Nonfiction November – Reads Like Fiction

Rennie at What’s Nonfiction brings us this week’s prompt:

Nonfiction-November-2018Nonfiction 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 do love a nonfiction book that reads like an exciting novel!  It isn’t a requirement, though.

Some genres lend themselves to an exciting, novel-like treatment. True crime comes to mind, as well as history books about a specific event.  Characters are introduced, a plot is set into motion, and descriptive writing keeps us interested and engaged. One of my favorite books in this vein is Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy. I listened to it on audio and was riveted, finishing the book in a few days.

I don’t require it though. Essay collections by their nature rarely read like fiction, nor books that recommend books like The Novel Cure.  And nerd that I am I sometimes dive into straight up textbooks – Foundations of Clinical Psychiatry, I’m looking at you! As much as I enjoy fiction-y nonfiction, it doesn’t work well in all cases.

Narrative nonfiction gets a lot of love so I want to ask you guys – what’s a favorite nonfiction book that doesn’t read like fiction?

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Unbuttoning the CEO by Mia Sosa (The Suits Undone #1)

27477568As the CEO of a large tech company and a semi-reformed bad boy, Ethan Hill is used to calling the shots. But when he’s sentenced to work two hundred hours of community service-for reckless driving, of all things-this chief executive needs to keep his real identity under wraps. Which gets increasingly difficult when he can’t stop thinking about his sexy new (temporary) boss.

The moment Graciela Ramirez meets Ethan, she’s tempted to throw all professionalism out the window. She can’t afford to get emotionally involved, but after a steamy session behind office doors, a no-strings-attached fling might be exactly what they need. He’ll protect his secret. She’ll protect her heart. What could possibly go wrong?

Review:

I loved Sosa’s Acting on Impulse and wanted some breathing room before picking up the next book so I jumped to this series instead.  It turns out Unbuttoning the CEO is Sosa’s first novel, and it feels like it.  Not bad – it won a Golden Heart award after all – but uneven plot and character motivations as well as a lack of communication annoyed me.

I was surprised to find the basic setup is exactly the same as Impulse – a powerful/rich guy who goes by his middle name in business uses his first name for Reasons, and meets a beautiful lady under these barely false pretenses.

Acting on Impulse uses the tropes well – when the guy is “outed” the hero and heroine get around to talking and working through it.  Here Ethan keeps his secret much longer while having a ‘no strings’ relationship with Gracie, and neither is all that interested in communicating.  They do things to provoke reactions in each other and read too deeply into the results.  Gracie in particular does things that make little sense, like dropping a bunch of cash on a birthday present for her no-strings lover.

I’m glad I didn’t read this book first.  It reminds me that a so-so first novel can easily lead to great reads down the line, something always worth remembering.

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson

26073085Since 1865 and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, every time African Americans have made advances towards full participation in our democracy, white reaction has fueled a deliberate and relentless rollback of their gains. The end of the Civil War and Reconstruction was greeted with the Black Codes and Jim Crow; the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision was met with the shutting down of public schools while taxpayer dollars financed segregated white private schools; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 triggered the so-called Southern Strategy and the War on Drugs that disenfranchised millions of African Americans while propelling presidents Nixon and Reagan into the White House.

Anderson pulls back the veil that has long covered actions made in the name of protecting democracy, fiscal responsibility, or protection against fraud, rendering visible the long lineage of white rage.

Review:

When I was taught African-American history in school the overall impression was that things were bad, but courts or Congress would swoop in and save the day.  There was segregation… but the Supreme Court fixed it!  There were racist policies like poll taxes and literacy tests… but they were made illegal!

White Rage makes it painfully, powerfully clear that wasn’t the case.

For example, I knew about redlining, where non-whites would be directed to housing in certain (poor) districts, creating de facto segregation at the neighborhood level. It was taught in an economic, almost geometric sense in the classroom, but Anderson shows us how slow things were to change for the better via the story of Dr. Ossian Sweet.

