Non-fiction November 2018, Weeks 1 to 3

I’m not sure how long Non-fiction November has been happening in the blogosphere, but I first became aware of it last year. It runs for a month, with a different set of questions posed for each week of the month. Last year I concatenated my responses into two posts, one for weeks 1 to 3, and the other for weeks 4 to 5. I’m going to do the same this year.

The meme is jointly hosted this year by Katie (Doing Dewey), Lory (Emerald City Book Review), Sarah (Sarah’s Book Shelves), Rachel (Hibernator’s Library) and Julz (Julz Reads).

Week 1: (Oct 31-Nov 4) (KatieYour Year in Nonfiction: 

There are several questions for this week, but, like last year, I’m just going to answer a couple …

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

Now, last year, I read a disproportionate amount of non-fiction (in terms of my reading preferences, that is), and said that I would like to right the balance somewhat this year. I like non-fiction – a lot – but I don’t want it to overtake fiction as it nearly did last year. Well, this year I sure have righted it, with, so far, non-fiction representing around 15% of my reading to date – mostly biographies and autobiographies/memoirs.

There are three standouts: Michelle Scott Tucker’s Elizabeth Macarthur: A life at the edge of the world (my review), Nadia Wheatley’s Her mother’s daughter (my review), and Sarah Krasnostein’s The trauma cleaner (my review). If I were forced to choose just one, I would have to go for The trauma cleaner for the sheer chutzpah of its subject against terrible odds and for the clever structure Krasnostein uses to tell the story.

What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet? 

The same as last year – literary biographies – closely followed by Australian history.

Week 2: (Nov 7 – 11) – (Rachel) Choosing Nonfiction

Again, there are several questions and I’ll share them all: What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book? Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to? Do you have a particular writing style that works best? When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you? If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

Book cover, The forgotten rebels of EurekaThese are complex questions that could take a whole post, but I’m going to keep it succinct, with the following answer encompassing the first three questions above! The two main things I look for in a non-fiction book are subject matter and engaging style. For example, I like biographies (particularly of writers and achieving women) and Australian history, but I don’t like dry factual this-happened-and-then-that-happened writing. I particularly like something called creative non-fiction. However, while I want to be engaged, I also want to feel that the writing is authoritative so I like to see the author’s sources. Clare Wright’s histories, such as The forgotten rebels of Eureka (my review) and You daughters of freedom, are excellent examples. Wright writes with the narrative instincts of a novelist and yet her claims and statements are thoroughly cited.

Covers are never hugely important to me in selecting books. Of course, a good cover can catch my eye, but I will never buy a book by its cover. With fiction, it’s the author or a recommendation from a person I respect, that will decide me once I’ve seen the book. With non-fiction, the cover is even less important to me, which is just as well, because in general I’ve found non-fiction covers to be less interesting. Non-fiction covers seem more literal, more determined to capture the “facts” of the book – an image of the subject of the biography for example or of a war scene for a war history – whereas fiction covers can get a little more creative and look to capture an emotional response rather than depict content.

PS I also like Helen Garner’s non-fiction. She could write about grass growing and I’d be there.

Week 3: (Nov 14 – 18) – (Sarah) Book Pairing

I’m a bit ahead of the game here, but as I’ll be away from November 14 to 16, I’m going to sneak in my response now. The challenge is to pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction one – via whatever sort of connection seems fit. I loved this challenge last year, and found it fun again this year.

My pair is:

Yes, it is Clare Wright’s latest history, You daughters of freedom, which I’m still reading, and EM Forster’s Howard’s End which I reviewed just a week or so ago. You daughters of freedom is about the achievement of women’s suffrage in Australia, from the late 19th to early 20th century, and the role Australian suffragists played in worldwide suffrage movements, particularly in England.

Howards End was published in 1910, and its two main female characters, Margaret and Helen Schlegel, are well aware of and support women’s suffrage, though, as you’d expect from their personalities, Margaret is the one who is clearer about its meaning and impact. The novel opens with Helen writing from Howards End where Mr Wilcox easily demolishes her arguments for suffrage and equality:

He says the most horrid things about women’s suffrage so nicely, and when I said I believed in equality he just folded his arms and gave me such a setting down as I’ve never had. … I never felt so ashamed of myself in my life. I couldn’t point to a time when men had been equal, or even to a time when the wish to be equal and made them happier in other ways. I couldn’t say a word. I had just picked up the notion that equality is good from some book – probably from poetry, or you.

Later, when Margaret holds a luncheon party in Mrs Wilcox’s honour, suffrage and women’s rights come up. Margaret sees the issue as wider than just “the vote”:

“Aren’t we differing on something much wider, Mrs. Wilcox? Whether women are to remain what they have been since the dawn of history; or whether, since men have moved forward so far, they too may move forward a little now. I say they may…”

Howards End provides a fascinating study of England during this time of political and social change – and gender is one of the issues which recurs throughout.

23 thoughts on “Non-fiction November 2018, Weeks 1 to 3

  1. I’d read that book about growing grass too. And my Canadian equivalent would be that I’d read Carol Sheilds’ treatise on that subject as well. I’m with you on the question of covers with non-fiction being even less of an influence. Whereas I do often pick up a book in the fiction section based on cover (but there has to be more to it than that alone to convince me to buy/borrow it), I am much more likely to pick up a book in the non-fiction sections based on the subtitle than the cover. I’m also with you on the matter of trying to mend an imbalance by swaying firmly towards the opposite imbalance. But, then, the act of trying matters, of course!

    • Thanks Buried. I’ve enjoyed the Carol Shields’ books I’ve read … 3 fiction and one nonfiction so I can understand that.

      Yes, I’ll sometimes pick up fiction due to the cover but it wouldn’t make me buy it… then again, perhaps that’s the main hope, that you’ll pick it up and then find something to persuade you?

      Haha, yes, I think trying deserves accolades!

  2. I occasionally find myself resting “too much” nonfiction, though I never promised anyone if only look at fiction on my blog. I personally like autobiography better than biography, though I fight with it. When it’s autobiography, I think it more “real” than some biased biographer, though people telling their own stories often put themselves in a better light. I’m with you; I enjoy creative nonfiction. I like that more students are taking it in school.

    • I love this Melanie because I know some who prefer biography for exactly the same reason – they see it as less biased! I think autobiography – or memoir – can often be more personal (have more personality) and that appeals to me. In the end, I guess it’s the quality of the writing. A biography with life in it, that grapples with the real person beneath, is great but one that simply recounts can be dull.

      I think I came to creative nonfiction via creative documentary. Or, at least, creative documentary is the form I got to know first.

      • I enjoy history books and my favourite this year was Keith Lowe’s The Fear And the Freedom. This was a book about WW2 but not the sort of history that chronicles campaigns and battles. Lowe examines the legacy of the war through chapters that start with an account of an individual and what the war meant for that person in terms of intellectual or emotional meaning. A rare book about 1939/45 that is free of received ideas.

        • Thanks Ian … that sounds exactly like the sort of war book that I would like tp read. I’d love to find time to read more history because whenever I read well-written history I realise how much I enjoy it. (My only problem now, at my advancing age, is that I forget so much of it once I’ve read it and somehow that seems a shame with history.)

      • Oh, and I meant to write “reading,” not “resting.” I hate autocorrect. I do know that Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography is generally recognized as a bunch of lies because she was writing it while she still had a white patron.

  3. I can see why you chose “trauma cleaner” – just seeing your short synopsis here made me want to read the review which I had missed first time around. An extraordinary tale but the extracts you included showed just how well it was written – would have been so easy to make a mess of it

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