement.

Good storytelling

I’m admittedly mainly a fiction reader, so in order to hold my attention and help me retain information, it’s helpful to tell me a story. Not every subject is suited to this method, but the ones that do lend themselves to storytelling are the most likely to become my favorites.

A minimum of speculation

On the other hand, there’s a danger that when the facts are thin on the ground the author will fill them in by speculating about what might have been. It annoys me to read lengthy passages discussing the possible color of somebody’s hair, or postulating about piss freezing in the chamber pots on a particular morning. Even worse is inventing incidents or characters without identifying them as such to the reader. If you don’t know something, say so…and if you want to indulge your imagination, write a novel!

My favorite nonfiction is firmly based in reality, even if that means the book has to be very short.

Well-crafted language (but skip the flowers)

Many nonfiction writers are journalists or academics, whose writing style may be serviceable at best. This is fine for conveying information, but my favorite nonfiction books will have phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that resound with a distinctive voice. The danger is that some writers seem to be trying too hard and end up writing terribly purple prose, which is also irritating. Writing can be simple and clear, but still artistically formed, and that’s what I really gravitate towards in nonfiction.

An uplifting spirit

Some books are important to read, but depressing. I’m grateful that they exist, but unlikely to count them as my favorites. I will take more to my heart the books that leave me with some hope, comfort, or inspiration to carry me into the future, even when (or especially when) they grapple with tough subjects like injustice, war, and death.

Here are some of my favorite nonfiction titles that I’ve read since I started blogging:

What are your favorites, and what criteria help you to select them?