A successful Howard-trained doctor, he and his family moved into a bungalow in a white, working class neighborhood in 1925.  The next day hundreds of people formed a mob around his house while the police watched from a distance, even when rocks were thrown.  When the mob rushed the house some men inside, including Sweet’s brothers, grabbed guns and fired into the crowd. At this point the police arrested the entire Sweet family and the friends that had come to support them… not the mob. Natch.

Two white men were dead, the police downplayed the mob, and witnesses perjured themselves to high heaven.  It took two trials to settle the matter, and while the Sweets were eventually acquitted the doctor’s brother, wife, and baby daughter all contracted tuberculosis while in jail and died. Dr. Sweet did his best to carry on but he lost his house, was forced to move back into a redlined district, and completed suicide.  It’s the first time I’ve read about the human dimension that goes along with the awful policy.

Winning a court battle, even at the Supreme Court level, did not bring the instant, inevitable change I was lead to believe.  Every right won had to be fought for again, and the lives ruined and potential lost in that time is immeasurable.  A quick look at the most recent US election shows that the cycle is still going strong – a white candidate for Georgia governor used his position as Secretary of State to disenfranchise African Americans at every turn.  The gutting of the Voting Rights Act several years ago meant that polling stations in African American neighborhoods could be closed with short notice and photo IDs could be made mandatory to vote. And until a few days ago former felons in the Sunshine State lost the right to vote for life.

In Florida, stunningly, felonies are not confined to burglaries and robberies but include offenses such as letting a helium balloon float up in the air, walking through a construction zone, or “catching lobsters with tails too short.”

My reading experience was good, if you can call being infuriated, shocked, and heart-broken in turns counts as good.  Everything is meticulously researched with end notes to match, and while I had trouble getting into the first chapter or two the rest flew by.

I’m grateful for a look at African American history through this specific lens, and I look forward to Anderson’s next book, One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy.


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Charleston Syllabus edited by Chad Williams, Kidada Williams, and Keisha N. Blain

Nonfiction November – Ask the Expert

This is one of my favorite prompts and I’m so glad to see it come back. It has a ton of choice:

Nonfiction-November-2018

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 year I’m going to ask you guys for some help!

I love finding and reading books by authors from marginalized groups. This includes people of color, LGBTIA+ folx, those who practice a non-Christian religion, those with disabilities, and more. Most often these diverse authors are called to write about issues and experiences relating to their identity – a black person discussing racism, someone with a chronic disease examining the health care system, or an LGBTQIA+ person writing about marriage equality.

I want to be clear – this is awesome. We need the voices of those affected by all kinds of issues to write books about them. I’m totally here for it.

However, diverse people have been pigeonholed into this role.

That’s not cool. So I want to know – what are your favorite nonfiction books by diverse authors where the subject is not related to their identity? Here are a few to start us off:

The Checklist Manifesto (or anything else) by Atul Gawande

Medical nonfiction written by a man of color.

Columbine by Dave Cullen

A deep, riveting account of the Columbine shooting, written by a gay man.

The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri

An examination of book design by a woman of color.

I’d like to add to this list – give me your suggestions!

The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya

translated from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda

38643164A housewife takes up bodybuilding and sees radical changes to her physique–which her workaholic husband fails to notice. A boy waits at a bus stop, mocking businessmen struggling to keep their umbrellas open in a typhoon–until an old man shows him that they hold the secret to flying. A woman working in a clothing boutique waits endlessly on a customer who won’t come out of the fitting room–and who may or may not be human. A newlywed notices that her husband’s features are beginning to slide around his face–to match her own.

In these eleven stories, the individuals who lift the curtains of their orderly homes and workplaces are confronted with the bizarre, the grotesque, the fantastic, the alien–and, through it, find a way to liberation.

Review:

These surreal yet grounded stories are exactly my kind of thing.

Many start in the mundane – a happy or unhappy marriage, a scene at work. One strange but believable thing happens, then something slightly more outrageous, until Motoya leads you down a path to the absolutely absurd.  It’s ridiculous, but you can’t imagine the story spinning out any other way.

Themes include knowing yourself, how we are changed by contact with other people, and the place of women in Japanese society.  Even more so than in the West, Japanese women are expected to be wives and mothers first, putting husbands and children before themselves. These women are the protagonists and navigate their way through a world where many things don’t go as planned.

The centerpiece, and one of my favorite stories, is the novella An Exotic Marriage.  A wife realizes that she and her husband look more similar as time goes on. At first she thinks it’s learned mannerisms or maybe sharing a taste in clothes, but one day she looks in the mirror and sees that her features have slipped slightly out of place, closer to those of her husband.  As soon as she notices they jump back into position, like kids caught doing something they shouldn’t, and the story spins on from there.

I was worried the longer length would mean absurdities would pile up to the point of being unbearable, but instead they’re more nuanced and layered. The page count is a strength, giving Motoya more room to develop characters and sub-plots and draw us into the world.  An Exotic Marriage won the Akutagawa Prize, arguably the highest literary honor in Japan, and it’s easy to see why.

Yoneda is an accomplished translator and her skill is well applied here.  I am in the unusual position of being able to read in both the source and target languages, but I never felt the Japanese poke through nor the need to back-translate. The reader is in good hands.

All in all I immensely enjoyed The Lonesome Bodybuilder. It’s perfect for when you want to read something delightfully different.

Thanks to Soft Skull Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Picture Perfect Cowboy by Tiffany Reisz (Original Sinners #10)

39092063Jason “Still” Waters’ life looks perfect from the outside—money, fame, and the words “World Champion Bull-Rider” after his name. But Jason has a secret, one he never planned on telling anybody…until he meets Simone. She’s the kinky girl of his dreams…and his conservative family’s worst nightmare.

Review:

A new release by Reisz, especially one in the Original Sinners universe, is always a reason to cheer.  Here she returns with some of her favorite elements – BDSM (of course), horses, and beloved series regulars – in a contemporary erotic romance.

The good:

  • Bi (as well as maybe pan) rep by an own voices author ❤️🌈
  • Zee tropes, zey are flipped.  Instead of a baby sub, endemic in the genre, we have a baby dom who is guided by a professional submissive.
  • The couple’s romance and emotional journey is well paced and thought out… until the end.
  • Reisz is always explicitly sex positive and guilt negative, and it’s a joy to read.
    “This is what I think,” she said. “If you’re enjoying it and I’m enjoying it, then we’re doing it right.”
  • There are cameo appearances by Nora and Soren – yum.  That being said the story stands on its own, even if you’ve never read an Original Sinners book.
  • It’s small and random, but I love that speaking two languages isn’t presented as weird.  No “wow!” or “you’re so smart!” or cultural stereotyping, just the fact that the hero knows Spanish (and the heroine has a passing knowledge, as well).  This bilingual appreciates it.

The oh-so-close:

  • The final conflict hinges on a misunderstanding. It’s not a Big Mis, and it makes sense, but the category length (~200 pages) means it comes up and is resolved very quickly, with a facile epilogue.  All the emotional beats are there, though, so yea for that.
  • Reisz gravitates to shorter page counts but I like her at novel length, damn it.  The characterization is so wonderful that I want to see more of everyone.  Here the best friends, Luke especially, would have benefited from fleshing out.
  • I love that the story is low angst… but that started giving me angst.  “What’s the end conflict going to be?  Groupies discovering the girlfriend?  A sexy video or text getting hacked?  What if he forgets the condom ahhhhhh” (He doesn’t, by the way.  Perfect gentleman.)  This is a me thing, though, and you’ll probably be fine. 😅

Three cheers for Reisz in the mode I like her best.  It’s also a good entry point into her work if the summary and shorter length appeal to you.  If you’d rather skip the BDSM try Her Halloween Treat instead.

Thanks to 8th Circle Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Nonfiction November – Pair ‘Em Up!

Nonfiction-November-2018It’s week two already, holy cow! My month has gotten off to an academic start – I chose three books with a more serious bent, which may not have been the best choice!  I’m still making progress though, so that’s good.

This week’s prompt is to come up with a fiction/non-fiction book pairing.  This year I’m going with a pairing that I haven’t read yet but am excited to get to, especially if I can get my husband to buddy read the fiction book with me. So let’s get ready to dive into the exciting world of… dictionaries!

The Great Passage by Shion Miura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter

33291314Inspired as a boy by the multiple meanings to be found for a single word in the dictionary, Kohei Araki is devoted to the notion that a dictionary is a boat to carry us across the sea of words. He discovers a kindred spirit in Mitsuya Majime—a young, disheveled square peg with a penchant for collecting antiquarian books and a background in linguistics.

Led by his new mentor Majime is tasked with a career-defining accomplishment: completing The Great Passage, a comprehensive 2,900-page tome of the Japanese language. On his journey, Majime discovers friendship, romance, and an incredible dedication to his work, inspired by the bond that connects us all: words.

I tried this one in Japanese but, ironically, I had to look up a few too many words for it to be enjoyable. 😅 I now have the English translation and look forward to reading it that way.  Afterwards I plan to dig into:

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper

30781490While most of us might take dictionaries for granted, the process of writing them is in fact as lively and dynamic as language itself. With sharp wit and irreverence, Kory Stamper cracks open the complex, obsessive world of lexicography–from the agonizing decisions about what and how to define, to the knotty questions of usage in an ever-changing language. She explains why small words are the most difficult to define, how it can take nine months to define a single word, and how our biases about language and pronunciation can have tremendous social influence. Throughout, Stamper brings to life the hallowed halls (and highly idiosyncratic cubicles) of Merriam-Webster, a world inhabited by quirky, erudite individuals who quietly shape the way we communicate.

The only bad thing about this pairing is I can’t think of a third book to follow it up with!

What kind of start has your Nonfiction November gotten off to? Any standout reads so far?

Treating People Well: The Extraordinary Power of Civility at Work and in Life by Lea Berman and Jeremy Bernard

34684624Former White House social secretaries Lea Berman, who worked for George and Laura Bush, and Jeremy Bernard, who worked for Michelle and Barack Obama, have written an entertaining and uniquely practical guide to personal and professional success in modern life. These Washington insiders share what they’ve learned through first person examples of their own glamorous (and sometimes harrowing) moments with celebrities, foreign leaders and that most unpredictable of animals—the American politician.

This book is for you if you feel unsure of yourself in social settings, if you’d like to get along more easily with others, or if you want to break through to a new level of cooperation with your boss and coworkers. They give specific advice for how to exude confidence even when you don’t feel it, ways to establish your reputation as an individual whom people like, trust, and want to help, and lay out the specific social skills still essential to success – despite our increasingly digitized world. Jeremy and Lea prove that social skills are learned behavior that anyone can acquire, and tell the stories of their own unlikely paths to becoming the social arbiters of the White House, while providing tantalizing insights into the character of the first ladies and presidents they served.

 

Review:

Social secretaries plan all kinds of events, from state dinners and the Easter egg roll to Congressional picnics and private lunches.  The authors speak from their own experience about how it’s done while dispensing advice on, as the title suggests, treating people well.

Berman and Bernard talk about their time at the White House under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively.  The tips they give aren’t groundbreaking (begin with confidence, be consistent, listen first and talk later) but they’re things we should all be reminded of.  I learned some new things, too, like good ways to start a thank you note. (Hint: it’s not “Thank you for…”)

What I enjoyed most were the anecdotes about working in the White House.  Both authors have a glowing admiration for the presidents and first ladies they served and it shows.There are tales of near disaster, like when Berman who, when an interpreter refused to move to their proper seat, tipped them out of their chair (!).  They also talk about how they came into the position, especially interesting for Bernard as he was both the first man and the first openly gay person to be social secretary.

Fitting presidential quotes round things out.  I listened to Treating People Well on audio and like that the authors narrate their own stories and experiences.  A third narrator covers the introduction and interstitial text.

While I wouldn’t say it’s an authoritative volume about being your best at work nor the best White House memoir, it is an enjoyable combination of the two.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

31203000Keiko Furukura had always been considered a strange child, and her parents always worried how she would get on in the real world, so when she takes on a job in a convenience store while at university, they are delighted for her. For her part, in the convenience store she finds a predictable world mandated by the store manual, which dictates how the workers should act and what they should say, and she copies her coworkers’ style of dress and speech patterns so that she can play the part of a normal person. However, eighteen years later, at age 36, she is still in the same job, has never had a boyfriend, and has only few friends. She feels comfortable in her life, but is aware that she is not living up to society’s expectations and causing her family to worry about her. When a similarly alienated but cynical and bitter young man comes to work in the store, he will upset Keiko’s contented stasis—but will it be for the better?

Review:

I didn’t do the best job reading this book, and it’s my own fault.  Knowing how popular and lauded it is – they don’t give the Akutagawa Prize to just anything! – I decided to tackle it in the original Japanese.  Luckily the text is pretty straight forward, and while I had to look up rare kanji or readings it wasn’t too difficult.  That being said I read more slowly in my second language than my first, meaning I was marinating in the text for quite a while.

And the middle of this novel is not something you want to marinate in.

36605525Furukawa has to deal with all kinds of crap from her family, friends, and society in general.  It set my teeth on edge because this is stuff I’ve seen or experienced here in Japan, verbatim.  Coworkers are gossipy and while it may look like they’re concerned about your well being, often they’re more interested in a juicy story to pass around.  Those who jump the expected track of college, full-time job, marriage, and kids have a lot to explain to friends and family, especially if they’re a woman. And even when you follow the plan you can be punished. My friend didn’t tell her employer about her marriage because she knew it would ruin her chances for a promotion.  Why would you give more responsibility to someone who’s going to have a baby and quit soon, anyway?

So yeah, lots of anger on my part.  If I were reading this in English, as probably should have, I would have been able to get through it quickly enough.  My slower Japanese reading, though, made the middle part almost unbearable.  The crap that one guy spews towards Furukawa made me particularly rage-y, and now and then I had to stop to look up a word, dragging out the ickyness.  “Shady character.” “To be bored to death.” “Rail at.” Sigh.

That’s all on me, though.  It’s a great book and deserving of all its praise, including in Ginny Tapley Takemori’s English translation. Just do yourself a favor and gulp it down in one or two sittings instead of dragging it out like I did.

Nonfiction November – Your Year in Nonfiction

Nonfiction-November-2018And we’re off!  The prompt this first week concentrates on our last year of nonfiction reading.  In 2018 23% of the books I’ve finished are nonfiction. I have an unofficial goal of one third nonfiction so I’m a bit behind, but that’s what this readathon is for!  Without any further ado let’s jump into the questions:

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

6452798It’s a hard choice, but I’ll have to go with Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser. The history of nuclear weapons, already harrowing, is interleaved with a narrative retelling of a Titan II missile accident.  The storytelling and pacing are right on and I was riveted throughout the 20 hour audiobook.  With all the nuclear accidents and near misses the world should be blown up several times over by now!

Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?

I did a bit of a Serial Killer Summer™ so I read a bunch of nonfiction in that vein, including Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI by Robert K. Ressler and Tom Shachtman, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara, and Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin.

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

33931697That has to be Invisible: How Young Women with Serious Health Issues Navigate Work, Relationships, and the Pressure to Seem Just Fine by Michele Lent Hirsch. It’s intersectional as all get out and touches on many topical issues but boils down to navigating the world as a person of color, lgbtqia+ folx, someone with a chronic or invisible illness, and combinations thereof.  The book is own voices for lgbtqia+ and chronic/invisible illness and all the more impactful for it.

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

This is my second year so I know how much fun is waiting for me this time!  I’m looking forward to talking and becoming friends with all sorts of people while reading all.the.nonfiction!  I’m also thrilled to be participating via my channel on YouTube for the first time.

Here’s to an amazing November!